Over the weekend, it was announced that Shane Jenek - better known as Courtney Act, one of Australia’s most successful drag queens - had won Celebrity Big Brother in the United Kingdom.
While it's easy to dismiss Celebrity Big Brother as a simple reality show (one that Australia has long lost interest in), Shane’s win is being celebrated by the queer community and straight allies alike, all across the globe.
Shane became widely adored for using his platform on the show to educate viewers on queer issues, such as gender identity and fluidity, sexuality, same-sex marriage, and much more, all with a genuine smile on his perfectly-contoured face. In the end, it won him 49 per cent of the final vote, the highest in UK Big Brother history.
As a gender non-conforming person who also works as a successful and celebrated drag queen, Shane shared his unique and well-rounded knowledge of the queer experience with his housemates and the audience at home. He was able to speak openly and honestly with some of the BB house’s straight members, many of whom were unaware of the issues he was speaking about. But Shane also faced a number of difficult discussions while in the house too, handling them with grace and elegance.
Clash with India Willoughby
From the very beginning of the show, Shane faced critique and attacks from India Willoughby, a media personality who was the first transgender woman to read the news in Britain. Willoughby became enraged after Shane entered the house in full drag, making it known to him that she took great issue with drag queens. During a tumultuous episode where Shane dressed another housemate - Andrew Brady - up in drag, Willoughby broke down, telling Shane that she thought drag queens made life more difficult, and lessened the validity of trans women, saying that she had “drag queen phobia”.
Other members of the house lept to Shane’s defence after Willoughby’s attack - but instead of rising up to meet her anger, Shane instead sat down, empathised with her, and warmly engaged her in a discussion about identity politics, and equal validity of transgender people, gender non-conforming people, and drag queens.
After their discussion concluded, Shane also took the time in following days to speak those housemates who had been defensive, and explained that India's thoughts about drag queens were reasonably common, and her anger, though misinformed, was wholly valid.
Shane’s ability to keep calm, open-minded, and empathetic during emotional arguments won her the adoration of viewers - and the utmost admiration of queer people who have struggled do the same in many instances throughout their lives.
Friendship with Andrew Brady
Shane also won hearts after forming a tight-knit friendship with Andrew Brady, a straight man who had become a public figure after appearing on The Apprentice - during which he developed a reputation as a ‘lad’s lad’.
Shane and Andrew became inseparable, and their newfound friendship included adorable moments such as having a bath together, play-fighting, and Shane dressing Andrew up in full drag (yes, including tucking).
As basic as this inclusion may seem, a positive, close friendship between a straight man and a gay man gaining international visibility is still enormously important in modern day. While many similar relationships on television often lead to jokes being made at the gay person’s expense, Shane and Andrew’s refreshing friendship was one of two equals, where no institutionalised prejudice presented itself - and if it did, it was spoken openly and honestly about, and learned from. Andrew was open-minded and interested in Shane’s culture as a queer person; he enthusiastically engaged with Shane’s stories and visibly wanted to learn from him. The pair laughed together about their closeness, making jokes about flirting and getting married - but never at Shane’s, or the LGBTQI community’s expense.
They bonded not with the all-too-common reality television narrative of the gay man having to ‘fit in with the boys’, but with the pair wanting to engage with each other’s lived experiences as equal people.
It's important representation - especially on a reality television show known for boosting ratings with production-created dramatisation and often, the vilification of minority groups.
Clash with Anne Widdecombe
Shane’s ‘final battle’ was against Anne Widdecombe, a former member of Parliament with deeply conservative views on same-sex marriage, abortion, LGBTQI people, and the death penalty.
Widdecombe was the runner-up of the season, and did not approve of Shane’s work, or views on politics.
Shane stood up for India Willoughby, who she’d had previous debates with, after Widdecombe misgendered her.
At one point, the former politician snapped “Don’t be disgusting" at Andrew Brady after he joked, “You might not respect our marriage, but you have to respect our love,” while he and Shane were hugging on the couch. She also voted for the pair to leave because she witnessed them play-fighting on the floor and deemed it 'sexual'.
Regardless of Widdecombe’s staunchly conservative, harmful views about LGBTQI people, Shane was always willing to have a mature and open conversation with her - and none of their discussions ever turned into the screaming matches we’ve come to expect from reality television. Shane challenged her on her opposition to same-sex marriage, calmly engaging her in a non-judgmental discussion about why she believed in certain definitions of marriage.
In his post-win interview, Shane said he chose to be a part of the show simply for queer visibility - to be a reminder for the “teenage boy who didn’t quite know where he belonged or how he fit in” that queer people are not only visible, but respected educators and change-makers in mainstream culture.
Mission successful, Shane / Courtney. Incredible work.