Courtney Act interrupts our interview – less than a minute in – in fits of laughter, because she’s just spotted her new neighbour out of the window. The neighbour, she says, “bears an uncanny resemblance to Ann Widdicombe”.
“And I’m walking around in my underwear!” she cackles down the phone. “I’ve just dived behind the curtain!”
The RuPaul’s Drag Race star is every bit as vivacious as you’d expect, so it comes as a surprise when, in the next breath, she reveals she once spent 10 days not making a peep at a silent Vipassana meditation retreat.
“It was seriously the most horrible and hard thing I’ve ever done, but also the most amazing,” she says.
The drag queen, whose real name is Shane Jenek (Courtney Act is Jenek’s stage name) escaped to the retreat when “it all hit the fan” in 2008, following heartbreak, then a skiing accident.
“I was in a wheelchair with a broken leg, I had no ability to work and make money, I was staying at a friend’s place and everything was miserable. Then I decided to just go and try it,” she says.
Without the distractions of a phone, television or even a book, Act says staying silent for 10 days was easier than expected, but meditating for 11 hours each day was “the hardest but most rewarding thing” she’s ever done.
“I arrived thinking: ‘How can you learn anything from sitting still and meditating? How can you grow from that?’” she says. “But it was so fascinating the sense of peace that I came back with, and the tool of meditation that I was then able to implement into my everyday life.”
The retreat – which Act is quick to point out wasn’t “bougie at all” and worked on a pay-what-you-can system – is still paying dividends. More than a decade later, she starts most mornings with a 30-minute meditation in bed, focussing on her breath and the present moment.
“It’s amazing what a difference it makes to how much I feel in control of life,” she says, noting that it also makes “little things” like the washing up feel easier.
“It’s not like everything is perfect of all of sudden, but there are tiny little incremental things that feel easier, and when lots of little things add up, it really sums up to something greater than its parts.”
Act attributes meditation with helping her to cope with life in the Celebrity Big Brother house last year, revealing that the multiple clips of her sitting on her bed in an eye mask actually captured her meditating. The habit enables her to exhibit patience, she says – a trait that no doubt contributed to her winning the series.
Those who watched the show will remember Act calmly and eloquently answering her housemates’ questions about gender and sexuality, such as the evening she explained the difference between being a drag queen and being transgender.
“It’s so easy to be polarised and yell from different sides of the room about certain subjects, but I think it’s so much better to walk into the middle and have a conversation to drive change forward,” she says.
Act, who identifies as pansexual, says meditation also enabled her to cope with living alongside fellow CBB contestant Ann Widdecombe, who consistently voted against gay rights as a Conservative minister and shadow Home Secretary, including voting to maintain a ban on the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and opposing same-sex marriage.
“It’s very easy to not be patient, especially when it’s not just people’s ideas, but you’re living with someone like Ann and her voting record over the course of 23 years,” Act says. “It can be very easy to feel anger towards that injustice, but I think meditating helped me keep my patience. I tried to make my reaction the best it could be, rather than just reacting and flying off the handle.”
Act was bullied as a teen and called “feminine names” intended as an insult, she says, but meditation has helped her to reframe her past trauma, by reminding her to focus on the present.
“So many reactions in our lives are based on what happened to us when we were younger,” she muses.
The day before our interview, for example, a “big muscly, straight man” at her gym said “thanks darling” as she was leaving.
“Five years ago I would have taken that as an attack. But yesterday, a) because of the way I am now and b) because of his intent, I took it as a compliment,” she explains.
“There was no damage there for me to react to anymore. Before I would have been reacting to past conditioning where I’ve been teased or bullied, but with meditation, it inserts itself in between memories and the present moment, to almost give yourself a bit of space.
“You’re not automatically and unconsciously reacting to past conditions, you’re able to have a moment of breath and view the situation more objectively.”