By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
Beloved drag queen Courtney Act is a world-famous performer, singer, advocate, cultural provocateur – and now author! Behind Shane Jenek’s rise to fame as Courtney Act, a remarkable coming-of-age story and journey of self-discovery is told in Caught In The Act: A Memoir. On a video call to Sydney, Shane spoke with Courtney’s trademark sincerity about the process of writing and baring it all in about 80,000 words.
You’re obviously known as a performer. How has that helped you tell your story and become an author?
Writing has always been a part of my performance because my cabaret work involves sharing personal stories. In cabaret, you tell the story in a paragraph, whereas you get 80,000 words with a book. I think being a performer and knowing about the pacing of a live show – a big opening number, building in intervals, a strong number, big finale, and an encore – helped me make the beginning, middle, and end of my own story. And, of course, the ability to articulate stories on a page helped a lot.
Your memoir is more than a coming-of-age story. It chronicles your childhood, youth, coming out, introduction to drag, and fame, and even talks about some of the darker sides of your life. What compelled you to write this book?
After I did Celebrity Big Brother in the U.K., many people asked me about telling my story in a memoir. I eventually found the right publisher, Pantera Press, so that I could move forward. I love storytelling, and a book offers the security and safety of controlling the narrative of self-portraiture. Reality television is also a form of portraiture, but it’s someone else’s portrait of you, whereas a memoir is a portrait of myself by me. The book felt like a place where I could really take my time to give the backstory, including the darker periods when it came to struggles with drugs and identity.
Suppose you just picked it up and started reading about me doing crystal meth. In that case, you’d be all ‘what?’ but when you get the story about my childhood and my introduction to the drag scene, you can see how those behaviors and struggles emerged and perhaps get a bit more empathy and understanding.
You are also taking a moment to discuss gender identity and sexuality in your book, which goes well beyond your coming out experience. Through your work, you are obviously well-versed in exploring gender identity. Where would you place yourself in the rainbow?
It’s interesting because, when I was 18, I was ‘gay,’ and then as the years went on, other labels like pansexual and gender-fluid really spoke to me. Ultimately, I realized that those labels only help you get so far, and once you get to the most discreet label you can find, it’s up to you to work out who you are inside that context. I’m definitely socially very gay, but I have sexual relations with more than just cis men, and I see that my gender is very fluid on a spectrum. I don’t identify as trans, I have my male body that I enjoy, and I express femininity in whatever way I want and masculinity in whatever way I want.
Harry Styles said that we should be beyond labels, and that’s all good of him to say, but the reality is that labels are crucial to so many people’s identities, so I think it’s important to talk about labels and how they have an impact. We all want to get to a place beyond labels, but I think it’s a bit too privileged to suggest that we don’t need labels.
When it comes to gender identity and sexuality, what has been an important lesson you have learned and can pass on to others?
Don’t be afraid of any of the labels. I know that I was for a very long time. I would have my own internalized homophobia and transphobia and struggle to even look at those labels because I was scared of what the truth might be. The fascinating thing about the truth is that it will always be better than whatever lie you’re clinging to because you think that’s what society wants you to be. It feels courageous to look at the truth, but ultimately, it’s the smartest thing you can do.
What part of the process of writing your memoir are you most proud of?
I’ve never embarked on anything this big before, so just writing all those words and completing the task has been a real achievement. I started writing on the first day of lockdown when I had just arrived in L.A., and I thought we would have house parties, even if the clubs were closed for a few weeks. I didn’t see another human being until I went to London in June, but weirdly it was brilliant because I was locked in my apartment with no FOMO and no one asking me to come out to play. My publisher would Facetime me, which was almost like therapy because I would send her what I was writing, and we talked about what was next. That accountability was something I needed because I knew from high school that I like to leave things to the last minute, and you can’t do that with a book.
So, you’re sitting in lockdown, ready and inspired to write. Did you start at the very beginning?
My publisher asked me to start thinking about my stories and write about the one that excited me the most. I started with a story about Oscar, a boy I met from the Midwest in 2014 post Drag Race, touring around the U.S., doing club and Pride gigs. I wrote 20,000 words about the 12 hours with him, so it was a little overkill, but it’s chapter 13 now, I think.
At first, I was kind of disinterested in writing about my childhood and wanted to jump straight to Sydney when things got exciting. But when I got into writing about my parents and how wonderful they were as parents, it really connected me emotionally in a powerful way.
There were lots of moments where I reframed memories and experiences. I think we store memories – and even trauma – with the capacity and capability we have at the time they occur, so they can rattle around for years and years without us understanding them completely. So later in life, we can reexamine them and see them in a new light.
Can you tease a few instances from the book where you were actually ‘caught in the act’?
There are lots of lewd stories. There’s one from childhood that involved a banana. There’s everything from bathroom stalls to hotel rooms. Lots of fun sexcapades in there! I actually didn’t realize until my twenties that being caught in the act referred to sex, but my mother pointed that out.
I’m currently watching season 2 of Drag Race Down Under, and you are referenced a LOT. What do you think of the ‘local’ version and the queens?
Season 1 of any franchise is always kind of rickety. RuPaul’s Drag Race certainly was and Down Under certainly was, too. Season 2 has gotten better, and now they’re at the top 3, and I love Kween Kong, Hannah Conda, and Spankie Jackzon. Earlier in the season, I remember thinking,’ is this really what represents Australia and New Zealand?’ But when the girls did the challenge where they had to write the lyrics and perform the song with choreography, the season changed gears. There’s a cultural thing between American drag and Australian drag; like the reading challenge Down Under is horrible to watch because it’s just not something we do culturally, so it feels mean and doesn’t have the levity and wit of the American one. But when you watch the girls lip-sync and dance, you are wowed because they are really great performers.
We don’t have the industry here yet created by Drag Race, so there aren’t that many people to make 12 runway outfits and costumes. Even when the girls come off the show, they’re not making the same money as American girls that are touring and making lots of money. The economics aren’t there, but hopefully, the show will build, and the industry will build around it.
Speaking of point of reference: your two best Judys and AAA Girls sisters, Willam and Alaska, make it a point to mention you at least once in every episode of the Race Chaser podcast, where they also talked about a AAA Girls documentary. What’s the status on that?
The documentary is out now, and in that tour documentary, you will see when we get to Atlanta – and it’s not a high point in the documentary. It was a big theatre. I don’t remember which? We had been sold out in each city, but when we walked out on stage, there was only a smattering of people! We included it to show the contrast of touring. To deal with the tragedy, I took all of the tip money and spent it at Swinging Richards. “Put your finger in my culo”, the stripper said to me. I said no thank you.
What projects are you involved in right now?
In the U.K., I’m a judge on a new show called Queens For The Night, kind of like Masked Singer but with drag. I’m also about to start rehearsing an arena
… and when will we see you stateside again?
I’ll be back in the states in October for work and then going to the U.K. I’m a resident of the U.S., so I can come and go as I please. I actually sold my apartment in L.A. and London because I think Covid changed my perspective on many things. I decided to come back here to live. Sydney is a lovely place, so I’ll stay here for now – or until someone gives me a better offer!
Caught In the Act: A Memoir By Shane Jenek aka Courtney Act, is out now everywhere books are sold!