Interview with TBA's Gender Terrorist Christeene
Performance, and particularly drag performance, has a long history of trying to shock us out of our complacency. But few tunnel as deeply into the gutters or spelunk so joyfully into the sewers as does Christeene—the booty-bouncing, trash-rapping, grill-wearing, gender queer alter ego of Austin performer Paul Soileau. Portland’s queer community knows her well; she started a summer tour here in May that’s taken her, along with choreographed back up dancers T-gravel and C-baby and producer JJ Booya, across the continent for late night performances at dirty dance parties as well as prestigious retrospectives of her totally not safe for work music videos at film centers. And now they’re wrapping the tour up with a full on performance at the Works tonight at 10:30pm.
Some performers might be “dangerous,” but Christeene can be downright scary. Looking like something dug up from under the overpass, she tends to shed her clothes as freely as her dignity while shaking her ass and singing songs with titles like “Fix My Dick” and “Tears from My P***y." She’s also a hilarious, brilliant, wide-ranging critique of a number of social ills, from the cult of celebrity, to corporate mendacity, to various –phobias, to how we construct ourselves in the digital age. Paul, wearing a tank top and chunky glasses and looking way to sweet to ever turn into the back alley wrecking ball that is Christeene, was kind enough to chat about the character this morning before heading for a swim and then sound check.
What’s Christeene origin? How was she born?
I wanted a switchblade in my pocket that I could really affect people with, and myself. I do another character at home, Rebecca Havemeyer, who’s very traditional—Dame Edna style. But I needed to say things that Rebecca couldn’t say. I needed to change my style and make a quick weapon to say what I wanted. That mixed with natural forces I was powerless against, like Hurricane Katrina, to create this creature.
But how then did you arrive at this trashy, drug-out-of-the-alley prostitute character?
It makes me feel sexy—much sexier than most things. I like the rawness of it. There’s no wall around it. It’s very honest and naked. The first time it was released was at a show called Camp Camp in Austin, where a bunch of queers got together once a month and did an open performative space in the backyard of a coffee shop. You could experiment with anything there, and I walked up as Christeene. I didn’t sing; I just wore a fur coat and ground on a mic stand. And then I wrote “Fix My Dick.” The video was made first and then we started performing. It was really a collaborative experiment between me and [filmmaker] PJ Raval. A lot of people were saying we should work together. And I said I had a new character and this song and he said why don’t we make that a testing ground. I had to assemble my group. We’re all theater fags. We like to get theatrical and choreograph ourselves. We steal things from, like, Martha Graham. And we had a ball. I had two other songs in my head, wrote ‘em, and performed ‘em at really small parties. Then we got horny and hot for it and it was like a drug, and we realized people were responding to it, good and bad. A lot of people hated it. And then it became important. A lot of people just watch the videos and assume it’s this clown, or that we’re making fun of homeless people, but when you see a live show, it’s totally different. She’s punk, she’s angry. She has a lot to say about what’s going on in the world. Christeene is a very kind character, but she’s very aggressive on stage, and my goal is to make people experience that.
I can imagine her really firing people up. What are the criticisms?
That it’s racist, classist. A lot of the trans[gender] community despises it. They say, “why do you describe the trans community as homeless hookers?” We got a barrage of attacks, and it taught me a lot as an artist. I’ve never been attacked before, especially viral attack where you can’t respond.
What was that like? Why push through that?
It hurt when we first got it, but I’m glad that people are responding in any way, because everything we get now is so cleanly packaged and apologetic—everyone apologizes for everything. What we’re trying to do with this juggernaut of expression and emotion is wake people up and allow people to use this character to voice their anger or their happiness, to feel beautiful against this disgusting backdrop. Christeene become this conductor that people tap into to start a conversation or feel good about themselves. People leave the shows happy and they talk to each other. We have such an amazing mix of people who come to shows, and that to me says something is right about it. That’s hot and necessary. I hate it when the community segregates itself: dykes are over there, trans are over there. When the trans community gets angry, then let’s have a discussion. Especially with the trans community, everything’s very sensitive right now. I look at Christeene as a gender fucked creature. My favorite thing is when I can sit with someone in that community and talk about why this offends you.
What about the mostly straight arts community? What has it been like to take her from gay clubs and put her in performance festivals like TBA?
She gets presented differently at things like TBA: “this is Paul Soileau, an artist who created Christeene.” This community looks at it and asks why. Why is this person doing this and what’s the message? They’re much more tuned into the message, and attracted to the visual attack. Whereas at gay clubs, they are getting a dose of something they really need. I think Christeene is medicine to gay culture, because we’ve all become a little happy and lazy. Things are changing, we’re gaining rights and getting let into a lot of doors that weren’t open before, but are you retaining your true sense of self and sexuality, or are you assimilating to this straight community and becoming what they need to feel safe, like New York did. Because we’re different: we’re shocking; we celebrate sex and outrageous styles and acts. Like Jane County [a transgender punk rock singer who was like a real like Hedwig] used to go “wrecking”—to wreck the streets of Atlanta to remind straights we live here, too. We share this city. When I meet people like Jane, or Bruce La Bruce, I feel a lineage—that I’m carrying that torch. And I think gays need that medicine as much as straights. I want to be your Louis Pasteur.
And then what about the critique of celebrity that runs through Christeene’s work? I’m thinking here specifically of the song “African Mayonnaise.”
That song is an attack on what celebrity has become. Every day we’re served these big sugar coated turds, but we all know they’re turd on the inside. The Kardashians, reality TV—what’s happened to celebrity? It’s so easy to become it, and everyone’s so excited about it and ready to worship it, and so we say Christeene is giving you the turd without the sugar. And it’s time to eat it. If you can worship Kim Kardashian, you sure as shit can spend a day with Christeen. What I look like is the way she is on the inside.
The video for “African Mayonnaise” is filmed candid style in all these public settings. How’d you make it?
We had two days of shooting. PJ sent out emails to friends giving them a rough timeline—at 10:30 go to Sears, 12:30 to Scientology—and bring your cell phone or camera and shoot whatever you see. And we had our own team. We wanted to portray it the way the media portrays it. We’d show up in a van and turn on the boombox. It’s three minutes long, so by the time we get in there, we’re half way through, and by the time they told us to leave, we had a minute to move slowly out. The only people who hated us were security and scientology. They nearly broke the arm off our DJ trying to rip the music out. But people saw, and everyone’s laughing. Kids were dancing around us. It woke ‘em up.
CHRISTEENE "African Mayonnaise" from PJ Raval on Vimeo.
We were talking last night about the flip side of your online popularity is you can’t hide Christeene from your small town family?
I came out when I was 13. My parents are small town farmers, but I’m really lucky that they’ve been really supportive. I tell them I’d prefer you not watch it, but you can. My immediate family feels bad because they don’t understand it and wish they did to support their son. I tell them I don’t expect you to understand it, but if anyone asks you if you’re Christeene’s mom or dad, I want you to say yes and be proud. And that means the world to me; it makes me weepy. But my family’s small town Louisiana. It’s kind of a joke: I’m like, “dad, I’m so sorry that this shit keeps getting bigger.” All my cousins see it. I have my niece, I’m her Auntie Mame, and I’ll have that talk if I need to about her seeing her uncle’s dick flapping around. But shit, I have to put up with their crap. Pregnancies, divorces, of course they can learn what I do because I’ve put up with their tawdry straight drama for a long time. It’s exciting.
For a photos and a review of Christeene's performance, click here.