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I TALK TO Courtney Act

Ahead of the rest of her UK tour, Under The Covers, I had a great chat with Courtney Act about her multiple reality TV appearances, performing live and the possibility of her taking part in Eurovision.

Shane Gilberto Jenek, better known under the stage name Courtney Act, is an Australian drag queen, pop singer, entertainer and reality television personality, who first came to the public's attention on Australian Idol in 2003 then on RuPaul's Drag Race in 2014 and earlier this year she won the hearts of a nation by winning Celebrity Big Brother in the UK.

Australian Idol was the first time we were introduced to Courtney. But when did Courtney first come to be?

The year 2000 was my first outing in drag on New Year's Eve, there were instances throughout 2001 and then mid-2001 I started to make a living doing drag walking up and down Sydney's Oxford Street in gay bars doing drag shows which was a lot of fun.

Then in 2003 I auditioned for Australian Idol and I actually auditioned as Shane first but got got knocked back so I went back the next day as Courtney and got through!

And then of course in 2004 you took part in RuPaul's Drag Race, what made you want to apply for that show?

It seemed like a natural progression for me, I moved to LA in 2010, didn't audition for the first few years but then I auditioned for Season Five but my Visa wasn't valid but then they changed the rules in Season Six and I put in a tape and I made it on and came runner-up!

After being on Drag Race I remember reading about the club kids in New York in an Andy Warhol book and I wondered what the next queer moment in history was going to be and all of a sudden I realised that RuPaul's Drag Race is going to be this moment in queer history that people talk about in decades to come.

I'm so glad that I got to be a part of something that is, and continues to be, such a cultural phenomena.

Because RuPaul's Drag Race is watched worldwide thanks to Netflix, do you find that you're being recognised worldwide now?

Yeah! It's insane you know. I've done gigs all around the world like South America, countries that don't speak English, countries that don't even air Drag Race and I did a gig in Berlin in about 2015 and I was like "Drag Race isn't on television here. English isn't their first language. No one's going to turn up to this, it's going to be horrible." and I got there and it was packed with people!

So not only have they had to seek out Drag Race, they had to illegally download it somehow and then go to the extra effort of coming to this nightclub to watch me perform. I think that's when I realised the impact this show has had and still has.

And obviously doing gigs across the UK and the US and seeing the turn outs of the crowds is just epic. I'm just very grateful to be a part of this phenomena.

Then of course earlier this year you went into the Celebrity Big Brother house and won! First of all, congratulations. Did you have any reservations about going in and had you been asked before?

Thank you so much. I'd never been asked before but I did have reservations because when you go on reality television you hand over your whole identity to somebody else's pair of editing scissors.

It's a big thing to hand over your identity like that I suppose. I know that OFCOM has got different rules in the UK than the US so you can only play events in order as they happened and in context whereas in the US you can take something from any episode and put it anywhere you want!

I don't think I realised how big the show was and there was a moment where I wasn't sure I'd done the right thing and wondered what would happen if it all went bum up and then I came out the other end and I was so overwhelmed by the response.

Even when I won, I still didn't know whether I had won for the reasons that would make me feel good and over the coming hours and days and weeks I was just blown away by the conversations that they chose to air and I felt really grateful that the season went the way it did and they put focus on the things that they did.

Were you surprised by the impact you've had and the things you've taught people in the UK?

Yeah! It was amazing. It's so validating and so exciting to get to come out and have straight men or queer kids tell you that a clip they've watched or an episode of Celebrity Big Brother that they've watched has inspired a conversation in their household and more understanding in their families. It feels like an honour in a way.

I didn't go in with an agenda. I just went in to have a good time and there were conversation that popped up and I was happy to have them and ask questions as well as answer questions and to have that so well received is amazing.

It's kind of weird when you get celebrated just for having a conversation with somebody and not throwing white wine at them for a change!

Did you feel a sense of responsibility to speak out on the issues that were important to you?

I felt aware that there were young people watching at home and it was 'Year of the Woman' - there were a lot of non-feminist arguments and discussions happening.

I remember a conversation around the Me Too movement which Ann Widdecombe described as "Snowflakery" and I was sitting there with a bunch of other women and I was like "Guys... Anyone?... Alright, well I guess I'll say something." So I said "You can't call the sexual abuse and rape of women snowflakery" to which Ann said "Oh! They should have spoken out years ago."

So I was glad that I was there and I was glad that I was there with Ann Widdecombe. She's a very intelligent woman and it was actually kind of cool and fascinating to get to spend to time with her and talk to her.

When else am I going to live in a house for 30 days with a Tory politician and have conversations? It's not something you get to experience very often.

A lot of people learnt from you, but who did you learn the most from in the house?

Ann Widdecombe maybe? What I mean by that is I didn't come to understand and accept her opinions, but I did have a lot of good conversations and learnt that the more informed I could be and the more different experiences I had, the better off I would be.

Interestingly, I think I learnt a lot from Andrew actually. His acceptance and his leaning in to our friendship. I mean it was natural for me to lean into it, but for him to lean into it as a straight guy having a drag queen friend, I learnt something from him about having no fucks to give about what other people in the house said. Or what people on the outside said.

You've kept in contact with Andrew haven't you since leaving the house? And have you met Caroline? What do you make of their engagement?

Yes I have, we speak all the time and I've had a couple of dinners with him and Caroline and we've hung out. She's really sweet, I mean... engaged so soon! But that just means there's a wedding and that's a great opportunity to wear a fabulous dress right?!

So you're invited to the wedding?

Well I assume I'm invited! I mean, a date's not been set yet. But it would be assumed that I would be there and of course I would go.

What can people expect when they come to see your new live show, Under The Covers?

Glamour. Costumes. Songs. Sparkles. A set. Me. A piano player. Lots of your favourite covered songs, songs that have been covered by other people.

So I'm going under the covers not just about favourite covered songs but also going under the covers of identity, the bedroom and just life!

How has this show moved on from The Girl From Oz?

My last show The Girl From Oz was celebrating Australian music and this show is sort of similar in its format but it's all gotten a bit bigger and better! Especially the costume and I've got a set this year that's touring around with us.

The Girl From Oz was the most that I had ever done one show in my life and I think that I really got into the rhythm of it and into my craft and into crowd work. So this year I've channeled all of that into this year's show.

Touring Under The Covers in Australia, it felt like the audience were kind of the guinea pigs unfortunately... it was still fun and wonderful but it really feels like it has come into its own here in the UK.

I think also because I don't have to explain what Celebrity Big Brother is, who Andrew Brady is, who Ann Widdecombe is. I assume everyone in the audience knows the fundamentals where as in Australia I had to do a bit of explaining.

What's your favourite thing about performing live?

The possibility. Anything can happen and often does. I love singing, I love making audiences laugh. I love making audiences feel things. It's just really cool to stand on stage and take a few hundred or a few thousand people on a journey for 75 minutes and everyone in the room experiences the same thing and feels the same thing.

Where's your favourite place to perform?

I'm not just saying this, but it's definitely the UK. I feel like the further north you go in the UK, the more loose and fun the people get which is always fun. But honestly, the people are fun everywhere.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

Getting in drag. That's kind of important!

I do always have a few quiet moments to myself and do some breathing meditation to try and bring my attention back to my body because sometimes when you're getting ready and you're running late, you're thinking about lines and lyrics etc.

So I like to sit backstage and feel what's going on in my body. I listen to the sounds that are happening in the room and try and hear the audience and hear what's happening on the other side of the curtain and centre myself.

Have your live audiences changed since Celebrity Big Brother?

I've been trying to work that out actually. I'm not actually sure. There's definitely more people. But they're not different. Well, the front two rows are the same and the people at the meet and greets tend to be Drag Race fans who saw me on Big Brother.

I assume obviously that I've attracted a lot more people but a lot more people like to comment on Drag Race and that because it's still the insider thing. It's still a bit niche. More niche than Big Brother.

Who are your musical influences?

I love Kylie. I love the Spice Girls. I love GaGa. All the obvious ones! Cher, Tina Turner... I saw the Tina Turner musical last night and the lead girl is EPIC. She's wonderful. I sat there in the audience thinking "It's just a biological fact that I will never be able to sing like that." But every fibre of my body wants me to.

I love the Scissor Sisters. I'm excited that Jake Shears is bringing out a new album. I wrote body Parts, the song I did on big Brother, with him and I remember thinking in the Scissor Sisters he was so cool.

He was camp and femme but he was butch and he was sexy. All of the things that I had previously been told couldn't or shouldn't go together.

You've now moved to London. How are you finding London life?

I still have my place in LA but I am living in London now. It's great. So great! Every day I fall in love with London more and more. Especially East London. The diversity and the integration of the diversity, it felt like a utopia.

I was out in Shoreditch and I was in a bar, it wasn't a gay bar, it wasn't a straight bar, it was just a bar! Everyone's welcome and I was there with two gay friends and we were chatting to people and there was flirting with other boys, chatting with straight boys and straight girl and it was wonderful.

And not just sexuality diversity, but race diversity. Walking through BOXPARK, there could quite possibly have been a person from every country in the world here. It wasn't tokenistic, it wasn't a couple of people of colour in one corner, it was completely integrated and it felt like that bar scene in Star Wars. People of all races just being people.

I felt really inspired by that and I know it's a microcosm but I think it's great. It does exist and it can exist more.

There's currently a petition for you to represent Australia in Eurovision. Would you?

Oh my god! Is that still a thing? Absolutely! Well my mum's from Denmark, my dad's from Germany, I was born in Australian I live in the UK... so I'm going begging! I'll represent anyone who'll have me. I just want to be in Eurovision.

Maybe Rylan and I could do it together? Or we could form a supergroup?! Not sure who else could join us but we'll work on it!

Now for some questions from Twitter... First up, @chubbysnowflake asks "What's your favourite vegan place in London at the moment?"

Good question... I know Pret are a big chain but I love their vegan mac and cheese. I think there are only about three Veggie Pret's but all the Pret's have good vegan food to eat which is wonderful. Other than that, The Gate. I had dinner there the other night.

Next, @BellaBishop08 asks "When you're having some time out what do you like to do?"

Sleep. Be in my own bed in my home. I haven't been home to LA since December. I have two weeks off at the end of June and I'm going to go back to LA.

I'm just excited to be in my own bed, with my own things, not living out of suitcases, waking up in the morning and making my smoothie, going for a hike up Runyon - all very cliché LA but it just feels good!

Finally, @whybotherswim2 asks "How was Kylie’s party? Did you meet Sporty?"

I didn't meet Sporty Spice. I didn't know she was there until afterwards but I did have a fun night. It was a wonderful party. It was tasteful and classy and gorgeous.

I think I've been living in LA too long because there when you go to a party everyone's looking over their shoulder to see who's there. But then I got to Kylie's party and everybody was so friendly and warm and I think that's a reflection of who Kylie is.

Courtney Act: Under The Covers tours Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, London, Cardiff and Dublin and you can buy tickets here.


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