June 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — the multi-day act of resistance that launched what we know today as the modern LGBTQIA+ liberation movement.
It's hard to know whether he has the time to consider his own significance, but Darius Jeremy Pierce, better known mononymously by his drag name, Shangela, is a living testament to the strides the queer community has made since that fateful day in 1969.
Pierce, a gay black man of Saudi descent who is best known as his drag queen alter ego, is an activist and emerging mogul the likes of which the world has only come to know very recently.
Shangela's last major project was a memorable role in A Star is Born, one of the most successful films of last year. That same year, she toured more extensively than any other RuPaul's Drag Race alum, performing in 184 cities in 12 months. In March, she went viral for performing a medley of Beyonce songs in front of Queen Bey herself at the GLAAD Awards, which Shangela hosted. And earlier this month, she launched her new, eponymous podcast with an interview with Andy Cohen.
The day before we speak, she spends the afternoon recording a forthcoming episode. And when she's finally able to speak after days of attempting to pin down an interview, she's sitting on a tarmac, stealing a few minutes before she flies to Florida for two Pride Month performances in Orlando and Miami.
Shangela says this pace and workload are nothing new for her. After her third season of Drag Race, she says, "the touring became nonstop and I've been touring for the last... seven, eight years so it's kind of second nature to me now."
Of all the places she could be on the first night of Pride Month, Shangela will be in Miami for the Arsht Center's Communitea Dance, which will also feature music by DJ Hottpants and the State Of as well as performances by Miami queens Karla Croqueta, Petty Boop, and others.
Shangela is pretty well versed in the city's storied drag scene, as she performs here frequently. In March, she headlined the Ultimate Miami Drag Queen competition with Drag Race alum Miss Vanjie. In 2018, she co-hosted the first-ever Celebrity Deathmatch at the Hangar, where local drag queens impersonated divas such as Christina Aguilera, Nicki Minaj, and Madonna, and lip-sync battled inside an actual boxing ring.
"The drag scene in Miami has always been top notch to me," says Shangela. "I've worked at various clubs down in the area and I know a lot of the queens in Florida in general... The queens are just some of the best, most professional, most entertaining queens on the scene. I'm at the Palace on a Sunday, honey."
Asked what sets our city's scene apart from that of other drag hubs, she says it's all in the performance quality. "Whether it's in shows or in brunches or in drag pageants, you know, the girls come up kind of in a legacy of entertainers that are really setting the standard for good showmanship."
And Shangela should know great showmanship — she flexed hers in front of the greatest performer of this generation just two months ago. It was a full circle moment — the first song she ever performed in drag was "Single Ladies."
Shangela says Beyonce was effusive and grateful after the performance. "It was my first time meeting [her] but I felt like I already knew her because I've spent my entire drag career performing her music."
She's calm and collected as she recalls the meeting, but I press for the tea. How calm was she, really?
"I was trying not to look in her direction, but all of my team kept coming to me right before I went on going, 'Oh my God, she's out there. She came out there to see you. She's sitting to the left.' I was like, 'Do not tell me where she is!'
"I wanted to just give a show, I wanted to honor her, I wanted to give the best performance... But afterward... my dancers and my friends who were all backstage literally collapsed on the floor and were like, 'I can't believe that just happened y'all.'"
It's hard to conceive in a post-Drag Race world, but performing for one of the most privileged and powerful figures in the world was an unlikely position for a drag queen just a few years ago. Drag has become a cultural phenomenon all its own, but for most queens, it's still an unstable source of income without health benefits and plenty of psychological and financial risk.
This makes Shangela's expansion into the mediums of film, music, and podcasts all the more unlikely.
"I have a lot of talent and sometimes, you know, when people see you're a drag queen they go, 'Oh, he's a drag queen. That's what he does.' But I'm always excited to... stretch the boundaries on how they see me."
Beyond her work as a performer, Shangela is also a vocal queer advocate and activist. During this noteworthy Pride Month, she says she's reflecting on the progress her community has made over the last five decades.
"It's amazing how far that we've come and the strides we've made in the LGBTQIA community with regard to acceptance and equality and really honoring ourselves and who we are. But there's still more to go. We still have crimes being committed against trans people, especially trans women of color. We still have suicide and bullying going on in our communities and we need to do something about that. So I'm committed to being an advocate for our community, to being an activist for our community, and for pushing forward our moves and just all being a better, [united] group."
Communitea Dance 2019 With Shangela. 5 p.m. Saturday, June 1 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. arshtcenter.org. Admission is free.
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