Shane Jenek, aka bona fide drag icon Courtney Act, is in east London walking back from the post office when we chat. There’s glitz beneath this mundane chore, though: she’s just sent a copy of her new memoir Caught in the Act to her friend Tom Daley.
It’s clear that popping to the post office isn’t something that happens for the 40-year-old star very often. Alongside reaching the finals of Australian Idol, making the top three on season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race, winning Celebrity Big Brother, releasing music and touring the world, the memoir details a life lived in the fast lane.
There are woodland walks with Lady Gaga, nights out with Paris Hilton, and dinners with Chaz Bono. There’s cruising in public toilets and sex in drag, broken bones and crystal meth for breakfast. It is heartwarming and hilarious, but often heartbreaking too, as Courtney discusses her experiences of growing up queer in the ’80s and ’90s, mental health, and insecurity as she begins to understand her gender identity (she is genderfluid).
“I feel like I cleared a lot of the cache of my brain,” Courtney tells PinkNews. The process was cathartic, completed in isolation during lockdown. The draft was 220,000 words, before being cut to a more modest 80,000. A fair bit of what was stripped from the final edit, though, was about her time on Drag Race.
‘Watching yourself on reality TV is like gaslighting’
“There’s a lot of stuff in the Drag Race section which I wrote from a hurt place,” she says. “When I went back to read it, I could tell that I had written it because I wanted to make a dig.”
As part of the process of putting the memoir together, Courtney Act rewatched her season and spoke to those who produced it. “Sometimes watching yourself back on a reality TV show can be like a form of gaslighting, where you’re like: ‘That’s not how I remember it.’”
She’s talking about how her on-screen relationship with fellow contestant Joslyn Fox was framed. In the edit, she is seen making cruel quips towards Joslyn; in reality, the pair were having a laugh. During her calls with producers, they confirmed Courtney’s version of events. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what I thought happened!’ But I lost all grip of reality due to watching what was on the telly,” she says.
The memoir is still brimming with Drag Race tea, exploring how Courtney felt she was “intentionally publicly humiliated” during the recording of the season six finale, and how RuPaul bluntly told her she lacked humanity. If that’s what made it into the memoir, just what got left out?
“I think that if people read the bits that are left [out], they would probably intellectually masturbate over the salaciousness of, you know, the scathing content,” she says. In the end, the more scandalous pages were removed.
“I would rather exist in a world where I don’t just say things because I’m hurt or because I want to create outrage and I want attention for that. I’d rather try to resolve, as best I can, how I feel and put a more positive take on things.”
Courtney Act’s positive take has served her career well. In Celebrity Big Brother in 2018, she won fans over with her compassionate attempts to educate bigoted former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe on drag and the vibrant spectrum of gender identity. Her advocacy is about bringing understanding of LGBTQ+ life to the masses; in her memoir, there are sections of ‘Courtney facts’ dedicated to defining terms like cisgender and asexual for those not in the know.
We touch on the now-concluded toxic Tory leadership contest, which saw each and every prospective candidate use trans lives as a political piñata. “You see that happening around the world and it’s just disgusting,” Courtney says. “Trans people are so marginalised and struggle just to exist, and for them to be used by politicians as shields, and to do it in such a pathetic way where they talk about, ‘We need to focus on families’, or, ‘We need to think of the kids’ – I’m like, f**k off.”
“Just say that you hate f****ts and just say that you hate trans people,” Courtney says. “Let’s be clear about what you’re actually doing. Stop trying to sugarcoat it as caring about children because if you cared about children, you would care about who they are. And if that is queer, if that is trans, then you would validate that and affirm that and listen to them and understand the experiences of trans people.”
“The idea of trans identities and trans women in sport – it’s a problem that’s been created,” she says. “We should be focused on improving the NHS, we should be focused on making our countries better places for all of the constituents, and not using the opportunity to bully and cause harm and violence against certain types.”
Like she did on Celebrity Big Brother, Courtney is keen to continue changing hearts and minds across the world. Soon, she will join the likes of Lorraine Kelly and Mel C as a judge on new ITV show, Queens for the Night. The show will see the straightest of celebrities such as Eastenders’ Adam Woodyatt (Ian Beale) and Love Islander Chris Hughes paired up with drag mentors, including Blu Hydrangea and Kitty Scott-Claus, as they get dragged up and compete to be the winning queen.
“It’s basically Strictly but with drag,” Courtney says. “You’ve got your celebrities that [people] know and love from Corrie and X Factor and whatever, and to bring those together as part of conversation – I think that the audience gets to see through the eyes of the celebrities they know and love their connection and relationships with the queer people that they’re being mentored by.”
Drag might be taking over mainstream entertainment, but it’s Drag Race that remains the nucleus. Courtney Act has always ruled out a Drag Race: All Stars return, but now that the franchise has hit Australia, would she ever be tempted by an appearance on Drag Race Down Under?
“Yeah, absolutely,” she says. “I emailed the heads of World of Wonder when I got a whisper of Drag Race Down Under the first season and said, ‘I’m in Australia. I’m available. I love the show. I’d love to be involved’, but…the ball’s in their court.”
With Courtney’s career continuing to evolve at breakneck speed, who knows, perhaps there will be enough material for a second memoir before the decade is out.