Courtney Act is on the line, except she's stepped away for a moment. The 33-year-old Australian drag queen is in a hotel room in Vienna, but she's excused herself to allow a hotel maid into her room. The maid has brought a vase for some flowers a besotted fan gave to Courtney after her burlesque performance the previous night.
Most Americans know Courtney from her season 6 stint on RuPaul's Drag Race, where the stunning blond's aesthetic and personality had viewers sharply divided. While some flipped for her sheer beauty and sophisticated fashion sense, others felt Courtney wasn't camp enough, wasn't zany enough. Some felt she came across as just plain aloof.
On the phone, Courtney's chattier than you might expect, talking a mile a minute and for twice as long as her publicist promised. She's warm and introspective. She considers her answers. She asks questions of her interviewer.
She's also disarmingly serious, more eager to discuss her late-night sessions deconstructing gender with her pal Chaz Bono -- more on that later -- than talk about frivolous things. In another life, Courtney might have been a gender studies scholar. For now, she's one of the world's most famous drag queens, a two-time reality show vet -- Courtney competed in drag to become a semifinalist on Australian Idol -- and a dance-pop singer anticipating the July release of her new EP, Kaleidoscope. The collection, which has been largely funded by fan donations to a Kickstarter campaign, was produced by Sam Sparro and features a song written with Scissor Sisters front man Jake Shears. The soon-to-be-released video for its first single, "Ecstasy," was shot by famed video director William Baker, who has worked with Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, and Rihanna.
Back on the line, Courtney says the sexy, upbeat dance music she's serving on Kaleidoscope is part of her DNA. In her suburban Brisbane high school, Shane Jenek -- Courtney's real name -- was a bit of an oddball. Shane took theater classes and hung out with a group of girls whose jock boyfriends liked to call him a poofter, the Australian version of "faggot." Music was Shane's lifeline. "I was listening to all the predictable stuff -- Kylie, Madonna, the Spice Girls," Courtney says.
"There was something about the Spice Girls. They were like -- what are those things you throw someone when they're drowning? A life preserver? The Spice Girls were the life preserver to my high school years. They just made everything make sense for me."
Shane's female friends at school shared enthusiasm for the group. "We would call each other the Spice Girls," Courtney says, laughing. Young Shane took his Spice Girls obsession about as far as any self-respecting gay teen could. "I think you have an equivalent in America, maybe like a varsity jacket," says Courtney. "Anyway, we had these football jerseys that everybody in the final year gets and you get to write something on the back of it, and I wrote Spice Boy 99 on the back of mine."
"It was just that thing. Like in the middle of suburban Brisbane there was that spark of something for the future, something more bright and colorful."
Mention to Courtney that she may now be that lifeline for countless oddball boys and girls and she immediately agrees, especially about drag speaking to young girls. "The most vocal fans online are girls, which is interesting. I didn't expect that," Courtney says. "But I think that girls see the opportunity for transformation and for change and for self-determination in drag. They look at it and they think, God, these boys are putting on girls' clothes. I think especially maybe in what I do, there is also an element of gender nonconformity."
Surprisingly, Courtney says it's only been recently that she herself has begun to have shifts in ideas about gender, and that's thanks to her pal Chaz Bono, who appeared as a guest judge on Drag Race the season Courtney competed.
"I like being a boy, but I also really like being a girl," Courtney says matter-of-factly. "In my 20s I used to say that drag was a job and I was putting on a uniform. But now, since becoming friends with Chaz -- we have many late-night talks -- I've changed my mind."
"Chaz has been a really wonderful friend over the last year. He and I discuss gender and sexuality topics intellectually and I've come to understand that as nonconforming as I was dressing up as a woman, I was still held to the rigid concept that a man should be a man and a woman should be a woman. It wasn't until becoming friends with Chaz that I was able to break that down and realize that I didn't have to be a man and I didn't have to be a woman. I could just be me. I get a lot of response from people online for that aspect. They realize that their idea of gender is created by society."
For Courtney, this shift in her mind-set was life-changing. "The minute I let go of needing to be a man, I was so much more comfortable. I'm still the same person. I'm still happy to be that way. I just don't feel that oppression of needing to be masculine. That was really liberating."
Courtney is excited by the cultural conversation around gender, especially in light of Caitlyn Jenner recently coming out as trans. She thinks Jenner's move will benefit not only transgender folks but everyone, because it will create a "softening of gender lines."
"The people who you think it would pertain to the least would be heterosexual men," Courtney says. "I think it pertains to them even more. Because I know what it was like for me growing up and having the conflict of masculinity thrust upon me. There is so much frustration in the heterosexual male community manifesting in different ways, whether it be aggression or sexism or racism. I'm not saying all heterosexual men are that way, but you do see a lot of it. Especially in young straight men in troubled parts of communities. I think a lot of that has to do with them trying to live up to an expectation -- as we all are, as women are, as gay men are -- but there is a really rigid confine of what is acceptable as a heterosexual man."
As an example, Courtney relays a story of a recent outing to a shopping center in Manchester, England, during a tour with Drag Race alums Alaska Thunderfuck and Willam Belli. The three performers were not in drag, and Courtney (as Shane) happened to spot a handsome fella.
"My latest thing that I like to do is when I see a boy who takes my eye, I say, 'I love you!'" Courtney says. "This boy was on the escalator [with us] and I just waved and said, 'I love you!' That's it. Nothing untoward. And he was like, [angrily] 'What'd you fucking say?! Are you a faggot?!' And I was thinking, What is going on in this poor guy's head that he has to act so aggressively to somebody saying 'I love you'? I wasn't saying, 'I want to stick my penis in your bum!'"
But she's also seeing the opposite more and more, especially in young people, whose ideas about sexuality and gender are refreshingly open. She talks about dating a 23-year-old American man who had never had a same-sex relationship, nor had he previously been attracted to men. Although he became smitten with Courtney in drag, the young man continued to date her as Shane for the next six months, even telling his mother about the relationship. "He just didn't care the same way that my generation would have cared at 23."
"We were in L.A. together having breakfast. His mom called, and in my head I was like, Now is the time to be quiet and pretend you don't exist,"Courtney says, laughing. "But he was like, 'Yeah, I'm having breakfast with Shane now. You want to talk to him? I'll put him on.' And I was just like, Wow! What's going on here?!"
Courtney also recently explored sexuality with another drag queen. Earlier this year, her fellow Drag Race finalist Adore Delano, one of Courtney's BFFs, invited her to be in the video for her single "Jump the Gun." The clip nearly broke the Internet with a steamy scene of the duo in drag making out in a hot tub. Two men dressed as two women in a lip lock! Minds reeled.
I ask Courtney, aside from making out on camera with a Drag Race alum, has she ever really hooked up with another drag contestant? "Well, I mean, I've made out with Adore off camera as well," she says, laughing devilishly.
Even though the two are close, Courtney admits that Adore's music career taking off first was tough to handle. "There was a fork in the road and I was like, That's what I want to do! She's being successful with what I want to do! But then there was my love of her as a person and how proud I was of her, and it was at that point that I started thinking, No. I am completely proud of her and I am excited. I'm not jealous of her success. I'm going to be inspired by her success."
As their social media followers know, Courtney, Adore, and season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio are as close as can be. "We all message each other every day," Courtney says. "Bianca's just arrived in Vienna and I'm seeing her soon. I've never worn the dress I want to wear tonight, and I put it on and it just looks wrong, so I was like, [whining] 'Will you please come help me with this dress?'"
In a few hours, Courtney and Bianca will walk the runway for French designer Jean Paul Gaultier.
Soon Courtney will fly back to Los Angeles. For the past four years she's resided in West Hollywood. She says she loves L.A. and has slowly acclimated to its laid-back, earthy ways. "I'm a Prius-driving vegan now," she says.
She's looking forward to finishing production on Kaleidoscope and maybe even making another video with William Baker. Of course, she'll have to get over the shock of creating "Ecstasy" with him. "I genuinely remember being a teenage boy and fantasizing about the idea of William Baker directing a music video for me someday," Courtney says, "The team that was there had produced so many videos for Kylie, for like 20 years. I had the whole Kylie experience." At the end of the shoot, she says, Baker asked her what they would be working on next, and she nearly squealed.
The last few years of her life have been a whirlwind. Courtney is savoring every moment. "It's funny because I was just saying it again to someone the other day, 'I always wanted to grow up to be a Spice Girl,' and they were like, 'You have!' and really, I have!"