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Published on 28th January 2018

Australia's drag superstar, Courtney Act, is a homecoming queen


Australia's most famous drag export since Priscilla has taken the world by storm. As she prepares to head back to Down Under on tour, she talks finding fame, cult-level fandom, and being part of a drag army with Maxim Boon.

It may well go down as one of the worst wardrobe malfunctions in reality TV history. At the launch of the UK's latest season of Celebrity Big Brother, as Australian drag megastar Courtney Act, aka Shane Jenek, descended a staircase in front of crowds and cameras, her stiletto heels caught the hem of her sequined skirt, ripping it from her lower half and exposing her bare-naked "tuck" for all the world to see. This epic fashion fail went viral on a global scale, grabbing headlines internationally. It even prompted a debate about media censorship as some news editors opted to pixilate the simulated fun zone with others revealing it in all its anatomically defiant glory.

But if you're inclined to feel a pang of sympathy for Act in the wake of this worldwide humiliation, don't be fooled; this drag diva is not the ditzy blonde she might sometimes appear. 

Throughout her career, she's shown a myopic strength of purpose that has seen her star rise to the highest heights of the entertainment world. A veteran of reality television, first appearing on the debut season of Australian Idol in 2003 - becoming the first openly gay artist on any Idol franchise in the world, as well as the first to perform in drag - Act's big break came in 2013 when she reached the finals of season six of RuPaul's Drag Race. There, she proved to be not only fiercely talented but also a ruthless tactician, unafraid of showboating to outshine her competition. Five years on, that same fearless need to stand out could very well be the sleight of hand behind her now infamous Big Brother crotch flash; for several days after, Act dominated column inches while her fellow celebrity housemates were largely ignored.

This strategist's savvy offers a glimpse of Act's secret weapon: her intelligence. But, while her talents as a performer and her competitive streak are both traits she's supremely proud of, it's not lost on Act that her cerebral side is often overlooked. "Drag Race gave me an audience that I didn't have before," she explains. "But then it was kind of up to me to take that audience and build it and inform it about what I actually do. It's taken quite a while - almost four years. And the funny thing about Drag Race is, that even though it offers an incredible platform and visibility, the audience really only get to see a very limited part of you. So, after my season, I felt like, 'Yeah, I'm all of those things you see on screen, but there's so much more to me than that.'"

With the mega-watt profile secured via her appearance on Drag Race, Act might well have settled into a career not dissimilar to other alumni of the hit TV talent contest, performing, touring the world and meeting fans. But, while performance is still a major part of Act's professional life, she's also sought to capitalise on her brains as well as her beauty. In 2016, Act became a political correspondent for Australian politics and pop-culture site Junkee, covering the American election, including attending a Trump rally in full drag. Most recently, Act has starred in a web series for MTV UK about gender and sexuality, demystifying the nuances of identity and self-expression.

"It's just really cool that I get to have that opportunity to speak to people, and that they actually seem to listen and enjoy it," Act shares. "I remember thinking after Idol, 'I've made it! This is it!' But then I realised when I went into Drag Race that this was just a stepping stone in my journey - and it's an amazing one! But really, it's not a chore for me to champion these issues. I'm just doing what I love to do, because I'm passionate about queer history and identity politics and gender identity and gender theory. It really is what I love."

Such a fever-pitched level of celebrity does, however, comes with drawbacks. Drag Race aficionados have earned a reputation over the years for being intimidatingly zealous with their fandom, especially via social media. It's a necessary evil, Act admits. "It's a bit like a cult," she laughs. "It's not something like Idol, where you have a big audience but it's really mainstream. Drag Race fans are a whole lot more niche and they're incredibly dedicated - I mean, people have their favourite Drag Race queens tattooed on them!

"And it's the fans that have made the show such a phenomenon. But whenever you're talking about fandom, or social advocacy, or anything that happens online, there's always a very vocal minority who would have you believe they're just more representative than they actually are. So, there might be a few vocal people who can be negative or aggressive, especially on social media. But I think it's always important to remember the majority of Drag fans are just normal people, who really love a TV show. It can get to you, if you let it. I think what kept me strong in that post Drag Race period was my friendship with [fellow season six contestants] Adore, Bianca and Darienne. The four of us are really close, so that was a very welcome support network."

Act's experience handling the pressures of fame will likely be invaluable when she finally exits the UK's Celebrity Big Brother house. At the time of publication, Act was the firm favourite to win the show, with the UK rapt by an unexpected bromance — which many believe is fast exiting the friend-zone — between Act (Shane Jenek) and straight former The Apprentice star Andrew Brady. The will-they-won't-they affair has proven irresistibly salacious for Big Brother viewers, with the tabloid press pitching the relationship as both juicy gossip and pearl-clutching scandal. But then, Act has never been shy of a bit of mainstream subversion. 

This will be on full display when, post Big Brother, Act makes her return Down Under. In the upcoming Melbourne leg of Grease: The Arena Experience, she'll be playing Teen Angel - traditionally a male role, that has in recent years been played by women, but never a drag queen — to audiences 14,000 strong. Under The Covers, Act's racy cabaret show about the secrets of the bedroom - "It looks at everything we do in bed, from sleeping, to masturbating, to eating, to sex, to eating while masturbating..." - will also grace Australian shores next month.

Such bumper-to-bumper bookings are typical for many Drag Race stars. But such a Herculean schedule is not merely about cashing in on celebrity status, Act insists. Being in the spotlight, shoulder to shoulder with many other talented drag queens who have brought the art form into the popular consciousness, is a way of shifting the tent poles of what society deems acceptable. "It's like there's this army of drag queens surrounding pop culture, like a military blockade. And we're all marching one step at a time inwards, closer and closer to the middle," she smiles. "There are queens excelling in comedy, there are queens who are performing burlesque, there are queens who are making performance art or who have really avant-garde aesthetics. There are queens with different body shapes, who are old and who are young. All that diversity is so beautiful. I'm so thankful to be part of that."

First published 25 Jan 2018, for The Music.