By Alyssa Shapiro, she/her
Watch the latest episode of Beautiful People here, and allow drag queen Shea Couleé, Drag Race All Star and finalist on season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race, to introduce herself:
“Hi, I'm Shea Couleé. I am 32 years old—you wouldn’t know by looking at me. I live in Chicago, Illinois. My pronouns are they/them and she/her. And I am a super fan of Youth To The People.”
Alyssa Shapiro: What is beauty to you? In relation to drag?
Shea Couleé: For me, beauty is the ability to inspire desire. In relation to drag, I feel like beauty means taking a vision and executing it to its fullest potential. Drag is a communication of an inward intention that we project outward for people to see.
I think what's beautiful about drag is how I am able to communicate my feelings and my inspirations and to put them on and wear them and interact with people in the world. One thing that's really beautiful about clothing and self-expression is that it does two things: it affects you, the person that's wearing them. You know, when I look in the mirror, I feel different. But it also affects the way that people see, perceive, and interact with you. And that's really powerful. And for me, I love the power that drag has.
When I'm in drag there feels like this level of admiration and respect. Because drag is really brave and I love being able to be vulnerable and open myself up to complete strangers and allow them to see a part of me that I don't show at every part of the day.
AS: What is drag in relation to your life?
SC: Drag has been the vehicle for all of my wildest dreams and manifestations. It has allowed me to understand my own power and abilities. And it's given me the confidence to go out into the world and show people: This is exactly who I am. It is my livelihood. It is how I support myself. It is how I express myself. Drag, to me, is like the air that I breathe.
AS: You said that drag allows you to show who you are. Who are you?
SC: Who am I? I'm an Aquarius, so I’m a dreamer. I’m so many things, you know? An individual, I'm complex. I love to inspire. I love to create, I love to live in the moment.
Despite what I feel everybody perceives on the outside, what I communicate through my drag and my art, at the end of the day, fundamentally, I am a human being. I feel like I'm no different than anybody else. Like, all I want is to just be happy. And so I allow myself to lead and to search for my own happiness.
AS: Thanks to shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag is now in people's living rooms. Like kids get to grow up watching drag, with parents who are watching drag. What does this mean to you and to the drag community?
SC: To have drag be in people's living rooms? To have it be so accessible? To me, it is amazing. I had to go out and search and find drag. When I started doing drag, drag seemed mystical. It felt like Narnia, you know? Like you had to go at the right time at the right place— always after dark—in order to see it and experience it. Now having drag in people's living rooms, in their televisions, takes away a bit of the mystery and maybe misinformation about drag. It reveals to people that under all the wigs and the makeup and the heels are these human beings. That to me is really great. I love people being able to see the humanity that drag has.
AS: What was your path like before you found drag?
SC: My path before I found drag was always artistically driven. I drew, I painted, I did theater, acting. I mean, any way that I felt that I could express myself, I was always diving into that. However, in life, we're told that you kind of have to stay in your lane, you have to choose a path. I had all these collective interests and I was just like, I don't know how to marry myself to one. And then when I discovered drag, I was like, this combines all that I want to do.
AS: Something I found really striking about watching RuPaul's drag race is like seeing how incredibly multi-talented everyone is on the show. You are so good at so many things. It must be cool to be a part of a community that's so creative and so talented in so many ways, interested and inspired all the time.
SC: I am consistently in awe of my community. I learn something new from each queen, each performer that I interact with, every time. There is just such a wealth of knowledge, techniques, and tricks that can be applied to make somebody’s drag the best that it can be. And I love learning that. I feel like I am a student of life. I always love to get new knowledge and there are so many brilliant artists in this community that are so muti-disciplinary and multifaceted, and it's just incredibly, incredibly inspiring.
AS: When you went to school, you majored in theater and costume design, right? Did you know what you wanted to do with that?
SC: When I started school, I first started off in musical theater performance and I was told that I probably wouldn’t go far. So I switched to costume design because I was also taking a fashion illustration class at the time just as an elective.
And one of the teachers was like, you should really go into costume design because I think that the way you create, it would lend itself well there. I switched and did costume design. It was such an amazing experience. I learned so much and even in doing costume design, because I still love to perform, I would audition and do straight plays and shows instead of the musicals. The critique, in regards to my singing voice, they just said that I just didn't have anything they felt was marketable. It was too raspy, too velvety, or too unique. And they were just king of like “Ugh.”
Alex Kim Kenealy: And how did you get emotionally over that hurdle? Like being told you’re one thing, how did you get over that?
SC: I think emotionally I got over that hurdle by just continuing to sing, even if it wasn't on stage, you know? It's like, okay, if you don't think that I'll be good at musicals, then I'll just become a recording artist and I'll do it like that.
AS: You’ve said that singing is a dream for you.
SC: Absolutely. I love music. I love singing. I love rapping. I just love writing and creating songs. And the more and more that I do it, the more and more that I have really realized for myself that I do have a gift to do that. Life is too short, so I can't waste any time letting those opinions from people in my past prevent me from achieving my dreams.
AS: Can you speak a little bit more on that? Because I think that's really important advice for people to hear that someone professional, whose job it is to tell you whether you're good or not, might be wrong. And it's really important to be able to look at yourself and say, well, do I really want to pursue this? And find that strength within yourself.
SC: I think what's really important about dreams is dreams are like little seeds. And if you really want it to grow and manifest itself to a beautiful flower, you have to water it. And watering takes nurturing your dreams, takes believing in your dreams. And sometimes there are going to be people that come in with outside opinions. And to me, that's like a weed that is trying to choke your plant. And sometimes you gotta go through and weed your garden. Hold those negative thoughts up by the root and get rid of 'em, so that you can continue to grow that journey.
AS: What skills would you say a drag queen needs to be a star?
SC: The first one I would say is not necessarily a skill, but I feel like there literally needs to be a level of delusion going on. Drag queens, we always talk about living the fantasy. We almost create our own universes and galaxies that revolve around us, our worlds revolve around us. And I feel like part of that is out of protection because there will be people and situations and things that won't understand your drag or won't see your dream. And you almost have to create your own universe in order to protect it. So, that's number one. So being delusional, a little bit of a dreamer. You have to kind of think outside of this world.
The next skill that I would say a drag queen needs is to have self-confidence. You have to work on self-confidence. This is not something that comes overnight. This is definitely a skill that a drag queen needs as well. Technically, girl, your drag is whatever you want it to be. It is whatever you want it to be. You don't have to do anything else that you see the other drag queens doing because you feel like that's what everyone is doing.
Just be authentic, be you, and be unapologetic. And the rest will fall into place.
AS: Family is a really important part of that culture. You're a drag mother. You have three drag daughters. Can you just explain what drag families are?
SC: Family is a very important part of drag culture. Chosen family in general is just a really big part of queer culture. I am a drag mother. I have three drag daughters and for me, honestly, having three children was a surprise. I honestly said that I would never be a drag mother. I didn't have a drag mother. But I got to this point in my journey where I felt like I wanted to be able to give support and to help other young aspiring queens.
At first, I started off with my daughter Kinsey. After her, I adopted my daughter Bambi. And then after that is my daughter, Khloe, and I am officially done. No more. I swear, no more. But I love it. I love seeing them grow. I love learning from them as well. Like it's a give and take, you know, there are ways that I support them and there are ways that they support me and that's what families do.
AS: Are these relationships formalized in any way? How do you ask someone? How did they become part of your family?
SC: There was no formal invitation. It's not like I was handing out diamond tennis bracelets or anything like that. I basically just went to each one of them and said, “Hey, I see something in you. I love your drag, I think that you're really talented. And I want to take you under my wing and tell the community that you have my seal of approval, and tell you that you're somebody that I am proud enough to call my daughter.”
AS: I love that so much. How do you support each other in pursuing your dream?
SC: I support them by helping them out with wigs, makeup, costumes, giving them advice, career advice, branding strategies because drag is at that level now. I've learned so much about how to make drag a business. And so, since drag is my livelihood and it is theirs as well, I always want to be able to teach them the ins and outs of how to make smart business news and decisions.
AS: I want to talk about dreams again, what it means to be free to dream, and what you're capable of doing when you're free to dream. I think the reason I wanted to bring this idea of family up is that I wonder if having this family, having these daughters, having you as their mother, does that create the freedom to dream even bigger?
SC: It's really important to dream and have a support system of people that believe in your dreams and support your dreams as well as you being able to do that for others, because society is just a dream crusher. We're not taught or conditioned to follow our dreams. We are taught to contribute to other people's. It's weird how society constantly tells us to shrink ourselves down and to make ourselves small. And when somebody says follow your dreams, it's kind of like this immediate reaction of “that sounds corny” because how do you make that happen? And there is no right or wrong answer to following your dreams other than doing just that. There's going to be hurdles and there’s going to be obstacles just like anything else in life, but you need determination and you need people around you to help you when you don't feel so confident and when you don't feel so determined to remind you that your dreams have value and they’re worth going after.
AS: That really resonates. What do you dream of doing next?
SC: That is a good one. Oh my gosh. What do I dream of doing next? Okay, I just achieved one of my longest dreams which was to be a homeowner. I think in the immediate future, my next dream will be to fully live my HGTV, interior designer fantasy. Absolutely make this place everything that I want and have a feature in Architectural Digest. That would be amazing. That’s the one I feel like is achievable. I feel like that's something that I can do in the near future.
AS: Can you tell me about the role of music in your life? Is that your greatest form of self-expression?
SC: Oh my gosh. The role of music in my life is just, I don't know where I would be without music. When we think of the art of drag, performing, and lip-syncing, I used to use music and lip-syncing as a therapy to work through whatever was going on in my life at the moment.
Now I'm in this place where I want to be able to open myself up even more and be vulnerable, and write about my own personal experiences in stories and be up on stage performing my own music.
AKK: You talk about vulnerability and expressing that vulnerability. I feel like a majority of people have a problem with that. Like first acknowledging that vulnerability and then actually being willing to show that vulnerability, because it's scary. Is it something that's scary for you? And if it isn’t, because you do it, what was the first time, the first hurdle in which you expressed that vulnerability to people—how did that feel for you?
SC: I do speak a lot about vulnerability and I do find it important to be vulnerable because you open yourself up to receive so much more when you show people who you are.
And it is absolutely scary but, I don't know, I get a thrill out of being scared. I even love scary movies. There is such a thing as good anxiety. I feel like the first time that you take a leap of faith and open yourself up to be vulnerable to people and get a positive response, it's almost like this aha moment that allows you to grow and know that in the future when you're having that moment and you're afraid to open yourself up that you actually can do it and grow from it. For me, the very first time I was really vulnerable with people that weren't like my close friends, I was 17. I was in high school. We would do these coffee shops like spoken word where you could go—it was basically an open-mic kind of situation. I remember at the time that I had come out, I'd been out for about a year but my dad and I were still struggling with our relationship at this moment.
I wrote this dramatic monologue about this teenager, struggling with his relationship with his father. It came from just such a real place, even though the character was different, you know? Their name was different blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I was sharing what was a really difficult experience for me at the time.
I remember my classmates and even the theater director at that moment being like, “We never knew that you were such an actor, like you were so powerful, you were so captivating. Like we felt what you felt.” And I learned at that moment, I said, “Wow, just by me opening up. I was able to have this power where I control the entire room and everybody was on that journey with me.” And it gave me this confidence to know that there is power within showing yourself to people—it's captivating. You know you can actually take people on a very beautiful journey. It inspired me to take people on many journeys since.
AS: One of the things that stood out to me about your season, season nine of RuPaul was how supportive you are—also, through watching [Drag Race] All Stars—and how you would stop to not only support your co-stars emotionally but also help with costume design, with sewing, with advice on this and that. And it's a competition show. So it's not typical for someone to take time out of what they could be doing to help other people. And then still also win, which is, you know, you have to be pretty special to do that. But I remember you said when you were asked about it: “If one of us looks good, all of us look good.” Especially when speaking about the queer community. Where does this ethos comes from and why is that so important?
SC: Community is really at the ethos of who I am. I was taught at a very young age the importance of community and that was mostly through church and the church community. My mom, to me, is just like an angel walking on earth. What propels her and what inspires her is to be of service to other people and to bring goodness, love, and joy into their lives. And to me growing up, being raised by somebody who so selflessly dedicates themselves to others and their happiness, I can't help but be the same.
I think one thing that's beautiful about this community is that we really do love to help one another. We share our skills without trying to gatekeep them because when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. And I think that that is really, really important. I wish that there were other communities and industries that did the same thing. Like you won't get the type of support that you would get from a drag queen.
For instance, like really popular drag queens who have big followings, when we post a picture, we tag who did our hair, who did our nails, who did our outfit in order to help them grow their business in their artistry. Those same people that we use, celebrity stylists will hit them up and then have them make custom garments for these celebrities who have millions and millions of followers. and who could totally help them on some level.
But you don't see those celebrities giving them the tags, the shoutouts, the platform to be seen and grow their business. Why? I don’t know. But t's not like that for us queens, we know how to really help elevate the people in our community so that everybody can get their shine.
AS: Last question: what does it mean to you to be a beautiful person?
SC: For me, what it means to be a beautiful person is to inspire envy and rage. Um no, I feel like for me being a beautiful person is loving myself. I feel like the more that I have learned to just love myself, the more beautiful I become, and the more beautiful I feel. And the more I feel like other people have thought that I was beautiful. It really does come from the inside. Beauty is a journey, and I love where I’m at.
I feel like to be a beautiful person means to just exist in my truth, to accept who I am, and to understand and love all of my eccentricities, complexities, and individual traits that make me, me.
Shea Couleé interviewed by Alyssa Shapiro
Beautiful People is developed and produced by Alyssa Shapiro, photographed and directed by Alex Kim Kenealy, with creative direction by Cam Brocksen and art direction by Kimmie Torgerson.