Drag Race alum Shangela has had a crazy few years — but is still a Dallas girl at heart.
Pierce dishes about Glee, reflects on the Carnival Cruise controversy and his dear friend Sahara Davenport, and weighs in on the crowning of the new Drag Race All-Star.
It’s been a crazy busy week for Drag Racer Shangela — and she’s not even on the show right now.
A native of Paris — that’s Texas, grrl, the second biggest city named Paris in the world — the drag diva known professionally as Shangela Laquifa Wadley (but, like Cher and Charo, goes mostly by just “Shangela”) still spends a fair amount of time in Dallas. That’s where D.J. Pierce (his real name) attended SMU with fellow Drag Racing Mustang Antoine Ashley, aka the late Sahara Davenport. But it wasn’t until Pierce moved to Los Angeles that the dresses called out.
“In college at SMU, I was a back-up dancer for [many drag queens], especially my girl Alyssa Edwards,” who will be on the upcoming fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race … “just never in drag,” Pierce explains. When he moved to L.A., he was set to do a show at Here Lounge when one of the queens didn’t make it in. That’s when a producer suggested he go on for her.
It was just a last-minute thing — Pierce knew all the moves and some friends had, as all good queens do, some extra dresses and wigs — so with very little planning, they made up the name Shangela and Pierce went on.
“The M.C. announced me as Shang-Ella,” he laughs. “But hey — it was just a one-night thing. What did it matter?”
Oh, it mattered. Someone at the club recommended Pierce return later for amateur night, which he did. Eventually, a talent scout saw him perform and suggested Pierce audition for the second season of Drag Race. Five months later, he was on the show — still the newest queen ever to compete.
Shangela didn’t go far that season — she was voted off in Episode 1, after lip-synching for her life against long-time friend Sahara — but that was only the start of a remarkable transformation.
“I wanted Sahara to go on,” he says over sushi in Uptown this week. “We knew it was coming, because we really were friends. You could tell. But she came up to me and said, ‘You bring it!’ I’m a performer, so I did, and she did.”
Shangela then made history (again), becoming the first contestant to return to compete in Season 3, when she went much further. But winning the crown has not seemed to make a lot of difference in Pierce’s career.
On Thursday, Pierce will appear in drag as Shangela on Glee, an experience that he enjoyed on many levels.
“When I was on the set this summer, Chris Colfer [who plays Kurt] and I sat next to each other. He’s also a small-town boy, though he never did drag. I told him a new way to come up with a name was your favorite color and favorite flower, so that makes Colfer The Lady Chartreuse Bougainvillea. He also got to meet Sarah Jessica Parker, whom he loves.
The small role also gave Pierce a chance to demonstrate his many talents. (“I was hired [in part] because the role required a drag queen who could dance — we do a number to ‘Let’s Have a Kiki,’” he says.) Glee, though, is hardly Pierce’s first TV appearance. He did two pilots — one for NBC and Michael Patrick King, one for HBO, neither of which was picked up — as well as shots on Two Broke Girls (also produced by King — “he’s been great to me”), The Mentalist (“Simon Baker is fine! … Halleloo!”) and Community — sometimes in drag, sometimes out. He did have a featured role in a short-lived FX series called Terriers playing “a transgender with a heart of gold.” And of course, you can see Shangela hosting “Drag Network News” spots on Logo during Drag Race.
But this week is especially crazy for even more reasons. Pierce found himself in town for the holidays visiting family (and to celebrate his birthday, Nov. 22), so he made appearances at BJ’s NXS Tuesday night, where he sneak-peeked his new video, “Werqin’ Girl,” which drops on Saturday. He also has two live performances — one in Massachusetts, one in Fort Lauderdale — before the weekend, when Shangela goes on a week-long Drag Race cruise on a Carnival ship. That alone has caused a stir.
Earlier this week, the Carnival Cruise line released a letter to attendees warning against “inappropriate conduct in public areas” … which they defined as anyone (other than the performers while onstage) appearing in public in drag. The message was clear: Drag is shameful and not proper conduct. It has sent shock waves.
“I cringed when I saw it,” Pierce says. “My background is in communications and P.R. — for two years, I did crisis communications for TGIFridays — and they’ve dug themselves a hole. First was the Carnival letter. The AlandChuck.Travel [sent out a followup] which I thought would [settle things]. Instead, it said, ‘We’ll show them that we can follow the rules.’ I’ve been on Atlantis cruises, and those are let-loose parties where anything goes. But [everyone understands this is] a family cruise. Yet life is a drag — people have paid their money, they want to have a good time and you gotta let them be. What are they gonna do? Make you walk the plank?”
Pierce did feel some pressure to withdraw from appearing, but has opted to go on. After all, his fans expect to see him there. And there is an upside. “Maybe this experience will cause [Carnival] to reevaluate their policies. The reaction seemed extreme.”
Also this week was the reveal that Chad Michaels was crowned the first Drag Race all-star. While Pierce knows Chad some, she was not his pick to win. “Jujubee is my grrl,” Pierce says. “In my mind, I had not picked [Chad] as the winner. His illusion is good, I just never get that excitement from [watching Chad live].”
And then there’s Sahara, who died suddenly this fall. Pierce is still a wreck about it.
“It was rough — it’s still rough — though [her death] was not as big of a shock [to me] as for people who hadn’t seen her for a while,” he says somberly. “For [18 months], she’d been losing weight, looking tired — she didn’t look well. It was a downward spiral. My sister worked herself to death. She was a Dallas girl through and through. So am I — I may have done my first drag in California, but I’ll be a Texas queen forever.”