“Trans women deserve so much better in this world, and we have to put the focus on them and keep them strong because when women succeed, that’s when the world succeeds.”
Back in 2017, Chicago-based performer Shea Couleé made their RuPaul’s Drag Race debut and became one of the most successful competitors in the show’s HERstory, winning a total of four main challenges – a feat that’s only been matched by fellow alumni such as Sharon Needles, Alaska Thunderfuck and BenDeLaCreme.
Although Shea snatched all of our edges – as witnessed during the fierce performance of Category Is – they were unable to snatch the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar, but honey, they’ve continued to gag us all with fierce hip-hop anthems such as Cocky (with Lila Star and The Vixen), Gasoline and Crème Brûlée.
More recently, Shea has become an inspiration to the LGBTQ community and fans struggling with their gender by opening up about their non-binary identity. They tell us: “I would say I probably started to question it maybe two or three years into drag.
“Doing it full-time, there’s all these elements of feminine presentation that we do in our art-form that didn’t feel presentational, it felt authentic. That’s when I started to realise that I did not land on the gender binary spectrum.”
Because Shea is about to slay us all this year with their DragWorld UK debut, we caught up with the legend to discuss their new single – Rewind, which will be out this summer! – a potential appearance on All Stars 5, and how we should all be doing a better job at uplifting trans women of colour.
How’s life been since appearing on Drag Race two years ago?
It’s changed so much. I went from being an unknown performer to this international entertainer, so it was a big thing to happen overnight. The first year, because I was travelling so much and the show was airing, I felt like I was in vacuum. I didn’t even get the chance to take it all in. Now, I’ve had an opportunity to reflect. It was insane, in the best way possible. I got a chance to share my life story with so many people who – I later on realised – have a lot in common with me, and it’s nice to be able to reach people in that kind of way, and Drag Race gave me all that.
And you’re making your DragWorld debut this year!
Yes! Oh my God I’m so excited to come to DragWorld. I love the Drag Race fans in the UK, they are some of my favourites. I find them to be so die-hard, but also so special. Out of all the fans, they are the most understanding, and I wish a lot of fans could be like the fans from the UK.
I know it’s not going to be as big as DragCon…
That is okay with me! DragCon is crazy! It’s too much. It gets to a point where I’m so scared! [Laughs] I look forward to having a much more calm and civilised time at DragWorld. We’re going to have so much fun.
It’s been rumoured for a while: can we expect to see Shea Couleé on All Stars?
Yeah! It’s about timing and schedules. The one thing that makes All Stars different than the regular seasons of the show, is that it creates these international superstars. Because of our commitments and schedules, sometimes it doesn’t work out but we’ve definitely talked about it. When it’s right, I definitely will make my return. We just have to find out when that time will be.
And who would you like to compete against?
Anybody. I love competition. I’ll take them all. You know what, if we’re talking about on a personal level, who I’d love to share the space and the werkroom with, I would love to see Tammie Brown – she’s crazy, truly one of a kind – I would love to work with Trinity K. Bonet, Miz Cracker… who else? Jujubee! I say Juju because I see they’ve given All Stars 1 girls the opportunity to come back.
Later on this year, you’ll be performing at Chicago’s first ever Pride in the Park – what can fans expect?
What fans can expect will be a fun, energy-filled Chicago-style production. This year’s Pride – Stonewall 50 – is a big one, so we gotta do it right.
Do you feel like there’s still a lack of education within the LGBTQ community in regards to Stonewall?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s really important that we give the credit to the trans women and POC women in general, because there were Latinx queens that really did put themselves on the line for the cause. Those are the people that we should really stand up for and protect, because those are the ones that are still most vulnerable to attacks. It’s very dangerous to be a trans person, let alone a trans person of colour. Every Pride, it’s super important that we really do look back, reflect and think about ways we can put ourselves out there on the line for them and to uplift them, and protect them.
Trans women of colour paved the way for us, yet they’re being regularly killed in the United States…
It’s insane. I just saw an article today where they discovered the body of a black trans woman in a river in Dallas. In this month especially, that really does hit a little hard because why is this going on in this country? Why why why are black trans women constantly under attack? It’s insane how people can have so much hate and misunderstanding in their heart in order to do that to another human being.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face, as a non-binary queen of colour in the US?
Trump is definitely not making it easy for us. It’s Pride month, we should be celebrating, yet reflecting on how bad the LGBTQ community have it and other countries, but he’s removed so many protections for queer people. He implemented the transgender ban in the military, he’s removing protections for trans students in schools from bullying and discrimination, also trying to get bills passed to have transgender people refused services in hospital. It is difficult but luckily we have the internet, which is amazing for us to share our stories, and to hold legislators accountable. I think one of the most important things we have now is our voice, to be able to stand up and use our platforms to talk about what’s important.
When did you realise you sat outside the gender binary?
I would say I probably started to question it maybe two or three years into drag. Doing it full-time, there’s all these elements of feminine presentation that we do in our art-form that didn’t feel presentational, it felt authentic. I started to recognise and acknowledge these feelings, and that’s when I started to realise that I did not land on the gender binary spectrum. Through research and reading about other gender non-conforming and non-binary people, I started to understand.
There’s still a lot of racism and homophobia within our community – what kind of reaction have you had from fellow queer people and fans of yours?
The reaction that I’ve gotten has been really wonderful. I feel like people who identify as non-binary get questioned a lot, there’s a lot of questions because if you aren’t landing in the binary, there’s so much grey area. Really, when you meet a non-binary person it’s always really important to ask them, ‘What does non-binary mean to you?’ Because there are a lot of people who feel like they are both feminine and masculine, and there’s also people who feel like they’re neither. Me personally, I feel like I inhabit both feminine and masculine qualities. Native American tribal groups would have a term called ‘two-spirit’, and these were genderqueer, non-binary people that were made shamans and spiritual figures because they thought that they were blessed, having the ability to embrace both feminine and masculine. That’s very much so how I feel, like in a balanced ying-yang kind of way. Having the ability to share that with people and be open, has actually been received really well. I’ve gotten a lot of support.
So would you be open if fans approached you to ask questions about your non-binary identity?
I definitely would embrace them because I think it’s important to provide them with as much information as possible. Knowledge is power. I love that people always approach me with respect and humility – don’t be scared! I’m a pretty approachable person, I think! People shouldn’t be intimidated, but I do hear sometimes from people that they find me intimidating…
I don’t think you are at all!
Yes! See? I find myself very approachable, but there are some people…
Do you think Pride celebrations do enough to celebrate the non-binary community?
That’s a really good question. I personally feel like the people that we should focusing and uplifting the most are trans women of colour, so I do not mind taking a backseat, because I still have certain privileges. Even as a non-binary person. I feel like the point of Pride is to uplift the most marginalised group of people. Trans women deserve so much better in this world, and we have to put the focus on them and keep them strong because when women succeed, that’s when the world succeeds.
Do you think we’ll get to a place in the future when clothes and cosmetic brands will eliminated gender-assigned sections in stores?
Fragile masculinity will hold on for a long, long time. They’re not going to go out without a fight! It’s so toxic, it goes deep. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of straight male tears that would come about if they were to remove gender from clothing sections and whatnot. But one can only hope. Here’s the thing, as we go on further in life, clothes are something that’s going to become utilitarian. They’re there to protect us, style and fashion go along with that to give it a little edge, but we all have bodies and they need to be covered – when they need to be covered, not saying we have to cover them! – it shouldn’t really matter and gender shouldn’t dictate that.
Do you think Drag Race will open its doors to more diverse performers in the future?
Yes, I would love that so much. Honestly, that would further pursue the idea that we’re all born naked and the rest is drag. The show is so much fun and presents so many opportunities for me as an artist, and I think we should try and give everybody a chance.
You have a new single coming out this summer – what can you tell us?
This new single is called Rewind, it was written and produced by my friend GESS, he’s a singer-songwriter-producer from LA and we worked together before on my track Gasoline. He’s really talented, his melodies are so transient and hypnotic, the way that he writes is really great and I love working with him. Now we’re doing another mid-tempo moody R&B track that’s really just about reflection and growth. We just shot the video for it last week and you can expect it in mid-July!
What can we expect from the video?
This one is different. The one word that kept coming up when we were looking at the footage at the shoot was ‘cinematic’. I’m really excited to bring you guys something of this calibre, it was directed by my really good friend Sam Bailey, and she’s an up-and-coming director in Hollywood. She’s directed episodes for Dear White People, Insecure, Grownish… She’s working so much. I actually was crashing on her couch the summer that I created Shea Coulee, so she’s seen me from my very humble beginnings.
I have extremely high expectations now…
I think it’s really going to impress the fans. They’re going to see a whole new side of me that they haven’t seen before.
Will it be followed by an EP or an album? We’re still waiting on an official album!
[Laughs] I know, I know! There will be an EP that’s coming out, and I’m still working on the full-length album. There’s so many songs that I’ve made. I just don’t know, I’m one of those people that if I’m going to give someone a full body of work, it’s gotta be my best.
And what else can we expect from you over the next year?
This year is going to be C.U.N.T, and I hope everybody is ready for the slayage. I’m coming.
Photography Adam Ouahmane & Drag Files