From the moment she hurtles on to the stage on ruby red rollerskates, Courtney Act gives it all she’s got – taking us from ballads to disco to rock, with three sensational costume changes along the way.
She is also a vision of loveliness, with a captivatingly pretty face, rhinestone studded gown, soft cascading curls of pink and blonde. It’s easy to see why she was one of the stand-out stars to emerge from RuPaul’s Drag Race – and why her Edinburgh debut with The Girl From Oz, a musical tribute to all things Australian, sold out almost a month in advance.
Drag Race – in which drag queens compete to be the best at applying make-up, putting together outrageous outfits, dreaming up witty put-downs and lip-synching for their lives – has a devoted following on Netflix, gay, straight, young and old, which has allowed performers like Act to launch themselves on the world stage.
For Act’s creator, Shane Jenek, who is originally from Brisbane, it has offered the chance to move from the Sydney drag scene to Los Angeles and tour her cabaret shows around the world.
“I think the self-creation and the self-actualisation is what a lot of people love about Drag Race,” says Jenek. “It is like a pageant for drag queens. There are all these boys breaking the rules about beauty and about gender and creating their own images just as they like.”
Not only has the show brought drag performers out of the gay clubs and into the mainstream, its high camp style has also begun to influence make-up and fashion. “It has definitely become big business and if you think about it Drag Race is changing the world as we know it. You can see drag influence now in the way women are using much more shading and contouring in their make-up.”
Act was a finalist in season six of Drag Race, which was won by insult comic Bianca Del Rio. There are jokes in her show about her on-screen rivals Del Rio and Adore Delano – but in real life she says they are friends who support each other. While most drag queens lip-synch, Act is very much a singer – she was a finalist in Australian Idol. In The Girl From Oz she covers songs by Olivia Newton-John, Kylie Minogue and Men At Work and delivers a beautiful version of Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do), with lyrics by Australian Peter Allen.
She writes her own material as well, but decided to stick with crowd-pleasers for Edinburgh – including her version of Body Parts, with rewritten lyrics. “It is all about my experience of performing as a girl while having a male body which is still intact.” She loves performing here: “I think UK audiences really get the humour of drag.”
In her early years she saw drag as a bit of fun, but Australian Idol changed everything. She originally entered the TV talent show as a blond-haired boy called Shane Jenek. But when Jenek didn’t make it through the audition she decided to try her luck as alter ego Act. It was the beginning of a realisation she could perform in drag and be a serious artist – and that Act was part of who she was. Act goes on dates as Jenek and also as herself and has dated men who are gay, bisexual, heterosexual and pansexual. “It has only been in the last three years that I have come to terms with drag and gender and my own sexual identity. Now it all makes complete sense to me and it’s a lot of fun.”
She is currently filming her third reality television series, Single AF, a dating show for MTV also starring Jedward. (“They are dating girls in case you’re wondering – I wasn’t sure myself.”) In the show, being filmed in France, she will go on dates as a girl and a boy. She said at the launch she hopes it will offer “a different perspective on 20th century dating”.
She thinks today’s young people are much more fluid and open about gender and sexuality – and reality television has been a part of that. Although live performance is her passion, Act lives in an era when sharing on social media is a key skill when building a career. Single AF has been billed as the first fully interactive reality show.
“We are all always posting on Instagram. I didn’t set out to do it but it has become one of the primary parts of what I do. I just try to embrace it – just to think this person just really wants to show me they like me.”
Act is simply brilliant at selfies and after her shows is happy to pose at the merchandise stand with fans who light up at being so close to so much glamour. And she’s not afraid to use it to make a political point – like when she attended a rally for US President Donald Trump and interviewed a selection of crazy Republicans dressed as a glamorous lady reporter.
She loves the experimental style of cabaret artists such as Meow Meow. But for her Fringe debut she wanted to do something unashamedly fun. “I just wanted to put all these Australian songs into a big celebration. I hope people will sing along, tap their feet and sing along.”
In her own way, just by being comfortable in her skin, Act is changing the world, one very sparkly frock at a time. “I didn’t realise until a producer spelled it out to me – you are the message. I didn’t realise just by being me, in a dress, I was standing up for something. I love getting to exist at this time in history and at this point in culture. Drag Race has changed the world and I love having my own little influence in my own little way.”
Courtney Act: The Girl From Oz, Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows, 13, 14, 17-20 and 22-26 August, 6pm. Underbelly, 22 August, 11.45pm