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Courtney Act on reality TV, queer pop culture and getting her Drag Race wings

Alex Casey interviews world famous drag queen Courtney Act, star of Guy Sebastian-era Australian Idol and runner-up on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I had a Transparent-style mic drop moment when I was informed by a friend that Courtney Act’s name was a pun. Cou-rt-ney Act. Coouurr tttnee Aaactt. CAUGHT IN THE ACT. With my mind in tatters, I delved further into the rich history of the Australian drag superstar. First rising to fame after auditioning for Australian Idol as both Courtney Act and Shane Jenek, Courtney found further reality fame on RuPaul’s Drag Race and developed a cult following on Youtube. One of her most famous recent videos was filmed during a Trump rally in Connecticut, coming face to face with every demon from white supremacists to homophobes.

I spoke to Courtney ahead of her live show in Auckland’s PRIDE festival this Friday.

When you were on the ground with Trump supporters, did you have any inkling that we would be where we are today?

No. No one wanted to believe he would win. It wasn’t until literally the eleventh hour, 11pm PST that the tipping point was reached. I am still waiting for the announcement that it was all a big mistake.

What didn’t make the cut in that video? People seemed surprisingly comfortable with you considering their narrow viewpoints.

The “DIVERSITY EQUALS WHITE GENOCIDE” guys actually started hitting on me after the cameras cut. Not sure if they were some progressive sect of White Supremacists who are down with Caitlyn Jenner, or they just didn’t realise that I was not a woman. I had the added distraction of a camera crew and a 6’5” 280lbs armed off-duty police officer. I don’t think even Trump supporters are stupid enough to mess with my Kevin Costner.

Have you always been interested in politics?

I have always been passionate about human rights. I had a disdain for the news for many years, but that is because I was only watching the TV news. Once I realised there were many wonderful, independent news sources, I found politics much more interesting. When social media is used for good it can put a lot of empowering information at your fingertips. Also, I would be lying if I didn’t say the US election cycle had me transfixed.

What are the main differences in how people interact with you between Courtney and Shane?

Courtney is a shiny object. I use her as an opportunity to catch people’s attention and then entertain them with facts.

Your Youtube channel features some more intimate vlogs such as you receiving your HIV results. Why did you decide to broadcast such a nerve-wracking moment?

It’s important to talk about. There is a stigma about HIV that needs to be broken down. The more we talk about it, the better it gets. I learned a lot about HIV and sexual health working with ACON (a LGBTQ community and health care organisation in Sydney) and researching an episode of Courtney Talks about PrEP.

When it came to my own sexual health, I was armed with facts and science and I knew there wasn’t too much to worry about. It’s still a serious subject, but when people realise the facts it’s much easier to process.

Your fame first came about in Australian Idol, why did you audition as both Shane and then Courtney? Do you think the response to you would be different now?

Having a second chance was pretty cool, I’m so glad I got to come back as Courtney and evolve that whole side of myself. I thought Idol handled me pretty fantastically. They were really supportive and gave me an amazing opportunity, it wasn’t awkward at all. The world has changed now, though. There is so much more diversity in pop culture and now drag and gender fluidity are a lot more understood and respected.

What was the first thing you packed when you found out you were going to Drag Race?

I called the maker of those wings, Abbey Rhode, and asked him if they still existed. They were from a show in Sydney about 10 years ago. Some trolly dolly friends flew them over and I remember cussing at LAX one cold morning at 6am when I went to pick them up. I am so glad I did.

Do you still watch Drag Race? What about other reality TV franchises?

I still love watching Drag Race, I was a fan before and I can’t wait to watch the next season. I don’t really watch any other reality TV, I prefer news comedy programmes like The Daily Show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, John Oliver and the like.

Does reality TV like Drag Race has the power to change attitudes and influence people around LGBT issues?

From Queer Eye to Drag Race, reality TV has very much been a catalyst for change in queer culture. But in the bigger picture, I think we’ve seen change for the good and change for the worse. I think TV dramas were less influential because there was a wall – we knew they were actors telling stories. I worry that reality television leads people to believe that displaying dramatic, unhinged, irrational behaviour should be celebrated and rewarded. 

Finally, any advice for what people around the world right now to combat small-minded bigots?

Stick together, find your tribe. Move to a big city or stay and fight. Resist.


Courtney Act brings her show ‘The Girl From OZ’ to Q Theatre Auckland on Friday 24th February and will be appearing at PROUD 2017 Saturday 25th February as part of the Auckland Pride Festival 2017.

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