Don't call him queen: Paul Soileau talks about more-punk-than-drag persona Christeene Vale
Austin, Texas weirdo Paul Soileau has done the drag thing: Within the confines of heels and pearls, the performer has seen plenty of success under the Rebecca Havemeyer moniker. But Soileau desired more for himself and the stage, and after scratching just below his own performance surface, he found Christeene Vale -- a sweaty, squeamish-looking but lovable character who invites you to spend the night with her this Friday, July 20 at the Denver FilmCenter.
As part of this weekend's Cinema Q Festival, the theater is devoting its 10 p.m. edition of The Watching Hour to a screening of Chistine's video collaborations with cinematographer PJ Ravel, as well as a performance with her music man, DJ JJ Booya. We caught up with Soileau while he was brunching with friends to talk about the birth of Christeene and her music.
Westword: How was the alter ego Christeene Vale born, so to speak?
It was just a really nice alignment of a lot of different things going on inside me and in my environment. I do another character that you could call more of a "traditional" character, in the lineage of a Dame Edna persona -- like an "everyone's favorite grandma" type. Her name is Rebecca Havemeyer and it's all makeup, wig and heels. Very pretty and fun.
When Christeene came out of me, I was searching for something that had the action of a switchblade in my pocket -- a character I could really put on quickly, but effect people in a much stronger way. Something strong enough to channel things inside of me that needed to come out -- more aggressive things. When everything aligned properly, Christine kind of just appeared. I found the wig and went to town.
Christine lets you sort of be more truthful in your expression, maybe outside of -- if you could say -- the "traditional" confines of drag. You can sort of... be an asshole?
Here's the thing: What kind of blows people's tops is that there is nothing angry or asshole-ish or negative about Christeene. The character is a very kind and approachable; and that's when people start to listen. It's just that when it's on stage, you see the flip side of Christeene -- it's very aggressive and very raw. It harkens back to more of a punk thing, like you're watching a punk show. I would never call it a drag show.
Both characters speak honestly from within me, but Christeene addresses issues that Rebecca does not. There's a lot of political and social commentary going on. It allows me to try to process and understand me, Paul -- as a queer, a Southern boy. Someone understanding my environment and my own social realms. I can push it out through this Christeene character.
Something striking about Christeene's appearance to me is, well, she's kind of gross. When we talk about this idea of traditional drag, much of it is wrapped up in being pretty. Pretty seems to mean, on some level, approachable. But is Christeene approachable in a different way?
It's fucking ugly. It's horrible. It's disgusting. [Laughs.] What happens with Christeene is that she actually makes you feel beautiful; she's the real deal, the raw deal. But I'm never, ever doing it to gross you out or shock you. It's like, when I put Christeene on -- as a man, an artist, someone in between -- I feel beautiful. I feel really sexy when I wear that outfit. When I'm on stage, or in that character, [I notice that] people really feel beautiful around Christeene. And they feel special because this thing is so kind and talking to them, and not trying to eat their face off and piss in their front yard. I never drop character; when I'm in that character, I'm in that character.
We did a show recently and it was the best audience we've ever had. The response we got -- people were just coming up and saying, "Thank you so much for doing this, please don't ever stop," and, like, "You really woke me up again, I feel like I'm in the '90s again! This is real, I feel something." When I hear that, I'm touched. But I'm also thinking, thank god I'm doing something that's connecting with people. Who the hell would know that it would be this nasty-looking creature that came out of me?
Being "in the '90s again" -- what a great point! It felt like the '90s were so much more progressive pop culture-wise, because people were still figuring out what was "okay." Now it feels like RuPaul has almost mainstreamed drag into this weird thing that mirrors the terrifying myths of "girl culture": a really brutal competition that's prettied up for suburban television audiences.
Tell me about it! It's like the assimilation of these heteronormative ideas. Like "let's make this pretty for the masses." It's exactly what happened to New York City -- let's make this whole city safe for tourists. Let's make it so no one will be afraid to go to New York because it's clean. Fuck that shit.
I'm really, really glad Ru is on TV. I remember when she had a talk show -- and I'm like, that crazy freak had famous people on her couch. I give kudos to Ru for that and I know that we're all family -- in this family of drag. But like you said, it's so safe. But it's in that dangerous realm of reality television. It's like, okay, let's take eight drag queens and put them in an un-air-conditioned box, get them drunk and see what happens. Let's see these bitches fight.
There's still some explosive powerful, racy things coming out of it. Sharon Needles is provocative.
What can your audience expect when you come to the stage?
It's theatrical. The shows are good, theatrical entertainment -- I turn music into performative art. Like Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, I put what I do out there as a musician. But it's also this raw, personal and touching experience from this creature, Christeene. My friend told me the other day that the reason my shows are affecting people the way they do is because they see my videos and they see this person and they think I'm this dangerous, wild animal that's going to hurt you. Like I'm going to shock you and spit blood on you and smear shit on the walls.
But what happens is, when we travel around -- me, my dancers, my videographer PJ Raval and music producer Brett Hornsby (DJ JJ Booya) -- and perform, at the end of the show people are smiling, dancing, their arms are up in the air. There are a lot of unexpected emotions. This is also just as much your party as it is Christeene's party when you go to the shows -- Christeene will die on stage for you. And she does, every time.
Christeene just released a record, Waste Up, Kneez Down. Do you write all the music yourself?
I write the music and compose it in my head, and then I sing it to my producer, DJ JJ Booya -- who also goes by Brett Hornsby -- who makes it happen. We talk a lot about it -- and we've developed a vocabulary for it. Sometimes, I draw him pictures. [Laughs.] We've found a way to communicate and convey how the music should feel. He just gets it -- we have a really nice relationship.
Every song I write is about something I'm going through in my life. It's not like I sit down and say, "Ooh, I'm going to write a song about dick and butthole today!"
Spend the Night With Christeene starts at 10 p.m. Friday, June 20, at the Denver FilmCenter. Tickets are $10 to $12 and include a screening of her videos, a live musical performance and a question-and-answer session with video director PJ Raval. For more information on Christeene Vale's appearance and for Cinema Q Festival's full schedule of events, visit the Denver FilmCenter's website.
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