Meet Courtney Act, your new favourite drag queen! Born as Shane Jenek, Courtney Act came to life when she moved to Sydney from Brisbane to sing in nightclubs.
Ever since, Act has enjoyed enormous success. From participating in the Emmy-winning TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race to becoming the first drag performer ever to sing live with the San Francisco Symphony to being in campaigns for big fashion brands to winning Celebrity Big Brother to touring the world with her live shows – there is nothing she doesn’t do! Without a doubt, she is a multi-talent and enjoys her career with full passion.
In a time where gender equality, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ movements have become more visible and important than ever, Courtney Act has played a massive role in the conversations concerning it by engaging and educating people about it.
We’ve had a chat with the versatile drag queen and talked about all things drag race, the conversations around drag, and her future plans.
Hi, nice to meet you!
You too, where in the world are you at the moment?
I’m in rainy London unfortunately, and you? Are you back from Hong Kong?
I’m here too! Hong Kong was good, but a lot of civil unrest which wasn’t so good. But then I went to Thailand for the weekend and had some fun! I have only been once before; I had a marvellous time.
Sounds amazing. So, what’s a typical day in the life of Courtney Act then?
Every day is different! Yesterday, I was flying from Bangkok to London, today [18th November] I’m talking to you and debating politics at the BBC, then tomorrow I’m going to the opening of & Juliet which is a new musical. Thursday, I’m recording music for my new live show – it will be sort of a cabaret live show tour through the USA and Australia, and this time all my music will be original! It’s just super exciting and super daunting. Each Thursday, I’m going to the studio and recording. My mission was to write one song a week and so far, it’s been going really well. This time, it’s a different process to what I usually do. Usually, I will sit in a studio with different songwriters and producers and we are trying to come up with pop songs together. But this show is about my views and experiences in life, so I sit at home, sit or stand on the Tube, and just writing down notes. I’ve written songs that are so personal, there is nobody else writing them with me. So, quite often someone says, ‘we need to change this or add that and so on’ and you feel pressure to make creative decisions. But now, it’s just all me, staying up until 4am if I want, in order to perfect and craft songs.
Wow, that sounds busy! How do you ever unwind and let go of the stress that could come up?
Well, all I do is what I love doing anyway. The songwriting thing is so relaxing; you can sit there and watch TV, it’s a good process just sitting there and be creative all night long. It’s been digging up some old emotions! The show is called Fluid; it’s all about the fluidity of life, gender fluidity, fluid sexuality and all sorts of forms. The kind of work that I do is usually exciting and stimulating but when I have a day off, I usually lie in bed all night long, watch some TV or read a book or something like that. I love doing absolutely nothing, I’m extremely good at that when I get the chance!
Well, we’ve got that in common! So, which TV shows are you recommending then?
Oh, Pose Season 2. It’s on BBC iPlayer! It’s just, ‘Oh My God!’ In the first episode, I was already bawling like a baby; it’s just so beautiful and so tragic and yeah, it was amazing. I’ve been watching Strictly [Come Dancing], RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, and just reading lots of books on feminism and fluidity. I just read that great book, called ‘Mother Camp’. It’s about female impersonators in America, it was written a long time ago. It was super fascinating to read about drag and all that in such a pre-revolutionary era, and so many things were actually quite similar. It was really fascinating!
Sounds amazing! Good recommendations. Going back to work, how was the whole experience of Celebrity Big Brother? Congrats on winning!
Haha, I think when you win, all of it has been wonderful. If I hadn’t won, I’d probably be like ‘Oh, this happened, and oh god, that happened’. But I have really fond memories of it all. It was so wonderful because the reasons for me were mainly that I was sitting with people, talking to people respectfully – whether it was sexuality, or gender, very sensitive subjects which people tend to polarise. People, I think, just appreciated me and the conversations. That part of myself is one of my favourite things – talking to people and hopefully sharing my story, and hoping to bring understanding in times like these.
The interesting thing was when it came down to me and Ann Widdecombe who has literally voted against every single right against LGBTQ+ in all of her years in the Parliament, so basically everything that I stand for and that I am. She not only had a different opinion but literally legislated against queer people, women’s rights, the environment and more, all across the UK. And even though she had those views, we still remained civilised but, of course, distanced. It was kind of like a Brexit, Courtney vs Ann! Although I’m sure the actual Brexit is more important than me winning [laughs]. Let’s see if we even get the Brexit though!
Oh dear, let’s hope we won’t! You said you’re currently in London – considering you’re from Australia and have found major success in the States as well, what made you want to settle down in London for now?
I was living in the US for eight years, and although things might have been a little tumultuous over here in terms of politics and Brexit, it’s practically smooth sailing compared to Donald Trump and his administration. I lived there for eight years and loved the understanding that came to live in a country. We see the world through media and press, but I realised how much I really don’t know about the US at all. So living there, during an Obama era which was much nicer, I came to appreciate the US.
But then after Celebrity Big Brother, it was a calling to come here and I grew to love the country even more. The UK has a long-standing history of camp and queer and punk, and whereas there are posh institutions, there is also this other side that respectfully co-exists, which is all about diversity, and drag and queer identities in the media. You’ve got people like La Rue, Boy George, Graham Norton and so many more on UK television. Whereas in America, you are starting from the bottom and trying to educate people. Like I mentioned early, I’m going to the BBC to discuss politics. The US doesn’t have a broadcaster that is as dignified as the BBC and also, I would have never been invited at a broadcaster in America. Here, there is a respect and it’s not just about how sensational you are!
Gender equality, pride, drag and everything around it is starting to finally become recognized worldwide by everyone. People are getting woke. Why do you believe people who are not in this scene are only properly respecting it now, and not earlier?
I think there has been so much more visibility now. And visibility always leads to understanding. There are TV shows about drag and queer identity, which has made it really accessible to a wide audience. Drag Race is predominantly watched by females aged 16-35. That filters through. Sexual and gender revolution have been going on with the likes of Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner for example. Caitlyn is a visible person and brought a lot to the conversation. I think this is really the first time that we’ve had some transmissibility around gender. The examples of people, like Laverne Cox, are just really interesting people and so public. Of course, there is still misinformation but there is a lot of conversation going on.
Even with RuPaul’s Drag Race – I keep reading about it all the time and people really seem to love it!
It’s such a fun show that celebrates identity, creativity and has drama that people love about reality TV in general. But there is a real hots for the show. The fashion and creativity elements make it belong to the fashion industry which makes it so cool. It’s just a brilliant celebration about drag and a middle finger to what society thinks of us.
How did your appearance on the show change the way people respond to you, in particular?
Drag Race Season 6, when I started out, aired in 2014 and I had been living in the US since 2011. I just started touring around the world and through the States. I was constantly performing and earning money. I’ve done shitty jobs in gay bars, don’t get me wrong, but then we decided to tour and perform in bigger venues. And when it came to the UK it became hugely popular. And during that time, I was performing in Edinburgh for the first time, and everyone came to see me because they watched Drag Race. And then I started working on so many things, and I feel like it really changed the global way people view drag, and I got to be a part of that.
Do people come up to you a lot and ask for photographs?
Yes, for sure! When I was in Bangkok with my ex-boyfriend last weekend, he was asking me the exact same question when we had lunch, literally! And then someone came up and asked, ‘Excuse me, are you Courtney Act?’, so I was like ‘Oh, perfectly timed, haha!’ Sometimes people just hug me, and I just hug back. And they are like ‘How are youuu, oh my god’ and I just go along. They’re usually respectful, but I have learned that I’m kind of public property in a gay bar – so I pick and choose where and when I go out! But I do get a lot of discounts and more, so it’s not all that bad [laughs]!
[Laughs] I bet!
Live performances and being on TV must be two different things; you do both. Which one do you personally enjoy more and why?
They’re different. I love performing live, it’s so exciting and also easier. I did a Christmas special for Channel 4, and it was a big live show, but on TV. I love performing with a live band. I love honing and crafting, and finding out what the audience loves; it’s so gratifying.
Sounds like you are living your best life!
I kind of am! We had this offer for a big TV show in the States and I was so hoping it would happen, but then I was like ‘Meh, even if it won’t happen, I will still do my cabaret show and tour all around the world’. So, I’m doing what I love either way!
Besides your cabaret show, what else does your future hold?
Well, the music alongside the cabaret show is exciting because sometimes music in pop is sometimes pointless in a way. You put it out, a few people listen, and it costs a lot to make and create videos. But we are sort of packaging the music into my live show, so I’m excited to put my original music out.
Also, I have a different TV project that I’m working on. Also, I’m working on YouTube videos in which I want to discuss political topics and current affairs, sort of like a web series. It seems like a lot of people don’t know what is going on in the world, so I want to give them an understanding!
interview by Antonia Künzel
photography Joseph Sinclair
styling Ella-Louise Gaskell
hair Kevin Fortune using KEVIN.MUPRHY
production Angeliki Sofronas
styling assistant Annabelle Field
retouching The Invisible Touch
location Prague Suite @ Blakes Hotel, London