She started as a baby, now she’s all grown up.
When we say that 2018 was a great year for one of Drag Race’s most infamous queens, Miss Shangela Laquifa Wadley, we are serving enough T for a lavish garden party at Buckingham Palace hunty.
Following a memorable return to RuPaul’s workroom for All Stars 3, and then again more recently for the Holi-Slay Spectacular, Shangela spent most of the year touring the world. But it was her standout role in Golden Globe-nominated blockbuster A Star Is Born that took this Texas queen to the next level. Starring opposite Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, Shangela proved that her charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent was always destined for the Hollywood big time – and long may that continue.
Here, in conversation with her good friend and actress Lena Waithe, Shangela recalls the audition process for her major movie debut, explains why she keeps going back to Drag Race (and will continue to do so), and her hopes for some proper queer representation in Hollywood blockbusters in the near future. She’s worked her way, and she’s paid her dues, but most importantly she has the whole world screaming halleloo…
Lena Waithe: Miss Brooks!
LW: Miss Brooks is still funny – I’m never going to forget that. It’s a little inside joke ladies and gentlemen.
LW: Yo Shangela, I can’t believe they actually gave me questions to ask you. I was like, ‘Oh I will come up with the questions!’ You know me, I could be asking you questions all day long. I basically interview you every time I sit in front of you. So, here we go: be you, be honest when you answer my questions. Don’t give me the Hollywood answers!
S: Oh here we go!
LW: So here’s the deal: I may know the answer to this, but I think it would be good for the readers to know what the story is. But how did it come about that you actually got a role in A Star Is Born?
S: Well originally I didn’t go in for the audition because they were casting for a drag queen Marilyn Monroe impersonator. I felt like no matter how much time I spent out of the sun, I ain’t gonna look like Marilyn Monroe. So I ended up not going in. The next thing I know I’ve got an email from Gaga’s manager and he said: ‘LG has heard that you are not going to the audition, she really wants to see you in this role and think you’d be a good fit. Are you not planning to come in?’ I was like,’Oh honey, if LG is asking…’ I found the nearest blonde wig and white dress, and put me on a little beauty mole, got in there and sang I Wanna Be Loved by You by Marilyn, but didn’t get the role. Actually when I left I got a call from my agent and he said, ‘You didn’t get the drag queen role,’ that actually ended up being an Etta James [impersonator]. However, they liked my personality so much they offered me a larger role with more dialogue as Gaga’s drag mother and the bar owner.
Shangela wears coat and belt by Christian Siriano and necklace by Swarovski
LW: That’s amazing. Well we grateful to Lady Gaga for thinking of you. I knew I liked her. She’s got good taste. Obviously a lot of people know you, because if you’re going to see A Star Is Born on a Tuesday night then chances are you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. So some people knew you from that before, but I’m curious to know what RuPaul made of your role in the film? He must have been really excited and proud that someone that he saw and knew was a star back in the day, has gone on to be in one of the biggest movies of the year?
S: Yeah, I certainly hope so. I haven’t had the chance to connect with Ru since the film came out. I know he was at the LA premiere, and I’m excited to hopefully hear what his thoughts are. Even if we don’t get to talk one-on-one a lot, I always do want to make Ru proud because he did take a chance on me way back on season two, and then brought me back for season three. That means a lot to me and I hope I make him proud.
LW: Oh look, I’m sure you do. Here’s another question because you’ve had a taste of this kind of Hollywood, which is very big and very loud: is this where you want to keep going? I know you want to do more acting, and I know you want to start doing a bit of it that isn’t always in drag, but I’m curious to know if you want to continue doing movies like this?
S: Well the answer is yes. You know me, I’m a working girl honey. Any job, I will take a go. It’s hard to keep me in one place. Hopefully for 2019 I want to put a stronger focus on working in television and film. I’ve done some small stuff here and there, but I really would like to be an entertainer on the screen, not just in reality TV but also in scripted. So the answer is yeah! There’s some great people out there I really want to work with… Lena Waithe is one!
LW: Whey! Well we’ve already worked together before – even before it was all Hollywood. We always gon work together.
S: Body of a Barbie! The classic.
LW: C’mon tell them! They could still find it on YouTube – our very early work.
S: If you want to see some early Shangela work with the great Miss. Lena Waithe when she was just starting as well, go find the movie Body of a Barbie that was actually recognised by BET in its shorts program, okay.
LW: That’s right. We knew we were stars but we just had to wait for the world to catch up.
Shangela wears dress by Greta Constantine and gloves by Vex Clothing
LW: It’s widely known that you seem to have a bit of an addiction and love for RuPaul’s Drag Race because you keep going back. What keeps you going back to the show? Is there ever a point where that’s going to be the end of a chapter, or will it be a place where you feel like you can always just go back?
S: Well when RuPaul calls I like to answer. It’s for two reasons really. One is my fans who I’ve grown up with from Drag Race. They saw me when I first came in with a dream and no makeup on – okay season two! I’ve always wanted them to feel like – in their lives even – it doesn’t matter how many times you’re told no, keep on pushing towards that yes. You can always come back. So that’s the first part. The second part is, I’m a fan of the show. I watch it every year, every season, whether I’m on it or not. So to be a part of this legacy I’ll forever want to return.
LW: Okay, I’m alright with that.
S: Maybe on the judges table as opposed to being a contestant.
LW: You know what though? I think that would be a huge full circle moment – that if one of the queens ever got to the level of celebrity that you can be a judge. That’s never happened yet has it?
S: It has not – not to be on the judges panel. One of us one day, and I’m hoping it’s going to be me.
LW: C’mon! I’m not mad at that. Here’s an interesting question for you speaking of getting to a place where people can really aspire to: we’ve established that RuPaul is a queer hero of yours, but besides him who is someone you’d say you want to emulate who also happens to be queer?
S: I would say as for my queer heroes, there are a couple. I look to you as someone – not just because you’re speaking to me now – but because of your grind and hustle is something I’ve always admired. You know what? I’m tired, but I know Lena’s tired too so I’m going to push through. Push to create really cool projects, and not only talk about them but see them happen. But in addition to that, you know I can’t even talk about heroes without mentioning the legend that is Jennifer Lewis.
Shangela wears dress by Hildur Yeoman
LW: Oh I know! That’s why I specified queer!
S: She has been a queer advocate for a very long time, and been in films that had a great affinity for us that were queer kind of films in a way. Jackie’s Back wasn’t a queer movie, but there ain’t nothing but gays who love Jackie’s Back. Or Dirty Laundry. Those are films that had an impact on me as a queer person, and she’s everything.
LW: Oh I’m not mad at you to throwing her in there as a queer ally. Do you feel like that at some point we can have a big blockbuster Hollywood movie like for real – that’s no shade on Love, Simon because that came out and did really well – but in terms of a big blockbuster, do you think we can have a queer character in the lead role? I know it seems a little far off and a bit of a big dream, but I was just curious if you could speak to the possibility of that ever happening in our lifetime.
S: Y’know, when I was growing up as a kid in Paris, Texas, I never thought that would be a possibility because for me there weren’t a lot – if any – openly out, queer kids in lead roles on television and in film. So I didn’t feel like that would be a possibility. Today, I think it’s a definite yes. We’ve shown the power of not only the queer dollar – not only here in the US, but worldwide – but also that people have a great fascination with queer culture. Also, people are a lot more supportive of queer artists who are out there living their true selves while pursuing their dream. There just has to be the right script or the right movie that everyone can get attached to, and I’m sure that could definitely happen.
LW: Y’know what? I actually believe you. Unfortunately I think that a big part of our burden is that when we do something… because like Moonlight I believe was a masterpiece, but it’s a small artful film. So to me it’s like, when we can have a gay Iron Man or a Spider-Man who just happens to be one of the children, I think that is something that… and again, I’m a realist and I know we’re a bit away from that, but I think when we get to that point then we can start to say that we have overcome. But I still think it’s too early to start doing that.
S: I think you’re absolutely right. Y’know, there are mainstream films that a lot of queer people attach to because of the storyline. You can see yourself as that lead character. I think if we can find a film that is made where no matter who you are, where you’re from, person of colour, queer or not, but when you see that particular character and you see beyond their sexuality or gender, and you see more about the story and yourself in that story… Y’know, when I watch The Devil Wears Prada with Anne Hathaway I don’t see her as a young white girl, I see her as me! I wanna go work there, and I wanna be out there pursuing my dream who gets told no but you figure how to make it work. So I think that’s where it has to be the right story. Someone has to take a chance that people can see past our queer identity and see us as just a character.
Shangela wears coat by Laurence & Chico
LW: Look, I totally agree with that. I think you’re actually right in terms of we as queer people connect with certain films, because even though they may be straight the characters are an outsider or they feel like they’re from a small town and are a fish out of water. Those are stories that we as queer people can relate to, and so I think you’re right that we already do that in these queer movies, but we’ve got to get to the point where we are in the front seat. And so the last question that I will ask you: look, this is a big deal – you’re on the cover of Gay Times. I’m so happy to be interviewing you for it. But what does it feel like for you? Y’know, speaking of that Anne Hathaway character of the girl who comes to the big city to get a job and she ends up making it big and doing all these great things she only dreamed about – that’s happening to you. We’ve both had the chance to watch each other’s journey, and even as we continue because they ain’t seen nothing yet really! We still got a lot to do. But how does it feel to you to have this accomplishment to be on the cover of Gay Times?
S: It makes me feel like I’ve taken another great step in the right direction. I feel happy, I feel proud. It’s something I can show my grandma. When people thought that I was going to do drag for a time and I was throwing my entire everything away, like, ‘You have a college degree. You have a job. What are you doing?’ It just shows that I’ve made some good choices in my life and I’ve put the work behind them to make things happen. I’m so happy that people can see this. Not only see it, but hopefully be inspired by it in their daily life. It’s really special for me. I’m a covergirl!
LW: I’ve been a covergirl a couple times and it is always a joy. Not just because of the thing that is happening to me, but because I know what impact it’s going to have on people when they’re in a waiting room, or when the subscription comes to their house, or when they’re walking down the street, they can in essence see themselves on the cover.
S: Lena you’re saying that so right because I remember when I was walking through the airport and I saw your Vanity Fair cover and I was like, ‘That is my friend and not just that, that is somebody I know is out here working’. You may throw a hundred things at the wall and only two, or three, or ten stick. But those are all wins. Seeing that cover, it’s not just about the vanity of being on it, it’s the fact people will be able to see it in passing and it’s exactly what you’re saying, they can draw inspiration from that. So it means a lot to me. And I look good!
LW: Please, there’s no way you couldn’t! They don’t need to airbrush. DJ, I’ve had such a good time talking to you boo. I’m so glad I could do it. I’ll interview you any time!
S: I’ll remember that! I love you. Miss. Brooks!
LW: Miss. Brooks! We can’t tell anybody what that story is because you’ll embarrass yourself and everybody else. It’s a classic. You’ve got to save it for your one-woman show.
S: I will!
Photography Taylor Miller
In conversation with Lena Waithe
As told to Lewis Corner
Fashion Andrew Gelwicks
Hair Shontelle Sparkles
Assisted by Junior Torezani