Shortly before the end of her gig last week at the Hammersmith Apollo, Héloïse Letissier, in bra and trousers, ran from the upper circle back to the stage, ad-libbing a new song based on what she saw. “People singing at the bar! People leaving – they should probably stay!”
I really hope that Letissier, aka Christine and the Queens, the Parisian artist now selling out big venues across the world, never loses her onstage patter, a gloriously uncool stream of consciousness and surreal, caffeinated positive thinking. The patter creates a kind of post-Gaga safe space.
It’s much more abstract than it could be. The London drag queens, whom she met one night aged 20 when in deep despair and who helped her grasp the performance artist inside her, get one mention: they “taught her to wear her sadness on the outside”. She could explore her personal struggles, her coming out, her pansexuality, the gradual release of the man in her.
But the focus is on the black-box theatre stage, where she and her dancers enact slick little psychodramas to songs such as “I’m a Man Now”, with theatrical shoulder-rolls, kiss-offs and fake strops. It is West Side Story meets Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet meets the school playground and the Lower East Side basketball court.
It’s not Christine on stage now, of course, but Chris – the latest development of Letissier’s alter ego. When most people first saw her, on The Graham Norton Show a couple of years ago, she was long-haired and Sixties-looking in grey directional trousers. The new “Chris” looks like Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20 circa 1997, and I mean that in a good way. Chris is also the name of her new album, which is richer and ballsier than her first. As she puts it, in her quizzical, clipped English, it’s “a bit more defiant and muscly and sweaty, but still the same obsessions”.
I’m sure I’m not the only woman in the audience for whom Letissier stirs up a very strong, half-forgotten feeling of wanting to be a boy. Dolls were thrown out of my pushchair when I was small – I said they were “slimy”. I never owned a dress. For my fourth birthday, someone – no one can remember who – bought me a sword, a helmet and shield in bronze plastic. My first love, Freddy, and I met at nursery: we planned to get married and become builders. My second love, at primary school, I barely dared speak to – but we communicated through sport, competing at the backstroke down the length of the swimming pool, our necks strained and our eyes meeting. My secret alter ego, who lasted from the age of six to 11, was a boy called Ratty – part Artful Dodger, part Jo the crossing sweeper. His parents and sister had died in a freak accident and he was condemned to scavenge for food in rural locations.
When I was Ratty, I never felt more alive. It wasn’t that I thought boys had more fun: there was something bigger going on, to do with energy and freedom. I was straight, so I fancied boys – and to fancy them, and to want to be them too, made for a throbbing kind of self-sufficiency.
Watching Letissier slide across the floor in a perfect Michael Jackson move, or crouch on the rostrum with one knee raised like a runner about to take off, suddenly makes me feel wide awake, like I did when I was ten years old and climbing a tree. I wonder if women around me are getting a burst of that old, long-buried boy-feeling. There are no video screens, no close-ups, no head-set mics, but there’s a lot of marching around in a crocodile formation, like students in drama school. The whole set-up recalls the exhilaration of the first tribes you formed, the first “attitude” you showed; the oversized dad’s jacket or Michael Jackson glove you wore non-stop because you thought it made you look cool. When I got into secondary school, boys became aliens. But I do think that all girls are born half boy.
There is a certain joy in watching a show with this lightness of touch and sense of possibility. By the end, the stage is covered in fake snow, and a strobe light sporadically illuminates a backdrop of darkened trees. “Let’s have a forest in winter!” Letissier probably said to her team. “I don’t know why! Why not?”
Next week: Tracey Thorn
This article appears in the 28 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died