Shangela Is the Fearless Drag Queen America Needs Right Now

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Disney/David Laffe
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Disney/David Laffe

While in Paris, Texas, Shangela stopped into the newly opened T.J. Maxx, as Maxxinistas are wont to do when home for the holidays. A high school friend by the name of Andrea who works at the store ran up and said, “Oh my gosh, Shangela! My 86-year-old grandma called me and told me that she loves you on the show.”

Shangela has been a standout on three different seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but the show in question here is Dancing with the Stars. In the season finale that aired late last month, Shangela placed fourth. Grandma Virginia’s fanfare hit next level when Andrea told her that her connection was well beyond acquaintanceship. “She tells all her friends that her granddaughter went to high school with the little boy that dresses as a drag queen on Dancing with the Stars,” Andrea told Shangela. Naturally, the drag superstar had to do something special for Grandma Virginia.

“I told her, ‘Give me your phone right now. I hope I don’t get you fired, girl. Let me get your phone,” Shangela recalls from her home in Los Angeles. Wearing an oversized purple hoodie, devoid of makeup, she adds, “I had to make a video for Grandma Virginia.” Back in Paris, Shangela still goes by her birth name, DJ Pierce, though she is beginning to notice that the Shangela of it all has started to take over. “This lady, who may have never said the word drag before or had love for someone that presents in drag as an entertainer, now does,” Shangela says, with a smile.

Being such a public face of drag is a bold move in this, the year of some demon, 2022. Shangela’s immensely popular run on Dancing with the Stars dovetailed right into the third season of the critically acclaimed HBO docuseries, We’re Here, which premiered on Nov. 25. She has an upcoming North American tour slated for 2023, and yet, all this success collides face first with a country plagued with anti-LGBTQ sentiment. For a dancing diva so renowned across America, it’s sobering to think that the same jazz routine that landed her a perfect score of 40 on national television could land her in jail in the state of Tennessee, if pending legislation passes.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Shangela with her dance partner Gleb Savchenko on <em>Dancing with the Stars</em>.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC</div>

Shangela with her dance partner Gleb Savchenko on Dancing with the Stars.

Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC

Just a week before our video interview, Shangela was on set at Dancing with the Stars preparing for her final two performances alongside her professional partner Gleb Savchenko, a Russian-born heartthrob whose partnership with Shangela resulted in his highest placement since joining the show in 2013. “At the beginning, I wasn’t sure what I'm getting into, obviously. In Shangela style, she was like, ‘Honey, let me show you something. Take two steps back,’” Savchenko says. Shangela spun into a triple turn and executed a death drop. “I was like, Wow, this is exactly what I need for the show. That’s exactly the partner who I need.”

When it came to getting on the series, not unlike her personality, Shangela was not subtle; she begged her team to pitch her as a contestant until, eventually, producers took a meeting.

“I knew I had an opportunity to share my story and who I was and also my love for dance,” she says. “But I prayed, ‘God, before I go into this, please let my partner be cool with dancing with a drag queen.’ I was so grateful that Gleb was like, ‘Come on, babe. Move into me.’ He was excited to create art, and it didn't matter what my gender or my sexual orientation was.”

For the couple’s final performances, Shangela performed a “revisited” version of her quickstep from earlier in the season, and used the opportunity to dedicate the performance to the victims of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, which took place two days prior. Then, arguably, she made an even bigger statement with the performance that followed. She put Savchenko in full drag for a freestyle that included transgender Drag Race alumni, a suspension system, and two (2) dancing chicken legs. It was, handily, the queerest performance that Dancing had ever seen—and this is a show where fringe and sequins are standard.

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“Listen, if you make the finale, I’ll go full drag,” Savchenko remembers telling her after a particularly promising rehearsal. “For me, it was very important. I wanted to completely embody that. I wanted to become Natasha. I didn’t want to be a cartoony and make fun of it, because to me, I saw the whole process: how Shangela transformed every single week and how much work goes into it.”

As for how Shangela prepared Gleb? “Bring your razor to the set, baby,” she said. “Because we're going to shave you.”

For fans of Drag Race or even Dancing, it’s clear that Shangela knows how to make good TV. The question with We’re Here was whether Shangela could thrive when the competitive reality element is stripped away. The series follows Shangela, along with Eureka and Bob the Drag Queen, through small-town America as the queens prepare three subjects for a one-night-only drag show. All three queens were raised in politically right-leaning towns—specifically, small-town Southern America: a tumultuous battleground for drag queens and queer people alike. The third season premiere, which took the queens to Granbury, Texas, highlighted the same run-ins that have plagued headlines in recent months.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Shangela on HBO's <em>We're Here.</em></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Greg Endries/HBO</div>

Shangela on HBO's We're Here.

Greg Endries/HBO

For instance, there’s this scene where Shangela is slated to host a drag queen story hour. For the first time in the series’ history, the scheduled appearance was canceled because the host site received threats of violence. Shangela, fully prepared for the event, appeared unlike she never had before—visibly shaken. She quietly wiped tears away before composing herself. A parent of one of the attending children offered her business up as a host site, and the show continued. Shangela read a picture book about bats to a group of about eight. When asked about the moment, Shangela’s response echoed the situation down in Branbury.

The thing you should know about Shangela is that she’s a businesswoman who loves to promote and entertain. When asked about her tour, she was quick to plug ‘That’s S-H-A-N-G-E-L-A-DOT-COM, baby,” she says. When asked about her paso doble solo, she tells me that all you need is one of her signature “Halleloo!” fans, available at the shop at—you guessed it— But in this particular moment, I can see her face drop a bit as she explains, “My experience trying to put on a drag queen story hour in Granbury, Texas, felt like a real shock to me when it was shut down, because of people who were threatening to cause violence in front of children. That’s not something I support.” She stops for a moment, pursing her lips, looking slightly beyond the webcam.

Suddenly, she shifts back to entertainer mode. “Listen, I’m an uncle. I'm a fabulous gay uncle. I love my little nieces and nephews! I totally want to protect kids. There are a lot of conservatives that I would like to protect kids from,” she quips, raising her eyebrows to sell the point. We discuss a couple of other questions, and then as if to suggest that she hadn’t lightened the mood enough, Shangela circles back and adds, “Real quick! What’s fucked is you don’t make no money at a drag queen story hour! Children don’t tip! Worst patrons ever, honey! Honestly, you just go there because you have the love.”

The shift between DJ and Shangela is a stark one that most drag queens withhold from their audiences. I mean, it’s drag, right? As a drag show patron, you’re not signing up for the creator, so much as the creation. But for Johnnie Ingram, who co-created We’re Here alongside partner Stephen Warren, the heart of the series is in being able to highlight the gray areas between the drag artists and the drag characters who drive each episode.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Trixie Mattel, Kennedy Davenport, Bebe Zahara Benet and Shangela in the finale of <em>RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 3</em>.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of VH1</div>

Trixie Mattel, Kennedy Davenport, Bebe Zahara Benet and Shangela in the finale of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 3.

Courtesy of VH1

“What we really wanted for We’re Here is to share the real DJ, or Shangela, outside the competitive drama. DJ is a kind, family loving human from Texas with a huge heart and the superpower to connect with people respectfully and authentically,” Ingram explains. “In drag, Shangela has the talent and embodies the empowered diva persona. But what we get to see when the lights go down is a human that is dedicated to supporting his mother, his grandmother, his cousins, his nieces, his nephews.”

Of course, considering the current political climate, it’s difficult not to worry what could happen to the episodic subjects once HBO’s cameras leave the town and places like Branbury start settling back into their day to day. When asked if she ever worries about her drag children once the series leaves town, Shangela starts to answer immediately and then pauses.

“I don’t worry so much because I see the transformation that happens in our drag kids and the community of support. We’re not fairy godmothers. We don’t walk into a town, wave a wand, and then everything is magically rainbows and better,” she says. “But what we inspire with our show is a greater sense of community. Community doesn’t have to be an actual physical structure. It can be knowledge in understanding that… Hey, I remember that lady and that lady and that man. I never thought they would support me. They all came to the drag show.

But the truth is, queer communities do remain under attack. Sometimes it’s dead-naming someone or misgendering them. Sometimes it’s overt slurs, and in the worst case scenarios, it’s nightclub shootings and other forms of lethal violence. At a time when queer people are having rights stripped and being told to stay subtle, Shangela’s whole thing is stepping out. Being bold. Clacking that fan with a signature “Hallelloo!” to boot.

“When you rise, when your visibility is greater. You become a target for a lot of people, especially conservatives,” she says. “I think that the catastrophe happens when we allow people to just run over us and scare us back inside. I know what it was like for little DJ. I didn’t see a lot of positive images of gay people, of gay people of color, of drag queens in the media. We didn’t talk about it in our entire community.”

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Speaking to Savchenko, whose Russian heritage might seem at odds with Shangela’s mission, he says plainly, “Imagine me, a straight man from Russia, being white... My whole life is very different. Being able to represent and be part of that community, especially on the weekend [following Colorado Springs], it was honestly groundbreaking for me as a human. And I’m just super-grateful that I was able to be part of that and to raise awareness because we can love whoever we want because we are free people with free spirits. That’s how I see things.”

And of course, the creators of We’re Here know exactly who they’ve elected to carry their show forward. “Behind the diva, behind all the rhinestones and glitter is a family man,” Ingram says. “I believe that the love, dedication and passion he has for family is giving them the power to go on and do great things.”

When I ask Shangela if she performs in fear, she says, “I don’t feel fear. I don’t because I'm happy with what I’m doing. No moment in this world is really promised to us, you know? But I do want to inspire people to walk with their head held high and not walk in fear. That’s what people who go and do these hate crimes. I stand steadfastly in saying baby, we shall not be moved.”


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