Book Review: Caught in the Act by Shane Jenek aka Courtney Act ★★★★1/2

There’s more to Australian drag superstar Courtney Act than meets the eye, and I’m not talking about the obvious tricks of plucking and tucking. Courtney Act, aka Shane Jenek, has forged a multimedia career based on talent and hard graft. If your only knowledge of Jenek is from RuPaul’s Drag Race then his memoir, Caught in the Act, will fill in all the gaps.

As he writes in the introduction, this book “reads at times like sexed-up Tumblr fanfic”, and he’s not wrong. Jenek has had misadventures and near misses that he retells with a performer’s candour and wit. It’s disarming and a bit of a slight of hand. You’ll laugh, but you’ll also understand the hurt and heartbreak behind the funny verbal flips. Courtney Act is known as the glamour queen with a heart of gold, and that’s the kind of book you get with Caught in the Act.

Courtney Act aka Shane Jenek. Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair.

Jenek tells it all here; from a childhood questioning gender with loving parents, to experimenting with drag and slowly crafting the persona that would burst onto Australian television screens in Australian Idol, then later RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Big Brother UK. A stage school child (growing up with pop-duo The Veronicas) Jenek is more than happy to play mother and serve the tea, but neither Shane nor Courtney are mean souls and the temperature is kept hot enough to titillate, but not to offend.

Jenek is a storyteller and has obviously spent a lot of time looking at his own life and experiences, learning lessons from the events that shaped both him and Courtney. There are plenty of familiar touchstones, discovering the gay scene and generally “growing up gay”. As someone who grew up in the same queer scene, his stories of Sydney’s gay mile, Oxford Street, as it was in the 90s brought a warm smile to my face. The glorious, vibrant years before apps and smartphones would change the queerscape.

Shane Jenek. Photo credit: Magnus Hastings.

The great thing about Courtney Act is that she’s not a “dumb blonde”, even if she choses to act like it sometimes. Beneath Courtney’s wig, Jenek’s brain is working, taking an almost scholarly approach to issues of gender, sexuality, and society that would make him the talk of Britain and eventually the winner of Celebrity Big Brother UK. The book is littered with ‘Courtney Facts’ to help bring you up to speed on the potentially bewildering spray of queer terminology; I learned a few new ones myself. It’s clear there is a solid philosophy behind the pretty face.

Before you start yawning and think this reads like a textbook, you can relax. Caught in the Act is dripping with celebrity names, Drag Race chatter, and enough silly moments to keep you flicking through the pages (yes, there is Ru gossip). Jenek is, after all, one of Australia’s great showpeople! The razzle-dazzle will keep you entertained, and the emotional highs and lows will tug at your heartstrings. 

Courtney Act aka Shane Jenek. Photo credit: Joseph Sinclair.

Caught in the Act is like, well, really good sex. It’s fun, enthralling, emotional, cathartic even, and you’ll probably learn a new trick or two to add to your repertoire. As a memoir, it’s candid and enlightening, and might leave you examining your own life with a less judgmental eye.

By Chad Armstrong

Caught in the Act by Shane Jenek is available now from your local independent bookstore, or the usual online retailers.

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