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Shea Couleè and Scott Studenberg Are Both the Artists and the Muses

Shea Baja East

The Baja East creative director and the Drag Race superstar get real about drag, politics, culture, and the future of style. 

We were thrilled when these two visionaries agreed to take part in this series conceptualized by Scott Studenberg, who functioned as guest editor in our latest print issue. Of course, Shea Coulee, a fixture in Chicago nightlife and the winner of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars Season 5 (they first appeared in Season 9 of Drag Race), showed up and showed out.

Channeling Cindy Crawford and k.d. lang's 1993 iconic Vanity Fair shoot, the two creatives collaborated in their own series to convey everything Baja East is about: empowerment, strength, and rebirth. In between sessions, Studenberg and Coulee sat down to discuss their creative process.

SHEA: Hey, my beauty queen.

SCOTT: Let's start with the concept for the shoot.

SHEA: Yes! Give us the story how all of this came about. Where were you when this Aha! moment came to you?

SCOTT: So, I'm taking the first real vacation that I've had in years, flying back to LA...and I get a text from my PR that Out wants me to guest edit their issue, they want me on the cover, they want to see a men's fashion story, I can do whatever I want.

So, I really considered what I can do and there's too much going on in the world right now to take this opportunity -- which I never thought in my life I would get -- for granted. I was thinking of my brand, and my brand has always been an expression of who I am. And I know from watching you and your art form develop on television that you could relate to the idea of second chances and overcoming obstacles.

I so love and admire how you creatively take the art form of drag and embrace Black femininity and the expression of that through your personal experiences. I feel like as artists I can fully relate to you. I was thinking of something iconic we could do that would be not just a fashion statement but make a difference in the way people would think. It was my friend Freddie [Aspiras] who came up with the idea. He's like, "Have you seen that Cindy Crawford-k.d. lang Vanity Fair cover that Herb Ritts shot years ago?" I believe it was in '93 when they shot that, which is very interesting because Out came out in '92 so it's a really big reference going way back. And then I'm like, Oh my god, imagine k.d. lang as this lesbian in '93, doing that shoot. That was huge!

Shea Baja East

Shea Baja East

SHEA: See you say '93 and it really makes me think about the fact that I was four at that time, and that was my first time ever seeing RuPaul in Supermodel of the World and how influential that was seeing that queer representation. You look at this Black, feminine gender-bending, pop star, gorgeous glamazon, and I didn't even know what a drag queen was, but that resonated with me in such a way and it's crazy how those things can put a person on a path to suddenly be reflecting on something because I had never seen that cover before. But then I was just like, Wow. Recontextualizing and bringing a new kind of 2020 version of it was fun, and it was great to play into that fantasy.

SCOTT: And also, because imagery is so powerful, playing with the role reversal or role re-appropriation in a way, because of how we switch it up and we play with the idea of the muse and what it is and gender identity and self-expression and fashion. And making it fun also, that's important. I feel like we're both pretty serious about our art, but we also both seem to be quite fun-spirited, which I think is really important and why we get along.

SHEA: Absolutely. Sometimes I worry about if I am ever too hands-on in a process. But I need to feel fully immersed and experience it when I'm doing something so it was so nice to have the fitting on Saturday with me, you, Kat [Typaldos], and the team just because it reminds me of days when I would be hanging out with Kim Chi when we were baby drag queens and lived across the hall from each other. We'd run across playing in each other's closets, putting together and conceptualizing looks for photo shoots. You think about this baby practice fantasy, and then how years later, it goes into play in the context of an Out magazine cover. And it's really cute because it goes into this idea of how powerful manifestation is and sometimes you manifest things without even really realizing that you're doing it.

Shea Baja East

Shea Baja East

SCOTT: Fully. And we're both big manifesters for sure, like 1,000 percent. I feel like that's the only way either of us would have gotten to this point. I didn't even think this [photoshoot] would happen. You were in Chicago! The fact that this was put together in four-and-a-half days because it was Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and we're shooting Sunday. That's five, on the fifth day we're shooting, it's bonkers that we were able to make it happen! Full moon energy was totally harnessed and taken to make this moment.

SHEA: It was that Pisces moon! I don't know what it was but there was some really crazy energy beaming off of that on Tuesday, and I was just so curious, like what are you trying to tell me?

SCOTT: If you looked up at the sky, the moon was red, because there's something going on with Mars. It was crazy. I'll show you a picture later. I looked up and was like, Holy fuck. This is a moment.

SHEA: Well, I'm so bummed I didn't look up! I was so tired. Such a crazy 48 hours. When you think about it, we were in that fitting, just putting together and conceptualizing this story, and you think about all the creative energy of looking at all of the Baja East clothes and then having to go through, I mean, I can't even count how many options we tried on, but I felt like the thing that was right was the energy was where it needed to be.

I loved that essence you get with collaboration because it's less so about people just all putting down their ideas on the table versus real things being created that wouldn't be possible without those different points of view in the room. We hadn't even really met each other up until that point. So it was really fun to come into a situation with someone who you are relatively strangers with, and only have the context of the Internet to inform you and then I feel like we just hit it off. Me, I already knew from when we had our first Zoom interview that it was going to be fun. But like the energy with me, you and Kat, it was really, really great. That's what I love about collaboration. It's just so much fun to be able to come together and make something truly beautiful.

Shea Baja East

Shea Baja East

Shea Baja East

Shea Baja East

Shea Baja East

SCOTT: It's very interesting that Kat was able to do this and randomly be in L.A. at this time, because I've known her since the very beginning of my fashion career at W Magazine, which was my very first full-time fashion job in 2007. So, it's very interesting that she's here for this moment as well.

What I was going to say is even though I didn't know you...I already knew I could creatively trust you, because I'd seen what you'd done under pressure on Drag Race. The different fashion looks you'd come up with, the diversity in them. And then I feel like that also translated because my brand isn't just about gowns or just about knitwear. I mean, you would always have a different look and it would always be Shea Coulee, it would have your DNA, but it would be a different expression. It would be eleganza one day and funky the next day. And then Flavor Flav-- and we gave that! We ended the story with that Flavor Flav moment which is the best.

SHEA: Oh my god, girl, did you know I literally just found out that there is a Flavor of Love Season 3? Because I was watching it today and I had no idea it even existed.

SCOTT: I did not know either!

SHEA: Let me tell you my life has been made better for it and I'm now fully invested because it's just wilder than you know. I can't wait to finish it.

SCOTT: OK, I'm ready. Now that Canada's Drag Race is over I need a new show.

SHEA: Honestly, let me tell you, Flav's glam on Season 3, he definitely has a glam team based on the hairstyles alone that are shown in an episode and that's what I'm living for.

SCOTT: Who knows, maybe you were an inspiration?

SHEA: Who knows. (laughs) Well no, he's an inspiration to us all.

SCOTT: But even taking that Snatch Game, I mean Kennedy Davenport I think is one of the only other queens, maybe there's a couple others, that have done men on the show.

SHEA: Thorgy Thor did.

SCOTT: OK, successfully done men on the show.

Shea Baja East

SHEA: You know it's great because they're super flamboyant and fun to poke fun of too and that's what's great about Flav. His exuberance really makes him such a caricature and a perfect person to impersonate.

SCOTT: Fully, and we were able to do that in the shoot. When I founded Baja East in 2013 almost everything in the collection had a unisex core. And I've been able to continue that core for the past seven years. Of course, I'm layering on gowns and bras and skirts and things that really mostly women will buy and wear. But like you said, this was an opportunity for you and Kat to be able to come in, bring collaboratively a new expression of what my collection is in this story. And it was really cool that we were able to not only reinterpret the Herb Ritts-Vanity Fair-Cindy-k.d. lang situation but be able to take that into fashion and show my collection for how I started it really, and then infuse my fantasy of, the ultimate fantasy by the way, because you got to put me in drag. I did have this other fantasy of "OK, we need to contact RuPaul's Drag Race and they're going to do young American designers for the makeover challenge where I got paired with someone..."

SHEA: Girl, do you know what's so crazy -- I have actually had that same exact idea. I was like, It would be really great to pair them with designers and watch them in a collaborative process! Because that's really important, I feel like, in this business in general to be able to bring together different ideas.

SCOTT: We got to actually do that! And I got to fulfill my dream. Even though we were rushed Shea, and there wasn't $100,000 on the line, we definitely turned it out and there was a fire under both of our asses.

SHEA: Well, the thing with me -- because I don't have the best track record with makeovers -- if you saw [Drag Race] Season 9, Bae Coulee, may she rest in peace, it was fun to go back and give it another go now, years later, for Out.

SCOTT: Well, Gay L. King definitely showed up and turned it out, for sure.

SHEA: Yeah, yeah. I really do love a good RuDemption.

SCOTT: My Fall 2020 collection was really one of the first times I infused the drag ball diva culture that I love so much. A lot of people say "Ba-Ja East," especially the Europeans, which sounds like "Le Beija," so I'm like, OK, I'll call it the Haus of LaBaja and I'm going to do a sweat suit that's covered in crystals that says "OPULENCE," and I'm going to do another sweat suit, because everyone wears sweat suits at night now, that says "HIGH FASHION EVENING WEAR" to have a moment and embrace and celebrate Black gay culture in a way.

SHEA: I think I just believe in really divine timing, and that everything happens for a reason. Everyone's collective and individual experiences all lead up to really impactful moments, whether the impact be something that is negative or positive. The thing that's really great about this experience of being a human being, is that we have the ability to create stories through art, film, and fashion, and leave a piece of ourselves with people that can bring them hope and inspire them to do things in the future. The same way we brought this image up from the past and dissected it and thought about it and recontextualized it and brought our own individual experiences. It's interesting to see how one thing can spark and lead to another.

SCOTT: Fully, 100 percent agree. And now the real question is, How do we get people out to vote? Because yes, imagery is powerful and hopefully this interview will be powerful but how in the fuck do we get young people to come out and vote because that's the only way?

SHEA: I have such hope. I was actually just having this conversation with a friend, where we were saying this whole quarantine experience and the way that Trump has reacted to COVID-19 and put us in such an at-risk situation and the fact that his inability to act has robbed a lot of young people of certain rites of passages like high school graduations. [Virtual] is not the same experience that we see romanticized in TV and film because those are the cultural traditions we're used to participating in.

Our youth is now, because they're really feeling the suffering, they're having some of their most exciting and liberating years taken from them because they need to be socially distanced and inside. I feel like this is a great catalyst to show them that it is really important for them to utilize their voices and go out there and vote. And, yes, this presidential election is really, re - ally important. But we also have to focus on... elections that are happening in our own backyards and our own states and our own cities, because that also has a ripple effect.

If you're young, you have the energy, go out there and show it. Make change. We need you! The stakes are so, so high. I thought in the beginning with Trump, I was just like, You know what, how much damage could honestly be done? And here we are four years later being like, "Wow. Hey, friends, if you go out and you buy a stamp, hopefully we can save the Postal Service! And vote by mail and get Trump out of office so that we can respond to a pandemic and maybe in 2021 go see a movie." Sometimes I feel like we're in the twilight zone. I am honestly like, What?!

SCOTT: It's bonkers that we're here.

SHEA: I never, ever thought that we would get here so let's focus on getting us out of here. We got to climb back up out of this because it's bad.

SCOTT: OK, closing remarks: who is your muse?

SHEA: In life?

SCOTT: In life.

Shea Baja East

Shea Baja East

SHEA: I am my own muse. Shea is what I brought out and I created and put out there in the world because I wanted to manifest these ideas and these fantasies. I'm an Aquarius to my core. We just had this Pisces moon, and I feel like as a fixed air sign I always lived this duality between reality and fantasy. I felt like sometimes I wasn't fully plugged into the real world because I was trying to play escape in my mind and drag allowed me to manifest those ideas...and turn myself into my own muse. And what internally wound up happening was deeper than what I had ever imagined because it allowed me to be my most authentic self and bring out different parts of my personality that laid dormant. Also my experiences in drag changed and influenced me so much as a person and it's great to be able to sit down with makeup, wigs, fashion and tell a story. Who is your muse?

SCOTT: What you just said made me think about the word "muse" and your expression of it, how you are your muse, and I actually think in a way I am my muse. But the definition of muse of what I think it is, is almost like believing in yourself really, and that is how you become your own muse. At one point in my life, I didn't believe in myself, didn't love myself, because I maybe didn't know how to accept things about myself that made me different and set me apart, when actually those things made me unique and stronger. I know it's kind of cliche to say but of course if you don't love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else?

SHEA: But sometimes cliches or corny sayings are corny because they really mean something and they're truly real.

SCOTT: You know I told you about my YouTube spirals of watching Tina Turner and Diana Ross and all my girls and growing up listening to Motown. Those are influences as much as watching an episode of Drag Race is an influence or, you know, going to dinner. When I used to go to dinner and see people out and how they dress, [they] would be my muses. So it's believing in myself but it's also all of the people I encounter in my life.

SHEA: I love that.

Shea Baja East

Photography by Christine Hahn.

Creative Direction: Scott Studenberg and Shea Coulee. Production: Ashley Gutierrez. Production Assistant: Paris Nelson. Styling: Kat Typaldos and Shea Coulee. Stylist Assistant: Sam Cook. Scott's Grooming: Florido Basallo. Grooming Make Up: Sarah Tanno. Drag Make Up: Shea Coulee. Shea's Hair: Edward Sizzahandz. Assistant: Tony Soto. Photographer Assistant: Aaron Morgenstein. Retoucher/Retouching: Bast Digital.

Shot At The Dream Factory LA Studio

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