Shea Coulee Teases Britney-Themed Stage Show, Talks Importance of Pride In 2019
Since emerging as a breakout star on season 9 of RuPaul's Drag Race, Shea Couleé has gotten "Cocky" in the studio when it comes to music -- but in her recent stage show Couleé With a C, fans got to know the nuanced, vulnerable yet resilient person behind the public persona.
Through personal reflections and performances of songs from Whitney Houston, Brandy & Monica, Britney Spears, the Hair musical and more (including her own song), Couleé shares hilarious, heartbreaking experiences of coming out, growing up and, yes, competing on one of the hottest reality shows around.
As they prep new music, Couleé spoke with Billboard about their upcoming stage show – a look at their sexual history set to the music of Britney – and the vital importance of Pride.
Couleé With a C was such an affecting, funny show. I loved when you were talking about buying the CD single of "The Boy Is Mine," and lightly mocking your parents for not realizing that was a clue. As a kid listening to it back in the day, were you ever worried they'd put two and two together?
It's interesting when you think about it. As a child, I was really just trying to be me, so there wasn't any dots I thought could be connected. It was "I just love those two girls so much." I definitely idolized Brandy and Monica. I think my mom wanted to lean into "oh it's really innocent, it's just about the music." But it's a pretty clear sign that your child might be a little bit different.
Your show is a mixture of your own material, plus songs from others you lip sync or sing with accompaniment on piano. How did you decide which songs you would sing vs. lip sync?
I knew there was no way in hell, even if I could put it in my key, that I could carry off a Whitney Houston song. I was just "let's stick to what you know." (Laughs.) And also, Whitney is one of, if not my favorite, artists to lip sync to because her vocal capabilities make it so much fun. As far as the songs I decided I wanted to sing live, me and my accompanist Jacob sat down together to get arrangements that we thought felt good and I was comfortable with. Because the show is the most singing I've done live. Even in my musical theater training, I was usually cast as an ensemble member. So to stand up there and do this vocal exercise for an hour was a challenge I had to work up to.
Do you have pre-show rituals?
I sing the songs in the shower before the gig, I have some honey lemon ginger tea, and just get it all warmed up, sing through everything. In my warm-ups I try to do something more challenging to get my voice in a strong, comfortable place.
In your show, you talk about the importance of leaving home to find yourself, something a lot of LGBTQ people can identify with. Can you expand on that in your life?
I think it's important in general as queer people to be able to go out there and find your tribe. That playing field was too small for me, and I always knew that -- I knew I was going to outgrow my hometown at the age of six years old. I knew I wanted to see the world and do bigger things, so it was always in the back of my mind. So as I got older and it got closer to the time of me being able to step out on my own, I had built all these expectations and fantasies. I was like "it's gonna be like Rent, it's gonna be all these cool people in the city." And then when I got older and had to pay rent I was like, "oh THAT'S what they're singing about." (Laughs.) I was like, they're really like, how are we going to pay the rent? Still, I romanced it for the longest time – being able to be an artist working in an urban environment around a whole bunch of different backgrounds and walks of life. It was something I wanted.
You also said in the show that before the season 9 finale, you felt they didn't want you to win. When you say "they," do you mean the producers?
Yeah. That was my thinking. And those were my feelings, and one thing I've learned in therapy is that feelings are not facts. But that's how it felt to me at the time.
Your next show is going to be an account of your sexual escapades set to performances of Britney Spears songs. So what are we talking about here, PG-13, R-Rated?
Honestly, gosh, I tried to keep it PG-13 because I know how young this fanbase is getting. The thing that's great about Britney is even though she became a super, hyper-sexualized figure, she still maintains this innocence about her. Even in 2007, everything she went through in that phase, it feels like Britney is innocent and lovable. Like, Britney is so harmless and I relate to her a lot on so many levels like that. There are a lot of Britney songs that do go hand in hand with a lot of my first young, naïve sexual experiences. I thought that would be fun to pay tribute to Britney in that kind of way.
What's your favorite Britney album?
I would definitely have to say my favorite album is Blackout, without a doubt. Blackout, it did not get to live its full potential because of everything she was going through when that album was out, but that album is all bops. Every single one. That was my freshman year of college, living out on my own for the first time -- that was a time.
What's coming up in terms of your own music?
I have a new single coming out in mid-July called "Rewind" with Gess, a songwriter-producer in L.A., and he wrote and produced this track. He sent the song to me probably over a year ago, but we recently got to the point where it was time to put the song together. We just shot a video for it and we're in post-production for that now.
What's the video like?
You'll just have to wait and see. It's unlike anything I've done before. I'm excited for this departure and to show a more vulnerable side than what my fans have seen from me in music before.
So it's not too much like your previous song "Cocky"?
Hell no. It's a little bit more of a laid-back R&B track. But one thing that's cool about it, the bass line does have a lot of kick. You can bump to it too. I've been working on some fun stuff and rolling out projects in July and more in fall/winter. I probably will drop an EP, there's a body of songs I feel fit together. But there's a lot more I'm working on.
We're in Pride Month and it's the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. What does Pride mean to you?
Pride to me means having the ability to celebrate all of the sacrifices that our foremothers and forefathers made for us to be able to celebrate our identities. For the longest, we had to hide who we were, and it's due to those people who had to live truthfully and authentically and who fought tooth and nail for the right to do that. For me it's about reflecting on all the sacrifices that have been made for us to make the progress we have now. And we're still fighting. You look at this current administration, we're still under attack, the fight is not over. I think it's important to remind ourselves of our history otherwise we're doomed to repeat it.
Right – Trump enacted the trans military ban, then tweeted about Pride Month.
Absolutely -- psychological warfare in a tweet right there.