Last year, Hélöise Letissier began to feel different. The French pop star was coming off her first big major tour as Christine and the Queens, performing her critically acclaimed album Chaleur Humaine. The 2014 record was an admirably complex introduction, a collection of bare-bones synth-pop that playfully interrogated gender and Letissier’s own sexual fluidity as a queer woman. “She draws her own crotch by herself,” Letissier sang of slipping into the privileged existence of a man, drawing her own metaphorical penis, on her glimmering hit “iT.” “But she’ll lose, because it’s a fake, it’s a fake.”
In her videos and live performances, Letissier, a once-aspiring stage director, often performs with a quartet of male dancers, their bodies curving indelibly around her with every move. Dancing every night on stage that way for so long, contorting to the movements of her angular choreography, Letissier realized her body had changed; muscles appeared in places where they hadn’t been before. Coming off the tour and the success of Chaleur Humaine, she suddenly felt stronger, not just physically but also artistically, ready to wrestle with a more aggressive, confident side of her music that she hadn’t yet explored.
“I was looking for stamina in my life,” Letissier says in a thick French accent, sitting in the garden of an East Village hotel this past August, diminutive in an oversized denim jacket. “When you stop touring you lack adrenaline and it’s a problem. Honestly it’s kind of a comparison to being high and having to stop using the substance; you’re looking for [the feeling] elsewhere.”
She ultimately found that stamina in Chris, a bawdy, boyish persona Letissier created for her new album of the same name, out September 21. Her flowing, straight brown hair was shorn into a close cropped cut. The masculine but soft suits she wore like a uniform to promote Chaleur Humaine were traded for worn-in wife beaters. And the “Christine” stage name Letissier first created for herself, galvanized by a night out in London watching drag queens when she was a depressed college student, was scratched out and edited in press materials to simply be “Chris.”
In her video for the album’s first single “Girlfriend,” dancing atop a skyscraper construction site like the kind you’d see in photos from the 1930s, Chris exudes a sensuality we haven’t seen from Letissier yet. “Don’t feel like a girlfriend,” she sings almost with a shrug, midriff bare in an orange crop top, over the song’s ’80s funk. “But lover? Damn, I’d be your lover.” With a group of dancers close behind her, snapping in the air, the video is like a gender-bending version of West Side Story’s gang choreography, borrowing a mature touch from the moves of artists like Prince and Michael Jackson.
“Chris is another way to tell the same story that it was with Christine. I’m just trying to confuse what it means to be trapped in theatricality,” Letissier says. “It’s fun because you kind of get to man-spread and still be a woman and [ask] what does it mean to be a woman flexing and stealing away that [space].”
“Sometimes I love the idea of being a bro,” Letissier says. “The short hair excites me because sometimes when I want to pretend I’m a guy, I can. It’s easy, people call me like sir, and then: oops, miss! And it’s like, don’t be sorry, it’s fine.” She laughs. “I like exploring that.”
In her creation of Chris, Letissier drew inspiration from young Leonardo DiCaprio (for “the young hero vibe”), Eminem (for “the defiance and the humor”), and “phallic,” androgynous women like Madonna and Annie Lennox. But her biggest inspiration was arguably the men in her personal life. In a period of experimentation, Letissier says she began dating heterosexual men who were ultimately threatened by who she was as an artist and partner.
“I think I was emasculating them in some way and it’s quite easy as a woman to emasculate men,” she says, laughing. “Even being richer than them is sometimes a huge [thing], and I was navigating that without making it easier for them, because I didn’t want to soften who I was.”
“They were loving me but they were like, sometimes you scare me because I feel like I’m with a dude, but you’re a woman,” she adds. “It’s always constructions right?”
It was these men who gave Letissier stories which helped her realize that the trappings of gender performativity that women suffer under can become a cage to men as well. “They were giving me stories of having to over-perform masochism to not be bullied when they were younger,” she says. “I was like, theater, everywhere!” She throws up her hands in comic jazz hands. “How interesting! And, how narrow.”
The excruciating, narrow fine print that comes with identifying as a woman artist, the gaze that’s forced on you, the assumptions made of your artistry, the restrictions placed on your sexuality, has long been of interest to Letissier. Frankly, she’s been trying to erase the fine print ever since she started making music. Born in Nantes, Letissier grew up in a household with a feminist mother and an academic professor father, both of whom taught her to not accept a basic lens when it comes to gender. “I grew up in a family that was always resisting those gendered ways of seeing yourself,” she says. “We were not raised to accept what it meant to be a woman or a man.”
Letissier describes her teenage years as constrained and rife with self-esteem issues, even borderline body dysmorphia. “My relationship to my teenage years was purely monstrous,” she says. “It was not huge fun.” The confidence she feels as an adult, now 30, is a chance to reclaim the experimentation she did not do as a teenager. “Sometimes, depending on the people I fall in love with, I feel different about my gender and my sexual orientation. It’s always a work in progress,” she says. “At first, I used to be scared of that, [feeling] slightly undefined. Now I’m just reveling in it.”
It’s through her music that Letissier tries to create a space where she can define her body and sexuality the way she wants to. “On the first record, I was trying to escape male gaze, and I was kind of sure I could,” she says with a smile. “I was like, I have to cancel information and then other people can focus on me being a voice and what I had to say.” But it was, understandably, not an easy task. “Then [online], below the videos of “Saint Claude,” people would ask, ‘Is she fuckable or not?’” she says.
“It’s complicated,” she continues. “So I thought, well, if I’m in it, I might as well have fun with it... exposing my body but choosing how I’m exposing it.”
On Chris, you can hear Letissier grasping for that stamina she craved, with songs marked by a punchy, vintage ’80s R&B sound that turns the titular character into a sexy male pop star of another era. Throughout, Letissier plays with tinny drum machines and bouncy synths in ways which call to mind her decades-old inspirations, but which don’t verge on mimicry. But there’s also a sense of real release on Chris. Whereas Christine was cool and fluid, Chris is defiant and aggressive. On “5 Dollars,” when Letissier sings “I don’t think the race is over, baby,” there’s a passionate vibration to her vocals not far off from Springsteen’s on “Born to Run.” Most of the songs sound like the beginning of a potential fight, but one that amounts to nothing more than some boyish roughhousing in an empty lot somewhere.
Letissier also borrowed some male ego behind the scenes in the studio when she took a more transparent role as producer. Letissier says that she was advised for promoting her first album not to outright call herself the producer because it’s apparently “too complicated to assert that too early.” But after getting asked questions about if she even wrote her own songs, Letissier decided to take a more forward role. “Claiming authorship is a process that women have to do way more, and it’s not an easy or nice one,” she says. “You feel like you have to claim your work like a bitch, like,” she screams, “It’s mine!”
I ask Letissier about a quote of hers from a few years ago: while working on her second album, she said she wanted to “redefine what it means to be sexy.” Did it still ring true?
“Now that I’m listening to that sentence, it’s like nooo pressure girl!” she says, laughing. “I don’t know if I can redefine it, but every video, I’m asking myself how do I want to exist, and I do want to be more sexualized because the record is about sexuality way more.” She mentions the American Gigolo-inspired video for “5 Dollars,” in which she gets ready in the morning by slipping a leather harness under her crisp, three-piece suit. “I do want to exist as a desired body.”
Now as Chris, Letissier is admittedly enjoying the YouTube comments, many of which still ask if she’s fuckable or not. “But now it’s kind of tasty because I have comments underneath my videos from guys like, ‘I’m excited... and confused,’” she says. “I’m like, SCORE!”