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Halleloo! Shangela Sounds Off on We're Here, RuPaul's Drag Race Drama and the Power of Drag

Exclusive! We're Here star and Drag Race fan-fave Shangela opens up about her new HBO show and so much more!

By Billy Nilles May 07, 2020 7:00 AMTags

Can we get a "Halleloo"?

A full decade after Shangela Laquifa Wadley burst into our lives as a baby drag queen competing on the second season of RuPaul's Drag Race—and then the third, and then on All Stars 3—it's safe to say she's truly having a moment.

Not only did she become the first queen to walk the Oscars red carpet in full drag thanks to her scene-stealing work in the hit film A Star Is Born, but she's finally landed a show of her own, starring alongside fellow RPDR alum Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka on HBO's heartwarming unscripted series We're Here. In the six-episode series, the queens travel across small-town America to recruit local residents in need of a little bit of the love that only a drag mother can provide to put on a one-night-only show.

The series, airing Thursdays on the cable network, is a true delight during these social distancing times, reminding us not only of the transformative power of drag, but the even greater power of community, even if it's sometimes hiding in plain sight.

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After watching just one episode, we knew we wanted to talk to Shangela—real name D.J. Pierce—all about her experience filming. And lucky for us, she took the call.

What follows is our full, unedited conversation—complete with her thoughts on the current season of Drag Race, Sherry Pie drama and all—because when the chat is with someone as flat-out entertaining as Shangela, you leave nothing on the editing room floor.

Halleloo!

E! News: Well, I'm gonna dive right in. I loved the show, and I'm really, really excited to get to talk to you about it because I thought the show was really, really special. So my first question, I have is could you just explain how the show came together, how it was pitched to you? What about the pitch drew you in? 

Shangela: Sure. I got a call from Steve Warren and Johnny Ingram, the creators of the show, and they said, "Listen, Shangela, we have this great idea we'd love you to be a part of. It's about three drag entertainers, you and two of your sisters, Bob and Eureka, traveling across America, specifically to small towns, and partnering with people to help them realize the best versions of themselves through this transformative power of drag. And not only that, but you're also going to be producing a one night only drag show in places that have never had that before.' And you know what? With that description, honey, I was already in, and I'll say that because, you know, I'm from a small town…I grew up in Paris, Texas, and I know what it's like to look around sometimes and feel like you're the only person like you, there isn't a local LGBTQ community center, and you don't really see a lot of positive images of queer people around. In addition to that, we never had a drag show in my town and I would have loved if there had been a drag show in my town. So, that being said, I wanted to be part of this.

What about you, Bob, and Eureka made you guys have the right fit? How did that trio come together? And what made the chemistry work the way that it did?

Well, you know, we're from the RuPaul's Drag Race family. But to be honest, we are very an unlikely trio. Because even though we've worked together some on the road, you know, we all lived in different places at the time and we're all kind of on our own individual path. But I like to refer to it as the little Charlie's Angels that they brought together to kick the butt of discrimination, OK? So it was really cool. And now that we've gotten to work on this together, I think we formed an even stronger sisterhood. Because in filming this show, you know, there are these great moments where we have so much fun that I don't know how we get any work done because we have such a great time. But also there are these challenging moments, where we're connecting with people and very deep, intense emotional stories. And it caused us to sometimes have to lean on each other at the end of the day, just either vent or be very vulnerable and deal with these emotions that it was bringing up. We were in these remote locations with really just three of us to rely on, so I think that definitely brought us a lot closer together.

I'm going to get into the deep and the dramatic stuff but I have to ask first about the designing of those fabulous cars that y'all come rolling into town in. Did you have input on it? What was it like to get to being in your fabulous pink car? Tell me about that a little bit.

Oh my gosh, first, two words for you: Marla Weinhoff. Marla Weinhoff was the genius behind creating those beautiful pieces of art, those cars. She took all of our different personalities and what she knew about us and what would resonate with our fans who were familiar with us and put them into these moving vehicles. Now I'm the only one that gets to really drive it because I'm the only one with a license among three of us, OK? [Laughs] But they were really cool. And I just remember seeing them. And you know, knowing Bob's is the huge yellow purse, Eureka, she's the elephant with a huge elephant. And then Shangela. I mean, it's in the shape of this rectangular box, first of all, and then it has a huge bow on the top as the gift that I like to refer to myself as. And then it has Halleloo all over it, which you know, you can't get two minutes of Shangela without a Halleloo. So, I was just like, "Wow, I can't believe those actually move and will go on the road." And you want to talk about head-turning? Drag queens turn one head, but those RVs? They turn all the heads.

What I loved about the show was that as uplifting as it is, and as fabulous as it is, it also really doesn't pull any punches. In the first episode, there's that moment where we get to see the lingering effects of you guys leaving that store and we see the man tell that woman that he won't be back in her store. And it was like a real sort of a gut punch after this great moment that you guys share with that owner, inviting her to the show, but sort of felt like a good reality check as to what you guys and what the LGBTQ community faces in the small towns behind their backs. I'm sure you weren't aware it happened in the moment, but what did it feel like when you watched and saw that moment occur after you left the store?

Well, what it reminded me is that the brilliance of this show is that it's a real life docu-series. And in real life, we have those great exciting moments of acceptance and excitement, you know? And then there are also those moments, not just for us as drag entertainers, but also for these people, queer people, like you said, and people who live in these small towns that sometimes are outside of the construct of what society or the local community wants them to look like and act like, you know, they have challenges. They have moments of discrimination and bigotry and hate even against them. And that's what this—I think that's what the huge goal of this series was. And also something that will resonate with people is that these are real experiences. And no matter if you live in a small town or you live in the big city, or you're from the gay community or not, a lot of people will resonate, it will resonate with them feeling on the outskirts or not accepted for whatever reason. Watching it back I was like, "Wow, that happened. Wow." And there's moments—that's one we didn't know happened. There are moments that happened directly in our face. Like when we're in one of the cities and the police are called on us. They call 911 and said, "There are these men dressed as women outside my store, and I want them to leave." I mean, I was like, "You called the police on Shangela? I'm so sweet! My sisters, we're just handing out some fliers on public property!" We were not even in the store, we were out on the sidewalk. It was a sobering reality that these are situations that local people deal with sometimes on a regular basis.

But also in this real life docu-series, the thing I was excited to also see was that people will get to see where we find or unearth these pockets of support, this community of allyship, in places that you would have never thought it existed, right? I remember in Gettysburg telling Bob, "Oh, honey, let's put some chairs up close to the stage." He was like, "It's gonna block people when people run up."  I looked at him and said, "Bob, this is Gettysburg, girl. What do you imagine? It's going to be like a concert? Get some perspective." And don't you know that I had to eat my words because that night we had so many people show up that we had to turn them away because of fire code in the building. It was so overcrowded. That's what I think is the beauty of this: you come into it with one idea of what kind of show you're getting, and you get something else and more.

I was definitely pleasantly surprised by the crowd outside of that little venue in Gettysburg, too, and it sort of struck me as we sometimes write these small towns off of as just, you know, we want to get away from them. We want to escape them when we're young and get somewhere that we feel like it's more friendly. And we forget that there might be people there who are already supporting us and we don't know it. And how important it can be to to ask them to come out and see if they do show up for us. It was just so great to see everyone show up in that moment.

This show really made me think. In filming it, it really made me think about my childhood and my coming out experience. You know, as a young gay boy in a very small town who didn't see a lot of gay people around, I thought, "My one goal as soon as I graduate is I'm getting out of this town." Right? And I immediately, after graduation, ran to the big city. And what this show is making me think about—and I don't know, maybe we were in a different place, you know, 15 years ago than we are today? Maybe we were in a different place then. But also maybe I didn't know there was a community of support because I didn't go looking for one. And we didn't have a drag show to come to town where all the people who love drag can come together and celebrate it. Right? So all these people just live individualized in their homes that had no problem with people being gay and probably would have applauded or lived for you, but you just didn't know. So that's what we're doing when we come to these towns. It's just not about transforming an experience and going on a journey with our drag children. It's also about bringing out these communities of support, maybe out of hiding, or that just didn't have a place to congregate.

Were you worried in those moments where you had to have the more difficult conversations with people who might not be so supportive? I go back to the premiere when you are in the bar with the dad and you're trying to convince him to do drag. And I mean, for me, that would be a scary conversation to have on sort-of his home turf. Tell me about what it's like to have to step into those awkward situations or the potentially awkward situations and diffuse them.

I'm gonna be honest with you. I didn't have any fear in that moment, and I don't have fear in having these tough conversations, because I've worked on myself enough that I stand firmly and shamelessly and boldly in my truth of who I am. And I know that I'm also a person who is willing to listen to people who have a difference of opinion than me. I'm not trying to make see my light, right? I just want them to hear me and then make their own judgment based on who they are and what they value. I can only present to you my case, but I can't make you vote in my favor, right? So when I step into those moments, I know that I'm coming with truth, I know that I'm coming with vulnerability and openness. And that's what I want from the people that I'm talking to. So I can sit down at a table full of people that, you know, probably never had no black person in their house at their dinner table in their lives. Especially not no gay black drag queen! [Laughs] But I can sit there at that table and have these conversations with them. I didn't grow up with a dad in my house. But I can sit there and have a conversation with Hunter's dad about the relationship between he and his son because I know who I am.

That's incredible. I commend you for it.

Well, I worked on it. It's not like it came to me overnight. You know, I've gone on a journey and a lot of that journey people have seen because I've lived it in front of a camera for the last 10 years. So I'm proud to be able to share that and hopefully inspire people to be able to stand proudly in their walk of life.

When you're filming in the small towns, do people on the street recognize you from A Star Is Born or from Drag Race? Do people want to ask you about Lady Gaga? Were there any moments where you were surprised that people knew who you were?

You know, it's funny. And this is the honest statement. I'm surprised when I'm in New York City, walking through Times Square, just on my way to go get a Starbucks or whatever, and people stopped me. I don't know why. I think it's because I'm so like, "Do the project. Enjoy the project. Onto the next. Do the project. Onto the next." And because I work so much, and I work hard, I don't really think of myself as a star. The people I think of a star, I think of them floating around in their pool with a cocktail and not having anything to do but wait for scripts to come to them. [Laughs] I'm not that girl. I'm still a working girl. So I gotta go to Starbucks and get this iced green tea in order to keep going with this next gig. So, yeah, I was also surprised, though, in some of these towns that people did recognize me. They would be like, "Oh my God, Shangela!" I'm like, "Hey, girl! Now don't fall into it. Let's take this picture, but I've still got to get the show done, ladies."

What do you think it is about drag as an art form that helps in the way that it does in this show to not only build confidence within your drag daughters, but also to break down some of the barriers and the walls between your drag daughters and the people in their lives who may not understand them or their communities? What do you think it is about drag is an art form that is useful in that way?

Well, in order to be a good drag queen, you have to be really committed and you have to be able to stand tall in who you are. And you're going to be in situations where not everyone is going to like you or support you, but you've got to have great strong belief and faith in yourself that you can deliver because you were committed to it and you had a passion for it, right? So that's what I try to instill in my drag daughters. It's that power of confidence. And we say this all the time: "Drag queens are confident! Drag queens are confident!" But it's not like we just, you know, check the confidence box one time and all of a sudden, the drag queen is forever confident. No, it's like a gas tank. It runs low, and you got to fill it up daily. And if you're looking for other people to fill it up for you, I mean, that's nice. That's a bonus. But honey, at the end of the day, you need to be able to fill it up yourself. And that's what I hope to instill and inspire in my drag children as we go through this process together and we build this relationship is that I do believe in you, but I'm going to need you to believe in you. That's the only way this is gonna work. And sometimes it was easier. You know, sometimes I had children that were like, "Okay, I got it, Mama. Yes, I believe!" And other times? I mean, it was the night before the show and I was like, "Oh, Jesus.' [Laughs] Please help my daughter, Lord. Give them confidence, Jesus!"

Obviously, your purpose in the show is to be teaching your drag daughters, but what did working on the show teach you about yourself? What did you come away with that you don't think you had prior to doing this experience?

Well, one thing I learned about myself was that I didn't know I could cry that much. I'm not a big crier. I mean, not in very big, emotional situations. I'm always just kind of like, ‘OK, let's find a solution.' I'm the level-headed one likes to work through it. And with this show, I just went on this roller coaster of emotion because I don't have any real children out there—that I know of [laughs]—but I felt like, you know, in going through this experience with Hunter and Brandon and Mikayla, Charles and Nicole and Jose and Jamar. These are all my kids, right? Look, I can even name them. In going on this journey with them, I was really connected as if I was their mother. I rooted for them. And when they did succeed, when they did have a breakthrough, when they did have something to celebrate or did something that they were proud of, and I could see it, honey, I was like a mother at graduation. I was up, I was "Woop, woop, woop!" You know, all of that. I had great pride for them as if I was, you know, their real family in this moment because we built really strong bonds in a very short amount of time.

Have you been checking in on them since you've left? And now that we're all social distancing?

Well, you know, I'm a working girl. I'm an absentee mother. Mommy's gotta work, mommy's gotta work. Mama's got three jobs, okay? [Laughs] And I'm a single mother, at that! But I will say, I did check in on them occasionally. I checked in on Hunter recently. We just did an Instagram Live. And after each of these episodes, I'm doing Instagram Live chats with them over on my Instagram so that not only can I catch up with them again, but also the fans who have now got a window into their life and experience can also ask questions to them.

Drag has been having a moment for a minute now. From Drag Race winning Emmys and holding down a three-and-a-half hour block on VH1 on Friday nights to We're Here on HBO on Thursdays and some of your other Drag Race sisters landing a show of their own on TLC, it's feels like it's everywhere right when we need it most. What do you make of this moment that drag is having, especially on television?

I couldn't be more proud of this moment. I couldn't be happier in this moment, with the strong visibility of drag and queer people and queer people of color, especially, on television right now. I think it is a special moment that we're in, and we need to treasure it and we need to support it if we want to continue to see it happen more. I celebrate every single one of my sisters that are being featured right now in television because we're all showcasing the diversity in drag. None of us are the same queen. None of us have walked the same road to get to this moment. And different people will connect with different stories in a different way. And that's what we want to do. I mean, I think it's great to have RuPaul's Drag Race, but sometimes when there's just one show on, you start to thinking that's the only type of drag there is, those are the only types of queens. And the more visibility that we have, the more it lends to that authentic portrayal of all the different types of drag. And that's why I'm excited. I'm just thrilled. And I hope to be a part of this type of storytelling from here forth as much as we can.

I have to say, that's what I loved about getting to see the drag performance at the end of each episode of We're Here because it's almost the antithesis of the glossy mainstage Drag Race performance. You guys are in these small places. You're seeing what drag can really look like in these local towns and how different it can be and how it's not, you know, what Drag Race may have groomed us to expect it to be. think it's great to see it in all of its different forms and facets. I love that aspect of We're Here, getting to see how drag can be smaller but still fabulous and magnificent all on its own.

One of the biggest things in selling the show to me to be a part of was the fact that we were producing drag shows, and that we would have a big hand in creating these show.s these moments on stage like so many drag queens do around the world, every night, every other night. At this moment, in their bedrooms, they still do a show. You know I'm always gonna celebrate RuPaul's Drag Race because they gave me such an amazing platform to be able to connect with so many people around the world. I love that. But that's not the only aspect of drag. That's why I love having so many different types of shows on television, is that people see, "Oh, wow. Oh, they also do that! And this is how sweaty!" I'll never forget in the first episode, people were commenting a lot, "Ooh, Shangela, you must have been hot in there, Mama. You are sweating down." Yes, I am! Because that's what happens in a real drag club. Especially when the AC goes out and it is overcrowded. My lace is almost coming on my wig, sliding back. There is no, "Clap. We're going to reset. We're going to do that again." No, ma'am. And that's the brilliance of this show, too, because you get a real perspective of what drag queens go through. You see the rehearsal process, me working with newbie queens and helping take them from novice babies to Shangela's kids. OK? And you can just wear that title lightly. You can't get up there and hokey-pokey, one-two step if you want to be Shangela's kid. You've got to turn it out. I performed for Beyonce, OK? And I didn't get there by doing a one-two step.

Before I let you go, I know you are working queen, but right now are you keeping up with the current season of Drag Race? What are your thoughts on the on the queens still in the game right now?

Oh, yes. You know I always say that I'm a fan first and a contestant second, OK? I've seen every season, every year. It's like you're getting a freshman class of sisters in a sorority. You want to, you know, see who's gonna be in and check it out. And so I've been thrilled to watch this season. I think that there are obviously some front runners and people who continue to win, but there are some major standouts in this season. Someone like Heidi N Closet. I don't think she should change her name. I think it should stay Heidi N Closet. I love that name. And I think that she really is the breakout star of this season. Because of how well people are able to attach to her lovable personality. It's fun and it's everything that we love about drag race, right? It's funny and it's fun, doesn't take itself too seriously, but it also is committed to trying to be the best you can. It's a dream. So I love that for her. I love Jan Sport because, you know, I know him from New York prior to the show. She and I sang shallow onstage, she has an amazing voice. She was Gaga, I was Bradley Cooper, anyhow. [Laughs] I could get those notes, OK? I think she was really fun to have on the show. I think that a person who's not getting huge amount of celebration, but she's really cool is Jaida Essence Hall. She just continues to bring so many amazing looks to the runway, and it's just not being talked about enough, to me, but I really like her too.

What do you make of the whole Sherry Pie situation? (Sherry was disqualified from the competition just before the season began airing, but, as of press time, had yet to be eliminated.)

You know, I would just tell you this. I don't know Sherry Pie. I'm not I'm probably as familiar with the situation as you are. But I will say that Drag Race is a show that's about, you know, fun. And it's sometimes, for some people, especially during this rough time that we're all having, you know, where we're all social distancing and staying in, we need some bright spots in our life. And Drag Race has always been, for me, at least, one of those bright spots. So I think that the network and the producers of the show did what they had to do to maintain the integrity of this show, and keeping it as light and fun and a bright spot as they could.

Well, thank you so much. It truly has been such a blast talking to you. I've been a fan since the beginning, so this is a real thrill. 

You love your sister, move on over to YouTube. I just put out a one-hour comedy show called Laquifa is HALLELOOSIN' IT to bring some joy to my fans during this difficult time. It's free on YouTube for everybody. It's a prequel to my upcoming one-hour stand up comedy show that's going to be released at the end of May called Shangela Is SHOOK, all about everything you want to know from the fallout from All Stars 3.

We're Here airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on HBO, while RuPaul's Drag Race airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on VH1.

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