PHOTOGRAPHY BY SLAVA MOGUTIN
A field trip to Austin, TX, with creative superhuman Paul Soileau
Back in 2012, I saw Christeene perform at her very first gig in Brooklyn at Glasslands Gallery. It was a high-energy terrorist drag show with lots of mooning and stage diving. The crowd went wild. By that time, I was already familiar with her music, videos and filthy lyrics:
I am your new celebrity
I am your new America
I am the piece of filthy meat
That you take home and treat to yourself
— “African Mayonnaise” (2012)
But it’s Christeene’s live show that won me over and left a real impression. The audience interaction I found poignant and sincere; same with her no-bullshit approach to issues of gender politics, censorship and the policing of our queer community. It was raw, dirty, entertaining and enlightening, all at the same time. Enchanted, I decided I’d never again miss a chance to see her perform.
Christeene and I met socially a number of times, in typically late-night affairs, before or after her appearances. We’d even had our pictures taken together. But I knew very little about the person behind the act, an Austin-based native of Louisiana named Paul Soileau. So when an invitation arrived from the Museum of Human Achievement in Austin, I knew right away that I needed to go on a field trip with Christeene, to document and investigate.
When Paul and I met on my first night in Austin, it felt like déjà vu, like maybe we were separated at birth. We talked in Paul and Christeene’s sun-flooded apartment, revisited locations for “African Mayonnaise,” and sat in a park by the beautiful Colorado River. Driving around Austin in Paul’s old red pickup, I couldn’t ask for a better tour guide.
Let’s talk about how the “African Mayonnaise” video and song came about. It was when we started first seeing the Kardashians on TV and that kinda shit started getting popular. We were just getting fed a lot of crap from reality television, it leapt forward and you started seeing people obsessing over The Real Housewives. And I just started questioning what celebrity was. Comparing our old celebrities to these new celebrities, it was it was really bothering me that these new celebrities were infiltrating the space I hold dear for old movie stars. Pop culture was just so obsessive, and the celebrity-ing of everyone…a dipshit on YouTube with a phone could become a celebrity. So I got pissed, and I figured if those people could be celebrities, why couldn’t Christeene be your celebrity? Because, underneath it all, if you find Christeene ugly or offensive — well, the new celebrities are just as gross.
What would Christeene say about her own birth? Christeene has always said, “I’m from the dirt.” There’s no origin to Christeene, and I made it a point that I don’t want her to have an origin. It’s almost like the more I spend time with her, the more she becomes mythological, like a spirit. Christeene to me is more: I call forth Christeene! She comes and inhabits me and takes me on a spiritual journey throughout my realm.
Of criminal mischief? Sure, criminal mischief, or affection with people I wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to give it to. Like the doorman last night [at a Perfume Genius concert, the doorman had asked to take a selfie with Christeene]. That interaction, to me, was special. If I were simply Paul walking through that door, I’m just Paul. But Christeene — this wild beast that has found a hole in her world and gone through it — she created that relationship with that man. And that’s why I like going out as Christeene.
To go out as Christeene is to be led out by Christeene. I don’t feel in control. It’s not like I’m gonna put on this outfit and get recognized and it’s gonna be fun. I leave myself at home, and I let her take over. It feels like she’s this spirit in another realm that needs my body to get around and do what she needs to do. I stay out of it. I let her “borrow” me to do what she does. That’s the unexpected joy I got from the character after creating it.
So Christeene is almost an oracle of sorts, a vessel? I’m a vessel for Christeene, and then when Christeene’s in me, she becomes a vessel for the crowd, for the people, for them to become vulnerable, to feel different about themselves because of this monster, this beautiful bird in front of them, however they look at it. It’s really satisfying — more satisfying than dangerous. I welcome the danger of it, but it’s really a unique experience. I’m really in love with that feeling, and I want more of it. But I don’t always…I’m not dressed up as Christeene all the time, so it’s rare.
And when it happens, it’s this nice thing. Unless I’m on tour and I’m doing it every fucking night — then she just rents my body for a summer and I go away. It’s like, OK, I’m gonna do a month of Christeene at Fringe every night for a month. That’s basically like signing your fucking soul over to the devil, ’cause every fucking night you gotta let that shit loose. So it gets hard sometimes, but I’m still alive….
Does it have anything to do with your Catholic upbringing? You seem to be very different on stage; obviously, you’re not that way in real life. What are the mechanisms to becoming her? From the Catholic upbringing, the two things you learn are the force and power of ritual, then the spirituality of it. There’s that Holy Ghost — what the fuck is the Holy Ghost?! — and letting things in in that way. And then singing. I was always in the church choir.
There you go — I guessed right! [The Church] gave me an environment for singing. And the theater of religion — oh my God, it’s so theatrical! It’s full of dark fucking spiritual shit. So I was raised in that environment, but the ritual aspect is the biggest thing I took from it. Because there’s a ritual to putting Christeene on, taking Christeene off. There’s a ritual to the show, the pageantry and the costumes we create with the dancers and what we present.
Would you say Christeene is a sort of Antichrist? No…but maybe to some people! [Laughs.]
Because on stage she appears at times as very dark, almost Satanic, you know? But also sweet! I think to some people Christeene looks like Satan or Antichrist only because she might be making people feel something about themselves that they’re not supposed to. Like, their religion tells them, “No, you can’t be this sexual” or “You can’t kiss another person of the same gender.” Or “You can’t eat meat on a Friday” or some shit. And Christeene’s just ignorantly blazing through this world with zero knowledge of what your social graces and norms are, or what your faith is.
Christeene is a creature that only operates off of what you feed her, and she’s just giving you back what she’s absorbing. Christeene was created off the madness that I was being bombarded with, in every way. My own personal madness, but also the world’s.
Can you name a few people who shaped your aesthetic and vision? This is a tricky question because I didn’t grow up with a lot of art in Louisiana. I’m a very late, late bloomer with art and culture.
I’m not talking about art; it could be anyone who influenced you personally or Christeene as a performer. As far as your stage persona, in my mind somehow it’s a continuation of the same tradition as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Alice Cooper and Twisted Sister, all the way to Marilyn Manson. Film is a huge influence for me, more than music. Rocky Horror was big for me. But I never want to sound like a pompous asshole or weird and rude and ignorant to say that I can’t give you a specific person or work that influenced Christeene. I think of it more as things that I, personally, am searching for. Christeene embodies gender, theater, music, choreography, costume, makeup — a lot of things that are inside of me. People who did that for me as a child were Boy George, Divine….
As far as performance artists you’ve worked with, who are your favorites? You were telling me about your early days at Barracuda Bar in NYC. That was huge. When I worked at Barracuda, I would say that was my education, crowd-wise. Each performer had their own night. It was very drag-heavy. So Candis Cayne, Shasta Cola was a really big one for me. Honey Dijon was DJing, Mona Foot and Girlina would DJ and sometimes perform. I learned a lot from those performers, the way they were fucking with gender and queering up gender. And they were handling a drunk crowd in a small room every week. They were dealing with a city that was going from Clinton to Bush to 9/11, with no dancing in the bars and restrictive, chaotic living. So they taught me a fuckton about how to have fun but also to wrangle a crowd. They helped me home in on what I was good at and make it better.
My friends influence me — people that just don’t stop. That nonstop working and churning and burning yourself to the core. I’m attracted to people who can still manage pain, a personality and a light inside of them while they’re just working their asses off.
It sounds very profound and sincere! I opened for Suicide, and I didn’t even know who they were! There’s a part of Christeene’s ignorance that’s very close to my own. Don’t you dare write that down! [Laughs.]
It shines through! Winning ignorance…oh God, I wish we could erase all of that. It sounds so hollow!
Now you’re being modest. I feel it’s important to talk about your background, at least in abbreviated form. There are a lot of kids out there who deal with gender issues and who feel like total misfits, fuckups and outsiders — all the people who relate to Christeene — and it’s important for them to learn that you’re basically a self-made person. I think it’s important to know how it happened. That’s why I feel like there’s no shame in sharing it. I guess so. I like learning more about you, where you’re from, how you ended up here. So I think it’s just my own personal hangup about it. ’Cause it’s not like, “Oh, I wanna keep the mystery.” Everybody knows that Paul is Christeene.
Maybe in Austin they do, but when you perform elsewhere and people see you on stage, it’s a very different expectation. In fact, I didn’t know what to expect before meeting you as Paul. Right? But I didn’t know what to expect for you, either. Like, your persona. Look at your books, look at who you hang out with, your photographs, your past. No one knows who people are behind their personas. And I just kinda think people get to know a side of Christeene when they talk, hang out, go eat with Christeene, versus her on the stage. And that personal, intimate experience of Christeene is just the same — it has the same kind of effect as if I were to tell you about myself being Christeene. Does that make sense?
Except that your everyday seems to be quite fulfilling, and maybe that’s the thing: Maybe Christeene is an outlet for all your anger and anxiety, because you seem to be so volatile at first. I was expecting someone way more agitated, angry, neurotic and fucked up. So, perhaps, it’s a sort of therapy? It’s definitely therapy. It helps me. The same expectations you might have — you were just saying you thought I might be chemically imbalanced, crazy, full of anger, wreckin’ my car, drunk all the time, fucking everything that moves, you name it — I would think that, too, if I saw Christeene. So yeah, the way Christeene might make other people feel, it does the same thing for me.
Of all the places where you’ve performed, as far as venue and crowd, what were your best and worst experiences? One of the worst rooms and the best experiences was in London at Vogue Fabrics. And I say that because it was one of those nights…it was in a basement, no stage, no air, the ceiling was dripping right above your head. Me, C Baby and T Gravel [Christeene’s dancers] and JJ Booya, our DJ, were performing on a bench in this hole in the wall, and we had never performed in London. My friend Lyall Hakaraia, who runs Vogue Fabrics, had invited us down there and everybody came. I was really amazed at the different people in that room. Like, Princess Julia was up on the wall. It was just this whole mix of old London nightlife and weird young people shoved into this hot basement. It was good. But when we walked in there, I was like, What the fuck is this room? How are we gonna do this? It was one of those magic nights where everything that was completely unexpected happened, and it wouldn’t have happened without Lyall letting us into this fucked-up place. And those shows are the best. They’re raw. You’re out there on the floor and the crowd’s in front of you and you’re just screaming and they’re up on benches trying to see, and everybody’s just packed. From that show, the gates of London opened up, you know? And then the gates to the rest of the world opened up. It was really special.
What year was this? I wanna say 2014. I looked at it and went, This is gonna be the worst show we’ve ever fucking done. Because of the room, the sound, the lights, the size…and then we just did it, ’cause you just do it, right? And it was the best; it was special. You would think Glastonbury Festival would be the best, but it was kinda the worst we ever did.
Tell us why? We did Glastonbury Festival and it was insane, crazy. The whole experience, it was fun but really strange. They put us on this huge stage in this place called “Hell,” and there was fire blowing out of the walls. We’re used to these intimate situations where you can at least slap someone in the face or spit on them, but this stage had a line across the front and they were like, “You cannot cross this line because of these pyrotechnics, so if you cross this line, we’re just telling you that everything will shut down. The fire will shut down and the sound will shut down.” And that line was like 10 feet from the audience or some shit. We couldn’t get personal with the crowd. So it was like, Oh wow, we’re playing Glastonbury, but I can’t cross this line and touch my audience!
So you’re saying that basically your model is playing smaller venues? I want be able to touch —
— And spit at your audience! Yeah, the spit’s gotta be able to reach, and I gotta be able to jump on top of them and let them hold me up. The dancers need to be able to shove their crotches in people’s faces. It’s more enjoyable. You want those sets to be more intimate.
This story was previously printed in GAYLETTER issue 9. To read the full story and to see the rest of the images, click here to get a copy of the magazine.