Shangela on the Political Significance of HBO's 'We're Here': "Pride Was Born Out of Protest"

HBO's We're Here - Shangela - Publicity - H 2020
Christopher Smith/HBO

The drag superstar talks to The Hollywood Reporter about the potential impact of her six-part docuseries as Pride Month begins during a time of unprecedented divisiveness in the U.S.

It's been 10 years since D.J. "Shangela" Pierce burst on to the small screen as a competitor on season two of RuPaul's Drag Race. And though she didn't sashay away with a crown — not even during subsequent appearances on season three or All Stars 3 — the Paris, Texas, native has gone on to do what most drag entertainers could only dream of.

While juggling a massive international touring career over the past decade, Shangela has flexed her acting chops on such shows as Broad City, 2 Broke Girls, Glee, The X-Files and Katy Keene; performed with Miley Cyrus at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards; lent her voice to Ariana Grande's fan-beloved song "NASA"; and, most notably, made her feature film debut alongside Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in 2018's A Star Is Born.

But of everything listed on Shangela's packed résumé, she just might be proudest of her latest project: HBO's We're Here. The six-part docuseries (which airs its finale tonight at 9 p.m. ET) has followed the self-proclaimed "werqing girl" and fellow Drag Race alums Eureka and Bob the Drag Queen as they infiltrate small-town America, challenging bigotry and hopefully transforming hearts and minds where LGBTQ acceptance is low. Each episode ends with trained residents — whom the queens have affectionately taken on as their own drag children — performing in a local drag show, helping them step out of their comfort zones by slipping into a pair of high heels.

"With so much going on in the world right now, it's been nice being able to put something out there that not only makes you feel good, but hopefully inspires change in those who need it most," Shangela tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Yes, drag is glitz and glam on the outside. But how it affects people on the inside is where the real magic happens."

Wigs, costumes and glitter make We're Here fun to watch. But it's the heart-wrenching conversations between the queens and their subjects about queer identity — and the prejudice they've experienced from narrow-minded, often right-leaning family members and loved ones — that make it nearly impossible to change the channel. "This show took a lot of emotional stamina," says Shangela. "There were definitely times I broke down and cried." 

Below, Shangela talks more with THR about creating We're Here — and reflects on its potential impact to uplift marginalized communities as Pride Month begins during a time of unprecedented unrest in the U.S. due to President Donald Trump's divisive rhetoric; and the reignited Black Lives Matter movement, a direct response to George Floyd's death and unceasing police brutality against black people.

During this time, what do you hope viewers take away from We're Here?

I hope that viewers of We’re Here really take in how life-changing and life-affirming an act of kindness or support can be for someone who feels isolated. Our show addresses the unique challenges facing queer people in small conservative communities, and hopefully makes non-queer people want to become better allies. 

What is the best way to fight racism and support the black community right now?

The first step is acknowledging the existence of systemic racism and bias, even within our queer community, and then coupling that with commitment and action in fighting it. There are a number of organizations that have been dedicated to this battle for decades — NAACP, ACLU and more. Look around, be informed.

Now that we've entered Pride Month, Pride marches and Black Lives Matter protests are beginning to overlap. What message do you have for the LGBTQ community — especially its black members, who face layers of systemic oppression, discrimination and violence? 

During this time of unrest in our country, it’s important that we all remember that Pride was born out of protest. The only reason we have the freedom to celebrate our queerness in the streets alongside businesses, allies and other vibrant queens, is because of the defiant gays who resisted the oppression, brutality discrimination and decided to stand up to it. Let’s remember the spirit of those leaders this Pride, as we stand up for justice and equality for all. We must remember we are a community, and until all in a community are equal, none of us are.

We're Here is a very unifying show. How was it pitched to you?

The creators of the show, Steve Warren and Johnnie Ingram, told me the show would be three drag queens traveling across America to small towns, working with people to help them realize their best selves through the transformative power of drag. That really resonated with me because I'm originally from a small town: Paris, Texas. It's actually where I'm socially distancing right now, quaran-queening with my mom and my grandma during the coronavirus pandemic. When I was coming up in my own small town, our gay and queer community wasn't very visible. I know how that could have impacted me and made my own experience a little better, so I was thrilled to be that for someone else. Sign me up, honey!

The premiere episode began with you, Bob and Eureka in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. And although some residents were welcoming, there was a stark realization that LGBTQ acceptance was lacking when a man angrily told a local shop owner he would be boycotting her business after she let three "freaks" inside her store. Then there was the unapologetic display of Confederate flags throughout the town. As a queer person of color, were you at all nervous going into these types of places?

This is a slice of my childhood, a slice of my experience growing up. I wasn't afraid of going into these places — but I was aware. It's important to be aware of what you're walking into and to put on your armor of not only confidence but resistance, in a way, to resist the feelings and not allow yourself to be placed back in those spaces again where you know everyone is not here cheering you on.

Throughout the process of filming, how did you handle anti-LGBTQ rhetoric when it occurred?

I remember in Branson, Missouri, Bob, Eureka and myself actually had the police called on us — twice! — for just being drag queens. At one point, we were promoting that week's drag show just outside of a local establishment on the street and this guy came out and said, "I'm calling 911 if you guys don't leave right now." And it's a realization of what people go through in these small towns on a daily basis. That was very eye-opening and a sobering reality check that told me that maybe we haven't made it as far as we thought we had in regard to progress. In some places, particularly larger cities, it's a lot easier to be queer. It's harder in smaller towns. But in the towns we went to on this show, we would unearth these pockets of support and community. It wasn't always bad.

The drag shows at the end of each episode always have a great turnout, proving that there is love and support in some of the most unlikely places.

What we find is a lot of times is that it's not that support doesn't exist in these places, it's just that a space where everyone can come together and support LGBTQ people doesn't exist. There are often no places for people to come together, to congregate, to show their allyship. So, you may not know that the local shop owner is a supporter of drag queens or queer people because there's nowhere for that person to go and show their support.

You talk about "planting seeds" for change in the series. What is the key to changing hearts and minds?

Honest and authentic visibility. The only way that we can inspire change is to show up, be present, be visible and be ourselves unapologetically and shamelessly. If we can do that, we show people that we have great love for ourselves. And when you have great love for yourself, the need to be accepted or loved by others becomes less of a priority for you. And then the second part of that is being open to listening. In this show, we do a lot of talking. (Laughs) But we also do a lot of listening. Listening to our drag children and what their experiences are in these locations, and also listening to people have a different opinion than us. And in order to be heard, we have to listen.

LGBTQ people have faced repeated strikes from the Trump administration, including a signed ban for trans people to serve in the military and a 2018 threat to define gender legally as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth. What message do you hope sticks with Trump-supporting conservatives who might be watching the show?

That's a great question. My hope for people, even Trump supporters, in watching this show is that they come to realize that the LGBTQ community and drag entertainers are not as far removed from them as they may think. We're not something to be feared. A lot of times, people fear what they know nothing about. And a lot of people who are staunch conservatives, Trump-supporting, religious people — well, depending on what their religion is — fear us. They fear the unknown. They say they don't know any gay people. It's something so different from what they're accustomed to that they like to demonize a particular group. And I think in watching this show, people will realize that we're your neighbors, we're your children, we're your family and we're here. Literally, we're here, honey!

And how do you hope the show resonates with LGBTQ youth?

I hope that any young kids who may be feeling alone realize that there is a greater community of support in this world that they may not currently see. The greater the amount of people you see on television that look like you or are experiencing the same thing as you, the less alone you feel having to go through these situations. And I hope that it inspires them to know that there is a way through it.

How long did you get to spend with the show's participants?

It's usually about a week total.

You get a lot done in one week!

Who are you tellin'? (Laughs) And you know, for us, Bob, Euerka and I learned to lean on each other as sisters even more throughout the filming of the season because we are doing so much, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. We're not just on-camera hosts of the show but we're also consulting producers. So, it takes a lot of work. But that's the life and journey of many drag queens around the world, every day. If you have a weekly show, mama, you're trying to get creative and come up with looks, come up with ideas and come up with the production of it. Sometimes you have backup dancers you have to work with and learn the choreography. And, sometimes, you're doing this all in the garage at your grandma's house. Baby, you know!

What was it like being a producer on We're Here?

Bob, Eureka and I spoke up about our interest in having a seat at the table and having our voices be heard. We have such a great network like HBO and our vice president of programming over there, Nina Rosenstein, was like, "Yes, we want this show to be as authentic as it can be. We want you to feel heard." A lot of times, as drag queens, we have to really push to be heard in Hollywood. But I was very excited to see that HBO honored us with those titles and then fully engaged us and our teams. Not only are we there, but each one of us — Bob, Eureka and I — got to bring our creative teams, from the designers to the wig stylist to the makeup artist. These are people I've worked with for years. This is giving jobs to so many creative gay people that don’t always get their shot. They are now working with HBO. That's what makes it feel like family. And the best part of that is that my drag children on the show are working with the best of the best.

You form such strong connections with your drag children on the show. What is the communication like with them after you leave?

In the spirit of Julianne Moore, the kids are alright! I'm a diva on the go, so I'm one of those absentee mothers at times. But I always check in with my children. I don't have any real kids out there, but I actually feel like I do now all across America after doing this show. Watching my drag daughter Hunter on that stage while we were filming episode one, and now watching America watch Hunter, I'm so proud. I feel like a mom whose kid is graduating. I just want to stand up and go, "Woot, woot, woot!" What we hope to do with this show is inspire the confidence within themselves to continue the momentum. Like I said, we're planting seeds. And then it's really up to them to water them and make sure they grow.

The show follows a format. First, you infiltrate the cities. Then you chat with the locals. We meet your drag children, you get to know them. And then the drag show happens. What was your favorite part?

Look, I'm Shangela. I love a show! I love putting the drag show together, I love coming up with the ideas, I love working with my amazing team to bring it to life on stage. I love taking people on a journey through a rehearsal process. Even though it's incredibly stressful at times, I want to drag them to their highest level of commitment. At the end of that process, I am just elated. And then getting the crowds together and feeling that energy from all the people. It's not just the excitement of seeing us or being at a drag show. It's the fact that these overlooked queer communities and their allies get to come together and celebrate altogether

How would you describe the power of drag in 2020, an election year?

The power of drag in 2020 is transformative. It has the potential to transform our ways of thinking because it challenges a lot of people's definitions of what they do and don't support. Over these last few years, we've been led in a way that has really divided our nation and made the world's respect for us as an inclusive country really … plummet. I was going to say "go down the toilet" but I was trying to find a word that was a little more appropriate. (Laughs) It's hard being someone who travels around the world. You used to be so proud to say, "I'm from America!" and everyone's like, "Yes!" They're now like, "It's great that you're from America, but child, what about y'all's government?" And we used to not have to experience that, but you know what? That's also a conversation that we're encouraging people to have. There are a lot of people who thought that LGBTQ people were greatly accepted in communities across America. Gay marriage was legalized in 2015, so, "Yay!" But what We're Here is doing is shining a light on places that have not come as far as we thought they had or could have. And hopefully we're inspiring them to do so, to be progressive.

And inspiring them to vote in November?

Honey, get on out!

Joe Biden has yet to announce a running mate. Who do you hope he picks?

First of all, I just want us to get to a brighter day in our country and I think Biden can hopefully lead us there. As far as his running mate goes, I think Stacey Abrams from Georgia would be a great candidate. I think Kamala Harris could possibly be a great candidate. I met her in Los Angeles and was really impressed. But I think Stacey Abrams would be incredible. She has shown such a commitment to go against voter suppression. She's a champion of equal rights. I don't know everything about her, but I definitely think that she could be a strong candidate for Biden to consider for a running mate.

Do you see drag as more political or ministerial?

Whether it's political or ministry, it brings about a word that hopefully brings us to a greater connection to each other. It's all conversation. What is ministry? Ministry is having someone who is inspiring us to look at ourselves and hopefully be better and have hope that we can make it to a greater day. What is political congregation? It's inspiring hope for people to think that our government can lead us to a better way of living for our country. So, drag in this aspect on We're Here, is inspiring hope, whether it's in the press room or in the pulpit. It doesn't matter as long as it's a conversation that inspires hope. And that's what we want to do.

Would you ever consider running for office?

I think I'm better as a first lady. (Laughs) I honestly think I would be better as a first lady. Honey, I will bring all the fashion and take the spirit of Michelle Obama. I would get out there and plant those gardens. I'd do a music video with Beyoncé. I'll inspire the world to move and bring about change but I don't have to wear a suit and get into all those meetings. I want to be fabulous, honey. I want to be the first lady.

When you first auditioned for RuPaul's Drag Race all those seasons ago, did you ever think you'd be doing a project as impactful as We're Here?

It is a great feeling to see how people have connected with this project. It really is part of what I feel like my purpose in the world is. And that's to inspire people to have greater confidence in themselves and inspire greater love in our world. Back on RuPaul's Drag Race, especially when I went home first on season two and continued to come back, I never expected to have any of these gifts or to be a part of the projects that I've gotten the chance to work on. But I always wanted to. And I always worked for them. This show, in particular, has been a dream come true.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.