Smooth As Butter: Chicagoan Shea Couleé Competes On New Season Of RuPaul's Drag Race
By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 20, 2017 6:23PM
Photo courtesy of Shea Couleé
Did Shea Couleé come to play or did she come to slay as the sole Chicago contestant on season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race? All will be Ru-vealed this Friday, when Coulee and 12 other contestants sashay down the runway for the premiere of the Emmy-award winning drag queen competition.
A Columbia College costume design alum, Couleé says she is attracted to “things that are pretty, things that are ugly, and things that are pretty-ugly,” and that got us thinking—which one describes the new season of Drag Race?
“There’s definitely some pretty moments, and there’s definitely some ugly moments,” she said during a recent phone call with Chicagoist. “So, I’m going to have to say season 9 is pretty-ugly!”
Couleé (Jaren Merrell) spills the tea about meeting RuPaul for the first time, working with Peppermint, the show’s first opening transgender contestant, and why Chicago is the “mecca of drag in the Midwest.”
Chicagoist: You got into drag quite by happenstance about six years ago, when you were asked to perform as a dancer in a burlesque show called Jeezy’s Juke Joint. After an email mishap, you ended up performing a solo act for the show—your first time in drag. What was that experience like?
Shea Couleé: That was my first drag performance and I got a standing ovation. For me, that was a really validating moment because in all my years of performing and doing theater and dance, I had never had such a visceral reaction from an audience. So, yeah, it was a real moment.
Chicagoist: You’ve said that being in drag makes you feel more powerful, like a super hero. What is your super- power Shea?
Shea Couleé: My superpower, if I had one, would be the ability to give people joy. What I think is great about what we do as entertainers is we help people forget about the mundane or unsavory things we deal with in our day-to-day lives.
Chicagoist: Talk about the first time you met RuPaul—was it an out of body-ody-ody experience?
Shea Couleé: It was so crazy because leading up to my first time meeting RuPaul I was really anxious— and then the moment that I met Ru all the nerves just went away. He has this amazing ability to just, like, really connect with individuals, and it was just like I was chatting with an old friend.
Chicagoist: It’s no secret that Lady Gaga makes an appearance on the season 9 opener—what can you reveal about the Gaga-inspired challenge?
Shea Couleé: All I can say is that it allowed the contestants to express themselves within the wide scope of drag that Lady Gaga has done. It was great because the contestants got to interpret Gaga in our own individual ways, so you kind of got to see everyone’s personalities through the artist that is Gaga.
Chicagoist: Speaking of your fellow contestants, let’s chat about Peppermint—RuPaul’s Drag Race first openly transgender contestant. Some individuals in the community seem to be of the mindset that transwomen are not authentic drag queens. What’s your take on that, Shea?
Shea Couleé: I couldn’t disagree more. Drag goes so much further than just the gender-bending quality of the art form. For me, my own definition of drag is really about embracing the transformative qualities that goes along with clothing and costumes. It’s about what we put on as individuals and how that affects both the person wearing it and the people who see it. We are all illusions. And within that illusion I don’t see the need for separating people into different boxes based on biological or gender identity. I was not aware that Peppermint identified as trans before the show. Getting to know her and seeing her journey on the show was really wonderful.
Chicagoist: How has the Chicago drag scene evolved over the last several years?
Shea Couleé: Chicago’s drag scene is going through quite an interesting renaissance. It used to be this really divided scene where you had your continental pageant circuit versus club kids. And all of a sudden, the pageant kids and the club kids started to play nice and now you have this really amazing exchange of ideas and references that have led to these really interesting drag personas being birthed here.
Chicagoist: Has the Chicago drag market reached a saturation point?
Shea Couleé: I think, as of right now, the market in Chicago is starting to get a little saturated, but I think what it really boils down is your ability to make your presence known. Yes, there are only so many shows and gigs, but I feel like if somebody really wants to do drag, there’s a place for you. It’s about making your presence known and being nice to people—and you’ll get work.
Chicagoist: I know you have much respect for RuPaul and the show, but some performers have criticized Drag Race for creating a bit of an uneven playing field.
Shea Couleé: All these young fans and drag beginners are so focused on the contestants show, and they sometimes ignore all of the amazing drag artists that exist within their own communities, and people who they can reach out to teach them the ways of drag.
One thing that’s great about RuPaul’s Drag Race is that it’s taken it out of being an underground art form and made it into something that is more mainstream and more accessible. In many ways that can create a limited scope on the whole art form of drag, but I feel like those who really do understand and love it will go in search of it beyond the girls who have been on Drag Race because their thirst is there and they want to learn more about it.
It’s a double-edged sword, because I know sometimes girls who are in local communities don’t necessarily make a lot of money—because we don’t, unless you are a part of the show. Sometimes these performers think why don’t we get the same respect or the same pay as these girls, and sometimes it can create a little divide, but the show is a really amazing opportunity for anybody who wants to share their story with the world.
Chicagoist: If you could do a Cher and “turn back time” what advice would you have for your younger self?
Shea Couleé: I would tell my younger self not to be afraid. Fear is for suckers—so many of the opportunities I missed out on were because I was afraid that I wasn’t good enough or pretty enough or talented enough. You just have to go for it!
photo courtesy of Shea Couleé
The season premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race airs Friday, March 24 at 7 pm CST on VH1. Shea Couleé will host a premier party that night at Roscoe’s, 3356 N. Halsted, with Trannika Rex and Drag Race alums Shanglea and Naomi Smalls.