EXCLUSIVE: Shangela 2.0: For North Texan D.J. Pierce, life is a drag

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.

CLICK HERE TO SEE PHOTOS FROM SHANGELA’S VISIT TO BJ’s NXS ON TUESDAY

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  Life+Style Editor

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.”

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Manila remembers Sahara

The sudden death earlier this month of Antoine Ashley, known to his fans as impersonator Sahara Davenport from RuPaul’s Drag Race, is still reverberating in the community. Sahara, who lived in Dallas, was on the mind of fellow contestant Manila Luzon, who will be competing on the upcoming All-Stars edition of Drag Race, starting next week.

Manila talked briefly about her late boyfriend at an L.A. gala this week. Here’s the story.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Sahara Davenport update: Cause of death, fundraising for burial

Antoine Ashley, who performed as Sahara Davenport, died “of heart failure” at Johns Hopkins Hospital, according to a post on Sahara’s Facebook page. No other details were reported.

Also on Sahara’s page was a request for fans to make a donation to “give Antoine Ashley a burial he deserves. We encourage you to donate even one dollar via PayPal to: saharadavenportmemory@gmail.com.”

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Former Dallas Drag Racer Sahara Davenport reported dead

The Twitterverse is abuzz with reports that Sahara Davenport, the dancer and female impersonator who was a favorite on Season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, has died.

Reports are non-specific; one blogger, in a piece calling the reports “erroneous,” offered as his sole “proof” that is sounded like a hoax to him — and that Sahara’s death was not reported on her Wikipedia page (a crowd source site anyone can edit — yeah, strong evidence). Another commenter noted that now her death is on the Wiki page, so it must be true.

So far, though, despite hard facts, it appears to be true. Jujubee, a fellow Drag Racer, posted an “RIP” notice on her own Facebook page late last night, and, in response to questions of “what happened” said merely, “It’s not important what happened. Just send prayers.” Avoidance of the cause of death, of course, only fuels suspicions of a hoax, although it is not uncommon not to announce a cause of death immediately, especially if the reason was something considered “shameful” (suicide, a drug overdose), though at this point there is no evidence of that.

Jujubee isn’t the only colleague of Sahara’s to note the passing; the official RuPaul Facebook page also offers condolences for her passing. (Oddly, there is no mention of it yet on any official Logo channel websites.) It has also not been refuted on the many offers of sadness of Sahara’s own page and that of her partner, fellow contestant Manila Luzon. Within the past few minutes, People magazine online and the gay blog Towleroad have also reported the death.

When we know more, we’ll report it.

On a personal note, Sahara and I were friendly. She got her start in Dallas, and she would often message me when she was coming to town; I also interviewed her on a few occasions (most recently here). It’s very sad in any event.

Davenport was born Antoine Ashley. He was 27.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas' last 'Drag Racer' falls

Sahara Davenport

The second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Logo began with three contestants with ties to North Texas: Shangela, Mystique and Sahara.

And then there were none.

Shangela was the first contestant eliminated (which didn’t seem totally justified); Mystique turned out to be a trouble-making diva (although compared to fellow Racer Tyra she was beloved) and lasted only a few weeks longer. Now, Sahara Davenport has joined her sisters in the “sashay away” aisle.

Sahara failed to convey the requisite “rocker chick” personality — a test that also required actual live singing, not lip sync (a Drag Race first). That made her departure a small surprise, because fellow bottom two denizen Jujubee gave an abortive performance, mumbling the words … and that was the few times she got the words right.But I’ll still be watching. I’m lighting a candle for Jessica Jade, who’s unintentionally funny Ricky Ricardo act is adorable.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Former Dallas drag queen profiled in the New York Times (and it's not a member of She-Dick)

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I was pointed to this profile (thanks, John!) about former Dallasite, Antoine Ashley aka Sahara Davenport. Normally, we hear most of the Dallas-to-New York buzz from drag band She-Dick (or mostly SD member Candi Shell) but Ashley went and got him a piece in the Times. It doesn’t say too much about his roots in Dallas other than he went to college here but Ashley did mention Big D in his responses.

“The New York scene is so much bigger than in Dallas. In Dallas it’s just a strip. It’s like, a block,” he said.

OK, we get it but hopefully, he’ll come back for a visit. His Catwoman bit is pretty darn fun to watch. Now, if only someone could tell me what an “ambience girl” is.

—  Rich Lopez