"CHRISTINE! CHRISTINE! MARRY ME CHRISTINE!" hollers a full-grown man crushed close to the stage, his hands raised and curved to form a heart which he pulses frantically in her direction. It's only Héloïse Letissier's third ever US show, but the excitement about her musical alter-ego, Christine and the Queens, has filtered from her native France, across the ocean and plains to Austin, Texas. Back in Europe she’s selling out 7000-seater venues and by the end of Neon Gold’s SXSW showcase, this audience are as convinced as the mega-fan up front: Christine is the new monarch of our hearts.
Much like the moves she employs to elevate it, her music is a slinky, sensual kind of (synth)pop. It’s playful too—a cute kink of the hip, a Fred Astaire skip, a wink, and shoulder shrug. She’s currently collaborating with choreographer Marion Motin, who has introduced her to some of the finest modern dancers in the world. On tour she’s flanked by up to six of them—including some who have worked with Madonna. Ah Madonna. Ever the eagle eye for what’s hot, the long-reigning Queen of Pop caught wind of CATQ's video for “St. Claude” (nine million views and climbing) and called up Letissier’s directing duo J.A.C.K. to have them orchestrate “Living for Love.”
It’s easy to see what appealed to Madge’s sense for the up and coming: the video for “St. Claude” features Letissier looking svelte and dapper in ankle-exposing slacks and a crisp white shirt. Sliding and hip-thrusting on a red podium in a vast red room, her slender limbs extend and bend, subtly at first, until she stretches out like bubblegum wrapped round an index finger and pulled from a pert mouth. Shes looks like the coolest cat, the aesthetic modern and minimalist and the promo ends with the with the singer pulled by her solar plexus towards the heavens. It’s an image that may trigger a memory of Madonna’s Grammy performance. Corset and fishnets aside, Madge totally bit her style. Surely Letissier’s a little pissed by the direct rip? Quite the contrary.
“It’s like you’re a teenager and the pop stars in your posters are started to move—it didn’t really feel real,” explains Letissier over tea, several hours before her show. “What I love is mainly what she is. Her music is fantastic but also she’s built this character, a really empowering female, and the fights she was fighting back then are still relevant now. She’s the mother of all the badass female creatures in pop music. I felt honored: I have it on my CV now—inspired Madonna. A bit!”
Born 26-years-ago in Nantes, France, thanks to her parents Latissier was exposed to Joe Jackson, Vivaldi, Klaus Nomi, Bowie, and Björk from an early age. (“Vivaldi has made some hits you know—hits I can sing in the shower!” she laughs.) She was instantly drawn to artists who were somewhat alien, a theme that would thread its way through her art years later. After high school Latissier moved to Paris to study theater and literature. With aspirations of being a stage director, or possibly a comedian, she enrolled in the Conservatoire de Paris, hopping up on the theater stage even back then, but opting roles—in Shakespeare plays or otherwise—that allowed her to play the fool.
“I think it’s one of the best characters!” she says. “It looks like you’re joking but at the same time you’re quite lucid. The fool is often the wisest one.” Her sense of comedic timing certainly bleeds into her stage banter. She’s quick-quipping, joking about how lucky America is to have Beyoncé and how could she, a slight French girl stand up next to Bey’s bombastic sexuality and pop panache.
Today Letissier cuts a delicate, understated figure, dressed in inky all-black, and chunky, low Dr. Martens. There’s a cheeky glint in her eye for sure, but nothing about her screams eccentric pop star, and yet the biggest, most outlandish artists are ones she’s instinctively drawn to. For instance, her fluid dance moves betray a love of Michel Jackson who she fell for hard and early, after watching his 3D movie, Captain EO, at Disneyland.
“I wanted to marry him, that was my plan—he was my Prince Charming,” she says with all the earnest emotion she must have felt as a child. “I loved the whole character, the way he moved, the way he was passionate about everything. I loved the way he was shape-shifting, in a way. I mean it’s tragic the way he tried to recreate himself, but when I was a kid I thought that was badass, that he wanted to reinvent him drastically.”
Letissier too has undergone something of a transformation—albeit sans the plastic surgery—an evolution which began half a decade ago, when a morose, depressed Letissier absconded from Paris to London for a three week adventure in the hopes of hoisting herself out of an emotional funk. The grey capital is not necessarily a city one would associate with helping to lift existential gloom, but Letissier had fond memories of the metropolis: her father is an English teacher and her family frequented the city when she was young. “I remember London as a city where you could feel fine.” Armed with her copy of Time Out and in search of new friends and some fun, Letissier found herself in the basement of Madame Jojo’s, a legendary, now sadly defunct venue in Soho. With its sunken dance floor and dark red interior, its mirrored walls would have many a tawdry tale to tell—if only they could. It was here that she fell in with a trio of friendly drag queens. “They came to me because I looked a bit lost,” muses Letissier. “They were really cool and didn’t give a fuck and I was like, ‘Wow this is something I want to do.’”
Then they showed her Paris is Burning, the 1990 documentary about New York’s vibrant ball scene. Co-opted and made famous by Madonna’s “Vogue,” the doc has long since become a cult classic still resonant years later, not just because of the drag queens’ sassy choreography and outré attire, but also because of the stories documentarian Jennie Livingstone reveals—each character a tangle of tragedy and humor, as they seek both escapism and acceptance.
“I knew Madonna but I was never introduced to aesthetic and philosophy of it,” says Letissier. “It was a major discovery and really moving and it really speaks to me. Even what it says socially, about not being in the upper class, but playing in the upper class for just one night: to take the power for just one night, even if it’s just dancing.”
Re-upped and newly inspired, Letissier returned to Paris with the character of Christine already gestating. She bought a laptop and taught herself to use Garageband, made peace with her voice—which previously she’d thought “ugly and thin”—and locked herself away in her bedroom at the Conservatoire. She wore PJs and wrote frantically, while worried friends would pop a head round the corner to check in. Letissier was in her own world. “It felt like my language. I know it sounds cheesy but it felt like a good way to make sense of it all.”
She ploughed her angst into songs like “Here”—off her debut album Chaleur Humaine (which is already out in Europe). “It’s about feeling out of place and feeling shit because of that,” she explains. “I don’t look like a freak, I’ve never been really discriminated against, but I don’t know why, I’ve always felt like I didn’t belong.”
Letissier then uploaded her productivity to MySpace and people’s ears immediately pricked. She started playing shows, but back then the character of Christine was several shades darker, with a tinge more cabaret, incorporating both hints of Nomi and comedian Andy Kaufman, of whom Letissier is also a fan.
“I was like, I’m going to make the audience feel uncomfortable for a while by staying silent and staring at them,” she says of those early performances. “I had the energy of a kamikaze. I was out of a really dark place and I did things I couldn’t do now. I was lucky that the audience were nice every time. I don’t know if it was good but it was weird for sure.”
Christine and the Queens at SXSW 2015. The mega-fan.
Christine was born in a suit, a sartorial bent that’s now fully incorporated into Letissier’s own wardrobe. Dresses and heels are banished forever in favor of menswear by Givenchy and Carven, not to mention the sharp silhouettes of Saint Laurent and Chloe—“because it’s quite effortless and free.” Because she’s so slight, sometimes she shops in the boys section, and was thrilled when Dior Homme recently crafted suit to her measurements.
“I think it’s really elegant,” she says. “I was a big fan of Annie Hall. It’s not about being androgynous because I’m not androgynous, although I would love to be, it’s more a symbol of taking men’s clothes and because of the silhouette it creates and how it makes you move… you don’t dance the same if you’re in a dress. I love the idea of being neutral and having this neutral energy so you can be everything else. It’s not too fussy and you can arrive and sit and spread your legs and be confident. I always felt Christine was going to be that way.”
These days Letissier describes Christine as more generous and more pop: “I’m also dancing more and more. I used to not move but now I’m taking control of my body. I know more how to share and I’m less shy.”
Already an award winner in France and signed to super-cool label Because (Metronomy, Justice, Charlotte Gainsbourg), Christine and the Queens is currently charming audiences on a small Stateside run to promote her lately released five-track EP, St. Claude—the tickets for which sold out weeks ago. She might still feel like something of an outsider, but her creations are connecting. That’s not to say the Christine of 2015 doesn’t like toying with the audience, subverting expectations in front of so many rapt, upturned faces. On St. Claude’s powerful opening cut “iT” she repeats the unlikely refrain “I’m a man now” over and over.
“I love that song—it feels like a queer anthem,” she says. “I enjoy singing ‘I’m a man now,’ every night, mainly because of the confused faces of the crowd.”
St. Claude is out now on Because / Neon Gold. Christine and the Queens Tour Dates
4.17-18 - The Observatory North Park, San Diego, CA - with Marina and the Diamonds
4.21 - Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY
4.23 - The Westway, New York, NY
Letissier and Noisey in Texas. Kim Taylor Bennett is an editor at Noisey and she's on Twitter.