Shangela is calling in from her grandmother’s house in Paris, Texas, and singing the praises of strong women.
“I’ve got a deeper love,” she belts, in full Aretha mode before breaking into a self-deprecating laugh. “Honey, I’ve been quarantining here for three months, and it’s the longest I’ve been home since high school,” she says. “I’m just trying to stay positive and push forward.”
The quarantine that took her home happened just as Shangela was filming her new HBO series, We’re Here, with two other strong people: fellow former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, Eureka, and Season Eight winner, Bob the Drag Queen. A new series exclusive on HBO, We’re Here follows the three queens as they travel to small towns across America to recruit participants for a community drag show. The show — which draws on equal parts Intervention and To Wong Foo — tracks the stories of a handful of people in each town, as they use the discovery of drag to navigate complex feelings of sexuality, anxiety, and abandonment. Their journeys culminate in a larger-than-life performance, where tears flow as freely as feathers and fringe.
The unscripted series premiered in April, with a six-episode first season that was shortened after the government-imposed quarantine shut down production early. (A second season has already been green-lit, though there’s been no timetable set for shooting just yet.) For Shangela, while filming may have been cut short, the timing of the series couldn’t have been better.
“I could not have asked for a better project to be a part of during such an uncertain time in our country,” she says. “I’m so thankful that we have We’re Here to be able to share with people at a time where we need a reminder about the importance of humanity and compassion and about treating others how we would want to be treated.”
Bob, who returned to New York to quarantine after filming shut down, says the series has resonated with people because it’s less about creating a new “look,” but rather about creating dialogue.
“The show isn’t about changing perceptions, but [rather] about amplifying queer voices in times where people don’t acknowledge things,” says Bob, who recently spent his 34th birthday “eating vegan food and talking about social justice, gender, and race politics” with his social-distancing pod.
At a time when the country feels more divided than ever, leave it to three drag queens and their small-town drag productions to really put the heart back into the heartland. “It’s really hard to hate someone and continue with your hate rhetoric once you actually learn about who they are or what they’re going through,” Bob says.
Adds Shangela: “People are more connected than they think. We all have very similar experiences no matter where we’re from or where we live.”
Here, Shangela and Bob the Drag Queen talk to Rolling Stone about filming in conservative towns, common misconceptions about drag, and the intrinsic way the LGBTQ community is connected with the Black Lives Matter movement.
How were you approached for the show? Was it something you signed on for right away?
Bob: I was eating at a restaurant in a hotel in Chelsea [in New York City], and I got a phone call asking if I wanted to be involved in a super-secret project that they couldn’t talk about on the phone. There was no trial process, there was no, “We’re looking at a couple other women,” it was like, “We want you in, and we’re ready to move forward.”
Shangela: I remember the exact date. I got a call while I was backstage at the opening night of the Ariana Grande Sweetener tour. After the show, I was with Ariana’s brother, Frankie Grande, and we were waiting for her to come out so I could tell her she was fabulous, say “I love you so much,” say “I loved hearing ‘NASA'” (Shangela makes a cameo on the thank u, next track) — and right before she came out, I got this call on my cell and it was the creators of [We’re Here], who said they wanted to meet with me. So I think I agreed to the show before I even heard anything about it because then Ariana walked out and I was like, “Uh-huh, yeah, whatever you guys want to do, I’m in.”
Bob: I was new to HBO, so I wanted to make sure we weren’t just pawns pushed out into the world doing HBO’s bidding. I also didn’t want to go around solving problems for white, straight people. When I heard that it was [a show about] telling queer stories, it was easy, I was like, “I’m in.”
Shangela: When I finally heard the concept of the show, I was immediately in. I grew up in a small town; I would’ve loved to see that visibility when I was younger.
The show premiered around the same time as the latest season of Queer Eye, another show that’s about empowerment and self-expression. How is We’re Here different from Queer Eye?
Bob: Here’s the thing — we’re not changing people; we’re not giving people stuff they can use to physically change their home or anything like that. The stuff we are giving these people, they can maybe use it once a year, so it’s actually not about this dress, this wig, this makeup, or this performance, but it’s actually about connecting on a deeper level. It’s really not about the stuff.
Shangela: I love Queer Eye and I’m friends with a lot of guys over there, but this show is not a makeover show; it’s a real-life series. It gives you what the real-life experience of queer people in small conservative spaces is like.
What was it like going into some of these small towns? (In one episode, a store owner threatens to call the police, after Bob, Shangela, and Eureka approach her store to hand out flyers for their drag show.)
Shangela: We go to a lot of conservative spaces and people ask me all the time, like, “Omigod, I was so scared for you. Were you scared?” And the answer is, I grew up in a space similar to a lot of these places that we’re going to, around Confederate flags and in predominantly white areas where I was one of the only black gay people. So it doesn’t make me afraid, because I understand it.
Bob: We certainly got some pushback, but I also don’t want to paint these towns as places where we walked in and were called “faggots” and got pushed out — that’s not what happened. There was some resistance; there were moments where people would yell things out of their car, call us freaks, or call the cops on us, but generally speaking, people were overwhelmingly supportive.
Shangela: There are a lot of misconceptions about the drag community, about queer people, even about these small towns. We get it from both sides. But we found that we got this great outpouring of support in spaces where we never thought we would.
What are some common misconceptions people have about drag?
Bob: Maybe the idea that there’s only one way to do drag, or that that all drag queens are like a specific drag queen you saw on TV, whether it be Shangela or Trixie [Mattel] or Eureka or RuPaul or whoever.
Shangela: People make it seem like all drag queens are very promiscuous, or that our shows are very vulgar, and that’s not always the case. The drag community has a spectrum of queens, [and] that is the case in all communities, that is the case in all our walks of life, which is why we can’t rely on stereotypes. And that’s what we’re hoping to do with this series, to break down a lot of stereotypes that people have and start these conversations and spark the interest in understanding people who aren’t like yourself.
Bob: You know, drag queens are just as nuanced as human beings. Because we are human beings. Now isn’t that something?
Since the show premiered in April, the country has gone through a pivotal moment of protest after the police-involved murder of George Floyd. A number of LGBTQ Pride events this year were quickly reorganized to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. How does the queer experience intersect with the black experience in America?
Bob: I’m black and I’m queer, so it’s not like the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t include queer people. It includes all black people, which is why I like to say “Black Trans Lives Matter,” because it is important to let people know that’s where intersectionality lives, and you can’t talk about black intersectionality without acknowledging black queer people and black trans people.
Shangela: A lot of us from the LGBTQ community are also black, and we continue to walk through the black experience in America and continue to try to educate everyone around us, or at least share our experiences with them. I think that the biggest thing that the LGBTQ community can learn from the Black Lives Matter movement is that we have to continue to be active. Activism is important. It is important for us to raise our voices so that they can be heard.
Despite recent victories, LGBTQ Americans are still a marginalized minority group in many parts of the country. Do you think the LGBTQ community has a particular responsibility to stand with the black community?
Bob: Again, I don’t like the idea of the queer community not standing with blackness. This is a Venn diagram, and there is overlap in those spaces.
Shangela: I think it’s so important for us to stand together as an oppressed people, to make sure that what we share in that common experience is something that won’t happen to anyone else. It’s important for us to unite for equality, and when we see injustice, we need to call it out.
Some people still see allyship as transactional, like if you didn’t speak up for me, why should I speak up for you? I’m thinking of some Asian friends I’ve spoken to, who feel like no one stood up for them during the coronavirus pandemic when they were branded with President Trump’s “kung flu” tag.
Bob: There are a lot of people standing up for Asian people in terms of being accused of spreading the coronavirus — maybe not enough, I would agree — but also, no one is going into Chinese restaurants or Thai restaurants and murdering them. Whereas there is video footage of a man having a cop kneel on his neck for almost nine minutes.
Shangela: When I see minority groups who all understand what it’s like to experience injustice and oppression and a systemic way of keeping them down, and they start to divide themselves, that just makes me crazy; it really infuriates me. It never feels good to be left out or to be put down, but we should take those learnings, those experiences we have, and put our energy into making sure that we all are treated equally.
Bob: You want to base your moral compass on what you do for others, not what people do for you. If your moral compass says you’ll always help people when they fall down, you should help them when they fall down even if they don’t help you up. If your moral compass says I’m only helping people who help me, then I would say that is incredibly selfish.
It feels like We’re Here arrived at the perfect time.
Bob: It’s interesting when people say it came at the right time. I think the show could have come out five years ago and it would’ve still been the right time, ’cause someone still would’ve needed to see it. A lot of times, people don’t realize things until they start to feel more and more marginalized themselves. When Trump got elected, people were going on about how it felt really rotten to have a president treat us the way Donald Trump was treating us; and a lot of white, cisgender gays were like, “Oh, my gosh, this feels horrible.” But us black folks were like, “This just feels like the last 450 years.”
What are some lessons that you took away from the show?
Shangela: The biggest thing that I learned in all of this is that if you really want to be heard, you have to go in there willing to listen. Sometimes people are supportive of the gay community; they just don’t have a space to safely come out and say it. The existence of We’re Here is helping to promote conversations in spaces that would not normally have those conversations. It’s also shining a light on the experiences of queer people, in places where there isn’t a great amount of visibility, and there isn’t a great deal of acceptance.
Did anything surprise you about the experience?
Shangela: We shot the pilot episode last July during a heatwave in Gettysburg (I knew it was July because, honey, the glue on my weave was melting), and I remember telling Bob, like, “Why are you putting up these standing-room signs? We’re not going to get that many people.” We ended up packing the room, and the owners told us they had never had that many people in the space before. I was so amazed to see the outpouring of support.
Bob: I had been living in a very protective bubble of the RuPaul’s Drag Race world, where most people are accepting of queerness and trans people, and I forget that once you cross over into a platform where there are straight people or cisgender people, things are different. But the reaction [to the show] has been overwhelmingly positive.
As we wind down Pride month, how can people continue to celebrate and uplift each other during this time?
Bob: I’m not religious, but there’s a saying that says, “The church isn’t the building — it’s the people.” And I feel the same way about Pride: [It] isn’t about the parades or the marches or the parties or the clubs — it’s about the people. It’s what people bring to it. It’s an ability we have to be proud of ourselves and our community. Even though we can’t physically be near each other, it doesn’t matter, because the people are there.
Shangela: Just because we are physically distancing, doesn’t mean we can’t be connected. As We’re Here shows, there are always pockets of support somewhere; sometimes you just have to dig them out.