Going into the season nine finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, it was Shea Couleé’s game to lose. After winning four Maxi Challenges, she had been pegged the ostensible winner — and if not for VH1’s surprise decision to pivot to a “Sudden-Death Lip-Sync Smackdown” for the finale, the multi-talented performer would have surely secured the crown three years ago. Alas, such was not the case. Instead, Shea found herself facing off against eventual winner Sasha Velour in the finale’s first round of lip-syncs, where the best friends went head-to-head in a performance to Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional.” And in a moment that has rightfully earned its spot in the Drag Race herstory books, the performance concluded with Sasha Velour lifting up her wavy red wig to reveal a sea of rose petals that cascaded to the ground right at the song’s climax. Just like that, the season’s frontrunner found herself eliminated before the final round.
Of course, Shea’s is the type of story that makes an All Stars comeback all but inevitable — and after turning down offers to appear on AS3 and AS4, she finally arrived to AS5 ready to slay. Once again, she showed that she was more than capable of stepping up to meet any task, securing wins in the “I’m In Love!” rap challenge and the all-important Snatch Game of Love. When it came to fashion, the Chicago queen brought it you every runway — whether she was blending in with camouflage, metamorphosing as a “rosy maple moth,” loving the skin she’s in, or paying homage to her mother in a dazzling Balenciaga-inspired ballgown. Shea Couleé was a constant threat — hence why other competitors started gunning for her — and when all was said and done, it was her name that RuPaul announced as the Hall of Fame’s next inductee.
Hours before her crowning, NYLON hopped on the phone with Shea Couleé to talk about why winning would be important to her, what was going through her mind during the infamous showdown with Sasha Velour, how her drag is a love letter to Black women, what steps we can take to address the rampant racism of the drag industry, and why her experience recording with Mykki Blanco was much different than Mykki’s experience recording with Teyana Taylor.
Just to start, how does it feel to be in the top three?
It feels really exciting. This is something that I’ve wanted for a long time, and I’m in such great company with two otherworldly talented queens.
When you first got the call for All Stars 5, were you excited or nervous? Were your bags already packed?
When I got the call, I was just really humbled that they asked me to come back because I wanted to take my time. They wanted me for AS3 and I knew I wasn’t ready. Then, they asked again for AS4 but I still wasn’t quite there. So in the back of my mind, I told myself, I really hope I didn’t mess this up. So when the call for AS5 came, I said, “Absolutely. Book the ticket and I’ll be there.”
What was it about AS3 and AS4 that made you feel like you weren’t ready?
No joke, for All Stars 3, they called me the day after the season 9 finale. I was like, Ma’am, I just spent all my money getting ready for this Drag Race and have used up everything in my little drag closet. I have nothing left! So there was that. And then when AS4 came around, it was a scheduling thing. Just with the timeline, there were certain things I couldn’t get out of. Also, I felt that even though I wanted to do AS4, I was just like, I still don’t feel that you’re ready yet, so don’t go back until you’re itching. [I wanted to feel] the same way I felt about season 9, when I was just eager to go. I was like, That’s when you will really bring your best self.
So much of your storyline has been about coming back from your face-off with Sasha Velour in the season 9 finale. Looking back, what was the hardest part of that moment?
It was excruciating because it was my mom’s birthday and she was sitting in the audience. But also, with my dad passing, I told myself, You’re going to go out there and you’re going to win for your dad and your sister. So I put this unnecessary pressure on myself to win that for them, and then when it didn’t happen, I blamed myself in this really unhealthy way. It took me a while to grieve that loss, to [get over] the feeling that I had let down the memory of my dad and my sister, and understand that that wasn’t a healthy blame to place on myself. Looking back now, I know that it was necessary for me to go through a complete ego-death so I could really build myself back up and be in a place to accept something as remarkable as a crown from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Do you think your time on All Stars 5 has given you the opportunity to redeem yourself?
Yeah, I absolutely do feel that way. I feel like the Shea Couleé that we saw on All Stars 5 is who I always imagined going onto Drag Race. When I was a baby queen and imagined how I would be on the show, this is it.
For this final challenge, you had to record a song and learn a dance routine. You are one of very few queens to actually be good with choreography, but because of that, Todrick Hall deliberately gave you a complicated routine. Did that stress you out at all?
No. I love a challenge, especially when it comes to dancing. I grew up doing musical theater — going to auditions in dance-halls, learning complicated choreography in a short amount of time, and performing it back at a high show-performance level. I know that Todrick likes to challenge and push me, and I love when people see my potential and say, “Okay, let’s try and get the best that we can possibly get out of Shea.” That’s what I felt from Todrick. I felt that the challenge from him was to get me to realize my full potential, and that’s why I was so down to do whatever was necessary to make it as impactful as it could be.
That definitely got in my head a little bit, but it was only about two days that I allowed it to. Then, I was kind of like, Shake it off! You can’t be focused on this. You need to be focused on the task at hand and that’s the competition. So stay in it. Don’t get distracted.
Did it take you by surprise that there could be people gunning for you?
No. I knew that was a possibility. I went in understanding and knowing that these girls would be looking at me as their competition. So when I weighed all the different outcomes, that was definitely something I had tossed around, just knowing that there would be a moment when people might possibly try and get me out. But it was shocking to hear that it came from Alexis and India, just because they were who I was getting ready next to at the mirror, and it was always really fun and we always had a good time. So I guess seeing that it had come from them and that there was something going on between them was really surprising for me.
During your final speech on the runway for this finale, you say, “My drag, in its purest form, is a love letter to Black women.” Can you elaborate on that statement a little?
I am the product of strong, glamorous, beautiful, giving, kind, vulnerable Black women. The amount of contributions to American culture that has been given on behalf of Black women is insurmountable, and I just love, cherish, and worship them. When I see Black women, I see God. That’s why I wanted to share that. I just love them so much. There is just so much power there and I admire them. When other Black women see me, I just want them to see somebody saying, “I see you, I honor you, I respect you, and I love you.”
Right now, Black Lives Matter protests are happening around the world while discussions about the ways Black people have been disenfranchised are becoming a major cultural focus. How does it feel to be competing during such a crucial moment for Black visibility? Do you feel honored to have this platform right now?
I always say, God’s timing is always right. I am just a firm believer in cosmic timing and this is a moment that will forever be etched in my mind and in my legacy. I am just very hopeful and optimistic that I will be able to carry this all the way and further inspire and give hope to other queer, Black, gender-nonconfirming people like myself.
About a month ago, during the Chicago Black Drag Council’s Town Hall, you opened up about a traumatic experience you once had when popular Chicago drag queen T. Rex suggested that you should dress up like a slave to perform Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U” while white drag queens stood around and whipped you. Of course, this wasn’t an isolated incident, and you used it as just one example of a much larger racism problem that permeates drag culture at large. How do you think the community can do more to support, uplift, and — most importantly — respect Black queens?
I think it’s really important that people listen to Black queens about their experiences. They need to humble themselves because I feel like a lot of times, [white people] hear these things and say, “Oh no, not me! I’m not like that.” But in so many ways, I feel like people don’t understand how they can also contribute to a culture of silence that protects people and perpetuates microaggressions against Black queens. Not only that, but there needs to be a sense of equity and ownership when it comes to our work and to our brands. Like, I am self-managed along with my boyfriend. We control things in-house because I’ve had to learn that the only way that I will be as powerful as I see myself is by taking the reins, learning, having these conversations, having a seat at the table, and being able to advocate for myself because nobody will advocate for me the way that I will. I think it’s important that people listen, respect us, and pay us.
Speaking of payment, earlier this season, you released “Collide” with Mykki Blanco, who was recently forced to publicly call out Teyana Taylor and her team for not properly compensating them for their contributions to “WTP.” Right now, there are so many queer artists that get employed just to have their culture and talent co-opted by straight artists searching for something “new.” That obviously was not the case with the two of you. How does it feel for you to be able to work with other Black queer artists in a way that is mutually beneficial and equitable rather than exploitative?
It’s interesting because I’ve been a fan of Mykki for years. I have so much respect for them. When I reached out about “Collide,” there was a lot of conversation about payment. I know what that feeling is like, so I said, “Just so you know that I’m good for it and that I’m a fan of yours and value your contributions, I will send you an advance so that you know that I respect you and am serious.” I, as a queer Black artist, put so much stock into paying people and showing them that I respect them because I never want another queer Black person to feel taken advantage of in the way that Mykki was clearly taken advantage of in the situation with Universal. That’s a way I’ve been taken advantage of in the past. So I’m just glad that we were able to come together in a way that was mutually beneficial and showed that you can respect artists and collaborate with them without taking advantage of them.
What has been your proudest moment of All Stars 5?
I would say making it to the top three. I really wanted to come back and show people how much I’ve grown. I’m just super over the moon that I was able to compete against so many legendary girls on the show and still be standing here in the top three.
On the other side, what was your lowest point in the competition?
Getting called “crafty” by Michelle Visage and Ross Matthews.
That was one of my favorite looks of the competition, just so you know! My mouth was agape when they said that.
Thank you! My heart sank to my stomach. I thought maybe I was crazy. I was like, All this time, I thought I had good taste, but maybe I was wrong.
Yeah, I remember you talking about it in Untucked and noting that it actually was the most expensive outfit you bought for the competition.
I know! I was like, “I really spent the most money on this. Damn!”
Finally, I think your Snatch Game of Love performance as Flavor Flav will go down in herstory as one of the all-time great Snatch Game performances. I know you weren’t the first queen to do a male Snatch Game character, but was there ever any fear about doing that? And how did you settle on doing Flavor Flav?
Honestly, that would also definitely have to be another highlight for me in the competition. When I thought about my performance on season nine of Drag Race, I never imagined myself being someone that could win Snatch Game. But when my drag daughter Bambi [Banks-Couleé] said, “You should do Flavor Flav,” it was literally just an a-ha moment. Flav is such a departure from my typical drag brand as “Shea Couleé” and I thought that departure would be fun enough for me to really just go for it and have fun with the role. I really just had a blast doing it. And Jujubee was great to bounce off of and improv with. It was so cool to walk away from that and win.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.