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Suits, Drag, & How Héloïse Became Christine And The Queens
23 Jul 2016 7:30 PM
"You can be whoever you want to be." If you grew up in an atmosphere of gold stars and participation trophies, you probably heard this on loop. You, little girl, can be president. Or an astronaut. A veterinarian. A lawyer. An artist. You are limitless. But outside of career aspirations, this message hasn’t been drilled in. In matters of personal identity — including body image, gender assignment, and sexuality — we’ve long been fixed to just a few words: plus-sized or not; boy or girl; straight, gay, maybe bi. These norms are beginning to open up, and while imperfect and certainly not solidified in mass culture, we finally have examples — role models! — that represent a broader range of how to be a person on planet Earth.
Chiming in from France is Christine and the Queens, a dreamy but beat-driven electro-pop treat with a refreshingly fluid representation of being. If the name is new to you, you’re not behind: The group is relatively new to the States, having toured the nation with Marina and the Diamonds last year, and hitting big-time festivals like Coachella and Governor’s Ball just this season. Whether or not it’s your kind of sound — which Pandora suggests alongside Lykke Li and Sia — you should tune in to the act’s larger message of self-invention, perception, and being whoever you want to be (and whatever that is, it doesn’t have to be a radical, complicated statement).
Christine is not the government name of the group’s mastermind and frontwoman; that’d be Héloïse Letissier, 28 years old and hailing from Nantes, on the western side of France. "There’s a trick in having a different name than your civil state," Letissier says, explaining that it helps label the amorphous process of making and performing music. The alias has afforded her a level of self-possession she wasn’t able to reach as Héloïse. "Christine is like my Slim Shady," she half-jokes, likening the drastic difference of her stage identity to the alter ego of Eminem (née Marshall Mathers). “It’s a different thing being onstage and in real life; a different set of rules. Onstage, I can be a little boy if I want to, or I can feel like an old woman." Her message of taking control while being flexible to the nuances of feelings is reflected in "Half Ladies." She sings: "A half-breath away from changing my mind / 'cause just when you thought I'd still be a little girl / I'm one of the guys."
Radical self-acceptance inspiring greater confidence — enlightenment, even — is a lovely concept. But it's damn hard to get there, to fight past a lifetime of personal nitpicking and peel off labels assigned by caretakers, classmates, lovers. "I felt like a bit of an outsider my whole childhood,” she discloses, quick to assert “it was not an unhappy position; it was just like watching [myself] from a far position.” The pit of discomfort came in her early 20s. “Everything started to be more painful. I felt like I wasn’t matching people’s expectations. I wanted to be everything, and people wanted me to be just one thing.” She likens her look then — far before the inception of Christine — to Marie Antoinette, with excessive makeup and puffy dresses. “I was trying to fit society’s expectations of me as a young girl, but terribly failing. I was trying to be girly and feminine but I couldn’t do it properly."
Feeling low and wandering the streets of London, Letissier found herself inside a club called Madame Jojo’s, watching a drag performance titled "How to Cook and Make Music at the Same Time." "Technically speaking, it wasn’t really good," she laughs, "One of [the performers] was making pancakes; another was slapping drums, and a third was doing a really crappy guitar solo, but the whole thing was not about technical perfection. It was about this feeling of being in charge of who they were and forgetting what people think."
Watching the queens — and now you get the rest of the band name — was the example of freedom and self-acceptance she now realises she needed growing up. "As a young, queer girl, I was [not surrounded by] people existing the way they were without censoring themselves,” she says in retrospect. “Drag queens [are] sometimes even more feminine than I know how to be. They play with this idea of being a woman, and so you’re like, Oh, I’m not trapped in it. I can actually do something that maybe would resemble me more.”
Today, Letissier uses she/her pronouns and identifies as pansexual. "Sometimes I feel like a hetero girl, and the next hour I feel so gay," she says. Not being able to fit one description or another used to be frustrating. ("I never felt like a constructed person that could have one name”). Now it’s fuel.
That night at Jojo’s inspired the creation of her own stage character: Christine. "I started to own everything, including what I was ashamed of,” she says of the early stages. “I started to make a statement out of everything I was trying to hide before. Like, the idea of having a scar, but thinking of a it as a jewel. That’s really queer because you invert what people expect you to feel.” Simply put, it's being in charge of how you feel by rejecting what outside influences — and the ones that seep inward — might shame or call a flaw. Crooked teeth, soft belly, accented speech, wanting to wear a dress, not wanting to wear a dress; the context of any of these being wrong or bad has been entirely manifested by society. And they're yours to make peace with, celebrate, and even put on display.
Stepping into Christine mode is Letissier’s way of declaring the moment a purposeful performance; not just in song and dance, but in identity. It’s a sense of stability for someone obsessed with naming feelings but terrified of being forced to tick an already-established box. Christine is permission. “It’s about putting a name on something that happens onstage that doesn’t happen elsewhere for me,” she explains of the difference between Christine and Héloïse. “Christine is a will to be daring, and I like the idea of spreading that.”
This is Letissier’s first musical project. She took piano lessons as a kid, but never wrote songs. "Music came all of a sudden,” she says. “It was like discovering a new way to talk to people.” Communication is a theme that comes up often when talking about the music. She likes pop music because it’s accessible, it’s inclusive. “I’m obsessed with the common denominator. I’m obsessed with striking a chord in everyone. I’m obsessed with how to make my feelings understandable and good for everyone.”
The payoff comes in seeing a diverse audience at her live shows. “There are grannies, young queer girls, young gay men, dudes, kids,” she smiles. “Some of the grannies don’t even get this queer vibe,” which is totally fine by Letissier; an assurance of her quality product, even. “They just come because they think the songs are good.”
The way she sees it, Christine is a performance of Letissier’s the same way the failed Marie Antoinette's look was a performance. She argues that every day is a show of some kind, whether we’re aware or not. “Choosing an outfit is a signal you send; choosing your hair — it’s not dressing up, but it’s sending signals through your appearance,” she explains. “Fashion is the performance of your own identity through clothing,” she says, a malleable and instant way to reveal or conceal who you are. “I see it as a tool. You can shapeshift with fashion. With the lines of clothes you can have a different silhouette: you can be tall, you can play with scales and with gender.” Herein lies power. “Identity is much more complex than those simple codes society gives us,” she explains. “If you subvert them, play with them, change them…you can be free.”
Upon the constitution of Christine, Letissier’s approach to dressing changed not just in physical garments, but in attitude. “There was a huge shift,” she recalls. “I was always interested in clothing, I just changed my way of seeing [it],” she explains. “I always found fashion as a way to first protect myself, you know, when I was putting on too much makeup and wearing skirts and dresses. It was a way to shield myself. Now, I want to feel good in my clothes, not to hide in them. Clothing is a playground.”
Creating a character allowed Letissier to shed ingrained notions of what was off-limits, and build a new image from the bottom up. “When I thought about Christine, I thought about silhouette: a really strong, genderless-shaped character,” Letissier recalls. Early influence came from German performer Klaus Nomi, active in the late '70s and early '80s. Nomi’s uniform was tuxedo-like, but with an amplified triangular shape extending from hugely exaggerated shoulders, a defined waist, and skin-tight bottoms. “He looked like a drawing, he didn’t even look human,” she says excitedly, “and I thought of Christine like that: really strong shoulders, aggressive lines. I either like to work with precise shapes, to underline the dancing, or I like to get lost in proportions.” Everything is rooted, though, in suits. “The character was born with this gender-bending thing. She has very precise clothing, and it was born with suiting,” Letissier explains. “I was immediately drawn to people who could make really masculine suits, like Kris van Assche and Dior Homme. Kris was one of the first to actually trust me and tailor men’s suits for me.”
Wearing a suit was a long time coming for Letissier, another wall of “I can’t” to be knocked down. "I always fantasised about being a woman in men’s clothing," she says, name checking Annie Hall and Patti Smith as inspiration. “Those figures were more interested in having a voice than a look. I was drawn to [that], but I couldn’t be it myself.”
A girl in a suit, what’s the big deal, right? We see that on the red carpet and the runway all the time. But contrary to Paris’ reputation as a fashion city, she got pushback when she began performing there. “In France, I felt like sometimes I was being really extreme by the simple choice to wear a suit,” she recalls. “[Suits] make me feel confident, like I’m owning it. It feels like my body is made for that.” She’d show up for photoshoots and have dresses pushed on her. “It was like, ‘We get it, you like suits, but here is a skirt!’ And, like, no, you don’t get it, actually. I think the gender conversation in Paris is less advanced,” she said, comparing it to other major culture capitals. “In New York and London, it clicked immediately. Sometimes in New York, they liked me really raw. I would arrive on set and they were like, ‘That’s good!’ They weren’t trying to make me pretty or anything.”
The release of her music in France was rocky, too. "When I released the album in France, people were advising me not to talk about who I was,” she remembers. “‘Oh, don’t talk about you being pansexual.’ And I thought, Why? Why would I hide? I didn’t hide in my album so I wouldn’t know how to hide elsewhere.”
If the grannies bopping along are any indication, the message isn’t overt nor drastic. "I’m not sure if I’m succeeding at subverting [gender], but I’m trying to,” she says. “It can be really tiny, just small, playful indications,” she adds, calling out her insistence on wearing men’s clothing. “[That’s] a way to say there are different ways to be portray my sexuality, to be sexy. I’m trying to occupy this grey zone of girls that can be pretty in their own way, and can invent a new way to be sexy and desire people.”
“Desire” is a another recurring word with Letissier. It feels near-classical in American English; faded and a bit romantic, with a glow of pure sex. “I’m not so much interested in being desirable, but I’m interested in desiring people,” she explains. “I’m the one who wants people and who has lust and desire for them.” In part, this is her way to steal behaviour largely associated with masculinity. “I love trying to escape the male gaze by having it myself. One of my most joyful things is to take the space of the man and beat them at their own game,” she smiles. “I love using all of the stuff that [is] reserved for men: the male gaze, the people desiring, this royalty thing that only happens with male rappers. I want that.”
That swagger is materialising onstage this summer, where suits are taking a hiatus in favour of T-shirts and jeans. Letissier is chalking it up to a Springsteen moment, but it’s also a proud reflection of new strength (and not just the internal kind this time). “I’ve been touring a lot, so my body has changed. I have more muscles now,” she reports. Another icon on the mind is Madonna. “[She’s] really shaped, muscular, but at the same time she’s a woman. You can see the tits, but you can see the muscles, as well.” The pop queen is a fan of CATQ, too: She invited the group onstage for a show in Paris late last year.
All of this is just the latest iteration of what feels right, what feels true. Letissier is a shining example of the new representation of being whoever you want to be — and not stressing over giving it rules, a name, or identifying it as a thing at all. "It’s weird how people always have to define themselves," she says now. "I don’t know how to do it! I have no idea who I am now; I could be Willy Wonka if I wanted to."
Photographed by Kate Owen
; Styled by Emily Holland
; Hair by Eloise Cheung using T3Micro
; Makeup by Ashleigh Ciucci using Milk Makeup
; Set Design by Amy Taylor