"I lost my old hair in Denver, girl, so I had to get new hair today," Christeene Vale says over the phone. "But, ya know, I have to fuck it up, wash it in the sink."
Vale, who has been labeled a "drag terrorist," a nightmarish gutter of filth, bruise and overflowing sexuality, is telling me about the new wig she had to procure, after losing hers on tour. But this is no ordinary wig: She has to break it in, make it ugly.
That's the aesthetic Christeene offers, presenting us with ugliness we have to absorb and react to. You can hear it on her debut full-length, Waste Up, Kneez Down, a collection of dirty electro anthems. But the live show is where Christeene really shines, right down to her gold tooth and that broken-in piece. In the course of a set, you will most likely see the entirety of her nether regions — often in vivid detail — bound by pantyhose, mesh netting and ill-fitting dresses. Her face adds to the vision: dark circles, smeared lipstick, hopefully ratty wig.
Friday, September 28, at Double Wide.
That vision comes courtesy of Austin-based performer Paul Soileau, who has been working on the character of Christeene for the last four years. After Hurricane Katrina forced Soileau out of Louisiana, he landed in Austin and started performing characters like Rebecca Havemeyer, a washed-up Southern dame. Christeene was another personality, a lady of the night with an ambiguous accent and racial identity.
To say Christeene is a terrorist, though, is downplaying her role as provocateur. Soileau uses her to play with gender roles and take the act of drag beyond the RuPaul-ified glamour of a typical drag revue. Songs like "Tears From My Pussy" and "Fix My Dick" show how easily those roles can be redefined.
And take the video for "African Mayonnaise," which shows Christeene and her equally scantily clad backup dancers taking to the food courts, Starbucks and laundromats of Austin. They even flash mob the Church of Scientology, from which they are promptly ejected. The song is a legitimate club track, but what's notable about the video is the way it injected Soileau's character into aspects of American life, allowing her to try to "blend" in with the masses, their interactions with authority documented as a social experiment. The 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
Comedy website Funny or Die hosted a series of music videos from Christeene. That's given her a bigger audience, one that might not have seen her otherwise. She has re-approached the idea of the music video, deconstructing the way female pop and hip-hop stars of the late '90s and early aughts were framed. She is often flanked by two backup dancers, live and in video, allowing her to put complex, unattractive images up front, and redefine what a "star" actually looks like.
Last year, Soileau and Austin filmmaker P.J. Raval were invited to Dallas for a month-long stint at CentralTrak, UT Dallas' artists residency, by former Austin resident Heyd Fontenot. He and Soileau, it turns out, were both from Lake Charles, and their friendship led to a creative project in the Expo Park space, where he and Raval came up with a webisode based on the writings on the Old Testament (the "fucked up writings of the Old Testament," Soileau clarifies). The stories were presented in a way that was "celebratory but not God-fearing or wrathful."
With Christeene coming to Dallas to perform for the first time at Double Wide on Friday, we checked in on her progress.
What was the genesis of Christeene, and how have you added to it over the years?
It was a lot of elements brewing in me. I created her four years ago now, when I'd just moved to Austin, experienced Katrina, and I was searching for different forms of drag, something more like a switchblade in my pocket that wouldn't take long to put on. "Fix My Dick" was the first song I wrote. So we made a video. The process was like going on a date with yourself, and if you fall in love, you develop.
Christeene is very aware of others' pain, but at first glance, she seems like she might be confrontational.
What I've experienced from the live shows is this gorgeous relationship where people can release their shit onto Christeene, their anger and insecurities. Christeene will die for you onstage, take those problems and shit them out on stage. After you see Christeene, you realize you're definitely prettier than her, have fewer problems.
Where does a Christeene jam start? The beat?
The words I come up with in my head, the poetic structure, if you want to call it that. The lyrics and the beat I hear in my head. Then I give it to my producer, JJ Booya, sing it to him, then he and I figure out how to communicate it, then he makes a sick beat.
Do you consider it hip-hop? Dance music?
It's electronic music, but there's no rules for Christeene. I could write a children's book next, and the music is the same way: dubstep, R&B, slow jams, ballads. I'm going to do it all, and I don't want any classification.
I'm sure some people see Christeene as camp or drag, but I always sensed a higher level of therapy in the live show, a dark satire as well.
That was one of the most important things touring this summer. When people see it live, it takes them away from the camp and drag of the music videos. People think it's just slutty mocking hooker drag. It has evolved — or devolved, maybe — to an artistic form I'm very proud of. That's when I know something is working, going right. It's personal, it's choreography, it's theater. We all interact after the show.
How did the idea for the "African Mayonnaise" video come about?
The song's about celebrity in America, and how easy it becomes. We're watching these turds with sugar on them, like a Kardashian. So I wrote this song, and I knew it had a life of its own when I do it live; it's the meanest song we do, very abusive to our bodies. So P.J. decided to go guerrilla-style to about 16 locations, and our friends were instructed of our schedule, and were told to film it on their camera phones, so we'd have that and P.J.'s footage. It was such an adrenaline rush when the van door opened, pinballing through these environments. Where's the door, how do you get out?
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But also, you're forcing people to take in this strange persona. This culture of discomfort has become so prevalent. Is Christeene anti-celebrity?
I see her as the innocent chosen one, who didn't ask for this, didn't come from anywhere, isn't going anywhere, has a heart. She's an otherwordly creature, just a vagrant passing through town. There's no judgment.
She's good at advice, too. What's "Tropical Abortion" about?
Stepping away from someone who was not good for you, someone who tore you up some. It's a freeing song, ya know? We had some good times, but now my ocean is turning to ice. When we do it live, it's the gayest song we do. We fag out. We're saying: Free yourself from the burden of masculinity.