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.”