Caught In the Courtney Act: Conversations with Australia's Favorite Drag Queen
I first caught a glimpse of Courtney Act while at the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras back in 2007. Before the parade began, she was running down Oxford Street greeting patrons and having her photo taken. I couldn't tell you what she was wearing, but I can tell you that I remember thinking, woah, those legs.
By this time, Courtney was under a spotlight in the aftermath of becoming a finalist on the first season of Australian Idol, making her famous, especially in these parts of Sydney. After the competition, she signed to Sony BMG, and released her single "Rub Me Wrong," which broke into the Top 30 on the Australian Recording Industry Association Charts.
In 2013, Courtney is looking better than ever. On first glance, she might appear to be just another blonde bombshell serving up the glamour and salaciousness of Marilyn Monroe, but when it comes to this Australian beauty, there is certainly more than meets the eye.
The Jessica Rabbit hole goes much deeper than the perfect recipe of lace-front wigs, fake eyelashes and makeup. Courtney is living proof of that. She is, in fact, an illusion. Hang on…you didn't know Courtney was really a man? Well, I don't blame you.
"As Shane [Jenek] some men might want to beat me, but as Courtney they beat off to me," says Jenek. "It's so funny to see through my eyes how the world reacts differently to Shane and Courtney."
I confess that I surprised myself back in 2007 as a heterosexual teenager, thinking Courtney had the best legs I had ever seen. It was confusing. I wasn't supposed to be attracted to a man's legs, was I?
But it was Courtney's singing ability that really made her a household name. She created an inner dialogue, and for those brave enough to embark, sparked a collective conversation that encouraged people to question even themselves. The only reason I knew Courtney was a man was because she was a thrown into the public eye by appearing in the first season of Australian Idol — not because something gave away her secret.
Initially, Jenek auditioned as himself: a blonde, self-proclaimed twink. Unsuccessful as Jenek, he went back the next day as Courtney, and simultaneously fooled and wowed the judges, landing Courtney a spot in the Top 10.
More than just propelling Courtney into a career in the entertainment business, her inclusion in the Top 10 brought drag to primetime television in Australia. Courtney pushed the envelope with witty innuendos to judges and hosts before finally being eliminated, but this would be just the first time she paved the way for new attitudes towards drag on TV and in reality, itself.
Early in 2008, I received a phone call from Jenek, asking if I wanted to work with him as Courtney's backup dancer around Australia. I was again confused. Who was Shane Jenek? This is the beginning of the fluidity in conversations between he and she — Courtney, Shane and myself. I agreed to the offer, and we flew around the country performing at various clubs.
From time to time, I would invite some of my heterosexual mates to local performances in Sydney, and every time, I laughed watching their faces as they struggled to define Courtney. This was inevitably followed by a million questions about anatomy. I always used Courtney's tagline to answer: She's the most beautiful man in the world.
Although a creation from Jenek's artistic devices, Courtney explores society's obsession with aesthetic beauty, while simultaneously questioning societal notions about sexuality and gender.
"Courtney wants to make the statement that superficial beauty is manufactured and that any woman, or in this case, any man can be beautiful with the right tools," says Jenek.
By tools, Jenek doesn't necessarily mean cosmetic surgery. It's more about the harmonious co-existence of nature's creation and the man-made fundamentals.
"I remember being in high school getting ready for our Senior Formal [Prom] and thinking that every girl in the class was pretty in her own unique way," explains Jenek. "Every girl had the potential for beauty; it is just about finding that potential and actualizing it."
Unbeknownst to Jenek, this early thought would open him up to a journey where he's now become the face of Sheer Cover by Guthy Renker, selling makeup on morning television in Australia. It was the first time in the world a bubbly, vivacious drag queen was selling tools promising beauty and happiness to middle-aged women on television screens.
"I'm no Joan of Arc," quips Courtney, "but it's pretty revolutionary having a gender illusionist selling the illusion of beauty to females."
At the same time, Jenek declares that "beauty does not equal happiness, [but] happiness does equal beauty." That happiness results from being who you are without question, regardless of the absurdity of the heterosexist world. The makeup is just a catalyst to jumpstart ones journey to self-appreciation, says Jenek.
"Just because it is superficial and manufactured does not mean it is bad," he said. "It just means that people need to appreciate it for what it is: art. Not lifestyle."
"Gender roles are absurd when you actually look at them," says Jenek. "The fact that anybody could ever say or think that dressing in women's clothes is wrong, or odd. Women dressing in women's clothes and men dressing in men's clothes is the actually the thing that is really odd."
Courtney just doesn't see the logic in it. "Like, really? You are a man so you have to wear this style of clothing," she says. "You are a woman, so you can't wear this type of clothing".
Here Courtney pauses, to make sure I'm writing her comments down, emphasizing her complete disdain for modern life's unwritten rules.
But Courtney is ultimately optimistic. She says she feels the sands shifting on gender and sexuality.
"I don't really care if a girl is called a slut," says Courtney. "So, I am not trying to empower women to sleep with more men," but instead, sending a message that's "more about the absurdity of everything. I am trying to empower people to think for themselves."
At the end of the day, Jenek feels he has resolved his personalities, declaring his "true love Courtney" and his feelings of contentment, not being able to "think of anything else [he] would rather do."
It might have taken a winding journey to arrive at his current mentality, but Jenek describes his double-life as "striking a balance and exploring the opportunities that my life has to offer, which includes indulging Shane from time to time."
Those indulgences include Jenek's work on two new live shows that premiere this month on the Atlantis Gay Cruise, sailing around Asia before hitting the stage back in the U.S.A. Jenek explains that Courtney will be headlining the Main Stage on the Atlantis cruise, while Jenek will tackle his first burlesque appearance in the ship's Cabaret Room. Courtney's show, called "Boys Like Me," will see the seductress air out the dirty laundry of her sex life.
"There's that angry text from that straight boy's girlfriend," recalls Courtney. Or "the twins in Montreal, and the U.S. Marine, to name a few of the titillating tales I'll be telling. This is my observation of living life on the gender divide, sometimes as a boy, sometimes as a girl. My journey through masculinity and femininity and how it manifests when boys like me. It is a must-see for boys like you, and girls too."
"When it all boils down, being Courtney has forced me to be different to the status quo, which means I have gotten to decide on every choice along the way," says Jenek. "I realize now that following the passion of my heart, which is performing as Courtney, has created a more wonderful life than I could have ever imagined. Not just materially, but for me emotionally and spiritually. Now that I am able to accept all of the challenges life has thrown at me, I feel so much more robust and resolved."
Daniel Garofali is an Australian model and dancer, who currently lives in New York City, where he is represented by Wilhemina Models for his international campaigns and magazines. Dubbed "the world's first social media supermodel," Garofali tweets, tumbls, and blogs at DanielGarofali.com. He is also a contributor to Huffington Post and DNA Magazine.