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Like her idol Madonna, French pop musician Héloïse Letissier is interested in transformation and reinvention. Her latest album finds her performing in a new persona as Chris, a celebration of her “macho-femininity”. She is, however, aware of the “danger of mainstreaming ‘queerness’… [that] it could invalidate the thing that ‘queer’ is important for. Queer is questioning a norm, questioning the system, subverting it, so if it’s digested and branded and [covered in] glossy plastic to appeal, then the essence of queer is lost.” By Jad Salfiti.

The reinvention of Christine and the Queens

Héloïse Letissier.
Credit: Jamie Morgan

Of late, Héloïse Letissier has undergone something of a reinvention. Seated in the lobby of a sleek hotel near Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, she seems at once diminutive and larger than life. Grungy and dishevelled in an oversized plaid suit with Nike Air Max 95s, a sort of tuxedo-clad Marlene Dietrich dissected and stitched back together by Vivienne Westwood, she somehow remains irrevocably French.

With the release last September of her second record, Chris, gone was Letissier’s wholesome girl-next-door image. Although the album is still credited to her familiar stage name Christine and the Queens, she had newly chopped hair and was now referring to herself as Chris. “French people were like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’ Where’s the Christine we loved before?’ ” Letissier says. But for her, “Chris” was a necessary “gesture of artistic independence”.

Letissier says Chris is a celebration of her own “macho-femininity”. After touring for several years as Christine and the Queens, dancing had rendered her body tauter and leaner, and the brawny image coincided with a more aggressive – if titillating – sound. Playing with ideas of gender and sexuality had always been present in her work – from the time her debut record, Chaleur Humaine (“human warmth”), was released in 2014 – but by the spring of 2017 something had shifted. With her second album, she was ready to reintroduce herself.

Letissier is unquestionably a product of her times. In her evolution, a cynic might see a marketing ploy, albeit a sophisticated one – an attempt to appeal to a fourth wave of feminism defined by the #MeToo movement, a Western embrace in popular culture of all things “queer”, the age of algorithms. As the saying goes, every generation gets the pop star it deserves.

But Letissier is herself concerned about big brands and record companies riding the wave of queer culture because it’s now become profitable.

“I experienced it personally,” she says. “At some point during the first album people were coming up to me and saying, ‘[That’s] really clever of you saying that!’ I was like, clever? I’ve been growing up like that. I’m not shying away from expressing who I am. It’s not a marketing stunt.”

On the question of whether Christine and the Queens could have achieved popular mainstream success 15 years ago, Letissier says, “We’ll never know.”

“I think part of the success is also timing and luck and being at the right moment. I remember I released my first album in France and there was a discussion around gay marriage. I think I brought [up] the discussion when it was the preoccupation.”

She is, however, aware of the “danger of mainstreaming ‘queerness’… [that] it could invalidate the thing that ‘queer’ is important for. Queer is questioning a norm, questioning the system, subverting it, so if it’s digested and branded and [covered in] glossy plastic to appeal, then the essence of queer is lost.”

“There are lots of ways to be queer,” she says, “it’s not a new brand … What about Prince in the 1980s? He was offering a different kind of masculinity.”

The DNA of Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna – all stars who played with gender and identity in their own idiosyncratic way – is evident on Chris. The album is hot, sweaty and voracious. Never feeling like a homage, it has all the hallmarks of legendary production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The song “Doesn’t Matter” recalls the cartoonish energy of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous”, and the thumping of The Knack’s “My Sharona”. “Damn (What Must a Woman Do)” is Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” with short-of-breath Madonna whispers interjecting throughout. “The Stranger” is curious and majestic – a chipper French cousin of The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” with synthesiser chords that push the track into the modern day.

 

Before Chris was Christine and the Queens – an alter ego Letissier formed after a chance encounter at London’s iconic nightclub Madame Jojo’s. Born in Nantes, Letissier was living in London at the time, struggling after being expelled from a theatre course two years earlier for insisting on her right to direct a play. At Jojo’s one night she was approached by three drag queens.

“[They] kind of saved me,” Letissier says. “I wanted to be that empowered and free [but] I looked like shit because I was really depressed …

“I think they felt that I needed to talk, and they came up to me and said, ‘What’s wrong, love?’ It was so simple and direct. I immediately started pouring out my teenage angst at them.”

In what sounds like a sort of queer fairytale, the queens took Letissier under their wing and nurtured her for several weeks. They guided her to draw inspiration from her theatrical background. Providing “simple, sometimes severe” reassurance, they encouraged her to hone an alter ego.

“I think I didn’t love myself enough at that point to allow myself to do what I wanted to do,” Letissier says. “They gave me the extra push of, like, just go for it.

“I don’t think they really thought I would do something. I think they were just like, ‘Okay, she’s better now. Yeah, off you go’… Then they saw my first French TV performance and they wrote to me and said, ‘You did it! You slayed!’

“We never really saw each other again. I’m afraid to see them again because [the circumstances were] so intense, weird and particular.”

 

In the past, Letissier has spoken about her sense that people perceive her to be too rude, too aggressive, too much. But that seems to be of little concern to her now. Earnest statements are punctuated with absurd dramatic flourishes, diffusing any idea that she’s pretentious or taking herself too seriously. When people say she’s too intense, she tells me, leaning in closer, she simply asks herself, “What would Madonna do?”

Madonna has long been an idol for Letissier. Her favourite Madonna albums are Erotica (“really modern”) and Ray of Light (“very sonically interesting”). But the fandom became even more pronounced after Letissier was invited onstage to dance with the star singer in 2015. “I loved Madonna before but then I became really interested,” Letissier says. “She has a force field that is so powerful and carnal. Yeah, like, she could eat all of you but would be fine with it. So, I was, like, I love that. It’s like losing power.”

As she tells it, the invitation came just a day before the performance via Madonna’s choreographer. Of course, there was no dress rehearsal. “I think she’s kind of, like, testing you,” Letissier says.

There are videos of the performance all over YouTube. Madonna sings her song “Unapologetic Bitch” wearing a crystal-encrusted black 1920s flapper dress with fringed opera gloves. Letissier is pared down, in a black vest, skinny jeans and sneakers. She dances confidently, moving with a casual ease. At one point Madonna’s back-up dancers bend her over while the Queen of Reinvention herself spanks Letissier to the crowd’s glee. The performance ends with Letissier dropping to her knees at Madonna’s feet, bowing. Madge pulls her up.

“Seriously, I’m a very big fan of yours. Do you know that?” Madonna says. “Well, now that you’re saying it to me on the stage, I feel like I can die in peace,” Letissier replies. “I don’t want you to do that,” Madonna tells her, “because you do such great work. And if you die you’ll stop doing it.”

Letissier still recounts the story in a sort of reverie. “The only moment where I really saw her, was on that stage in front of 20,000 people. You have to accept that you’re actually going on stage, not knowing. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you… I will submit that I was a bit scared, but I think I was overexcited also. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m glad to have surrendered to Madonna.’ ”

While Letissier’s success over the past four years has pulled her even deeper into the world of celebrity, she remains at a sort of remove – still breathless in the presence of those whose work she admires. She recounts passing Rihanna at the 2017 Met Gala in New York. Letissier had submitted a “vulnerable, raw” song to the Barbadian singer about “sending nudes” – a song she now describes as “very feeble, like a dead bird”. Rihanna’s record company declined. At the gala, Letissier was too afraid to look directly at the singer, who was seated at a table with Frank Ocean. “He’s really nice and installs a bubble of calm around him,” Letissier says. “He’s centred … kind of impressive.” During the dinner, an attendee confused Letissier for a waiter. “I should have used that as an opportunity to serve some wine to Rihanna.” She laughs.

We talk about how Rihanna has been able to press the reset button on her own career in recent times. “Work”, the lead single of Rihanna’s most recent album, Anti, was a study in sparse dance-hall minimalism that saw Rihanna reverse a dead-eyed lyrical space traditionally occupied by men talking down to women (“You know I dealt with you the nicest / Nobody touch me in the righteous / Nobody text me in a crisis”). “Rihanna is building that kind of femininity that I do adore,” Letissier says, “that macho-femininity.”

But in the stubbornly male-dominated record industry, figures such as Rihanna and Madonna remain outliers, and female artists are still routinely denied due credit for their work and authorship of their output. A self-proclaimed control freak, Letissier wrote and produced both her records. Her creative process is built around her vision – more akin to filmmaking by her description. “Before I made music I wanted to be a stage director,” she says. Her music videos begin with her written treatment and she draws her stage designs herself and casts the dancers personally.

“It’s almost like doing the casting for a movie,” she says. “I was searching for specific characters.”

In the French contemporary dance collective (LA)HORDE, Letissier has found fruitful collaborators. She discovered the group on YouTube, watching videos of them perform the popular jumpstyle dance. “We actually became really close friends,” she says. Choreographing work with (LA)HORDE evolved into collective writing sessions. “Everyone was emotionally invested in it. We all cried.”

But Letissier hasn’t always seen eye to eye with collaborators. When I probe about her early studio sessions with British songwriter and Blur frontman Damon Albarn, she deflects and won’t go into the details. “I’m being polite,” she replies, “I’m a polite woman.” It’s perhaps telling, though, that these days she doesn’t let others into her creative process until she’s laid down her demos.

As Letissier has evolved from Christine to Chris, identity has been central to her music. “She wants to be a man, a man, but she lies,” she sings on “iT”, the opening track of her debut album. “She wants to be born again, again, but she’ll lose. She draws her own crotch by herself. But she’ll lose, because it’s a fake. It’s a fake, it’s a fake, it’s a fake.”

Since that time, she has taken bold steps forward with her image and her lyrics. She revels in surprising her audiences. But there is no question, we can expect more transition and experimentation. Letissier likes to think of her career trajectory as “like a novel”.

“The second chapter was important and I think the good thing now is that people know that I’m going to just do what I want. So, they’re not going to expect me to fit any narrative hopefully anymore.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "Queen Chris". Subscribe here.

Jad Salfiti
is a British-Palestinian journalist specialising in the intersection of culture and politics.