Shangela Talks Protests, Pride Month, and How to Support Drag Queens Right Now
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
"Honey, I'm birthing children all over this nation," Shangela Laquifa Wadley, aka D.J. Pierce, said during a phone interview on June 6. The effervescent drag queen — known for her three RuPaul's Drag Race appearances, A Star Is Born cameo, and "halleloo" catchphrase — is referring to her experience on the HBO docuseries, We're Here, which follows Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O'Hara, and, of course, Shangela as they host one-night-only drag shows with residents of various small towns. "The Wadleys are going on tour one day," Shangela added.
The six-episode season — which aired its finale earlier this month — takes the trio to towns in New Mexico, Missouri, Louisiana, and more. Each queen is responsible for coaching a different performer, and they range from drag regulars to novices and people who had never even seen a drag show. The season unfortunately ended abruptly when production in Spartanburg, SC was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, so instead the finale consisted of at-home interviews with the cast.
The good news, however, is that We're Here has since been renewed for a second season, and Shangela is down to finish what they started. "Girl, I left a dress in storage over there! I need to go pick it up," she said. "There are such amazing stories to be told in Spartanburg and so many more places around the country."
During her conversation with POPSUGAR, Shangela spoke about the show's debut season, how Pride Month will look decidedly different this year, and her new Feed the Queens initiative is helping fight hunger within the drag community.
POPSUGAR: First of all, how are you doing? What have you been doing to process and cope during this time?
Shangela: 2020 has proved to be a very challenging year thus far for people across a lot of communities, specifically those in the Black community, and also those in the LGBTQ+ community. One thing that we have to remember, though, is that in our most difficult times, those are the times that we're brought closest together. Even though it's been a heavy week, I have been empowered with this really strong sense of hope because of all the activism, because of all the involvement, because of all the difficult conversations that people are having right now regarding race in America and equality for everyone.
PS: In light of both the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests, how do you envision Pride Month celebrations taking shape this year?
Shangela: Well, undoubtedly Pride in 2020 will look a lot different than anything many of us have ever experienced before, but just because we have to adapt, does not mean that we have to completely forget. Just because we are on lockdown, does not mean our spirit of Pride has been locked up.
"Pride is not just about coming together for a parade."
For me, I'm here at my grandmother's house in Paris, Texas. Typically, during Pride season, I am with my friends and with people all around the world celebrating the great sense of community that we have, but I'm still going to be here in my hometown celebrating Pride, because Pride is not just about coming together for a parade; Pride is about us coming together to strengthen our community for the things that we value within our community, which are freedom of self expression and equality for all. That's what I'll be doing, and I'll do that differently. I'm gonna have to do it via social engagement, maybe I'll be making some videos in my backyard. But also, I'll be pushing forward the conversation about the importance of us continuing to hold up our rainbow flags, whether it's physically or in our hearts, and also continuing to encourage everyone to vote, because we talk about how Pride is about supporting equality, and the only way that we're gonna be equal is if we get in there and talk to these lawmakers and elect people that have similar values.
PS: There's a lot of talk about effective allyship right now. How can people outside of the LGBTQ+ community show their support and also demand justice for trans victims of police brutality?
Shangela: I've always said that we have to lead with love. A lot of people are having first-time conversations about race, disparities in justice, and the violence that trans — specifically people of color and Black trans members of our community — face on a daily basis. The right words aren't always going to be said, but the interest in learning is the first step.
Everyone is different in how they engage these conversations. My way is just to be open to listening so that when I speak, people will be willing to hear me. People have to feel that they're also being heard in order to have a two-way conversation, and I'm open to having difficult conversations, because I think that's the only way that we're going to be able to get to a place where people are more familiar with the challenges that our LGBTQ+ community faces. We have to understand where people are on their spectrum of learning, and be willing to take the time to educate them, inform them, and share our experiences with them so that hopefully we can all get to a place where we understand the true meaning of equality. You can't really understand equality if you don't know the differences that your community faces.
PS: Right. Something that many people are expressing right now is the notion that it's OK to grow, change your opinion, and admit your mistakes.
Shangela: Yeah, these are conversations that I've had not only in my community, these are conversations that I've had not only in these small conservative towns that we visited through We're Here, but also that I've had in my own personal family, amongst my own friends and people that I attended school with . . . people aren't going to be able to truly evolve their way of thinking — this kind of breakdown of systemic racism — overnight. We have to be aware of that and understand it. This is not a one-week momentum of activism. This has to be a position of lifelong learning, teaching, and speaking up for what's right.
PS: So, tell me about your new charity organization, Feed the Queens.
Shangela: We've all tried to find ways to be involved and help our specific communities that have been hit so hard by COVID-19 and the shutdown of nightlife. I'm a drag queen, I came up in the bars, and I understand that a lot of drag entertainers really depend on the wages from crowds of people who are tipping them. That's how they earn their living, and without the ability to have those spaces to perform, to entertain, and to earn money, the drag community has been one of the hardest hit with regard to this pandemic. Already, the LGBTQ+ community faces very high numbers with regard to hunger. The statistics are really staggering, so now we have all these out-of-work queens that don't have money and that can't buy some of their basic necessities, and that is food.
So, I'm committed to fighting hunger in the drag community. I've teamed up with The Actors Fund, and they joined me in saying, "We are going to work together to raise $100,000 to feed 1,000 drag queens or more across America, and we're going to this by providing them with gift cards in the amount of $100 each, specifically for groceries."
Also, there are a few things I'd like to add: One, this program is designed to fight hunger amongst drag queens, drag kings, trans drag performers, and other types of drag performers in our community. So, it's very inclusive. The second thing is, we understand that drag queens from communities of color, specifically Black and Latinx drag queens, are being hit harder because of COVID-19 and pre-existing oppression in the different communities. Therefore, we are earmarking 30% of the amount of money raised specifically for those queens who identify as queens of color.
PS: How can people get involved?
"I remember what it's like to have to choose between putting together the money for your art or putting together the money for your food."
Shangela: Here's how you can help: you can go to FeedTheQueens.com. On there, you'll find a donation button so that individuals can help provide financial support. That's the first thing. Second, I'll be programming an event coming up, in which we will be providing fans an opportunity to get some great entertainment while also helping us raise funds to fight hunger in the drag community. The third thing, is that queens can apply starting June 11. They can go to the website and fill out a really simple application to receive this financial assistance for food. I think it's really going to be something special. I'm excited about this project because I know what it's like to be hungry. I was a drag queen that worked for $50 a gig at a time, so I remember what it's like to have to choose between putting together the money for your art or putting together the money for your food. I hope that people won't have to do that alone, and I'm thankful that I have this platform and am able to help out. I went to Drag Race, I never won $100,000, but I bet it'll be really nice to help give it away to those in need.
PS: Pivoting to We're Here, there have been a lot of conversations taking place lately about representation in various positions, but particularly at the leadership level. I think it's worth noting that Bob, Eureka, and yourself were all consulting producers, in addition to starring in the show. How important was that to you?
Shangela: It was incredibly important, and I am so honored that HBO recognized how important our voices would be not only in front of the camera but also behind the camera in helping to produce parts of this show. We have such amazing leaders on this set, like our creators Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram, who stood right there next to us and said, "We want this show to have the most authentic feel, the most authentic sound, and that's going to require these queens contributing on camera, but also off camera." HBO and the leaders there — Nina Rosenstein and Casey Bloys — came in there and said, "Let's make sure that these queens are being heard." It's so nice to have a seat at the table, not only as on-air talent, but also as a consulting producer.
PS: Looking back at this first season, is there a particular moment that stands out in your mind?
Shangela: Well, you never forget your first. My first drag show with Hunter, it was just beautiful to go on that journey of his own self-growth. I think he had this evolution into owning more of who he was, not only as a young gay boy in a conservative town but also as a budding drag queen.
PS: I was going to ask! Is Hunter going to continue performing?
Shangela: Oh yeah, honey, I'm birthing children all over this nation. The Wadleys are going on tour one day! I'm so proud of Hunter. It's difficult because none of us are really out and about right now, but he's been doing makeup tutorials online, sharing them with his newfound fandom. I talked to him and his dad recently, and it was so beautiful to see their relationship and how that whole family has just come even closer together. I feel like in some way I had a little hand in that, so it's just been beautiful.
PS: It was really incredible to see his dad's transformation, and how he even participated in the lip-sync video at the end of the finale.
Shangela: Dad was so proud. He learned the words, honey!
PS: It seemed like many of the locals you encountered were supportive and excited, but there were also a few unwelcoming individuals. What was going on in your mind during some of those more difficult interactions?
Shangela: Once again, I've always been taught [to] try to lead with love. That's how I walk into those spaces. Going into these small conservative towns, a lot of them I've never been to before, but they feel very familiar to me because I grew up in a small conservative town. I'm not afraid in any way because I feel I'm in a place that I'm familiar in, but I am definitely committed to walking in the shoes that my drag children walk in every day.
PS: In the second episode, Bob, Eureka, and yourself reflected on being "rough around the edges" at the start of your respective careers. What role does mentorship play in that process of becoming more polished as a drag performer?
Shangela: It makes a huge difference if you have someone in your life who you can look up to and who will take the time to mentor you. I've been very grateful that I've had a number of teachers in my life, and they've come in many forms. I think it's great to have that, but if you don't, you can lean upon those in your life that you draw any type of inspiration from. I think these queens that we visit in these towns, they're drag queens. Drag queens are known for being some of the most resourceful people in the world who can create treasure from trash.
PS: Congrats on getting renewed for a second season! Do you all intend to finish the work in Spartanburg, which was sadly cut short due to the pandemic?
Shangela: We just got the word about being renewed, so we're riding that wave right now, but I would love to go back to Spartanburg. Girl, I left a dress in storage over there! I need to go pick it up — I want to wear that gown! But also, there are such amazing stories to be told in Spartanburg and so many more places around the country. I'm excited that HBO is giving us the opportunity and has recognized what a powerful show this is, with such a great message that people need right now. We're going to, at some point, get back out there and do it again.