Paul Soileau’s Double Duty
With a new show for Rebecca Havemeyer and a new album by Christeene, is the busy performer having an identity crisis?
Forgive Paul Soileau if he isn't sure where – or who – he is today. For the past week, he's been skittling through a schedule that would panic most every other artist I know. On May 22, he dropped a new album, which was followed four days later by a bacchic launch party at the Museum of Human Achievement, and on top of that, he's been working on a new play, Winkie!, for a May 30-June 1 run at Ground Floor Theatre. The thing is, the album and play are for different characters that Soileau embodies – alter egos as different as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The Jekyll is Rebecca Havemeyer, a big blonde with terrible posture who doesn't always know exactly what's going on, but who encourages everybody around her to keep muddling through with a great old Hollywood voice based on Alice Faye. The Hyde is Christeene, a creepy trash diva with lipstick smeared across her face and black hair that looks like she uses motor oil for shampoo, who spews raunch rap in a nasal whine. Soileau sums up the two like this: If you can't be dumber than Rebecca, "you can't be uglier than Christeene. Anything is beautiful next to Christeene. Anything!"
Soileau found Rebecca's voice first, back when he was working at a high-volume restaurant in New York City. While manically typing in orders at a crowded computer, he'd fall into this voice to ask for help: "I left my diaphragm on table seven!" It delighted his co-workers and scared them a little. One told Soileau to "put a wig on that thing," meaning: The voice is great, but it shouldn't come out of his own mouth.
Soileau had been looking for a drag persona, and since he didn't lip sync, here was a character into which he could pour all of his life: the "master's degree in drag" he got from watching the queens at New York's Barracuda Bar, his college drama degree, thousands of hours studying old Hollywood films, shit jobs, even his childhood work in community theatres in Lake Charles – the highlight being a Cajun Christmas Cabaret, in which Soileau played an alligator who had lost all his teeth but one, a prized tooth that lit up as the alligator sang. You could taste all of it in the boudin of Rebecca Havemeyer.
Rebecca always makes the best of a world that's falling down around her. Soileau says, "I like the challenge of keeping a ship afloat, and I love the challenge of pluggin' a hole," before listing onstage fiascos big and small. But through it all Rebecca almost never swears. "It's more creative to think of 'cock-a-doodys.' And she's a kind of lady. Then when she does cuss, it's like when your grandma cusses and you're like, 'Whoa!'"
After Hurricane Katrina kicked him out of New Orleans, Soileau found refuge in Austin – and a home at Camp Camp, a queer performance open mic started and hosted by Ray Matthews and Silky Shoemaker. Their focus on community led Soileau to start hosting local social events as Rebecca – and she did a lot: the Alamo Drafthouse's queer cinema series Hey Homo!; fundraisers for Austin Burlesque, Austin Pets Alive!, and the Rude Mechs (a theatre collective to which I belong); "a million" AIDS walks; a semi-regular Bingo night where the proceeds were split between the winner and a slew of charities; and on and on.
Why would so many nonprofits seek the skills of a blond doofus with a tendency to be on the scene when things go wrong? Soileau credits Rebecca's "winning ignorance," her belief the show can and will go on. "The only thing that can go wrong is I'll die onstage or the place will blow up." And then Rebecca will say, "Everybody get ready. I love you. Write a note. Text everybody now. Oh, too late, we ain't got no reception!" Sounds like a joyful way to go.
"Whenever I finish a gig, I get home and take the wig off and put it on a stand and pat it and I say, 'You did good tonight.'"
But in recent years Rebecca's wig has been on the stand more often, because, as Soileau describes it, "I went and I dated this creature Christeene."
On a trip to Provincetown, "the gay mecca of holiday summertime," Soileau was at a kind of performance showcase (where Rebecca did not go over well) and saw "these two homos who were dangerously unprepared and they were wrecking this thing, and it was so attractive, because it was dangerous. They're not trying to win me over, they're saying 'We got the stage!' And I said, 'I want that.' And it got in my brain, the need for that intrusive force that didn't need the traditional jewelry or dress."
That was before Katrina and "everything got fucked up." But after Soileau made it to Austin and "was able to process the hurricane," his need for that intrusive force resurfaced. So one night, without telling anyone, he put on pink high-heeled boots and a wig that had seen better days, and signed up to perform at Camp Camp. He played a song from the Pizzicato Five, but this new character didn't lip sync to it; she just moaned and keened. When the song was over, she walked right off the stage, got into a car, and drove away.
But the character, Christeene, stayed. About that time, Soileau was working a new dead-end job at Starbucks and between customers at the drive-thru, he used his Madonna mic to broadcast a little ditty he was working on called "Fix My Dick." Friends had been urging Soileau to work on something with filmmaker PJ Raval, so Soileau pitched him the idea of a Christeene music video. With two theatre friends as hairy, butch backup dancers, wearing nothing but underwear, trucker hats, and boots, they unleashed Christeene on the world.
And the world responded. Thanks to the videos made with Raval, Christeene has "a world presence." She's become an international queer superstar, touring festivals in the U.S. and Europe, often supported by fashion superstar Rick Owens, and pushing the boundaries of what can be beautiful.
For Raval, it's political: "As queer individuals, we are political by our mere existence – we embody political resistance. Christeene takes this to a whole other level because Christeene also challenges our basic ideas of who and what a political figure can be."
"I don't play to disgust or offend," Soileau explains, "I feel beautiful when I do Christeene, I feel like Elizabeth Fucking Taylor. I feel sexier when I'm Christeene, sexier than myself ... and Rebecca? I don't feel sexy at all. I feel hot when I'm Christeene, and the boys, too, the dancers are steaming with sex up there!"
Christeene's new album, Basura, is a wild bash. Soileau wrote most of the tracks with badass jack-of-all-musical-trades Peter Stopschinski. "Paul's always encouraging me to fuck shit up," says Stopschinski. "This is my natural state of artist-existence: Fuck shit up. For many years, I was in denial. Paul has really helped me come back to my roots musically. Untamed. Unbathed. Unashamed."
Soileau thinks Christeene is "like your vessel. You can use Christeene as a shield or like a conductor," meaning you can pour your own desires into Christeene or use her to jumpstart yourself with a little shock. "It's kind of like a runaway train."
When the runaway train is too much for Soileau, he turns back to Rebecca. Winkie!, created with Kerri Atwood, is just such a project. At long last, Rebecca finally gets to stop shilling for others and speak her mind. Soileau considers the show a gift to his old workhorse.
And what comes after Rebecca and Christeene get done with their latest projects? "I'm comfortable with these gals now," says Soileau, "so maybe it's time to work on myself a little more, and not in an ego way, but obviously, you're dressing up and doing things because there's something going on. It's entertainment, but it's identity. You're really playing with identity. And it's gender. I'm being other genders and I'm being other creatures and you have to eventually, as you enter your 40s, start to question identity. These entities come from one source. I'm trying more and more to acknowledge Paul."