Shangela and Bob the Drag Queen Dish on Ariana Grande, ‘Queer Eye,’ and Active Allyship
The stars of HBO’s ‘We’re Here’ talk filming in conservative towns, misconceptions about drag, and the intrinsic way the LGBTQ community is connected with Black Lives Matter
JUNE 29, 2020
Shangela is calling in from her grandmother’s house in Paris, Texas, and singing the praises of strong women.
“I’ve got a deeper love,” she belts, in full Aretha mode before breaking into a self-deprecating laugh. “Honey, I’ve been quarantining here for three months, and it’s the longest I’ve been home since high school,” she says. “I’m just trying to stay positive and push forward.”
The quarantine that took her home happened just as Shangela was filming her new HBO series, We’re Here, with two other strong people: fellow former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, Eureka, and Season Eight winner, Bob the Drag Queen. A new series exclusive on HBO, We’re Here follows the three queens as they travel to small towns across America to recruit participants for a community drag show. The show — which draws on equal parts Intervention and To Wong Foo — tracks the stories of a handful of people in each town, as they use the discovery of drag to navigate complex feelings of sexuality, anxiety, and abandonment. Their journeys culminate in a larger-than-life performance, where tears flow as freely as feathers and fringe.
The unscripted series premiered in April, with a six-episode first season that was shortened after the government-imposed quarantine shut down production early. (A second season has already been green-lit, though there’s been no timetable set for shooting just yet.) For Shangela, while filming may have been cut short, the timing of the series couldn’t have been better.
“I could not have asked for a better project to be a part of during such an uncertain time in our country,” she says. “I’m so thankful that we have We’re Here to be able to share with people at a time where we need a reminder about the importance of humanity and compassion and about treating others how we would want to be treated.”
Bob, who returned to New York to quarantine after filming shut down, says the series has resonated with people because it’s less about creating a new “look,” but rather about creating dialogue.
“The show isn’t about changing perceptions, but [rather] about amplifying queer voices in times where people don’t acknowledge things,” says Bob, who recently spent his 34th birthday “eating vegan food and talking about social justice, gender, and race politics” with his social-distancing pod.
At a time when the country feels more divided than ever, leave it to three drag queens and their small-town drag productions to really put the heart back into the heartland. “It’s really hard to hate someone and continue with your hate rhetoric once you actually learn about who they are or what they’re going through,” Bob says.
Adds Shangela: “People are more connected than they think. We all have very similar experiences no matter where we’re from or where we live.”
Here, Shangela and Bob the Drag Queen talk to Rolling Stone about filming in conservative towns, common misconceptions about drag, and the intrinsic way the LGBTQ community is connected with the Black Lives Matter movement.
How were you approached for the show? Was it something you signed on for right away?
Shangela: I remember the exact date. I got a call while I was backstage at the opening night of the Ariana Grande Sweetener tour. After the show, I was with Ariana’s brother, Frankie Grande, and we were waiting for her to come out so I could tell her she was fabulous, say “I love you so much,” say “I loved hearing ‘NASA'” (Shangela makes a cameo on the thank u, next track) — and right before she came out, I got this call on my cell and it was the creators of [We’re Here], who said they wanted to meet with me. So I think I agreed to the show before I even heard anything about it because then Ariana walked out and I was like, “Uh-huh, yeah, whatever you guys want to do, I’m in.”
Bob: I was new to HBO, so I wanted to make sure we weren’t just pawns pushed out into the world doing HBO’s bidding. I also didn’t want to go around solving problems for white, straight people. When I heard that it was [a show about] telling queer stories, it was easy, I was like, “I’m in.”
Shangela: When I finally heard the concept of the show, I was immediately in. I grew up in a small town; I would’ve loved to see that visibility when I was younger.
The show premiered around the same time as the latest season of Queer Eye, another show that’s about empowerment and self-expression. How is We’re Here different from Queer Eye?
Shangela: I love Queer Eye and I’m friends with a lot of guys over there, but this show is not a makeover show; it’s a real-life series. It gives you what the real-life experience of queer people in small conservative spaces is like.
What was it like going into some of these small towns? (In one episode, a store owner threatens to call the police, after Bob, Shangela, and Eureka approach her store to hand out flyers for their drag show.)
Bob: We certainly got some pushback, but I also don’t want to paint these towns as places where we walked in and were called “faggots” and got pushed out — that’s not what happened. There was some resistance; there were moments where people would yell things out of their car, call us freaks, or call the cops on us, but generally speaking, people were overwhelmingly supportive.
Shangela: There are a lot of misconceptions about the drag community, about queer people, even about these small towns. We get it from both sides. But we found that we got this great outpouring of support in spaces where we never thought we would.
What are some common misconceptions people have about drag?
Shangela: People make it seem like all drag queens are very promiscuous, or that our shows are very vulgar, and that’s not always the case. The drag community has a spectrum of queens, [and] that is the case in all communities, that is the case in all our walks of life, which is why we can’t rely on stereotypes. And that’s what we’re hoping to do with this series, to break down a lot of stereotypes that people have and start these conversations and spark the interest in understanding people who aren’t like yourself.
Bob: You know, drag queens are just as nuanced as human beings. Because we are human beings. Now isn’t that something?
Since the show premiered in April, the country has gone through a pivotal moment of protest after the police-involved murder of George Floyd. A number of LGBTQ Pride events this year were quickly reorganized to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. How does the queer experience intersect with the black experience in America?
Shangela: A lot of us from the LGBTQ community are also black, and we continue to walk through the black experience in America and continue to try to educate everyone around us, or at least share our experiences with them. I think that the biggest thing that the LGBTQ community can learn from the Black Lives Matter movement is that we have to continue to be active. Activism is important. It is important for us to raise our voices so that they can be heard.
Despite recent victories, LGBTQ Americans are still a marginalized minority group in many parts of the country. Do you think the LGBTQ community has a particular responsibility to stand with the black community?
Shangela: I think it’s so important for us to stand together as an oppressed people, to make sure that what we share in that common experience is something that won’t happen to anyone else. It’s important for us to unite for equality, and when we see injustice, we need to call it out.
Some people still see allyship as transactional, like if you didn’t speak up for me, why should I speak up for you? I’m thinking of some Asian friends I’ve spoken to, who feel like no one stood up for them during the coronavirus pandemic when they were branded with President Trump’s “kung flu” tag.
Shangela: When I see minority groups who all understand what it’s like to experience injustice and oppression and a systemic way of keeping them down, and they start to divide themselves, that just makes me crazy; it really infuriates me. It never feels good to be left out or to be put down, but we should take those learnings, those experiences we have, and put our energy into making sure that we all are treated equally.
Bob: You want to base your moral compass on what you do for others, not what people do for you. If your moral compass says you’ll always help people when they fall down, you should help them when they fall down even if they don’t help you up. If your moral compass says I’m only helping people who help me, then I would say that is incredibly selfish.
It feels like We’re Here arrived at the perfect time.
What are some lessons that you took away from the show?
Did anything surprise you about the experience?
Bob: I had been living in a very protective bubble of the RuPaul’s Drag Race world, where most people are accepting of queerness and trans people, and I forget that once you cross over into a platform where there are straight people or cisgender people, things are different. But the reaction [to the show] has been overwhelmingly positive.
As we wind down Pride month, how can people continue to celebrate and uplift each other during this time?
Shangela: Just because we are physically distancing, doesn’t mean we can’t be connected. As We’re Here shows, there are always pockets of support somewhere; sometimes you just have to dig them out.