Courtney Act – also known as Shane Jenek – is perhaps Australia’s best-known drag performer.

Jenek’s drag career began in 2002, with Courtney Act first entering the public consciousness in 2003 on the very first season of Australian Idol, originally auditioning as Jenek unsuccessfully before progressing through the competition in drag. Although he lost to Guy Sebastian, Idol marked the start of a long career on reality television. From being a runner-up on season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race to performing on season 16 of Dancing with the Stars in the country’s first same-sex pairing and more recently appearing on The Masked Singer, viewers couldn’t get enough of Courtney Act’s effervescent personality.

The performer has also had a successful music career, having taken to the stage in a Sydney Theatre Company production and more recently being named an ambassador for Brisbane’s new queer festival Melt Open.

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Broadsheet spoke to the artist about the new festival, nostalgic memories of ’80s and ’90s Brisbane and the teacher who help shaped the performer they are today.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Courtney Act. I am a drag performer. I love entertaining. I love being on stage. I love being in front of an audience and making people laugh and maybe making people think a little bit.

What do you love about Brisbane?
I grew up in Brisbane in the ’80s and ’90s and I loved it. I thought it was a really wonderful place to grow up. I kind of “got out”[of Brisbane] when I turned 18 and moved to the big city. And now I love coming back. I guess, when you’re growing up and you’re not quite sure of your sexuality and all that sort of jazz, you kind of feel the need to run away and explore but whenever I come back it’s so, so lovely to see Brisbane blossom.

There are so many great venues and places to eat and entertainment stuff. I think that Melt is such a great example of that. It’s an open arts festival. Art festivals are one of my favourite things, like Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Sydney Festival or Melt – they’re [all] such fun places that attract so many great acts and entertainers and such a sense of excitement. And I’m really excited to see Melt grow into this big exciting festival.

Can you tell us a little bit about your role with Melt?
What’s my official title? I think ambassador. So, it’s an open festival, which means anybody can submit a show or an act or an event, which is really cool. I know that there’s the River Pride Parade, which is so cool – to have a flotilla of boats and ships up the Brisbane River celebrating Pride just feels like such a unique and fun thing. I know in Amsterdam they have that Pride parade that happens in the canals. This sort of feels like it’s gonna capture that energy and that spirit. And I know I’m going to be one of the big floats, which is exciting.

I don’t know if I’ll be getting naked for the Spencer Tunick photo but we’re not against it. That’s always exciting. I know Spencer’s works are just epic. We’re going to be taking over the Story Bridge with thousands of naked bodies, which is fun.

I haven’t actually worked out what I’m going to be doing in a performance capacity. Am I going to host a fabulous opening gala? Or am I going do a show of my own? What am I going to do? I’m looking forward to putting together something special for this one.

Are there any people or places that make the Brisbane queer scene special?
One of my favourite places to go out is Fluffy. For me, Fluffy has just been a Sunday night institution for decades. I just love Harry K, who is the promoter. He always throws such great events. They’ve always been so fun and I love going. And whenever I perform there, I just love doing the performance and I love getting on stage and just partying with everybody.

What was the quintessential Brisbane experience when you were growing up in the ’80s and ’90s?
I lived in Brighton, and actually someone tried to tell me Brighton and Sandgate are trendy or upmarket now, which is very hard for me to imagine. My sort of quintessential memories [are] going to – well it wasn’t really a beach, we called it the mudflats – but the Brighton Beach with the dog. Our dog was called Honey. So just walking along the beach and throwing a stick to my dog.

There was a card shop, like a comic shop and card shop and stamp shop near where I lived. I was obsessed with X-Men comics. And I loved collecting things. I had coin collections and stamp collections and comic book collections and card collections. I think I must have been their number one customer.

Is there an essential Brisbane song for you?
Well there’s a very obvious one which hopefully might make an appearance during Melt. Love You Brisbane. It was a Channel 7 promo from 1982 to 1988 that Kim Durant sang. It was this really cheesy jingle that they would play on TV, and for people that were alive in the ’80s it’s sort of a cringey wonderful memory. So, there might be a reprise of Love You Brisbane at Melt.

Are you excited to see the city come to life in a unique way during Melt?
Yes, to see a Pride parade down the river is such a cool thing because I remember going [to the river] for Riverfire as a kid. Everyone would go and watch fireworks and then bits of burning paper would fall on your face and get in your eyes.

The Brisbane River has always been a place that I remember going to celebrate things, so to come together and celebrate Pride will be really special and fun. It’ll be just a lovely time to sort of bring a bit of that queerness out of the clubs in the Valley and into the city.

Finally, can you tell us about something or someone who makes Brisbane a better place?
What made Brisbane such a special place to me was the Fame Theatre in Thornhill. It’s a dance school sort of – but it was more than that. I’d go every Wednesday after school for singing, dancing and acting lessons. [We’d] do pantomimes during the holidays. I remember playing a mouse in Cinderella.

It was just a place where in the ’80s or ’90s I could just be 100 per cent myself and all the kids were there because we love performing. And Mr Kennett, he was the director of Fame and he was a wonderful man who created this environment where everybody was free to be themselves, but also learn the art of theatre and performance.

I go and visit him back in Brisbane. He’s in care, assisted living, but I always go to see him when I’m in Brisbane. He’s in his eighties now and you walk in and he’s like “Shane! How are you?” He’s just this joy of a man, even still. He always had this line that: “Fame was for the young and the young at heart.” I mean he seemed like a very old man to me as a teenager, but he was probably [the] age [I am] now [although] he just seemed ancient back then. But he just always inspired us to be young at heart and he just had this joy.

Talking to other kids who went to Fame, we always say how lucky we were to have had that. All through the holidays we had somewhere to go and something to do that we loved. Even now, decades later, we still speak so fondly of it and how important and formative it was for us. So definitely, the Fame Theatre and Ken Kennett were those things for me in Brisbane.

Hopefully he can find a way to watch the parade.
Yeah, we’ll wheel him out. Jailbreak him for the day.

The Melt Open festival is running in Brisbane from October 23 to November 10. The full program will be announced in winter.