Culture-crusader, rule-breaker, costume-maker; Shea Couleé isn’t just here to stay, she’s here to slay. And slay away she will because Shea is drag royalty with an All Stars win and a Drag Race third place under her bedazzled belt. While unapologetically herself and absolutely unstoppable, she consistently honours the queer community that serves as a constant source of inspiration, a grounding body and her home – and she does it all dressed to the nines. There’s no doubt about it, Shea is a super force to be reckoned with. This is Shea Couleé’s world, we’re just living in it.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 46. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
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Cloak EVAN CLAYTON breast plate vintage.
But Shea does more than dominate the high-octane realm of drag performance because she is also a master of music- making. Fast becoming one of the most multifaceted and visionary creators on the scene with lush sonics, a vivacious sassiness and moves like Josephine Baker, her specific strain of eclectic house beats has metamorphosed over the past decade and a half into an infallibly euphonic exploration of self-acceptance. With her 2017 EP, Couleé-D, Shea somehow managed the inconceivable: she gagged us all with a fierce hip-hop anthem sandwiched between poignant, sensual songs. The result? A transcendent three-track bangarang. Subsequently, came a whirlwind of sporadic yet successful singles. Now with her debut album in the works, we can expect nothing less than a genre-blending body of work that echoes the thematic bearings of experiential self-discovery, acceptance, advocacy, attitude and simply being a dreamer on the precipice of greatness.

Shea’s first Drag Race stint was in 2017 where she racked up four challenge wins, tied for third place, and cemented herself as a notorious TV persona. Three years on she took home the top accreditation on All Stars Five, the Drag Race spin-off that offers prior Drag Race contestants a second shot at the crown and glory. It would seem the fates were in her favour, but to credit serendipity alone would be to cast a shadow on a taxing odyssey and overlook the person that beat all odds.

Born and raised in Chicago, her adolescence was steeped in musical theatre and the whimsical world of costume design. She was the youngest of a large, blended family, growing up fortified in a tight-knit, religious family. But while her rich history in The Windy City serves as sense of infallible security, it can be challenging moving within these proverbial spaces as a queer person of colour. Yet, Shea always kept one eye on the horizon and one foot deeply rooted in the Chicago communities that uplifted her.

What’s more, the starlet is back on the silver screen for RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season seven, which will be aired 20th May this year. Once again nurturing an atmosphere of humour, entertainment, extravaganza and utter acceptance, the blood, sweat and tears of it all harbours a habitat where artistic rebellion thrives.

There’s something truly special about her presence on stage. She is awe-inspiring – the crème de la crème of provocative showmanship, suspending the gaze of the room with nothing more than her hips. Playing with ideas from the divine feminine and the fragility of the masculine hegemony to action heroism and getting physical on a vertical pole, she creates outlandish caricatures, where glitz, glam and prowess take centre stage.

There is also a sense of maternal guidance attached to her innate identity. After all, she is the house mother for Maison Couleé where she has taken Bambi Banks, Kenzie, and Khloe under her wing – all of whom have adopted the peerless Couleé surname and its signature feisty demeanour. The house is not bound by blood, but by friendship and chosen family. Shea is undeniably a grandiose source of inspiration for all of the girls in her house, but also to a whole community of Black, gay, and non-binary people. Simply put, Shea Couleé is a champion of the Other.
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Your performances, retail endeavours (like the $100,000 Bar soap collaboration with The Quiet Girl Shoppe and Shea Coul-Alé) catwalk appearances (Savage x Fenty) music and your podcast, Wanna Be On Top?, all extend beyond drag into social issues, charity and uplifting Black and LGBTQIA+ voices. Can you share more about how you’re doing drag differently?
For me community is such an important part of life in general. I come from a family that was always promoting the ideals of being engaged and helping one's community. So as much as I try to take steps forward in my career, I always want to be reaching back and activating with those that surround me and have supported me all throughout these years. That’s why I still stay in Chicago because I just feel like my heart and soul belong here. And it’s important to always feed into the things that just make me feel grounded and secure.
Especially as a drag queen, where you put on this feminine guise and role and performance, there are echoes of a sort of parallel reality and an alternative embodiment of identity embedded in each character. Do you ever find yourself feeling stuck in one world or another?
I’m an Aquarius, so I feel like I kind of exist between these dual planes of reality and fantasy constantly. And so it’s always a balancing act regardless of whether I’m in the visual performance that is drag or I’m just walking down the street. In my mind, I’m living a completely different ultra fem fantasy while I'm heading to the grocery store. And I just feel like I’m constantly going back and forth between reality and fantasy and how I take my fantasies and try and manifest them into realities through fashion, art, clothing, et cetera.
Leading on from that point, does changing who you appear to be and how you behave have an effect on the person underneath the makeup?
Absolutely. Drag has helped me really come out of my shell because it’s such a radical art form. It really goes against the status quo and the grain, and now drag is so popular in pop culture. It’s something that’s discussed a lot. We see it all over. But even prior to my involvement in drag over a decade ago, it was completely different. It was something that you had to go and seek. It had this underground quality; you had to go and find drag queens in order to see them. Now, for me specifically, everything that I have learnt from putting on the costume, the hair and the makeup has really helped to inf luence and impact the way that I feel about myself in my day to day.
So would you say that it has a positive inf luence?
Oh, absolutely. I think it’s such a positive influence and I’ve just become overall, a much stronger, more self- assured, confident person.
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Full look EVAN CLAYTON, latex panty BUSTED BRAND.
That’s really beautiful. In many ways drag can act as a form of escapism. In which universe or character’s world are you most at home?
That’s a really good question. So I am the architect of a really interesting universe that mirrors a lot of my own personal experiences: underground house music culture, bar culture and Chicago. And for the better part of six years I've been developing this concept album that centres around an art film that I did five years ago called Lipstick City. I feel like the universe of Lipstick City really does encapsulate the universe that Shea Couleé is so strongly tethered to.
Bringing it back to your short film, Lipstick City, that you released in 2017, it’s a visually sumptuous exploration of your drag persona. But is the universe portrayed there an accurate representation of you? Or is it more of a fantasy?
I would say that it is much more of a fantasy, but I did borrow core elements of who Shea Couleé is and who I am. Then I just abstracted them and added more colour, texture and intrigue, but it always does come back fundamentally to who I am as an artist. That’s just someone who has spent the majority of their life feeling othered until coming into a space with a whole bunch of other queer people where I felt like oh my goodness, I guess I could actually be the star, I guess I could be successful. Lipstick City always ties back to those experiences and I try and find ways to reflect that.
Nice. The film depicts a sort of campy alternative reality where your lover cheats and you’re out for revenge. How has this reflected on your real life experiences and your perception of romance now?
I needed something that was an inciting action and I wanted the story to be about revenge. I mean, I’m not particularly a vengeful person. I believe in karma; I believe in the universe just handling things. However, when it comes to entertainment, movies and film, I realised that my favourite content is one where a feminine figure is seeking revenge and righting the wrongs that have been done to her. So that was just the start of where I wanted Lipstick City to kick off. I split myself into two characters: Shea and Miss Couleé, because I’ve always described myself as being equal parts boujee and banjee. Miss Couleé represents this boujee side of me while Shea really represents the banjee side. Through that, I wanted to talk about that duality. Also I feel like it reflects on sometimes the performances that queer people of colour have to do when working in predominantly white spaces. How we kind of have to switch up our personalities in order to be oftentimes seen as more attractive, palatable or desirable in order to be successful. For example, you see Miss Couleé who is successful, has a lover, she lives in a penthouse apartment. Then you have Shea who is clearly someone who is more grassroots and is living an underground lifestyle. But what does that mean? What do those experiences mean particularly for queer people of colour who are trying to be taken seriously as artists?
You mentioned earlier how Lipstick City encapsulates the Shea Couleé universe and has been leading up to an album that you’re releasing soon. So, let's talk music! It’s been about two years since you last released any music so I’m super excited to see what you have in store for your first full album. What themes will you explore on the record?
In the album I’m trying to exhume self-discovery, love, acceptance and advocacy for oneself – plus it's all just really fun and dancey. It’s all really aspirational, but in the sense of Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster and how that was a really aspirational album because you were looking at somebody who was really on the precipice of greatness writing about their experiences and their dreams of becoming the star that they hope to one day become. I feel like it's very similar in that aspect.
I love that! Plus that album was amazing...
Yes, it was life changing!
Good things to come, I can imagine. But moving on from that, I also wanted to ask your opinion on this idea that the metaverse could offer full on avatars for people to embody, leaving behind the hoopla of everyday life. For quote unquote common people this is a relatively new concept, but for drag queens, actors, etc there is some semblance of similarity. What do you think about this?
I think it’s cool. I’m always intrigued by technology and technological advances. I have been in the metaverse – though I have not created or seen an avatar that fits my specifications and lives up to my standards – but also when it comes to transformation, there is something that I do really enjoy about the tactile aspect of makeup, hair and wardrobe. We’ll get there. I look forward to there being a moment where I can have a fierce avatar and just be able to upload my makeup versus spending an hour and a half to do it, that could be cool. I’m really curious to see what that crossover is. And also, playing fantasy or playing make believe is fun – it can be very cathartic and therapeutic. And if the metaverse is giving other people, everyday people who work a nine to five job who don’t get the opportunity to play around a dream and have as much fun, the opportunity to experience that for a moment, then I think, why not?
Can you imagine a future where people actually prefer their digital lives and realities to their real ones?
I can. I feel like we’re already headed that way now. The way that social interaction has changed so much from when I was younger is quite wild. I can only imagine 50 years from now how people will be wanting to live their lives. There will be many more people who choose to live their lives virtually versus in this reality.
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Cloak EVAN CLAYTON breast plate vintage.
The metaverse can also kind of act as a form of escapism, which I think to some extent is why it boomed into popularity during this pandemic where ‘real’ life seems like a far-off future. But what effect do you think this will have on humanity as it begins to bridge the gap between what is and isn’t considered acceptable? Because obviously online there’s a lot less boundaries and rules than there are in real life.
I think we’re going to see a lot of that, and we’re going to see a lot of people pushing the boundaries as much as they can and it’s going to beg the question, what is acceptable and or unacceptable because what is real and what is just virtual, what is just digital, what is just programming? That’s where we have a big grey area, because also, how do you monitor that? There are really no laws that are set in place to rule anything that happens within the metaverse. When you think about it, it’s enough to make your head spin, but it’s such uncharted territory and I am very intrigued to see how we as humanity manoeuvre.
I think there’s so much room for negative freedom.
Oh, yeah.
It’s a bit of a weird one, but kind of leaning on that point, influencers like Lil Miquela and Bermuda are some of the highest followed influencers on the scene, repeatedly collaborating with big names and emerging brands. There’s a certain allure to the concept of designed perfection, but it is absolutely unachievable because it is fake. As far as I know there are very few plus sized, trans or disabled virtual influencers, and there are very few racially or culturally diverse robot inf luencers which creates a rift in the progression toward inclusivity and representation. I think it especially draws a dangerous line back into Aryan ideals and if not that then insecurity and body image issues at least. What are your thoughts on this?
My thought is that we’ve spoken a lot about fantasy and I think that what these designers in their minds are thinking is that fantasy doesn’t require representation when in so many ways we still need to see ourselves in the things that we fantasise about because we are still placing ourselves in this world, in this reality, in this universe. When you are designing these avatars that you think are reaching some sort of ideal that is really cool, I feel like what these designers are failing to understand is that right now, culturally, what people are looking for is to see themselves. We still are in the age of seeking perfection I don’t think that that’s ever going to be something that human beings stop doing because I think about the most successful influencers, celebrities, beauty icons and they all, for the most part, subscribe to a lot of Eurocentric beauty ideals. If anything, it’s just a reflection of the design industry and how they continue to perpetuate Eurocentric beauty ideals. Technology is just another sector where that is reinforced.
Yeah, absolutely. Why do you think we feel the need to escape so desperately to the point that the world’s most brilliant minds are building a world away from our own?
Because we’re not supposed to live life the way that we’re living right now. We’re not supposed to be living to work but that’s the way that our society is set up. It’s set up to keep people trapped in a system where they spend all their time contributing to capitalist gain to these large companies, just padding the pockets of executives who are in a one percentile of the population. We need something to forget about the fact that that’s where so many of us are trapped in a system. It’s due to circumstances out of our control, our conditioning, systematic hurdles and just in general, oppression.
I agree. Back to you, you’re back on Drag Race for All Stars 7, which must be pretty exciting!
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Armor EVAN CLAYTON, latex top and gloves BUSTED BRAND.
So, from Drag Race 9 in 2017 to All Stars 5 in 2020, if you ref lect back what were the greatest learning curves and life lessons you’ve gained from your years on the show?
The best life lesson I have learnt has been to advocate for myself in so many ways. And sometimes I have to advocate for myself, to myself; just showing up is part of advocating for yourself and reminding yourself that you are capable because I definitely suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be and that these opportunities have aligned in a way that I've always dreamed about. There are so many ways that you want things, you imagine them and then when you get to that point in your life it’s not exactly what you had imagined. You find yourself having to negotiate your dream or fantasy and the reality of the situation. But I feel like all in all, what I’ve learnt is that it’s just really important to take care of myself and put my own peace of mind first.
And how do you sustain creativity amidst so much pressure and the expectation to be constantly creative?
That’s actually something that I feel like I’m really still trying to figure out. Whenever I have those moments and those bursts of creativity I feel like what I do is I have to just honour that and write it down, draw it or do whatever I can to get it out of my head and into reality in some way, shape or form. The more I do that, the easier it is for me to continue that balance between the tasks at hand and my creativity.
You’ve said in previous interviews that you’re really good at putting on a front, especially in regard to insecurities and deeper emotions. What does that look like and feel like for you?
I just channel that person that I want to be, that I see myself being. As I said earlier as an Aquarius I’m constantly living in this duality between reality and fantasy so when I’m not feeling as confident, I reach over into that fantasy version of me and borrow all these confident capabilities that I see myself having in that fantasy and I just apply them. It’s like real life role-play.
Every time you get up on that stage you disrupt normality. What would you say is the key to causing such disruption in the weird world we’re currently living in? SC: I’m just not normal. It’s listening to that voice on the inside that says, “Yes, this feels like you; yes, this feels happy; yes, this feels impactful.” We all have it – we all have that tiny little voice. I just always, always, always, always, always listened to that voice because that voice has never served me wrong.
I’m just not normal. It’s listening to that voice on the inside that says, “Yes, this feels like you; yes, this feels happy; yes, this feels impactful.” We all have it – we all have that tiny little voice. I just always, always, always, always, always listened to that voice because that voice has never served me wrong.
Finally, what to you is a vision of a utopian future?
A vision of utopia, okay... So, we have completely disrupted the patriarchy; dismantled it; taken it down. I’m going to put Black women in charge, and women as a whole, but Black women would be the CEOs of humanity and we would allow everybody to report to them. I would love to see amazing queer, LGBTQIA+ representation throughout the whole world. Equality and equal rights. Equal pay. So, yeah, my utopia just looks like equality: dismantling the patriarchy, reformative justice and equality. That's it. That’s utopia.
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