Courtney Act – 'They might not realise that I'm not actually a woman and be in for a very steep learning curve'

This article is from 2017

Courtney Act – 'They might not realise that I'm not actually a woman and be in for a very steep learning curve'

credit: Magnus Hastings

Aussie drag superstar Courtney Act tells Arusa Qureshi she plans to keep things upbeat in her new Fringe show with a celebration of all things Oz

Let me set the scene. It's the day after the UK general election. Following in the wake of Brexit and Trump, uncertainty and confusion are looming in every direction, and while everything seems to be collapsing around us with no sign of escape, somewhere in London, Australian drag superstar Courtney Act is promoting a show in which she intends to help you do just that: escape.

'Interestingly when I was putting together this show, it was just before the elections in the US,' she explains. 'And I thought about doing a political show and then realised that I just wanted to do something fun because people want an escape.'

The show in question, The Girl From Oz, may not be political in its content but it's a clever and witty glimpse into the mind of one of the world's most popular drag queens, with added singing, dancing and all-round hilarity.

'It's just a big fun celebration of Australian pop music and pop culture. I've been living overseas for the last seven years and I just wanted to cure a little homesickness and also bring a bit of Australia to the world. There are so many songs that I knew were Australian but I was shocked that other people didn't. I hope that everybody knows that 'Down Under' is Australian otherwise if they come and see the show, they might also not realise that I'm not actually a woman and be in for a very steep learning curve.'

As a former runner-up in RuPaul's Drag Race, Courtney has been a mainstay in the world of drag for some time, profoundly aware of her influence in this niche yet colossal cultural phenomenon. Some may see Drag Race as just another reality TV show, but beyond the familiarity of the formidable judge / gifted contestant format is something greater; a unique insight into gay culture, a lesson in LGBTQ history and a celebration of difference, much needed in today's increasingly conservative political climate.

For Courtney, the show has been life-changing in many ways, leading to unimaginable opportunities and also an unexpected sense of personal development. But on a grander scale, the impact the show has had on wider discussions of gender and sexuality has been immense.

'The gay community has had a sometimes tumultuous relationship with non-queer people coming to their shows,' she explains, 'because it was tourism, like using the queer spaces as a form of comic relief or entertainment. I think it's really cool that Drag Race has created this space where so many different kinds of people can come together and socialise and have fun on equal terms. Drag can make you a little more fearless and I think girls especially love drag because they get to see somebody define their own standard of feminine beauty.'

Courtney Act – 'They might not realise that I'm not actually a woman and be in for a very steep learning curve'

credit: Magnus Hastings
Though drag queens have long been a vital part of LGBTQ history, from the Stonewall riots of 1969 to the 90s New York club scene, drag has grown and evolved in ways that are unprecedented for a subculture.

'You have to constantly pinch yourself.' Courtney says, reflecting on this extraordinary progression. 'I always thought there would be one drag queen that broke into the pop music world but now I see that it's actually like this convergence of drag queens surrounding heteronormative, mainstream media. There are just so many growing stems of this drag monster. It's like a hydra, you cut off one of its heads and then 10 more sprout out.'

Of all the queens that have appeared on the show, Courtney may be known best for serving sickening good looks and always on-point vocals. But behind all the fierceness and flair, she also has a knack for social and political commentary, as seen in her popular YouTube videos and social media channels. So with many different elements to her identity, how does one go about defining Courtney Act?

'I guess, if Kylie Minogue was a little younger and was a millennial and also happened to be a boy,' she jokes. 'My style of drag has always been a little bit more moderate. I feel like I'm subversive in that I slip into the heterosexualised world and then people think, "that doesn't look too scary or frightening". And then I sing and I dance and entertain them and hopefully they leave my show thinking, that person actually seemed kind of normal and fun and maybe I could be friends with them.'

The Girl from Oz is a perfect reminder of one of the many functions of drag; to entertain in epic style. But it's also a chance for audiences to experience and embrace an art form and culture that is transformational, both literally and metaphorically. Through their distinctive talent as artists and performers, drag queens have the innate ability to elevate and inspire. In a world that feels precarious and unsettling at the best of times, lipsyncs, sequins and colourful positivity may just be the answer that we've been searching for all along.

Courtney Act: The Girl From Oz, Underbelly Circus Hub, 17–26 Aug (not 21), 6pm, £13–£15 (£12--£14). Previews 13, 15 Aug, £7.

Courtney Act: The Girl from Oz

Former RuPaul's Drag Race runner-up presents her love letter to Australia, with singing, dancing, kangaroos, Vegemite and much more.