Christine and the Queens: from Soho drag club to French superstardom

How did Héloïse Letissier go from a heartbroken college dropout to becoming the ‘weird cousin’ of Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus?

“Tonight is a free zone! You can be who you want to be,” cries Héloïse Letissier in her clipped French accent. “No judgment!” Tonight, dancing nimbly across the stage of Webster Hall in New York, dressed in a tailored suit and black loafers – like a marionette Michael Jackson – Letissier is taking the role of Christine, the genderqueer character she adopts to showcase her delicately bruised electronic pop songs about non-conformity, fluid identities and sexual awakening (the Queens, named after a group of London drag artists, are her imaginary support system).

Letissier is a huge star in her home country, and now Christine and the Queens’ (mainly) French-language debut album, 2014’s Chaleur Humaine, has been partially rerecorded and retooled for an international audience, hence her biggest headline show in the US. Later, after a rapturous reaction to the lovely chamber pop of Saint Claude catches her off guard, the Christine mask slips, revealing the more vulnerable Letissier. “I’m sorry, I wanted to be cynical,” she says, wiping tears from her cheeks. “I wanted to be fierce.”

A few hours earlier, a less than fierce Letissier is running late for the soundcheck. Wrapped in a scarf so large it threatens to engulf her, she stops outside the venue to chat to two French fans. An agitated and rapid exchange takes place, punctuated by a blur of gesticulations. It turns out the fans had asked for a selfie, which she politely declined. “They have all my expressions already,” she says, before describing a terrifying moment when she woke on a plane to find a fan looming over her, phone in hand. “I don’t really like selfies because I [Letissier, rather than Christine] don’t want to exist for [the fans]. I just want Christine to be this contagious feeling.”

Christine has repeatedly been Letissier’s saviour. As a child, she would present her mother with macabre short stories about death and, at the age of 12, she cultivated a passion for theatre. “We had to write our own character and I wrote myself as a dead marquis,” she says, miming slitting her own throat. After years as a loner, she had found a home: “Anything can happen onstage and it will all seem OK. Everything else in my life is full of anxiety, but on stage it’s fine.”

At 22, Letissier was studying to be a stage director when a catastrophic breakup plunged her into a deep depression. Struggling to define her sexuality – she refers to herself as “bisexual-gay rather than bisexual 50-50” – and heartbroken, she fled Paris for London. Anxious in social situations normally, she found herself venturing out alone every night, eventually ending up in Soho’s den of glorious misfits, Madame Jojo’s. “It was a crazy queer night and I saw drag queens on stage and was like: ‘Fuck.’ When you watch them, it can be rough, you can see the sadness, but they’re just embracing it. I felt like a monster in a way, so I thought I’d create a freaky stage character.”

The resident drag queens of Madame Jojo’s were drawn to Letissier’s fragility and nursed her back to health. Slowly but surely Christine and the Queens was born, with her early shows, inspired by the comedian Andy Kaufman, taking a confrontational stance.

“Christine at the beginning was more of a dark character, because it came from a dark place,” she says. “I was trying to prove to myself that I was still alive in a way. Now I know that I exist, I think. So I’m easier on myself and the audience. I really embrace the pop side of being generous and bringing joy. I’m beginning to trust people a bit more and that never happened before.”

In fact, on stage, as Christine, Letissier is almost unrecognisable; a skipping, vogueing, gliding tornado of emotions that careers from the balletic to the aggressive. Even her chat between songs is bolder, often disintegrating into standup. “Humour is a way of being elegant, to soften the mood a bit,” she says. “It’s a way to relate to people socially.”

Letissier is growing bolder offstage, too. As a bisexual woman with an androgynous, non-sexualised alter ego (she describes Christine as “a young boy dreaming of being Beyoncé”) working in a male-dominated industry, she’s unafraid to fight her corner, sympathising with auteurs such as Grimes and Björk. “You feel you’re being a bitch saying: ‘I produced it, too,’ but you have to speak out. Thank God, it’s starting to be the topic of conversation, but we’re still having to come across as if we’re being bossy.”

Last year, she publicly criticised the French edition of Elle magazine after its editors Photoshopped her cover photo (“I looked like fucking Vanessa Paradis,” she says), and her feelings about her appearance are complex and defiant. “I have a hard time relating to my face as it is, because I don’t feel coherent. It feels violent to have all your imperfections erased like that.”

The alterations mimic the video for Saint Claude, which features Christine being manipulated and stretched. “But more in order to be an alien and not to conform,” she says. “In Elle, I was made into a supermodel alien.”

It feels as if Christine and Letissier are at opposing ends of a spectrum, steadily inching towards each other. Letissier defines herself as the “weird cousin” in comparison with pop’s hypersexualised female artists, but is annoyed at being defined as the more acceptable alternative. “People used to say in France: ‘Oh but you’re a good role model because you’re not Miley Cyrus.’ But I love Miley Cyrus. As a feminist it’s a shame because it’s always commenting on women’s bodies – what we should and shouldn’t wear. I don’t like that I’m a part of it. I’m not sexualising my body because it doesn’t fit with the character, but I love to see their bodies. I would enjoy my body if I looked like Miley.”

Do her friends call her Christine? “More and more, but I think if I was Christine all the time, the stage wouldn’t feel the same. When I get invited to parties I’ll think: ‘Oh I’ll go as Christine,’ and then I just get sweaty hands and I don’t know what to do with my body and I think: ‘Shit, I can’t do it.’” She laughs. “I feel like people aren’t going to believe me – but on stage I don’t have that worry. It feels like I’m blossoming.”

Chaleur Humaine is released on 26 February on Because.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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