"A Star Is Birth’ded"
"A Star Is Birth’ded"
Text: SAMUEL ANDERSON
If the career of D.J. Pierce has taught us anything, it’s that Shangela Laquifa Wadley (Pierce’s better known alter ego) cannot be put into a box. While the Paris, Texas-born drag performer was the first to go home on season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race, she would later surprise everyone on season three—first by popping out of a literal box that had been wheeled into the workroom—and then by making it to sixth place. By that point Shangela was a stalwart fan-favorite and certified “werqin girl” (her single “Werqin Girl” is both an apt personal jingle and arguably one of the best tracks in the Drag Race songbook) so it was less of a surprise when she finished third on RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars season three.
With her leg-breaking work ethic (also literal: in 2013, she broke a leg while attempting a death drop onstage), vaudevillian motormouth and comedy chops, Shangela completely and unironically embodies a somewhat bygone ideal of star-quality: that with the right amount of talent and self-sacrifice, the possibilities of where one can go in showbiz, and what one can become, are endless.
Until recently, drag thrived as a sub-culture, whether or not queens aspired to mainstream fame. And while Drag Race has closed that gap between drag culture and the national stage, even its most famous alumna are still relatively niche. Even so, Shangela has always aspired to be a walk-of-fame, capital “s” star. “It's always been my dream, it's always been my vision to work as an actor in Hollywood, in drag and out of drag,” she tells us.
That dream is now closer to reality thanks to A Star Is Born, opening nationwide today, in which Shangela plays a drag madame alongside Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (who also directed the film). While Shangela's transition to more mainstream gigs is little surprise, few could have predicted the kismet of her feature-film debut being in A Star Is Born; In addition to centering on an unlikely superstar's ascent, the film’s titular star has been played by three gay icons—Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and now Gaga—who share Shangela's ambition and rugged individualism.
We caught up with the hard-working queen ahead of the film’s October 5 release about starting from the bottom and how she landed the supporting role of every drag queen’s dreams.
V Magazine How did you transition from death dropping to acting in a huge cinematic sensation with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper?
Shangela My dream was always to come to Los Angeles and make it as an actor. I kind of just fell into drag. Since RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 3, I’ve been working my way up, doing guest spots on shows like Glee, 2 Broke Girls, and Community. Honey, I beat down an alien with my purse in the X Files. (Laughs).
V Can you tell us about the character you play in A Star Is Born?
S I play the owner of a drag bar—a matriarch in the drag community. Yes, get ready honey: she's owning drag bars, she's in there, she's going to turn the party. I love that the role not only is fun and funny, but also has heart. This story is about artists who are working towards their dreams, but it’s also about heart.
V I’m guessing your character wasn’t in the previous versions of the film?
S I think that was an added. I'm not fully versed in the previous films, but I know there wasn’t a gay bar scene in there. It's really cool that Bradley and Lady Gaga saw the importance of modernizing the story.
V Do you have any mentors that you based this character on?
S Oh yes. In preparation on set, I drew a lot from myself. From Shangela and my experiences traveling the world. But also from mentors in my life—strong leaders in entertainment like Jennifer Lewis, whom I’ve always considered one of my mentors and icons.
V You played Jennifer Lewis in Snatch Game, [a well-known Drag Race challenge], right?.
S You know it honey, hallelu! She won the snatch game with Jennifer Lewis. I met Jennifer Lewis on a YouTube series back in 2012 called Jennifer Lewis and Shangela. After that I moved into her home and worked as her assistant. After I got what she would call “famous” I just stayed there, and I still live in her basement to this day.
V You’re kidding.
S No honey, I get a master class daily in Jennifer Lewis when I’m home. I’m never leaving until she throws me out.
V Did she help you prepare for the role in A Star Is Born?
S She always helps me read before an audition, and if she feels that I'm not fully prepared she would cut me off in the middle. She would say you haven’t done enough work. Honey, I’m Jennifer Lewis you think I have time to waste? No! Go back and come back right.
V What was the audition process like?
S For the audition we had to prepare a song and also do the audition. Gaga had actually reached out to me through her manager to see if I was coming. I was like, woah Lady Gaga is asking me to come in and audition. Like what? I prepared really hard because I did not want to let her down.
V What were Bradley and Gaga like on set?
S Bradley Cooper was amazing as a director. Like you hope the director is nice, you hope they are cool, and he was at the top of the list. I mean honestly, he wasn't someone who just stepped into the LGBT world, but he had really researched and was interested in knowing so much but also already knew so much. He just really allowed us to do our best work on set and you can see that.
Lady Gaga was focused but also relaxed. Which really means she was confident in the role but wanted to do her best. She was just cool, they were all so cool on set. It wasn’t my first time meeting her; she had invited me to come be a part of her “Applause” lyric video that she shot herself a couple of years ago. So, going from being a huge fan of hers to now being in a film working in scenes right alongside her. It really is a Cinderella story for me and I hope there are many more.
They [created] this huge gay club, with all these different characters. He knew what he was really talking about, the directing terms he was using. It was just really cool to see him in his element on that set. It’s kind of like coming back to Drag Race. You are like, I don’t want to let down RuPaul because he specifically brought me back—in a box, honey. (Laughs)
V Are there other drag queens in the scene that we would recognize?
S Well not as big as Shangela. (Laughs.) No, I’m kidding. You know Willam, my good friend Willam from RuPaul’s Drag Race as well is also in the film.
V Tell us about your one-woman show.
S We're doing two weeks right now in the UK. Which is why I am here tonight in Edinburgh, it's apart of my 181-city tour that I'm on around the world this year. I like to give my audiences everything on stage.
V Do you talk about your time on Drag Race?
S I can, because I don’t have to go back anymore so I can. No, I'm kidding; you never know. Honey, I’m Shangela, Of course I always come back. (Laughs). I like to tell them on stage I tell the tea, the whole tea, and nothing but the tea.
V What do you think when past contestants like Pearl come out and are critical of their experience on the show?
S Let me break it down to you like this: There are about 140 queens that have through the RuPaul’s Drag Race experience. Every single person has their own unique experience. When anyone has any comment, I allow them to share their own unique experience, but my experience was nothing but a fairytale.
V Once you achieve all your goals in your acting career, do you think you will still be doing 181 Cities tours?
S No, girl. I’m going to slow down, I'm probably going to go down to 175. (Laughs) No more 181. Touring is great because we get to connect with fans. I’ve worked on 6 out of the 7 continents honey, I only have Antarctica left.
V What do you attribute to your ability to cross over in ways that no other queen has?
S My message to everyone is never give up honey, because look where I am. I say “hallelu” a lot but that’s because I look for the silver lining in life. So, it’s putting the work behind something; you see it and you go after it. That’s definitely what has brought me to this point. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the magic of this film A Star Is Born. I think my autobiography will be [called] A Star Is Birth’ded.
V I’m so surprised you haven't already seen it.
S Me too. I am wondering if someone can send me a DVD copy, or a download link. I'm on the road, honey.