Shea Couleé tributes Drag Race win to Black women: 'I see God' in them
She's been the newest crowned queen in the RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars kingdom for nearly 30 minutes, and while you might expect a lively scene in celebration of the titanic moment at her Chicago home, Shea Couleé is still quietly glued to the television, unable to pull herself away from the alluring glow of her favorite series just yet.
"I’m just over the moon.... I'm currently standing in my living room, watching Untucked. And crying," the 31-year-old tells EW in the immediate aftermath of experiencing the moment she's waited for across the better part of a decade, but she's choosing to commemorate her freshly minted space in the Drag Race Hall of Fame by soaking up the final minutes of the show that amplified her voice, gave her a crown, and deposited a $130,000 prize into her bank account after her stellar run on the spin-off competition's fifth season.
"Coming up in a scene that employs the same racial biases we see in the world, it made me doubt myself and my work as an entertainer because of my color," says the season 9 alum — the third Black queen to win a franchise title in 2020, following season 12 champion Jaida Essence Hall and Miss Congeniality Heidi N Closet — before stressing the timely significance of their collective victory amid ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in the fight for racial equality in America. "Drag Race is like going through the looking glass. It’s a wonderland. I’m so grateful that I had the chance not only to compete once, but come back a second time as a more realized version of myself and show the world exactly who I am."
Shortly after the broadcast, RuPaul also spoke on Couleé's victory, calling her aesthetic "next-level" and representative of a "higher consciousness" in art. "On the heels of Jaida Essence Hall winning Drag Race, Shea’s All-Stars victory is yet another shining example of drag excellence. I am grateful to all our courageous queens for inspiring the sweet, sensitive, creative souls that watch our show. And I am humbled by the unwavering support of my partners at World of Wonder and VH1 as we continue to provide a global platform that celebrates all the colors of the rainbow."
Ahead, read EW's full interview with Couleé, who opens up about her road to acceptance and recovery after the trauma of losing season 9, why representation for queens of color matters in 2020, her unwavering love for Black women, and how she cake-walked to the crown in Jesus sandals across the finale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I find it hilarious that you're watching Untucked right after you won.
SHEA COULEÉ: Yeah! I just walked into the other room because I was filming my reaction in the dining room, and Untucked is still rolling. It’s so wild. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of for almost a decade now, trying to get to this place. It feels like a beautiful sense of fulfillment that all the hard work and sacrifice was worth it.
What did you do as soon as you heard RuPaul call your name on TV?
I blacked out. I was like, okay, I’m going to have to watch this again because it got so hazy. The tears welled up. I could no longer see the screen. It just feels so full circle because I came across RuPaul’s Drag Race when I was at a low point in my early twenties, and it brought me out of a place of sadness and inspired me to want to do drag. To be here almost 10 years later as the winner shows that representation and programs like this are so important because they help give hope and meaning to people who feel lost.
I’ve admired how you’ve used your platform for change. Especially your speech at the Black Lives Matter protest a while ago, you said you were “somebody who is considered of value because I’m talented, but my value shouldn’t be wrapped up in my talent.” What do you want this victory to communicate to people beyond recognizing talent?
I want them to recognize my humanity. I’m the product of generations of hard-working individuals. My grandmother worked as a maid. Her parents picked cotton in Mississippi. They worked hard to ensure I would, as one of their descendants, live up to my potential and achieve the American Dream. I want to serve as an example that you can come from humble beginnings to become royalty.
You spoke about the Black women in your life and their importance to your drag throughout the finale, including your mother, who inspired your pink dress. Why is it important to you to hold Black women up now and always?
In my mind, when I look at black women, I see God. They’re so powerful, beautiful, glamorous, vulnerable, strong, and wonderful. They’ve contributed to so much of American pop culture that it only makes sense that I humbly dedicate myself to building them up and giving them glory, because it’s what they deserve.
This year alone, Drag Race has had three black queens win titles: Jaida won Season 12 and Heidi won Miss Congeniality. Speaking to the importance of representation, because this has never happened before, can you think back to when you were a baby queen starting out and how seeing three black queens in a row take a prize on the biggest queer pageant in the world might’ve had impacted your trajectory?
It would’ve made me fearless. It would’ve made me not doubt myself or my place in the world of drag, because coming up in a scene that employs the same racial biases we see in the world, it made me doubt myself and my work as an entertainer because of my color. Drag Race is like going through the looking glass. It’s a wonderland. I’m so grateful that I had the chance not only to compete once, but come back a second time as a more realized version of myself and show the world exactly who I am.
You’ve been instrumental in shaping that change in the real world, especially the changes in the Chicago drag scene over the past few weeks. Why do you think it took so long for this sea-change to happen, particularly in Chicago?
There was a huge cultural shift with the murder of George Floyd that it became apparent that white people need to do is listen to the experiences of Black people. Getting the floor and the ability to take the microphone on the conversation, I felt it was necessary to be as open and honest about my experiences so we can call out injustices and help remedy them and create reformative justice. That’s what’s important. I want the generations coming up to know they’re valuable and they can call out injustices without being punished.
You’re going to have a hand in making that easier for so many people on a bigger scale. On a personal level, though, you were open about dealing with issues like grief for your lost family members and the loss to Sasha during season 9. On All-Stars 5, were you competing at a point where those emotions were less tied to your performance as an artist?
It was time to work on my mental health and heal from those experiences. That was important for me to do prior to going back. I wanted to know that I was in a much better place, and it was amazing to go back and feel that, though I’d dealt with these personal tragedies while also dealing with my dreams coming true and the crazy balance that happened back in 2017, it allowed me to go into this experience and be myself more than I was the first time. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe God’s timing is always right, and this is my time. I can fully step into my moment, ready for it.
I’m so glad to hear you’re in a better place. Let’s shift to this episode: Your finale outfit, the blue wig looked remarkably similar to Sasha’s red wig from the season 9 finale. Was that coincidence?
Funnily enough, it was a coincidence! That look was inspired by a dress that Bob Mackie did for Cher. There was a headpiece that was supposed to go with it, but they weren’t able to finish it in time. I happened to have the blue wig as a backup. It’s so funny because it’s so deep in the competition you don’t even think of those things. Now, I’m like, holy s---! It’s like the water version of Sasha’s wig.
It’s like fire and ice. I thought that’s what you were going for!
[Laughs], oh my God, imagine Sasha and I on an ice-skating tour: Fire & Ice!
Your final lip-sync was incredible with those robotic. It felt very deliberate and thematic. Why did you perform Janelle Monáe’s lyrics that way?
I’m a huge Janelle Monáe fan. I’ve followed her career since “Many Moons,” The ArchAndroid, and Electric Lady. There’s this overarching theme of her character, Cindi Mayweather, being an android geared to perform for the upper class. I wanted to start off the number with the idea that I was a beautiful android deprogramming and coming back to life within the moment of the song.
You’re giving me chills. Something else I loved: The reveal this week that India might’ve been the one who was, well, “misinformed” about the whole Alexis campaign situation. Did learning the information you learned this episode make you regret the way the whole Alexis thing went down?
The only thing I regret is jumping to conclusions and getting in my feelings. I still sent India home because I knew I didn’t have all the information. I regretted taking India’s word for it and not understanding that what she was implying was that it was said after the vote, because what she told me was lacking context and led me to believe it happened before they voted, and that’s an entirely different story. I still have mad love for both of those girls.
I guess we’ll end on: What are you most proud of this season, and what do you want to do with the platform and the visibility you have with this title?
I’m most proud of my integrity as a competitor. I was able to exhibit the fact that you can compete against people and still be a kind, loving, genuine, sweet, giving person. Nice guys finish last, but nice girls win crowns.
And they do it while preparing choreography in Jesus sandals.
Hello! Okay, look, we shoot early in the morning and I wasn’t thinking about doing choreography when I grabbed those sandals and ran out the hotel. I did the best with what I had! [Laughs].
RuPaul — as host, mentor, and creative inspiration — decides who's in and who's out.