When we met Shangela Laquifa Wadley in 2010 in season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race, she had been doing drag for less than a year. She was eliminated in the first episode.
But don’t worry about Shangela. Since being eliminated, she’s competed on the show twice (in season 3 and just last year as an All-Star,) starred alongside Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in 2018’s A Star Is Born, was featured on Ariana Grande’s track “NASA” and received a standing ovation from Beyoncé herself after performing a tribute to Queen Bey in front of her (!) at the 2019 GLAAD Awards. She’s now undoubtedly one of the most famous drag queens in the world.
Unlike most Drag Race-alum who earned their stripes in the local club and pageant scenes before being cast, Shangela skipped ahead to primetime and came of age across multiple seasons of the reality show: a path to drag superstardom she was first to navigate.
We caught up with her during Toronto Pride festivities where she hosted the wedding of Adam and Steve at the Skittles Hall of Rainbows and chatted about her evolution, the “problematic AF” Vulture drag queen ranking and RuPaul’s new talk show.
What does it mean to you to be hosting these weddings at Toronto Pride with Skittles?
I’m really honoured to be a part of such an amazing day. When they said there would be LGBTQ2+ couples getting married, I was like, ‘Halleloo! Let me jump in there.’ I always want to celebrate love, joy and happiness and that’s something Skittles not only stands for but especially supports right now with Toronto Pride.
It’s been a long journey to here. How do you feel when you look back at yourself at the very beginning, season 2 episode 1 of RuPaul’s Drag Race? Do you remember that day?
Oh, trust me! I remember. Because I’ve seen the show so many times in addition to being there, I call myself a fan first and contestant second. I came in the door with a dream and… no makeup on, basically. [Laughs]
Looking back is nostalgic. It reminds me of what a journey I’ve had. I sang ‘I started as a baby and now I’m all grown up’ in my “Kitty Girl” verse and I really did. It’s been really cool that people who watched the show have grown up along with me.
What is something 2010 Shangela didn’t know that 2019 Shangela knows now?
Besides how to blend makeup, I learned how to embrace myself fully as a drag entertainer. I learned to not be afraid to make mistakes. You’re going to fall down, sometimes you’re going to look busted, but it’s all about learning and growing. The gift really is the journey. I went in there wanting to win, but didn’t realize everything I wanted to learn I had learned in the process. I didn’t know Shangela yet. In the nine years of my career, I’ve learned myself and now I’m so happy.
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Y’all. YALLLLL!!! My heart is SO HAPPY right now. The Queen BEY posted our vid on her IG story. So Cool! I luv her sooo much and her work ethic inspires me on the daily. Shout out to @msilas23 who choreo’d the moves and to my White Party dancers @walker2lit @ink_la @jdlavega @jonasuber12 @dev_romare. To Dekel who captured & edited video. Also @blakempatterson for the dancer lewks, @rico.couture for my lewk, @liamrileycb @nickvosian @morgongonzalez @_jaimeruiz_ for all ur help this weekend and @jeffreysanker for giving us such an Amazing Stage at @whitepartypalmsprings!! #beforeILetGoChallenge
How does being in film or on stage now compare to being in the competition setting of RuPaul’s Drag Race? Is it liberating to not be stacked up against other queens like that anymore?
Being a part of a competition where you’re being judged consistently can be difficult. It can wear and tear on your brain because you want to win so badly. Being out there working, being a part of great, amazing moments in films and TV—I’m doing what I do. I’m in my groove, my element. I’m not being compared to anyone.
Even in moments of comparison, though, you got to listen because some people are giving you good advice. It’s important not to just tune everything out, but you also have to hold on to the self confidence that you have in yourself.
Speaking of comparisons, there has been significant backlash around Vulture’s recent ranking. You were #2 on the list and addressed it on Instagram, saying you “don’t really get into rankings.” What are your thoughts on the negative response?
I think other queens responses were right on point for them. In life, people are going to rank you and not always believe in you as much as you believe in yourself. At the end of the day, I stay working. I stay going. I stay committed to the things I want to happen in my life and know it’s not about getting on particular lists in the world, it’s about how you view and value yourself. I view and value myself a lot.
A lot of people’s perceptions of drag are limited to what they’ve seen on RuPaul’s Drag Race, but obviously the drag community is much bigger than that. What do you think is something people don’t understand or know about the drag world outside of the show?
A lot of people think that drag started with RuPaul’s Drag Race and that’s so not true! Drag has been around for ages. I always try to celebrate and honour those drag queens who have pioneered the way for a lot of us including RuPaul, people like Lypsinka and Divine and the trans queens that have been out there putting us at the forefront. It’s great that we have a show like Drag Race that takes us into homes that might not have heard of drag beforehand, but honey, it didn’t just start! It’s been around.
RuPaul’s new talk show started the other week. Have you watched? Will you be a guest on it anytime soon?
Well, you never know! I’m Shangela. You never know where I’ll pop up. No box is safe! I am so excited to see Ru return to television in a talk show space because Ru has so many talents and has created so many opportunities for all of us. It’s great that he now has even more opportunities as well.
Like you said, you were a drag baby when you Ru gave you your first opportunity. What advice do you have for today’s drag newcomers currently working on their own glow up?
It’s most important to have fun and to really embrace who you are and live that out authentically. People can always see when you’re not super-confident. It starts inside. You do really have to work on all the other skills—like performance, makeup and costuming, but it starts with loving yourself.