If you could get paid to put on makeup and gorgeous clothing and show off — well, calling the option a “no-brainer” doesn’t quite cover it, does it? For a professional drag queen like Shea Couleé, 31, that’s literally the life. But then, real life is never as glamorous as the costumes.
Couleé — whose off-stage name is Jaren Merrell — rose to international fame as a contestant on Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2017, where she and her famous hot-dog couture made it all the way to the season finale before being eliminated, finishing in a tie for third and fourth place with Trinity the Tuck. In June 2020, she returned as part of the cast for Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, and as of July 2020 is competing against nine other queens for a new crown. Drag Race and its associated shows have given fans a look at the behind-the-scenes work that goes into being a drag queen, and the plethora of skills the queens have to master. On camera, Couleé has designed costumes, performed sketch comedy, and shown off some killer lip sync skills. Off camera, her working life is no less hectic. “About 80% of [being a professional drag queen] is travel and moving from city to city,” says the Chicago-based Couleé. “I can be gone for weeks at a time.”
When she’s touring, Couleé generally wakes up around 4:30 or 5 a.m. to make her flight to wherever she’s performing that night. Lunch and a quick nap are on the schedule after landing, before she starts getting ready around 6 or 7 p.m. to make it to the venue. She’ll stay there until around 2 a.m. before heading back to her hotel to lather, rinse, and repeat again at 5 a.m., heading to the next stop. “[I sleep] on the plane,” she laughs.
I literally had to do the show out of drag because I had absolutely nothing.
While she likes to have two hours or so to get ready for a show, it’s not always possible. Sometimes flights can be delayed, or other mishaps can occur. If things go awry, she might have to get ready in the club, with as little as 30 minutes to put together her whole look. Once, when she was traveling to a show in Canada, the airline lost her luggage and she showed up for the booking with nothing but herself — no makeup, no costumes, nada.
“I couldn't even wing it. I literally had to do the show out of drag because I had absolutely nothing,” she remembers. As a Black queen, some of the makeup she needs is only available at specialty stores like Sephora or Ulta, so her options for substitutes were pretty much nonexistent. “Finding my shade range at drugstores in more rural areas is just not an option, so the ability to wing it isn’t even really there,” she says. Thankfully, the crowd was supportive. “The fans are really understanding about it. Sometimes [the airlines] just lose your luggage!” Couleé laughs.
That was the moment where I was just like, ‘Yeah, I think people like me doing drag.’
Ironically, winging it is perhaps a good way to describe how she first got into drag back in 2011. One of her college friends, performer Jeez Loueez, asked Couleé, who had gone to school for costume design, to participate in a group number for a Black burlesque review she was in. Through a mix-up, Couleé got copied on an email asking for solo performances. “In a panic, I was like, ‘OK, I need to conceptualize the number and reply to her,’” Couleé remembers thinking, not wanting to disappoint her friend. She considered male burlesque, but realized what she wanted to do would work best as a drag act. “I wrote her an email back with my number fully conceptualized. She was just like, ‘What the hell is this?’”
Couleé didn’t even have a stage name for this first drag act, which she describes as “very Annie Hall, [set] to Beyoncé’s song ‘Suga Mama.’” But it was a hit. Couleé got a standing ovation. “That was the moment where I was just like, ‘Yeah, I think people like me doing drag,’” she says.
Less than a decade later, Couleé is a bona fide celebrity, with over a million Instagram followers, singles out on Spotify, ad campaigns, and her own beer. But she’s always improving. Drag requires a lot of different skills, including makeup art, costume design, improv, dance — the list goes on. Couleé says the most difficult thing for her to learn was the art of comedy, particularly stand-up comedy. “Structured jokes are still really, really difficult. But I'm not going to lie, I've seen some people who are very famous who do comedy specials, and I'm just like, ‘Actually, they can't write jokes, either,’” she says. “So I don't feel bad about it.”
My activism has shown through me being open and honest and vulnerable.
When she’s not on stage, Couleé also uses her platform to stand up for what she believes in. In 2019, the queen endorsed former presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren. More recently, she spoke out about racism during the protests that erupted nationwide in the summer of 2020, after Minneapolis police killed a Black man, George Floyd, on May 25. On June 14, she took part in the Chicago Drag March for Change, where she delivered a speech in support of Black Lives Matter. She says that she wouldn’t “necessarily” consider herself an activist, but she wants to use the platform she has to help effect positive change.
She’s been purposeful about speaking about the racism and vitriol she’s experienced in the drag community. “My activism has shown through me being open and honest and vulnerable about my experiences and what I had to endure as a person who has been subjected to racism, but also amplifying Black stories and amplifying Black success,” she says. Couleé has spoken openly about how queens of color are “less celebrated” than their white counterparts, and she wants people to pay attention to the ways that Black creators are brilliant artists, thinkers, and leaders. “Those stories should be told as well, to help to offset and off balance [the] often negative press that's surrounding the Black experience right now.” She calls on fans who want to support queens of color to hold industry gatekeepers accountable. Club owners, promoters, and supporters need to “put their money where their mouth is and to not support people who are not respecting and elevating Black creatives,” she says.
That outsider, that awkward queer little boy from Plainfield, Illinois… finally feels like one of the cool kids now.
Next up for Couleé? Maybe a pivot to acting, which she calls “one of [her] first loves.” And she's looking at fashion production, which is “also a passion of [hers].” She doesn’t want to limit herself. The multifaceted aspect of drag has allowed her to bring together all her interests, making the artist into the art and projecting her passions back out into the world. ”Now that I've created this persona, I feel like it's given me the opportunity to be able to fall back sometimes, and maybe do some more things behind the scenes — or be able to act and play a role that isn't Shea Couleé,” she says.
Drag, she thinks, has changed since she started back in 2011, in part because of its increasing accessibility. “Drag used to be something that you weren't exposed to until you could get into a nightclub, or at least have a fake ID,” she says. But the shift from underground scene to pop culture isn’t necessarily bad. “Now, we have so many YouTube personalities and television shows, drag is now in people’s living rooms. That’s given it the ability to reach a much younger audience.” In 2020, there are kids who aspire to be drag queens — something that Couleé never dreamed of growing up.
Knowing that she’s a role model and admired for her art gets her emotional. “That outsider, that awkward queer little boy from Plainfield, Illinois… finally feels like one of the cool kids now,” she says.