D.J. “Shangela” Pierce chats about mentoring her “drag daughters” – from their first walk in heels to their debut drag performances – on new HBO show “We’re Here.” (April 23)
When Shangela, Eureka O’Hara and Bob the Drag Queen step onto the streets of small town America, suited up in outfits that could stop traffic, they can’t help but declare, “We’re Here.”
Appropriately, that’s the name of their new HBO series (Thursdays, 9 EDT/PDT), which sends the drag queen extraordinaires into towns far from the reach of progressive metropolitan cities with a mission – to work with locals to harness the power of drag as a means of self-expression and self-discovery. They put them in wigs, eyelashes, heels and, ideally, a new coat of confidence to walk out on a stage and perform in a one-night-only show for their friends, family and neighbors.
Based on the looks shot in their direction as they strut down the streets of places like Gettysburg, Pa. and Branson, Mo., you’d think Paul Revere rode ahead screaming, “The drag queens are coming, the drag queens are coming!”
A trio of drag queens stars in HBO’s ‘We’re Here.’ (Photo: Netflix)
But the trio of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alums, known for their heart and humor, aren’t here to terrorize conservative towns with a queer agenda.
“We came in with big costumes on and wanted to draw attention, and that’s kind of the point,” O’Hara said. “We’re here to remind people to look at how progressive the world is and don’t forget it. We aren’t here to shake up your family morals and tear your town apart. We just want to show the queer people who are in the shadows of your town that there are more people like them.”
For all three performers, the attraction of the six-episode show wasn’t about getting to makeover the common man, but rather a commitment from creators Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram to share diverse and primarily queer stories, with an array of participants that identify as gay, straight, trans or genderfluid.
“I didn’t want to do a show where gay people just go make straight people’s lives better,” Bob said. “That would have made me sad. But when we found out we would be doing stories that involve queer narratives, I was all in. That’s what we need to see more of.”
Each episode, Shangela, Eureka and Bob are paired with someone or multiple people with a story to tell.
There’s Erica, a conservative mother looking to reconnect with her daughter after she rejected her coming out as bisexual. There’s Michael, Owen, and Amelia, a disparate group of drag artists in Twin Falls, Idaho, who need help forming a community. And Brandon, a trans man, looking to give his wife and high school sweetheart Mikayla the wedding experience they never had.
Camp and humor are foundational elements of drag culture the three queens bring to the show in spades. But at times, they take a back seat in “We’re Here,” as the show tackles tough conversations about the realities – triumphant and traumatic – often ingrained in queer or queer adjacent stories.
“You will cry,” Shangela said. “Trust me, I’m not a crier. But in watching this, you will boo-hoo or at least shed one tear because we had to be incredibly vulnerable and honest to connect with people really quickly, all with cameras rolling.”
For Bob, it’s in those tender moments with their drag daughters in their homes and in their communities that the real message of the show is laid bare.
“Maybe after the fifth time I cried while filming, I realized people travel around the world and talk about how we are all so different,” Bob said. “But we’re actually really so similar. That’s what I took away from this. I always say it’s not really about the drag. Drag is the conduit for a show about human interaction and the human experience.”
Eureka said nothing bonds people like a common goal, which in this case is the extravagant performance put on as a finale to each town visit.
For the performances, the queens brought on their own creative teams, from makeup to choreography, to produce a performance worthy of the grand stage. The trio are also credited producers on the series.
Shangela said she knows throwing themselves out of their comfort zones heels first was tough for the participants, many of them not knowing if they would feel warm love or get cold stares from their community. But Shangela also expected her drag daughters to go for broke when it came time to hit the stage.
“I’m asking people who have never put on heels, never put on wigs to not only do it, but also to commit in a way that I commit,” she said. “You have to be baby Shangela and think of me as your real mama.”
But don’t mistake this for just another makeover show.
“I love to differentiate that this is not a reality show, but a real-life series,” Shangela said. “We are not coming in to make someone over. We are coming to help them make themselves over. We want them to realize what power they hold.”
With all three queens rising to stardom from their own small communities, they took on the challenge of the series to show everyday people, queer or otherwise, the support is there even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
“We want to leave them knowing there is more support and resources in their town than they realize,” O’Hara said. “These towns prove that. People naturally want to do good and we all yearn to belong. We just need to know the community is there.”
Shangela is confident “We’re Here” can be a steward of that message.
“What better way to bring people together and build a community than through drag,” she said.
Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com. Hunter is a member of the Television Critics Association.
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