“Let’s pretend that I’m a man for the next song,” Héloïse Letissier announces from a stage in Berlin, before striking a strong, wide-legged pose in front of her own looming shadow and launching into her anthemic song “iT.” Flexing from bicep to toes in her tailored suit, the French artist channels Fred Astaire as much as she does Ginger Rogers— with more than a dash of Michael Jackson. This moment comes from just one of her endlessly watchable live performances on YouTube, which are each wildly different: there’s the session where she sings from behind a star-flecked gauze headpiece, or the clip from French TV where she performs her Kanye West homage, “Paradis Perdus,” in a comically oversized pink suit. In each, she adopts outlandish characteristics or outfits that would threaten to overwhelm a lesser performer, yet every time, Letissier’s fluid and precise moves keep her firmly in control.
But the performance is not entirely Letissier: this stage bravado is her playing the role of her alter-ego, Christine and The Queens. The 27-year-old performer is less in your face in real life as she sips green tea and honey on a cold December day in London. “I created Christine because I needed her. I needed to feel free and daring,” she explains, with big, colorful hand gestures. “She’s a survival technique. I need [her] often—I’m terribly shy, so I’m using her right now. Christine is like my best jacket.”
Before Christine, Letissier was a frustrated teenager growing up in the remote western French city of Nantes and, later, a comedy hopeful studying theater in Paris. In her early twenties, she relocated to London “to escape depression.” She’d visited the U.K. capital with her English-teacher father growing up, and knew that something about it made her feel good. As an adult, she discovered the city’s thriving drag and queer communities—a culture that, she explains, she would have to “really dig deep” to experience in Paris at the time. One night, she found herself in London’s famous (now closed) Soho drag bar Madame Jojo’s, where she watched an act called “How to Cook and Make Music at the Same Time.” “It was like bad guitar, bad drumming, some of the drag queens were making pancakes,” she explains. “It was fucking weird. But it felt so good to just watch it, so empowering. Christine was born right away, because I was just thinking, ‘I wish I could have a stage character, to be as free as they were.’”
It was leaving France that gave Letissier the boldness to stand onstage and declare herself a man, but she made her name by coming back and capturing the imaginations of audiences in Paris in the same way Soho’s queens captured hers. In the landscape of French music, where mainstream veers away from indie and hip-hop is sharply divided from pop, Christine’s boundary-blurring was a blast of fresh air when she arrived with her debut EP in 2011. Her first album, 2014’s Chaleur Humaine, went to No. 2 in France, and last year she released a self-titled, English-language version with new songs, including features from Perfume Genius and Tunji Ige. It’s rare that a French-speaking artist crosses over into global consciousness, but Christine seemingly knows no borders.
Tucked inconspicuously in the wood- paneled booth of a London restaurant, a few weeks after terrorists attacked a Paris venue in November 2015, Letissier was frank about the drawbacks of the French music industry while also passionate about solidarity with her home country. She talked about what it means to create a universal character who transcends Francophone music’s traditional borders, without leaving her French identity behind.
Are underground and mainstream culture quite distinct in France? It seems like you uniquely straddle the two.
It’s true that France is not a country where everything melds quite well; there are still these notions about good taste and bad taste, indie and mainstream, underground and popular. Sometimes in old interviews I was like, “I love Phil Collins and The Knife,” and people didn’t really like the statement.
I did a mash-up on the album called “Paradis Perdus.” It’s a cover that melds Kanye West and a French singer named Christophe. In France, that was a really huge statement. It’s starting to change a bit, but it’s not the same as the U.K., for example, where the music is a mix of influences, every genre is blending into another genre.
In France, radio stations have a quota system to ensure that 40 percent of songs played on the radio are in French language. How does that affect you as a French artist who sings in both English and French?
I remember my record label being like, “Can you do a French chorus for the radio?” But I was just writing with what moved me. I didn’t want to choose between English and French because, for me, I use lyrics and languages as an instrument. French sounds different than English, and so if I can switch between those two it’s interesting for me, because of the ruptures we can create.
It’s funny because when you say “Christine and The Queens” to French people, they immediately go, “Oh, the girl who sings in two languages!” It used to be quite complicated at first, as a choice. It was considered as a statement. But I didn’t really overthink it. I’m overthinking everything else, but the music—the less I think about it, the better it is. I would love to know how to speak even more languages. In one song on my album, I use a really bad Italian sentence. I wish I could use Spanish, or Portuguese.
Are some things easier to express in French than in English, and vice versa?
When I write in English, it’s more naive, more straightforward, more vulnerable. I’m also using weird constructions or images, because I’m not a native English speaker. I’m using it as a tool I don’t really know how to use, sometimes. French, I really know how to use it after writing lots and lots. I can play with it a bit more, I can be ironic with it. It’s like two characters.
“I could have kept the exotic French vibe, but I didn’t really want to do that. I just wanted people to meet me.”
How did you make the decision to translate some of your songs to English for a new version of your album, and how did you choose which songs?
When I learned that it was possible for me to release the album in the U.S. and the U.K., I immediately thought about translating. I could have kept the exotic French vibe, but I didn’t really want to do that, I just wanted people to meet me, to meet Christine as a character, the same way that I wanted to be understood in France. It’s like going on a date. You just want to present your best self and be relatable right away.
I really wanted some songs to be more immediate. I wanted the message to come across quickly. I translated “Tilted” and “Half Ladies” because those two songs are like statements for me. “Tilted” is about feeling out of place and making a pop song about, basically, depression. “Half Ladies” is about all those girls we don’t really see in magazines. Awkward, beautiful, flawed girls. These are ideas I want people to understand right away, because it feels like they’re really the core of my character.
Was it a controversial decision, to translate your music?
In France, because they’re so obsessed with French preservation, I got some people saying, “You’re betraying yourself, you’re betraying your songs.” I’m like, “Why? I’m still the writer. I’m in charge of the message.” It’s not betraying something, it’s just finding another way to get the message across.
What do you think it means to be a global pop star today?
Am I a pop star? That’s the first question.
Is that how you see yourself?
Jesus, I don’t know. I don’t know who I am, but I would love to be global. I like the idea of being popular and relatable. This is why I love pop music, and this is why I’m doing it. I used to be interested in theater, but what I hated about theater is that it’s reserved to a certain type of audience. It’s not democratic; you can’t really share it quickly. A song, it’s like a virus. Everybody can have it.
“A song, it’s like a virus. Everybody can have it.”
There’s something about the character of Christine that’s universally appealing, beyond the language barrier.
This is why I am wearing a suit, this is why I am dancing. I don’t want to be defined, I just want to be this energy. I would love to eventually be recognized as a voice and energy, not really like a singer. You can associate me with a vibe and nothing else. I’m trying to become like a pop song. I’m trying to become nothing and everything.
Like beyond human?
Oh, I would love it. I’m waiting for the transhumanists to actually complete their work and then I’m going to be robotic.
When it comes to questioning gender identity, wearing a suit and taking on this more “masculine” character, have you found that’s been received in different ways around the world?
Well, actually, no. It’s been the same way, and the same nice way. But I think it’s been because my character is soft. It’s like being a Trojan horse. I don’t look threatening. I look like this eight-year-old boy trying to be Beyoncé.
When you say you feel like a Trojan horse, what message is inside it?
In France, when I released the album, I was always going into shoots in my suit, and they would always ask me if I wanted to wear a dress and I would always say, “No, I want to be a woman in a suit.” And then a conversation would start about “What is being a woman?” and femininity. So I was raising a question, and it wasn’t even an extreme demand—I was not having a penis or a dildo like Miley Cyrus on stage—I was just saying, “I’m going to keep my jacket on.” I think the best thing I will try to do now is not even answer any questions. I love raising them and not answering. I think gender- and identity-wise, the main fight is not even to answer questions. I don’t really have to tick boxes for you. Let us be question marks forever.
What’s your vision for your next record?
I want a sweaty album. Like, you can feel people playing. I want a funk album—not sexy, but with more sexuality in it—so I will probably need drummers and bass players. Christine and The Queens is more like a solitary album, with machines and a few instruments, and it’s more soft and lonely. But the second album, I’m going to be like a woman really desiring people, and I know I’m going to be treated as a slut in the media, in France.
Specifically in France?
Yeah, I think so. France is quite slow— you know, the idea of the French woman, classical woman, Parisienne, all this shit. I am considered a concept in France— “She’s wearing a suit, she doesn’t want to be feminine all the time, oh my god!” We don’t really expose gender-questioning people. It’s not mainstream yet. I don’t know if in the U.S. and the U.K. you have mainstream people questioning that binary, but in France it’s not really happening. I feel like I have a queer fan base, and lots of young girls at my shows, and it feels really good when one of them is saying, “You made me just want to be my own boss.” That’s cool.
After the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015, you ran a pop-up radio station called Good Morning Paris. What was behind that idea?
Well, you know. It happened. The terrorist attacks happened. And like when Charlie Hebdo, the other terrorist attacks, happened, artists were immediately asked to write tributes. It seemed obscene. It was like, “Can you write about the French spirit? Can you talk about what is it to be French?” I realized that after what happened, I don’t want to be alone to answer that question. I don’t feel like I have the only definition of being French, especially when you notice now that what happens after those terrorist attacks is that racism is going up, Muslims are being persecuted. We are searching for the “good French people” and the “bad French people.” It’s everything [the terrorists] wanted: to tear us apart. To make everybody feel like the other is the enemy.
So I didn’t want to write. And I didn’t want to be alone. I had this desire to meet all the French artists I could meet, and for us to have a collective answer. Really different people came in: French rappers, French pop singers. It was a really weird and great melting pot. It was about find- ing a soft answer that should raise more questions. Because in France, it feels like people want answers now. But I think we should question even more what it is to be French, and we should think about what it means for some people to not feel like they belong to French society.
How did you feel after the attacks, with the international focus on Paris?
This is mainly why I wanted to do the radio. I wanted to say something, to have a statement—not be intrusive or anything, but find my way of reacting. Because of course, when everyone is looking at Paris, as an artist, I would feel bad to stay silent and do nothing. Because everyone has to do a job, somehow. But yeah, the focus is on France, and in every interview I have been asked what I feel about these attacks. I think we have to be informed, to try to search for information, try to think, try to read things. I’m still trying to figure out how I can be helpful.
As Christine goes global, do you feel a pressure to represent French identity or to speak to French people in your music?
It’s not really a pressure, it’s more like a responsibility I feel. Maybe because I have this naive and romantic idea of the artist. For me, even the pop artist, we are like citizens—we’re just citizens with a wider appeal and with more exposure. But we have to stay citizens. I don’t feel isolated because I’m an artist. I don’t feel in a bubble. I feel like I have to be human, and I have to have convictions, even if I’m making pop music. The artists I really love are the ones who are standing up for what they believe. Otherwise, the work is empty.