Shangela, Shea Couleé & Aja Discuss Racism in the 'Drag Race' Fandom

From left: Shea Coulee, Shangela & Aja
Getty Images; Design by Jessica Xie

From left: Shea Coulee, Shangela & Aja

"Queens of color are less celebrated than our white counterparts. But that's life, we have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition," Shea Couleé says.

Though the mini-challenge swag can rack up and the grand prize may be sizeable, one of the most impactful things that RuPaul’s Drag Race wields is its platform.

That was clear only an episode into the 10th season, when Vanessa Vanjie Mateo gave us her now internet famous “Miss Vanjie” exit leaving an impression in the cultural zeitgeist without ever winning a dime. But for some queens that platform, and the hoards of fans that follow it, represent a double-edged sword that can turn quickly, particularly, if you happen to be a person of color.

“The biggest thing [you get from Drag Race] is really the exposure to fans,” multi-season show competitor Shangela tells Billboard over the phone. “People around the world get to get a sense of who you are through reality television. They are so engaged with you that if they love you, they will support you for life.”

And having been a part of the show since season two, making a reappearance on season three and then making it to the top four in RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season 3, Shangela has surely seen the love of that community. It, along with her non-stop work ethic, has built her a career that has seen her perform on six continents and get cast in the upcoming remake of A Star Is Born featuring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. But that same community can also become incredibly vicious.

In May 2017, while Season 9 was airing, Shea Couleé (who would go on to be a finalist for that season) found herself locked out of her social media accounts. They had been hacked, and the hacker was posting racially charged imagery. “[The hacker] felt that it would be appropriate to post pictures of slaves saying they were my family, and included #niggers in the post,” Couleé says. “It was a direct result of someone's racist opinions of me. Someone I had never even met.”

But the stories go on: after she eliminated Aja from All Stars, BeBe Zahara Benet was inundated with racially charged hate, and Jasmine Masters got her fair share as well after leaving season 7. Aja too has experienced it.

“I think it hasn’t been as hard for me as it has been for other queens of color, because I feel like I’m a little racially ambiguous. But for those people who do know by ethnic background or my race, they have said a lot of racially based things,” the Brooklyn-based queen explains. In the past people have sent her images of herself photoshopped to resemble a gorilla, which is a trope frequently used to degrade people of color.

This isn’t to say of course that the hate from the Drag Race fandom is reserved for queens of color. Much has been written and said about how the commentary on social media has taken on a heightened sense of nastiness. The queens themselves take to social media to defend their sisters, chiding their own followers to not be hateful. But race-based hate is a specified, generally heightened brand of hate, reserved for a subset of competitors on the show.

It’s not always as blatant as epithets and specific imagery. “I feel like the fandom kind of leans towards being more supportive of queens who are white or passing,” Aja continues. “I think that queens of color receive more of a petty backlash when it comes to things like having like an attitude problem.”

The sentiment that black queens are more harshly criticized for similar things is one that has been echoed in the Drag Race subreddit threads, and by Katya Zamolodchikova, a season 7 competitor, on her Periscope. In season 10, evidence of this seemed to crop up on social media: After a series of scenes showing The Vixen being the upfront, no frills, straight shooter she’s known to be in Chicago, some on social media called her "angry." It was a curious assessment of someone who simply righted a few lies that Aquaria was in the process of telling.

But social media was quick to point out that not long ago, fans were criticizing the show for not having the “drama” that The Vixen found herself a part of.

That double standard applies to what the fans celebrate as well, according to Couleé.

“Queens of color are less celebrated than our white counterparts,” she says. “But that's life, we have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition. Just because you're on TV doesn't mean people are going to change the way they've been trained to they think and feel.” 

Shangela’s experience has been different than some of her contemporaries, however. “In my experience it’s all what you make of it,” she says. “It’s not what color you are or how you fare with fans, it’s who you are and what personality you have.” Regardless, race can play another important role when it comes to the fandoms.

“Whenever I have the opportunity to meet a fan who is POC and they say that my drag inspires them, or makes them feel confident, that's so rewarding,” Couleé says. “Especially when it's a black woman who says ‘you inspire me to be the best woman I can be.’ As a man it's so humbling and amazing.”

Other queens like Valentina have spoken to this as well, remarking on how their race and the way it is manifests itself in their drag creates close bonds with their fans. In the season 9 reunion, Valentina said that for many of her fans she is a representation of Chicano, Mexican, first-generation and talented, going on to say “they’re overprotective of that and they’ll fight anybody.”

“I have to say that I’ve actually been pretty shocked -- because I’m still in Bed-Stuy, and there have been times when I’m walking through extremely urban communities, even neighborhoods that are maybe not the safest, and I’ve had children, and like, the thugs, basically come up to me and say things like, ‘I saw you on TV and I really think you’re representing our community correctly,’” Aja says. “I know they are not talking about the gay community, they are talking about people of color and urban communities.”

Shangela also sees this as a positive.

“It’s great that we have so many people from so many diverse background in the Drag Race family,” she says. “There are some people out there, especially in the LGBTQIA community, that are looking for role models or people to look up to and, in our communities, I’m happy to say we are some of those people.”