Chris­tine And The Queens

The French Rev­o­lu­tion

Q (UK) - - Front Page - Pho­tog­ra­phy: Alex Lake

“Death to the pa­tri­archy!”

In 2016, Chris­tine And The Queens had the big­gest-sell­ing de­but of the year, bring­ing pan­sex­u­alit y into main­stream pop cul­ture, to stand­ing ova­tions from Madonna and El­ton John. In 2018, the French star re­turns with a new iden­tit y – Chris – and a snap­pier sound built to swal­low the globe. But does sell­ing over a mil­lion al­bums com­plete you? The singer talks iden­tit y, sex, da funk and the mean­ing of life with Laura Snapes.


Ra­dio 1’ s Big­gest Week­end this May, Twit­ter could only talk about one thing. It was not Chris’s tough new back­ing dancers. Nor was it the BBC’s de­ci­sion to have her come­back per­for­mance clash with Tay­lor Swift. No: it was the whop­ping great love bite on her neck. Chris – for­merly known as Chris­tine, née Héloïse Letissier – speaks the Queen’s English but the French mu­si­cian learned a new word that day. “The hickey,” she re­peats, pleased by the sound and the prud­ish out­cry. She has an­other one to­day: a smat­ter­ing of pur­ple speck­les un­der a black-and-white neck­er­chief. Chris, her dancers, her French la­bel, Amer­i­can la­bel, an Ap­ple Mu­sic film crew and ded­i­cated cater­ers are in Saint-Omer, North-East France, to con­clude a week of pro­duc­tion re­hearsals in an empty venue. Chris isn’t singing or danc­ing in th­ese re­hearsals – that won’t hap­pen un­til August, the month be­fore her sec­ond LP ar­rives. In­stead she sits at a long ta­ble fac­ing proceedings in the role of stage direc­tor, mak­ing notes and com­ment­ing via a mic.

The male dancers keep van­ish­ing to watch France’s World Cup fix­ture against Ar­gentina. “Mort au pa­tri­ar­cat!” Chris yells – death to the pa­tri­archy! – half jok­ing, half ab­so­lutely not. They sprint back and re­hearsals pro­ceed. Chris con­ceived the whole thing from sketches up and needs to see if it works. Huge back­drops pro­jected with dra­matic land­scape paint­ings drop and sweep off­stage. Th­ese are tem­po­rary, she stresses: the real things will ac­tu­ally be painted. In­stru­ment ris­ers slide on and off, con­tract­ing and widen­ing the space un­til some­times the boards are com­pletely bare. Fake snow falls (in­can­des­cent pow­der, not wet foam globs) and a dancer fires a green smoke grenade. “Non, non, c’est trop tôt!” Chris shouts – too early. They break, let­ting the sin­is­ter cloud dis­si­pate, then try again. The aim is to cre­ate some­thing mon­u­men­tal with­out us­ing stan­dard effects, “some­thing quite he­do­nis­tic and sen­sual and overly drip­ping with de­sire”. They’re get­ting there. “This is the risk of de­cid­ing on your own,” says Chris. “Ei­ther it’s good or I’m fucked.” Her at­ten­tion to de­tail makes it seem ex­tremely un­likely that the

orig­i­nal hickey was ac­ci­den­tal. “What do you think?” she pouts jok­ily. The suna­verse 30- year-old is wilt­ing over lunch in the scorch­ing car park, lift­ing her chair like an ag­grieved her­mit crab to shuf­fle to­wards shade. While se­ri­ous at work, she nat­u­rally sends her­self up, ex­claim­ing, “Oh la!” if she gets over-se­ri­ous. Of course, she asked some­one to give it to her specif­i­cally for the show, though re­ceiv­ing it wasn’t ex­actly a busi­ness mat­ter. “It was a sim­ple sign of un­apolo­getic de­sire – kind of dirty in a way – but it’s weird, no, how in­fu­ri­at­ing it can be for peo­ple?” She’s pleased yet baf­fled: are peo­ple that eas­ily shocked? (And no, she didn’t get a fresh one for this in­ter­view. Oc­cu­pa­tional hazard.) Here is where we left Chris at the end of 2016. She had the UK’s big­gest-sell­ing de­but with Chaleur Hu­maine, iden­tity and iso­la­tion set to shim­mer­ing synth-pop. Her lu­mi­nous Glas­ton­bury per­for­mance sin­gle-hand­edly pre­vented newly Brex­ited Bri­tain from lay­ing face-down in the mud and never get­ting up. Fêted by El­ton John and Madonna, she helped bring pan­sex­u­al­ity and gen­der-flu­id­ity into the main­stream and re­peat­edly out-styled Harry Styles when they kept get­ting snapped in the same op­u­lent suits. A pop iden­tity born from de­pres­sion, even sui­ci­dal thoughts, made her the coun­try’s most beloved new star. All she’d ever wanted was to be ac­cepted and un­der­stood. The nerd be­came a su­per­hero, the out­sider crowned prom queen, roll cred­its. What next? Chris didn’t re­ally show her body be­fore – she was con­vinced her work wouldn’t be taken se­ri­ously if she did. But YouTube com­menters still de­bated her fuck­a­bil­ity and doubted that she wrote and pro­duced her mu­sic. Her gen­er­ous con­ver­sa­tions about sex­u­al­ity and gen­der were flat­tened. She started feel­ing like a Rorschach test, ad­dressed as a pro­jec­tion, not a per­son, leav­ing her lonely and de­pressed again. “I was do­ing ev­ery­thing for peo­ple to ac­tu­ally know me, and then I was fu­ri­ous at the re­sult.” The more she ex­plained, the less any­one seemed to get it. So maybe she would just stop ex­plain­ing. “There is a form of re­sis­tance in com­pli­cat­ing the story.”

Not to un­der­es­ti­mate Chaleur Hu­maine. Beyond the bald facts of suc­cess, the al­bum did what ther­a­pists couldn’t. They told her to stop con­struct­ing her own re­al­ity: she said, “Tell me some­thing I don’t know”, and stopped af­ter two ses­sions. Her early 20s were a “night­mare” of ag­o­nis­ing per­fec­tion­ism, ro­man­tic re­jec­tion and ex­pul­sion from a the­atre school that re­fused to let her (or any fe­male stu­dent) di­rect. Chris­tine saved her: born first as a dark jour­nal char­ac­ter and al­chemised as a pop star af­ter en­cour­age­ment from some no-non­sense Lon­don drag queens. Be­com­ing a stage ath­lete “felt mend­ing and em­pow­er­ing”. Af­ter that sex­ist ex­pul­sion, she fan­ta­sised about “dicks solv­ing prob­lems I was hav­ing” and wrote Chaleur Hu­maine’s It: “I’m a man now,” she sang, “and there’s noth­ing you can do to make me change my mind.” But Chris­tine slowly, sur­pris­ingly, sent her “back into my woman’s body”. As a teenager, de­spite her pro­fes­sor par­ents re­spect­fully dis­cussing her ev­ery emo­tion (for bet­ter or worse), wel­com­ing her queer­ness and book­ish­ness, she re­mained ob­sessed with at­tain­ing the “per­fect im­age of a girl that I would never be”. She would sab­o­tage hook-ups be­cause the am­bi­ence was wrong: surely prospec­tive girl­friends would vomit in her face if bad light­ing re­vealed her true mon­strous­ness. Per­form­ing made her proud of her 5’2” fig­ure, “seeing some mus­cles sur­face and your sil­hou­ette get­ting tighter, func­tional, the plea­sure of danc­ing, au­thor­ing your body through the art.” She be­came “more nar­cis­sis­tic”, ea­ger to bare skin. While she had ex­pe­ri­enced “great love sto­ries”, sex was usu­ally crip­pled by sim­i­lar fears over stage di­rec­tion.

Body con­fi­dence changed that. “I re­ally dis­cov­ered how car­nal and raw and beau­ti­fully dirty sex could be: how em­pow­er­ing and mov­ing and cre­atively in­ter­est­ing.” The stage name had to go. She wanted to es­cape the Chris­tine story, plus friends were call­ing her Chris now. It felt ef­fi­cient, joy­ous. Plus Héloïse is hard to shorten: “Hélo” makes peo­ple yell, “’Ello, ’Ello!” and “Lolo” is French slang for nip­ples, which the flat-chested teenager never ap­pre­ci­ated. She cut her curls into a bob, then a chic quiff. Peo­ple started ask­ing if she was tran­si­tion­ing: hadn’t they lis­tened to It, that song about dicks she’d been singing for four years? To­day her hair is the func­tional crop of a 12- year-old boy – cru­cially less French gamine, more the kind of soft brush that aunts love to ruf­fle. It’s slicked back on the cover of Chris, her sec­ond al­bum, fram­ing an ex­pres­sion half­way be­tween sneer and so­lic­i­ta­tion. Chris opens with a smash and a yelp, some­thing bro­ken and awo­ken. It is ex­actly what she said it would be in in­ter­views from 2016

I was do­ing ev­ery­thing to for peo­ple ac­tu­ally know me, and then I was fu­ri­ous at the re­sult.

(Chaleur Hu­maine was re­leased in France in 2014, so she had time to plan): sweatier, harder, more erotic, echo­ing Janet Jack­son and strun­gout Serge Gains­bourg. There is still sad­ness, shame and crys­talline bal­ladry, but it also bor­rows from G-funk, LA gangsta rap’s raunchy soul, to buoy her fem­i­nine machismo: Damn (What Must A Woman Do) be­seeches prospec­tive male and fe­male con­quests to just plea­sure her, s’il vous fuck­ing plaît. In­sults hard­ened into beauty marks on Chaleur Hu­maine; Chris’s tro­phies are sweat, throb­bing veins and the flushed cheeks she used to con­ceal, de­part­ing in­su­lar spa­ces and missed con­nec­tions to grind against the world and revel in the rashes. It was hard to tell the Chris­tine chicken from the Chris­tine egg: did lib­er­a­tion feed the work or vice versa? It’s no sur­prise that the new al­bum ful­fils her ear­lier brief, she says: she al­ways has to write her next in­car­na­tion “so I have no choice but to ac­tu­ally be­come it”. Still, Chris wasn’t truly born un­til a pho­tog­ra­pher called her bluff. A French mag­a­zine asked her to write un au­to­por­trait to ac­com­pany some photos. She turned in eight pur­ple pages. The Ital­ian pho­tog­ra­pher read it: “It’s won­der­ful but where is Chris, I don’t re­ally see her now?” She stut­tered: “Uhh yes, but, uh, you know, I write and I am go­ing to af­ter that be­come…” He made her do it right then, yelling, “You are like Mar­lon Brando BUT YOU’RE A WOMAN!” In the photos she has abs like Ac­tion Man and pants slung so low they’d make Justin Bieber blush. Be­com­ing ev­ery­thing she had wanted was ter­ri­fy­ing. “I’m go­ing to have to show some­thing of my per­son­al­ity that I haven’t shown yet and it’s go­ing to be fuck­ing scary.” Her mum wor­ries she’s set­ting girls a bad ex­am­ple. But maybe peo­ple will get it: her team, ini­tially con­fused, now oil her mus­cles be­fore shoots. Mostly, birthing th­ese hid­den parts felt like re­lease. “I knew I could have that free­dom, I wanted to have it, but I had to find some­thing to al­low me to.”

If Chris ac­tu­ally wanted to lo­cate the source of her re­pres­sion, she could al­ways re­visit the shrinks. But it was much more fun to use her new­found con­fi­dence to em­brace the chaos that tor­mented her younger self. De­spite ac­cept­ing her gen­der, she’s still fu­ri­ous she never got to be a male writer: why can men be em­pow­ered by their voice when her iden­tity is al­ways up for de­bate? So she wired Chris, the al­bum, with counter-sig­nals. The first sin­gle, Girl­friend, was a bol­shy recla­ma­tion of sex­ual swag­ger. The sec­ond, Doesn’t Mat­ter, uses a writhing Jam and Lewis-in­spired skele­ton to gird her sad­dest song, writ­ten at a mo­ment when gen­uine hu­man con­nec­tion felt im­pos­si­ble. Sat­is­fac­tion clashes against self-sab­o­tage, while shame is both a weapon and the dead weight that stops her get­ting out of bed. She sings about van­ish­ing and, on The Walker, strid­ing chin-out into a world that would rather re­coil from her lack of shame. She is not go­ing to rec­on­cile the gaps. On a busi­ness level, it means she can’t be mis­un­der­stood. Be­fore la­bel Be­cause agreed to let her self-pro­duce Chris, she agreed to two ul­ti­mately dis­sat­is­fy­ing stu­dio ses­sions, one with Mark Ron­son, one with Da­mon Al­barn. Both had very spe­cific ideas of what she would do: Ron­son asked her to ad lib in her mother tongue. Un­ac­cus­tomed to im­pro­vis­ing, her stress mounted: “So they want an ex­otic French topline?!” Noth­ing came of ei­ther. It also means she can’t be ripped off as eas­ily. Madonna ad­mit­ted to bor­row­ing from the video to

Saint Claude, in which Chris­tine danced against a red back­drop and floated into the air. Char­lotte Gains­bourg picked her brain about chore­og­ra­phy, though oth­ers didn’t give her credit. She calls the video for Dua Lipa’s IDGAF “bla­tant” – the sleek suits, colour­wash back­drops, the danc­ing, though what re­ally gave it away was Lipa’s in­cor­po­ra­tion of rude French ges­ture la barbe. She doesn’t want to be “shady” but doesn’t get the point of copy­ing. “Why not find orig­i­nal ideas?” She un­der­stands the “big ma­chine of pop mu­sic, eat­ing and di­gest­ing, right? So I’m eaten.” What both­ered her was not nec­es­sar­ily be­ing known enough to be recog­nised as the in­spi­ra­tion. “But what’s the point in be­ing bit­ter.”

The new show wasn’t in­spired by other pop per­for­mances, but by Euro­pean chore­og­ra­phers and the­atre di­rec­tors. Chris is still a patho­log­i­cal per­fec­tion­ist. She made the al­bum in English and French so her na­tive fans weren’t short­changed. If only she could paint the live back­drops as well. Mid-af­ter­noon in Calais, there’s an im­promptu break. Chris van­ishes – man­ager Flavie says she’s up­set. The Amer­i­can la­bel wanted to film her re­hears­ing but since she hadn’t been on set she was anx­ious about dis­ap­point­ing them. “Why do they ask me that if they know I’m still not on­stage? I don’t want to give some­thing that’s not mem­o­rable.” She said no, a new and sur­pris­ingly ef­fec­tive skill. Mas­ter­ing her craft of­fered free­dom. As did re­fus­ing to ex­plain her­self – un­der­stand­ing that you can’t con­trol ev­ery­thing. She went look­ing for more ar­eas that could of­fer such joy­ful chaos: ie, love and lust. “You can ex­per­i­ment with it when you stop con­trol­ling. You learn with in­tense de­sire and phys­i­cal con­tact to ac­tu­ally be ex­cited by pre­cisely what you were scared about be­fore.” Off tour and out of a long-term relationship with a woman, she searched for anger “in places where I knew I would find it”. She was back in “het­eroland”, nurs­ing an in­ex­pli­ca­ble at­trac­tion to “ba­sic” straight boys who she knew would prove a mis­take: at­tracted to her body but in­tim­i­dated by her power, money, “phal­lic” at­ti­tude. Friends who mis­un­der­stood her pan­sex­u­al­ity – at­trac­tion to all gen­ders – asked if dat­ing men be­trayed her queer­ness. Some part­ners at­tempted to shame her ad­ven­tur­ous­ness, which had the op­po­site ef­fect. Guys would ask, “‘Oh, so you do that on the first night?’ With judge­ment! I was like, ‘Well, you let me do that on the first night, what the fuck is wrong with you!’ How is it a tro­phy for dudes and not for girls?” It all felt plea­sur­able, an­other way to dis­rupt, even if she risked get­ting hurt. “It’s a real way to take power over your body, choos­ing what you in­flict on your­self. I think ev­ery­one has this relationship to hurtling into the void.” She started writ­ing Notes On Want­ing, a jour­nal about the “in­tri­ca­cies and the joys and the un­ex­pected beauty of want­ing peo­ple and liv­ing your de­sire”. The more she wrote, the more she wanted to write, and to write more, she had to live more, “to try more, to have more and be less afraid of it”. She calls it a det­o­na­tion. “The more I let go, the more I learn how to be a lover, and the more I learn how to be a lover, the less I care.” Dat­ing is hard as a pub­lic fig­ure: she strug­gled

how car­nal dis­cov­ered I re­ally beau­ti­fully dirty and raw and em­pow­erin g how sex could be: cre­atively and and mov­ing . in­ter­est­ing

with the idea that her celebrity might at­tract peo­ple – but ac­cepted it af­ter re­al­is­ing that she is, the­o­ret­i­cally, fa­mous for be­ing her­self. There was heart­break – three rounds – but a bet­ter kind than be­fore. “The eroti­cism comes from the dis­ap­point­ment and the fact that I’ve lived and it’s failed. Which is way dif­fer­ent from Chaleur Hu­maine, which had some­thing way more noc­tur­nal and self-wounded pain. The sec­ond one, I’m smash­ing against peo­ple, but it’s tasty in a way, to try and fail.” She just doesn’t care any more “if peo­ple think I’m slutty or shov­ing too much of my body and my face in their head”. Madonna and the avant-garde mem­oirist Mag­gie Nel­son taught her that you don’t have to make peo­ple for­get that you’re a “lust­ing woman” to be con­sid­ered a writer. She laughs: “I want to be the clever­est woman in the room but also the slut­ti­est if I want, and this char­ac­ter can work.”

When Chris started so­lic­it­ing Paris’s pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies for di­rec­tors to re­alise her metic­u­lous mu­sic video treat­ments, she dis­cov­ered that she had an­other nick­name: the bitch. “The bitch has an­other idea she wants to do!” She hoots. It was not af­fec­tion­ate rib­bing. She was aghast for two sec­onds, then let go. Fine: she would be the “bossy bitch”. She had al­ready em­braced the role of leader in the stu­dio in LA, writ­ing a let­ter to her male en­gi­neers to clar­ify that she was pro­duc­ing the al­bum. Chris doesn’t do booze or drugs, but sucked down Res­cue Rem­edy to drown her nerves as she in­structed her vin­tage mu­si­cians, grad­u­ates of Janet Jack­son and An­nie Len­nox records. There was no im­pro­vi­sa­tion. “Some­times if they were play­ing a dif­fer­ent note, just the third one, I was like – with va­le­rian cours­ing through my veins – ‘Can we just change a note, please!’” For Chaleur Hu­maine, Chris says she was ad­vised not to make too much noise about the fact that she did al­most ev­ery­thing then, too. She sus­pected that no­body had ever said that to a male artist, but went with it – be­sides, she finds be­hind-the-scenes stuff cheesy and un­der­min­ing. The re­sult was crit­ics, haters, even fans blithely assert­ing that she didn’t write her own ma­te­rial. Just last week­end, she found two guys on Twit­ter say­ing as much (yes, she still looks). She was mis­er­able: per­haps she would have to doc­u­ment her work­ings to make peo­ple be­lieve that She. Does. Ev­ery­thing. She gets an­gry for the first time: “Now I do un­der­stand Grimes do­ing fuck­ing pic­tures of her with a lap­top – and some peo­ple still be­lieve she’s stag­ing shit.” Hav­ing her agency ques­tioned has been a pain in her ass since she was young enough to cre­ate. (She re­calls the first time writ­ing stirred her, age 11, au­thor­ing a grue­some story about a man slic­ing up his wife’s body. Her mother asked if she got it off the in­ter­net. As if she got it off the in­ter­net!) Maybe it’s be­cause the great French fe­male mu­si­cians are nearly all male muses, bar per­haps ’ 80s giant Mylène Farmer. “Shit is taken away from me all the time and I’m the bitch” – she spits – “who is al­ways like, ‘IT’S MINE.’” It makes her skin flush and her jaw pim­ple. Does she lack author­ity? Why won’t peo­ple lis­ten? But then, the flip­side of be­ing un­der­mined as a fe­male mu­si­cian is be­ing cred­ited but la­belled a con­trol freak. Chris was de­lighted when a re­cent Le Monde pro­file asked her col­lab­o­ra­tors if she was a tyrant. Be­cause she knows she isn’t ac­tu­ally a bitch, she’s happy to be

French win­dows: (left) Chris, Paris, 2018; (be­low) her Chaleur de­but al­bum 2016) and Hu­maine ( year’s (bot­tom) this fol­low-up, Chris.

Dance to the mu­sic: the in­flu­en­tial videos for (from left) Saint Claude and Tilted, from her de­but al­bum, and this year’s Girl­friend.

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