Feminist, LGBTQ champion, alt-pop star – Christine And The Queens’ Héloïse Letissier is the musician we all need right now
We Brits have an age-old inferiority complex when it comes to French women and style. Our envy of their shoulder-shrugging brand of Gallic chic has sold a thousand ‘how the French do it’ coffee-table books. With her cool cigarette suits and tousled hair, Nantes-born musician Héloïse Letissier (better known by her stage name Christine And The Queens) is a perfect case in point. But if it’s any consolation, according to Letissier, the French feel exactly the same about us Brits – except with pop music.
In fact, for Letissier, one of the biggest shocks of her stunning debut electro-pop album, Chaleur Humaine, was how well it went down over here. ‘French musicians have a fear of releasing something in the UK,’ she says. ‘Because you have this immense pop culture. As French people, our pop scene isn’t as overwhelming as yours, so we immediately shiver and go, “Oh my god, they’re going to judge us so bad.” But I didn’t have to explain myself here, and that was really surprising.’
Perhaps that’s partly due to the fact that the idea for 28-year-old Letissier’s pop persona ‘Christine’ was born in the UK. In 2010, fleeing France after a bad break-up, she came to London and wound up watching a drag act in the (now closed) Soho gay club Madame Jojos. It was there that she befriended a trio of drag queens, who helped mend her broken heart. Christine And The Queens was born. ‘I used to be a cynic, but since then I couldn’t be because [that experience] was like something out of a novel, something that probably saved me,’ she says.
She returned to France with fresh vigour and set about breaking into the music industry. Finding a record label in Paris that wouldn’t force her to ditch the trademark androgynous wardrobe for leotards and skyscraper heels was a challenge. ‘You have meetings with labels and they welcome you, but at the same time they’re projecting on you. “Oh, maybe soften that part… You could perhaps try dresses.” I was like, “Oh, you don’t get it, do you?” I don’t blame them, sometimes people are ticking boxes, and some singers are doing that [feminine look] fantastically and I love them for that. I eventually signed somewhere where they just got my character.’
Letissier identifies as pansexual, but feels conflicted about discussing it at length. She tells me that on one hand she’s happy to help advance the conversation on gender and champion LGBTQ rights, but equally she doesn’t want her sexuality to become a badge of identity. As she points out, Beyoncé isn’t known as a ‘heterosexual pop star’. Letissier says her pop alter ego Christine is more a state of mind than a persona. ‘Sometimes I feel more like I’m a character in everyday life, when I have to shake hands and pretend at dinners. On stage, it feels like I’m totally free and unafraid of being raw. My friends were really moved when I started to [perform], because they were like, “This is you. You’re not hiding any more.”’
Getting to finally be herself has clearly paid off. By the end of 2014, Chaleur Humaine had already made her a sensation in France – she was dubbed the Gallic Gaga – but the subsequent re-release of the record with three new tracks in the US (2015) and UK (2016) saw her go global. Her most memorable performance to date, at Glastonbury last summer, couldn’t have been more timely. The day after Britain’s Brexit vote, she stood on the Pyramid Stage with a white rose in her hand. ‘We brought flowers, because this is a first date between you and I,’ she said. A dejected, largely pro-remain crowd of millennials roared their approval. ‘It feels like something you can’t fight,’ she says, of the increasing divisions around the world following the EU vote, Trump and the rise of the right ahead of France’s presidential election in May. ‘However, I do believe we are entering times when artists have to stand up for something.’ Even, she points out, if that something is uncomfortable. ‘Sometimes I do feel like people would like me to be less feminist, because it’ll be easier,’ she says. ‘But that isn’t what I stand for.’
Perhaps it’s this uncompromising stance, or the complete unselfconsciousness with which she carries herself, but fans of Letissier say she’s also the ultimate girl and boy crush. ‘Everyone I know likes her. She’s a sex symbol,’ a friend tells me. Does she feel like a sex symbol? ‘Sex symbol?’ she laughs in surprise. ‘OK, well that’s made my day! I do believe in being confident, empowered and sexual. If it ends up with me being a sex symbol, then that’s wonderful,’ she pauses, chewing on the thought. ‘I’m going to try and live up to that now. Sex symbol… Ha!’
The album, Chaleur Humaine, is out now via Because Music.
Styled by Jayne Pickering
Photographs by Drew Wheeler
Hair by Johnnie Biles at Frank Agency using Bumble & bumble. Make-up by Michelle Dacillo at Caren using Dior Spring Look 17 and Capture Totale Dreamskin. Nails by Jessica Thompson at Frank Agency using Dior Nail Glow and Capture Totale Nurturing Hand Repair Cream.
Set designer: Bryony Edwards. Set assistants: Rosalind Gahamire & Becky Kirk.