By Teresa Maria Robinson-Ewers
D.J. Pierce was always a performer. Entertaining his family as a child, Pierce, who shared that he learned and accepted at a young age was that he was “loud, loved to entertain, and fabulous,”, knew he was on the right track when he sang ‘In the Still of the Night’ in his 8th grade choir and saw the response from the audience. The young man who walks to the beat of his own drummer would become the diva we know as Shangela Laquifa Wadley, the no-nonsense, bold queen who made her first appearance on RuPaul Drag Race Season 3. Returning to the show two more times, Shangela has grown into a polished, established performer who many feels were robbed of the crown for the third season of All-Stars.
Pierce has never been one to shy away from who he is. The first male cheerleading in his school in 40 years, Pierce was determined to be part of the team. The idea of being a “yell-leader” is not an easy feat for some. For Pierce, since it was a goal that needed to be fulfilled,- he was going to handle it with grace to get what he wanted. “I lived in a very small town called Paris, Texas and was in a graduating class of 105. When you live in a small town you stand out more - but I wasn’t shy about it. I’m sure people had a lot to say, they didn’t agree with me being on an all-girls squad, but I really was shielded from it because some people would say I’m such a nice and funny person. So the funnier I was...the things that really made me learn to have a quick wit...it really didn’t bother me as much. People were more open to me because [they would think], ‘Oh, he’s just D.J. He’s funny, he’s entertaining, we love him.’ So it wasn’t as big of a scandal as say as maybe it would have been if I wasn’t as kind to people.”
Needless to say, his childhood prepared him for the life that would lead him to become the beloved Shangela. When it came to Shangela’s inspiration to do drag as a living, it came down to the first time she stepped on stage to perform. “What inspired me to focus on drag is, I realized when I performed drag for the first time I loved it. I had fun, you know, I get to be on stage, which I always love to do, but there’s a lot of elements of it that I really enjoy. I was one of those boys that when my mom was home I would put on her heels and disco around to dance remixes. So the fact now I get to do that as part of the career I was creating for myself, I was thankful, so thankful.”
Shangela’s talents have led her to the biggest drag competition in the world, Rupaul’s Drag Race. The creator of the show, RuPaul Charles, has said that drag is a movement that would remain underground - never seeing the craft in a mainstream landscape. Shangela is now part of an industry that has been embraced in the mainstream, receiving awards and continuous accolades. Shangela realizes what the show has given her and counts her lucky stars for the opportunity. “I’m blessed. I’m blessed, I’m thankful, I’m honored and I take it with a very strong level of responsibility. When people look up to you for their inspiration, that’s a big responsibility because I know what it’s like to look up to others. You know, some days I just feel down and you would go and see a Beyonce documentary, [who was] also going through challenges and pushing through. You watch Gaga’s documentary, “5’2”, you see she has a lot of health issues but she pushes through. That’s why you push through. So I’m just hoping if any people can know my story, identify with it and be inspired by it, I hope will happen, because that is a really big, huge part of my journey. I was turned away. I was the first one off of RuPaul's Drag Race Season 2. I came back, the girls didn’t like me, honey, they called me all kinds of things and I pushed through to the top five. I left that season - didn’t give up. I worked in television, I worked in film. I just stuck my nose to the grind. I came back on All-Stars 3 and I got to give everything I wanted to - all the way to the very end, and even though it didn’t end the way I wanted it to, I’m still not giving up, I’m still pushing forward.”
Shangela’s time on All-Stars 3 will go down as one of the most controversial moments on the show. Pegged as a frontrunner to win it all, the producers surprised the queens, and the home audience, by informing them that the top 2 would be decided by the eliminated All-Stars, eliminating Shangela from the show. Always a class act class act, Shangela handled her exit with class and dignity. But the decision still was a difficult one to hear. “Well, I will say - when we were on the show and they said the eliminated were going to choose, I said, ‘Okay, that’s a wrap.’ I was disappointed. I was mad really because I was like...that’s not fair. Everyone was in a unique position, but I thought I was in the worst position because the rules - we were given the rules in the beginning and I played the game with those rules all the way up to the end. I created alliances with people I thought were going to be the strongest and stick around. Every person in that top 4, not including myself, I saved with one of my saves. I saved Be, I saved Kennedy and I saved Trixie. So, I put my alliances in the right spot and I was so proud of everyone that made it to the Top Four and then to find out that was the twist, I was like, well...that just defeats everything...I definitely came here to do my best, and when you do your very best, you’re given this responsibility to send people home and it’s not right - it’s just not nice.”
It was important for Shangela to bring this win home. There were many in her hometown that supported her in this journey and the lost was a disappointment not only to herself but her fans. “I was disappointed...because walking into the bar, my home bar in L.A., I knew they had my back, but I wanted so badly to win...for all my fans around the world, that’s why I really want to do my best. These people have been down with me even since before I could put on makeup or blend it. I can bounce back and say, ‘Look, folks, this is what I’ve learned. I’m gonna do the best for you guys. We’re all in this journey together.’” I was surprised to learn that when it came down to the final voting, there was one person that had Shangela’s back, and it wasn’t who many people who have expected. “I was disappointed to not make it to the two and then to see the elimination order and the lipsticks that were pulled - the points the next day, that’s what really threw me for a loop because I hadn’t seen that before. The fact that I got one point out of all the points given...and the only person that gave me a point was Thorgy Thor.”
Shangela is now the only queen to appear on Drag Race three times. The experience can be a great opportunity for a drag queen coming up in the world. Shangela shared what she learned in the time she’s been on the show. “Well...do your best and make the most of every opportunity in life. Don’t be afraid to do the work to get to what you want. I’ve been thankful to be on RuPaul's Drag Race season 3. I’ve been thankful to work on pretty much every US prime time television network in scripted and unscripted roles. I’ve done film, I released music, I have done comedy tours, I have traveled the world and performed on 6 out of the 7 continents. I am a working girl through and through and I am so thankful that we have fans that support us in this way, it means the world to me. That’s why I ain’t giving up, honey!”
Shangela has dropped a new single titled “Pay Me”, a catchy, vibrant song sending the message that your time and talent has value and you deserve to be paid. The track was produced by Ryan Sky and this was a collaboration that was destined to happen. “Ryan Sky is an L.A. producer and I know him from his work in some of the local venues in L.A. and I always admired his ear for music. He said, ‘Come on, Shangela, let’s make a track’ and I said, ‘Come on, baby, let’s do it.’” With Shangela’s hectic schedule, Sky was able to find the time. “The song was written in one day, recorded the next day and then he went to Production World to work on it and it came out fabulous. I love it.” The song is being performed with other sets on a 70-city tour that Shangela is currently on that started in January. For some, a 70-city tour would be a difficult feat. For Shangela, it’s just another day at the office. “Shangela has been doing this touring gig since season 3 [of RuPaul's Drag Race], so I have this thing down to a science, boo. I’ve just learned that I can stay out and party with everybody as much as you like to - you gotta go to bed because you have that flight in the morning! It’s really a great opportunity, a great honor for me to do this and I love it.”
With all of the many projects she is currently working on, “ A Star is Born” is the one that has her, and us, most excited. The star-studded reboot includes Lady Gaga. She is happy to have her little piece of this exciting project. “We filmed ‘A Star is Born’ last May. It will come out in the Fall. To work alongside Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper - and when I mean “alongside”, they say action, there’s Gaga, there’s Bradley Cooper, there’s Shangela. It was wonderful. To get their praise and applause as well for what I was doing on set, that meant a lot to me. I mean, these are heavy-hitters. Bradley told me before we started shooting, ‘I want you to be you. Just give me all of you and I’ll let you know if I need you to pull back.’ Girl, he said, ‘Action,’ and I went 100%. Then he said ‘Cut’...he grabbed me by both sides of my cheeks and said, ‘Shangela, perfect! Do it again.’ I lived! I lived! I had a wonderful time.”
Along with her tour, her new single, and new movie, Shangela has other projects in the works. Three singles in the can waiting for release; the sequel to ‘Hurricane Bianca’ coming out this summer and a stand-up comedy tour coming out this summer that she’ll be kicking off in the UK. She will also be recording a single and video with the talented Todrick Hall. “Honey, we’re moving.”
When I asked what she would like her legacy to be, Shangela reflected on a recent experience. “Recently I got a video, the day after the finale. I’m not a big crier. The way I deal with things that are devastating or challenging in my life, I put my head down and keep working. It will get better. But it was this video of kids bawling on Instagram saying, ‘I wanted Shangela to win!’ And it made me cry because I knew how they felt - to see how devastated they were, that made me upset. I got a friend of mine to get their contact info, and I made them some little videos and sent them to them just letting them know it’s gonna be okay, keep your head up - ‘I want you guys to stay inspired. If things don’t go your way in life, don’t just stay down - feel the feelings, you know, cry, but you gotta get back up and keep moving,’ and their parents filmed some reaction videos and sent them back to me. So, when you ask me that question, ‘What do I want my legacy to be,’ is, I hope, [I can teach] that we can all push through diversity and find the joy in life. Never give up. It doesn’t matter where you start, it’s all about where you’re going, not even about where you end up - about where you’re going, where you intend to go, and how you’re working to get there and how you’re staying happy along the way. I hope I continue to inspire people as long as I’m around kicking and death-dropping on these stages. Hallaloo.”
The man, D.J. Pierce, has become one of the most inspirational people the world has come to know. With some makeup, a wig and attitude, Shangela continues to show fans that there isn’t a dream they are not capable of reaching and no goal that can’t be fulfilled. She is giving a generation of youth hope and a country a glimpse of what can happen if we allow ourselves to be more than what the status quo expects.
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