Paul Soileau trips the light (and the dark) fantastic in his multimedia performance pieces
At one point during last year's Freakshow-a-Go-Go gender-skew revue at Emo's, things went pear-shaped. Or more succinctly: plum-shaped. Sweet, ripe, juicy plum-shaped. A new performer not slated to appear on the bill arrived uninvited and squeezed her way into the lineup.
Christeene took to the stage in a tore-up miniskirt, sticky black fright-wig, eyes like a raccoon on meth, and lipstick smeared across her face, escorted by beefy backup boys clad only in thongs. Her slow jam commenced.
"I hear a baby cryin', see a rainbow flying overhead/It's getting hard to blow you when I know that you're tricking on him instead/My tee-taw's raw inside, and I cannot hide the pain/You ain't payin' me for my quality, and you're gonna be to blame/Where do all my tears go when they fallin' from my pussy ...."
Christeene crashed the party to premiere her new single, "Tears From My Pussy." Despite the context of a night packed with drag kings and genderfuck, the trashy diva's writhing, grinding dissertation of dick-defying disappointment produced more than a few gasps. She squatted on the floor of Emo's outdoor stage for a grind with her boys C-Baby and T-Gravel. Then, as Christeene spread her legs, a disturbing little dollop of man sac flopped out of her thong for all to see.
"That was kind of my first terrorist drag bomb," intimates Paul Soileau, Austin performance artist, the man behind and inside of Christeene. "I knew she wasn't going to go over very well with some people," he remembers.
He was wrong. Christeene's raunchy exuberance was a hit.
Initially conceived as a short-term alliance with local filmmaker PJ Raval (Trinidad), "Christeene," says Soileau, "has gone from a wig, an outfit, and a dream to this creature. PJ has been making amazing videos – enough for an EP." And with this EP, Soldier of Pleasure, the slut/not-slut joins the ranks of other musical Dada pranksters like Divine & Edith Massey, Hedwig, Lisa Suckdog, Quintron & Miss Pussycat, et al.
"My one caveat," says Raval, "is it has to be fun, that we not worry about money – where it's coming from or who the project is for."
"And I," says Soileau, "was looking to get serious about being an artist." Their collaborative, called Three Dollar Cinema, was born.
The collaboration extends far beyond the duo. "A lot of artists contribute to Christeene: filmmaker Jeanne Stern, [art lecturer and Chronicle blogger] Andy Campbell, Josh Meyer and Matt Hislope from the Rubber Repertory, Masashi Niwano [executive director of the Austin Asian American Film Festival]," among many others, Soileau says. "People outside of Austin are shocked when I tell them how it happens. There's no money involved. We feed you; we hand you a bottle of vodka. The final budget is about $200 per video."
"It was actually less than $200," says Raval. "And half of that was alcohol. I borrowed the camera, and we spent about $20 on baby props from a thrift store. Our first video, 'Fix My Dick,' was done in a day."
"That's Austin," says Soileau. "You can't do that shit in other cities for so cheap. Good quality, good form, horrible taste!"
Soileau hails from Lake Charles, La., and matriculated at Loyola University in New Orleans. After school, he lived in New York and then moved back to the Crescent City. After Hurricane Katrina, he bounced around Atlanta, finally ending up here, in Austin, Texas. "Christeene," he says, "is a product of a lot of angst and anger and things from the hurricane, from moving around a lot in one year. Then I worked at Starbucks. Two years. That was the button-pusher, the corporate monster that really kind of made Christeene."
Another character inspired by Soileau's years in food service is his grande dame of the social scene. "I love jobs that I hate because that's where my characters come from," he says. Miss Rebecca Havemeyer – a lady in the vein of Dame Edna, Kiki & Herb's Kiki, and even the drag queenier parts of Bette Midler – is a dishy Southern belle gone terribly wrong. "Rebecca came from [working in] a restaurant in New York, Schiller's: high volume, high celebrity, high decor. I was really into that jet-setting Hollywood accent at the time. I was all, 'Oh dahlin',' Myrna Loy-talkin' and all that," he reveals, nailing the clipped, roof-of-the-mouth nasality that defines early talkies. "Rebecca was this voice I started doing just to mess with my co-workers: 'I left my diaphragm under table 12! Can ya go get it for me?' And they'd scream. That's when I realized it was making people laugh.
"I wanted Rebecca to be old money, like a Vanderbilt – a burnt-out starlet who fell off the wagon or something horrible, but she's okay, real happy about it. I was walking in Williamsburg [in Brooklyn] and had my iPod on. Was high as a kite. I look up and see a street sign that says: 'HAVEMEYER.' And I say, 'Rebecca,' and it's all rhythmical: Rebecca Havemeyer. 'God, that sounds good,' I thought. 'Rebecca Havemeyer! That's it! That's it!'"
Since Soileau's landing in Austin, Rebecca Havemeyer has been a regular on the performance circuit, making many appearances at the now-defunct Camp Camp queer talent show and emceeing nonprofit events around town. Her vita includes an annual holiday show with Stanley Roy Williamson and Dr. Bruce Kirkland, Trivia Travesty, her piano cabaret with Russell Reed called After Ours, the Alamo Drafthouse's Hey Homo!, and aGLIFF's Brunch Time Booyah.
"This year, I learned that this is a job. I used to be such a baby: 'Oh! I can only do one Rebecca show this month. It takes so much work to put it on. You don't understand!'" says Soileau. "There's an almost painful satisfaction of having to put on that outfit and those heels. It's like puttin' on your suit: Time to make the doughnuts! I finally embraced it."
The Havemeyer air is informed by Soileau's early years in Louisiana. "I love my heritage. I'm Cajun. My dad speaks Cajun-French. I love Louisiana. Its patience with people, its kindness, and respect for things you may not believe in or understand or agree with," says Soileau.
"'Bless your heart.' Those three words allow Louisiana people to process what they're looking at. They may be saying, 'I don't agree with that ... but bless your heart!'"
Soileau solo, sans Rebecca or Christeene, enjoys dalliances with other characters as well. He's been cast in the upcoming Kyle Henry-directed/Michael Stipe-produced Fourplay playing the role of a sex worker, and the IMDb.com archives reveal a part in Steven Soderbergh's 1998 thriller Out of Sight as Lulu, a prison bitch to Luis Guzmán's jailbird Chino. "Mom and Dad are real proud of me," he recounts wistfully. "Every role I've had has been a whore or sex worker."
Rebecca Havemeyer is his one nod to high society. Christeene, on the other hand, fits right in with the pattern.
"Christeene is a very strange vagrant creepy woman/man/woman who somehow has a platform to express her-/himself only with the knowledge she/he has obtained from the grocery store magazine racks or word of mouth. Most everyone you talk to is the same way. Nobody knows what the hell they're talking about. And Christeene is calling you on it.
"All my characters are ignorant. Rebecca, she has 'winning ignorance,' as I like to say," says Soileau. "I think Christeene has 'winning ignorance,' because I myself am quite ignorant. I mean, come on, girl, I'm Louisiana-educated. I ain't gonna brag like I know my stuff. I'm not gonna say stuff I don't know. Or try not to, unless I'm in character. Then I can get away with it."
For his character to get away with anything, he was first going to have to develop it. His fascination with Janet Jackson and Mike Tyson inspired the vocal creation of Christeene's childlike nasal whine. Her new song, "African Mayonnaise," is testament to the celebrity machine: "I am your new celebrity/I am your new America/I am the piece of filthy meat/You take home and you treat to yourself."
"People would expect Christeene to be a loud, brash, demon woman. But it's the rule of opposites," says Soileau. "Jackson and Tyson are amazingly strong, dangerous creatures on stage and in the ring, but when interviewed, they turn into baby woman and baby man."
Ignorance, moral turpitude, and nasal whine aside, Soileau imbues his latest creation with complexity: "Christeene is approachable. It is so important to me to make my characters accessible to people outside of the queer and performance art bubbles."
That desire to involve and include a wide range of folks in his audience is part of what bonds Soileau and filmmaker Raval and engages their larger collective.
"All I've known PJ for over the past year is this skank, Christeene. I told him I fell in love with his work because of the choices he makes on some damn strong issues. And he turned and looked at me and said, 'Paul, Christeene is social commentary. That's why I'm doing this. You do have a message.'"
"Christeene comments on gender, sexuality, media, pop stars, and then flips it all on its head," says Raval. "She's likable, sweet, and sincere."
And the time is right for Christeene and her message: "There's a big dirty marquee flashing red lights, and the bulbs are all working!" beams Soileau. "So let's work that; I think it's time."