This interview was conducted as part of the interview series LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
It's all part of her master plan. When Shea Couleé first started drag, she looked at Drag Race and determined that she'd need five years to build up her skills enough to not only get on the hit show, but to have a real shot at winning.
As planned, in five years, she did just that and made it to the finals of season nine. "I always try to keep up a one-year plan, a two-year plan, and a five-year plan to keep myself on track," she says. "Doing that has honestly helped me to be able to be where I am and reach the level of success that I'm at now."
Now, at 31, Couleé is focussed on her nine-year plan. She revealed her intention to retire by 40 on this week's episode of the LGBTQ&A podcast, saying, "If we're going to be real, people don't care about drag queens when they get older and they don't look young and hot and fresh anymore." She also talks about what she wants her legacy to look like, the album she's been working on for the past three years, and how growing up with a mom who's a reverend informed her experience of gender.
Read hights below and click here to listen to the full podcast.
Jeffrey Masters: You've described Shea Couleé as the most authentic side of you. Does that mean you don't consider her to be a character?
Shea Couleé: No. Shea Couleé is very much an amplified version of myself. Shea Couleé is the loud version of myself, whereas Jaren is the quiet version.
JM: Did you ever consider not taking a drag name and using Jaren?
SC: I've thought about it before. I honestly have. Shea is actually my middle name. It's spelled differently. It's Swahili and means beautiful boy. Everyone in my family calls me Shea. That was always just my pet name with my family members growing up.
I wanted to incorporate that into my drag persona because I wanted something that felt like it was linked to my roots and the foundation of who I am. I just switched the spelling so people could pronounce it easier.
And then I picked Couleé because there's this riddle and it just rolls off the tongue, you know?
JM: What's the riddle?
SC: I know that it's East African. I don't know if it's Swahili or not. It's a call-and-response. It's this back-and-forth. It's unifying. It builds energy.
JM: These roots inspired your name. Do they also inspire your drag itself?
SC: I get inspiration from all types of sources, but one thing that I learned in school, which I think is really, really, really important and I don't think that people do it enough when it comes to art, is research.
For instance, this year it's 2020. We're at the centennial of 1920. Art deco is one of my favorite periods in art, design, fashion. Art deco, in general, is a really just dope artistic movement. You want to see amazing, fashion, just look up Erté.
But I think a lot of times people like to think that they're all truly original and that they're all truly innovative. Nobody's really reinventing the wheel here. And I think that's important, especially when it comes to art because people have an idea and think that they own that idea. I see people all the time on social media, because we live in call-out culture, and they want to try and call people out like, "This person ripped me off. This person stole my idea. I invented that."
And I'm like, "I can go back in history and I can name tons of designers that did that before you. So maybe do your research, maybe realize that you did not come up with this idea. Nobody is that original." Honestly, the last fashion revolution that we had was Mary Quant and the miniskirt. Nothing has been developed since then.
JM: Do you feel competitive with the other girls’ careers?
SC: I feel like sometimes it's easy to feel competitive to the girls but at the same time our careers are all like our own to make and it really is up to the individual. A lot of the girls that are out here that are truly killing it, they're killing it because they work really, really, really, really hard for it. From knowing a lot of these girls personally, the ones that are the most successful are the ones with the hardest work ethic.
The thing is that for me and when it comes to careers, especially in entertainment and arts, longevity is what's important. I always try to keep up a one-year plan, a two-year plan, and a five-year plan just to keep myself on track. And doing that has honestly helped me to be able to be where I am and reach the level of success that I'm at now. When I started drag, I had a five-year plan to make it onto RuPaul's Drag Race, and literally five years later I was on season nine.
JM: The rumor on the internet is that you're on the next season of RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars, and also that you've turned down previous offers to be All Stars. Why was it previously not the right time to do the show?
SC: The All Stars rumors have been going ever since the end of season nine. It's very flattering. It lets me know, at least, that people want to see your girl on TV again.
That's also a reason why timing is very important. Timing is everything. And if we're talking about longevity and All Stars, it's important to go on All Stars when people aren't as interested, to regenerate people's interests. I was just like, "Make them miss you before you go back." It's fun to see the growth because even from season nine, I've grown so much as a drag queen and I feel like in the past three years I've grown more than I did that first five years pre-Drag Race.
JM: If you are on the new season of All Stars, I believe you'd be the first queen to be openly nonbinary while competing on Drag Race. The majority have only talked about it after being on the show.
SC: I know that there are other girls that do identify as nonbinary, like Sasha Velour, Aja. I don't know if the girls were really speaking about their nonbinary identity while filming season nine. But for me, when it comes to my nonbinary identity, it really doesn't change the way that I view and/or look at my drag.
For me, it's just allowing people to understand that I just don't exist in these gender binaries. I don't really identify as being male and/or female. I really much so firmly believe that I inhabit both of those qualities in a very equal way.
As far as my drag is concerned and the way it affects how I approach my craft, it really just allows me to be more open. I think that that is something that's really important in drag.
JM: You came out as nonbinary publicly in 2019. When did you start to figure it out for yourself?
SC: Maybe just a few years into doing drag. This is prior to even filming Drag Race. I started to notice a change when people would use masculine pronouns and I had to sit down and check-in with myself and be like, "Why are you having those feelings when people use masculine pronouns?"
And then I had a conversation with another nonbinary individual and they were just really just explaining about what being nonbinary means to them. I was like, "Oh. God, I really identify with that." But I sat with it after doing Drag Race and being in the public eye. It's weird to feel like I had to make this announcement and come out as being nonbinary because I feel like it's obvious. I mean, look at my career choice. I've been living out of the binary now for years.
JM: You grew up in the church and your mom is a reverend. How did religion inform your understanding of gender?
SC: Religion very much so loves the binary. There is a lot of times growing up where I would be doing things that felt very natural to me, and my mom would be like, "Boys don't do that. Boys don't stand like that."
Well, I do. I do. And I think once I got older and definitely started to get to that age where I was feeling a little bit more rebellious, I would lean into that femininity more, like, "It makes my parents angry." But also just like, "This is who I am and I don't really feel like having anybody police the way that I stand."
The thing that I really appreciate about my mom and my parents is when it comes to their views on religion and faith, the biggest foundation that they stand on is love. And I think that that's really important and think more religious people should focus on that aspect because there definitely has been such a huge period of growth, but that really required me to just be really open and authentic with my family. My mom is one of those people that her biggest mission on this earth is to love people the way that Christ loved them.
One thing that she said that blew me away is when we were doing the season nine finale, that was my mom's first time being in like a very queer space. Never been to the nightclub, never anything like that.
The season nine finale, she was really thrown into it: there's just queer people, drag queens, trans people everywhere. And my mom after the finale, she was just like, "I've never felt a strong love energy like I felt in that room. Everybody was just loving on everybody. That doesn't exist in the straight world."
She's like, "I've never even really seen that in church." And she was just all like, "To know that you belong to a community like this. It makes me feel so much more secure and safe knowing that you're taken care of."
Her as a religious person, seeing that and coming to that realization, it gave me a lot of hope and faith.
JM: Returning to your legacy, do you plan on touring forever?
SC: I hope not. To all my fans, I love you, but I said to myself that I want to be able to hang up the heels by 40. Drag is really, really hard on the body and touring is really hard on the body. I'm healthy, I eat right, I work out four-to-five times a week, but it is still such a challenge.
And also if we're going to be real, people don't care about drag queens when they get older and they don't look young and hot and fresh anymore.
JM: Even though you’re just performing femininity, you're still getting lumped into that dynamics that often affect women?
SC: Oh, yeah. Girls who have been on Drag Race, even girls that have won that are older, in their upper 30s, early 40s, they're all like, "Oh, yeah girl. The kids don't care when you get older."
Look, when it comes to the fans and the people who really digest drag, the majority of them are between the ages of 14 and 19, so they're not even old enough to go into the club and see a drag queen in person. The majority of the people that we're trying to appeal to are teenagers.
JM: What big things do you want to accomplish before retiring? You have nine years.
SC: I really want to release just the best drag queen album anyone has ever heard. I want to release the album where they're all like, "OK, when it comes to drag queen musicians, Shea Couleé is the one. The only."
I've been working on an album for three years now. No joke. I've been consistently in the studio just working on tracks, making songs. But when it comes to my work, I have to have to absolutely love it and I have really high standards. So I want to make sure that what I release, the content I put out is stuff I absolutely love.
JM: The big goal is an album.
SC: And not just the album, I really want to get back to my roots of design and I really want to present a collection at Fashion Week. That would be amazing.
And then I'd be totally comfortable hanging up those heels.
Cover photo by Drag Files, @dragfiles