When the world came to a pause in early spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, Shangela Laquifa Wadley, the 38-year-old drag queen and RuPaul’s Drag Race veteran, returned to her hometown of Paris, Texas, to stay with family. For Shangela—the self-professed “Werqin’ Girl” known as D.J. Pierce out of drag and who lives in Los Angeles full time—it’s the first break she’s had in years.
Though no one could ever accuse Wadley of being shy on RuPaul’s Drag Race (the queen’s unapologetic personality made her a fan favorite, especially in moments like her iconic “sugar daddy” monologue), she had been performing as a drag queen for just five months before she appeared on the show in 2010; her runway looks and makeup fell flat with the show’s judges. As the first queen eliminated from the competition that season, it would’ve been easy for her to fade into obscurity—especially in the years before Drag Race became a pop culture mainstay.
Instead, Shangela took her fifteen minutes of fame and parlayed them into bookings, an appearance on the next season of Drag Race (this time placing sixth overall), Drag Race All Stars in 2018, and eventually a small role in A Star Is Born as the emcee of a drag bar where she introduces Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, ahead of her performance. Thanks to “Miss Corona” (as Shangela refers to the pandemic) she’s now pivoted from the stage to virtual performances via TikTok and Instagram, where she’s hosted a virtual happy hour and posted the likes of lip syncs and skits that capture our current moment.
Along with Drag Race alums Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara, Shangela has most recently starred in a new six-episode HBO show, We’re Here, that premiered April 23. The show features the queens taking a tour of small towns across the United States to perform a string of one-night-only drag shows. Texas Monthly caught up with Shangela, who’s been staying at her grandmother’s house in her North Texas hometown, to talk about her drag origins, Texas roots, small-town life, and her new unscripted series.
Shangela: Well hello and halleloo!
Texas Monthly: Hi! How’s Paris, Texas, these days?
S: It’s been excellent out here under the Texas sun. I realized that this is the longest amount of time I’ve spent in my hometown since I graduated high school. I’m a diva on the go. In 2018, I did a worldwide tour of 184 cities, performing in a new place every night, so to be home for two months is definitely a pivot.
TM: What have you been enjoying about being back home?
S: Well, one thing that I love is Whataburger. I’ve been able to go through the drive-through, safely and socially distantly, to get a Texas Toast.
TM: Tell me about Paris. What was it like for you growing up there?
S: There were great opportunities for me here. But at the same time, there were a lot of things that made me want to hurry up and get out. I think anyone who grows up in a small town experiences that kind of stuff. But, growing up as a young gay black kid, I would look around and there weren’t a lot of people who were out loud and proud, no visible representatives of positive gay images around me, or even on television and film. So I went seeking those as soon as I was able to.
TM: How did you first discover drag?
S: I got my first introduction to drag in Dallas, in the Cedar Springs neighborhood at the local bars. I just loved the excitement of the show, how much fun it was and how much humor they brought. But as well as how glamorous it was. Texas knows all about glamorous drag. Traditional Texas drag and the drag that I looked up to when I was first a drag admirer was very polished, the Texas girls were glamorous. It was big hair and bigger hips.
TM: And how did you get started in drag?
S: I was a backup dancer for drag queens in pageants. For a number of years before even creating the character of Shangela, I was a front row backup dancer [laughs]. I was very committed. And I was doing this at the same time that I was attending [Southern Methodist University] in Dallas, where I graduated from. I would be going to class during the day and backup dancing for drag queens at night.
TM: After leaving Texas, you went out to California. Is that where you first heard about RuPaul’s Drag Race?
S: I remember the first time I saw the show it was playing on a television in the break room at my job in Los Angeles. I was working in PR at the time, and I remember someone had left the TV on VH1 in the break room. I was so fascinated that drag was on a mainstream network like VH1. But at the same time, I never saw myself on the show because I hadn’t even come out to my family or a lot of my friends back home.
TM: What was the audition process like?
S: I didn’t want to audition initially. The casting agent saw me performing at a show in West Hollywood and told me to audition. I said, “Oh, honey, I’ve seen that show. I’m not going on TV dressed as a woman.” I had nothing against dressing as a woman—I was a drag queen—but I just knew I hadn’t had that conversation with people back home yet. I had created this new character in L.A. and I was not about to take her on television. I didn’t even get in drag for my audition tape. I literally sat in a chair out of drag and told them, “Here are the top ten reasons why you do not want me on your show.” I would say something like, “I can’t dance,” and then it would cut to a clip of me dancing and killing it on stage. They loved the video, and that’s how I got cast.
TM: At what point did you end up talking to your family about this?
S: I didn’t have the conversation with my family until after RuPaul’s Drag Race had actually aired. I went to the show thinking I was going to win. Oh honey, I was about to win twenty thousand dollars and make all my dreams come true. But I was kicked off in two days. I took that as a moment to really fuel my determination, to not be known as that queen that failed. I went out there and started working really hard, booking myself, doing pageants, and I just totally forgot that I was going to be on television.
My grandma called me when it started airing because she was very confused. She said, “I don’t understand. I hear you’re on TV dressed as a woman.” It forced me to have this conversation that I didn’t really plan to have. But it’s great, because that brought all of us closer together. It gave me greater pride in who I am.
TM: In We’re Here, you’re working with people who resonate with your small-town upbringing. What was that experience like?
S: I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not been told no and turned away. I’m able to really connect with my drag daughters on this show and talk to them about their journey and not giving up, because I didn’t. I’ve lived that life. I’ve walked those roads. I’ve had those experiences growing up of feeling like you are not winning. But you’re going to have to start seeing yourself as a winner before anyone else calls you one.
TM: The show delves into a more diverse world of drag queens than has been shown on TV before. How do you think the public perception of drag has changed over the years?
S: We work with all different people from all different walks of life and people that truly represent all the different facets of our drag community that I saw growing up in Dallas. There were drag kings. There were drag queens. They were trans members of our drag community. They were all different races and bio queens, too. I’d love to see the definition of drag continue to expand for people. Within our own drag community, though, a lot of these definitions and descriptions of drag queens are not new. We’ve always had bio queens. We’ve always had trans members in drag. But the more that they’re exposed to other types of drag, the more they broaden their understanding of what a drag queen is.
TM: You’re well-known for your catchphrase, “halleloo.” Where did that come from?
S: I have been saying “halleloo” since the dawn of Shangela. I grew up in a Southern Baptist home. My grandmother had us in church on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and twice on Sundays. She always said “hallelujah,” but I think mine was just a shortened, cooler version. I remember watching back RuPaul’s Drag Race and thinking, “Wow, I sure do say that a lot.” But I never thought it would be a catchphrase.
TM: Last year, you had the distinct honor of performing a Beyoncé medley for the queen herself. What was going through your head at the time?
S: All I could think was “Sell it, Shangela, sell it.” In my mind, I was performing at the Kennedy Center Honors for Beyoncé. That’s what I felt in my heart, and that’s what I wanted her to feel. I wanted her to feel that this diva onstage loves me so much that she’s putting so much heart into this. I wanted her to know that the work that she had put in really had inspired other people, including myself, so much that here I am giving you this ten-minute medley, honey. And I am not missing a beat.
TM: These are strange, hard times for live performers like drag queens. Is there anything you want people to know about what it’s like to be a performer right now?
S: Remember the local queens who are hurting so much because of the shutdown of nightlife right now. Those queens depend on wages from tips and they’re not getting them now. So if you see a local queen performing on her Instagram, find that Venmo or that PayPal and help her out.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.