"My love life would have been way better": Christine and the Queens on gender fluidity and drag

The many personalities of Héloïse Letissier, awkward superstar of Christine and the Queens.

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She could have been pre-tooled for the age. An androgynous, pansexual French singer with the dance moves of Michael Jackson and the monochrome aesthetic of Janelle Monáe. Big pop tunes in a musical gear as laid-back as Lorde’s, with cavernous dubstep echoes of Jamie xx. Then there’s the post-Florence name (woman plus invisible entity) and a complex alter ego descended from Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster and Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce (her name is Héloïse Letissier; “Christine” is the person she becomes onstage). Her debut album, Chaleur humaine (“Human Warmth”), is full of anthems for the LGBTQIA community (“She draws her own crotch by herself, but she’ll lose because it’s a fake . . . I’m a man now” – a line from her song “iT”). There’s even a backstory that will speak to anyone who has been glued to RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In fact, the only way Letissier jars with the current climate is that her effortlessly bilingual music points to the kind of Europe that most Britons don’t seem to want after all. We spoke on the day of the EU referendum, before she went to Glastonbury. “I’m part of the Europe you’ll probably be leaving,” she said, laughing, not thinking that it would happen. She affected a wave from an imaginary stage. “Farewell! Let’s stay friends. I feel like we all know better than this,” she said. “This is just a symptom of something that is happening in many different countries, the symptom of sheltering because there is trouble. Let’s go back to basics. Let’s go back to ‘us’, whatever us is supposed to be. We hope you won’t leave us. We fight, but we can’t really leave each other like that.”

Christine and the Queens went down a storm at the most miserable Glastonbury on record. She prowled, scowled and thrust her way through subtle, masculine psycho­dramas with her four male dancers; she slid and tiptoed through her icy signature song, “Tilted”. The mainstream has always had a tremendous appetite for outsiders: a performance on The Graham Norton Show last month put her at the top of the iTunes chart overnight. This was perfect pop, with a kink in it. “We are inside but outside,” she told me. “I have been saying this a lot, that I am a Trojan Horse. I am fascinated by pop machines but still rooted in being an outsider, and that’s what fuels my writing. I am obsessed with the idea of making it but never forgetting where I come from.”

The girl onstage is different from the one I meet in a private room at a café in central London, where the walls have been lined with giant pictures of a donkey in a straw hat, its gums pulled back in various states of gurning. “What do you think of my new press photographs?” she says. Before she went to Glastonbury, Letissier played agony aunt for the Guardian, answering the letters of festival-goers in an exercise that belonged more to the era of Smash Hits.

One punter wrote, “I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs and I don’t enjoy live music, but I’ve decided to go to my first festival this year. How can I make sure I have fun?” She replied, “Be on stage! You definitely have what it takes to be a pop star.”

“The routine of a pop star is avoiding everything that is bad for your health,” she deadpans today. “Staying in shape, travelling all the time and losing all your friends. You try to keep your friends but they just don’t get what you are and what you do. They say, ‘She’s changed, she’s pretentious now.’ And you’re thinking, ‘No, I haven’t – I’m sitting on the plane, crying!’”

She talks with cheerful intensity and with no attempt to disguise the single-minded, solitary nature that propels people towards a life on the stage. Things have not changed for her hugely since she found fame – in France, two years ago, then across Europe and the US – because she was “weirdly disciplined, focused and reclusive” to begin with. She is known to baulk when fans ask to take selfies with her. “People bump into me in the street and I’m shy and I start to sweat on my top lip,” she says. “I am always afraid of being a disappointment to people offstage. But I can’t be Madonna all the time, so I embrace the awkward. It’s like Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Peter Parker is the one you meet in the street.”

Fans have tried to penetrate her private life on Twitter, noting that both Letissier and the comedian Océane Rose Marie had tweeted a picture of what looks like the same cat on the same rug in the same Paris apartment. (Chaleur humaine is dedicated to “Océane, my beautiful wife”). But the pressures of fame have also been beneficial: she has lost her fear of flying. “I was always obsessed with being ill and dying,” she says, cheerily. “It’s been a part of my life forever, avoiding death. I’m a hypochondriac. I don’t have flu, I have imminent death.”

It was a great story. Depressed theatre student, nursing a broken heart, comes to London alone for three weeks, stumbles into Madame JoJo’s, the now-defunct burlesque club on Brewer Street in Soho, and is taken under the wing of three drag queens, who tell her to harness her negative feelings and do something creative with her life.

“I think sometimes that queer people have a radar for people who don’t feel well,” she says today. “I was actually so depressed that I was searching for something to happen to me. I was sending out signals, open to things – but dark open.” The drag queens took her back to a house in Wood Green, north London, where they fed her – “literally, with ideas and food. It was like a maternal love. But a tough one. They said, ‘Come on, stop crying, eat your f***ing food and do something!’ They were really realistic. I had wanted to work in the theatre and they said, ‘If you don’t like to work with people, you’re not going to be a stage director, girl, forget about it!’ They said, ‘Can you sing? Louder!’ They taught me how to contort my face, use less make-up and better make-up. They taught me how to be a woman.”

The strange meeting has passed into pop legend. In the mind’s eye, three nameless six-foot divas wave handkerchiefs as their grateful protégée boards the Eurostar home. But what really happened? One of the drag stars was the Fabulous Russella, whose act includes extravagantly making pancakes onstage (while being fabulous) and who studied with Paloma Faith. I called him at home in Toronto to get his memories of the night.

“I was surprised to hear I made an impression on Héloïse,” he says, “because I rarely stop to think about how other people view drag. With all respect, it was likely I was just having another night of dressing up and having fun. I think she was feeling a bit lost at the time we met . . . A sequin dress and a ‘couldn’t give a f***’ attitude is enough to impress anyone feeling down on their luck.”

Russella is intrigued when I tell him that Letissier feels that he taught her how to be a woman. “I think that’s quite interesting, because I don’t consider dresses or heels as women’s clothing,” he says. “I think what we may have inspired Héloïse to do was to express herself however she wanted to. Being a drag queen is the extreme end of unacceptable behaviour. It’s essentially punk rock. Perhaps my expression of femininity gave her some freedom to experiment with her masculinity, or my extreme example of femininity gave her a scale where she could place her own expression of womanhood. She might’ve realised that heels and hair did not a woman make.”

They have not remained in regular contact. “This is going to sound a bit heartless,” Letissier tells me, “but I’ve never tried to see them again. I recorded the album in London, so I definitely could have done. What happened was really short and dramatic – I felt like a character in a novel. It was really intense. I don’t think they were expecting me to actually make something of myself! It would be f***ing weird to see them now. It would be really awkward.”

Letissier is living proof that a liberal upbringing and arty, inclusive parents – both are teachers in her home town of Nantes – do not guarantee smooth sailing for a child. “My parents are very curious, tolerant people,” she says, “and they know me better than I know myself. I never got to do my coming out, for instance. My father bought me books by Judith Butler [the author of Gender Trouble] when I was a teenager. My mum understood before I did that I was in love with a girl, because I was blushing so hard when I was talking about her. She said, ‘You’re blushing!’ I was 17. I wonder why I have issues with self-love, because I grew up in an environment where it was OK to be myself. But you can internalise society a lot more than you know.”

Last year, Letissier complained when the French edition of Elle photoshopped her picture on its cover: she said it felt violent to have her imperfections erased. Responding to the endless interest in her suits, she has suggested that if she had Miley Cyrus’s body, she would dress like Miley Cyrus. “I don’t relate to the idea of feminism being something that tries to control how women present themselves,” she says. “For me, feminism and humanism are all about ways of owning your body and finding a way to exist without being oppressed, so if you want to be sexual and lusting, you can be. When I first released the album in France, people said, ‘Oh, you’re a good feminist! You have suits on! You’re not obscene!’ And I thought, ‘Give me some time to have a sexual life and then I will be obscene.’ There are no ‘good’ ways to be a woman.”

In the ten years since she was holed up in her bedroom reading Judith Butler, talk of gender fluidity has come out of its niche. “If I was growing up now, I would be more extreme with the gender-bending,” she says. “It took me some time to dare to question my femininity and maybe that would have happened sooner. This is the first step, but I’m just a bit afraid that it’s going to be a trend. It’s ‘trendy’ to see transgender people on the cover of a fashion magazine, but what about real transgender people?

“Sometimes, I feel like I’m trendy. When I released the album in France two years ago, people advised me not to talk about being pansexual because it wasn’t ‘good for the sales’. Now, it’s all, ‘Shall we talk more about that?’ But it’s definitely better to have a voice. I would have loved that as a teenager.”

Would she have dressed as a boy at school? “That would have been awesome,” she says. “My love life would have been way better. When you don’t feel comfortable with who you are, you are less able to love someone else. Maybe I would have been a killer in high school. And maybe I wouldn’t be onstage now, because I wouldn’t need anything. I would just live my life.”

And that’s a tough one. Dissonance and dejection produce great music, from the best break-up albums to those acts who ­explore the collision between the public and private self. Prince and Madonna never let the mask slip. But Michael Jackson was different, Letissier says – the “sweet and shy person” was always terribly visible the moment the song was over. In our oversharing times, there is room for more of that. What you see onstage is not what you get behind closed doors, or on the street taking a selfie, for that matter.

Christine and the Queens play at the Latitude Festival in Suffolk on 15 July

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers