Shangela Laquifa Wadley frequently punctuates a point with a catchphrase — her signature “Halleloo” springs to mind, or an expressive “honey.” The key to her success — and her enduring fame among RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni — is that she delivers catchphrases with the same warm good humor that defined the hard-working entertainer as a true All Star among Rupaul’s queens.
The drag alter ego of Texas native D.J. Pierce, Shangela made such an impression when she competed on Season 2 of the reality TV hit — despite being the first to sashay away — that she returned the following season for another go. Proving that you can’t keep an audience favorite down, Shangela popped out of a giant gift box to the shock of her Season 3 competitors.
She didn’t win that highly contentious season either, but these days she’s winning in other ways. Releasing dance singles and videos, performing stand-up, producing a drag world tour, even appearing in films and on television — both in and out of drag — Shangela exemplifies what it means to be a working queen in an era of rampant opportunity for the stars of Drag Race.
Hollywood in particular has helped her star rise. Since moving to L.A. — where she initially worked as an assistant to Black-ish actress Jenifer Lewis, now a close friend and mentor — Shangela has landed roles in everything from Community to The X-Files, to a supporting turn opposite Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the upcoming remake of A Star Is Born. (Sworn to secrecy, she teases: “I play a drag bar owner at a bar in which Lady Gaga is also involved. I think that’s all I can say, but this one, it’s gonna be so cool.”) And once her Werq the World Tour concludes — a drag extravaganza she’s co-producing and starring in alongside some of her Drag Race sisters — Hollywood is where Shangela sees herself returning.
“My goal, ever since I was a kid in Paris, Texas, has been to work as an actor in television and film,” she says. “As I come back from touring, a little bit after the end of this year, I really want to work in L.A. more, creating projects that put us in a great light and tell our stories. Because especially in the black gay community, we have so many stories. In the gay community, we have so many stories that deserve to be told and expressed.”
If ever there was a signifier for Shangela’s enduring success — and her ability to make lemonade from lemons — it came during her run on the third season of Drag Race: All Stars. There, she suffered at the hands of a bittersweet twist in the final moments of the competition.
Most viewers (and the judges) seemed to agree that Shangela and BenDeLaCreme were the season’s front-runners. Then, BenDeLa suddenly bowed out of the race, the workroom vibe was irreversibly shaken, Trixie Mattel rose in the competition, and, in a dramatic and controversial decision, the eliminated queens voted to determine the final two — Shangela was voted out before the finals, and Trixie was ultimately crowned the winner.
For Shangela, the third time was not the charm. But if anyone thought she’d fade into the background, they were sorely mistaken.
“Did that destroy me? No. Did it hurt my feelings? Yes. But did it stop me? Hell no,” she says. “I’m Shangela. I keep it moving, and that’s what I’m continuing to do. I have my new song, “Pay Me.” I’m on Todrick Hall’s new album Forbidden with a song called “Doll Hairs.” I have a movie coming out this month called Hurricane Bianca 2 with my friend, Bianca del Rio. And this fall, in October, I’ll be in A Star Is Born. So, [Shangela] ain’t going nowhere. She’s on a 150-city tour, getting ready to pack up and leave for Europe next week. I am a professional, and they knew it.”
And that’s without even mentioning her stop this Friday, May 25, at DC Black Pride, where she will perform at the Rock the Block Official D.C. Pride Event at Ziegfeld’s/Secrets. We spoke with Shangela ahead of her trip to D.C. for the lowdown on Werq the World, her Baptist upbringing, and to get all the details on her shock All Stars loss — including how she really feels about BenDeLaCreme’s dramatic exit.
METRO WEEKLY: How did you come up with the name Shangela Laquifa Wadley?
SHANGELA: When I was doing my very first show, it was an amateur night at an event, and I never expected it to go anywhere farther than that one-night show, so when I was on my way to the event, my friends Ron and Brad called me, and they were like, “Hey, they need to know what name to put down on the lineup,” and I was like, “I don’t even have a name. Just put something down. I’m doing Beyoncé in the show, so you can’t put down Beyoncé, but just put down something.” My other friend had worked in telemarketing, and a lady told him on the phone, “Baby, this is my name, and don’t you ever forget it. It is Shangela Laquifa Wadley. Repeat after me, Shangela Laquifa Wadley.” So, he did, and he never forgot, and then I became Shangela Laquifa Wadley.
MW: You’re currently rehearsing for Werq the World. What does it involve?
SHANGELA: Werq the World is a tour I created with a friend of mine, Brandon Voss of Voss Events, about a year ago now, to showcase some of the greatest talents we think come from RuPaul’s Drag Race, and to give them kind of a concert-feel tour opportunity. This year it just continues to grow. We have four dancers. We have eight queens and a host. We have a crew of about 20 people that travel the world together, and we’ve now done South America, and Mexico, Europe, Canada, the US. And this week was our first set of rehearsals for Werq the World Europe, our return to Europe with the tour — 24 cities. I do a combination of my own original songs, incorporated into a concert-style mix, and I’m really excited because for this European tour, I’ll be hosting 16 of the 24 cities that we’re doing, in addition to performing.
MW: That’s a heavy load in addition to producing. Is it exhausting?
SHANGELA: Well, it’s definitely a tall order, but I’m Shangela Laquifa Wadley, honey! I’m built for this, and I’ve been doing it for a number of years, and I love this, I really do enjoy it. I have a great time with it, so it doesn’t feel like as much work as it actually is.
MW: How do your songs come together?
SHANGELA: I’ve always co-written all of my music, and worked in the production studio putting it together. I don’t have a long repertoire of songs, but I can say that every piece of music that I’ve ever put out I stand by 100 percent and I love to perform 100 percent, because it comes from me. It speaks to Shangela.
I wrote “Werqin’ Girl” originally for a show called Dance Moms that they featured it on, and it was originally called “Ho-fessional,” and they were like, “I don’t know if that’s the best thing for kids,” because it was the first season of the show, but it was all about me because I am a working girl. At that time I really was pushing to show people that I was a professional and I had to pull myself up by the bootstraps. And when I rewrote the song “Uptown Funk” to be “Uptown Fish,” I was feeling fish. Recently, I wrote a song called “Pay Me,” currently available on iTunes, that’s all about you deserve to get paid, and maybe not always in money, but in applause, in adoration, in recognition. Honey, you put in the work, you deserve to get paid.
MW: You’ve got a great joke in that song: “RuPaul, where’s my hundred thousand dollars?” Have you heard from her about that?
SHANGELA: Oh, that’s a joke? I didn’t know it was a joke. [Laughs.] No, I haven’t heard from Ru yet, but I’m just waiting for the check to clear. I’m sure she’ll do an anonymous donation.
MW: How do Shangela and D.J. differ, other than in appearance?
SHANGELA: Honestly, there are a lot of similarities between who I am on a day-to-day basis and my character, Shangela, and that’s just because I don’t think that I put on necessarily a huge character when I get in drag. I just have a heightened sense of myself, and it’s a more feminine character, but definitely I’m still loud, I think I’m still funny, I’m still kind, and I’m still entertaining, and I’m that way in and out of drag, so there are a lot of similarities. Differences, I mean, mostly it’s just the appearance, and of course it’s a heightened state. It’s mannerisms. I’m gonna open the door for myself if I’m not in drag, but if I’m in drag, if someone’s standing there, I’ll be like, “Baby, can you get that door for me?” I take on the full fantasy. I love when I’m in drag to be the whole full, fish-feminine character of Shangela, and the things that she does are things that I would typically see my female role models doing, or exemplifying.
MW: You must hear all the time that you were robbed in All Stars 3, at least of the opportunity to compete in the final two?
SHANGELA: I was not robbed, honey. I was BURGLARIZED, okay? They came in, in the middle of the night, and took my shit. In that moment, when we filmed this, when the eliminated queens came back and they said that they would be having a play in who went from the final four to the final two, I knew. I said, “Oh, I have a strong feeling it’s a wrap for me,” and that was very disappointing. It’s a very disappointing feeling to really push so hard and do so well in the competition. I mean, I had won the most challenges. I had won the most lip syncs. I thought that I’d made some memorable moments on the runway.
I thought, “Okay, baby. I have done my due diligence over here. Let’s get it to this final,” and when they said that was the twist, I was like, “Well, that sucks.” We filmed the whole season in about three weeks, so when people had gone home, of course, on the show it looks like week to week, so it’s been like six weeks, eight, since this person left, but really, it’s only been like eight days. I knew that in that short amount of time, people had not resolved their hurt or angry feelings about being sent home, and that’s the name of the game. That’s All Stars. You have to send someone home, no matter how great a friend or a performer they are. They got to go. I’d sent half of the jury home that came back to vote. Well, that’s already three votes, mama, so I said, “Well, that’s a wrap.”
When I didn’t get chosen to go on, yes, I was devastated in the moment. You can see it on my face. But I’ve always been a person that is like, you know what? I don’t have a control in what other people are gonna do, but what I do have control over, and what I do have a say in, is how I’m gonna react, how I’m gonna keep my head up, how I’m gonna keep pushing forward, and how I’m gonna remain a queen even without a crown, because that’s what I was when I came in the door.
MW: All Stars was heavily influenced by BenDeLaCreme’s decision to withdraw from the competition. Have you and Ben talked any more about her decision?
SHANGELA: Yeah. Well, we worked together filming something for VH1, actually. I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, but at the same time, we’re together in the dressing room, and she started with me. She was like, “You know, I just want to let you know that I thought you were so amazing all season, and when I came back…”
Well, two things. One, when she left, I was shocked, but I wasn’t super-shocked, because I knew that throughout the competition, she was very — I don’t want to say rattled, but that’s the only word that’s coming to mind — rattled by the competition aspect of it all, whether it was having to send people home, or having to lip sync and compete against someone, or just be in that environment where we were competing. I think the competition aspect of it was something that she just didn’t want to engage in anymore, and I respect everyone’s decision. That was her decision, to go home.
Here’s the thing. In life, there is competition. In life, there are hard choices, and there are challenges, and I’ve always been a person who wanted to represent for my fans, never give up in the face of adversity. I mean, I’ve been sent home from Drag Race twice. I broke a leg onstage once. I have been through the gauntlet. They called me booger. They said I didn’t belong on certain seasons, I belonged on other ones. I never gave up, and I just hope from my story, that’s what I wanted to emulate, just don’t give up, whatever comes your way. You can push through and be a winner.
MW: Social media has become a really large aspect of the Drag Race fanship, and sometimes there are pitfalls with that. How are you handling social media?
SHANGELA: Every Instagram, every Tweet, every comment is from me. I have my phone, I have my account, I run my thing. I like when I talk to my fans for them to know that’s coming directly from me, and being involved in social media has its advantages. I can connect with people around the world in a matter of seconds. If I want feedback on something, I can post it on my Instagram and immediately get hundreds of comments back from people that I need the feedback from. These are the people that are buying my shirts, or my music or whatever, so that’s great. That’s the great part of it. We’re all connected.
The rougher part of it is you do get trolled at times. You’ll see some girls are clapback queens, honey. They will let you have it on the internet. I’ve never been that person. Occasionally, I would see a comment and be like, oh, I have to respond to this, just to set the record straight, but I’ve learned that, like I said, you can’t control what people are gonna say or do. You have to find a place where you can ignore it, or understand in your head, don’t let that comment dictate your behavior and your emotions and your feelings today. You need to keep working. Keep pushing. Keep doing your thing. That person, whoever wrote that evil comment about you, probably went on about their day after they wrote it, and is not sitting there dwelling on it the way you probably will, so don’t. Don’t give them that power, girl. I decided in my life, I need to focus more on the positive and not on the negative, and that’s how I deal with social media drama.
MW: What was your first Pride celebration?
SHANGELA: Well, I’m from Paris, Texas, so the closest large city to us with a gay community was Dallas, and I remember my first time celebrating Pride was being away at college at SMU in Dallas. September is when Dallas celebrates their pride, so we had just gotten in school, and I remember going to the gay area, because that was my first time going around a large community of gays, and I was like, oh my god. I was blown away. Everyone was out there just being themselves and living out loud, and I was from a very small town where even if you were gay, it just wasn’t something that you just walked around and were like, “I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay.”
MW: Were you already out when you went to college?
SHANGELA: It was a journey for me. I came out my first year of college, yes, and then later came out to my family, but around my friends, I was sort of, “Okay, so I’m away from home now, I can start over almost, and be more out and more gay,” and I had a lot of friends who were in the dance department. They were from New York and they were from L.A., and they were like, “Oh, girl. Please,” and I was just like, oh, my god, they’re so gay, and it was new to me. Being that open with your gender and your sexuality and everything was like, “Oh.” And I was from a Southern Baptist home. I’d grown up in the house of my grandparents. But then it helped me to become more comfortable with being gay, and so people would ask me, “Are you gay,” and I’d be like, “I don’t really define myself.” That was my first segue into being gay. I just didn’t define myself. I was just in the middle, and then I was like, “No, I’m gay. I’m totally gay. Oh, yeah. I’m gay.”
MW: When did you first encounter Black Pride?
SHANGELA: Well, Dallas also had its own. Within Pride, there were different black celebrations, and that was also great to me because just to see black people coming together and not just to be at the club, but also celebrating who we are. There was an outdoor Pride gathering at the park, and my friend at the time took me there, and I was just so excited, because again, being from Paris, Texas, first of all, there weren’t that many black people, so it was really cool to be around all my people and having a fun, gay time. I was amazed, and I loved it so much.
MW: Did you know any gay black people in Paris?
SHANGELA: Yeah. At my church, there was a boy named Miss Bud. Well, his name was Bud, but everybody called him Miss Bud. He was unapologetically gay and established. Bud was actually two years younger than me, but he was my friend, and people assumed, oh, you’re Bud’s friend, you must be gay, and sometimes I got uncomfortable about that. I wouldn’t say I was gay, but I would say, “I am Bud’s friend. He’s my friend. We’ve known each other for a long time. He goes to my church.”
He was, though, my hero at the time, because honey, Miss Bud would carry a purse if she wanted to, and she would come on up in church with it, not bothered. Because I wasn’t comfortable being myself at the time, he was my hero, and I lived my life almost sometimes vicariously through Miss Bud, and he would tell me all the stories about who was an undercover gay in Paris, and I loved Miss Bud. It was so great to have him as my friend, even though he was younger than me. I don’t even think he knew it at the time, but he was my role model.
MW: What does it mean to you to perform during Black Pride weekend?
SHANGELA: It’s a great honor to be invited, because it’s all about a celebration of who we are as a community and a culture, and what unique contributions we bring to the gay community. And then also, I think it’s just amazing because we have such a great set of queens of color who have been through RuPaul’s Drag Race and who have won or made a great name for themselves. I’m proud to be able to be a role model, hopefully, to black LGBT kids, and also just people in our community as we continue to move forward, to do even more.
MW: In terms of getting stories out that help people understand the whole spectrum of the LGBTQ experience, the workroom sessions on Drag Race really highlight the different facets of the community. How much are those sequences prompted by producers?
SHANGELA: Well, it’s a reality show, so there is an element of reality there. There’s also an element of production to it. I agree with you that those workroom sessions are important, because it humanizes the characters. This isn’t just a clown show, and it’s not a fashion show. No, this is a human show. These are people who go through real experiences, who have real emotions, that just happen to also be talented and fierce and fabulous, and layer themselves with wigs and tuck their dicks behind their bodies. That’s just what it is. But they’re also humans. They have families. They have mothers. They have grandparents. They go through situations regarding health issues. These are humans, and I think that when people can see that the characters are humans and they’re just like us, it makes them more accepting and understanding of something that they may be foreign to.
How much is production? Not a huge amount. I mean, they will come and say, “Hey, Shangela, go over there and ask Kennedy about the picture that’s hanging on her wall,” and you’ll go over there, “Oh, what’s this picture on your wall, girl?” and she’ll start telling you about, “Oh, it’s my grandma. It’s her 82nd birthday. She never accepted me,” then y’all have a real moment. You have real conversation that’s not scripted, but the situation may have been directed for you to start the conversation.
MW: Are you watching the current season of Drag Race, and do you have any favorites in the competition?
SHANGELA: Oh, yes. [There are] definitely some front-runners who I love. Monét X Change I think is hilarious. I’ve seen her show in New York. I’ve known her for a couple years. She’s funny to me, honey. Miss Monét is my kick it girl. We always have a good time together. I love Asia O’Hara. First of all, she’s a Texas doll. Second, I’ve known Asia also since I was like 19, 20, because I used to dance backup for her as well in the pageants. Not in drag. This was all before drag. So, it was awesome seeing her now on the show because I’ve known Asia for a while. She’s a great entertainer. I think that Aquaria is super fun and has something unique to offer. She’s like a little gayby, and I remember when I went on Drag Race, I didn’t know nothing, and I was in my mid-to-late 20s. This bitch is 21 and already knows how to put everything on. I mean, that’s this generation, though. They learn everything from YouTube. I had to go seek out people who could teach me to do stuff, but it’s awesome. I love that. I love to see so much talent at such a young age.
MW: Where do you see Shangela ten years from now?
SHANGELA: I’ve been working so hard. I’ve been on the move for the last seven years. I have not sat down. So, 10 years from now, really, I hope to continue to be just creating. I look up to somebody like Jenifer Lewis who is now in her 60s and is working just as much as I do. She is still on the go and has been on the go for the last 30 years. Do I see myself slowing down in the next ten? Oh, no, honey. Uh-uh. Let’s continue building a great drag empire. That’s what I want to continue doing, and creating great projects that people can feel proud of and draw inspiration from. I just want to keep creating and having a good time, because I do have a good time. Trust me. Shangela has always gotta have a good time.
Shangela performs at Daryl Wilson Productions’ Rock the Block Official D.C. Pride Event on Friday, May 25, at 10:30 p.m. at Ziegfeld’s, 1824 Half St. SW. Tickets are $20 before midnight; Free with a DWP Party Pass. Visit darylwilsondc.com.