Drag Race superstar and CBB winner Courtney Act talks reality TV and her humble drag beginnings in early ‘00s Sydney!
It’s unbelievable really that it’s taken us THIS LONG to meet Courtney Act! But meet her we have, finally.
Courtney is a fabulous, wing splaying, reality show winning, gender politics understanding tour-de-force, and as pride season approaches, she’s feeling as philosophical, photogenic and phytophagous as ever! (Not that last one actually – ‘phytophagous’ means ‘an insect that feeds on plants’ we just used it to sound clever, sorry Courtney).
ANYWAY, we got pop culture expert and media guru Darren Scott to sit down with her and have an in-depth chat about all sorts of stuff, including her humble beginnings selling cigarette lighters in Sydney, and a delve into just how real reality TV actually is.
Hi Courtney! So…do you think when you’ve been on television before, you haven’t been represented as the person you really are?
Celebrity Big Brother was unique in that it was 24/7. It’s more than seven hours a week of content. There’s more than 28 hours to consume, and four highlights to be pulled and then populated across the internet. After Drag Race I did feel hurt…I think that who I am now is the same as who I was when I was on Drag Race. And I hope people saw on Celebrity Big Brother, one of the things that’s most important to me is my humanity and my interest in conversations and equality. Everybody having a fair go and everybody being heard. On Drag Race I don’t think there was a place for that. It’s Drag Race – it’s about costumes and hair and fabulousness. I remember at one point RuPaul saying to me “I have one word for you Courtney. Humanity.” And I was like ‘that’s the thing that’s most important to me.’ So to hear that that was the thing I was lacking, was shocking. I do care what people think, actually, is what I realised.
How did you find the editing in reality TV?
It’s edited to within an inch of its life. There are different styles of reality television. There’s Ex On The Beach, there’s Strictly Come Dancing, there’s RuPaul’s Drag Race and there’s Celebrity Big Brother and they’re all very different. RuPaul’s Drag Race is entertainment. It’s really entertaining and I love watching it and I’m thoroughly entertained by all of it. I’ve now laid to rest any internal conflict and I’m so grateful for my time on the show. I wouldn’t change a thing. Having to go through that has made me a much… “stronger person” sounds trite, but I’ve learned who I am in a much greater sense because of that trauma I went through in the wake of Drag Race. In some ways, there are people who have real trauma in the world so I don’t want to even suggest…
We can’t help but notice that certain parties didn’t congratulate you on social media for your Big Brother win.
[Gives a look] [Long pause] I love and respect RuPaul, the icon.
I was inspired by RuPaul in the 90s. As a kid I remember Supermodel, I remember reading his book, I remember starting my business Wigs By Vanity.
My business partner Vanity and I were obsessed with RuPaul’s hairlines – we didn’t know what they were, we didn’t have the internet, we couldn’t Google it. We would get pictures out of magazines and just stare at them and wonder ‘how’ and ‘what’. And then we learnt what a lace-front wig was. We went to a factory in China and workshopped a lace-front wig that had previously cost thousands of dollars because it was handmade. We had the first mass-produced lace-front wigs on the market that were made for drag queens by drag queens. That was literally inspired by RuPaul. I’m afforded the opportunity of being on Celebrity Big Brother because I was on RuPaul’s Drag Race. And I acknowledge that, and the life that I’ve had in the last four years has been epic because of that. So I’d rather be grateful than worry about the deafening silence.
Going way, way back now. How did you get involved in drag?
I moved to Sydney was I was 18 and I hadn’t yet acknowledged that I was attracted to boys. I remember masturbating over gay porn, but I just never realised that that meant I liked boys.
Then I went to Sydney – my first night, with my friend Stephanie, she was like ‘let’s go to Stonewall tonight’ and I was like ‘it’s not one of those gay bars is it?’ She was like ‘yeah, but you’ll love it’. And then I kissed my first boy, had sex with my first boy – who wasn’t the boy that I kissed, mind you – all in the first night. Let’s hit the ground running! I discovered the gay scene of Sydney. And then I discovered drag queens. It was the end of the post-Priscilla boom – the year 2000, Priscilla was in 1996, I think. There were these drag shows, and drag queens were the touchable celebrities of the gay community.
What’s the drag scene like in Sydney?
There was a witticism and a grotesqueness, just a colourfulness to the whole thing. Even more, in a way, than drag now. It was big and brassy, foam headdresses and Priscilla. I fell in love with it. I wanted to try it. I did it a few times, and then I needed to come up with an excuse as to why I would do it. The justification was that I had a business idea to go around nightclubs selling chewing gum, glowsticks, fans, cigarette lighters from a neck tray. I approached a few clubs about doing it and they liked it, but they said they wanted a drag queen to do it. I actually think was it was a covert move by the trans showgirl, who was the entertainment manager of Stonewall. She saw that I needed to do drag. And that I wasn’t able to just do it, I had to have a justification. She said ‘yes we would welcome you through the doors, but I really think we need a drag queen to do it.’
So I got a white PVC nurse’s outfit, had this box fabricated, got the train twice to the western suburbs of Sydney…I made it so much harder than it needed to be! I registered a business licence, I started quickbooks, I did a certificate in accounting and bookkeeping. I paid tax on selling chewing gum in a gay bar, basically. I pounded the pavement, and pretty soon friends who were drag queens felt sorry for me and said ‘do you want to be in a show?’. So then Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday night I was working up and down Oxford Street. And then in 2003 I auditioned for Australian Idol as a boy, got knocked back and then went back the next day as a girl. My career has been a gradual overnight success since then.
A long overnight success…
A long sleepless night.
Are you lined up to appear in Drag Queens on a Plane?
It’s the new RuPaul movie that’s just been announced.
Oh, then certainly not.
Courtney is taking her brand new show ‘Under The Covers’ to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from Friday 3rd – Saturday 18th August. For more info and tickets, go to courtneyact.com/under