This article originally appeared in Q389.
In 2016, Christine And The Queens had the biggest-selling debut of the year, bringing pansexuality into mainstream pop culture, to standing ovations from Madonna and Elton John. In 2018, the French star returns with a new identity – Chris – and a snappier sound built to swallow the globe. But does selling over a million albums complete you? The singer talks identity, sex, da funk and the meaning of life with Laura Snapes.
When Christine and the Queens performed at Radio 1’s Biggest Weekend this May, Twitter could only talk about one thing. It was not Chris’s tough new backing dancers. Nor was it the BBC’s decision to have her comeback performance clash with Taylor Swift. No: it was the whopping great love bite on her neck. Chris – formerly known as Christine, née Héloïse Letissier – speaks the Queen’s English but the French musician learned a new word that day. “The hickey,” she repeats, pleased by the sound and the prudish outcry.
She has another one today: a smattering of purple speckles under a black-and-white neckerchief. Chris, her dancers, her French label, American label, an Apple Music film crew and dedicated caterers are in Saint-Omer, North-East France, to conclude a week of production rehearsals in an empty venue. Chris isn’t singing or dancing in these rehearsals – that won’t happen until August, the month before her second LP arrives. Instead she sits at a long table facing proceedings in the role of stage director, making notes and commenting via a mic. The male dancers keep vanishing to watch France’s World Cup fixture against Argentina. “Mort au patriarcat!” Chris yells – death to the patriarchy! – half joking, half absolutely not.
They sprint back and rehearsals proceed. Chris conceived the whole thing from sketches up and needs to see if it works. Huge backdrops projected with dramatic landscape paintings drop and sweep offstage. These are temporary, she stresses: the real things will actually be painted. Instrument risers slide on and off, contracting and widening the space until sometimes the boards are completely bare. Fake snow falls (incandescent powder, not wet foam globs) and a dancer fires a green smoke grenade. “Non, non, c’est trop tôt!” Chris shouts – too early. They break, letting the sinister cloud dissipate, then try again. The aim is to create something monumental without using standard effects, “something quite hedonistic and sensual and overly dripping with desire”. They’re getting there. “This is the risk of deciding on your own,” says Chris. “Either it’s good or I’m fucked.”
Her attention to detail makes it seem extremely unlikely that the original hickey was accidental. “What do you think?” she pouts jokily. The sun-averse 30-year-old is wilting over lunch in the scorching car park, lifting her chair like an aggrieved hermit crab to shuffle towards shade. While serious at work, she naturally sends herself up, exclaiming, “Oh la!” if she gets over-serious. Of course, she asked someone to give it to her specifically for the show, though receiving it wasn’t exactly a business matter. “It was a simple sign of unapologetic desire – kind of dirty in a way – but it’s weird, no, how infuriating it can be for people?” She’s pleased yet baffled: are people that easily shocked? (And no, she didn’t get a fresh one for this interview. Occupational hazard.)
Here is where we left Chris at the end of 2016. She had the UK’s biggest-selling debut with Chaleur Humaine, identity and isolation set to shimmering synth-pop. Her luminous Glastonbury performance single-handedly prevented newly Brexited Britain from laying face-down in the mud and never getting up. Fêted by Elton John and Madonna, she helped bring pansexuality and gender-fluidity into the mainstream and repeatedly out-styled Harry Styles when they kept getting snapped in the same opulent suits. A pop identity born from depression, even suicidal thoughts, made her the country’s most beloved new star. All she’d ever wanted was to be accepted and understood. The nerd became a superhero, the outsider crowned prom queen, roll credits. What next?
Chris didn’t really show her body before – she was convinced her work wouldn’t be taken seriously if she did. But YouTube commenters still debated her fuckability and doubted that she wrote and produced her music. Her generous conversations about sexuality and gender were flattened. She started feeling like a Rorschach test, addressed as a projection, not a person, leaving her lonely and depressed again. “I was doing everything for people to actually know me, and then I was furious at the result.” The more she explained, the less anyone seemed to get it. So maybe she would just stop explaining. “There is a form of resistance in complicating the story.”
Not to underestimate Chaleur Humaine. Beyond the bald facts of success, the album did what therapists couldn’t. They told her to stop constructing her own reality: she said, “Tell me something I don’t know”, and stopped after two sessions. Her early 20s were a “nightmare” of agonising perfectionism, romantic rejection and expulsion from a theatre school that refused to let her (or any female student) direct. Christine saved her: born first as a dark journal character and alchemised as a pop star after encouragement from some no-nonsense London drag queens. Becoming a stage athlete “felt mending and empowering”.
After that sexist expulsion, she fantasised about “dicks solving problems I was having” and wrote Chaleur Humaine’s It: “I’m a man now,” she sang, “and there’s nothing you can do to make me change my mind.” But Christine slowly, surprisingly, sent her “back into my woman’s body”. As a teenager, despite her professor parents respectfully discussing her every emotion (for better or worse), welcoming her queerness and bookishness, she remained obsessed with attaining the “perfect image of a girl that I would never be”. She would sabotage hook-ups because the ambience was wrong: surely prospective girlfriends would vomit in her face if bad lighting revealed her true monstrousness.
The stage name had to go. She wanted to escape the Christine story, plus friends were calling her Chris now. It felt efficient, joyous. Plus Héloïse is hard to shorten: “Hélo” makes people yell, “’Ello, ’Ello!” and “Lolo” is French slang for nipples, which the flat-chested teenager never appreciated. She cut her curls into a bob, then a chic quiff. People started asking if she was transitioning: hadn’t they listened to It, that song about dicks she’d been singing for four years? Today her hair is the functional crop of a 12-year-old boy – crucially less French gamine, more the kind of soft brush that aunts love to ruffle. It’s slicked back on the cover of Chris, her second album, framing an expression halfway between sneer and solicitation.
Performing made her proud of her 5’2” figure, “seeing some muscles surface and your silhouette getting tighter, functional, the pleasure of dancing, authoring your body through the art.” She became “more narcissistic”, eager to bare skin. While she had experienced “great love stories”, sex was usually crippled by similar fears over stage direction. Body confidence changed that. “I really discovered how carnal and raw and beautifully dirty sex could be: how empowering and moving and creatively interesting.”
Chris opens with a smash and a yelp, something broken and awoken. It is exactly what she said it would be in interviews from 2016 (Chaleur Humaine was released in France in 2014, so she had time to plan): sweatier, harder, more erotic, echoing Janet Jackson and strung-out Serge Gainsbourg. There is still sadness, shame and crystalline balladry, but it also borrows from G-funk, LA gangsta rap’s raunchy soul, to buoy her feminine machismo: Damn (What Must A Woman Do) beseeches prospective male and female conquests to just pleasure her, s’il vous fucking plaît. Insults hardened into beauty marks on Chaleur Humaine; Chris’s trophies are sweat, throbbing veins and the flushed cheeks she used to conceal, departing insular spaces and missed connections to grind against the world and revel in the rashes.
Still, Chris wasn’t truly born until a photographer called her bluff. A French magazine asked her to write un autoportrait to accompany some photos. She turned in eight purple pages. The Italian photographer read it: “It’s wonderful but where is Chris, I don’t really see her now?” She stuttered: “Uhh yes, but, uh, you know, I write and I am going to after that become…” He made her do it right then, yelling, “You are like Marlon Brando BUT YOU’RE A WOMAN!” In the photos she has abs like Action Man and pants slung so low they’d make Justin Bieber blush.
Becoming everything she had wanted was terrifying. “I’m going to have to show something of my personality that I haven’t shown yet and it’s going to be fucking scary.” Her mum worries she’s setting girls a bad example. But maybe people will get it: her team, initially confused, now oil her muscles before shoots. Mostly, birthing these hidden parts felt like release. “I knew I could have that freedom, I wanted to have it, but I had to find something to allow me to.”
If Chris actually wanted to locate the source of her repression, she could always revisit the shrinks. But it was much more fun to use her newfound confidence to embrace the chaos that tormented her younger self. Despite accepting her gender, she’s still furious she never got to be a male writer: why can men be empowered by their voice when her identity is always up for debate? So she wired Chris, the album, with counter-signals. The first single, Girlfriend, was a bolshy reclamation of sexual swagger. The second, Doesn’t Matter, uses a writhing Jam and Lewis-inspired skeleton to gird her saddest song, written at a moment when genuine human connection felt impossible. Satisfaction clashes against self-sabotage, while shame is both a weapon and the dead weight that stops her getting out of bed. She sings about vanishing and, on The Walker, striding chin-out into a world that would rather recoil from her lack of shame. She is not going to reconcile the gaps.
On a business level, it means she can’t be misunderstood. Before label Because agreed to let her self-produce Chris, she agreed to two ultimately dissatisfying studio sessions, one with Mark Ronson, one with Damon Albarn. Both had very specific ideas of what she would do: Ronson asked her to ad lib in her mother tongue. Unaccustomed to improvising, her stress mounted: “So they want an exotic French topline?!” Nothing came of either.
It also means she can’t be ripped off as easily. Madonna admitted to borrowing from the video to Saint Claude, in which Christine danced against a red backdrop and floated into the air. Charlotte Gainsbourg picked her brain about choreography, though others didn’t give her credit. She calls the video for Dua Lipa’s IDGAF “blatant” – the sleek suits, colourwash backdrops, the dancing, though what really gave it away was Lipa’s incorporation of rude French gesture la barbe. She doesn’t want to be “shady” but doesn’t get the point of copying. “Why not find original ideas?” She understands the “big machine of pop music, eating and digesting, right? So I’m eaten.” What bothered her was not necessarily being known enough to be recognised as the inspiration. “But what’s the point in being bitter.”
The new show wasn’t inspired by other pop performances, but by European choreographers and theatre directors. Chris is still a pathological perfectionist. She made the album in English and French so her native fans weren’t shortchanged. If only she could paint the live backdrops as well. Mid-afternoon in Calais, there’s an impromptu break. Chris vanishes – manager Flavie says she’s upset. The American label wanted to film her rehearsing but since she hadn’t been on set she was anxious about disappointing them. “Why do they ask me that if they know I’m still not onstage? I don’t want to give something that’s not memorable.” She said no, a new and surprisingly effective skill.
Off tour and out of a long-term relationship with a woman, she searched for anger “in places where I knew I would find it”. She was back in “heteroland”, nursing an inexplicable attraction to “basic” straight boys who she knew would prove a mistake: attracted to her body but intimidated by her power, money, “phallic” attitude. Friends who misunderstood her pansexuality – attraction to all genders – asked if dating men betrayed her queerness. Some partners attempted to shame her adventurousness, which had the opposite effect. Guys would ask, “‘Oh, so you do that on the first night?’ With judgement! I was like, ‘Well, you let me do that on the first night, what the fuck is wrong with you!’ How is it a trophy for dudes and not for girls?” It all felt pleasurable, another way to disrupt, even if she risked getting hurt. “It’s a real way to take power over your body, choosing what you inflict on yourself. I think everyone has this relationship to hurtling into the void.”
She started writing Notes On Wanting, a journal about the “intricacies and the joys and the unexpected beauty of wanting people and living your desire”. The more she wrote, the more she wanted to write, and to write more, she had to live more, “to try more, to have more and be less afraid of it”. She calls it a detonation. “The more I let go, the more I learn how to be a lover, and the more I learn how to be a lover, the less I care.” Dating is hard as a public figure: she struggled with the idea that her celebrity might attract people – but accepted it after realising that she is, theoretically, famous for being herself.
There was heartbreak – three rounds – but a better kind than before. “The eroticism comes from the disappointment and the fact that I’ve lived and it’s failed. Which is way different from Chaleur Humaine, which had something way more nocturnal and self-wounded pain. The second one, I’m smashing against people, but it’s tasty in a way, to try and fail.”
She just doesn’t care any more “if people think I’m slutty or shoving too much of my body and my face in their head”. Madonna and the avant-garde memoirist Maggie Nelson taught her that you don’t have to make people forget that you’re a “lusting woman” to be considered a writer. She laughs: “I want to be the cleverest woman in the room but also the sluttiest if I want, and this character can work.”
When Chris started soliciting Paris’s production companies for directors to realise her meticulous music video treatments, she discovered that she had another nickname: the bitch. “The bitch has another idea she wants to do!” She hoots.
It was not affectionate ribbing. She was aghast for two seconds, then let go. Fine: she would be the “bossy bitch”. She had already embraced the role of leader in the studio in LA, writing a letter to her male engineers to clarify that she was producing the album. Chris doesn’t do booze or drugs, but sucked down Rescue Remedy to drown her nerves as she instructed her vintage musicians, graduates of Janet Jackson and Annie Lennox records. There was no improvisation. “Sometimes if they were playing a different note, just the third one, I was like – with valerian coursing through my veins – ‘Can we just change a note, please!’”
For Chaleur Humaine, Chris says she was advised not to make too much noise about the fact that she did almost everything then, too. She suspected that nobody had ever said that to a male artist, but went with it – besides, she finds behind-the-scenes stuff cheesy and undermining. The result was critics, haters, even fans blithely asserting that she didn’t write her own material. Just last weekend, she found two guys on Twitter saying as much (yes, she still looks). She was miserable: perhaps she would have to document her workings to make people believe that She. Does. Everything. She gets angry for the first time: “Now I do understand Grimes doing fucking pictures of her with a laptop – and some people still believe she’s staging shit.”
Having her agency questioned has been a pain in her ass since she was young enough to create. (She recalls the first time writing stirred her, age 11, authoring a gruesome story about a man slicing up his wife’s body. Her mother asked if she got it off the internet. As if she got it off the internet!) Maybe it’s because the great French female musicians are nearly all male muses, bar perhaps ’80s giant Mylène Farmer. “Shit is taken away from me all the time and I’m the bitch” – she spits – “who is always like, ‘IT’S MINE.’” It makes her skin flush and her jaw pimple. Does she lack authority? Why won’t people listen?
But then, the flipside of being undermined as a female musician is being credited but labelled a control freak. Chris was delighted when a recent Le Monde profile asked her collaborators if she was a tyrant. Because she knows she isn’t actually a bitch, she’s happy to be perceived as a threat. She should be perceived as one. “I felt at some point everything I was trying to say was simplified to a point where it was inoffensive. To me, the queer aesthetic was a threat in a good way. It’s a threat to an established order and the suffocating norm and even capitalism if you think it’s a construction of society and violence as it is. So as soon as it was simplified and digested and, ‘Ooh, the list of queer artists to watch!’, something was upsetting me. I was like, ‘You can’t make it so easy. You can’t put us in a box and talk about us like that.’”
Chris’s journey is, in theory, exactly what modern pop preaches: Empowerment! Celebrating individuality! #Icons! But modern pop is also a corporate narrative. Any woman who is too empowered, too confident, forgoes aspiration and relatability, the anaemic twin engines of today’s stardom. Chris proposes a different kind of bargain, not preaching you-do-you rhetoric, but living and radiating it. She represents the same alien, unreachable imperfections as pop stars from Johnny Ray onward. Like Madonna and Annie Lennox, she is a woman doing exactly what she wants. Like Prince, she controls the means of production and has the talent to back it up. Like Michael Jackson, she is a singing-dancing double threat. A woman once expressed outrage that Chris dared to be both angry and ugly in a video: how dare she just shrug off femininity’s constricting standards so easily? What about the rest of us? The threat of freedom puts her at a remove and raises a question: does iconography depend on distance or intimacy? And does she even want to be an icon?
She’s in a weird transitional phase. She had been fantasising that Chris would be her Slim Shady, her Gainsbarre – Eminem and Serge Gainsbourg’s covers for their depraved, self-loathing sides – but couldn’t pull it off. “Something freaks me out about the idea of being removed like that, because it’s a choice, in a way, that is freaky or schizophrenic and demands a mental gymnastic that could confine you to slight madness.”And loneliness. “There is a place where you sit like an icon.” She gestures towards an imaginary elevated podium. “And I feel more like a boxer. There’s a sense of rage now. Maybe you can’t be raging and an icon.” Besides, she says: “I’m still waiting for this thing to save me a bit.”
A week later, Chris is in London, pointing at a lightly concealed face wound she sustained last night. She was at Paris Fashion Week, the kind of high-stress panto that causes her to break out in a rash anyway. Jean Paul Gaultier’s models were walking to Damn, dis-moi, the French version of Girlfriend. Paparazzi and Instagram seekers swarmed her after the show. Some peacock evidently more at home at Fashion Week brandished a hand fan and sliced her cheek with its sharp monture. Blood started pouring down her face. People were filming. “It was kind of cool though, a disruption of blood and dirt.”
She’s only sorry it didn’t cut hard enough to leave a scar. It would have been the perfect battle wound for Chris – a baroque echo of a very specific kind of shame. She felt shit – “like shit” – winding up at things like fashion weeks because of her success and only goes now to honour professional obligations. They always made her feel dirty, like she was waiting for someone to point and yell, “Get out!” It wasn’t the latent rage of a teenage girl oppressed by mainstream beauty standards standing in the crucible where they’re formed. It was the shame she felt as a woman from a working-class background entering the world of untrammelled luxury. Her professor parents were elevated from agricultural backgrounds by literature. That’s one thing her family don’t talk about enough. They were overjoyed by her success but didn’t know how to react to money arriving in her life.
She re-read Pierre Bourdieu, the French philosopher who surveyed the generational maintenance and transfer of power and capital, and remembered that “the memory of the working class is a memory that is passed on, without being said, as a way to act”. Even here in this bar, in her bright tropical shirt, she doesn’t know how to command authority. “I realised that me having money was a subversion in my family: I’m now in the world being the dominant.”
As much as it disrupts, maybe money – laying bare the transactions inherent in pop stardom, desire, success – could solve things. On new songs 5 Dollars and Damn (What Must A Woman Do) she references paying for sex: “Do I have to pay? Cos I sure can pay,” she pleads on the latter. She won’t say whether she actually does because the truth doesn’t really matter. “I fantasise about if I did. It became one of the things that could excite me – for what it could install and what it could actually soothe. Because it’s the catharsis to all of those questions in a really simple, settled way, which can be, actually, sexually freeing.”
She thought about how everyone has a price. “Why do people love each other, what transactions happen? The hustler as a pop trope is there. Some people do lots of expensive private gigs. When people pay to see you perform, they expect you to perform this way and maybe have a selfie afterwards. There is an endless way to think of those transactions that is kind of troubling, that sometimes feels like borderline hustling – but in a good way, also. Clever people, mentally strong people, can play with that really well, but you have to be confident about who you are. You have to not have missing pieces.”
That’s the thing: as unassailable as she seems, there are still missing pieces. She still sings about being a misunderstood teenager (What’s-Her-Face: “my name became a slur”) because she still feels like one, especially if anyone condescends to her. “I had to give justice to that because it’s part of who I am and it built my eroticism and it built my life also.” She doesn’t know how not to be brutally honest, but that doesn’t mean she understands everything that happens to her. From here, she doesn’t know what Chris looks like next.
There is a new tattoo on her forearm, a dagger through a tiny heart. She got it in LA with her then-boyfriend. “It was really cheesy, but it was delicious that it was cheesy.” She doesn’t regret being permanently linked to him – the opposite. She likes how épidermique a tattoo can be – how épidermique life can be. It doesn’t translate well – “epidermal” is too biological. In French it means skin-deep, instinctive. A love bite fades a lot faster than it takes people to forget it.