Can I get a Hallelloo up in here?
Shangela Laquifa Wadley aka D.J. Pierce burst on to our television screens a decade ago competing in the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. She might’ve been first to sashay away that year, but you can’t keep a fierce queen down and she was back for the third seasons of both Drag Race and Drag Race All Stars, making her the only contestant in herstory to have competed in three separate seasons of the Emmy-winning series. Away from Drag Race, she’s appeared opposite Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the Oscar-winning A Star Is Born, appeared in the movie Hurricane Bianca, and had guest acting roles on series like Glee, The X-Files, 2 Broke Girls, Bones, The Mentalist and most recently multiple episodes of The CW’s Riverdale spin-off series Katy Keene. As a performer she’s toured internationally, taking in 184 cities in 2018 alone, and has released singles including Werqin Girl, Pay Me, Call Me LaQuifa and the festive Deck a Ho with Bob the Drag Queen. Last year she performed a Beyoncé medley in front of Beyoncé herself at the GLAAD Media Awards.
She’s currently taking the empowering, healing and uplifting magic of drag to small towns across the USA with fellow Drag Race alum Eureka O’Hara and Bob the Drag Queen on HBO’s We’re Here, and making us cry with every moving episode. Social distancing measures halted production on the sixth and final episode of the season, with the focus shifting to the personal journeys of the queens themselves, including unseen performances and self-taped interviews from their homes. Ahead of the season finale airing this Thursday June 4th on HBO at 9pm ET/10pm PT, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Shangela from her hometown of Paris, Texas, where she’s been self-isolating with her mother and grandmother, about the power of drag, why We’re Here makes her cry too, the responsibility of being a drag mother, her acting ambitions and love for Paris Is Burning.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review. Condragulations my dear on We’re Here, I’ve loved every episode of the season, including the finale which obviously had to be completely reconceived as production was shut down, but it worked really well I thought.
First of all, I saw your lip sync performance of Jenifer Lewis’ very impactful song, Take Your Knee Off My Neck, in response to George Floyd’s death, and I’d like to start with the power of drag, not just to entertain and uplift, but also to carry a meaningful message as well. I feel like the emotion of a song can sometimes be amplified through drag.
Shangela: “I think a lot people see drag entertainers as these representatives of freedom from the pressures and the expectations of society, and I think a lot of times they connect with us on a strong emotional level. So when things are going on in our society that are very heavy a lot of times people will look to drag queens, not just for the usual ways of entertainment and escapism, but also as a voice of support, of encouragement, of truth and honesty, and also to help lift them up at a time when they may feel very weighed down.”
I hadn’t seen Jenifer Lewis’ original video until I saw your lip sync on your Instagram and I immediately shared it.
“Well, thank you. Jenifer Lewis has a great voice and has always been an active voice in the movement towards equality and justice. I think that being able to portray that and spread that message through my own drag and lip sync performance, well, a lot of times it’s not just about the messenger it’s also about the message, and I’m thankful that I’m able, through her words, to carry that on, but also through words of my own.”
In the finale of We’re Here you, Bob and Eureka get to tell your own stories, which was a great way to use that episode. You talk a bit about growing up in Paris, Texas and I wondered, what’s it’s been like being back there especially having reflected a lot on growing up there while you’ve been doing We’re Here.
“During the pandemic I’ve spent more time at home in Paris, Texas than I have since I graduated high school, consecutively anyway. I’ve been home coming up on three months now and it’s interesting to be back in this space again. First of all, I’m very grateful that I’m able to have this time to spend with my mom and with my grandma, in the same house with them, and just really reconnecting stronger with my family than I have been able to do lately because I’ve been on the road, you know I’m a diva, I’m a working girl honey, I’ve been on the move! So this has been an interesting time for us to be able to reconnect in person, but also it’s been very nostalgic being back in my hometown because you know I look around and it doesn’t look like much has changed, a couple of new buildings here and there. They moved the Dairy Queen, but other than that not a lot of things have changed! Unfortunately I haven’t really been able to experience being around a lot of people to see how society has changed because we’ve all been in our homes and we haven’t been socialising in that way. But I feel like just with the response that I’ve gotten online that people in my small town…you know they found out I was here because they did an article on me in The Paris News, and they included a photo of me and my grandma, because I’ve been doing my grandma’s makeup, you know for fun while I’ve been home, and practicing what I’ve learnt on YouTube on my grandma! It’s been a fun glam time for us, but it was really cute they took one of my Instagram photos and put it in The Paris News, a local newspaper, and the article was promoting the show We’re Here, but it also said Shangela is here quarantining with her grandmother. Well, in a small town that kind of news travels really fast! So we’ve had a lot of calls and occasionally even visitors that with social distancing you know they wave from the street, or close to the screen door and they just want to say how much they’ve enjoyed watching We’re Here and how proud of me they are. And it’s come from people that I wouldn’t have expected to watch a show related to drag or that includes drag in this area, so it makes me really hopeful about where my small town, where some of their perspectives and way of thinking is going, the progress.”
What was it like having to shoot the We’re Here finale from home, from self-isolation?
“For me it was great, because everyone is social distancing and following the stay at home orders I got to go out and didn’t have to worry about lots of people being around and looking and wondering ‘what is he shooting?’ I filmed that scene at the town’s Eiffel Tower just with myself and my camera. And I could do it over and over, I climbed on the Eiffel Tower! I got into drag and I was walking down the street in Paris and no cars were coming. I did that take probably fifteen times and no one even ran me over! So I am thankful that I am in a place like Paris, Texas. I can’t imagine being in a major city if there were more people out and trying to accomplish that, but I could get it done, I’m a drag queen honey, I can get everything done! I was proud to be able to showcase even a little sliver of my hometown and the backdrop with which I grew up.”
In the We’re Here finale as you tell your own story you mentioned that the first time you performed in drag on stage at a club was as Beyoncé, saying “in that moment I found my joy for drag”. It must’ve been kind of wild to then just a few years later be performing as Beyoncé for Beyoncé at the GLAAD awards last year!
“Thank you in saying ‘a few years’ I appreciate that very much! It was ten! But thank you again! Yeah, it was really surreal. Everyone always asks me ‘were you nervous?’ and I wasn’t nervous about being in front of Beyoncé, but I just wanted it to go well. So if I was in any way nervous I think that’s where that came from. It wasn’t about being in front of Beyoncé. You know, I’ve performed in front of Nicki Minaj, I’ve performed in front of Cher, I mean this is Beyoncé, which I always appreciate, but it wasn’t about being in front of a celebrity, Beyoncé, it was about being in front of someone who I had been able to connect with so many people around the world because of their art and their music. When I perform Beyoncé I do a ten minute medley, and by the time I get to my last song Halo, honey, sometimes the people are in tears, alright! I’m not saying that I’m that amazing a performer, although I love myself, but it’s because of the powerful art that Beyoncé has created. Then I get the opportunity to go out there and share her art, but also bring my energy and my passion to it and then connect with these fans around the world. And, in addition to my own music, I’ve been able to perform Beyoncé on six out the seven continents. So in that moment I just wanted to honour her and all the work that she has done and hopefully show her from the stage, because I didn’t know if I was going to get a chance to say hello, or meet her or say thank you or anything. So I just wanted to show her through my performance how grateful I was that she got out of bed and decided to go create and be Beyoncé!”
Going back to We’re Here, how did you find taking on that role of drag mother. I have to say you probably had the highest standards when it came to your drag daughters getting the choreography right!
“Yes, I am very passionate about my work and what I present on stage that’s right! You know, being a drag mother, I have my own drag kids back in LA and it’s funny because I don’t have any real children, you know I have not given birth, surprisingly, to any kids! But I have children, and I do feel like a lot of times they are my kids, I feel responsible for them if I see them doing things that I think doesn’t support where they should be going with their lives I will tell them. They come to me for advice about things and when they leave I feel like ‘wow, I hope I helped them’ and then I follow them on their journey and they are like my family, they are my kids. So in taking on these new drag recruits, these new drag children across America through We’re Here, it’s just been this exponential growth of my family. And how awesome to have an opportunity to share the little bit of knowledge that I’ve learned in the last ten years performing in drag, and the last thirty of living, and to be able to share that with people who are open to learning.”
Well, I was in tears by the end of every episode, probably before the end actually!
“Me too! And I’ll tell you, I was in tears filming it, and I didn’t expect to be that vulnerable in doing the show, but we really build a strong connection with our children throughout the course of the week in working with them. Not only in their own personal lives with different family members or walls that they have to break through mentally themselves, but also in preparing them to go on stage and be a drag entertainer. And a lot of times, yes, it does look like I am maybe the very Joan Crawford when it comes to training my children, but it’s because sometimes I have to retrain their way of thinking that drag is not just putting on a wig and heels and going up there and dancing around. This is a moment that you have to share a message with people and I want them to take it incredibly seriously. I still want them to have fun, of course, but when I go out on stage I have fun because I’ve prepared and I know that I am delivering my best and then I can let all the nerves go and have fun preforming. I get them prepared in that if anything were to happen like someone sneezes on the other side of the room, or a glass falls, I don’t want them to be completely thrown in their performance. And a lot of times they think ‘oh, it’s a song I know, I got it’. Baby, you don’t have it! If you can’t do this number without this music standing right here in front of me as a spoken word poem, then you don’t have it. And your momma needs to give it to you right now!”
You’ve built up an impressive acting résumé, especially over the past few years. I really enjoyed seeing you on Katy Keene recently and of course you appeared in A star is born a couple of years ago. What are you acting ambitions, would you like to do a big rom com movie or a TV series?
“All caps YES! I moved to Los Angeles with a dream back in 2007 to become an actor, that’s what my ultimate goal is and I have been very thankful to build my career as a performer and while doing that still maintaining roles as an actor. I’m really looking forward to continuing that as much as I can with television series and film. I just finished writing a full-length feature with my friend, and we are also writing a new television series with me in and out of drag. So yes, I’ve always had a passion for acting and I want to continue to do it.”
Drag Race Season 12 came to an end on Friday with Jaida Essence Hall taking the crown, what are your thoughts on her winning?
“I’m so happy for her! You know, I’m going to be honest with you, with all that’s been going on with our communities, not only with the pandemic but also with recent matters with regards to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests, I’ve been so enthralled with that I haven’t had a chance to watch the finale itself. I’ve been trying to scroll past things on Instagram really quickly because I am going to sit down and I want to be in the mindset and the mood to enjoy and celebrate and laugh. But I am so proud for Jaida. I watched a number of episodes this season and I knew that she looked very committed to doing it, she seemed very committed to wanting to win and delivering her best and so I’m so happy to see not only a professional queen win, but also a professional queen of colour, a black queen get up there and snatch that crown, I’m very happy for her!”
And finally what would you say is your favourite LGBTQ+ either movie, TV series, book, play, artwork, piece of music or person, something or someone that’s had an impact on you and really resonated with you over the years and why? Or something current.
“You know, We’re Here is phenomenal! I’m thankful to be a part of LGBTQ stories especially now because there were so many that influenced me. One of the first was Paris Is Burning. I loved Paris is Burning, I loved the way they talked in Paris is Burning because it reminded me of the way me and my friends talk. It was beautiful to see the history of where so many different gay terms originate and the ballroom scene, and the way families and the houses were built, all of that was beautiful in Paris is Burning, I loved it.”
By James Kleinmann
We’re Here season finale airs on HBO this Thursday June 4th at 9pm ET/10pm PT.
Episodes one to five of We’re Here are available to stream on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and on HBO via HBO Max and other partners’ platforms. Sign up for a free trial of HBO Max and catch up on the whole season of We’re Here.