A Performance Artist Pushes the Boundaries of Drag

The Market Hotel, a gritty music club in Brooklyn that shakes every time the subway rumbles overhead, gets its share of rowdy performances. But even its hardened patrons were not prepared for the spectacle of Christeene, a self-described “drag terrorist” who held an album release party on a recent Wednesday night.

As discordant jazz notes erupted, Christeene waltzed through the dark graffiti-splattered room wearing a leotard made of ripped pantyhose, a stringy black wig, makeup resembling zombie war paint and aquamarine contacts that gave her eyes a radioactive glow.

“All of us are dealing with something,” she said, before singing ballads about self-destruction and venereal diseases. “Whatever you’re dealing with, throw it to me on this stage.”

Christeene is the drag alter ego of Paul Soileau, 46, a musician and performance artist whose punk theatrics have been described as watching “Beyoncé on bath salts.”

The evening after the show, Mr. Soileau was relaxing in his cluttered one-bedroom apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn..

“Christeene is an artist, entertainer, a sister — really she’s a switchblade,” Mr. Soileau, said in a guttural Cajun drawl, his hair a platinum-blond mullet. He was dressed in a white T-shirt and pink eyeglasses, and he was surrounded by books on Angela Davis and Edward Gorey, half-opened paint sets, a taxidermy chicken and his cat, Tickles Pickles.

“Once the eye makeup, gold tooth and wig goes on, I give up and let Christeene jump in,” he added, gesturing to ratty hairpieces hung on the door. “I never drop character.”

Over the last 14 years, being a vessel for Christeene has turned Mr. Soileau into a celebrated performer in the underground world of music, art and fashion. He joins in the tradition of downtown New York characters who use shock theatrics to challenge gender and decency norms, including the “Flaming Creatures” filmmaker Jack Smith; the performance artist Karen Finley; the punk-drag artist Vaginal Davis; and the art provocateur Kembra Pfahler.

Mr. Soileau is “a fractured romantic dystopian character that lives between ‘Buffy the Vampire Killer,’ Wallis Simpson, Veronica Lake and a fainting couch,” Ms. Finley wrote in an email.

As Christeene, Mr. Soileau recently performed at the annual New Year’s Day marathon reading at St. Mark’s Church organized by the Poetry Project, staged a tribute show to Sinead O’Connor at London’s Barbican Center and sang a duet in underwear with the electroclash trailblazer Peaches at Avant Gardner in Brooklyn.

“From the moment we met, we were witchy, kindred sisters ready to collaborate” Peaches said.

He collaborates with like-minded artists including the designer Rick Owens and his wife, Michèle Lamy (in a fashion film); Juergen Teller (in photos for i-D magazine); JD Samson of the dance-punk group Le Tigre (a lecture on the power of wigs and makeup for a class Professor Samson teaches at New York University); and Fever Ray, half of the former Swedish synth-pop duo the Knife (the pair will go on tour in May).

“There is this monster inside of all of us that we would love to release every once in a while, but we just can’t,” said Mr. Owens, who flew Mr. Soileau to Paris in 2019 to participate in an “art orgy” at the Pompidou Center.

Mr. Soileau’s histrionics trace back to his childhood in Lake Charles, a small city in Louisiana, where he was active in school plays. After studying theater at Loyola University New Orleans, he moved to New York City in 1998 to pursue acting, though he landed only bit roles.

Between auditions, he was a bar back at Barracuda, a gay bar in Chelsea. There he picked up techniques from the transgender actress Candis Cayne and the drag comedian Jackie Beat. “They contributed to my understanding of how to command a room,” he said.

Needing a break from the New York party scene and space to develop his characters, he moved back to New Orleans in 2005, and then to Austin, Texas, the year after Hurricane Katrina. To make ends meet, he worked as a drive-through barista at a Starbucks.

“Christeene became a vessel for me to pour it all into, as though I summoned this spirit slash demon into my life to accompany me,” he said.

Over the next few years, he continued creating his new persona by dressing up at home, taking photos and writing music. A mutual friend introduced him to the filmmaker PJ Raval, who ended up directing Christeene’s first music video in 2009: a low-fi, lowbrow clip with a grinding beat and raunchy lyrics.

Mr. Soileau’s transgressive antics got the attention of Boy George, who praised Christeene’s “unapologetic, sick show” on Twitter after seeing Christeene at the Soho Theater in London.

The raunchiness is not always well received. When Christeene opened for the rock band Faith No More in 2015, the crowd booed.

Back in Brooklyn, Mr. Soileau walked to his work space at the opposite end of his apartment, and began rifling through an unkempt pile of Christeene’s clothes: a pair of yellow-painted boots with a busted heel, bracelets made from blue mayonnaise jar lids, various soot-covered fabric scraps.

“I really experience her as a relationship,” Mr. Soileau said with a sigh, gazing at a broken stiletto. “Sometimes I am ready to take a break from her, and I’m sure she’s ready to take a break from me. But what can I say? I just love the challenge of keeping this crazy boat afloat.”

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