Halfway through lunch, Chris pauses mid-flow and looks up from her salad. She has an important point to make. “I’m saying ‘we’ because I’m collaborating with with three choreographers,” she says. “Not because I feel like I’m several people.” We pause, we laugh and Chris performs a bit in which she speaks only using the royal we. It’s both an unnecessary and totally necessary clarification – of course she doesn’t think she’s several people... but then again, France’s biggest pop star is juggling three names and counting.
Born Héloïse Letissier, the artist currently known as Chris originally went by the moniker Christine and the Queens. Finding herself at sea after finishing school in Paris, she was taken in by a troupe of drag queens at Soho’s legendary Madame Jojo’s. Finally somewhere approaching comfortable in her own skin, she began performing as Christine and was accompanied, first physically and later spiritually, by her Queens. As Christine, she was the purveyor of warm, inclusive, identity-curious synth pop that took her native France by storm in 2014. When her debut Chaleur Humaine (translation: human warmth) was re-released in English two years later, she also charmed the UK and beyond. But with the first iteration of her debut album four years behind her, it was time for Christine to join Héloïse on the bench. There’s a new quarterback in town: Chris.
Chris is fiercer, more masculine and more confrontational than Christine – which is something, considering that Christine became famous singing the refrain “I’m a man now”, exuding Big Dick Energy four years before the term was even coined. As we speak in London’s Ace Hotel days before her second album is unleashed on the world, Chris’s lunch goes increasingly untouched as fully formed thoughts tumble from her in long paragraphs, punctuated every so often by a quick ‘fin’ when she senses a sentence getting away from her, resets and starts again. When she’s tickled or excited by something, she’ll sing her answer, or put on a funny voice to emphasise the silliness of something she’s actually quite proud of. Above all, she doesn’t want to be misunderstood. When starting work on the new album, also named Chris, she presented her label with a 15-page PDF explaining her vision. “They were like, ‘okay, okay, Jesus.”
The songs on Chris, the album, are muscular and intimate, lustful and contemplative. Sometimes they’re clattering great stadium pop numbers, and sometimes just a woman singing alone about the possibility of paying for sex. Chris is decidedly not the damsel, she’s the hero – or, more likely, the scoundrel whose philandering inadvertently causes the distress. “I’m kind of like lusting after, searching for, wanting more,” she says. “I don’t want to think of how I’m going to appear, I want to be in the action all the time.” On-stage, she exists as Chris the woman and Chris the character united: “Fully me, but in a more unfiltered version than I could be in life,” she says. The lack of social mores and expectations to adhere to or feel encumbered by make the stage “a safe space” in which to move – and Chris likes to move.
Last week in Paris, she performed songs from Chris live for the first time. The intimate show was a collaboration with Apple Music, and saw the stage of the Salle Pleyel concert hall transformed into a dance studio complete with community centre chairs and bags strewn across the floor. Héloïse once dreamed of being a stage director (before being kicked out of college for the crime of directing stage shows while female) and now Chris is living it, directing both this performance and the full stadium show to come. The movements on stage are flamboyant and actorly. “I see theatre everywhere actually,” she says. “We’re all kind of performing a version of ourselves every morning by choosing the clothes and how we appear – but the stage is so emphasising that I really feel comfortable in it. You get to shape your own new ways of existing and how you want to address things.”
“I’m kind of like lusting after, searching for, wanting more. I don’t want to think of how I’m going to appear, I want to be in the action all the time” – Chris
In Salle Pleyel, what we’re witnessing is something like West Side Story meets All That Jazz (“my favourite film ev-er” Chris sings at me, complete with jazz-hands) meets “Smooth Criminal”, all performed by Madonna at her most horny. She’s as likely to cite modern dance hero Pina Bausch as Michael Jackson as influences, and the dancing is astonishing – there are exaggerated dance-offs, full on fist fights, strobe-free slo-mo and an abundance of controlled, synchronised group movements. Sometimes they come together in tableau, sometimes they break apart to dance alone, always dramatic but also somehow real, enhancing the music. Chris flirts with the crowd of superfans who, although seated, punch the air when they hear the glistening opening strains of recent single “Girlfriend” and clap along enthusiastically when the music allows.
Where Christine liked to dance, Chris lives to dance. Not the decorative dancing of a traditional pop star, but the powerful, purposeful movements of a person at home in her physical being. “You have to work with your body when you dance, you can’t shy away from your physicality,” she says. “For me it's really linked to an incandescent way of accepting yourself and projecting. The dancing was at the core from the beginning.” She recalls the reactions to her earliest live shows opening for larger acts. Alone on stage with a laptop, relatively unknown and dancing her heart out. “They were like, ‘What's that? Do you think people want to see you dance?’ I was like, I don't care. And then it became such a defining element of who I was.”
It’s no accident that Chris recalls Peter Pan, in stature and in character. Her impish face, cropped boyish hair and one gold hoop earring recalls the bolshy de facto leader of the lost boys, but Peter Pan was insecure, darker than you remember from the Disney film and traditionally played by a woman. His authority was often in question, just as Chris’s is in the live show, where her dancers challenge her, even fight her.
The other cultural reference point we discuss is Leonardo diCaprio as Romeo, the man responsible for a generation of sexual awakenings of queer women as well as straight. Chris’s open Hawaiian shirts could have been taken directly from Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet costume cupboard. “I think I saw in Leo DiCaprio something that was missing for me in terms of representation,” she says now. “He was like a man and a woman; he had the energy of a young hero but he was so feminine so the ambivalence was extremely sexy. (As queer people) we constantly project, transpose, adapt the mainstream culture, and and some artists that give us just a sense of acceptance are so wonderful.”
In a documentary made to accompany the Paris show, Apple Music Presents: Chris, she talks about “complexifying pop music” – moving pop music away from easy earworms and empty platitudes. It seems right for her to have turned back to the late 80s to do that, to draw inspiration from Prince, Janet Jackson, and even Bowie, influences that Chris isn’t shy about. The album opens with a smashed window and a cry straight out of the Dangerous playbook.
“That time was more flamboyant in a way I love, you know, it was a space of reinvention and experimentation,” she says, waving her arms about like she’s in a flowing satin shirt. “There are interesting performers today, but they’re almost at the margin of pop music – like SOPHIE, for example. She’s playing with the tropes of pop music, she’s mutating it, but it’s not mainstream yet. But in the 80s, Prince was totally subversive and music was a way to assert that hedonism and that flamboyance – I kind of love the epicness of the 80s for that. I’m constantly going back to that energy without really sometimes knowing... like sometimes I finish a song and they’ll say. ‘Oh, it’s so 80s’, and I’m like, ‘Oh is it? Oh okay. I don’t know how I did that!’”
That 15-page PDF she took to her label set out a record that wasn’t meant to be easy. “It was the notion of resistance also to the simple interpretation,” she sighs, remembering some of the reactions to Chaleur Humaine. “I was constantly trying to assert nuance and doubts and they were like, ‘Right, we get it, you’re this.’ I’m like, no. So let’s make it even more intricate if I can. I feel like I’ve been taking risk on this record... but I don't know if it’s palpable.”
If the risks aren’t palpable – and they aren’t always – it’s because they’ve paid off. Not many major pop stars are capable of a record so lusty, that digs so deeply into female sexuality, gender identity and power without coming off as some sort of awkward hashtag bandwagoning (see: Katy Perry). Chris is a complex record, but not a difficult one. If you want to, you can listen and dance along the surface without ever thinking about what the singer is sampling from the grand buffet of human sexuality and emotion.
On one of Chris’s few ballads, “Make Some Sense”, she sings, “Make some sense out of it all / because I won’t make it for you.” From her name to her music to her movements to her 15-page PDF, Chris isn’t going to make anything easy for you; but that’s half the fun.
Lead image by Jamie Morgan