Courtney Act – Interview

Tom Crowe

Just a small gay in a big gay world. A big believer in the power of perseverance. For ramblings about learning Chinese and French, water polo and anything else that takes my fancy. @tecrowe

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Vada loves RuPaul’s Drag Race. We just can’t get enough of it. Following on from last week’s interview with the Queen of Mean, Bianca Del Rio, we bring you another exclusive conversation with one of Season Six’s Final Three!

Hailing all the way from Brisbane, Australia, Courtney Act is the first queen to appear on RuPaul’s Drag Race from outside the territory of the USA. That hasn’t stopped her, though, and she’s sissied that walk right to the bitter end. When Vada caught up with her, Courtney was on her way to the DMV. Have no fear – she can drive and spill the T at the same time!

 

Vada: Hi there, Courtney.

Courtney Act: Hello! It’s nice to talk to somebody from the Commonwealth who’ll be able to understand me and get my references! I’m used to being in a sea of American accents who don’t understand me.

You know that this is actually my first ever interview? I feel like where you and the other contestants had to interview Cher’s mum, Georgia Holt and Chaz Bono on RuPaul’s Drag Race!

I’ll be gentle. I’ll treat you like Georgia – except you’re not 87 – I’m assuming?

So, it’s been a while since filming the show ended for you, what’s been going on since then?

Yeah, it’s been nearly a year. It’s been a lot of fun, non-stop touring. This weekend, for example, I’ve been in Philadelphia, New York and Ohio, and I’m back in LA now. It’s just been a lot of fun and very busy. But a good kind of busy.

So what’s the thing you’ve missed the most from Australia since you’ve been living in the US?

My friends. And the things you can’t see – the Australian accent and the Australian cultural understanding. Although we all speak English, it surprises me how much we don’t understand each other culturally. I grew up watching American television, but Americans don’t grow up watching Australian television. Watching Neighbours. All those kinds of things.

So let’s move into something a bit more nitty-gritty. Who is Courtney Act? What purpose does she serve in your life?

Courtney Act is very much who I am. She’s the creative and performance outlet. I’ve always loved performing, but doing it in drag gives me the opportunity to do it in so much more colour. It’s kind of like you get to use all of the crayons in the box. Sorry, I’m just hairspraying my hair as I run out the door.

Courtney

I’ve read that you almost ‘fell’ into doing drag when you were looking for a job. Do you think that Courtney has evolved since then, or was she always there and that job just gave you the excuse to be her?

Yeah, that’s true. I think she was always there. Although Courtney came about because I had business ideas to go around a nightclub selling chewing gum and lollipops and glowsticks from a tray, that was then the excuse I needed to start performing in drag. For many years I struggled with doing drag because I didn’t think that it was honourable, but then that finally gave way and I just realised that I loved doing drag and I had to do it. It’s funny because when I was 18 or 19 I was going to look at acting schools and drag just didn’t go with that. Even though drag felt right, I just kind of denied that part of me. But I just couldn’t and I had to be Courtney. I’m very glad I did because it’s turned into a great, lifelong vocation.

Absolutely. If you were to go back and meet a very hormonal, teenaged you, what would you say to yourself?

I would say to have faith. And to trust in everything that’s going on because there are probably bits that seem like they’re the worst, but at the end of it all those are the bits that you grew and learnt the most from.

So with that message, and your fame in mind, do you see yourself as a role model for people who have struggled?

I go about being myself in the most unbridled way possible. I get a lot of letters from people who say they take a lot of inspiration from me, and if I can be a role model then that blows me away. But to go about saying ‘I’m a role model!’ – that’s kind of a bit wanky. I just do what I do as best I can. If people are inspired by that, then that makes my job even more exciting for me.

Receiving all these letters, you must be aware that there are people that look up to you. Do feel you have to check yourself so that you don’t let your fans down?

I don’t, because I’m always acting as who I am. I think when you do act with that integrity, that whoever you are is good enough. If you’re coming from the right place I don’t think you actually do have to check yourself. I’m not burdened by being a role model. I don’t try to show myself from within the four walls of a public image. I’ve always just been me. It’s one of the hardest things to be yourself. But once you’re doing it, it’s one of the easiest.

How does your experience of drag in Australia compare to your experience in the USA?

In Australia for the first couple of years that I was working on the drag scene, I was performing in pubs and clubs up and down the strip. And then Australian Idol happened in 2003, when I was 21, so for the next 10 years I had a great career touring up and down the country and around the world. Working in television, working in music and live gigs. Then I moved to the US in 2011 and I started at the bottom of the food chain. Living in a little shoebox apartment and earning less money than I did when I was 18, which was funny because I’d had such success in Australia. But it never seemed like a bad thing because I felt like I was on the right journey and doing what I wanted to do. It seemed like an adventure: seeing how little you could spend on groceries and how little you could get by on. And having no contacts. I didn’t have people to do my hair or to make my costumes. I learnt a lot of those skills that I didn’t learn the first time around.

During those times, did you ever feel like just packing it in and going back to Australia? What kept you motivated?

I honestly didn’t. The whole time I was in that kind of place I felt strangely inspired. Especially in LA there’s just so much action. You’re always meeting somebody. But I think that the danger with LA is that there’s so much potential. So when RuPaul’s Drag Race came along I was really excited. It came at the exact right time when I was starting to wonder how long I was going to be doing this. I had a three year work visa and I had doubts. But now Drag Race has happened, it’s all taking off again.

Courtney Act

Fabulous. We’re very excited for you. So now with Drag Race as a launch pad, what can we expect in the future?

I have been writing and producing music. I’m releasing a new song in a couple of weeks. The song is called ‘Mean Gays’ and it’s a tongue in cheek pop song.

That’s funny – did you know today is actually the 10th anniversary of the release of Mean Girls?

Well I’ll have to take to social media today with that one to announce the release!

What can we expect from the song? Can I hear a line?

‘He looks like Tarzan, but talks like Jane’. It’s about a lot of my friends, who I affectionately call ‘the mean gays’. They kind of take it like an anthem. It’s about these characters that I’ve met here in West Hollywood – these almost Ken dolls of the gay community.

I know exactly the type.

I guess they’re the kind of boys you find in Vauxhall on a Saturday night. Or maybe a Sunday morning.

My highlight of the season so far was when you unfurled those amazing bird wings on the runway. Do you have a favourite outfit from this season or seasons past?

One that springs to mind is Raja’s Nava-ho outfit. I also like Raja’s Carrie outfit – that was cute. Of my outfits, I definitely liked the black and white look.

From what I’ve seen so far, one of the most obvious differences between you and the other queens is that you don’t seem to have a drag persona. What we see as Shane is what we see as Courtney Act. As a viewer, the world of drag seems very cutthroat. Do you think that without a persona, you’re at a disadvantage to the shadier Queens?

The four of us who are left now have such different and unique personalities. One thing that’s interesting, is that I don’t feel like I’m in competition with the other girls because we’re so different. If Bianca were to win, she’s such a unique talent. If Adore were to win, she’s so unique and the same with Darienne. Whoever wins, they’re looking for something different. It’s not like I’m a comedian and Bianca’s a comedian, she’s the funnier one so she wins. I’m a singer and a performer. I have that pop element and yeah, I don’t have that big character. Which is interesting because I think that the Brits, certainly, and the Australians have a very dry sense of humour. And also, they can be quite blunt. We don’t see thank, but Americans think it. My Australian way of being very open and honest comes across to an American as rude. With the whole Joslyn saga I was only trying to help her understand that the reason the judges were criticising her was because her look was less polished. The way that it was portrayed on the show was that I was being mean and putting her down. Which, of course, was never the case. Bianca is such a larger than life character that delivers THE PUNCHLINE!!! but with Australian and British humour we’re a bit more dry and you have to have the intelligence to know whether something’s funny or not, even if it’s not delivered with A PUNCHLINE!!! So sometimes, when I say things, Americans just think that I’m viciously mean, but I’m being honest, I’m being helpful and I’m being nice.

Would you like to take the opportunity to clear the air with regards to the Joslyn Fox saga?

I love Joslyn Fox. She is adorable. She’s kind of like my little sister and we get on really well. She’s such a sweet and talented queen and in no way did I ever mean to make her feel bad or lesser. I was so flattered that she knew who I was and that she looked up to me.

Do you feel you were portrayed fairly on the show?

I think that when people meet me in real life they’ll have a very different understanding of who I am. I’m looking forward to touring and doing shows because you only get to see a small facet of somebody through the eyes of reality TV.

Speaking of touring, have you got anything planned for the UK?

I don’t have any dates booked in, but I know that we have been talking to some people, which excites me because I used to come to London every summer. For about five or six summers my friends and I would come and spend a few weeks in London and then go out to Ibiza. I love it over there. I have so many friends over there. I get to see some of them, like when Jodie Harsh comes to the USA. I might bump into her in New York . I’m looking forward to getting back to London and having some fun.

We’d love to welcome you over here.

[Courtney gives a camp yay]

So we’ve heard queens in previous seasons say that it’s difficult to find a boyfriend as a drag artist, and personally in the Bride makeover challenge I was astounded by the amount of hair you have to lose. What’s the worst part of drag for you?

Sometimes getting ready can become tedious. But then I think about the reality – I’m living my dream job and travelling all around and doing what I love. But sometimes I am like ‘Oh my God I can’t be bothered painting my face today’.

How long does it take you to get ready?

It’s just a bit of mascara and some chapstick – apparently. But normally I like to leave two hours to get ready from boy to girl.

How much of your life do you think is dedicated to pursuing drag, beyond just performing?

I’d say that every waking moment and some sleeping moments are dedicated to drag and my work. As far as being in drag, at the moment it’s only three or four times a week.

Courtney Act - Pink Wig

Where do you draw your inspiration for Courtney and her beauty?

I just love what I do. It’s just so much fun. I just grew up as a kid who loved to sing and dance. I love it so much that I can’t not think about it. Creative inspiration comes from other artists. I love Lady Gaga and Grace Jones, so many pop artists. When I see people on television talking passionately I get inspired, or when I see live performances or even just YouTube clips there’s always something to add to my thoughts and inspiration.

You mentioned pop art there. Do you think drag is an art form in itself or do you see it as performance art or is it just entertainment?

I think drag is whatever you want it to be. I consider myself an entertainer and I do that entertaining while I’m in drag. If you look at someone like Kylie, what a pop star goes through for a performance is similar to what a drag queen does. I guess up until now drag queens have been doing it in pubs and pop stars have been doing it in arenas. But shows like Drag Race are taking drag to the mainstream and making pop stars out of drag queens.

So where do you see RuPaul’s Drag Race taking drag? Is it now a valid mainstream art or do you still think it’s very much embedded in LGBT culture specifically?

It’s definitely embedded in LGBT culture, but here it is crossing over into the mainstream. I’m surprised by how many women stop me on the street. I was at the pharmacy the other day and the women there were all like ’oh my God, we all such big fans!’ They were all middle-aged American women. RuPaul’s Drag Race gives people a platform, and what they do with that platform dictates the rest. You can see there’s been breakout stars like Willam. I think she’s one of the brightest stars in the Drag Race family. She’s just so focused and unique and funny and witty that she has transcended the Drag Race brand and become a star in her own right. Last time I looked, ‘Boy is a Bottom’ has like 13 million views and that’s a legitimate success.

When you hear RuPaul say that he’s on the search for America’s Next Drag Superstar, what do you think that means?

You know, I really don’t know. It’s funny because it’s America’s Next Drag Superstar and I’m Australian. I think we’re just going to have to wait and see a couple more weeks to see what Ru was looking for. Win or lose, it’s such an opportunity to make something fabulous out of it. As much as I would like to be crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar, if Michelle Visage has anything to do with it I’m sure that won’t be happening!

Is there lingering tension between you and Michelle?

I don’t know. She’s kind of that disapproving mother. I felt like every time I would come out and do my best, but obviously my style of drag isn’t Michelle’s style of drag. Interestingly, one of the things she criticised is about padding and body. I think in the UK it’s the same – in Australia drag queens don’t really pad – it’s not about having a huge arse and big tits. It’s weird because I have women come up to me and say ‘oh God, I just love your body and I spend hours in the gym and I could never have a body like that’, so being told that your boobs are too small and your bum is too small is a funny thing for me. It’s not that I don’t love those queens with the big, padded bodies but my style of drag is different. Drag is such a subculture that you’d think the difference within that subculture would be recognised but sometime it seems more about conforming than it does about individuality.

Do you feel that the show puts too much emphasis on a certain type of drag?

I’m glad that Milk was there this year because he was unique and he broke that mould. He did fall under a lot of criticism from Michelle. I just don’t think she got it as much. I think that having unique and different styles isn’t a bad thing. It’s funny because Bianca, Adore, Darienne and I have very different styles, but I do feel that there’s a blueprint that is being worked off in regards to what they’re looking for.

Courtney Milk

Do you think that that undermines the subculture of drag, to need to be a certain way?

RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t the be-all and end-all of drag. It’s showcasing a certain subculture of the subculture, I guess. There’s so many talented queens, who are stars in their own right – like Candis Cayne, Coco Peru and Sherry Vine – who inspire me, who probably wouldn’t fit into Drag Race. If they had those girls on there (not that they need to because they have their own careers), but they probably wouldn’t have that success because they do their own things. But I think that Drag Race is really important because it gives us a breeding ground for creativity and it popularises drag and allows people to have something to work towards. I think that if you’re an artist and you love what you do, then you’re going to love what you do no matter what.

I actually have to go soon. I’m at the DMV waiting to renew my license. I think they’re about to open the doors.

OK, just a few more questions. The big controversy this season: she-male and tr*nny. Were you personally offended?

I remember at the time thinking, ‘Ooh, that’s a bit odd.’ I wasn’t personally offended, but friends of mine have expressed that they’re offended by the word. I know that those words have a different meaning here in the US. In London, anything that’s gender-bender is referred to as tr*nny. So drag queens are referred to as tr*nnies. But it’s a different language culture over here. Some of my trans friends have said that they’re offended by the use of the word and have reminded me to remove the word from my vocabulary.

So do you feel it is important to respect the feelings of others, even when there’s been no intent to offend?

It’s the media’s duty to act responsibly because pop culture does set the tone for society. I don’t think that Drag Race meant, in any way, to be offensive and I think that it’s been a learning experience. When it comes to sensitive issues, people need to be wise. Although nobody meant to be offensive to trans people, I think there’s an element of ignorance that becomes insensitive to trans people.

Being aware of the plight of trans people is important. The homicide and suicide rates for trans people are gobsmacking. I think 41% of trans people have attempted suicide and it goes up exponentially if you’re a trans person of colour. It’s real. We say that they’re too easily offended but they’re not living the lives that we’re afforded to live. I think a lot of people are like ‘well that’s my word. I want that word. You can’t tell me what to do’ and I think that it’s the telling people what to do that turns them off.

We all need to work together to understand each other. I think at some point we need to rise above and look at what the issues are – which is improving the lives of trans people –because they’re one of the most disenfranchised members of our community.

One last question for you. What question do you always wish interviewers would ask you, but they never do?

I don’t know. I think you’ve asked lots of great questions. Congratulations on your first interview, I hope to see you when I’m touring around the UK!

[Oh, Miss Act, you little flirt].

Massive thanks to Jeff Dorta at Project Publicity. 

RuPaul’s Drag Race airs on Monday nights on Logo. If you want to be able to watch it in the UK, sign our petition.

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