Among fans of the hit series Rupaul’s Drag Race ,D.J. Pierce—known to most as Shangela Laquifa Wadley—is already a superstar. Across three different seasons, the multi-hyphenate talent popped out of boxes, coined catch phrases and commanded the spotlight with charisma to spare. Pierce has also appeared in and out of drag on a variety of TV shows, including Glee, Two Broke Girls and The X-Files. Now, Pierce appears in A Star is Born as the owner of the nightclub where Lady Gaga’s character Ally is first discovered.
TIME spoke with Pierce about what it was like working on the film, his experiences in Hollywood and what the future of drag looks like.
When did you first meet Lady Gaga and how did you get involved with A Star is Born?
I first met Lady Gaga when she was filming the ‘Applause’ lyric music video through my friend Perry Meek. After we filmed she came up to the dressing room and we chatted and she was just so warm. After talking to her for 30 seconds you feel like she’s your homegirl. So that was very special.
Fast forward a couple of years: They are casting for A Star is Born and the casting call comes out for a Marilyn Monroe impersonator to lip-sync for the film. And I thought, no matter how much time I spend out of the sun, I ain’t gonna look like no Marilyn Monroe! So I didn’t go in for the audition. I got an email quickly afterward from Lady Gaga’s camp and the email said “LG has heard that you didn’t come in for the audition, why didn’t you come in? She really wants you for this role.”
And honey, look: If Lady Gaga wants to see you, you be seen. I found the nearest blond wig and white dress and went over there and did the audition. and they offered me a role with dialogue. I was very, very, very thrilled.
Willam, another Drag Race alum, performed alongside you in addition to several other queens. What was it like getting to work with all of them on a major film like this?
Willam and I were cast as the actors that got to work with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in a couple scenes, and there were a couple other girls as well. It was really cool to see that Bradley as a director wanted to cast us as authentic real drag queens. To me it makes it feel even more authentic because they allowed us to play a little bit with the dialogue, and it just gives it that thing that only the girls know. You know—only the drag queens will know the lingo.
Were you surprised by the amount of screen time you had, considering Hollywood’s subpar track record with drag queen cameos?
It was refreshing and even surprising to see how much a part of this film’s story that Willam and I had the opportunity to be in. People always say, “I didn’t even know you were in this film! You hadn’t talked about it,” and it was because you never know what actually makes it into the film. I sent my mom to see this movie R.I.P.D. and she called me afterward and said, “Baby, you’re not in that movie” and I said, “Yes I am, Mom, I filmed two days!” She said “No, baby, trust me. You’re not in that movie.” So for [A Star Is Born] I didn’t say anything until I saw the film. My mom was also there with me, and I tapped her and said, “See? I’m in this movie.”
What did it mean to see yourself on screen, watching it with your mom?
It’s just one of the happiest feelings that I have ever had, and it’s not just because I am in a movie that’s up on the big screen. I used watch planes fly over my grandma’s house thinking, “I hope one day I will get to ride on one of those once.” My mom has always been a very hard worker—she’s a single mom, she’s a military veteran. I was the first in my family to go to college and to graduate with a degree with corporate communications and PR. When I left my corporate job to pursue being a drag queen, my mom was like, “Are you sure you want to do that?” because she knows what it’s like to struggle. So it was cool to be able to say, “Look, Mom, I followed my dream and look where it’s gotten us.”
When did you know that you wanted to be a performer?
I’ve been an entertainer pretty much since I was born. I am an only child—I grew up for the most part in the house with my grandparents and I always just wanted to entertain people and make them smile, whether it was at home or at church or at school or in the streets. One time, in choir in 8th grade, we had to sing the song In the Still of the Night, and I had landed the solo, right? There’s one part where you have to hit this high note, and I don’t know where the range came from—you know, a diva has range sometimes— and after that, everyone was like “Oh my gosh, you can have any girlfriend you want.” Little did they know I didn’t want none of ’em! But anyhow, I knew from that moment on. It was the only standing ovation to have ever happened at an 8th grade choir concert in Paris, Texas.
Where would you like drag to go where it hasn’t been yet?
Antarctica! (laughs) I’m saying that for real though. Right now, I’m on a 181-city tour around the world. There’s only a few places where I would like to perform that I haven’t yet, and Antarctica is one of them. I would like to be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only drag queen who has performed on all seven continents. And I say that because it is more of a message: That drag can be and go anywhere that you want it to go. I hope that drag continues to expand to more television, film and music, and continues to expand around the world, especially in places where the LGBTQ community is not completely accepted.
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