Shane Jenek Is Caught In The Act

Shane Janek with his book, Caught in the Act (Supplied)

Courtney Act is a beautiful woman. The fact that she’s not a woman is the key to unravelling long-held myths and cherished stereotypes that must be defiantly smashed, albeit graciously and with confronting authenticity.

Courtney’s other half, Shane Jenek, has written the most frank book about sorting out the constructs and constraints of gender, finding his own true space as a worldwide celebrity and performer with a lot to say about being true to yourself — and damn those schoolyard bullies!

Courtney Act (centre) in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Blithe Spirit. (Supplied)

DNA: Talk about no holds barred – you shied away from nothing in this book. Any second thoughts about what you’d included?

Courney/Shane: No [smiles]. Several people have asked this. I think my parents really appreciated reading it. Both of them said, “Gosh, we didn’t know a lot of this stuff – I wish you could’ve told us.” But that was the problem – I didn’t know either. I’m explaining it retrospectively, but in real time I didn’t understand. I didn’t have the language and neither did they to explain a lot of the confusion about gender and sexuality.

It reads as an evolution of your voice – finding out who you are, and then a reshaping of your voice.

Looking back, I can completely see how the idea of gender and sexuality had been fluid in my life and in the world around me, but I just never had the tools or the language to understand it, which is where the shame comes from.

Becoming friends with Chaz Bono who explained the idea that it was okay for boys to be feminine and girls to be masculine. Having someone I respected explain the term “gender fluid” fit so perfectly with my experience; it was probably the most liberating moment for me, feeling at peace with who I am.

So many men – gay men, straight men, bi men, trans men, CIS men – some of those categories are more prone to interrogating their masculinity than others, but there’s this rigid box of what a man is supposed to be that limits so many people. Understanding I didn’t have to fit into that box was a really big achievement.

Theres no finite “this is a man”, “this is a woman”. How successful do you think gay guys are, generally, at working that out?

Some more than others. Toxic masculinity and heteronormativity are the waters we all swim in. It’s the world we grew up in. It’s the expectations we have. And even though as gay men we break out of the heteronormative ideal of man and woman, it doesn’t mean the world we grew up in was any more understanding of it. It just means we have to battle the shame of that as well.

Lots of gay men struggle with the intersection of their gender and their sexuality. Whether that be some gay men who feel just because they’re gay they don’t have to be feminine. Or some gay men who think, “Gosh, I’m gay, and I like feminine things, and I’m everything they said I was.”

I kind of love that. The older I get, the more I realise I am all of those high-school labels and words and accusations. I have epitomised and embodied and out-done it all! If those kids in high school could see me now as a drag queen doing what I do, I’m much more to their disgust than they ever could have imagined [laughs]!

For a lot of gay men, there’s still a real struggle with masculine and feminine ideals. Even down to bottom shaming. Little Nas X, in his music video, depicts himself as a bottom in the shower scene and that’s a wonderful ownership of his sexuality as a gay man. But it’s not how you’d normally picture the protagonist of their own story, as a bottom in a shower scene. There are all those phobias that gay men, and bi men, and queer men, struggle with still.

Sometimes gay men think because they’re gay they understand it all, ’cos they’ve overcome one hurdle. But we often don’t see a lot of allyship for the intersections of queer identities, whether that’s gay men of colour, sexual racism, even misogyny in the gay male community. A lot of gay men still have a deep level of shame about their identity, so there’s a lack of empathy for other experiences. It’s important for our healing that gay men unpack that shame and understand it, that it’s not theirs, it was given to them.

Courtney (left), Paris Hilton (centre) and Sophie Monk. (Supplied)

Was it harder to come out to your parents as Shane or Courtney?

Well, it all happened in one evening, so I sort of just ripped the label off. I didn’t expect when I texted mum and dad “I am gay” that night I’d also end up telling them I did drag. And I told them I’d done drugs. I got all the skeletons out of my closet. I guess that first catharsis allowed me to go further and exorcise more. Once I’d come out as liking boys and we discussed it at dinner and I could see mum and dad’s acceptance, I felt comfortable. Actually, dad inadvertently brought it up. He said, “You’d look pretty good dressed as a sheila.” Well, dad, since you mention it…”

Once I’d told them, that was it really. I’d already come out to my immediate friends in Sydney, but as far as my old life in Brisbane went, once I told mum and dad, it was job done. And I went on Australian Idol and told everyone else!

Youre in the invidious position of knowing what its like to be treated by society as a woman and as a man. What have you learnt?

Obviously, I don’t understand the lived experience of being a woman. But I do understand what it’s like to be perceived as a woman and treated as a woman in specific situations and I understand in those similar situations what it’s like to be perceived as a guy and treated in that way. The most obvious come down to sexuality and sex where a straight guy is attracted to me as Courtney but repulsed by me as Shane because I’m feminine, not man enough, not what a guy’s supposed to be. But as Courtney, I’m hyper-feminine.

Chaz said to me once, my presentation is quite binary as Courtney, quite hyper-feminine, but as Shane, it’s a lot more fluid. All the unrealistic beauty standards imposed on women I embody as Courtney, to prove this beauty ideal is artificial because I’m not a woman. I always wanted to be the finger pointing at the truth.

You’re extraordinarily beautiful as Courtney – a departure from the stereotypical drag queen.

I choose – to use an outdated term – being a woman who passes as a woman. I think that’s because I enjoy the embodiment of femininity in that Hollywood glamour way. It’s something that’s always spoken to me and drag was a justifiable place for me to express that. I never understood how I could express that as a boy.

In the book youre very honest about how this has played out, like the marine who wanted to date you as a girl but vanished into thin air when you turned up as a boy. Then there was Rob, who only knew you as a girl but was eager to meet you as a boy. What did you take from those situations for the benefit of readers who might be struggling with a similar reality?

I think it started with just recounting stories to friends. When I was younger, I’d have these sexcapades and I’d tell my close friends who always found it fascinating. Then I started telling those stories in cabaret shows. Years ago, I did a show called Boys Like Me and I explored a lot of those less homo-normative experiences and saw audiences’ reactions. So by the time I got to writing a book about it, I was pretty desensitised to what maybe was appropriate, or inappropriate.

The Rob story was particularly interesting for me because his comfort with my femininity when presenting as Shane was something that liberated me from my shame about being a feminine boy; that he could be attracted to me in my “natural” state, neither masculine nor feminine. So he was coming over when I was dressed as Shane and I was really uncertain about how to act. Normally if I was around a straight guy, I’d butch it up, out of safety, but this guy was sexually interested in me but attracted to women and femininity. So I was unsure how to act.

When he arrived at the door my brain short-circuited and I thought I’ll just have to be intuitive and act authentically. In that moment, his attraction to me validated my gender, probably for the very first time.

We’re always performing this idea of what we think other people are attracted to and when they’re attracted to that, it makes who we truly are less valuable because we’re hiding. If you’re actually able to show a whole side of who you are, and have that affirmed, that fosters authenticity.

Courtney and her parents. (Supplied)

Your public voice will always be different to your private voice, but these days they’re closer than they once were. You’ve competed on Australian Idol and Drag Race as Courtney, and now you’re on ABC TV (One + One) where, for the first time, we’re seeing the real you. The fact you’re doing publicity for this book as Shane speaks volumes.

Yes, it’s been a huge personal journey, a social journey. Celebrity Big Brother UK was a big pivot point, which is where the book ends. I was having a lot of conversations inside the house on a broad range of topics.

After winning Big Brother there was a real shift in public perception of me and what people were interested in. Suddenly I could talk about these topics and people would listen. We never really had a seat at the table before, we were a sideshow act or comic relief or the gay best friend. Now we’re having serious conversations about trans identity.

Self depreciation was a really effective way to connect with audiences who didn’t understand, but as queer identity has become more visible, more respected, that self-deprecation can also damage queer identity if not done right. It was the only way I knew possible for the longest time.

Then I saw Janet Mock (writer-producer-director of Pose) and Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black) school Katie Couric and Piers Morgan and say: “You know what, this isn’t how I want to have this conversation. It’s not how I want my identity to be talked about. I’m not going to be sensationalised for your headlines. If you want to have a conversation about trans identity we can do it, but it’s not going to be about what surgery I’ve had, or what my genitals look like.”

What do you want Courtney to do next?

I love being on stage, performing, entertaining. Wrapped up in that is making people think differently about things they believe to be true that maybe aren’t.

We’re doing a second season of One + One and I’m getting to play a leading lady in a Noël Coward play (Blithe Spirit) with the Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Opera House. That’s another wonderful and unexpected turn.

Youve met some amazing people over the years, whats your abiding memory of Gaga?

You know what I love about her? She’s the real deal. I remember in the beginning of the Gaga era, feeling excited and inspired by her, but having met her and having spent time, it always left me feeling hopeful in humanity, that a pop star like Gaga is authentic. People might roll their eyes at stuff she does, but she’s just being unequivocally herself.

Courtney (centre) with fellow Australian Idol contestants, Rob Mills (left) and Shannon Noll. (Supplied)

What is authenticity then? Is it transparency? Is it vulnerability? Is it honesty?

There’s a whole conversation to be had about labels, right? And people inside and outside our community fretting about L, G, B, T, Q, or I – so many labels. All these labels exist to the point of helping people understand their identity. They act as road signs. But you’re never going to find authenticity in a label because labels are limited.

The thing about queer identity is that all anyone was ever trying to say was find out who you are and live it. And that should be the goal for everyone. So it’s funny when the conservatives talk about the gay agenda as if it was some horrible thing.

What went so wrong during Drag Race?

During the filming it was a wonderful experience, I had a great connection with Bianca Del Rio and the cast. But when I watched back the edited version it was different, it didn’t align with my experience of shooting it. I could see why fans misunderstood what was going on. You don’t have to get entertainment through conflict but that’s the way they cut it. What I offered was too emotional, too nuanced. The producers weren’t able to get my “sensitive blonde girl” persona.

And my Australian accent was used against me. Accents in US culture always mean evil. They manipulated the questions to Joslyn Fox and I, and cut our responses together to create a different narrative. At that point, it was the biggest piece of my story and it was easy to feel consumed by it. But with time and distance I managed to double down on defining my own character.

Mathu Andersen, he’s from Sydney, did Ru’s hair and makeup on the show for ages. He observed that Courtney’s character came across as “frozen Barbie fish sticks” – you know, pretty cold, dismissive, and over-confident. Look, there are elements of that in my personality, sure, but 10 per cent of my character became 80 per cent of the story. They did it with hard cuts, sound effects, cuts to reactions. But that’s reality TV, it’s all like that.

How much is Ru personally responsible for that manipulation?

It’s his name on it. You might remember his song with the line: “Blame it on the edit, you the one who said it.” He either understands it and is gaslighting everyone, or he doesn’t understand the process of his own show.

But I watch the show from where I am now, I’m thankful for it. Ru is a pioneer and he did create a space and I was allowed to be part of it. I understand his cultural impact and I hold that in high esteem. And I’m glad he’s including trans men and trans women now.

Courtney with Australian Idol judge Dicko. (Supplied)

You won Celebrity Big Brother UK in 2018 with 49.43% of the final public vote, the highest in UK BB history. But you were a winner in a much bigger way – you were patient and gracious when faced with conservative former MP Anne Widdecombe, who is infamous for confronting views on the queer community. Where, and how, did you learn to fight so graciously?

I knew I wasn’t going to change her mind. She’s a career politician and has argued her strong views in parliament for years. But I felt people in the Big Brother house, and at home, should get to hear both sides of the conversation. You know, I could be effective, rather than right. So I was careful and I listened. She thanked me afterwards. “Shane’s the sort of boy you want as a grandmother,” she said. But she’d refuse to acknowledge Courtney ’cos she’s an act, she’s a tart!

I’m glad she’s not my grandmother. She’s glad, too. It’d be futile to try to change her mind. But we were both willing to sit down together and have the conversation.

Have we reached a point where we must tone down the fight and step up the grace?

From my lived experience, I know I have more influence by engaging more, especially with, say, the centre right. I won’t bother with those with extreme religious views, but I will engage with the uninformed, those who don’t have the information.

I now know where I am is valid; I didn’t always know that. There’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about my identity. I don’t need validation or approval. I understand they don’t understand. I must show my humanity. At the end of the day, all we’re talking about is loving another human.

We must all find the freedom in expressing the truth of who we are, rather than funnelling ourselves, and each other, into rigid stereotypes.

Straight white men are probably the people most at risk of gender stereotypes. You know, the “boys don’t cry” rigid role model which is literally driving so many men to destruction. We must allow everyone the space to be authentic. The man who is farthest from my identity probably has the most to gain from my story.

Caught In The Act, by Shane Jenek is available now.

You can see Courtney hosting alongside Todd McKenney, Leo Sayer, Marcia Hines and Tim Minchin at Sydney’s Elevate Festival next month, supporting Boy George at his Fantabulosa performances in Melbourne and Sydney in March of next year, and starring as Elvira in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Blithe Spirit at the Sydney Opera House from March to May, in 2022.

DNA is Australia's best-selling LGBTQIA+ magazine. Every month, you'll find great feature stories, celebrity profiles, pop culture reviews and sensational photography of some of the world's sexiest male models in our fashion stories. DNA was launched in Australia in 2000 and is available worldwide in Print (in newsagents and bookstores throughout Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, UK and Europe) and Digital (through DNAstore, Pocketmags, iTunes, and Amazon Kindle).

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