Sometimes when you least suspect it, life sends you a “Halleloo!”
Shangela Laquifa Wadley—given name Darius Jeremy Pierce—was working the streets, so to speak, of Twin Falls, Idaho, a small city of 40,000 people in an area of the country so remote it also happens to be the largest city in a 100-mile radius. A drag queen who rose to fame on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Shangela was passing out flyers to promote a performance being filmed for the new HBO series We’re Here when he heard it.
“I was in a coffee shop and this girl behind the counter was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Shangela! Halleloo!’” says Shangela, whose success in turning “Halleloo” into a catchphrase among Drag Race fans is a thing of legend. “In Twin Falls, Idaho! I was like, I didn't get my ‘Halleloo’ out before she got hers out.”
The experience proved just how wide the reach of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the art of drag has become. Twin Falls gave Shangela a “Halleloo” when it was he who was there to give a “Halleloo” to them, so to speak.
We’re Here, which launches Thursday night, follows Shangela and fellow Drag Race alum Eureka O’Hara (David Huggard) and Bob the Drag Queen (Caldwell Tidicue) as they travel across small-town America to stage one-night-only drag shows starring local “drag daughters” they’ve spent the week transforming—inside and out. They’re there to infuse these rural towns with some drag and some glamour, as well as some inspiration and some love. Plus a little “Halleloo.”
At a time when the success of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose suggest a cultural embrace of LGBTQ storytelling, We’re Here is a revealing look at the hurdles facing members of the community who strive to create safe spaces and find acceptance outside of big-city bubbles. Yet also spotlighted are the beautiful, inspiring ways people have found to celebrate themselves and each other in parts of the country where conventional wisdom says they would be outcast and ostracized.
There’s something somewhat historic about these queer stars being given a platform on HBO, a network that rarely, if ever, does unscripted programming that is more reality TV and less news- or documentary-based. And given the state of the world, timing couldn’t be better for a show with a message like We’re Here. As such, HBO is making it available to stream for free Thursday night on YouTube at the same time as its premiere, the first time the network has ever done so.
“Imagine the beauty and the strength behind the fact that HBO is promoting a queer media show,” Eureka says. “My idea of HBO is, like, that it’s the channel that even my parents know is a big deal.”
It was creators and executive producers Johnnie Ingram and Steve Warren who drafted this particular trio of performers as their Charlie’s Angels of drag, reaching out to each queen individually and then taking the group to HBO for approval.
When he first heard it was the three of them being considered, Bob’s first instinct was, “I don’t want to work with these hos.” He lets out a cackle and explains his theory that it’s because they’re not best friends that the show works. Each episode finds the queens separately making over and mentoring three different people.
“It’s not like the Fab Five all working together for one person,” he says, the first of a few times he stresses the difference between We’re Here and Queer Eye, another heartwarming LGBT-themed makeover reality show.
“I was really afraid to do one of those shows where like, gays go and make straight people's lives better and then they leave town,” he says. “But Johnnie and Steve said that they wanted to tell queer stories. So the people in the show are queer. The people who work on the show are queer. There’s a lot of gender expressions and queer identities working on the show.” He laughs again. “There’s even some straight people, but you know, no one's perfect.”
Eureka thinks that the show works because they each have unique strengths. “Bob is such a politically correct, intelligent person, and he's very much like the governor of the trio. And then you have Shangela who just doesn’t really know a stranger. She’s really good at having that fun, diva personality but still very professional. And then I was just hoping they’d keep me.”
Laughing, he says he wants that praise to come with a disclaimer: “Now if you interview them and they say some dumb shit, I want on the record that they’re hateful hos.”
Thursday’s premiere episode of We’re Here begins with Bob, Eureka, and Shangela traveling to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
It’s a conspicuous arrival: a caravan of three bus-sized vehicles decorated in theme to each of the queens—a Birkin purse for Bob, an elephant for Eureka, a pink bow for Shangela. Like Dorothy arriving in Oz and seeing color for the first time, these bedazzled drag queen mobiles roll into a rural Pennsylvania town of 7,000 people known for its local Amish population and Civil War tourism.
Gawkers stare slack-jawed as Bob the Drag Queen, in a yellow canary dress and matching hat with the circumference of a small body of water, struts down the streets alongside Eureka—nearly six-and-a-half feet sans heels, magenta flames rising out of his body suit’s shoulder—and Shangela, demure in his Sunday church finest, a teal chiffon train trailing behind her.
The iPhones are out. The giggles are barely stifled. The side-eyes are shooting like daggers as they walk into a thrift shop and begin thumbing through the racks. Some people are loving it, asking for selfies and hugs. The shop owner is tickled to hear that they’re going to put on a drag show featuring actual people from Gettysburg. Then there’s the man who’s heard off-camera informing her, “I’ll never buy anything in here again. All these freakin’ freaks…”
The three queens are there to support and empower Hunter, a young, gay make-up artist; Darryl, a college administrator who wants to be a better LGBTQ ally; and Erica, conservative Christian mother hoping to reconnect with her daughter, who recently came out as bisexual. But even just being themselves in environments like this takes some self-love and self-motivation. That’s the point. And that’s the transformative power of drag.
“It all takes a little psyching up to do in life, period,” Eureka says. “I psych myself up every day. You know, I have a routine every morning, I look in the mirror and tell myself how worthy I am. ‘I’m a warrior. I’m sexy. I’m smart. I’m gonna do this and anything I want to do today. I can get it done.’ And that's just kind of how I get going.”
We’re Here mines comedy from the queens teaching their drag daughters how to walk in heels, do their makeup, and tuck for the first time. But the crux of the show comes from the deeper lessons learned from the bold act of getting into drag.
“We’re equipping them with the tools to realize their best selves,” Shangela says. “That’s what the journey that many drag queens have already gone on, a journey of self-realization. When you’re doing your makeup, you're spending a good two hours looking in the mirror.” He giggles. “Well, most of us…”
“You’re staring two hours at a mirror staring back at yourself, what do you see?” he continues. “Who are you when you’re not made up? And what are you going to go out there and deliver to the world?”
It’s a personal experience every time, which is part of what We’re Here sets out to spotlight. The art of drag is about the fun, the hair, the costumes, the dancing, the comedy, the discipline, and the fierceness. But it’s also about bringing people through pain to a place of strength, the performer included.
“I am a gay, loud, black drag queen who grew up in a small town in Texas, okay?” Shangela says. “I’m accustomed to causing an extra head turn. And with that, I think over time I've built up a great amount of confidence in myself, to be able to walk into a room with my head held high, knowing exactly who I am and not being afraid to deliver that.”
The conceit of We’re Here is a layered wake-up call.
On the one hand, it’s a sobering reminder, for viewers and fans of drag as much as it is for the queens themselves, that the boom in popularity of a show like Drag Race and the enthusiastic celebration of pride can sometimes fool you into thinking that society has progressed more than it really has. On the other, it shows that there is opportunity for that progress, if there are people willing and brave enough to do the work.
“Not only does the title We’re Here highlight the fact that me, Shangela, and Eureka are here, but we as a queer community, we were already here,” Bob says. “We were already existing in your space before these drag queens showed up with a big purse bus.”
There’s a funny scene in Thursday’s premiere episode in which the queens are getting the Gettysburg venue space ready for the big drag show. Shangela doesn’t think anybody is going to come. “We're in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where we're walking around and there are Confederate flags hanging from stores outside. I don’t see not one other black person hardly,” he says.
In the end, the line to get in was so long that people had to be turned away. “Not to toot our own horns, but we’re three world-famous drag queens,” Bob says, remembering the ordeal—and, while he’s at it, perhaps crafting the perfect matter-of-fact tagline for the show. “Why wouldn’t you come?”