Shangela was one of the break-out stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the second series of their award-winning doco series, We’re Here, is a love letter to the power and importance of drag
Like most events in 2020, even the power of drag had to be put on hold due to Covid-19. Shangela Laquifa Wadley – aka Darius Jeremy ‘DJ’ Pierce – and their two co-hosts Eureka O’Hara and Bob the Drag Queen were already in the town of Spartanburg, North Carolina, filming season two of their award-winning HBO Max doco series We’re Here.
It’s a real-life doco series that sees the three Drag Race stars visit small-ish towns around America, where they each have a ‘drag kid’ who needs a helping hand to break out of their sometimes less-than-understanding circumstances. The way they do that? Shangela et al host a ‘one night only’ drag performance in each town, where the three drag kids perform, alongside their mentors, for the local crowd. If it sounds like it’s all going to be pure glitter and zazz, there is a very serious side to the journeys of each of the drag kids as they navigate their way through being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Because while being part of this community comes with a lot more visibility and representation these days, there can still be tremendous battles of discrimination – if not worse – to face. Even Shangela, Eureka O’Hara and Bob The Drag Queen, three of the most well-known stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a cultural behemoth that turns many of its characters into global phenomena, are not immune to this.
Shangela grew up in Paris, Texas in the 1980s – a small town with a current population of under 25,000 – and says that returning to these more conservative places with We’re Here can still bring back hard memories. “Going to these small towns, sometimes it is triggering,” DJ Pierce/Shangela says. “You think ‘I’m okay, I’m at this certain level in my life, I’ve been able to travel the world and when I go places, they scream “Halleloo”’, he laughs. “And then you have a moment where we’re in drag on the street and people are saying, ‘Oh, I’m never going to shop here again because you let these freaks in here.’ Or they’re calling the police on us.”
“You have a moment where we’re in drag on the street and people are saying, ‘Oh, I’m never going to shop here again because you let these freaks in here.’ Or they’re calling the police on us.”
“It’s jarring in that way but it’s a reminder that this may be our experience in that particular moment but that’s the experience for some of the people that live there, all the time. So as far as we feel that we’ve gone with visibility and representation in terms of television and film, we still have a lot of work to do. And that’s why this show is important. We are doing the work.”
On our global chat, with journalists from Brazil and Spain, we’re sitting down with a fresh-faced DJ Pierce (pronouns he/him), wearing a hoody and a beaming smile as he talks with great excitement about the joy and importance of working on We’re Here. The show first premiered in the US in April 2020 and has already won major accolades, including an Emmy nomination. The second season starts screening on Neon in Aotearoa this week and is an emotional roller-coaster, in that it is both overwhelming and very fun to be taken on this ride. DJ wants to be very clear that this is not a makeover show, however.
“We are not a show that brings in the fairy godmothers to wave a magic wand and everything is better,” he says. “This is a moment in life that we go in. I’m excited to be able to connect on a very real and personal level with my drag kids – and hopefully take them on a journey of self-discovery for themselves… and then a moment of empowerment, through the power of drag. It’s a beautiful time together but it’s just a slice of life.”
All three drag mentors, along with their drag kids, show the very real truth that for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, stepping into that full power of who they are is a process – and it’s a process that isn’t linear, that takes time, and can require a lot of strength. We see people who are in the process of working out their gender identity, their sexuality – and we see what real allyship looks like and how complicated and individual that process can be as well.
In one episode of We’re Here, two of the drag kids have their mothers along for moral support, mothers who are very willing to learn, try, get it wrong sometimes, but keep trying anyway. But the third drag kid, DJ’s mentee Andrei, is there alone because his family does not support him. One of the points of tension is whether his mother come to the final show as a sign of goodwill. If this was a scripted show, she would. But reality is different. It’s a very real reminder that for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, being comfortable in their identity can be a team effort – and a lot of people don’t have the support they deserve.
“If we’re ever going to achieve real equality for all, if we’re going to get to a place of greater understanding in our communities, we have to do it together. We can’t just do it as the LGBTQIA+ community,” DJ says. “We have to be willing to educate and we have to be willing to understand the importance of real, true allies.”
This is particularly true in a Covid-19 world, he says. “Because of the pandemic we have had to be more isolated, so the need for community is still very great but I also think there’s a need for all of us to be reminded of the importance of loving and accepting everyone – and the challenges that people face when they’re not loved and accepted.”
“So when I walk around now, as opposed to feeling like ‘okay, I might be the only one like me around here,’ I go to Starbucks and there are like four teens that come running to the window saying, ‘Halleloo, Shangela,’”
The second series of We’re Here takes place purely in America, and while they’re getting closer to DJ’s hometown of Paris, Texas, they haven’t got their yet – “don’t think I’m not pushing for it, baby”. Like so many people, DJ is back in his hometown, quarantining with his family but he says that while, visually, his hometown hasn’t changed much, the young people have.
“The youth now are raised in a Drag Race kind of world, where drag and conversations about the LGBTQIA+ community are much more prevalent for them. So when I walk around now, as opposed to feeling like ‘okay, I might be the only one like me around here,’ I go to Starbucks and there are like four teens that come running to the window saying, ‘Halleloo, Shangela,’” he laughs. “But I think my town could definitely benefit from having a show like this because visibility matters, okay. And a lot of times in small towns you don’t have a large representation, especially of those in the gay community.”
Once the pandemic is over – or at least dwindling down – DJ hopes that they’ll be able to take We’re Here overseas. Shangela has already performed in Auckland, so there’s a lot of fond memories of Aotearoa. But who knows where the third season will take place? “I’m Shangela, so you never know what box I’m going to pop out of in what country! Halleloo! There is a greater need for love and acceptance everywhere in this world.”
We’re Here Season Two – Neon, Wednesdays from 13 October