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Australia’s most celebrated drag queen, Courtney Act, is now moving to centre stage at the Sydney Theatre Company. By Ben Neutze.

Drag queen Courtney Act

Courtney Act.
Courtney Act.
Credit: Rene Vaile

In 2003 Shane Jenek, an ambitious 21-year-old from Brisbane, decided to audition for the first season of Australian Idol. The global Idol franchise was starting to take off and the American version had just launched the career of Kelly Clarkson, a pop singer who found genuine and lasting stardom.

He decided to double his chances by auditioning as Shane and then returning the next day in drag. The judges Marcia Hines, Mark Holden and Ian “Dicko” Dickson gave Shane a polite “no”. The following day, his alter ego Courtney Act was enthusiastically welcomed onto the show.

Courtney just missed out on a spot in the all-important top 12, but the drag queen was an audience favourite on the country’s highest-rating television show: a family-friendly, surprisingly diverse celebration of budding pop singers. Watched by 3.3 million people, Courtney was invited back to perform at the finale. She went on to an arena tour with the finalists and was signed to Dicko’s record label.

Courtney’s Idol experience seems a world away from recent vicious debates around gender identity. Almost two decades after her debut, Courtney is arguably Australia’s best-known drag act. She’s now preparing to step onto a different stage at the Sydney Theatre Company.

When we meet, Jenek has just finished a full day of rehearsals as Elvira in a new production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which opens at the Sydney Opera House next week. Two days before his 40th birthday, he is in a reflective mood and has the energy and glowing, clear skin of somebody who is only an hour or two into the workday. Compared with the club shows of Jenek’s early career – a spot show each hour, stretching into the small hours of the morning – the nine-to-five rehearsal schedule is a luxury.

Jenek moved from Brisbane to Sydney’s gay mecca of Darlinghurst in 2000. While he had the supportive parents that most queer kids dream of, the pressures of growing up in a largely conservative community were immense. In his recently released memoir, Caught in the Act, Jenek revealed that he faced severe bullying and experienced suicidal ideation by the time he was 11.

“A part of the queer experience is the suffering of having to break free from the status quo and of the heteronormative world,” Jenek says. “But the beauty of that suffering is that it creates resilience and it creates diversity. I guess it’s hard to communicate that to any young person.”

At the end of his first year in Sydney Jenek travelled to Melbourne for a New Year’s Eve party where he decided to give drag a shot: and out stepped Courtney. She fast became one of the most popular queens performing on the Oxford Street club circuit. At the time, the Sydney 2000 Olympics had energised the whole city and the Sydney lockout laws were still more than a decade away. Oxford Street was buzzing.

“I needed to perform,” Jenek recalls. “I loved being on stage as a kid. In Brisbane I was performing in pantomime and talent quests. I wasn’t finding those opportunities in Sydney and drag was initially an opportunity to perform. What I wasn’t able to acknowledge for most of my life is that I’m sure I could’ve found other opportunities to perform that didn’t involve putting on women’s clothing. The fact that I was drawn to that specifically speaks to something that was going on inside.”

It wasn’t until the mid-2010s that Jenek figured out what that “something” was. In a conversation with trans activist Chaz Bono, whom Jenek befriended while appearing on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Jenek was introduced to the term “gender-fluid”.

Jenek describes the conversation as a moment of instant validation and identification; it explained a deep and fundamental part of who he was. Jenek now identifies as gender-fluid and uses mostly he/him pronouns out of drag and she/her when in drag.

“I think it’s almost unfortunate that I have two names. Because I know Shane and Courtney look different, but to me it’s just me in a different outfit. I think if you’re going to bed, or you’re going to work, or shops, or the gym, you wear different clothes to all of those. That’s kind of how I feel about Courtney.”

To go on a decades-long journey of self-discovery in the public eye, assembling the pieces of one’s identity, is rare. But it seems natural to Jenek, who is increasingly open when talking about the experiences that have shaped him. His recent memoir drew praise for its extraordinary candour, covering everything from sexual experiences in nightclub toilets to intensely intimate moments of personal discovery.

There are many chapters in Courtney Act’s career, but three major breakthrough moments opened new doors. Each has been on a reality television show, and each was strategically crafted to propel her career forwards. Jenek talks in detail about the “road map” he and manager Wendy Richards formulated to realise Courtney’s full potential.

The first, Australian Idol, introduced Courtney to Australian audiences. The second, RuPaul’s Drag Race, introduced Courtney to audiences across the world. This was in 2014, two years before the show won its first Emmy.

Courtney was the first Australian queen on the show and was one of two runners-up, but the process of making the show took her by surprise. While Idol was a fair representation of the experience, the producers of Drag Race had different ideas about reality storytelling.

“I thought that I knew, because I had been on reality television, what it was,” Jenek says. Nightclub audiences knew Courtney as a compassionate – if sometimes cocky – presence, but the Courtney they saw on Drag Race was stuck-up and dismissive of her peers.

“When you’re story-producing and editing reality television, you have 14 characters, and you have an idea of who they are and what they’re going to be,” Jenek says. “And you feed those characters into the channels you’ve chosen for them.” Since then, Jenek has spent a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of reality television and talking to producers about how the sausage gets made.

Before appearing on Drag Race, one producer friend gave Jenek a warning. “She sort of foreshadowed because I was the pretty girl with an accent, that I might be cast as the bitch. And I just thought that was the most absurd suggestion, but it kind of happened,” Jenek says. “Bianca [Del Rio, the winner of the season] joked, because we got on so well during filming, ‘I didn’t realise you were a bitch until I watched Drag Race’.”

The final turning point, a winning appearance on Britain’s Celebrity Big Brother in 2018, couldn’t have been more different. Both Shane and Courtney were much more comfortable in their own skin – they appeared both in and out of drag. They had recently published several “explainer” videos around issues of gender and sexuality on YouTube. Jenek was celebrated for the forthright and educational conversations he had with various housemates, covering everything from the difference between drag queens and trans women, to gender fluidity and marriage equality.

“Because I had made all those videos, I had distilled a lot of my ideas into pithy, three-minute explainers,” Jenek says. “I wasn’t aware when I was in the house that any of those things were being aired. It was great when I came out of the house to see that one of the reasons I won was because of those conversations, some of which had gone viral.”

Media commentators say Courtney had a significant impact educating the British viewing public, on a television show that wouldn’t normally be considered a positive social influence. But it’s unlikely she could’ve taken on that role even a few years earlier; her relatively recent revelations about her own gender lie at the core of the confidence and intuition she now brings to her projects.

The offers that started flowing in after the Celebrity Big Brother win were entirely different to those she’d received before. At home, Courtney became a cultural and political commentator, appearing on Q+A and The Drum, and recently hosting a series of the ABC’s in-depth interview series One Plus One. In Britain she became a genuine star and in 2018 hosted The Courtney Act Show, a one-off variety special watched by three million people. And after finishing runner-up in the 2019 series of Dancing with the Stars, Act is back on the dance floor and on prime-time television in the current All Stars iteration of the show.

When Sydney Theatre Company called, Jenek – whose teenage dream was to study at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) – was drawn back to acting. While he has two decades of experience in front of live audiences under his belt – everywhere from pumping nightclubs to intimate cabaret venues – main stage theatre is a new world.

“I’m aware that I’m the least experienced actor in the bunch,” Jenek says of the rehearsals. “I kind of had those first-day-at-school feelings: what will the other kids be like? Will they be mean to me and think I’m trash because I’m not a Shakespearean actor?”

Jenek describes the experience as hugely supportive, led by director Paige Rattray, who cast them after watching Courtney host One Plus One on ABC TV. In Blithe Spirit, novelist Charles Condomine invites an eccentric medium to conduct a séance at his house, hoping for kooky material for a new book. Unexpectedly the medium conjures up the ghost of Charles’s first wife, Elvira, who wreaks havoc upon his life and new marriage.

“When I got asked, I thought, ‘Oh, this will probably be some comedic, gender-bendy bit part. But then I was reading the script and thought, ‘Is Elvira the leading lady?’ and then much later on I thought, ‘Wait, Blithe Spirit? Oh, Elvira is the Blithe Spirit. It’s the titular role!’ ”

Rattray says Courtney brings bucketloads of charisma, generosity and a drag queen’s typically quick wit to the role, and has inspired other gender-fluid casting. The fact that Jenek is in drag is not referred to in the performance, either directly or by suggestion. This is simply Courtney Act playing Elvira.

“The wink-wink, nudge-nudge, ‘it’s a man in a dress’ is kind of gone now,” Jenek says. “I’m actually allowed to do stuff because people respect me or think that I’m good at something. It’s a wholesome feeling for me, after years of ‘please like me!’, to actually be invited to do something like this.”

Back in 2003, it would’ve been difficult to imagine Courtney would be able to ride the waves of international pop culture so successfully. She was canny, charismatic and popular, but her steady ascension to the mainstream mirrors some of the most positive evolutions in Australian society’s understanding of gender and sexuality.

“I messaged a friend the other day and said: I think the best thing about being alive is living long enough to experience the world changing for the better. And not just for me, but for so many people. There’s obviously still a long way to go, and at times it can seem like it’s worse because we hear more people’s opinions. Like, you didn’t know how people felt about trans people in the ’90s because it was a small conversation. It feels like there’s a lot more opposition, but I think you just hear it more.”

On a personal level, things are going brilliantly for Shane and Courtney. Jenek says he’s thrilled to have a thriving career in Britain and at home. The work is more fulfilling than it has ever been, and now means more than “just putting money in the bank so I don’t have to eat cat food”.

“As an entertainer, it’s hard to plan ahead,” Jenek says. “Like, yes, I’d love to host a big-budget variety TV show on the BBC every Friday night with dancers and bands and interviews, but I don’t really get to make that call. But I do get to go: One Plus One, that’s showcasing me interviewing, and Dancing with the Stars is showcasing me as a performer. And I can gather all these bits and pieces that hopefully one day we can show to a network exec and they’ll finally go, ‘Oh, this would be great, let’s make a show.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Blithe ambition".

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Ben Neutze is a writer and arts worker living on Gadigal land.

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