On a late summer morning, Heloise Letissier — the 30-year-old pansexual pop phenomenon who’s garnered worldwide renown upending gender norms as Christine and the Queens — sits at an outdoor cafe in Manhattan’s East Village, drinking a glass of water. Though she is French, she neither smokes nor drinks, and though it’s barely 10 A.M., she’s already had enough coffee. “It’s my only vice,” she says. Too much and her heart starts to palpitate.
Christine — even her friends call Letissier by her stage name, which she has now shortened, along with her hair, to pursue a more masculine, aggressive persona for her excellent new album, Chris — has achieved the kind of stardom overseas that’s seen her brought onstage by Madonna and shouted out by Paul McCartney. In the U.K., the English language version of her first album, Chaleur Humaine (Human Warmth, though the hint of body heat isn’t far off the mark), was the best-selling debut of 2016, and the besuited, color-saturated visuals that accompanied it have turned up in videos from Dua Lipa and Tove Styrke.
Yet she cuts an unassuming figure today in an oversize black denim jacket and a brightly colored plaid shirt. Her sleeves are pushed up, revealing the tattoos on her forearms, in black block capitals. On her right arm, “We Accept You.” On the left, “One Of Us.”
It’s a line from Freaks, a 1932 movie about a beautiful con woman who falls in with a troupe of circus sideshow performers, beloved by both film scholars and the Ramones, who lifted their “Gabba Gabba Hey” chant from the same scene that gave rise to Letissier’s tattoos. She got them eight years ago, during a moment of struggle with her direction and identity that followed her expulsion from drama school in Lyon, after she insisted on her right to direct a play. The ink was an instruction, to the world and to herself. “I was just trying to put on my skin the idea that I would stop to feel ashamed,” she says. “It’s such a striking metaphor about acceptance, and monsters not being the ones we think could be the monsters. At that point in my life, I felt monstrous myself. And it was a way to reverse the process.”
During a three-week trip to London, a chance encounter with three drag queens who encouraged her to stop brooding and start singing helped open up the rest of the process. Letissier embraced pop music as way of combining her love of theater and dance, and Christine and the Queens were born. (It’s a solo act, despite the group name and backup dancers.) A series of EPs gave way to Chaleur Humaine, a collection of keyboard-driven tracks that were at once cooled-out and jittery. The songs talked about heartbreak and desire and treated gender like something that could be applied with magic marker. On the first track, “iT,” Christine sang about drawing her crotch herself and declared, “I’m a man now.”
In interviews, she talked about her attraction to individuals regardless of sex or gender identity. “People were like, ‘Yeah, you’re gay,'” she says. But she rejected binarism, or any definition. “Often there is a comfort in choosing. I never felt like I could do it. Because I felt constantly surprised by desire as a force of chaos, and constantly unsure of how I could define myself. My eroticism is made of exploring. Being confused is my eroticism.”
She’s drawn to shape-shifters — “creatures who seem to be constantly transforming” — whether they’re drag performers or David Bowie. “I love the idea of constantly altering yourself,” she says. Her thinking, her desire — her body and mind — are not fixed; in fact, she says the athletic physique she developed after years of touring was part of the inspiration for the musical and sexual confidence she flaunts on Chris. “I saw the muscles surface,” she says. “I was high on the thought of being altered. From record to record you see someone shedding skin. I’m announcing to myself a second stage of freedom, which is a bit more widened and scary and exciting.”
“My eroticism is made of exploring. Being confused is my eroticism.”
In making Chris, she wanted to draw on the music of the early ’90s — Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s productions for Janet Jackson, the emergence of g-funk — a sound “that could be warm, almost like flesh pulsing with blood, and still be minimalistic. They were building monsters of efficiency, but also flamboyance and extravaganza.” She worked on tracks in her basement in Paris, pre-producing everything on her computer using Logic Pro X and a MIDI controller. When things were clicking, she could have a finished song in 20 minutes, and she maintained complete control of the recording sessions in Paris and Los Angeles, as she does each aspect of her videos and staging. Her goal was to create a pop virus that lodges in your head, smuggling in more complex emotions and ideas. Pop, for her, is “a Trojan Horse for something more.”
On Chris, that something more is a swaggering sense of self that’s at once more masculine and feminine than on Chaleur Humaine. The smoothly grinding “Girlfriend” tangles sex boasts with word games designed to ask what is a girl, what is a friend, what is a lover? The electro percolations of “5 Dollars” and “Damn (What Must a Woman Do)” ponder power, money and sex. And just like on a Madonna album, ballads like “Make Some Sense” and “What’s Her Name” hit even harder.
“I wanted to make complicated narratives,” Letissier says. At their center is “this multi-faceted character of a woman who can be extremely lustful and extremely depressed, extremely powerful and extremely vulnerable. It’s not just a pose. It’s a reality for me. I mean, it’s not easy for me to understand, so why would it be easy for other people to understand?”
She knew the complexities of Chris were connecting when the video for “Girlfriend” came out in May. In it, she grinds and struts across a construction site, flexing her biceps and exposing her navel, and she delighted in the response from heterosexual men expressing both confusion and excitement. “I was like, ‘You’re welcome,” she says. “‘Have a great night.'”