Ben Platt
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Shangela Is Dragging Up Small Town America

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D.J. Pierce is known by a few different names. The actor, producer, and dynamic stage performer was born Darius Jeremy Pierce and created the famous drag persona Shangela Laquifa Wadley — known simply as Shangela to most of the world — after competing on three separate seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race (tying with a fellow fan-favorite, Latrice Royale, for most appearances on the show). Indeed, Pierce is one of the most popular, respected, and successful queens to come out of the Emmy-winning series. If you’re queer and have never heard Shangela’s famous catchphrase, “Halleloo!” it’s quite possible you may be living under a rock.

With more personality packed into his lithe 5’6” frame than law should allow, the 38-year-old from Paris, Texas, is proving he’s more than just a pretty face. Alongside Brandon Voss (Voss Events), Pierce co-created and serves as creative director for the Werq the World tour — an ongoing, international dragstravaganza starring many popular Drag Race alums. (Fans can also experience some of the queens’ behind-the-scenes antics in the WOW docu-series of the same name). Pierce says he’s overjoyed “to see [the tour] continue to do so well and to have been a part of it, and continue to support those girls as they travel the world, honey!” The tour's current run was cancelled because of the global pandemic but put on a livestream benefit earlier this monthto help those impacted. 

Among other accolades, Pierce has been twice named to our annual Out100 list (most recently, he was dubbed The Show Stopper in 2019) and last year landed on Time magazine’s prestigious “100 Next” list, which highlights the year’s hottest rising stars. Broadway legend Jenifer Lewis (his costar in the web-based series Jenifer Lewis and Shangela) told Time, “He’s so sincere. He loves what he does, and he does it well. Every time.” 

Aside from Drag Race fame, Pierce has also nabbed several notable parts (both in and out of drag) in television and film. On TV, he’s appeared in 2 Broke Girls, Glee, Bones, and The Mentalist, and most recently landed a recurring role on the new CW series Katy Keene. On the big screen Pierce made a scene-stealing appearance in 2018’s A Star Is Born, costarring Lady Gaga — as a part of that roll out, Shangela was the first drag performer to walk the Oscars red carpet in drag. He’s also written hit songs (“Werqin’ Girl”) and an acclaimed solo stand-up comedy show (Shook), and has performed onstage with Miley Cyrus. Not too shabby for the first queen sent home on Season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Upon getting to chat with the self-proclaimed “Daenerys Targaryen of drag,” about his new unscripted HBO series, We’re Here, I was surprised to learn the perky entertainment powerhouse hadn’t been a lifelong performer.

“Prior to [appearing on Drag Race], I worked a cubicle life,” says Pierce, a naturally handsome man out of drag. “I was in communications and marketing for TGI Fridays.” He explains how, after performing for the office in a Halloween costume contest (“I was gay, honey, I turned it into a pageant!” he quips), it was actually his boss who convinced him to pursue his Hollywood dreams.

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“His name was Richard Snead [former CEO of TGI Fridays],” recalls Pierce. “He passed away a few years ago, but he said, ‘You have something special. I’m just telling you right now, I’ve been doing this a long time. If you want to do something in entertainment, you should go now.’ And honey, I started saving up my money and in six months, I packed up my Explorer and moved out west.”

And the rest is “Halleloo” history.

These days, you can see Pierce in his f ull Shangela glory alongside Drag Race alums Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara in We’re Here, in which the queens recruit regular folks from small towns across America to train in the art of drag. (The performers also act as consulting producers on the show.) “We serve as kind of mentors and recruit people who want to express themselves and their story through drag,” explains Pierce. He confesses it was sometimes challenging and often comedic “trying to put together drag on barebones resources in the middle of nowhere. To Wong Foo, eat your heart out!”

Ultimately, Pierce says, the series will touch hearts and change minds.

“Actually, it’s been very eye-opening for me because one part that really sold [We’re Here] to me and made me really have a strong love for the show is that we’re meeting and helping and encouraging people who are queer or have a queer-adjacent story in these small towns across America. And I’m from a small town…. I know what it’s like to sometimes look around and think you’re the only person like you.”

Each episode culminates with a one-night-only drag show, and Pierce says the response in these smaller communities has been somewhat surprising. “What we’re finding in a lot of these places…is that there is a greater community of support, even in places where you may not think there is.”

We're Here premieres Thursday April 23 on HBO. 

RELATED | Shangela Talks Being the First Drag Queen at the Oscars

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