“You Have Powerful Eyes”: When Christeene Met Oliver
It was mid-quarantine when Paul and I first started discussing the possibility of his Christeene meeting my 10-year-old son, Ollie. Locked down at my family’s house in Rhode Island and estranged from the seemingly endless trauma unfolding in New York, I often found myself dreaming up outlandish meetings and blind dates, improbable interviews that I fantasized could lend cohesion to a world that the bottom had dropped out of. “Wouldn’t it be incredible,” I texted Paul one day in May, “if Ollie interviewed Christeene?” It seemed perfect to me, the two of them together and discussing how it feels to be a person.
I prepared Ollie as little as possible when we finally arranged for Christeene to come to our apartment this June, more than one year after our initial conversation. “What does Christeene DO,” he asked me, giggling and excited while we waited on our front steps for our guest to arrive. “You can ask her yourself!” I told him, absolutely positive that these two new friends were going to delight one another. Open and curious in the way that only children can be, my son clutched in his hands list of questions that he’d spent the morning preparing. “Maybe this is HER!” he said every time a car turned onto our street, his sense of thrill reverberating beyond measure when our chaotic specter finally spilled out of an SUV.
What follows below is a transcript of their conversation, which is at turns as funny as anyone who knows Christeene would expect, but often sweeter than even I could have anticipated. They fell in quickly with one another, both of them innocent in different ways and each as curious as the other. Watching them together, I understood that the magic of Christeene resides in the alchemy of her rage and hope, in the contrast between a grown-up’s knowledge of the world’s injustices and a child’s ability to act as antidote.
“I interviewed a really interesting person,” I heard my son telling his friend the next day in the park. “I wish I could explain her to you, but you’d really have to see her for yourself.” —ALISSA BENNETT
OLIVER NIRENBERG: Hello. My name is Oliver and I’m 10 years old.
CHRISTEENE: 10? What grade does that put you in?
CHRISTEENE: Oh, I was doing bad things in fifth grade.
NIRENBERG: Well, there’s a question for that! What is your name and how old are you?
CHRISTEENE: My name is Christeene. I don’t know how old I am, but I’ve been around for… I’ve been doing music for 12 years now, and so I think I’m 12 years old. So we’re almost the same age. We’re going into our adolescence, watch out. I know it’s going to be rough.
NIRENBERG: What were you like in middle school?
CHRISTEENE: I come from the woods and stuff, so my education of the world is probably very different than yours. But in the middle times of my life, which I would call school, I believe I was very quiet. You might not believe that by the way I look, which is beautiful, shut up, but I think I was just a lot of quiet time and most of the things around me were quiet creatures, animals and such in the woods. So, I was patient enough to listen to all of their squawking and them pooping in the leaves and stuff. And I just did my own thing and I got schooled by that and it felt good.
NIRENBERG: I was kind of wondering when it’s really hot out, what do you do differently in your makeup routine so it doesn’t fall off your face?
CHRISTEENE: Oh god. Okay. So here’s the thing. I like to allow my appearance to deteriorate before your very eyes, because so many people are very concerned with how they look. And there’s a bunch of people who are always putting on makeup and brushing their hair. And if it rains or if the wind blows their hair, they’re like, Oh shit, I got to go back home because I don’t look good anymore. And so much time and energy is wasted on this thing of looking good. And what the hell does good mean? Who told you what good was? So I like to walk out into the heat and I like to let the devil’s butt, as I call it, kiss my face. And as you can see right now, I’m just dripping, and I think it’s fine because we are not pretty things when we are born and we might as well stick the ugly all the way through. And if my shit falls apart in front of you, it will only make you look better. So you’ll get the nice end of the stick, I’ll get the shit end of the stick and we’ll all be happy. And everybody sweats.
NIRENBERG: My mom really likes dolls, but the one she likes best, Pamela, scares me. What should I do about this?
CHRISTEENE: Okay. So your mother has a little doll named Pamela. I understand how difficult that could be because you are your mother’s child, but your mother has Pamela. This house isn’t big enough for you and Pamela, I assume. First of all, you need to wait until your mother’s not home. You have two flights of stairs in this house, and if you’ve ever seen any old horror movies or anything like that, it’s very easy to push Pamela down the stairs.
NIRENBERG: Like in Psycho.
CHRISTEENE: Yes, like in Psycho. And blame Pamela. Pamela got into the liquor cabinet, drank all the hooch. Pamela came home with drugs and couldn’t walk proper, she fell down the stairs. “Oh no! I found Pamela at the bottom and her leg is gone.” That’s one way to do it. Or you could choose to try to have a conversation with your mother about the problem.
CHRISTEENE: Boring, that’s what Oprah is for. I think Pamela could probably fall down the stairs. Or I have noticed, you have a pigeon house in the back…
NIRENBERG: Accidents will happen.
CHRISTEENE: Pamela could strangely one night walk into the pigeon house, get covered in shit and get some bacterial infection, lose all the hair and maybe your mama don’t want some ugly little Pamela who got no hair and smells like kaka. The only other option is to try to learn to live with Pamela. But the world’s too rough right now to try to learn to live with Pamela. I hope you do okay.
NIRENBERG: Believe me, I will. What are you scared of?
CHRISTEENE: Oh lord. Well, I guess right now, what scares me the most is, you know what an undercurrent is? It’s a hidden thing. And I think what scares me the most, because everyone’s paying attention to the top layer, there’s this undercurrent that could be bad. So after all of the crap we went through these past four years, now we’re all are thinking, it feels good, people have hope right now. But I can’t help but have this fear that there’s an undercurrent of a darkness that is waiting to pounce again. It means that we have to buck up and fuck up so that undercurrent hopefully dries up and we can get on with our business of fixing this messed up world. Does that make sense?
CHRISTEENE: Good. Because I don’t know what the hell I just said. What is your fear?
NIRENBERG: The dark. Does it make you nervous when people stare at you?
CHRISTEENE: Like you’re doing right now? Yes. You have powerful eyes. People stare at you differently in different places. Have you ever been to Paris in France?
CHRISTEENE: So if you go there, Oh god. If you’re walking down the street, old ladies will start at your head and they’ll look all the way down at your feet and all the way back up and be like, Ugh. But then some people stare at you because, well, they’re fascinated or a bit jolted out of their regular day to day routine by this raccoon woman coming at them. So stares, I think, are good, but I find it a challenge to meet the stare. Sometimes what I really like to do, especially in New York, because there’s so many people staring, it’s just stare back and wait and wait and wait until they look down to the floor. I do find that it is a very exciting challenge on the streets in New York. In Paris, forget it. You just stare at that old lady right back, you look down at her old cankles and then you look back at her face and let her know that you know where you are and you like her food.
NIRENBERG: I’ve been hearing about a mysterious person named Paul. Who’s Paul?
CHRISTEENE: So you know how people listen to intuition, or your gut? I have this voice in my head, this person in my life that is my gut or my intuition that I listen to and follow. And somehow, there’s this person named Paul that I’m aware of that likes to guide me. Like I said, I’m from the woods. So when the world gets a little crazy, I listen to this person, Paul. And they put me in interesting situations, interesting places to perform.
NIRENBERG: Such as Paris?
CHRISTEENE: Exactly. I couldn’t get there on my own, but if I listened to Paul or the gut, sometimes it gets me there.
NIRENBERG: What are your interests?
CHRISTEENE: Well, I’m very interested in you. I’ve never sat down with a young adult like you, you’re no child. Strange. You’re a very intelligent youngster, so I’m very interested in this conversation. I’m also interested to see what people, especially creative people who create music, art, write books, do now. If anyone shows up on a stage or writes the book that is the same shit they were making before COVID, I’m throwing bananas, cabbages, tomatoes at them. It’s a really good opportunity to make something new. Like what we’re doing right here, I doubt Interview has ever had a person your age interview a person of my beauty.
NIRENBERG: All right. I was reading your Wikipedia page and I found out that one of your music videos, the video for “African Mayonnaise,” was nominated for an award. There’s a lot going on in that video.
NIRENBERG: How did you shoot it?
CHRISTEENE: Oh, it was so fucking cool. So we were in Austin, Texas. That’s where I started coming out of the woods, and we had a van, and my friends Patrick and Yvette drove this getaway van, and me and my friend, PJ, who made the video and my dancers, Thomas and Carlos, were this van and we drove all over Austin, Texas. And we would go to the mall, go to the laundromat, go to the hotels, go to stores on the street and we’d pull up, and we’d push play on the song. The song is about three and a half minutes long. So we had to go in there, fuck shit up and then drive away in that time. We did that all day. It was the scariest, most exhilarating high adrenaline day of my life, because here come to the security guards, here come all the wacko-cracows coming at us. We just drove around in a getaway van all day long in Austin, Texas, wreaking havoc on everyone, and they all loved it.
NIRENBERG: Here you are drinking Kombucha. You haven’t pooped on the couch yet!
CHRISTEENE: I know. What has happened? I’m drinking Kombucha and not pooping and I see that your mother has left a pack of batteries here on the couch. I don’t know what I was supposed to do with that. I was supposed to eat that? Is that my fricking hors d’oeuvre?
NIRENBERG: What’s your favorite Civil War battle?
CHRISTEENE: Are you kidding me? I don’t know shit about the civil war battles. I would say any battle that fucked up rotten racist people in the country? I’m happy with that. We’re still fighting them. They’re taking the statues down, that’s cool.
ALISSA BENNETT: Do you have any questions for Oli?
CHRISTEENE: You are in fifth grade?
CHRISTEENE: I’m curious about the kids these days. Is everyone at school like, I’m a boy or I’m a girl, or is everyone like I’m a they, them, that, gender? Do people have gender things in your grade? Like I’m kind of a boy or I’m kind of a girl or I’m both or I’m an animal?
NIRENBERG: No, everyone’s a boy or a girl.
CHRISTEENE: Everyone’s a boy or a girl? Good to know. I’m just curious, do you ever feel the need to vandalize things? Like flooding the toilet or breaking into the school or…
NIRENBERG: Once I wanted to break into Home Depot. I wanted to run around and throw the stupid pottery on the floor.
CHRISTEENE: Oh, cool. That’s cool. Have you ever snuck out of your house before? No?
CHRISTEENE: Okay. Have you ever lit a road on fire before? Like poured gasoline down the road and then…
BENNETT: Mothers are present.
CHRISTEENE: Have you ever worn a wig?
NIRENBERG: I wore a George Washington wig.
CHRISTEENE: Yeah. Do you have a particular style of music that you like the most or that makes you feel the best?
NIRENBERG: No I don’t.
CHRISTEENE: You don’t really give a shit about music?
NIRENBERG: Not really.
CHRISTEENE: That’s cool, I don’t either. And I don’t know anything about it, like The Civil War. If you teach me about The Civil War, I’ll give you some of my new music that’s going to come out.
NIRENBERG: I thought you didn’t give a damn about music, but okay.
CHRISTEENE: It’s my music. I only care about my music. Maybe I can come by and let you hear some of my new shit and you can be like, yeah, that’s good and that’s bad.
CHRISTEENE: Will you dress up as Napoleon if you come to my show?
NIRENBERG: I’ll do it.
CHRISTEENE: Okay. And I’ll teach you how to light a road on fire. It’s cool. It doesn’t last long either, it burns out quick. Just like the African Mayonnaise video, by the time that people come out of the house screaming, you’re inside, back in bed and it’s gone. Trust. Okay.
CHRISTEENE will be performing Live at The Parkside Lounge July 10, 17th NYC
Tickets at christeene.org
Photography and Editing: Brett Lindell
Fashion Direction: Louis Mairone
Art Direction: Paul Soileau
Sets: Brett Lindell
Photo Assistant: Maddy Talias
Tailoring: Katie Martin