The dumb irony of a movie called A Star Is Born is that it does not, in fact, birth stars. I mean, the two leads are Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Previous iterations starred Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland. But that’s, in some ways, the point of the story’s continued relevance and the reason for its generational remakes: it requires two blinding supernovas to convincingly tell a story this big and this familiar.
But, as the millions who bought tickets to see Gaga and Cooper partner up to detonate an emotional atom bomb this weekend learned, there actually is one performer who feels like an exciting discovery. That would be D.J. Pierce, who goes by the name Shangela while performing as a drag queen, and who torches every second of his fiery performance as the owner of the drag bar where Gaga’s character, Ally, gets her big break.
Shangela exits the film while Ally’s star is still only a few centimeters dilated, but, in one of the film’s few supporting roles, she makes a lasting, possibly career-changing impact.
Of course, it's only the uninitiated who may be the leaving their A Star Is Born screenings as tickled by Shangela as Bradley Cooper’s grizzled rocker Jackson Maine, whose accidental stumbling into the drag bar as Ally performs “La Vie en Rose” is what sets off the film’s entire narrative. Shangela’s talents are by no means a secret.
Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race know her from her unprecedented three-season stint competing on the show. (Another Drag Race alum, season four’s Willam, also delivers some scene-stealing work flirting with Cooper’s Jackson in these drag bar scenes.)
Shangela first sashayed into the work room in season two, but was sent home after the first episode for lack of experience and subpar sewing talents. She was brought back the next year for redemption, which she did not truly achieve until being cast in last year’s third All Stars installment.
Week after week and challenge after challenge, she exhibited a joyful confidence and owning of her training in the years since she was last on the show. When a controversial last-minute rule-change ended up robbing her of what was considered her deserved crown, fans rioted. (Hey, 280-character pitchforks can be a powerful thing.)
It all seems like it could have been a million years ago when we meet with the 36-year-old performer in his Times Square hotel room the day that A Star Is Born, after months of hype, finally hits theaters—and at the dizzying tail end of a 181-city world tour that began the night after the All Stars 3 finale aired on VH1.
Out of drag in a pair of simple denim jeans and a t-shirt, his spark of straight-standing curls seemingly the only suitable hairstyle for a person with this much energy, Pierce guffaws self-effacingly when we mock him for casually referring to his role in the film as “another job.” He coughs it up to how comfortable Gaga and Cooper made him feel on set, and how down-to-earth they were while performing.
“You talk to her for 30 seconds, and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘She’s my homegirl!’” he says. “Even though I realized after, ‘Oh, I never got her number…’ But in my head, I was like, ‘OK, Gaga!’”
Not that there wasn’t due reverence. It was Gaga who specifically requested Shangela for the role as Ally’s drag mother and mentor, something that Pierce took very seriously. “It almost felt like RuPaul bringing me back on another season, where it’s like, OK, this person stood up for me, has invested in me, has spoken for me, I better do a good job.”
In 2013, Gaga’s camp cast Shangela along with fellow drag queens including Detox, Willam, and Courtney Act to appear in the lyric video for her single, “Applause.” They hadn’t kept in touch, so Pierce was surprised when an email came in from “L.G.’s camp”—“that’s how they refer to to Lady Gaga,” he whispers—requesting that he audition for A Star Is Born. But there was a hiccup. The casting notice specified that the character would be a Marilyn Monroe impersonator.
“I was like, well, you know, sister, I don’t care how much time I spend out of the sun I’m never going to look like Marilyn Monroe,” he says. “I would love to be part of the film. I would love to audition. But I don’t think that role is for me.”
When Gaga found out that Pierce never auditioned, she had her camp reach out again.
“I was like, well honey, if L.G. is gonna be asking…” he laughs. He styled the nearest blonde wig, found the nearest white dress, painted on a mole, rehearsed breathily singing, “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” and…didn’t get the role. Instead, Cooper was so impressed by what he did that they expanded the bar owner part, wrote him more dialogue, and even had him cancel his next day’s tour performance so that he could shoot an additional scene.
Pierce remembers shooting the drag bar sequences, with the crew, Gaga, and Cooper being apologetic about wanting to shoot another take—another take of Lady Gaga in French drag belting “La Vie en Rose,” and of Bradley Cooper is peak bearded sex at a microphone crooning with a guitar. “I was like YES PLEASE let’s go again!” Pierce says, thrusting a finger in the air and chirping Shangela’s oft-repeated celebratory catchphrase, “Halleloo!”
But he also remembers feeling what many audience members took away from these early scenes, which is a certain poignancy and dignified validation of the drag and LGBTQ communities.
As it unfolds in the film, Cooper’s character, Jackson, is desperate for another drink and walks into the bar unaware that it is drag night. He strikes up conversation with the queens milling about. It also happens to be the bar where Gaga’s Ally used to work as a server, so the queens allow her to be the rare cisgender female to perform at the club. Jackson is so taken by her performance that he jumpstarts her music career—and their love story.
“You see some films and drag’s in there and is the punchline,” Pierce says. “This uber masc straight male character rolls into a drag bar and usually it’s an, ‘Oh is this a man or a woman’ type thing. This was so well written and it felt like an authentic slice of life. Not a punchline.”
In fact, Ally speaks about the queens with a hallowed-like admiration for their talent, a rarity for a film on this scale. “I think that will be important for people to see and hopefully it will make more people feel inspired to be part of that world,” Pierce says.
Speaking of that world, we couldn’t meet with Pierce and not talk about Shangela’s unjust finish in All Stars 3. There’s a parallel there, too, to what it’s like to watch Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born. This is a situation in which one of the biggest, most talented stars in the world arrived for a high-stakes showcase prepared to execute her skills and deliver. It’s a joy to watch, much in the same way Drag Race fans admired how Shangela arrived for All Stars 3 at the top of her game, locked and loaded to nail it.
But especially because of that, it must have been disappointing for the season to end the way it did.
“After it finished filming, I was disappointed because I felt like I did everything I could but I still didn’t make it to the final two,” he says. “It wasn’t because of anything I did wrong, but I still didn’t make it. I really wanted that moment for my fans. That was what I was working hard for since season 2 and 3. I felt like I came back, I had my stuff together finally. I did my thing. I pushed. And I wanted to win. So immediately after filming I felt like, well, that sucks.”
The night of the finale, he was hosting a viewing party at Mickey’s in West Hollywood. The fans that turned out were angry and booing when Shangela didn’t win. But the next day, Pierce left for Philadelphia and has been on a 181-city tour since.
And it’s not as if his year since hasn’t had its highlights. Take, for example, standing flanked by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper at the U.K. premiere of A Star Is Born while wearing a Shakespearean-inspired Diego Montoya-designed gown (his mom flew it across the Atlantic with her so Pierce could wear it), the day after performing a sold-out show at the Clapham Grand.
“I grew up in Paris, Texas,” he says. “Television and film were my escape as a little gay boy there. I always wanted to work as an actor. I hope what this role does for me is gives me more visibility. Just give me a chance. That’s all I want. I want more chances that will hopefully lead to more jobs. I’m willing to do the work. I know there’s great stories out there to be told, and I want to be a part of telling them.”