If there’s one thing that can be said about Shangela, it’s that she never gives up.
The beloved drag queen’s journey in the spotlight began more than a decade ago when she was one of the 12 contestants on the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Sadly, her time on the show was short, at least initially, as she went home first. In what would become known as typical Shangela fashion, that was not the last the world would hear of the upbeat stunner.
Shangela, whose real name is Darius Jeremy Pierce (or just DJ for short), reemerged as a surprise contestant on the following season of Drag Race, though not all of her fellow queens were thrilled to see her return. She eventually finished in sixth place, demonstrating plenty of growth in a short span of time.
She also popped back out of her famous (or infamous, depending on which queen you ask) box in season four, though by that point it was just a running gag, and she was more than happy to play along.
Shangela earned one more chance to compete for the crown on RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars season three, and while she advanced once again (she made it to the finale), she once again didn’t quite come out a winner.
While the early days of her career as an entertainer were noted for her repeated attempts — and failures — to win, the second half of her time as a star has been marked by one impressive achievement after another. She continues to push what drag queens can do, and it’s entirely possible that Shangela is the most successful non-winner to emerge from the Drag Race franchise.
In the past, Shangela has acted on TV (2 Broke Girls, Glee, Bones, The X-Files, Broad City) and film (A Star Is Born), appeared on plenty of other popular reality series (Dance Moms, Toddlers & Tiaras, Dancing Queen), and is always on the lookout for more.
At one point during our chat, she made sure to mention that she “surely would make time for Martin Scorsese if he called me up.” That may sound funny to most, and it was certainly said with a wink, but she means it. If anyone has the courage to dream that big and shoot for that goal, it’s Shangela.
These days, Shangela is busier than ever, landing both her most high-profile and most prestigious jobs yet. Currently, she co-hosts HBO Max’s We’re Here, a reality show that sees her traveling the U.S. with Eureka and Bob the Drag Queen to help make life better for LGBTQ people through the art of drag. The Emmy-winning series will launch its third season on November 25.
After wrapping filming on We’re Here, she jumped into rehearsals for the newest season of Dancing with the Stars, which remains one of the most popular programs on TV — although the show is no longer broadcast on ABC and is instead airing exclusively on Disney+. As if that weren’t enough to have on her slate, she’s also gearing up to venture across the country on her “Fully Lit Tour,” which begins in January and will play to thousands of fans.
With so much going on, it would be understandable if Shangela was too busy to take part in an interview, or if she was low-energy. But that’s not who she is.
During our conversation, she was effervescent, charming, funny, but also authentic and not afraid to tackle difficult topics. She infuses the character she’s created into everything she does, while simultaneously feeling completely — and sometimes unavoidably — real. That, partnered with her unwavering belief in herself and the pure joy she derives from performing, have made her the little drag queen that could.
METRO WEEKLY: I was so happy to see your name pop up and have everyone be chatting about how cool it was that you are on Dancing with the Stars. How does it feel to be the first drag queen on that show?
SHANGELA: The first drag queen on the American run of Dancing With the Stars, because my sister Courtney Act competed on Dancing with the Stars in Australia.
I’m Shangela, no stranger to firsts. I was the first drag entertainer to ever walk the Oscars red carpet in drag. I was the first drag queen to attend the Vice President’s residence earlier this year with Vice President Kamala Harris. It feels right. Everybody knows Shangela is a working girl, okay? I wrote a song titled that many years ago. It’s about showing up when the opportunities present themselves for you. I feel a responsibility in this moment to show up as fiercely as I can and represent our community to the best of my ability. That’s what I want to do. And it’s not only about being the first, but it’s about creating an opportunity for those coming behind you. That’s really what I’m excited about.
MW: Much was made of the announcement that you’re the first drag queen and that’s exciting. But I wonder what that does to you in your mind as you’re on this show. Do you think, “Middle America is watching me and this is a big moment for the LGBTQ community?” Do you ever edit yourself or think about how you’re going to act, or what you’re going to say to that audience?
SHANGELA: I’m grateful for every opportunity to stand in front of a new audience. Co-hosting the show We’re Here on HBO, we travel to conservative cities and towns all across America and a lot of those places that we go to help create a community — or find a community — for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in those spaces. We are in front of new audiences that are not familiar with gay people, that are not familiar with drag queens and drag culture. [DWTS] is just another opportunity for me to be in front of people.
And I don’t feel I need to change who I am because I love who I am. I’ve been working on who I am for a very long time to really embrace all the wonderful parts of me and share them. I want to show up authentically as Shangela in this moment. I don’t want to water down who I am at all. I am a real person. Even on reality TV, you can see true heart, true soul and that’s at the root of who I am.
A lot of people who say, “I’ve never met a drag queen before,” they do know someone who can relate to me. Someone who may be from a small town like I am, from Paris, Texas. Someone who has a dream and is chasing after it even though I may not be as skilled in some spaces as others that I’m competing with — with regard to dance technique and those things. They may know someone in their life — or they may be the person — who’s wanted to go after something but never knew if they could do it because they didn’t feel as skilled as others.
So even if they don’t relate to me, hopefully they will find a point of relation to me just because I am showing up as all the parts of the authentic self who I am.
MW: I would be nervous to speak to those people and to go to those conservative towns and to go into the homes of those people. When they see Shangela, to them that might be what all gay people are, or that’s what all drag queens are. That can be a big responsibility.
SHANGELA: Hopefully I won’t be the only touchpoint to the world of drag in their entire lives. Maybe this will spark an interest in some to think, “Well, that community isn’t so scary to me. Let me get to know more.” I don’t represent the entire LGBTQ spectrum. Okay? You meet Shangela, you haven’t met everybody.
MW: Tell me a bit about your Dancing with the Stars partner, Gleb Savchenko.
SHANGELA: My Gleb. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in this competition. Gleb is amazing. One thing that I prayed for, I journaled for, I hoped for when I first found out I was going to be on the show before I met my partner, I said, “Oh Lord, please just let it be someone who is kind, whose energy and excitement for this journey matches mine.” Cause I’m lit up honey! I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to be on this show, so I didn’t want anything to be a red light, a stop sign for my excitement and my energy. And I’m so grateful because Gleb’s excitement is just as [high] as mine. He’s been on this show for eight seasons. He’s a fantastic dancer and choreographer, he’s never quite won the Mirrorball yet.
We’re both in this to win and he’s patient, which is amazing. Everyone says, “Oh Shangela, you’re a dancer, you should be fine with this. You’re going to definitely win, girl.” And I’m like, “Honey, Shangela is working her rear end off to play catch up!” With all of my drag entertainment and traveling, yes, I’ve worked with dancers before, but I’ve never trained to dance. I’ve never been judged on dance technique. On RuPaul’s Drag Race I was judged on fashions and how to create a dress from a curtain, but I have never been judged on where you put your feet and the technique in your arms.
MW: What have you seen about the fact that you’re a gay man in drag dancing with a straight man?
SHANGELA: I will most definitely answer that, but one thing I want to always remind people: I am middle America. I am Shangela, who grew up in Paris, Texas, who went to college at a conservative private university in Dallas, Texas, who had a dream to be an entertainer, packed up her Explorer and moved out to L.A. with not a lot of coin but a lot of hope. Okay? I eat fried chicken and chicken fried steak. I grew up in the church with my granny — St. John Baptist, where I was a Sunday school teacher and a choir director at one point. I am also middle America, so I relate to people very well. That’s why I can go on We’re Here and walk into people’s homes and relate to them so quickly, because I hope they see themselves in who I am. So when people ask me, “How are you going to relate to middle America?” Honey, I am middle America.
Now, I’m also a drag entertainer and there are lots — and I do mean lots — of drag queens, gay people and LGBTQIA+, all of the above, all throughout middle America. So we are also middle America. Now with that, I’ve seen some comments online that are very negative. But listen, as a drag queen, it is not anything that I’m unfamiliar with.
I understand that we live in a country where a lot of people are not open-minded to people from different walks of life. But if we allow those people’s comments and their negativity to keep us locked, shall I say, in a box, we would never be able to flourish and live our full lives.
I hope that when middle of America sees me dance with a straight man, hopefully they see that like Gleb has said before, dance is an art and he is an artist and I am an artist. This is about two people who have a great love for dance, who are excited to be in this competition partnering together, and I know that it also shows greater representation and visibility for two men dancing together.
Listen, for me, two men dancing together ain’t nothing new. I’ve seen it, baby — for many decades. Okay? But for some it is. And I hope that this experience allows people to let their guard down about the preconceived notions they may have about a straight man and a drag queen partnering together for a minute and thirty seconds to turn out a dance.
MW: I like what you said — “Shangela’s a dancer, this should be easy!” But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy. So, even though you are a performer who dances and who has been on Drag Race with dancing, what has been the most difficult part about mastering dances for this?
SHANGELA: The most difficult part is truly the technique. It is a lot to take in. It’s a lot of focus.
I’m going to be honest with you, there’s actually a harder part than technique. Look, I’m dedicated to dance. I’ve been able to move some things around to really focus. I’m in rehearsal three, sometimes four hours a day trying to get all of this down. That’s the job. The hardest part is the time that I’m dedicating to this, I can’t be doing other things.
I can’t tour right now. Although I do have a brand new tour coming up in the spring, honey, “Fully Lit.” I have tour dates starting in January and people can get those tickets on shangela.com.
I have also had to spend so much time away from my family. Everybody knows Shangela loves her family. My mom just had surgery. She just found out she has cancer in August. I was there for her first surgery and her second one. But then after the show has picked up, I haven’t been there with her during her recovery.
She told me, “Stay there, do the job, don’t come, you need to focus there,” and I’m fine. And she’s getting better, which is great. But not being able to be there to help my grandma…. We’re like this [very close], me and my mom, we help each other out. If I needed something, she would hop on a plane, she would be here. And the fact that she’s told me not to do that right now…. It’s been hard communicating with them on FaceTime when I wish I could be there.
But she understands how huge this is. She always tells me, “You go win that trophy for me, baby.” I’ve been so grateful to have amazing friends [there]. Michelle Visage was just there for me last week and Simone and great friends of mine. But it’s kind of bittersweet sometimes because I would love for my mom to be in this experience. I know she’d have a Shangela T-shirt on, she’d have a sign [saying] “Halleloo.” I just see it and unfortunately she can’t be here.
MW: How much time do you spend with the other contestants? Are you forging friendships? Is it competitive?
SHANGELA: Shangela is everybody’s homegirl. It’s amazing to be considered one of the stars. I’ve been all around the world. I’ve been working for over a decade in drag and building a legion of great fans and Shangela’s been everywhere, movies, television, tours, music. I’ve earned this moment, but I still don’t think of myself as a star. So when I look around sometimes I’m like, “Oh my God, I am living my best life.”
They probably get so tired. I’m recording TikToks, we’re kiki-ing, me and Selma Blair. I call her Selma B. That’s my homegirl. When I come to rehearsal, I’m like, “What’s that Selma B?” Legendary actress, amazing movie star Selma Blair. She’s like, “Hey Shangela, when are we going to do a TikTok?”
People like Wayne Brady, who I’ve looked up to for years, and Jordin Sparks who I voted for many times when she was on American Idol. I was in a room with Cheryl Ladd and we hung out together and we got to talk. I can honestly say from my heart that I’ve been able to form a great connection. Theresa Guidice and I became homegirls. We still text each other. She’ll text me, “Hey girl! You better kill it tonight.” I’m like, “Thank you Teresa. Thank you TG!” I love her. She is great and a wonderful mom. I got to meet her daughters when they were at the show. That’s one of the greatest takeaways thus far from this competition — being able to connect with so many people who either I’ve looked up to or I’ve been excited to meet.
MW: Yeah, that does sound great. Always love Selma Blair.
SHANGELA: Selma B, honey. Selma B! We sit and chat and I told her we’re going to recreate that iconic kiss from Cruel Intentions. She is like, “Anytime you want, Shangela.”
MW: Let’s now talk about the other show you’re on. We’re Here is entering season three. What has changed for you and your co-hosts from season to season? What’s different now?
SHANGELA: The climate of America has changed. We are in a space right now, especially in states like Florida and Texas, where even legislators feel empowered to publicly defile the LGBTQ community, and specifically drag queens. Our show is centered around drag queens and drag culture, and to see people in power and also just normal, everyday people feel empowered to be so hateful publicly, it has given our show, I think, new energy, new motivation, new purpose. Not only is it our job, but it is now our purpose to go out there and make sure that the LGBTQ people — specifically in these areas — don’t feel isolated or alone during this time of persecution. That they feel like they have a community.
Especially after COVID, when we all had to disperse, separate, and isolate, some people are still in that mindset. Our show [provides] a great opportunity to rebuild community for a lot of people. I think that’s the most important thing, and I think that’s why this is the absolute best season. This show continues to grow. And I’m so grateful to [have] this opportunity at this moment.
MW: It’s interesting that the tide has changed and legislators feel like they can legislate against the community and people can say terrible things, because for so long it felt like we were making big steps. Drag Race became one of the biggest shows on TV and changed so much, and now the pendulum is swinging the other way. Why do you think that is?
SHANGELA: RuPaul always says, “Everybody say love” and has preached that doctrine for decades. With RuPaul’s Drag Race and the excitement around it and the growth of it, I think sometimes people are afraid of change. They’re afraid of evolution. They have a fear of other groups that haven’t always had an opportunity to be celebrated having their day in the sun because they feel like they’re losing their power and their way of life.
But that’s just how some people think. I actually don’t think it’s the majority of people — I think that it is a minority of people that are loud, especially online. When you see things on social media and it gets amplified, you think, “Oh my God, everybody’s talking about this.” But it’s really not. When we go to a lot of these towns, people ask all the time, “Oh my gosh, you guys need security! You went to Florida, how did you survive?” Well, there are wonderful LGBTQ people and allies in the state of Florida. They may not be as united and they may not feel as empowered and sometimes they don’t have as great a sense of community to be loud together.
I think people just get fearful that change is coming. But here’s the deal — change is already here. So if you look at especially the newer generations of people, they’re not so hung up because they didn’t have to retrain their brain. It’s just the way it is, and that’s why I feel on the right side of history in being a part of this show.
MW: Is there a moment in season three or one of your new drag daughters that stands out as particularly memorable?
SHANGELA: Thinking back on this season, it’s like Sophie’s choice. How am I going to choose between my kids? Every single town that we went to, every single daughter — and in some places I had multiple daughters — I can’t give you one, I honestly can’t. I can name you all my children. They all have interesting, unique stories. And the towns in which they live are also characters in our show. I almost feel like the town is also my daughter, too, because you have the same hopes and wishes and expectations and fears about them as you do for your kid. I am just excited for people to see this.
MW: How many of your drag daughters are you still in touch with? What does that relationship look like a year, two years later?
SHANGELA: I’m proud to say that I’m still in touch with pretty much all of my kids from the previous two seasons. And I always tell them this: “Now you know Shangela is your mother, but she’s also a working mother. I’m out here in these streets, baby!” But if something goes down or if they need me, they all have my number. I’m only a text or a call away. I’ve gotten messages from them after seeing me on Dancing with the Stars. I’m so proud of all of them.
MW: Speaking of on the road, I want to hear about the tour. What can people expect when they go to a Shangela show today?
SHANGELA: People can expect everything they’ve always expected from Shangela. High energy, creative performances, and fun time. When you leave you’ll be like, baby, I definitely got my money’s worth.
MW: I’m always curious, where do you get this energy? How?
SHANGELA: You know what? I’ve always had a love for life, a joy for entertaining people and a real excitement about things that I hope are to come, things that I visualize and want to happen. And I’m not afraid to go out there and do the work for them. I’m also surrounded by amazing people that keep me motivated, keep me energized. Every day is not sunshine and glitter, but I have the tools in my mind and in my heart to find my way back to it very quickly.
A big part of that I learned from my L.A. mom, my mentor and friend, Jenifer Lewis, who I had the opportunity to learn from as her assistant for many years. She has a new book called Walking In My Joy. One of the chapters is called Drag Queen in my Basement, which she wrote all about our relationship, how we met, how we lived together for 10 years, what she’s taught me, and things that I’ve imparted on her. It’s brilliant. I’m like, What? I have a chapter in your book? What is going on? It is because it’s such a real, authentic, and cherished relationship.
I love my Jen and she motivates me. Here she is, a 65-year-old, super-duper actress who could sit down at any point and go, “I did it. I did it all. Broadway, TV, film, stage, and wrote a book — a bestseller.” And here she is writing a second one and touring it. That kind of fire, that energy for life is contagious. And I think I came to her door with it and it’s only grown since we connected.
MW: When you get to your level, are you able to, or do you ever just do a drag night at a bar to get back to those roots?
SHANGELA: There’s a line in What’s Love Got to Do With it? Where Jenifer says, “Now don’t forget about those who helped you to get to where you are.” And Tina Turner [Angela Bassett] goes, “No, ma, never forget my blood.”
That’s how I feel about drag clubs, drag bars, LGBTQ nightlife. I will never leave. I can’t be there to perform the way that I used to, but baby that’s where I got my start. That’s where the first person said, “Here comes this little queen with a wig on and two pieces of makeup. Let’s give her a moment on the stage.” That’s where a RuPaul’s Drag Race producer saw me and said, “You should audition for our show.” That’s where I’ve gotten such love and connection to my fans and my community who lifted me up in times when I didn’t even believe in myself.
MW: There’s a part of your career that is DJ — it’s the acting, when you can’t be Shangela. You have to become another character and drop the persona you’ve created and the one that people know. Is that difficult to do? How much of Shangela is you?
SHANGELA: It’s not difficult for me to be an entertainer as Shangela and also as DJ Pierce because being an entertainer is at the root of who I am. I always say that Shangela is just a heightened sense of who DJ is. She has different experiences and goes into different spaces. She wears wigs very glamorous at times. That’s who Shangela is. She’s the stage performer. She’s the Sasha Fierce to Beyoncé.
Being able to work as an actor has always been my dream. Being able to be an entertainer. I was doing standup comedy and I continue to do stand up comedy at times out of drag. I work as an actor out of drag. Being able to continue to go down many avenues, not only out of drag am I an actor, an entertainer, but I’m also a co-producer on We’re Here. DJ works a lot of the time behind the scenes. When I’m creating, I’m not sitting in the house with my wig on writing scripts. I’m so grateful to be able to entertain in the way that I want to in drag and also out of drag.
On Dancing with the Stars, people get to see that, too. That was very important to me. When we had the initial conversation about me joining and being the first drag entertainer on the show, I was like, “I get to be out of drag too, right?” And they were like, “Well, what would you like to do?” They were so open. They were like, “We want you, however you express. If you go through your day as Shangela, show it.” But I don’t. When I rehearse, for example, for my Fully Lit tour or when I’m rehearsing with my dancers, I’m not sitting up here in the full Shangela regalia. We save that for the stage.
MW: You were first on Drag Race 10 years ago, right?
SHANGELA: My first time on Drag Race was 2010.
SHANGELA: I know.
MW: It’s been so many years since your time on Drag Race began. Do you get tired of talking about that?
SHANGELA: I love, value, and cherish my history on RuPaul’s Drag Race. And, I’m Shangela! You never know why I might come back over there again in a box, okay? But no, I don’t get tired of mentioning RuPaul’s Drag Race because it’s where people first got to know me. It’s where they had an opportunity to attach to my journey and see my fire and my fight. I’m blessed to be a part of the RuPaul’s Drag Race legacy and I hope to create even more opportunities for the drag community just the way RuPaul and World of Wonder have done.
When I was on the Creative Arts Emmys stage presenting, RuPaul was sitting two tables in front of me, right there. And I was able to give him a shout out from the stage as a fully grown, evolved drag entertainer. This is the man that saw me and thought I was one of the best in the country, honey. He saw something in me and gave me another opportunity by bringing me back on the show.
MW: Would you come back to another season?
SHANGELA: I don’t know if I qualify for a winner’s [season], even though in my heart I’ve always been a winner. But you know what? I’m on a new competition right now and a new journey. So, never say never, but right now I’m over here working for my crown, which is a Mirrorball trophy, but I keep calling it a crown. Every time they ask Shangela, “What are you going after?” I’m like, “Baby, I’m going for the crown!” They say, “You know it’s a trophy, not a crown.” Well it’s a crown to me. I might wear that Mirrorball.
MW: I think what I love so much about your career, especially in the last few years, is it seems to be anchored by an undeniable positivity and energy. You have a way of being fierce and fabulous and everything, but it’s also the projects you do. We’re Here is changing lives and the world. What would you say to people in these areas that you haven’t met or maybe won’t get to meet who are facing a really tough time when things are changing for the worse for them?
SHANGELA: Don’t give up. I mean, look at me. Shangela, went on RuPaul’s Drag Race a number of times. Never won, never gave up. And if I had given up, if I had stopped then I would not be in this amazing moment that I’m in today. Things will get rough, there will be great challenges in life, but you have to know and believe that there is hope. There will be a better day and you just can’t give up on yourself. You have to find a way to continue to, I always say, fill up the gas tank on yourself. Sometimes we all run close to “E” or on “E,” but you have the ability, you have the power, to find the way back to happiness.
Shangela is currently competing on Dancing With the Stars, streaming live every Monday night at 8 p.m. ET exclusively on Disney+. Visit www.disneyplus.com.
We’re Here Season 3 debuts on November 25 on HBO and HBOMax. Visit www.hbo.com/were-here.
Shangela’s “Fully Lit” tour launches in Boston, Mass. on January 19, 2023. It will play The Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C. on January 20. For more dates and ticket information, visit www.shangela.com/pages/tour.
Follow Shangela on Twitter at @itsshangela.
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