We Built This: D.J. 'Shangela' Pierce Is Showing What True Freedom Looks Like Through Drag

"It was really freeing for me to create Shangela. And not because I’m hiding in the character. There’s a lot of me as D.J. in Shangela, and I have the same confidence now, in and out of drag. It’s something you have to build up."

D.J. Pierce is larger than life, and anyone who dares to attempt to shrink him will fail miserably.

Best known as Shangela, Pierce is an entertainer, an actor and a three-time contestant on “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” Most recently, he was hand-selected by Lady Gaga to audition for the Oscar-nominated “A Star Is Born.” And though he didn’t have a main role, that title is fitting for Pierce’s story.

As Shangela, the small-town Texan just wrapped up his first major tour, performing in nearly 200 cities worldwide. Pierce has been doing drag for just eight years, but it’s clear that he’s made quite the bang among queens and fans alike (just ask his stans who should’ve won “All Stars 3”). Aside from giving all of us life, Pierce takes seriously his responsibility to ensure those who don’t feel valuable, like he once did, find their voice and follow their truth.

For “We Built This,” Pierce spoke to HuffPost about his days as a cheerleader, living in Jenifer Lewis’ basement and the freedom that drag gives him.

What have you built?

What have I built? Well, I think I’ve built, just for myself, I feel like I’ve built a legacy of love and hopefully an inspiration for people to never give up on what you want in this world. If you go after it, if you put the work behind it, if you keep a good attitude about it, it’ll happen for you. You just got to keep going. I feel like I’ve built a lot of great strength, not only in myself but hopefully within my community as well. 

How did your Texas roots factor in to you becoming or wanting to become an entertainer?

Well, I think growing up in a small town like Paris, Texas, it motivated me to get out of Paris, Texas. I always felt like I wanted more than the things that were around me, but I loved growing up in Paris. I think being a part of a small community, a tight-knit community, whether it was my family community, my church community, my school community, I was involved in so many things because I wanted to be out of the house. Even more than be out of the house, I wanted to just continue to expand, and I learned so much and I got so much great opportunities.

And also, being in a small town you go, ‘All right, there’s got to be more for me.’ And that really pushed me to do well in school and to get out, and I did, but I love going back for sure.

How did you find your voice?

I think I found my voice in just continuing to be me and embrace that. A lot of times when you’re in a place where you don’t feel that a lot of people like you around, you tend to go inward. But I think for me it pushed me even more outward. I was, like, “OK, if I’m the only one like me, honey, I’m going to be me.” And I was thankful that I found that at a very young age, and I was very thankful that I was encouraged to be me by my grandma. I grew up with my grandma for a large part of my life. My mom was in the military, so she traveled a lot.

So I think I definitely found my voice in just exploring every part of who I was and loving to entertain people. I love to see people laugh, I love to see people laugh. Honey, they can’t shut me up. I love telling a story, telling a joke, and that really helped me to find my voice, which was enjoying entertaining other people.

What do you think were some opposing factors that tried to make you withdraw? What was it that you had to fight through in order to get to that place where you’re like, “I’m unapologetically D.J.”?

I think being me, I wanted to always be the best me. There were things in my life that didn’t always support me being the best me. Let’s talk about I grew up in a small town, I said that. In my church life, I grew up with a very strong Southern Baptist conservative home life. We were in church all the time, and sometimes the messages that I would hear in church were not supporting me being gay. They were like, “You’re going to hell if you’re gay.” It was very homophobic messages sometimes.

So that made me not sometimes want to be my full self. I started questioning who I was, where I fit in and if I would be able to go to heaven at some point, if God loved me. All those different questions. But I think seeing an example of love from my grandma mostly and from my family, that’s what really said, you know what, I’m going to continue to be me, I love me and I love my relationship with God, my personal one. I’m not going to let these outside messages force me into thinking that I’m a bad person or that I don’t belong, that my lifestyle or my sexuality is not right. I had to really look inward to myself but hold on to the strength of “I am enough, I am valuable, I do belong here.” And I’m not going to shy myself away from the world.

And when I went out there and got to connect with people who [gave love back] as well, and then I gained this great love and confidence in myself, I saw that other people supported that. I was the first male cheerleader in my school since like, 1963. We didn’t have boy cheerleaders, but I really wanted to be a cheerleader. So I was like “I’m going to audition for the squad.” They kept telling me “you’re the mascot,” and I was like, “I don’t want to wear that cat suit, I want to cheer.” So I was very thankful that the cheer coach at that time was like, “Sure, audition, and if you’re good we’ll bring you on the squad.” And they did.

What is drag to you?

Drag to me really is freedom, and I think that when I embraced my love for drag and also me doing drag, because I started doing drag eight years ago ― a lot of people’s drag career is not a long time ago ― at first when I did it, even I was questioning, What am I doing? How are other people going to perceive me because I think that we have a couple coming-outs as a drag queen? First of all, come out as gay, then not only am I gay, but I’m also a drag queen. A lot of people don’t understand that a lot of times.

But drag to me really became freeing because it allowed me to let go of what I thought the perception of me should be. How I wanted other people to see me. I didn’t care about that anymore as the fact that this is how I see myself and I love every part of myself. And even on the show, RuPaul or Michelle Visage asked me, “Is being a drag queen really what you want?” I was thinking, Here I am in this show, I’ve come back twice, why would that even be a question? But I think it was what I was also representing. I wasn’t embracing myself fully because I was still trying to ... I wanted to come off good to everybody.

When all that goes out the window and you go, I’m going to have the best time, I’m going to live my life, I’m going to love my life, I’m going to love myself and I’m going to go out there and be unapologetically me. I’m not going to harm nobody in the process, but I’m going to be me. 

RuPaul always says that what other people think of me is none of my business. And the age we’re in right now, with so much social media and you’re looking at comments and you’re looking at immediate feedback and people are talking about you. But as a drag queen, it was really freeing for me to create Shangela. And not because I’m hiding in the character. There’s a lot of me as D.J. in Shangela, and I have the same confidence now, in and out of drag. It’s something you have to build up.

Being a drag queen and letting go and really trying to build myself or mold myself into other people’s definition of me, that’s what’s giving me the true freedom. That’s why I love drag. I love putting on my number, girl. I love going out there doing my Beyonce mix or singing and performing or doing any type of thing in and out of drag, but it’s because it has to start with that love for yourself. That’s where it really comes from.

When you first stepped into Shangela and you looked in the mirror, what were your feelings? What were your thoughts?

I look good, ooh halleloo. It’s a heightened sense of myself. It’s putting on the diva, and not in a rude diva way, but the essence of just ... you know, you feel 20 feet tall. People always tell me when they see me, “You’re a lot shorter than I thought you were.” I’m like, I don’t think I changed, but it is because I carry myself, especially when entertaining, as a giant. I walk in as a giant. I love the fantasy, I go in for it, and when I look in the mirror, that’s definitely what I see: a giant.

How do you think drag as we know it today is evolving?

I think that for drag ― and I’m very thankful because just this last year, in 2018, I performed in 184 cities throughout the world; honey, I was in drag I think more than I was a man ― but I’ve been able to witness and see, experience and dive into different types of drag. I think there’s been such an evolution of drag. Maybe not. Maybe it’s just I’ve become more aware, and I’ve had the evolution and I think the visibility of drag has had an evolution. I think a lot of things we think are new may not necessarily be new. We just didn’t know about them. We just hadn’t seen them.

And now because of media, social media, the internet, visibility of drag in television and shows in film, people are seeing a lot more drag and they’re being able to not think of it as this idea that’s over there, but it’s something that’s relatable to a lot of people. It’s so great to see our audiences from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and drag in general, has just evolved to not just being what used to be just the gay bar audience, but it’s families, it’s moms and their kids, it’s straight dads. It’s still out fabulous gays and queer culture as well, but it just continues to evolve.

I love seeing and embracing so many different types of drag. There’s glamour drag, there’s pageant drag, there’s weird gender fuck-type drag. There’s just so many different types of drag, and I think that’s really cool, too, that people get to experience all these different types of drag and also do it. So many more people are like, ‘I’m getting up in drag.’ Honey, there’s just drag queens everywhere, even bio. We call a “bio” queens which are women that get in drag and do a show or compete or something. There’s just so many different types of drag: kings drag, queen, there’s just so many different types of drag.

Why was it important for you today to do this beautiful portrait, do this beautiful photo shoot out of drag?

For me, drag is part of my art. It is part of who I am, but it’s also, like, it’s my entertainment, it’s what I love to do, it’s my job. It’s like my uniform, you know, but some days you don’t want to always be in your uniform. I like to remind people of all the times that I am a full, well-rounded person as well. I love to work as an actor, and even when we’re doing red carpets and all the people ask why I didn’t come as Shangela. Well, it’s not all of who I am, and I want people to, hopefully, as I do, embrace every part of myself. I don’t hide behind my drag. My drag is extra armor. It’s glitter, glam, fabulosity.

It’s just an extra part, an extra layer of who I am. So, in being fair to myself, and thank you so much for having me and allowing me to do this portrait out of drag as well, because it’s part of embracing every part of who I am. I don’t want to lose myself in drag. I don’t want to lose who I am. I love to explore every part of who I am, and my drag is one layer of that, one part.

Who are the black history makers, the ancestors, the change agents of yesteryear or even the elders of today who inspire you to continue to do the work that you do?

Well, I mean there are so many people that have paved the way, great ancestors, I could go back into black history and just go up and through. But I’m going to go more recently to people who have directly changed my life with a touch point. I’ve got to start by saying Jenifer Lewis, “The Mother of Black Hollywood,” halleloo. Jenifer Lewis is one of the most impactful people in my life, not just my career but who I am as a person. I met Jen 10 years ago, maybe a little more than that, randomly in New York. She was backstage at a show and I was backstage at that show and happened to meet her. I’m like, oh, my God, Jenifer Lewis, I love you, I love “Jackie’s Back.” And she was like, “Ah, motherfucker, you crazy,” and I was like, “I’m crazy for you,” and she was like, “Yeah, you real crazy.”

Then she was like, “Something about you is real sweet. Let’s hang out.” And then we did, and we became great friends, and I told her, this is back before I even started doing drag, I was living in Texas, I’d just graduated from college, I’m like, “I’m going to move to L.A., I’m going to be an actor, I’ll do any job.” She was like, “Well, I might need an assistant. Look me up.” And she did, she hired me as her assistant when I first moved to L.A., and then I ended up going on “Drag Race” a year and a half later. She was like, “OK, you’re too famous to be my assistant now, but you can live in the basement.” So I ended up renting the pool house in her place, and I call it basement, she calls it my dungeon.

But just being around her, a veteran in the industry of entertainment but also someone who has worked on her own personal life and now lives their life so out loud and proud and unashamed ― and she is who she is, and she’s a force ― just being able to watch her, it’s not even all the times, the things she says to me, it’s like not that she’s guiding me with her hands, it’s just being that close to someone and being able to observe how they navigate a room, how they deal with the different highs and lows of the career, the entertainment industry. Just being around that presence is amazing. It’s given me so much in my life, so much confidence. Even more confidence in who I am.

And someone else I have to mention: RuPaul. I can’t say enough great things about RuPaul, and a lot of times people say, with “All Stars 3” and how that went down, do you dislike the show? Are you anti-RuPaul? Not at all, because RuPaul saw something in me at a time that I didn’t see it in myself, really. And to be a part of his legacy and what he has created as a drag entertainer as an important, smart, intelligent business person ― all those tools ― and if you watch you can learn, and that’s something I’ve always been good about. 

He has done so much for not only the drag community and the black queer community but just gays in general, and that means a lot to me to see someone out there just doing their job. 

What do you hope for the future? Not just your future but for this legacy that you’ve built upon. What’s the hope for the future generation?

I really hope we continue moving in a positive and inclusive direction. I hope we continue moving forward and not backward. So much in our world, it’s been so great. Being able to have shows like “Drag Race” and “Pose” and so many amazing shows on television, so that more people in places where you may not know a gay person, you may not have interaction with black people, now, because media is so powerful, you’re seeing these stories, these authentic stories that are told authentically ― not a story that has a black queer person but it’s nothing that is black and queer, and you’re, like, that is so not my life.

Now we’re seeing so many authentic stories, even in “A Star Is Born.” I was so happy to have that role and to have someone like Bradley Cooper as a director who said, “We’ve got this great script for you. You’ve got the lines, but feel free to go there. You know this world, go there, and if I need to pull you back I will.” That’s amazing, and to see people come to us and to hear them say, “I saw the movie, and I felt like I was backstage at a drag room,” that was real drag. To see that, that’s where I hope we continue to go. I hope we continue to go to a place where people are more understanding and accepting, and even if you don’t know about somebody, you’re interested in knowing about their world before you try to judge, restrict or pull them back.

Let’s be ourselves. Let’s be happy to be us and know that we only have a small amount of time in the grand scheme of things on this earth. You better enjoy it. Smile, laugh and let other people be. That’s where I hope we’d go.

Photo shoot produced by Christy Havranek. Audio production by Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson. Grooming by Miyako J Beauty.