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Exclusive Interview: Navajo Drag Queen featured on HBO’s We’re Here Lady Shug “normally people who are not queer or two-spirit or part of our culture speak for us”

If you’re a regular reader of The Queer Review you’ll already know that we are big fans of HBO’s We’re Here, which has been helping to uplift us and give us some comfort and hope during self-isolation. And, without fail, making us cry! We’ve already spoken exclusively to We’re Here’s drag mothers, Drag Race alum, Eureka O’HaraBob the Drag Queen and Shangela who’ve been taking the empowering, barrier-breaking magic of drag performance to small towns across the USA each episode.

One of the highlights of the series, which has just been renewed for second season, has been getting to meet members of the queer Navajo community, including Bob the Drag Queen’s drag daughter on episode four, photographer Nate Lemuel, and his friends Darin Jamal Tom and non-binary drag queen Lady Shug. Viewers of the We’re Here season one finale will have seen more of Lady Shug, including an impactful and emotional drag performance set to This Is Me from The Greatest Showman.

Crowned Miss New Mexico Pride in 2016, Lady Shug has spent the last decade bringing her brand of often radical and political drag to her indigenous community. Her approach, she tells us, is: “This Is Me, take it or leave it, but I’m still going to be in your face even if you want to leave it!”

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Lady Shug about her experience of making We’re Here, learning her craft in Las Vegas, the lack of indigenous representation in US media and what she would bring to RuPaul’s Drag Race.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: I know you’ve been busy lately helping people affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Lady Shug: “Yes, after being part of We’re Here I felt more motivated through Nate’s story and just being around Bob the Drag Queen and being around the whole filming crew, the other artists and producers. I got inspired and because right now the COVID-19 rates are so high on my territory I decided to do a Lady Shug challenge. I challenged friends, my family, all my social media followers, to help me fill this really big box with essential items for unsheltered Navajo relatives. So I’ve been running around like crazy because I gave them until the end of May. There are no places for unsheltered relatives on our actual reservation, they have no resources or places to be, so they have to go to these border towns and right now at the majority of the places where they go to sleep and eat they’re being pushed out because the COVID-19 cases are so high. There’s not a place for them to go, so they’re basically out living where they can. So they really need essential items that they usually get. If people want to help with COVID-19 efforts they can visit the Indigenous Mutual Aid website.”

“Our indigenous unsheltered relatives are very much at the bottom of the Totem pole next to the trans and queer folks of my people. They’re always forgotten about or there’s a stigma to them, and so even before being on We’re Here I’ve helped out with feeding unsheltered relatives over the weekend, especially gearing towards the queer and trans unsheltered relatives. I’ve being doing that for the past six years, it’s been something that I’m passionate about and I’m always tying to be that voice of reason for people who maybe don’t have a voice or are scared to speak up. Being oppressed for so many years our ancestors have just been kept quiet and have let other people talk for us. I’m trying to change that stigma, especially towards my trans and queer Navajo relatives; not to be quiet, and to be more resilient, to be more outspoken and be more themselves.”

I’m so pleased to have met you through We’re Here and it was great to hear you talk in episode 4, and in the season one finale there’s your full drag performance on stage. What was your initial reaction to the idea of being involved in We’re Here?

“Before you were saying that you were happy to hear my voice and my little cameo during Nate’s story, well I actually had a lot to say and a lot was edited out, which of course I understand because of timing and there were three stories to be heard. But I felt like as far as our episode with Nate I was just very, very humbled that he told the production team that he would not do it without me. He holds me on a high platform because I’ve been doing drag for about ten years on my reservation. I hate to call myself an activist because I’m not an activist, I’m more just living my life, living my truth, being vocal about it and being that voice of reason and that voice for people who don’t have one, but he sees me as an activist and at the forefront as a proud indigenous queen. So I was very blessed to be beside him and it’s so funny because during filming I kept saying to him ‘Nate, Let me know if I am being too much or if I’m stepping over too many boundaries’ and he was like ‘no, this is why I wanted you here’, because Nate’s more on the low-key radical side of things, as opposed to me where I’m more visual and more loud about it, more blunt! I’m like, ‘this is me, take it or leave it, but I’m still going to be in your face even if you want to leave it!'”

So it was a good combination!

“Exactly! Bob the Drag Queen knew the struggle that me and Nate have dealt with, especially having lived in a small town and being a person of colour and being queer. So when we started working on the number it was so organic. I wish people had got to see more of that, we were just going back and forth with our ideas and it just grew perfectly. We intertwined our indigenous roots into a lot of the performance and I was just so fortunate to be part of that and to be one of the inspirations as far as Nate’s story goes and just being included. And even just meeting the crew and all the designers and the other queens, and the other people who were part of We’re Here. I wish they would have said more Four Corners, because Shiprock isn’t considered Farmington. But it’s OK, it’s the border town to Shiprock. As far as me being involved with We’re Here, it’s great because it’s another platform. Like I told everyone working on the show, when I get myself on TV or in publications, or even just with social media, or even just walking down the street, I am holding my head high, being able to speak for myself and being proud of who I am and not trying to hide that. Because I guarantee if I walk down the street I get misgendered all the time, I get both looks because I have a swish to my walk, my heart is very big, and you can tell that I am a queen and I’m proud of it!”

“I’m so happy that We’re Here did an episode really close to the Navajo Nation, because like I was telling Bob the Drag Queen, there’s no representation for gay indigenous people in the media. In general indigenous people are always forgotten about, if you’re listening to the current administration or you look at any headlines they always remember to say the whites, the blacks, the Asians and the Hispanics, but they always forget the indigenous and Native people, always. Next time you’re watching the news if you just listen they’ll be talking about everybody, but we’re always excluded and we’re always forgotten about. So for me, to be a part of something like this that’s so big I was so excited for it, and it was so close to my home. Even with my own tribal government we’re forgotten about as queer people and so my goal of doing it, and being that backbone for Nate, was that I wanted to be that voice, to be like, I’m proud, I’m here for support. I hope that I can inspire the upcoming younger indigenous Diné and other indigenous tribes to see that there is a queer person on TV or on film or in newspapers or in magazines, and to let them know that there is somebody that looks like them that’s in the spotlight, who’s able to entertain and do drag and be an artist, and it’s OK for them too. Because I don’t think I can name any well known indigenous queer artists off the top of my head and it breaks down even more when you go to drag performers.”

I just wanted to take you back a little bit to your first exposure to drag, perhaps seeing someone perform live or on TV, and then what drew you to drag as an art form, what you get from it.

“Our nation is really huge and it’s broken down into five agencies; you have the Eastern Agency, Western Agency, Chinle Agency, Fort Defiance Agency and Shiprock Agency. My mom is going kill me, but I have a backstory about Shiprock which I was telling Nate about. I was actually conceived in Shiprock during an affair there, and I was also born in Shiprock which I think is pretty awesome! In the Navajo culture we have a clan system and I found out along this journey that Nate is actually my little brother – in Navajo that would be called my Zeedí, or Tsilí – through our clans, because his dad has the same clan as my mom, Red House Clan, Kin ł ichii’nii.”

“Anyway, back to my story! I went to a boarding school on my reservation, graduated high school and my goal was for the longest time, I don’t know why, but I wanted to go to Vegas, it was like Vegas, Vegas, Vegas for like all four years of high school! Me and my best friends said as soon as we get out of here let’s go to Vegas. Of course my senior year came and I went to California where I was introduced to the club kid scene and that’s where I got adopted for a little bit. So I dabbled in the artistry of that. I didn’t really see too much of the drag scene, it was more like the makeup and the androgyny of the club kid culture, club life. I got into that really quickly and my backbone grew stronger I guess you could say and I finally achieved my goal from high school about two years after I left, when I moved to Vegas and went to school over there.”

“I just walked into a bar one day and it was a Latin night, and I saw my first drag show. It was an all Latin cast and I saw this entertainer and she thought I was one of the Latin kids. Normally living in these big cities they assume that I’m Latin, and when I tell them that I’m indigenous or Native they are like ‘What? Native like Tipi?’ Then I have to educate them about the stereotypes of being indigenous; that we are still walking amongst these people and we’re not a taboo. And so my drag mother was performing in front of me at Hamburger Mary’s and we just had a connection. I never saw myself as a performer because I kind of felt a bit like Nate at the beginning of his story as we see it on We’re Here; I was very timid, very shy, very unsure about myself, I never wanted to perform. But with my kind heart of just being me and being raised by strong matriarchy I wanted to help at that stage, so that’s how I got involved in the show. Three times a week, I would go to see my drag mother Coco Vega, she’s a well-known pageant gown designer, and she took me under her wing. I was one of her backstage assistants, so that’s how I was first exposed to drag.”

“I saw all the transformations from beginning to end; the quick changes, the costumes and the makeup, but I never thought ‘OK, I want to do this too’ I never got a thrill or anything, but one day my drag mother said that one of the girls had cancelled, and she was like ‘I’m putting you in drag!’ So that day Coco Vega painted me, put a costume on me and said ‘there you go, go out there!’ And it just kind of clicked, I felt like I was a Transformer, like it just felt so right, and it just kind of took off from there. I ended up working at Krave, which is no longer open, but it was one of the largest gay clubs in Las Vegas, so I was working on the Las Vegas strip for like seven nights a week doing drag, having my own night, and then they had a cabaret drag show I was in. So I started to be more comfortable in my drag, but it was more on the glamour side, that’s how I was taught. Then I got picked up by Shannel, she was part of RuPaul’s Drag Race season one, and I became her assistant for five years prior to her getting on Drag Race. Shannel taught me a lot, like my makeup skills and the characters and the vision and stuff like that.”

Have you ever been interested in the idea of auditioning for Drag Race yourself?

“It was in the back of my mind when I was with Shannel when she did season one, but I wasn’t comfortable enough to do it then. Shug wasn’t mature yet.”

Would you do it now?

“Oh hell yeah! 100%!”

We need you on there!

“I think for once Drag Race would be indigenous AF! I would take it back to the motherland. I would guarantee you’d see a lot of turquoise, a lot of traditional regalia, a lot of resistance and just me being a proud 100% indigenous queen on screen.”

We should make that happen! So, you had some great drag mothers in Vegas.

“Yes, I had a really good handful of teachers and mentors in Las Vegas, it’s like the capital city of the world when it comes to all types of shows, all type of entertainers and artistry. I was so happy to be there and I felt comfortable, but then a part of me felt alone because I was so far from the motherland; from people that looked like me, from people who talked like me, even smelt like me, that sounds so weird! You would never see a Navajo person walk in Vegas. Very rarely you’ll see one or two, but it wasn’t often, so I felt really alone out there. Then my grandmother got sick, she had developed cancer; so there was no hesitation, I thought I’m young I can restart my life, so I left Vegas and I moved back to New Mexico. I took care of my grandma through her chemo and after two years of chemo she’s in remission now, she’s healthy, she’s doing really well. So I was a lot closer to home, I was still living in the Farmington area. Technically I’m in Bloomfield right now, but Farmington is like ten minutes away, so it’s considered the same thing. Shiprock is where my grandmother and I go for healthcare, so I go there often. After my grandmother was OK she wanted me to go back and continue my life living in Vegas, but I felt like that was already a chapter in my life that I’d experienced. I wanted to be around people that looked like me and I wanted to do something for my people, but I didn’t know how to do that because I was just a grandmother myself, and thought no one’s going to listen to me!”

“So I started going online and looking up different things and I fell into the indigenous resistance groups, these grassroots movements that are trying to help my people and I thought OK, let me see what I can do. All those people that are part of these radical groups are really into the movement, they went to school, they have their bachelors and masters degrees, so I felt really intimidated to say anything when we’d do speaking engagements or we’d do anything to educate our people and the non-Natives. I always felt timid, I always felt like I couldn’t do it, but then I don’t know for some reason I woke up and I was like you know what I can do this in drag. So I did my first speaking engagement about being so isolated on our reservation as a drag performer, as a drag artist, and it just kind of took off. People were actually paying attention to me. I feel like my English is really bad and I blame boarding school, we’re teased about it in our culture, the boarding school language, like we have a broken English and sometimes people are like ‘what are you talking about? You don’t make sense!’ And I’m like ‘it’s because of the boarding school I was forced to go to!’ But when I was speaking everyone was listening to me, because I made it really campy, made it really fun, but I made it really serious too.”

“I did it my own way, but then I started getting more comfortable doing it and I thought you know what, I miss performing. Living out here I have to travel two to three hours to these bigger towns to do shows or go to these gay bars. I would have to travel a distance to go do a drag show, or go be around other drag entertainers and other gay family at a bar or at a club or at an event or at a pride. So I decided I needed to bring drag to my territory. I started doing pop-up shows here and there at colleges, it started picking up. I fell into IDENTITY inc! an LGBTQ Community Center in Farmington when they first opened. I was doing fundraisers to keep the lights on. They didn’t show this on the episode, but I was talking to Shangela about it, before they moved to the location that they showed on We’re Here, they were actually down the street at a place called Andrea’s Bookstore, it’s bigger which I loved, but it was more expensive. We did drag shows there and man we packed the place and brought the house down! It was crazy, they turned out for the drag shows. And it was just me hosting with a whole bunch of friends that I had met through all these border towns that came in for me. Then I started doing shows on my reservation and then all of a sudden, I think in 2016, I thought I need a bigger platform, I need people to take me seriously and I decided to do the New Mexico Pride pageant in 2016. IDENTITY inc! agreed to do a fundraiser for me. I just needed my entry fee which I think was maybe $600 total, and then the rest, we made around $1500, went back to IDENTITY inc!”

“I went to the pageant thinking, OK, in all the history of New Mexico Pride there’s never been a Four Corners area queen that’s won. I believe there were six or seven of us, and I thought I’m like the Seabiscuit of this, I ain’t gonna win. And honey, it was bad, my dresser didn’t show up, my dancer didn’t show up, and I was sick, but I did the beauty pageant and when they called my name, I turned to the other side and there was nobody but myself, everyone was looking at me and saying ‘Shug you won’ and I was like ‘holy crap, I won!’ The whole state kinda went into uproar because that title is geared towards the Albuquerque, Sante Fe metro area, the city girls, it’s never to like a small town queen. So here comes this little Four Corners indigenous queen you know stirring up the pageant! As soon as that happened my platform evolved more, and I got featured in articles in VICE and USA Today talking about me being isolated and being queer and living on the Navajo reservation. During my whole year as Miss New Mexico Pride I was starting up these small town prides. We did a pride in Silver City, which was the first year ever, it was amazing, and Montezuma Creek, with all these first timers that were doing pride with me travelling to these small cities and them being like ‘you’re kinda from the same area we’re from and look how glamorous you are, and you’re competing, I want to do that!’ And I’d be like ‘yeah, you can do that, don’t let anybody hold you back just because we come from a remote area or we come from a reservation’. So that just kind of took me over and beyond what Shug could become and then I finally got the guts to do an actual show.”