Exclusive Interview: HBO’s We’re Here & Drag Race star Eureka O’Hara “drag taught me how to be an adult, a queer person…a responsible human being”

Suffering from an injury in season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race, East Tennessee queen Eureka O’Hara (pronouns: they/them), or David Huggard as they are known out of drag, returned undeterred in season ten to take a spot in the top three. Away from Drag Race, the self-proclaimed Elephant Queen has released some fierce music, including the singles The Big Girl, Stomp and Pretty Hot and Tasty, and they were a featured artist on Lardi B’s Lardi Pop.

O’Hara is now fronting a major new six episode unscripted series on HBO, We’re Here, along with fellow Drag Race alum Bob the Drag Queen and Shangela Laquifa Wadley. Each week, the three queens, who are also consulting producers on the show, will go on the road to a different conservative small town serving lewks and staging one-night-only drag shows starring a diverse array of local residents, helping them to express themselves through their performances. It’s an emotional ride. Read our ★★★★★ review of We’re Here.

Eureka O’Hara. Photograph by Christopher Smith/HBO.

Ahead of We’re Here debuting on HBO on Thursday April 23rd, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Eureka O’Hara about how drag has transformed their life, the chosen queer family they had in East Tennessee, forming a sisterhood with the other queens on the show and what they thought of their Elephant-mobile created for especially for them for We’re Here. They spill the tea on their Season twelve Drag Race favourites and much more.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: “Condragulations my dear, I’ve seen the first three episodes of We’re Here and loved every moment.

Eureka O’Hara: “Oh really? I’m so glad, I’m so happy with it!”

I cried, but laughed a lot too!

“It’s very relatable and emotional for sure.”

Why did you want to be involved in We’re Here, what was your initial reaction when you heard about the show?

“The diversity of it that they spoke about intrigued me and how they wanted to utilise the power of drag. When I learned that we weren’t coming into these towns to be fairy Godmothers and trying to fix these straight people’s lives, I realised that it was much deeper than that. It was a movement and drag would be used as an expression for these people to tell their stories who wouldn’t normally get a chance to. I think that’s what was the most intriguing for me. The promise of having everyone involved, you know not just straight people or gay people, or trans people. We wanted to express a little bit of everybody and I think that’s what grabbed my attention.”

Caldwell Tidicue (Bob the Drag Queen), D.J. Pierce (Shangela), David Huggard (Eureka O’Hara). Photograph by Courtesy of HBO.

When I first saw the poster I thought maybe it was going to be more over a drag makeover show, but it does go so much deeper than that as you say. Bob the Drag Queen says at one point “drag saved my life”. What has your own relationship with drag been over the years, what has it allowed you to express or find within yourself?

“Everything, honestly. Drag taught me how to be an adult, it taught me how to be a queer person. It’s taught me how to be a responsible human being. You know, in my younger years I had a lot of terror and torture that I was dealing with from growing up. There was bullying and elements of fear within my personal self and thoughts of how I wasn’t going to be a success in real life based off of what was pounded into my head since I can remember when it came to queer culture and the idea that ‘oh, well you’ll never be successful because you’re gay’, or ‘you’ll die of AIDS’. All these things that you are taught from such a young age, like what you are is wrong or it’s disgusting, or you’re a bad person. It’s all those elements and drag helped me find a confident place where I felt powerful and I got a lot of love from people, so that helped, but also it made me feel sexy and beautiful, especially as a plus-sized individual. So I found security and confidence, even outside of drag from drag. It’s been a very beneficial road for me honestly.”

Did you find yourself drawing on your own life experiences and sharing what you’ve been through when you were working with your screen drag daughters on We’re Here?

“Yeah, absolutely, I think when you’re wanting other people to be vulnerable, it’s very important to be unafraid to be vulnerable yourself. Don’t be afraid to relate to these people. They were open about some of the most troubling things that they’ve been through and the emotional sides of themselves, so I had to be willing to do the same. And I’ve been through a lot in my life which used to be to my detriment, it used to hurt me, but now with this I’m able to use the experiences I’ve been through and how I navigated through it to potentially help other people navigate things they’re going through that might be similar.”

Eureka O’Hara. Photograph by Khun Minn Ohn/HBO.

Really the show is using drag as therapy in a way isn’t it. In what ways do you think it can help people in their lives?

“You and this person that you’ve just met have this common goal, so you know that there’s this one thing that y’all already have in common. But I think the bigger picture is that it just shows how performance art in general and self-expression are so important to the healing process. And I think what makes this so powerful is that drag is all about self-acceptance and confidence and self-love, and not caring what other people think and demolishing this idea of fear with this superhero costume or this warrior mask that you paint on; bringing something that’s deep inside of you out can be very freeing as well.”

In We’re Here, you are drag mother to various drag daughters across the country. Could you take us back a bit, I wondered did you have someone who was in that mentor position for you when you were first getting into drag?

“Yeah, a lot of the people where I’m from in small town East Tennessee aren’t necessarily very accepted by their own families, so in the queer community that I come from we’re very family based, we believe in chosen family a lot. A lot of my closest family to this day are chosen family because of that way of thinking and I think that’s what we wanted to take into this show, that element of family being where the heart is and who supports you and is loyal to you. People can earn a position of family in your life and you can earn a position of family in other people’s lives. You know, we’re taught that it’s the hand you’re deal and that you’ve got to deal with the hand you are given. No you don’t! I think that’s the main power of this show with drag especially. You don’t have to settle for painful, you have the ability to come out on the other side of this.”

Eureka O’Hara. Photograph by Khun Minn Ohn/HBO.

You’re often in drag on the streets or in diners and stores in these small towns and you seem to be the one handing out the most flyers to promote your one-night-only shows! Some of the people you encounter are a little hostile towards you and you even had a couple of people threaten to call the cops. What did you make of the reception you had generally and was there ever a time when you felt really unwelcome or uncomfortable?

“You know, there were a couple of moments where I felt very nervous honestly. When you’re a drag queen you learn to be perceptive of what’s going on around you and what other people might not notice you notice more. And there were definitely situations where I felt that we were very unwelcome, like if we just happened to show up at an event which was a little bit more family based especially. Then there were venues that basically refused to allow us to even stand in front of their venue, on a public sidewalk, let alone allow us to go inside to look around, and they threatened to have the cops called on us or actually called the cops. People screamed things at us when they were driving down the street. There’s a constant nervousness that comes with being an out and loud queer person in general because we’ve all had our experiences and it can be terrifying, but at the same time, we as a cast for this show knew what we were getting ourselves into and prepared our mental states for it. Also, we’ve been through enough of this. Me, Bob and Shangela specifically, I think that sadly because we’ve been through a lot of those situations we know how to navigate them naturally, so we just don’t fight it with anger, we say ‘OK, fine’ because there’s nothing else you can really do.”

On the other side of that, Shangela says at one point “we’re not here to demonise anyone”, which I think was an important point to make in the show. Something that I found heartening and hopeful, is that we see that a lot of these people who have strong religious beliefs, which they think means they have to view LGBTQ people as sinners, can evolve and their hearts and minds can open. What did you make of that aspect of the show?

“If nothing else, people are going to relate to the stories in our show and that’s where the lessons are going to get learned. A lot of these conversations are topics not normally talked about or shown on television. For instance the discomfort and awkwardness within a family when you’re discussing a trans individual and how people don’t accept them. You see the nervousness of the family in person, and then you see the crack of them in the moment of the performance and you’re also seeing the backstory of this trans individual that’s not accepted by their family, or you’re able to see both sides to a daughter mother argument. Even the people in our show that may have made mistakes or been disrespectful or discriminatory or whatever the case may be, we weren’t there to slap hands. We were just there to listen and not to persecute anyone for the decisions they may have made in the past, just to credit them for what they were doing in the moment. It was a pretty powerful thing to be part of.”

Caldwell Tidicue (Bob the Drag Queen), D.J. Pierce (Shangela), David Huggard (Eureka O’Hara). Photograph by Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

I was really invested in these people and I found myself wanting to know what happened to them afterwards, and really caring about them. Have you kept in touch with anyone you helped on series or had any updates on how they’re doing?

“Yeah, especially my drag children, I’ve tried to stay in contact with them through social media, you know that’s any easy way to connect. So just a ‘hi’ here and there and some of them message me even to this day just to say ‘hi mama! Wishing you were here!’ So it’s amazing to see how they were so affected by these experiences.”

What were some of the most satisfying moments for you during this series in terms of helping someone?

“I would have to say it was probably Christopher in the third episode, he was the young man with the daughter named December. I think there was a moment when I was talking with him after the performance and he just mentioned ‘well, I know what I’m going to wear at the pool next year’, and I was like ‘what?’ And he was like ‘a Speedo!’ And I just teared up immediately because when I first started to work with him, not only was he very intensely unemotional and trying to be that very strong male presence, afraid to touch that side of himself, but he was also way too proud to discuss that he had body issues. So just to see that he was so open and made a joke about it, and felt better in general was amazing. He was probably one of the hardest people to get to shed that masculine exterior. So everything about him I lived for, but in that moment I was just like ‘oh my God, my baby learned something!’

Eureka O’Hara. Photograph by Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

I loved his performance, it was great to see him start to make those small movements and then really get into it!

“Yeah, he really felt it. I mean it was cute. She gave it her all! And I definitely related to Erica’s story in the first episode too, only because of losing my mom. It was so emotional seeing this woman struggle as a mother and it reminded me of my mother.”

You mentioned in that episode that you had lost your mom fairly recently.

“Yes, when we were filming it was only a few months before. The one year anniversary is coming up.”

Eureka O’Hara, Bob the Drag Queen. Photograph by Khun Minn Ohn/HBO.

We’ll be thinking of you. Obviously most of us are physically apart right now, but I think one of the messages of We’re Here is the importance of getting together in real life and supporting one another as an LGBTQ community isn’t it? Something that we might all appreciate a little but more once this period of lockdown is over.

“It’s just about visibility, it’s about standing together, it’s about showing people that there are other people like you in the world and it’s just sad that we have to get all of these negative ideas about ourselves, and the people that are different in this world, pounded into our brains. It’s very detrimental to the spirits of our people. So of course it’s important to get together physically, because anyone can be whoever they want to be online, but in person you are held accountable.”

I love the drag vehicles on the show!

“Oh my God, I’m obsessed!”

Tell me about riding around in that giant elephant?! What did you think of it when you first saw it?

“I’ll never forget pulling up in Pennsylvania to the safe space site, I was enamoured that they had made this elephant vehicle, I even cried, I just couldn’t help it you know! What an honour to have a show put that much care and love into just the vehicle that you would show up in, and with me being the self-proclaimed Elephant Queen! It’s just a celebration of the love for family that I love about elephants, but also my size. I just thought it was incredible; honestly, I was giddy like a little schoolgirl about it! You know it’s like when daddy gets you that pony. That was my pony!”

Eureka O’Hara. Photograph by Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

How was it working with your two fellow queens Bob and Shangela on We’re Here and not having that competitive vibe that you’d have with other queens on Drag Race? Although I guess even on We’re Here there is still an element of competition, you all want to put on a good show!

“The thing is with drag queens there is always a little bit of competition no matter what! There’s just a little bit of territorialism there where we always want to be the best version of ourselves and the girls always want to have a little bit of a fiercer look than the girl beside them. So there’s some very healthy competitiveness happening, but for the most part, doing the show together, especially after the first or second episode, we all three found a system to work together with our personalities. We realised that the only people that knew what the three of us were going through was us, because the show takes a very heavy toll on us too. Just because we hold responsibility for these people that we’re helping, their emotional stories and the performance element, and we know how emotionally and spiritually tied to these people’s situations that performance can be. So we really had to rely on each other for support and understanding and also to just have each other’s backs when it came to production. You know, it might be an issue for Shangela and not for me, but because I know how hard drag can be of course I would have to support her and be like you know what, if it’s something that makes her feel more comfortable to do this, we need to listen, we need to have that kind of attitude. You know it was just about being real sisters in this situation, it was kind of crazy how well we came together.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12. Courtesy VH1.

What are your thoughts on the current season of Drag Race, have you been watching it and have you got a favourite?

“I love the current season of Drag Race! My favourites include Gigi Goode, I think she is really shockingly great. I love the personality of Heidi N Closet, you know I love a little underdog gal! I’m really obsessed with Widow Von’Du, I think she’s a fierce thickums. Honestly, I like a lot of them. I also really love Jan, I like her spirit and I almost want to know more about her emotional side and what pushes her to have this insane desire to win, like she’s not enough or something. So I guess I relate to her the most because I’m a very competitive person like that too. So I’m just like, ‘I see you bitch, something has happened that’s makes you feel like you need to win this to feel validated’, but she’s so great and talented. I fall in love with these girls every season and I find myself thinking ‘damn it, I love a whole new set of girls!’”

We’re Here has had me in floods of tears, happy, good cathartic, therapeutic tears! Is there a TV show or movie that tends to make you cry the most?

“At this point anything that involves love. I just think that love is so sweet and special! I’m such a family drama, loving your family, or like the love of your life type crier. Especially any time anyone loses a family member, I’ll immediately cry, stuff like that. I think the movie that is the most emotional for me is Bastard Out of Carolina. God, it gets me every time!”

Jamie Babbit’s But I’m A Cheerleader (1999).

I always like to ask people we interview about their favourite LGBTQ+ either movie, TV series, book, play, artwork, piece of music, something that’s really resonated with you over the years and why; or something current.

But I’m a Cheerleader is a movie that I really love. And The Perks of Being a Wallflower, both the book and the film. I love that story. There are elements of feeling like the outcast and weird and there is a gay story in it too. And Queer Duck, the cartoon movie about the little gay duck is really good!”

Debuting Thursday April 23rd 2020 at 9pm ET/10pm PT on HBO, We’re Here will be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO on Demand and affiliate portals. For more details on the series head to the official HBO We’re Here page.

Beginning at 8.30pm ET on Thursday April 23rd, the approximately 30-minute digital event simulcasted on HBO’s YouTube channel, HBO’s Twitter profile, and by participating affiliates will feature celebrity cameos and behind-the-scenes insights, with HBO making donations to Free Mom Hugs and Mama Dragons.

The debut episode of We’re Here will be made available via the YouTube Premieres platform at 9pm ET10pm PT and by participating affiliates, marking the first time that HBO has made content available for free at the same time as its debut. It will also be possible to live-chat with the Queens using the YouTube Premieres chat function.

Follow Eureka O’Hara on twitter @EurekaOHara and instagram @EurekaOHara. Subscribe to their YouTube Channel here.

HBO’s We’re Here Season 1.

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