© Magnus Hastings

© Magnus Hastings

Sam Bennett

In February this year Shane Gilberto Jenek, also known as Courtney Act, emerged from the Celebrity Big Brother house as winner of the series. While viewers of Big Brother do relish the fights and bitchiness it usually delivers, the Australian drag queen bonded with people, forming friendships with the likes of Andrew Brady. “I know reality television in general is more about throwing around white wine than it is about throwing around good ideas,” the entertainer tells me. “I just went in and was interested in all of the people who were in there and their opinions – some of which I agreed with, some of which I didn’t.”

courtney (3)Courtney Act is also well known for being runner up on the sixth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Was Big Brother a walk in the park comparatively speaking? “It was a different kind of mental torture,” I’m told. “You’re locked in this house and you have to deal with your own brain, and the brains of 15 other people who are dealing with their own brains.” It’s not, however, “uber-serious” if you don’t win a Big Brother task, “Whereas on Drag Race, if you mess up a task, it could mean you going home.” That said, RuPaul’s allows participants to flex their creative muscles, the former contestant says, something that – for all the pressure – “is really fun”.

From television to the live stage, this year the Australian Idol season one competitor stops by Birmingham and London in June as part of the Under The Covers tour – sit-down 75 minute shows comprising songs, costumes and comedy. The artist (who will also take the show to Edinburgh Fringe) explains the title, first referring to the Björk number, ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, featured in the set list. “It was actually a cover of a song from 1951 by Betty Hutton, which was a cover of the 1948 song called ‘Und jetzt ist es still’ which is German for ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’. So I go under the covers of some famous cover songs, I go under the covers of society, and under the covers of the bedroom.”

© Mitch Fong

© Mitch Fong

From the age of five, Jenek attended The Fame Talent Agency – learning to sing, dance and act. “From a very early age, I found other people who were like me.” In the singer’s primary school, the kids got along with each other, and “everything was pretty sweet from grades one to five”. Jenek then went to private school for grades six and seven but hated it, in the end refusing to return and completing the remainder of high school in a government school. Here, “There were ups and downs, but I always had my safe haven of The Fame Agency, where I could just be myself. All of the people there were misfits as well – so we all fitted in, in our own misfitted way. But I think everybody always feels a bit like an outsider, even the jocks or the cheerleaders. That’s the catch people don’t realise: nobody thinks they fit in. Once you realise that everybody’s trying to fit in, it makes it feel less isolating, and you realise that actually everyone’s kind of the same in their outsiderness – so nobody’s really an outsider.”

Is there an end goal of all the gender identity discussion taking place, I ask, a point where we know that the dialogue has worked? “I think the end goal is that people will just feel comfortable being whoever they are, and having sex with whoever they want, or relationships with whoever they want. Ultimately, it would be lovely to get to that idealistic place where we don’t need labels. But I think we very much do need labels because they’re important to how people identify, and they explain certain things in a simplified way.

“We’ve been living in this binary world of men and women, gay and straight, cis and trans, black and white, tall and short, and religious and secular for such a long time. The reality is actually much more nuanced, and I think we’re getting better at understanding that.”

Courtney Act: Under The Covers plays Birmingham O2 Institute on 8 June and London Troxy on 10 June.

Courtney Act: Under the Covers | Edinburgh Fringe | 3-18 August (except 7, 8, 13 August), 6pm | Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows (Venue 360)


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