From halleloo to Hollywood, three-time RuPaul’s Drag Race eliminee Shangela is sashaying proof you don’t need a crown to hone a royal strut. She made a name for herself in 2011, popping out of a Tiffany box and into the reality competition show’s third cast of competing queens, among which she’d ultimately finish in sixth place. Now, nearly a decade later, the 36-year-old is about to pop off at the box office at the top of her game with a scene-stealing role as the drag mother to Lady Gaga’s bar-singing budding superstar, Ally, in Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star Is Born.
Ahead of Oct. 5 theatrical bow for the romantic drama — about a fading musician who takes an ingenue under his creative (and romantic) wing — EW caught up with the Drag Race fan favorite (currently on a 181-date world tour) about performing opposite Gaga and fellow Drag Race graduate Willam in the film. Shangela also spoke about Cooper’s mini on-screen drag makeover (plus what he would look like as a full-on drag queen. Spoiler: he’ll need mammoth heels), and how A Star Is Born climbs a simple yet revolutionary rung on the ladder of drag representation in studio cinema. Read the full conversation below, and check out our exclusive first look at Shangela’s character above.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Shangela, it’s so great to speak with you. We can’t get rid of you!
SHANGELA: Baby, I’m back again! That’s what I always do: I come back. I just keep popping up everywhere, honey.
But no one’s complaining. You’re at the top of your game on this huge tour and starring in this huge film with lots of Oscar buzz, so I think I speak for everyone who was with you from day one on Drag Race in saying we’re so proud of you.
I want to give you a hug. Thank you. It’s an amazing feeling to share that with people who saw me come in the door of season 2 of Drag Race with a dream and no makeup on to where I am now. It’s phenomenal.
You were in Gaga’s “Applause” lyric video in 2013, and Gaga actually handpicked you to play the owner of the bar where her character, Ally, hones her singing talents before Cooper’s character discovers her. I heard you initially turned it down! What’s the story there?
Let the record show I would never turn down a role with Lady Gaga. That was never the case. You know how characters go through changes in writing? The original character was a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, zombie kind of thing. So when it came across from my agent, I was like, girl that ain’t me. I don’t look nothin’ like Marilyn Monroe. Maybe Eva Longoria! But that was the reason at first I didn’t go in for the audition. When I got an email from Bobby Campbell, Lady Gaga’s longtime manager, who knew me from … the “Applause” video, he said “LG” — Lady Gaga, halleloo — “would really like you to come in for this role, she thinks it’d be a great fit for you.” When I got that, honey, I found the nearest blonde wig, I found the nearest white dress, I was black Marilyn! Then the role after I auditioned changed to a drag bar owner and it expanded a little more.
Going back to the days of Gaga’s early career, she’s implied she was raised by drag queens. And now you’re her drag mother in this. Did it feel like a natural relationship on and off camera?
She’s an honest person, and when you talk with her you feel like you’ve been friends for the longest time in the world because she’s such an honest, open person and so filled with love. That’s how she made me feel on set, and that’s the dynamic between my character and hers: It’s one rooted in love. But this whole story is rooted in love. There’s so much emotion and heartbreak in this story.
Your scenes with her and Willam are so fun. Especially the scene where Bradley writes “Jackson” on Willam’s fake boobs, or when Willam’s flirting with Bradley and you’re just over there counting the tips and rolling your eyes. It seems like you and Willam had natural chemistry that Bradley trusted, like you were in your element and he captured it without much direction.
The characters have their dialogue, but Bradley gave us a little freedom to play on set. It was awesome for him as a director to trust us in that way. Willam and I have worked together before. We were in Hurricane Bianca together, we’ve toured together, so we naturally had that playfulness between each other. You know [her character] starts flirting, girl, I don’t have no time for it. I’m a professional. I have a song that says so! I’m over here trying to count my money, trying to run my bar!
I know Gaga has experience with the drag community, but did you guys have to do anything to prepare Bradley for immersion into the drag world? Was he receptive to learning?
It was so cool to see how already well-versed he was when we got there. He seemed like he was having a good time…. he’s done his research. Before I was in his film, I was a fan. To see how much work he’s put into everything he’s done to be at the top of his game, this was no different. He’d put in the work. He was like, “Ok Shangela, this is your bar scene, you’re the owner here, I want you to really go there. If I need to pull you back, I will.” But he gave me the freedom to have fun and do what I do in 181 cities a year. Next, I’m inviting him out for Halloween to come out in drag with me. I wonder if Bradley will come out in drag.
I do love that scene similar to the 1976 Barbra Streisand version of A Star Is Born, where Gaga puts her drag eyebrow on Bradley in the bathtub. How do you think Bradley looked in a thin eyebrow and blush?
Let me tell you something: If Kameron Michaels can pull a muscle transformation, so can Bradley Cooper. I don’t know if the thin brow is his look. I might want to get that Anastasia Beverly Hills pencil and go in on it a little bit more, but I think we can make him absolutely fabulous. We’re probably going to have to find a size 17 shoe because she’s got a large foot, but I love it. It’s manly!
Are you saying you’d take Miss Bradley Cooper as your drag daughter?
You know I’m Shangela, honey, I’m only on the scene for a little while. I’m a teen mom. But I would take him as my sister, you see. I’m still trying to look like Beyoncé. I can’t have too many kids!
Now that we’re talking about this, as much as I loved Gaga in this film, I almost want to see a version of the movie where Bradley enters that drag bar and takes you and Willam as his ingenues instead. What would that movie look like?
Well, it would be called A Queen Is Born. That might be next. Let’s get this one through first and then ask Bradley if he wants to do a sequel. I’m down.
There’s something so beautiful about the way he handled you guys and the way you’re introduced in the film. Bradley’s character is a rough, masculine guy who goes to a gay bar and befriends drag queens, and there’s nothing else said about it. Do you think that’s a powerful statement for a leading man in a mainstream movie?
I do, 100 percent. There’s been such a great evolution of writing in mainstream film and television. To see this modernization of the story and how he drops in, it’s so cool. As a RuPaul’s Drag Race queen, I meet so many fans from so many walks of life. We meet a lot of masculine, heterosexual men who are huge fans of the show and don’t have a problem coming up to you in a meet-and-greet to say, “This is my wife and we watch you! I love you so much. Girl, I thought you were robbed!” All of that. [Bradley’s] so comfortable with himself and other people, and I hope that continues to inspire more people to behave in that way so we don’t look at it and go, huh, wasn’t that novel? Treat people how you would want to be treated. Show them the same respect. Don’t walk in with any preconceived notions, just meet the person in front of you.
Usually, in studio movies, drag queens are there as a joke. But here it’s just a normal, beautiful gateway to a foundation of sisterhood for Ally. It feels like a step forward. Did this feel refreshing to you in a way that this is more about drag sisterhood and the liveliness of drag than mocking it as Hollywood often does?
As a drag diva auditioning in Hollywood, I’ve run the gamut. I’ve played the crackhead prostitute at the truck stop, I’ve been the queen in the back who did a murder mystery where my friend got beat up as a hooker, I’ve played a transgender hooker… It’s nice to see newer projects showing more of the LGBT, gay, drag, and trans experience. There are so many different facets, and this is one of them. It seemed to be important to them to show Ally’s relationship to [the queens], that it was not a superficial relationship. This is her experience. She works in this bar, these are her friends, these are the people who love her, this is her family, and that’s how any family would interact. This film treated that storyline respectfully in that way, and it’s something I will forever be so proud of because that’s my daily experience.
The mainstream audience doesn’t see that so often about the drag community: it’s a sisterhood. As Ru always says, the gay community gets to choose its family sometimes, so it’s nice to see that represented in such a big capacity here.
As an actor, I’d love to see so much more of it and help create even more of it. We have so many unique stories in our community and they deserve to be told accurately and written in a voice that’s from that experience and authentic.
It’s something to be proud of. But what are you most proud of with this whole experience?
I’m most proud of what this film represents, not only to me but to my fans who’ve been down with me since I walked in the door on season 2. I’m from Paris, Texas, okay! I remember looking up and just dreaming to one day make it on an airplane… it’s sometimes a lot to take in, but it’s about doing the work and not giving up. I went to Drag Race a lot of times and I never won, but I haven’t given up and I won’t give up. I hope that inspires more people to know: honey, you can do it. It doesn’t matter where you start. It’s all about the journey and as Jenifer Lewis says: stay happy on your way to happy. That’s what I hope to represent with this moment.