Note: Shane Jenek uses the pronouns he/him, his alter ego Courtney Act uses she/her. This review was originally published on My Gay Toronto.
Shane Jenek, a cutie pie Aussie whose alter ego, Courtney Act, has risen to fame as a drag queen, singer and television personality. Credits include Australian Idol, session two of RuPaul’s Drag Race with Bianca Del Rio, Celebrity Big Brother, Eurovision, Dancing with the Stars and her own invention and The Courtney Act Show. Yup, he’s that famous, in fact according to Celebrity Net Worth, he comes in at four million dollars, making them one of the richest drag queens.
Immediately following his appearance on Australian Idol (2003) he signed with BMG Australia and put out his first single “Rub Me The Wrong Way”. In 2016 his single “extended play Kaleidoscope” became the official track of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Eventually Shane would form the drag band “The AAA Girls” which embarked on a North American tour. The drag supergroup consisted of Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, Courtney Act and William Belli. In 2014 the clothing line American Apparel signed them on to be the face of their brand.
For many celebrities, writing their autobiography is something they do in older ages once they have accumulated a lifetime of experiences. In Courtney’s case she’s already lived a full life and the age of forty which makes her autobiography so interesting. Caught In The Act is tells the story of how Shane Jenek, an effeminate little gay boy, became a drag legend.
Structured like a play, Caught In The Act is divided into three main acts. Act One provides a glimpse into Shane’s pre-Courtney era. A coming out tale, marked by wonderfully supportive parents against a backdrop of societal homophobia. As Shane unpacks the layers of oppression that are affecting how he shows up in the world, he also questions the status quo and his role in it. Shane, an outcast, eventually finds refuge in some of the worlds first queer entertainment industry role models.
With Shane growing up in Brisbane, Australia you can understand why The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, an Australian flick, impacted him on on grand scale. If you remember the late eighties, early nineties, there was little in the way of mainstream acceptance for queer people. Up until this point queerness of any kind was not welcomed in the film and theatre. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert broke that mold, offering gender nonconforming kids a glimpse into a new world of possibilities for who they could be.
For Shane, embracing space within a fuller gender spectrum meant that he found himself attracted to women. At school he was already suspected of being gay so you might think his affection for women would balance that out, however it earned Shane increased scorn from the popular boys. Fear that he might seduce their girlfriends.
Cortney’s willingness to unpack the layers of complexity that come with being gender nonconforming gives her story perspective and depth. Because queer-phobic people do not always inflict their hatred in obvious ways, Courtney recounts some of the more vicious micro-aggressions and attacks on her gender.
While Caught In The Act deals with important and sometimes difficult subject matter, it’s also funny as hell. Just wait until you get to the “banana science experiment”, I say no more.
Deriving wisdom from unlikely sources like the book The Velvet Rage, the girl-power band Spice Girls and a stranger in a bathroom stall, Shane begins making out the direction he wants to take his life and so his begins a love affair with theatre and the performing arts.
Shane describes his childhood home as “oasis on an otherwise dull street”, but there’s an impact to growing up queer in a conservative town. At one point he address some suicidal ideations he was having by age eleven which was more common than not for queers growing up in that generation.
“When someone throws a rock at your head it’s pretty clear. But all the micro-aggressions, the looks, the exclusion, the ‘straight as default’ expectations are small acts of violence that can never be understood by a child, and compound over years and years.”
Shane’s first PR scandal happened in 1987 right after winning the title of Mr. Tiny Tot. During the press photos Shane was pushed to kiss one of the female contestants, that photo made front page headlines, ironically giving Shane his first taste of fame.
Act Two is where Shane really comes into his Courtney Act persona. Navigating his first gay experiences, Shane lays out the erotic, and sometimes awkward, firsts. His first drug trip, his first night out in drag, the first time he learns howe to use a condom.
Needing work, Shane gets a temporary production assistant position and moves out from his parents house and into a 2.5×4 meters wide apartment in Darlinghurst, Sydney’s gaybourhood. In a world hell bent on suppressing queerness, Shane begins to embrace his alter ego Courtney, and begins to find community through her fellow queens. A balancing act between feeling unlovable, and courageous acts of self-sufficiently and heroism.
As Courtney, she began dating a few guys and had some beautiful, if not short lived romances. One with a boy named Jack, a marine “who never was”, and two go-go dancers named Diego and Rob and finally, Oscar, a sis-gendered straight guy.
At various points in the book Shane questions his sexuality, often in relation to our cultures ridged and binary views on sexuality. This struggle also plays out in what’s known as “the drag curse”, the idea that fellow gays won’t want to sleep with someone who does drag. This cultural phenomenon forces people to continually choose sides, male or female, top or bottom, butch or femme. Drag is not necessarily about escaping one’s gender. Like Courtney, drag can allow a person to ”borrow confidence”, in effect becoming a larger-than-life version of oneself. By recounting stories from her past, Courtney shows us how shame and cultural conditioning can keep us locked in a gender war, not of our making.
By Act Three, Courtney treats us to her relationship to RuPaul and takes us behind-the-scene of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Here she befriended Chaz Bono, a musician and writer, also the trans son of Sonny and Cher.
As a bonus, Caught In The Act is littered with “Courtney Facts”, interesting bits such as, she originally wanted to name herself Ginger LeBon but settled on “Courtney Act” which she says sounds a like “Caught-In-The Act”. This, I’m not sure is so true, however said with an Aussie accent, perhaps.
It can be all too easy to romanticize our coming out stories, and Caught In The Act makes a case for why coming out is not so much an event, as it it a process that happens over time. Courtney is as vulnerable in her writing as she is brave. This autobiography serves as reminder that if we don’t like the options before us, we can create new ones.
Photo of Shane Jenek by Magnus Hastings. All other photos by Joseph Sinclair.