But over the past few years, as public discussion of gender, sexuality and identity has grown, she has discovered things are more complex than your genitals, clothes and hair.
“I think sometimes people think identity has something to do with the wrapping, but really it’s the gift underneath,” she says. “It’s about how you feel. For me, I definitely feel like I occupy masculine and feminine qualities.”
Courtney explores this journey in her pop-cabaret show, Fluid, showing this week at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival. It’s a change of pace for her after focusing on television in recent years; first by winning Britain’s Celebrity Big Brother in 2018, then as the runner-up (with Joshua Keefe) on last year’s Australian Dancing with the Stars.
It’s also a far cry from her humble beginnings in the DIY world of drag, which has never been regarded as high art but remains a staple of gay bars and culture worldwide.
“There’s a lot less hot glue and sticky tape in this show, which makes it feel a lot more professional,” Courtney says of Fluid. “I don’t know if that will hold until opening night.”
Set to original music, Fluid was written by Shane and American comedian Brad Loekle. For the most part it’s a one-woman show, with some help from a ballroom dancer in the second half. (“It’d be weird doing a ballroom dance by yourself,” she says.)
The show acknowledges that, more than ever, people are being flooded with “ever-changing and flowing ideas of who we are, what we are and what we might become”.
This is something we should embrace, says Courtney. “We change our clothes every day – we change our hairstyles, we change our jobs. Everything is constantly in motion and constantly fluid. But we have this idea that our identities are fixed. When we look at our lives they’re actually a lot more fluid than we think.”
Courtney, or Shane, doesn’t identify as trans but has said that seeing more transgender people represented in the media was liberating and allowed her to explore her own doubts about gender. She’s previously been described as “gender fluid, pansexual and polyamorous”, although she no longer embraces those labels as she once did.
“They all work,” says Courtney, who prefers to identify as “just generally queer” these days. “It’s funny … so many of our groups identify so strongly with labels and they’re so important to us. I kind of feel less attached to those labels.”
She also understands why some people might feel confused, or even confronted, by the politics of queer identification. The acronym LGBTQIA+, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and others, has expanded over the years to the point that some critics deride it as “alphabet soup”. Even those who are part of the community can be intolerant.
“I get that LGBTIQA+ is a little cumbersome from a marketing standpoint,” says Courtney. “But if you find yourself with the time to complain and be confused by a few extra letters, then you’re one of the lucky ones. If there are people that get to understand themselves more because of a letter in an acronym, I’m all for it.”
“I definitely feel like I occupy masculine and feminine qualities.”
Courtney casts a sceptical eye over everything, including the rise of cancel culture, a predominantly left-wing phenomenon which argues that anyone who says or does something deemed to be racist, sexist, homophobic or in any way offensive should be called out, shamed and, preferably, silenced.
Lamenting the state of political discourse while appearing on the ABC’s Matter of Fact program last year, she said: “The volume’s too loud now and everybody’s yelling.” While history showed that people sometimes need to raise their voices, “when you actually sit down opposite someone and have a conversation with them, you get so much further”.
How, then, does Courtney view the debate over religious freedom that has raged ever since Australians voted to legalise same-sex marriage in 2017? She says it’s clear that sometimes people, especially older white males, perceive other people gaining rights as a threat to their own. She says religion can be a lost cause because it is, by definition, about faith rather than rational argument. Still, queer people have to make the effort to engage.
“The way to do that is to get people to picture themselves in other people’s experiences. That’s the only way you can foster that empathy.
“Rather than yelling aggressively back at the people trying to oppress us, I think the most important thing to do is to share our stories.”
Another thing you can do, of course, is march. This weekend, Mardi Gras culminates in the annual parade up Oxford Street, which will feature more than 200 floats and 10,000 marchers. For the first time, Courtney will co-host the coverage on SBS with comedians Joel Creasey and Zoe Coombs Marr, and Studio 10 presenter Narelda Jacobs.
She had something of a practice run hosting the coverage on Foxtel some years ago. “I saw a clip of it the other day,” she says. “And I’m definitely hoping to redeem myself.”
As a character, Courtney has been on the gay scene for about 20 years. The person behind the facade, Shane, turned 38 last week. He grew up in Brisbane and remembers watching the parade on television as a teenager in the 1990s, huddled up close to the TV so he could quickly switch it off
if his parents came downstairs.
Shane came to Sydney when he was 18 and attended his first Mardi Gras. “I just remember it was such a melting pot of people,” he says. “It was the first time I really understood what a community was: that there were all these different parts, and we all faced different challenges and struggles.”
But even then, Shane says he failed to really comprehend about what Mardi Gras was all about. Just like many heterosexual critics over the years, as a young man he gawked at the giant dancing penises, fetish-wear and nudity and wondered: why?
“I remember thinking: why can’t they just be normal?” Shane says. “Have your parade, but why does it have to be about sex and penises? Because I had shame about all of those things. I realise now that the parade’s brash display of sexuality liberates the shame … it’s a really radical way to shake people and say there’s nothing wrong with sexuality – not just homosexuality but sexuality in general.”
The queer community has given Shane a lot: acceptance, identity, a career and fame. It has taken him to Los Angeles, where he was based for some years until 2018, and now to his new home in London.
Love, on the other hand, remains elusive. He is “on the rebound” at the moment, though eternally optimistic. “It’s Mardi Gras time, it’s summer in Sydney, I think this is the perfect time to be single. Maybe I’ll find love under a disco ball at the after-party.”
Incredibly, at 38, Shane is about to attend his first ever wedding, straight or gay – his friend Tim is marrying his partner Ben. It is set to be a baptism of fire. “They have asked my ex-boyfriend and me to give the best man’s speech together, which could be slightly sadistic,” he says.
Shane is still adjusting to the relatively new world of same-sex marriage. It’s not for everyone – many queers still think of it as a conservative and unnecessary institution – but it’s growing on him. “Weirdly, seeing all these people get married, I feel like my cold heart has melted a bit,” he says. “I think there’s something really beautiful about marriage.”
It’s a reminder of why events like the Mardi Gras are still so important – a celebration of diversity at the same time as the old divisions between straight and gay are knocked down. As well as marriage, this can manifest in small shifts, like the politics of Bondi Beach.
“I was at North Bondi on Saturday [and] it was surprisingly unlike North Bondi,” Shane says. “It was all families and those banana umbrella things. I was like, ‘Oh, I remember when this used to be [gay nightclub] ARQ, but with more light.’”
“I guess that’s the progress we fought for – the families are happy occupying the gay beaches now.”
Fashion director Penny McCarthy. Photographer Steven Chee. Hair Benjamin Moir at Wigs By Vanity.
SBS’s Mardi Gras broadcast airs live from 7.30pm on February 29. Fluid will return for a tour of Australia and NZ in spring.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale February 23.
Michael Koziol is deputy editor of The Sun-Herald, based in Sydney.