Drag Star Shea Couleé Wants to Take You Into Her Queer, Creative Underground World
In 2017, ahead of a star-making appearance on Season Nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the Chicago artist Shea Couleé wrote, directed, and starred in a lushly shot, intensely fashionable 10-minute short film called Lipstick City. Couleé takes on two roles: Mrs. Couleé and Shea, unlikely allies who journey through a surreal, hedonistic club underworld in order to get Kill Bill-style revenge on a cheating husband.
Lipstick City established Couleé as a creative force and magnetic onscreen presence — talents that became legendary as she ascended to the top four of her first season of Drag Race, then returned with eyes on the prize to win Drag Race All-Stars 5 in 2020. Her profile has been steadily growing since — she marched in the Las Vegas Pride parade with then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren in 2020, performed at Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Fashion Show the same year and, in 2022, came back for the all-winners seventh edition of All Stars, finishing in the final four. She also confirmed that she had been cast in an as-yet-unspecified role for Marvel’s forthcoming Ironheart series, making her one of the first non-binary actors in the MCU.
More immediately, Couleé has a musical project to offer her fans, informed by the heady combination of high fashion, dance, and gritty nightlife that were showcased in Lipstick City. The album, titled 8 (out Feb. 24), and her headlining Lipstick Ball Tour later this year were molded by her experiences coming up in the Chicago scene.
“It really is a metaphor for what I feel like it’s like being a Black queer creative, especially in drag and gender non-conforming art. Everything we do is always underground,” Couleé, who uses she/her and they/them pronouns, says on a recent Zoom call with Rolling Stone.
The story on the album is inspired by the Hunger Games and takes place in a fictional world Couleé created called Lipstick City, which she imagined as having a social divide of elite “diamonds” and underclass “dolls.” Every eight years, the Lipstick Ball is held to determine if a doll will get to rise into diamond territory. The album 8 feels like a trip through that underground, a place both sexy and a little dangerous.
“It’s a story of the have and have-nots,” Couleé explains. “The dolls, they’re the entertainers, the artists. They’re the ones who entertain and breathe life into Lipstick City. It’s the entertainment that basically powers the city, and all the diamonds just inherit it.”
Couleé knows firsthand of the nightlife and its social strata, and also of its inexorable, seductive tug. She cites Chicago’s recurring party “Queen!” at Smartbar, a subterranean dance club, as being foundational for the way she approaches her drag and music. Top-tier DJs like Michael Serafini, Honey Dijon, Blessed Madonna, and Derrick Carter have all spun for the diverse cast of revelers there.
“You descend into this dark night club, but then when you get there it’s the most fantastically dressed club kids, drag queens, trans women, circuit boys, and CEOs — everybody,” she says. “It’s this crazy mix of all these different people and their individual experiences, and the one thing that really unites them is the music and the dance floor.”
To that end, 8 doesn’t necessarily require one to understand its concept in order to derive enjoyment from it. It was built with bodies and movement in mind, gliding nimbly through silky R&B and classic disco to soulful house and brash hip-hop. Working with collaborators like Mario Winans (an extended member of the Winans gospel family), production trio the Caesars, and Sam Sparro, Couleé delved deeper into songwriting than ever before. The type of fiery, biting rap she wrote for Drag Race is extended to full songs, nestled alongside graceful, melodic hooks and harmonies that draw on her church-music upbringing.
“That was my first experience ever with singing, in my youth choir at my church,” she says. “That’s probably where I developed my ear and just being able to hear harmonies and melodies.”
Though it’s not necessarily overt, there is a thread of gospel music that twists into parts of 8, as it does with much of house and disco. DJs immersed in both often make the connections explicit — the Lipstick City film featured a Blessed Madonna track that was a flip of the Joubert Singers’ disco-funk classic “Stand on the Word,” for example — and Couleé recalls seeing a recent Honey Dijon set that felt like being transported heavenward.
“It reminded me of when Mom would be bumping her gospel albums, cleaning the house. It just felt so intrinsically safe and real and connected,” she says. “Black queer people, we have a lot of these shared experiences, and there’s something so uniting and great about house music. There are times where Derrick Carter will spin the Clark Sisters and weave gospel into the set. We’re on the dance floor, hitting poppers, praising God” — she laughs at the memory — “that’s what dreams are made of!”
Though Couleé had been envisioning and working on 8 for some time, the mainstream revival of house and disco sounds from Beyoncé, Drake, and others in 2022 makes it feel very much of the moment.
“I was like, ‘I really want to get in there before [house] really, really blows up so it doesn’t feel like I’m following a trend,’ but it does come from some place that’s real and genuine,” she says. “I feel like — whew — thank God, I’m getting in there right in time … before we go back to dubstep or something.”
The album’s centerpiece is a three-song stretch encompassing “Let Go,” “Your Name,” and “Material,” an arc from late-night romantic intrigue to confident glow-up. “Before the night is done I wanna know/Will you take me home?” she sings on “Your Name,” perfectly evoking that feeling of sexual energy and possibilities that permeates some queer spaces in the wee hours.
“Those three right there are for me the pocket of what the album feels like,” Couleé explains. She’ll bring a portion of the album to life in March as she opens for dance-pop favorite Betty Who on the Big! Tour, which runs through April 1, but the full spectacle will take place at her headlining shows that kick off April 14 in Glasgow, Scotland. She’s been busily filming visuals for that trek, as well as album-marketing purposes. “I’m doing a lot of drag!” she says.
The art of drag is a hot-button issue of late for conservative leaders in the United States, with proposed bills targeting drag performance (and who is allowed to see it) in states including Tennessee, Montana, Arizona, and Arkansas. Couleé says the notion that it’s harming children is a fiction that distracts from the very real issue of gun violence that has taken countless children’s lives in this country. Meanwhile, conservative leaders are obsessed with the idea that drag queens are out to commit some kind of horrible sexual crime.
“They always think it’s a sexual perversion,” she says. “And it’s like, ‘Baby, there’s way too much sofa cushion foam and tights to penetrate anything. Ain’t nobody havin’ sex! How? How?‘”
For Couleé, drag has been a pathway to success and opportunities she could have only imagined when she was younger. Through her rise, she has frequently reiterated that she wants her drag to serve as a celebration of Black women — her looks have often riffed on Naomi Campbell, Grace Jones, and even her own mother in one memorable prom dress challenge from All Stars.
“I’ve spoken a lot about my search to constantly feel in touch with the divine, and I feel like Black women are truly divine creatures,” she says. “So many things I feel like about this world and society are built to not edify and protect them, so whatever I can do to help reflect their beauty, their grace, their strength back in the world and make them feel seen, I will do.”
Little is currently known about Couleé’s role on the Marvel series Ironheart, which was originally slated to premiere in late 2023 but may be pushed to a later date. She admits she was nervous to step out of the drag world, but dove deep into making the film. “I really worked as hard as I could on that set,” she says. “I brought my best self every day and did exactly everything I could to be the best that I could to live up to the standard of being part of such a huge universe. It was really great. I loved the process, the directors, the cast. Everybody was amazing.”
As one of the most physically gifted dancers and actors in Drag Race history, the opportunity means the world to Couleé and connects back to an earlier time in her life. “Even before doing drag, as a kid, I wanted to exist in a superhero universe,” she says. “I wanted to be a Power Ranger so bad. I used to practice fight choreography in my living room, in my backyard. When I told my mom about getting cast in the series, she was just like, ‘Wow, all those years of flipping around in my living room paid off!’”
That realization of a childhood dream is fuel for Couleé to continue reaching for big things. She’s already seen it pay off with her Drag Race experiences, and now she’s on the verge of ascending even higher. It’s a little like her Lipstick Ball come to life.
“We only get this one go at it, and we all deserve to feel the happiness of aspiring towards something really large that may feel impossible and watching it come true,” she says. “That’s not to say it doesn’t involve work and dedication and practice, but it’s a confirmation that you can do it.”
As she famously stated on Drag Race, she’s Shea Couleé and she came to slay. And, as her massive year-in-progress attests, she also came to stay.
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