Before Shea Couleé took home the crown on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season 5, it had felt like just a matter of time — throughout her multiple appearances on the franchise, the Chicago-based queen wowed fans with her fashion, dance skills, comedic timing and just about everything else in between.
In the time since she’s been on Drag Race, Couleé has continued that streak of top-notch performance; she’s flexed her musical talents through a series of artful albums and singles (including two collaborations with queer singer-songwriter Gess), showed off her fashion skills on the runway of Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty show and in her own Valentino campaign, and even demonstrated her skills as a host on her America’s Next Top Model recap podcast, Wanna Be On Top?
So, it tracks that when Shea returned to the work room for All Stars 7, she once again came to slay. Consistently performing well on the latest season of winners, Couleé finally felt the challenge heat up in last week’s episode, when she and her competitors duked it out in a TRL-inspired girl group challenge — with Shea just barely missing out on her second challenge win of the season.
Below, Shea chats with Billboard about returning to Drag Race just two short years after winning, her approach to strategy under the new rules system, her love of TRL, and why she’ll never get over meeting Naomi Campbell on the runway.
We have officially reached the halfway point of the season, how are you feeling with fan response so far?
It’s so exciting, honestly. I was thrilled after filming this season, because I really had such a blast with this amazing, talented cast of phenomenal queens, and we knew that it was going to be something super special going in. So I’m really glad the fans have been enjoying it.
I also just wanna say happy Pride — I hope you’ve been celebrating, but also hope that you’re getting some rest when you’re able.
[Laughs.] Um … define rest. No, I’m getting at least six hours a night, so I think that’s okay. It could be worse, and it has been, so I’m very grateful for this pace!
Let’s get into your performance on the show, because you came in swinging on All Stars 7, as expected. Having already won a season, was there any pressure to win again, or was it more relaxed knowing you already did it?
You know, I felt like I came in there just very chill, knowing that it was going to be a really beautiful showcase of our abilities. So, for me, having won during the pandemic, I hadn’t really had a chance to go out there in the world as a winner and do all of the cool things I wanted to — so I was just grateful and excited for another opportunity to go back on my favorite TV show, and challenge myself and push myself further to see what my potential holds, and what I could do with my drag.
This was the first episode we heard you say you felt like you were fading into the background, which is straight up the first time that’s ever happened to you as a contestant on this series — what does that feel like in the moment?
Oh, it is deeply unnerving. I come from an art school background, so I can take critique, that’s not something I can’t handle. But the level of talent this season was so high, that while standing out on the runway, we were all constantly being praised — so it was hard to figure out what to give the judges, because I didn’t feel like there was any direction or critique that was leading me to think they weren’t fully enjoying everything we were bringing! So, in a competition where you’re trying to secure these numbers, when you go five weeks without doing that, it starts to make you wonder, “Am I not understanding the assignment here? Am I not getting as good of a grade as I think I am?”
I feel like everyone has clocked queens like Monét and Trinity for playing a strategic game, but you have also been quietly strategic all season, sniffing out the alliances and making up the plunger secret. How did you aim to approach this new aspect of the game when you were on set?
Okay, for me, I feel like the strategy was always to be very… I guess… I wouldn’t say sneaky, but I like to observe everything that’s happening, and once I run all of my recon, then I can come back and develop my strategy. A lot of people are a little bit more open in sharing their strategies, but that only further shows your hand — keep my cards closer to my chest! You never know what twists and turns are gonna come about, you just always gotta have something in your back pocket.
This is the second time this season we’ve gotten to see you flex your musical chops, and I am a big fan, personally, of your solo music. You’ve taken a little bit of a break from making songs in the last couple years — can we expect to see more from you soon?
It’s so interesting, because I fully get that it does seem like it’s been a break. But I’ve been working so hard on a bunch of new songs — I’ve been writing since March 2021, and it’s really just been a lot of me getting together with producers, spending two months in L.A. off and on, working, going into the studio, and next week, I am actually going to be premiering three new songs at Chicago Pride in the Park! They won’t be out on streaming just yet, but I will be doing a 20-minute set of my live music; we got a band, we got dancers, we’ve been in rehearsals working on it. I’m really trying to bring you guys the full Shea Couleé homecoming experience. Plus Saucy Santana is going to be there, so you know I have to turn it, too!
Now, the challenge this week was about becoming TRL-inspired girl groups — were you a TRL fan back in the day?
Oh, girl. Completely. The kids these days will never know what it was like to run home to try and see your favorite music video, because we didn’t have YouTube to go and watch it whenever we wanted to. You had to be at a specific place at a specific time, tune into a specific channel, and there is something about that level of desire and the work we had to put into it to see our favorite videos that the kids will simply never get.
Do you have an all-time favorite Drag Race moment from the show’s history?
Meeting Naomi Campbell. Period. It will never not be everything to me. I mean… I literally left set that day saying, “Do I just go home now? Does it get any better than that?” No, it didn’t! It did not! [Laughs.] There was no topping that, and I was so glad I got my moment with her, and to have it be just immortalized.
It helped that everyone was looking correct when she came in, because it would have been a tragedy if someone was not looking cute.
Can you imagine if she came in after we did a quick drag challenge? I would have literally died.
Anything in particular you’ve been listening to recently?
I started feeling really nostalgic about the music I was listening to while we were filming the season last summer, so I’ve been re-listening to Victoria Monét’s Jaguar album, and Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? I love both of those albums a lot.