Best known as a finalist on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 6, Courtney Act‘s strong showing on TV competitions. In 2003, she was a semi-finalist on Australian Idol. Over a decade of later, the glamorous queen has dropped her first EP, Kaleidoscope, whose dancey first single “Ecstasy” was inspired by a euphoric night at Burning Man. On Friday, July 10, she will present the album at a New York concert at Gramercy Theatre, with gigs in Atlanta (July 11) and Hollywood (July 17) to follow. These dates are sandwiched in her July residence at Provincetown’s Art House. (Full list of appearances and tickets at courtneyact.com.)
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Courtney Act spoke with us about the EP, the show, and about being too drunk to meet Kylie Minogue.
Interview by Matt Gurry
Your album is being released at a perfect time – it’s such a summer dance album. When I talk to other people who’ve heard it, they say it’s “actually” good. Which I know sounds like a backhanded compliment, but– I get it. After Australian Idol, people would hear me sing and say the same thing, “You’re actually a good singer.” On Idol, I was questionable; it was like 19 years ago, and I’ve come a long way. The cool thing now is that when people hear “Ecstasy,” I see comments like, “Courtney can actually sing! Why does she need those effects?” Or, “This music is actually good!” So I’ll take that as a compliment!
When you say effects, do you mean Auto-Tune?
Well everyone uses Auto-Tune these days. When you’re a drag performer, people expect you not to be able to sing, so you have to prove you can. On “Ecstasy” in particular, there are some stylistic choices with the vocal processing. The other songs are treated differently. I also did some Yahoo acoustic performances where there were no effects. I don’t even think there was reverb on the mics – just a dry, harsh mic – so people can really hear the voice.
Do you affect your voice when you sing in drag?
For me, singing is like dressing: Sometimes I’m dressed like a girl, sometimes I’m dressed like a boy; sometimes I sing higher, sometimes I sing lower. I do think about feminizing my voice, yeah. But with this EP, one of my objectives was for someone to listen to it and not think it’s a man, or that it’s a drag queen. We just wanted to slide right in as pop music.
Has your reception been different in the U.S. than in Australia?
Auditioning for Idol was one of the first times I’d sung in drag, and I wasn’t as confident as a singer back then. Over the past 12 or 13 years, it’s been a lot of proving myself as a singer in Australia, and as more than a gimmick. It was interesting, coming to America for Drag Race. I was still a minority, in a way, not just being Australian, but my style of drag was different from the others. I think that female illusion historically is where drag started, but drag at the moment is very much that RuPaul’s Drag Race style. My style is a lot more pared back. I’ve gotten a lot of comments about ChapStick and mascara and relying on my body. Wherever you go, people have good comments and they have bad comments.
I think that in Australia, they’ll still be surprised to hear a legitimate pop release come from me. I had a single in Australia in 2004, but since then I’ve done television shows and live performing. But now, “Ecstasy” has been added to MTV in Australia. Up until now, the only time my videos were played on commercial television were at Pride or Halloween. So that’s exciting.
Have you heard the song while out yet?
I have. It was in Portland for an American Apparel meet and greet. [Act, along with Willam and Alaska, is an American Apparel Ad Girl.] But it was a remix I hadn’t heard yet, so I was thinking, “This is my song! No, it isn’t my song. Wait, it is my song!” It was fun!
I have a friend who’s made another remix… I know Americans kind of know Ja’mie, private school girl right?
Oh my god yes! Summer Heights High!
Right! So remember in Summer Heights High, Mr. G had a song called “Ecstasy”?
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Was he the drama teacher?
Yes. OK, so his song was about this girl named Jessica – oh what does he say? “Some people would call her a slut, which is a terrible thing to say about someone who’s just died, but there’s no denying it.” And his song was called “Ecstasy.” I asked an Australian friend if he could do a mash-up of my “Ecstasy” and Mr. G’s “Ecstasy.” It’s not ready yet, but–
–but I want it when it is! I know your song came out of Burning Man. The title: Is it a play on words?
Obviously there are a lot of people at Burning Man on ecstasy. For me, it was less about drug use and more about finding different ways to connect. It’s about what I feel on dance floors, when I’m dancing and feeling the other people. At Burning Man, there wasn’t a “gay” dance floor. Nobody was caring about before or after. No one was thinking about politics or race or gender or sexuality. Everyone was just listening to the music and dancing. There’s something kind of transcendent about being in the present moment, which I equate to ecstasy. The emotion, not the drug!
Do you think people are still connected with the now and the present on 2015 dance floors?
It depends on the dance floor, I guess. I remember being somewhere in Europe – Barcelona? – with Alaska and Jinkx, and we were sober. Maybe we’d had one drink. And we were just dancing. The world may have only been the three of us dancing in that circle in that moment. I love that. And even being in my bedroom, putting on Tove Lo’s album and jumping on my bed, feeling liberated by that. I’ve always loved pop music for that reason; it has the power to make people feel happy and sad, and I love when you just feel taken over by the music. That definitely happens at all those big festivals, Burning Man and Coachella, but it happens at gay bars all over the world.
Does pop music have more of an effect when we have some kind of connection with the singer?
In today’s world with social media, we love the authenticity. When Lady Gaga came out, “Just Dance” was a great song, everyone loved it, but we didn’t really have any connection with Gaga the artist. Then “Poker Face” came out, and I liked it, but I still wasn’t on board. But then there was a YouTube video of her singing it acoustically in Vienna. I was like, “This bitch can sing and she can play piano. She knows what she’s doing.” Then, when I heard her talk, I developed this very personal, empathetic relationship with her, and I loved what she had to say and I loved getting to know her values. Now I’m one of those die-hard Gaga fans. So the connection is not imperative, but it does add a layer which can be very cool.
Obviously, Kylie comes up with you frequently, and she’s one who fans tend to feel very connected to. Have you met her?
I have, but I don’t remember it!
Because I was blackout drunk. It was Mardi Gras a couple years ago, the 35th anniversary, and Kylie was in the audience of the parade before her big show at the party afterwards. I was on the Kylie float dressed as “Spinning Around” Kylie. When we got to Taylor Square, we were supposed to stop and do this show for her. Well, it was raining on this particular Mardi Gras so I had bought Patron Cafe, and we were all swigging tequila out of a brown paper bag.
I know. I fell asleep on the float before the parade started. They woke me up for the parade, but I don’t remember any of it. I’ll be honest, I’m a little bit Anna Nicole when I’m drunk. A little, [in a dizzy voice] “I’m so happy and all these people and whewww!”
Anyway, there are photos of Kylie and me that I literally don’t remember at all.
She’s tweeted me, and I know she’s seen the video for “Ecstasy” because William Baker, who directed it and is her creative director, he messaged me saying he’d just played it for Kylie and she loved it, and I was like, “[crazy high squeal]!!” I’m looking forward to a sober meeting.
Let’s talk about your live gigs. The EP has six songs on it. What will you be singing at the New York concert?
It will be an hourlong show. So all of those songs, a couple covers, and all of the past releases.
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How does performing on a stage differ from performing on, say, Drag Race, where the performance reaches the audience at a later time?
I love performing on stage more than anything. The energy of a live audience is two-way: The audience is giving you something while you’re giving them something. And the show really depends on the audience. I’ve done a number in my cabaret, “I’m Not That Girl” from Wicked, and some nights it’s a hysterical comedy song, and other nights, people are crying. It just depends on what mood people are in.
The Gramercy show will be the first time I’ll have performed a whole concert of original music in a pop-concert context. I’ve got two synths, drums, and one of my synth player plays guitar and bass as well. We’ve got lighting and visuals. We have the Square Division – they choreographed Britney’s Vegas show and Nick Jonas, Kesha, Iggy Azalea – they’re creative consulting on the show.
I’m looking forward to this. I feel like it’s every little boy’s dream to dress up like Kylie and do a pop concert.
Kaleidoscope is out now. Tickets to Courtney Act’s live shows (NY 7/10; Atlanta 7/11; Hollywood 7/17; Provincetown through 7/30) are available at courtneyact.com/events.
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Last modified: July 30, 2019
An interesting interview.
I’m a big Courtney fan but, have to admit, I wasn’t sold on Ecstasy when the video first hit YT. I watched it a couple of times. Thought “meh” and moved on. But…I’ve watched it a lot more times since and now really ‘get it’. So much so it’s now my go to song when I take a shower. (Don’t ask 🙂
Love ‘Ugly’ as well, and the video is beautiful.