D.J. "Shangela" Pierce: Quaran-Queen

May 8, 2020

Drag queen and actor D.J. "Shangela" Pierce gained national attention as a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race. Shangela was the first queen eliminated in season 2, but Shangela's personality won fans and the producers over. In the premiere of season 3, the queen surprised the other contestants by popping out of an oversized gift box and joining them in the competition.

Since then, Shangela has appeared in the Oscar-nominated remake of A Star Is Born, The X-Files and Ariana Grande's 2019 album, thank u, next.

Shangela's most recent project is the unscripted series, We're Here. The six-part series follows Shangela and two other drag queens, Bob The Drag Queen and Eureka O'Hara, as they adopt small-town residents as their drag daughters and train them for one-night only drag performances. New episodes air Thursdays at 9 PM on HBO.

Recorded remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton talk to Shangela about quitting a corporate job for Drag Race, landing a role in A Star Is Born, and finding small-town queer communities in We're Here.

Then, inspired by the iconic Drag Race "unboxing," Shangela takes an audio quiz on unboxing videos found on YouTube.

On Moving Back To Her Childhood Home

(Shangela is currently living in Paris, Texas during the coronavirus pandemic.)

"It's been really nice being close to my mom. Although, you know when you get back in your family's house, all of the sudden you're 16 again... As much as I'm like, 'Mom! I'm an adult! I'm on a show on HBO!' She's like, 'Right. The trash cans need to go out and you look too skinny, come here and eat more.'"

On Quitting A Corporate Job For RuPaul's Drag Race
"I literally quit my corporate job in PR at the time...In season 2, the cash prize was $20,000. You know, being a novice diva, I just knew that $20,000 was gonna make all my dreams come true. So I was like, 'Y'all can keep this job. I'm gonna go win Drag Race!'"

On The New HBO series, We're Here

"The creators, Johnnie Ingram and [Stephen Warren], came to me and said, 'Look, we've got this idea about you guys traveling to these small towns and putting on these one-night only drag shows and partnering with these people who have these amazing stories.' I just knew that experience. It resonated with me because I grew up in a small town...I know what it's like being a young, gay kid that looks around and thinks, 'Oh my gosh, I'm the only person like me maybe even in the world.'"

Heard on D.J. "Shangela" Pierce: Quaran-Queen.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Hey, it's time to welcome our special guest. I'm very excited. From "RuPaul's Drag Race" and the new HBO series "We're Here," it's D.J. "Shangela" Pierce. Thank you for joining us.

SHANGELA PIERCE: Well, halleloo (ph).

EISENBERG: You coined a phrase that I love, which is that you're quaran-queening (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: It couldn't get any more true.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: And you're in your hometown.

PIERCE: Yes. I didn't go back to where I live in Los Angeles because it was such kind of a hotbed area. So I ended up quaran-queening here with my mom and my grandma in our family home in Paris - Texas, that is.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: (Laughter).

PIERCE: I have to always define that - Paris, Texas.

EISENBERG: And how's it going? How is it going quaran-queening with your mom and grandmother?

PIERCE: Yeah. So it's been really nice being close to my mom, although, you know when you get back in your family's house, all of a sudden you're 16 again?

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: Yeah, that's right.

PIERCE: And...

COULTON: All the dynamics come rushing back. Yeah, it comes exactly - you're right back where you started. Yeah.

PIERCE: You got it. And as much as I'm like, Mom, I'm an adult. I'm on a show on HBO. She's like, great. But the trash cans need to go out.

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: And you look too skinny. Come in here and eat more. And I'm like, I've eaten. I've eaten three times.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So you started doing drag in 2009.

PIERCE: That's right.

EISENBERG: And so you'd been doing drag for about five months when you were cast on season 2 of "RuPaul's Drag Race." But...

PIERCE: Yes.

EISENBERG: ...You were eliminated in the first episode. So do you feel like you were too new at the time? Or was it a - like, I just got to go out for this and try to make it happen now kind of thing?

PIERCE: OK. So Miss O, I'm going to let you know. Honestly, in the moment, I thought, oh, how could they eliminate me?

EISENBERG: Yeah.

PIERCE: I came in here ready to win. I mean, I literally had quit my corporate job in PR at the time to go - and I was winning 20 - you know, at the time in season 2, the goal or the cash prize was $20,000. And, you know, being a novice diva, I just knew $20,000 was going to make all my dreams come true. So I was like, you all can keep this job. I'm going to win "Drag Race."

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: They casted - I only done 10 drag shows total at the time. I was doing a show once every two weeks for those five months. And I remember thinking in the moment, how could they let me go? Now looking back at it, I'm like, oh, OK. It's a show about makeup. I probably should have put some on to come in that front door.

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: And mind you, that face took me two hours to put together.

EISENBERG: OK. So then you were asked to come back a couple more times.

PIERCE: I think after that year, after getting voted off, I thought, oh, my gosh, do I go back to my job and, you know, be like, just kidding?

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: Because, honestly, it had only been two days since I quit. I mean, I literally quit to go do the show, and I thought I was going to be gone for a month filming. Girl, when they sent me home two days later, I was sitting there with all my luggage like, oh, wow. But I decided, you know what? I really have a passion for this. I really love entertaining. I really want to be an entertainer. So I decided I'm going to just go for it. And I started picking up more gigs and more shows and competing in pageants. And the people from "Drag Race" saw that I'd, you know, put such an effort into becoming a better queen that they invited me back onto season 3.

EISENBERG: And also, you did - from 2017 to '18, you did the Werq The World tour - right? - which was - you produced and performed, and that featured other drag queens from "RuPaul's Drag Race." And you guys went around the world in this big tour.

PIERCE: As a drag queen, as a performer, I'd been on a number of tours and loved working with a lot of the promoters, but some of them really didn't understand drag and didn't understand what queens needed and how to best produce when you're working with drag queens. A lot of times, they don't even look at the dressing rooms for the queens. So they're just like, OK, you got seven queens? Two rooms - perfect. We'll put three queens in one and four in the other.

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: Oh, no, OK? We all have two luggage a piece. And also, the things that happened off the stage - how to keep queens happy. If you have a drink for the divas, please have a straw because we can't be ruining our lipstick on these, you know, Coke cans or bottles or anything like that. Have straws for the divas. They're just little things that go into making the girls happy. And if you make the girls happy, you make a great show.

EISENBERG: Jonathan, does this not sound like everything we say all the time?

COULTON: Yeah. No, this is pretty much the same, except for the straw.

EISENBERG: I like a straw for that exact reason.

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: Jonathan, what about your lipstick, Jonathan?

COULTON: It's a very pale shade, so it doesn't actually give me too much trouble.

EISENBERG: It's tattooed. He doesn't want to say it. It's tattooed.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: And you act. You were in the recent remake of "A Star Is Born." You played the head drag queen at a bar where Bradley Cooper's character meets Lady Gaga and - for the first time. So they were originally looking for a Marilyn Monroe or Barbra Streisand impersonator. So you didn't go out to audition, but then you did go out. You decided - what changed?

PIERCE: Well, I remember seeing the casting for it. And you're right. They were originally, for one of the roles, casting for a Marilyn Monroe drag impersonator.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

PIERCE: And I just knew that - look; drag queens, we can go across the boards, across, you know, genders, across cultures, across race. It doesn't really matter a lot of times. If you're a queen, you go in and do the role. But I just knew if a film, a major film, is what I felt - a major film was casting Marilyn Monroe, most likely, they were going to go spot-on Marilyn. And it don't matter how much time, you know, I stare up at the sun. I'm a diva of color, and I wasn't going to be, you know, serving them full-on Marilyn. So I didn't go in.

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: But I got this email from Bobby Campbell, who's Gaga's manager. And he said, you know, L.G. and I - L.G., that's Lady Gaga - he goes, L.G. and I heard that you didn't come in for the audition. And he goes, and she wanted to see you for this role. Well, honey, if L.G. and Bobby Campbell wanted to see me for the role...

EISENBERG: That's right...

COULTON: Yeah, no kidding. Yeah.

PIERCE: I went up to Hollywood Toys and Costumes. I bought that little white dress in a bag. I had the little blonde hairstyle. I put a little beauty mark right above my lip on the right and went over there. And I sang, "I Want To Be Loved By You (ph)."

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yes.

PIERCE: Well, girl, I didn't get the job.

COULTON: (Laughter).

PIERCE: And he was, like, no. You didn't get Marilyn. But they really loved your personality. They really loved your audition. They're actually writing a role into the film for the drag bar owner. And they want to cast you as that role with lines and dialogue and all that. And I was like, (gasping).

EISENBERG: Amazing. And because you were in "A Star Is Born," that was nominated for best picture, you became the first drag queen to walk the red carpet at the Oscars.

PIERCE: Yes. I'll never forget that. I mean, I was there with one of my best friends, my mentor, my landlord - everything - Ms. Jenifer Lewis. It was, like, amazing. I'll never forget that day. We were the first ones on the carpet. Did I tell you that?

EISENBERG: Oh, really? No.

PIERCE: Oh, yeah, because Jenifer said, honey, listen, you ain't never done this before; me, I'm a veteran. Honey - she goes, honey, this is your first movie, OK? As soon as you - as someone more famous than you shows up, they're going to push you right along. So she made sure that she was like, we're going early. We got there so early (laughter), the press person came out and said, hi. Welcome. We're like, yes, honey, we're here for the (laughter) carpet. She said, OK. We haven't opened the carpet yet...

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: ...But if you guys want to hang out in your car, we'll come and get you.

COULTON: That is so great.

PIERCE: So when we got in there - then we proceeded to go down and, like, talk to every news outlet, almost, that was there, even the non-English speaking. I was like, hola, yes.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

PIERCE: Soy Shangela. (Speaking Spanish). Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: And now you star in the new HBO series "We're Here" - you and Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O'Hara. The premise is that you guys roll into town and you put on a one-night-only drag performance for the residents in these towns. There's a lot going on in every episode. And I'm just wondering, what was your initial experience doing this series?

PIERCE: Honestly, I jumped on the project immediately at the beginning because the creators, Johnnie Ingram and Steve Warren, you know, came to me and said, look, we've got this idea about you guys travelling to these small towns and putting on these one-night-only drag shows and partnering with these people who have these amazing stories. And I just knew that experience. I felt like I really - it resonated with me because I grew up in a small town. You remember, I'm from Paris, Texas.

EISENBERG: Right.

PIERCE: And I know what it's like being a young, gay kid that looks around and thinks, oh, my gosh. I'm the only person like me, maybe even in the world. Because you don't have those visual, you know, images of gay people out, loud and proud, on television and in film...

EISENBERG: Mmm.

PIERCE: ...At the time that I was growing up and coming out. But we go into these places and somehow we unearth these communities of support...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

PIERCE: ...In places where we didn't expect to find them. And that's what was life changing for me.

EISENBERG: Yeah, you know, and something else I like about it, which I think is very realistic, is some of their participants have pretty large transformations. Like, their journey that is followed through the show is a big awakening or just a feeling that they have voice or they're empowered. And for other people, it's smaller. It's still significant, but it's smaller. It's a little more subtle. Like, you know, you've just been able to turn that screw just another little way in a direction. I really appreciate that as a viewer because I don't think everything has to be, like, this, you know, made-for-TV, ridiculously large celebration, you know? Sometimes, it can be small.

PIERCE: Well, Ophira, you're exactly right in that. And what's beautiful to me to see is that this is a real-life docuseries. This is a real-life experience for people. So there isn't always this huge happy ending. It's not like a J-Lo rom-com, which I love J-Lo rom-coms, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: Give me "Maid In Manhattan," "The Wedding Planner." But it's not that. And sometimes we don't get the full, like, Hollywood ending that we would like, but that's real life. Also in seeing this transformation for people, even though some of them may seem small, they're really big to the person who's going through them.

EISENBERG: Absolutely. Yeah.

PIERCE: And I remember thinking, like, wow, I wish, you know, maybe this had gone farther. But I had to take a second and look at the person I was working with and go, wow, this was huge for them.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

PIERCE: This was huge for them. And to look around in their town and go, I'm not alone, I didn't know that, wow, that's really big.

EISENBERG: Yeah. That's so great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.