How Courtney Act turned reality television into activism

Alex Casey talks to Courtney Act, host of Bravo’s The Bi Life, about her brand of political activism in the most unlikely of places – reality television.

I don’t know if there is some kind of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) equivalent for reality television but, if there is, Courtney Act is already making her acceptance speech. The gender-fluid drag queen first showed up on the small screen in 2003, auditioning for Australian Idol as both stage persona Courtney Act and out of drag as Shane Jenek. You Won’t Believe Which Contender Made It Through.

A Star is Born… Again

Since then, she’s graced RuPaul’s Drag Race, Celebrity Big Brother UK, and is currently doing truly spectacular jigs on Dancing With the Stars Australia. As of tomorrow, you can also find her hosting The Bi Life on Bravo. Following a group of bisexual singletons stumbling their way through awkward first dates, the show feels casually revolutionary without ever being sensational. Ahead of the premiere, I had a chat to Courtney about getting her message across in the most unlikely of mediums. 

At what point in The Bi Life did you get involved and what did you make of the concept?

It was actually after Celebrity Big Brother in the UK that I had a few different reality shows on offer to me. It’s funny, people always ask me ‘why did you do Celebrity Big Brother?’ and I’m just like, ‘because they asked me to!’. But The Bi Life genuinely seemed to be the right fit for me because it was on these mainstream networks but had these strong queer themes which I’m very much about.

When you watch it, there’s something for everyone. If you’re straight, you’ll see people of the opposite sex going on dates. If you’re gay, you’ll see same sex people going on dates. If you’re bi, you’ll see people just like you. There’s also the fact that the B in LGBT is the largest percentage of the acronym but still the least represented.

What are some of the misconceptions about bisexuality that people still hold?

It’s fascinating because I think a lot of gay men still don’t think that bisexuality is real, because they might have come out as bi on the way to coming out as gay. Even my brain used to try to do the same thing, I’d see a guy on a date with a guy and assume he must be gay. But here’s the thing, my brain, when people tell you who they are, you should just believe them.

I think that’s why shows like The Bi Life are important, because they reduce the mystery around people being attracted to more than one gender. When you see it play out on reality TV, it’s just a matter of fact that there’s a guy going out with a girl and then going out with a guy. Being straight and being gay doesn’t have anything to do with your masculine or feminine presentation – it’s all about who you are attracted to and who you want to sleep with.

That’s what I liked about the show, because there’s none of those heteronormative reality tropes – the virgin, the idiot husband, the slut etc – it feels like a totally clean slate for people we’ve never seen. 

Yeah, we really wanted to show as much reality and as much truth to their experience as possible. It’s really easy to create those reality tv tropes and sensationalise everything, but when you’re telling a queer or minority story in the mainstream, you have to be so much more mindful. For example, if you see a white heterosexual man behaving badly on a TV show, you don’t assume that all white heterosexual men act like that. But when it comes to minorities in the mainstream acting a certain way, people tend to more readily tar everyone with the same brush.

I don’t think queer storylines are quite at a point yet where we are being be viewed as individuals and not a collective, so we were very aware of being as careful as we can telling the individual, unique stories.

How do you feel about the role of reality TV in breaking new ground for representation?

Well it’s certainly done that for me and my career, it’s given me opportunities I never thought I would have. I think because it’s often down to trial by public, producers are more willing to take casting risks – if the public don’t like it then you just get voted off early, no harm done. Once you’re in there, you can start to push the envelope and see how far you can go inside the mainstream.

On a show like The Bi Life, where the public aren’t voting, you still get to take those risks because the story is just unfolding and not being written by someone else. I genuinely believe that some people can understand some things better in a reality context, and that there are situations and conversations that you just wouldn’t write in fiction.

I’m just struggling to think of any bisexual characters in mainstream fiction…

There’s two I can think of – Lady Gaga in American Horror Story and there’s a character on Empire. There’s been a study done that said most bisexual characters on television often have a negative, villainous connotation associated with them. To be able to show a group of young bi and pansexual people in a positive light is great. Well, not all of them are angels, but at least you get to see more three dimensional characters than you’ll see anywhere else.

Isn’t it interesting how, given all these points you’ve made about representation, people still shit on reality TV as a total waste of time? 

I don’t actually watch a lot of it to be honest – I’m too busy being on it. I love watching Drag Race but there’s probably not that much I watch beyond that. People obviously love reality TV and it has informed a whole generation of people, so for me it’s important to keep broadening that genre. There’s going to be trash in any genre, but this is me doing my bit to push the narrative in a way that I think is important. Planting myself in the reality TV world and pushing those boundaries is my political action.

The Bi Life begins Saturday 20 April on Bravo at 9.30pm


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