For Héloïse Letissier, 2016 has been a breakthrough year: awesome debut album, seminal Glasto show, the most original dance moves since Michael Jackson. So what next for Christine And The Queens? “I want to sing to people, ‘You’re sexy, and I want to f**k you’,” she tells Barry Nicolson
If you’ve seen Christine And The Queens perform live, you’ve probably heard the speech she often gives towards the end of her set, where she’ll hold up a bunch of flowers and compare herself to the broken stem in a bouquet of Rihannas and Beyoncés. When you come face-to-face with Christine herself, however, you can’t help but suspect false modesty at play. This Christine, the electro-pop autodidact whose self-produced debut ‘Chaleur Humaine’ was every bit the equal of ‘Anti’ or ‘Lemonade’? This Christine, the force of nature whose rave-reviewed Glastonbury performance charmed the festival into forgetting about Brexit mere hours after it happened? This Christine, who exudes the same poise and self-possession away from the stage as she does on it? Yes, that Christine. “Unfortunately it’s true. I really do feel like the weird branch of the bouquet,” nods Héloïse Letissier, the civilian vizard for Christine’s superheroics, when we meet at the east London studio where her NME cover shoot takes place.
“I know I’ve been welcomed and embraced with this album, so technically I shouldn’t, but I still live in a society that makes me feel that way. As women, we’re given impossible things to do, and I feel I’m totally failing at them, whereas Beyoncé’s the ultimate personification of a powerful woman. She’s ticking the boxes that people expect women to tick, and I admire her for that. She strives to be perfect, and this is why we love her. But I don’t believe in perfection.”
Instead, Letissier owns, embraces and amplifies her imperfections. As she explains, “Even if I’m about escaping objectification, you’ll always have people on YouTube commenting on whether I’m f**kable enough. And I read every comment because if you learn what annoys people about you, that’s what you need to keep doing. If someone says I’m too loud? OK, I’m going to be louder. I take up too much space? You’ve seen nothing yet”.“That’s my Kick-Ass power,” she continues, referencing the comic-book character whose only talent is his ability to absorb a beating. “I love to receive the punches because I’m still alive afterwards. They feed me.”
They didn’t always. As a child growing up in the French city of Nantes, the young Letissier “was a caricature of the girl with a book, saying nothing, because if you say something then people might notice you”. Suffering from severe social anxiety, she withdrew into a world of music, films and literature, gravitating towards “monsters and freaks and everything out of the ordinary”. At 17, she fell in love with another girl, “and at that point it became obvious I was queer, but I was self-conscious about embracing it in front of other people. I censored myself a lot, trying to match expectations even when I knew that wasn’t what I was about. For example, trying to be pretty: I ended up looking like Marie Antoinette, wearing puffy skirts and too much make-up. People would call me La Duchesse when I walked past: ‘Oh look, the Duchess is here!’ And inside I was like, [whispers] ‘F**k you!’”
By now, the story of how Héloïse became Christine is so well-known it’s taken on the dimensions of a superhero origin myth: a young French girl fleeing a failed relationship by escaping to the streets of London’s Soho, stumbling into a now-defunct cabaret club where she was happened upon by three sympathetic drag queens and rebuilt from rock-bottom over the course of a single night. For Letissier, however, the advent of Christine wasn’t just life-changing, like the proverbial radioactive spider bite; it was legitimately life-saving.
“I don’t want to sound dramatic, and I don’t say this for PR, but I wasn’t in a good place when [that encounter] happened,” she says quietly. “It properly saved me. It gave me a will to go on. I was kind of a ghost and I’d sometimes considered suicide as an option, to choose to get out of there, because sometimes it’s just not bearable. People can have a hard time talking about this because it makes them feel like they’re obscene for having those thoughts, but I think it can actually be quite calming as a talking point, to just put it out there.”
The relationship between Héloïse and Christine is complex, way beyond a straightforward on/off-stage dynamic. She refers to Christine as a “character” and often talks about her in the third person, but she’s not a pop persona in the mould of Ziggy Stardust or Slim Shady – an artistic means to an end that can be adopted or discarded at the wearer’s discretion. In a manner of speaking, she’s a crutch for Héloïse’s self-perceived shortcomings, “but really she’s just a better version of me, one who embraces everything more. It’s a shy person trick: give yourself another name and start over. When people call me Christine, it feels good; I wish everyone could call me Christine. For my parents, though, it’s weird: whenever they call me Héloïse, I’m like, ‘Ugh! You’ve taken my mojo out!’”
Tellingly, she can’t imagine a time when she’ll no longer need her alter ego, when she’ll want to go back to just being Héloïse. “I want to keep Christine and grow old with her. I’m kind of obsessed with growing old in this industry. I want people to see my wrinkled face everywhere, like a female Keith Richards. I’ll be sat on a couch surrounded by smoke and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s just Christine, she’s been there for 20 years now…’”
Letissier’s “kind of obsessed” by a lot of things – war wounds, the shallowness of modern pop and the sound of Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ to name but three – but none more so than the idea of holding a feminising mirror up to the male rock star archetype. As she puts it, “I want to be the one who lusts after people and sings to them, ‘You’re sexy and I want to f**k you’. I want to create a new way to desire, to lust after someone as a woman.”
On her next album, she says, “I’m going to redefine what it means to be sexy, and it’s going to be creepy as hell. Because I could never do the ‘sexy’ way of being sexy. The first album was a coming-of-age album – I don’t like the phrase, but when you listen to it you can tell I was having a hard time, that I wasn’t socially relating to people. Since then, things have happened to me, including sexual experiences. I’ve experienced being properly lost in my desires and it’s really influenced my writing. I’m obsessed with the lusting female figure in pop music: I don’t know why George Michael should be able to sing ‘I Want Your Sex’ and I can’t, because I do. I want their sex as well, you know?”
She’s still only at the writing stage, but it’s clear Letissier has already spent a lot of time scheming over what the record will look and sound like. The English-language version of ‘Chaleur Humaine’ has made her a star far beyond the borders of her homeland, but she’s still writing songs in French, “because it’s part of who I am, and I like working with my own musical references within that language.” Interestingly, the record is shaping up to be trilingual: she’s excited by the prospect of making what she calls “French-language G-funk,” but she’s also been writing in English and Spanish, and wishes she could add German and Arabic to her lexicon, “because I love how different my voice sounds in each of them”.
Aesthetically, she wants the next album to be “tougher” and “sexier”, and is keen to bring other musicians on board – particularly a live drummer and backing singers – to achieve it. At the same time, as a female producer she’s weary of the perceptions that can arise from enlisting any outside help whatsoever. “I can relate to what Grimes says about having to explain to people five times over that you produce your own s**t, that you know how to use a computer, that you don’t need help with the technical stuff, because it happens to me as well. I know in advance if I work with other musicians, people are going to say, ‘The musicians did it all for her.’ Sometimes I want to put out my Logic demos, just to show people that everything is written out already – the guitars, the basslines, everything. But I don’t want to refrain from working with other people because of that, so I guess I’ll just have to explain myself another five times.”
Above all, she wants it to be meaningful, “because so much pop music is so f**king empty. I compare it to advertising: they try to make you feel like there’s substance, but there’s nothing. It’s like [bursts into song], ‘Be yourself, embrace your being! Set you free like a firelight!’ I mean, Jesus, who’s even talking here!?” She leans back in her chair and roars with laughter. “That was me being shady for your entertainment.”
One thing Letissier isn’t particularly obsessed with is fame. The French relationship to success, she explains, “is not like the American one. We raise people up, then we hate them for what they’ve become and feel the need to destroy them. At some point, that happened to me too – not harshly, but some people in France think I’m out of the zone, that I’m a has-been now. So I don’t brag about it too much.”
She still suffers from social anxiety and almost never goes to parties, preferring to retreat into her work. When she meets fans, she’s always wary of disappointing them, but “they know they’re not meeting Kick-Ass, they’re meeting [his alter ego] Dave Lizewski, so it’s kind of OK. It’s funny, though, because when people meet me they often end up talking about themselves. That’s interesting because I always like to see what they project. It’s almost like I’m not there; they’re only meeting a vessel.” When I ask how that squares with her being able to hang out with Elton John, or be spanked onstage by Madonna in front of 20,000 people, as she was during Madge’s Paris show last December, she simply shrugs that, “onstage is my zone.
When I’m onstage, I’m not crushed by the weight of having those people in front of me. It’s like, ‘How can I make Madonna laugh? How can I twist this situation?’ It’s a mind trick. Afterwards, you might be like, ‘Uh-oh, I just sang ‘Tiny Dancer’ with Elton John,’ but when you’re in the music you’re just trying to give what you can give. When I was with Madonna, I was onstage for two minutes – I never met her before or after. So I witnessed the stage practice she has – very powerful, very in control. And I kind of liked being dominated by Madonna! She’s the most amazing dominant you could ever meet!”
Away from the stage, being Christine has brought its own complications to Letissier’s private life. “Either it works really well, or I scare people away,” she smiles. “Since everything that’s happened to me, I can really feel a change in how people relate to me. People are scared of powerful women. It’s weird to say in 2016, but I’ve gone on dates where the other person couldn’t accept a woman paying the cheque because they feel humiliated. It’s like, ‘Why? I’m just richer than you are.’ Sometimes I still wish I was a dude. So many things would be easier.”
The conversation turns to Brexit, Donald Trump and the impending French presidential election, which Letissier expects Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, anti-EU National Front, to win. “I’m not even worried about it; I know it’s going to happen anyway,” she sighs. “It’s terrible, but we don’t have any good alternative. The right wing is depressing, but even more depressing is the lack of direction or dynamic from the left wing.
“It seems like everyone is watching everything fall apart like, ‘Meh.’ There’s a lack of ambition in politics in terms of what we expect from the government, what it means to have a state. There’s been a delinquency, a fall from grace. We need to bring back some high ambition.” Sounds like a job for someone we know. Her name is Christine, and she’s a boss now.