When you look like Shangela, Eureka, and Bob the Drag Queen — three gorgeous drag performers with a penchant for colorful costumes, sassy attitudes, and all-around showgirlship — blending in isn't exactly an option as you're walking the streets of Gettysburg, Pa. Luckily, that's exactly the kind of jarring impact the RuPaul's Drag Race alums wanted to make on their new HBO docuseries We're Here, which sees the trio traveling across the country to make over small-town residents grappling with issues of homophobia, racism, masculinity, and more. "Growing up in a small town where you obviously stand out, you have two choices," Shangela tells EW. "One: you pull back and try to fly under the radar; or, two: you push forward and go, 'You know what? If they're looking, I'll give them something to look at.'" Before the show's April 23 premiere, EW can exclusively debut a visual diary of images from their life-altering road trip in the gallery ahead.
Devised by co-creators Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren, We're Here was born on a rainy day as the pair vacationed in Mexico, forced indoors by the weather and binge-watching Drag Race. "We thought, what if RuPaul's Drag Race went into the real world, what would happen? How would towns react? How would families react?" Warren remembers. Ingram then thought of his own upbringing in a small town in the backwoods of Appalachia, where growing up queer in a remote community felt like bearing the brunt of neglect. "We're basically bringing a giant pride parade," he says, referencing the show's five locations: Gettysburg, Pa., Twin Falls, Idaho, Branson, Mo., Farmington, N.M., and Ruston, La. "There's a lot of beauty and soul [in these areas]. We weren't 100 percent sure what would happen, because we're seeing how divided we are and how scary it might've been, but what we actually saw was that there are huge communities that are starved for these types of performances and this art form, and they showed up."
In essence, the title We're Here is both a reference to the vibrant queer communities that often exist in the shadows in small-town America, but, in addition to being a bold proclamation for ignored demographics in predominantly white areas, it's also a literal announcement of the central trio's arrival — and boy do they know how to make an entrance. "When I heard about it, I thought, my goodness, this sounds crazy," Bob the Drag Queen — mother of entering a room "purse first" says of learning she'd be barreling across state lines in a giant car modeled after, well, a yellow purse. "When I saw it, it was really amazing, like a big Birkin bag!" Ingram and Warren enlisted the help of production designer Marla Weinhoff (Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift) to create three vehicles for the queens using inspiration from their personal brands (Eureka's is an elephant, Shangela's is a pink box with a bow on it). The result is a pitch-perfect, campy visual that embraces the absurdist fantasy that makes drag so irresistible.
The heart under We're Here's dressings, however, doesn't beat solely for aesthetic beauty. This is a show about community, healing, and acceptance, and each queen pours her heart and soul as she gets to know her new drag daughter's story while each duo prepares for a one-night-only drag revue at the close of every episode. "We have social media and that's how people feel connected, but people are losing connection when it comes to physical support, and our communities sometimes get shoved down to a minute number in these small towns," Eureka, who grew up in Johnson City, Tenn., observes. "In small towns, the [sentiment] is like, 'bless your heart, but we don't talk about that kind of stuff,' or, 'we know he's gay, but that's not going to be part of our conversation.' That's not fair to said person. We talk about heteronormative life all the time, but we don't discuss gay life. This is a way to start that conversation so these people are exposed, and people who are part of our culture feel seen and supported."
"We see a lot about drag being used as a form of entertainment, and we definitely bring that, but the drag element here is transformative, but not like something you've seen before," says Shangela. "Drag is therapeutic, not just for them, but also for us. Drag is the right medium to go through this therapeutic transformation because it's about shedding what other people think of you and letting go of norms of society that say what you have to look like or feel. It's about shaking off the act of looking to other people for approval or acceptance, and diving deep into who you are as a person through the power of drag and the armor it helps you put on."
As they build toward a show-stopping drag number, the queens spend several days getting to know their drag daughters, immersing themselves in their daily lives to find inspiration for a musical performance to best cap their journey together. One such instance sees Bob partnering with a black college professor, Darryl, who grew up in an area of Gettysburg "that has Confederate flags everywhere," as Bob recalls. "People would judge him based on the color of his skin. He's even been denied housing from a real estate agent who was also his teacher, so, after this teacher refused to sell his mom a house, he had to go to school and look at her every day." The experience inspired Bob to craft a show that both reflects Darryl's personal roots as well as drag's political ones, which may or may not include some Civil War-era garb set to a well-known pop song for a presentation that's too good to spoil here.
"It was like finding my own stability while working for others, but it was therapeutic for me because we forget, being so busy, how much work we still have to do in our culture and community, and this reminds me of why I do what I do as a successful Drag Race girl," Eureka remembers of the ways the show changed their perspective, too. "It's a chance for me to use my platform for these stories and to help people, because that's ultimately what drag is all about: helping people, whether it's through performing or being a matriarchal figure to make them feel like they're part of my family. I use Eureka as an advocate for community progression, and this project has brought me back to reality to remember that this is real, and the magic of the show and the energy we leave behind [will create] safe spaces for those who need it."
Bob, a seasoned comedian, actor, and stage performer, admits that the intensity of filming We're Here in such quick succession is incomparable to anything else he's done in his career, which suggests that the spectacle on display — both emotionally and physically — is unmatched. "I've done drag for big tours and for really small parties, for baby showers, for wedding announcements, and I've done it in massive theaters," Bob says. "This particular brand of drag is really turn-and-burn because we have to get it done quickly in a small amount of time, but enough time to get to know these people and understand their stories. [Shangela, Eureka, and I] needed a second to learn each other's groove, to get into each other's mindset, and after the first couple of days, we figured it out pretty good. We're a pretty well-oiled machine, even in our first season, I'm proud to say."
Shangela, who serves as a consulting producer on the show alongside Eureka and Bob, says she's thankful HBO was so trusting and supportive when it came to giving drag artists control over their own narrative and creative output, something she says is often relegated to behind-the-scenes status. "The fact that HBO recognized how much of an impact we have in front of and behind the camera, that's been one of the greatest things about this project. As a drag entertainer, we produce a lot. Sometimes we're a one-stop shop, but they don't always get the recognition for the work we put into creating," she praises. "We're producing a halftime show every episode. Beyoncé, J.Lo, and Shakira got to work all year rehearsing and I got seven days, but we're still giving you something to talk about," continues Shangela, adding that it's on the queens to brainstorm concepts for the show, but there were full teams of designers, artists, and more helping to construct their vision. "This is life outside of the RuPaul's Drag Race Werk Room, and that's what we want to showcase: the hard work us queens put into creating what you see on stage, this is outside the runway. We love a runway, but now we going to the alleyway, and we're going backroads, alleyways, dirt roads, and cornfields honey."
Ingram and Warren promise many more touching stories to come, including that of a transgender man and his wife grappling with familial acceptance, and a mother processing the absence of her daughter, whom she drove away with religiously fueled bigotry over her child's bisexual identity. "Bringing Shangela to a family dinner table, or Eureka to a biker event, or Bob to a Navajo nation, you're learning a lot about the different struggles we have across America," Ingram says. "Allowing those unique personalities to bond, it's a very fish-out-of-water story…. it's remarkable being able to see change through that."
The creators — and the queens — also know they owe a huge debt to RuPaul and the Drag Race brand for making their show possible, not just on the business end. "This is Ru's world…. Ru has elevated them in a spectacular way through his platform," Ingram stresses. "It's a testament to the integrity with which the contestants are shown on Drag Race. You get to see us and hear our stories, and see that it's a truly viable art form," Bob adds. Shangela similarly praises the show that launched her career, though We're Here benefits from taking viewers inside the real-life stories Drag Race contestants reveal in confessional interviews or in the Werk Room. "These are authentic experiences and stories, it's not produced. This is a docuseries that dives into the real lives of real people and hopefully makes real change, and that's why I love seeing this inclusion on all of these different networks and spaces," she says. "I want to be a part of this movement that is so important because people are recognizing that the LGBTQ community is out there, they deserve to have their stories told, and told authentically, and it's a great thing people are jumping on that bandwagon."
"It's nice to see queer entertainment being shown on such a huge platform," Eureka says. "It's because we're getting in leadership roles now and making bigger decisions. We need more gay content! I think it's really down to the wire that there are a lot more of us out and about and we're 'allowed' to be celebrated. And, we are. We're here."