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Shangela: The Picture of Optimism

Shangela and dance partner Gleb Savchenko
Shangela (L) and dance partner Gleb Savchenko

A proud Texan, she's serving as a touch point for drag queens and breaking new ground on Dancing With the Stars and is wanting everyone to win part of the Mirror Ball.

Last month I did a podcast, Opposing Views, discussing drag queen story hours, since I've written favorably about them in the past. On the other side was Texas state Rep. Bryan Slaton. You might know him for his proposed legislation that would bar kids from drag shows.

I will not repeat some of the obtuse things he said about drag queens, drag reading hours, and drag shows during the podcast. Suffice it to say that he's undoubtedly never seen a drag show, doesn't know the difference between a drag show and drag reading hour, and clearly, he's never met a drag queen.

America has been getting to meet an incredibly talented drag queen via Shangela and her showstopping performances on the current season of Dancing With the Stars. Through four episodes in season 31 of the show, Shangela and her partner, Russian dancer Gleb Savchenko, are still in the running, with lots more competition ahead.

They will hit the ballroom floor tonight with the theme of the "Most Memorable Year." The 12 remaining couples will perform emotional routines that best represent the most impactful years of their lives.

Shangela, though, is used to stiff competition, with two seasons on RuPaul's Drag Race as well as competing in RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars. She has parlayed her success on Drag Race into guest-starring roles on several TV shows including Glee,2 Broke Girls, and Bones. And in 2019 she became the first drag queen to walk the red carpet at the Oscars. Currently, she's one of the hosts of HBO's We're Here, where a trio of drag queens travel the recruit small-town residents to do one-night-only drag shows. Up next, she is hitting the road for her FULLY LIT tour launching in January.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Shangela, literally since she's going nonstop now, late last week after she and Gleb performed a sensational version of the Charleston to the song "Dig a Little Deeper" from The Princess and the Frog. The song was sung live by Shangela's close friend and mentor Jenifer Lewis. And Shangela made headlines for calling out DWTS host Alfonso Ribeiro for mispronouncing her name.

Sam Champion and his partner, Cheryl Burke, were eliminated last week, so I began our conversation by telling Shangela that I had seen Champion on Good Morning America, where he said that he's finding sequins in places where there shouldn't be sequins. "I love Sam, that's hilarious!" Shangela laughed. "I would just say to Sam, welcome to my world!"

Shangela's world, like sequins, is glowing right now. "I am holding up so well, this is a dream come true," she said. "I woke up this morning and I had to pinch myself that this is all not a dream, that it's real, and it's all so exciting. I'm having the time of my life."

"The training is definitely intense, and as a drag entertainer, I'm used to a lot of rehearsal, but this is physical training, and it's every day, four hours a day, and I'm doing it all in heels, so this is a real workout, especially for my feet," she continued. "But this opportunity is worth all the pain that goes with it."

What's not been painful for Shangela is the tremendous outpouring of support she is receiving. "It's just been incredible, everyone from friends, family, fans, and my fellow Drag Race sisters, including Canada's winner Priyanka and Australia's runner-up Courtney, who were there in person last night. I was so happy to have them all there. It meant the world to me."

Coincidentally, Shangela, whose birth name is Darius Jeremy Pierce, was born in Texas. I told her about my podcast appearance with Slaton, and I asked her if she was getting any negative reactions from some of the fans of DWTS. "I know who he is and all about his bill," she said. "Trust me, I'm no stranger to people not supporting me, but I can't let that hold me back. It just pushes me forward."

"Look, he doesn't speak for every Texan. It's such a big, diverse state, and I would bet that there are more people who accept diversity and strive for equality than there are people like Slaton. He's not speaking for the majority," Shangela pointed out. "I grew up a young gay boy in Paris, Texas, and I saw my first drag show in Dallas and immediately knew that I wanted to do that. There's lots of Texas pride, and I've seen it in all the drag shows I've done in Dallas, Houston, Austin. I've traveled the state, and there are wonderful gay, loving communities and great representation."

Shangela also understands that drag reading hours are used as divisive political issues, particularly in areas where drag queens are perceived as different.

"And, outside of Texas, we all know that there are people who just aren't familiar with drag and the gay community, and what we look like and how we show up," Shangela added. "Hopefully, I can be a touch point for people through the show to better understand that we are human, we are talented, and we love like everyone. I'm a son, a grandson, a gay uncle with a niece and a nephew that I'm so proud of. I really hope that my authenticity is genuinely showing through."

Since we all know that Shangela is going to win, I asked her what would happen if she and Gelb came up short and if there was another team she might be rooting for. "I'm rooting for everyone," she exclaimed. "What I'd like to do is cut the Mirror Ball into multiple pieces and give it to everyone competing since they are all working hard and doing spectacular. They all look so beautiful, and I just love to watch them all dance. I wish we could all win.

As our call came to an end, I told Shangela how infectious her optimism was. "If I looked that word up in the dictionary, there'd be an image of you," I said. Shangela laughed and replied, "Honey, it better be a great picture!"

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate's opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.