As one of the most beloved contestants in the herstory of Rupaul’s Drag Race, Shangela transcends LGBTQ+ media. With a role in A Star Is Born and vocals featured on Ariana Grande’s “NASA” — to name just a few highlights — she is a bonafide part of pop culture. Halleloo.
Today, Shangela appears on HBO’s We’re Here (recently picked up for a second season) alongside former Drag Race personalities Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara, in which they travel to small towns across the United States transforming locals into drag queens.
Of course, drag has always been more than entertainment — it’s a commentary on identity politics and freedom of expression, which couldn’t be more salient during this time of social upheaval. We caught up with Shangela to talk about Black Lives Matter, what Pride means this year, and Feed The Queens, an initiative she recently launched to provide food for drag queens in America whose livelihoods have been affected by Covid-19.
How have you been processing everything that’s going on in the world, and what advice do you have for people who are struggling to process it?
Well, it’s one thing to process it. It’s another to have the reality that I lived it, and I am living it every day. Some of these things that people are having conversations about, I’ve had these conversations my entire life, mostly within my community and sometimes with people outside my community. It’s the reality of our world, and I’m inspired by this moment. Really. I wish we didn’t have to have it. I will say it now, I will say it a million times: black lives matter. And the reason we say it is because it’s not something that is built into the subconscious yet. You have to remind people and sometimes educate them on the fact that we say “black lives matter” because for so long, and to so many, they do not.
We say “trans lives matter” and “black trans lives matter” because we have to reinforce and reiterate those statements, because to some, they do not. So I’m inspired by the amount of activism that’s been going on among even my own friends, whom I’ve never felt to be racist in any way, but I also understand they live in a different construct than I do. And it’s nice to see them in support of us.
A lot of people are feeling angry and hurt right now. How can we channel those feelings into something actionable and positive?
I would say, take those feelings and channel them into what will make you feel as if you have a stake in what’s happening. If you feel like you’re part of the solution, as opposed to just feeling burdened by the problem, then you’ll find yourself in a much better place. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do. If something upsets me, I’m like, “OK, what can I do where I am? And with the resources that I have right now, what can I do to get myself to a better place, where I feel that I’m being part of the solution?”
We’re talking about what’s going on in our country, and we’re being hit on a lot of different fronts. If we’re talking about the protests and the conversations around race and an injustice to the black community, one way you can get involved is by seeking out organizations that have been committed for years to supporting and aiding that particular agenda and working with that movement.
Second, you can show up. If you can’t show up physically, you can show up through your social media and your posting and just continue to communicate the messages that need to be heard by so many.
And the third thing you can do is vote. If there’s nothing else that we’ve learned in this process, it is that leadership matters. Specifically leadership in government matters — especially when it’s at so many different levels of government. If we don’t have the right people in place, then things aren’t going to get done that we want to get done. So you have to vote, and I expect everyone to — if you call yourself a Shangela fan, you’re going to show me the sticker come November.
You recently launched Feed The Queens — what inspired you to do that?
With everything else that’s going on right now, it’s kind of distracted us from all that we’ve been dealing with in regard to Covid-19 and the pandemic. People are like, “OK, people are back out on the streets. All right. It’s over. It’s a wrap.” But we did not get a resolution on that. We have not gotten to a place where Covid-19 is “handled.” And even more so, the fallout from the shutdown of nightlife specifically has really had this huge, horrible impact on the drag community. Those queens depended on the tips from patrons [in bars] to create their wages. Now we’re facing a very important issue in the drag community, which we haven’t faced in a significant way before, and that is hunger. Hunger in the drag community.
And I know what it’s like to be hungry; to be a drag queen who’s going gig to gig. I want to be of help. I’ve had a lot of help in my life. I’ve had a lot of great mentors and people who are helping our community. And so I partnered with The Actors Fund, a great organization that aids entertainers, and we are committing to fundraising a goal of $100,000 or more — hopefully in this one month of June — in order to feed 1,000 drag queens or more across America. We have $100 grocery gift cards that we’ll be providing to these 1,000 queens, across America. That’s what we want to do.
Let’s talk Pride. It’s different this year — it’s not a parade or a big party. What does it mean to you?
Pride means, to me, community. And I think this year that word rings more true to me than any other ever before, because even though we’re not allowed to really be together in the way that we’re accustomed to celebrating in the past, we are still a community. And we have to find ways, through online connection, virtual celebration, and just checking in on each other in order to maintain our sense of community. And a united community at that, because when so much in the world is looking to divide us, it’s up to us to keep each other together.
Do you have any specific messages you want to share with the LGBTQ+ community this year?
Stay hopeful. With so many challenges facing our community and facing our world today, it’s easy to let those things put you down and really bury your spirit. Stay hopeful — stay inspired — that we are going to move to a better day. Our activism will bring about change. It’s important that we just keep our spirits in a place where we’re taking care of ourselves. We’re loving each other and loving up on ourselves, so that when we come out of this, we come out of it on a brighter side.
You’re known as the Comeback Queen and I’m wondering-
Who said that? [laughs]
I’m wondering what advice you have for dealing with setbacks in life. Your show We’re Here highlights that, even in 2020, people in small towns across the US are wrestling with their identities and looking for outlets for self-expression. What are some things that have gotten you through it?
One thing that has always gotten me through is an optimistic outlook on life. I’ve always believed that, in some way, things will be better. And I feel like it just doesn’t happen magically, but you have to have some type of an active role in your habits and seek that. One way that I’ve found it is really seeking out great mentors in my industry and looking for the exact thing that we’re trying to provide with We’re Here, and that’s greater visibility and authenticity in the way that we’re represented in television. And once people can see themselves on TV, they’re more inspired to know that they can dream big and also achieve it.
Do you have an anecdote that leaves us with a message of hope? Something that really stuck with you that maybe you think of when you’re feeling down?
I do have one. A moment where I was really down was right after I broke my leg in the year 2013. And you know, I did it on stage while [performing] in drag, and broke the tibia and fibula bone.
I had to spend three weeks in the hospital, had a titanium rod put into my right leg. In those three weeks while sitting there in the hospital, I kept thinking, “What am I going to do now?” I’m a drag queen. I love being on stage. My passion is the stage. And now I have ruined that. I don’t know how I’m going to come back from it. But I had great friends around me.
My drag mother, Alyssa Edwards, she said, “Well, girl, I’m so sorry. I already booked us a tour in March, so you better get up and come up. Because, girl, it’s the House of Edwards, come on, get it together.” The belief in me and just knowing that I could do it… and then also, I didn’t want that one moment to define the rest of my career. I found it within myself to push through the rehab, to push through the recovery. And then I did go back on tour within four months, down to Australia. I found that within myself by looking for messages, but also realizing that I had the power to do it myself.