Watch Shea Couleé tearfully honor her chosen RuPaul's Drag Race family
From the idealized suburbanites of Leave It to Beaver to the Manhattan-dwelling Jeffersons, television's presentation of the nuclear family has long reflected American society. In one of the most memorable moments in RuPaul's Drag Race history, Mama Ru famously told her cast of fabulous queens that, "we, as gay people, get to choose our family," after season 5 contestant Roxxxy Andrews revealed that her mother abandoned her at a bus stop when she was 3 years old. Years later, the modern sentiment carries through as the show's All-Stars 5 cast tells EW that no love was lost between them, even as they battled for the crown amid an alternative family dynamic not often highlighted on mainstream TV.
"Drag has always been family-based. That’s how houses are built. We need families to feel like we’re part of something. Especially with this group of girls, a lot of us share so much in common, and we’ve all been through adversity and struggles. We all have our stories, and some of them intersect with each other," returning queen Mayhem Miller tells EW in an Around the Table interview for our latest digital cover story. "No matter what, we’re all family joined by this bond of going through a reality television show. [It puts you] through the wringer. We all connect and bond in a special way. We will always be family and always be sisters, no matter what."
Forming such sisterhood, the queens say, means finding your tribe when other, classic family structures are unable — or unwilling — to accept queer people as they are. And the sturdy personal bonds that form between chosen families in the drag community can often lead to strong professional foundations as well.
"Something that’s different for drag queens is: We don’t go to college and major in drag. You can go to school and major in theater or music…. if you want to be on SNL, you go through Groundlings or Second City, you don’t just pop up on SNL and there you are, but with drag, you can," adds Derrick Barry, a self-made Vegas showgirl and Britney Spears impersonator. "We have to rely on ourselves. We’re self-taught, we learn from each other, we have drag families that we’re part of, so we’re learning from each other. We didn’t major in this. Nobody taught us how to do anything in school when it comes to drag and branding your stuff."
It's that longing for connection that initially prompted Shea Couleé — season 9 alum and All-Stars 5 competitor — to try out for Drag Race multiple times before finally landing a spot on the show's 2017 edition.
"I auditioned for Drag Race five times before I got on, and I remember, in my application, one of the questions they asked was ‘What excites you the most about being on RuPaul’s Drag Race?’" Couleé recalls, fighting back tears. "[My answer] came from such a pure part of the little boy inside of me. I remember writing on that line, ‘I just want to belong to this family.’ Because all I ever wanted as a little kid was to feel like I belonged somewhere, and I feel like that’s what chosen families provide for so many people that don’t get that."
"I feel so blessed and fortunate that I get to share this experience with people I respect and look up to and that continue to inspire me," she finishes. "It’s a lovely feeling to be sitting here on this panel with these people knowing I have love and respect for every single one of them."
RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars 5 airs Fridays at 8:00 p.m. on VH1. Read EW's full digital cover story on the new season here.
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