When Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka and Shangela arrived on set for the first day of filming their new show, We’re Here, they were each presented with a customised van in which to travel around small town America and put on drag shows.
For Shangela, the charismatic non-stop entertainer, this meant a vehicle dolled up in a glitterball, a bow and a pair of giant lips (“Because I love to talk!”). Bob had a bus reimagined in honour of their “Purse First” trademark that helped them to their season eight RuPaul’s Drag Race win. Eureka, the self described Elephant Queen, saw the vehicle decked out as their spirit animal, and broke down in tears. “I cried,” they say. “It was just one of those moments where I felt seen and respected.”
We’re Here is a show about seeing, in places where it can be difficult to be visible. The HBO docuseries has the three queens rock up to small towns in rural America, seek out local LGBTQ folk, allies and, occasionally, those who have been less than friendly, to take part in a drag show. In between tucking, the participants tell of struggle and alienation in rural America. Each episode ends with a spectacular show and, sometimes, a reckoning of sorts.
Drag Race fans will be familiar with this narrative of queer life in rural America, since many of the show’s queens use the workroom to tell their tales of growing up in the sticks. We’re Here sets out a broader picture: “This show takes drag from the runway to honey, the back alleys, the streets, the roadways of small town America so you can see what life is like outside of the work room,” Shangela says. “This is not a competition in any way. It’s a real life series and a showcase of what real life in small towns can be.”
After a slew of reality series duds and a so-bad-it’s‑still-bad comedy from Mamma Ru herself (Netflix’s A.J and the Queen), We’re Here is the first great show to spring from Drag Race’s phenomenal success. Fronted by its alumni, the series has the built in draw of seeing three of the best in the business give a performance at the end of each episode. Bob, Eureka and Shangela are consulting producers on the series and this, combined with HBO’s ability to splash the cash on serious costuming and cinematography, makes it look like the best Pride ever has rocked up to town.
The series begins as a parade of queer culture past, and then finds fresh ground to cover. Evoking Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, much of the fun of We’re Here is initially found in three larger than life queens showing up on Main Street and shocking some locals (one man calls the police). And as on Queer Eye, Bob, Eureka and Shangela are life coaches to participants who usually want to change something in their lives. But We’re Here is refreshingly realistic about the changes one drag show can ring.
The show is sometimes about the LGBTQ community and sometimes about being an outsider, period. Darryl, a college officer, straight ally and black activist in Gettysburg becomes Bob’s drag daughter in the first episode. “If I’m not willing to live in the shoes of somebody who does drag, then how can I expect someone to understand my experiences as a black man?” he asks. In the same episode, and in a neat twist on the outsider concept, Erica, an evangelical Christian wants to make amends for disavowing her bisexual daughter. Later, drag queen Michael speaks of his unending loneliness as a queer in rural America. It is frank, heartbreaking stuff. It also can’t be easily fixed, and the show, to its credit, understands this.
We’re Here wants everyone to be seen, even if that means a lack of resolution by the time the credits roll. And Bob, Eureka and Shangela make for considerate, empathetic coaches. They really do listen.
“I don’t want anyone to be under the misunderstanding that the show is about going into small towns and trying to change their minds,” says Bob. “But in a small community, people don’t see you and you feel unseen. Sometimes I feel unseen. So We’re Here basically says, ‘We are here, we are your children, your doctors, your teachers, your parents, we are a vital part of your community too.’”
Hey Eureka. How are you?
I’m pretty good. I’m jolly like Santa, up and ready to go, mama.
Even in these trying times?
Yeah, I mean, honestly, I just force myself to get up and get ready and feel pretty and have fun and harass my friends. And I’ve been working a lot. And, you know, I’m just full of blessings right now with this show. I try to stay positive as much as I can.
Where are you now?
I am in Los Angeles, in West Hollywood in my little apartment.
The show takes you to small town America. What was the most surprising thing for you?
That the people that support you are the people that you least expect sometimes. The people you get pushback from, sometimes they’re the people you least expect as well.
The pushback shows how much we have to go but also how far we’ve come.
How did it feel when people wouldn’t allow you to perform in their venues for the show?
We were aware that we were in high drag going into towns that weren’t used to seeing that on their streets every day. We were changing up the scene. We’re from small towns ourselves. We’ve seen persecution first hand. It wasn’t anything that we hadn’t dealt with before. We were able just to stay calm and be positive. When we got that pushback, we showed we weren’t there to fight. If you don’t want us to come into your store, we won’t, we’ll move on to the next. It just goes to show there’s some common misconceptions on what drag queens do still and hopefully the show will help that as well.
What does drag do in a situation like this?
Drag gives everyone the feeling that they belong in that moment. No matter what you’ve been through, or what issues you’re having in your life, at a good old drag show, honey, we can make you feel better just because that energy rubs off on people. It celebrates the things that are a little different. All people feel different and alone in this world sometimes. You can relate to that no matter who you are in this community.
You were filming the show two months after your mother passed away. How did that affect you?
It was challenging. It just made it very emotional. But honestly, I felt like the series was brought into my life to help me through that because my mother’s passing was so hard. It could have been a very dark time. God doesn’t give us anything that we can’t handle.
Are you religious?
I am a religious person. I’m not gonna be sitting here preaching to anyone, but I believe in my higher power, and I happen to call that higher power God.
Was that helpful when you listened to stories of religious bigotry? I’m thinking specifically of Erica, an evangelical Christian who rejected her daughter when she came out.
With religion, it’s hard to push people. So I try not to, because I don’t think it’s necessary. What people believe in is their right and that’s up to them.
The show doesn’t deal in neat resolutions. Why not?
It’s showing these locals that they have more resources and more support in that community than they realise. But it’s not about putting a big bow on everything because that’s not reality. We’re just shaking things up and getting a conversation started.
What does the show mean in quarantine?
It reminds us what we love about being with each other. I hope that when all this is over, we stop taking for granted those moments where our communities can come together and we just celebrate them.
Hello Bob, how’s it going?
You know, I’m quarantined in New York. It’s really wild right now. My whole family’s in the South and I’m up here and we can’t be around each other.
Did the show make you think about home differently?
I’m from a small town, so it was a chance to see and realise that a lot of small towns actually have queer communities which I didn’t know about because when I was growing up we didn’t have that. I ended up leaving the town because I felt like there was no one like me. I felt really alone.
In Twin Falls you meet three drag queens who are all living incredibly isolated lives. One, David says: “There’s always a kind of lonely sense of being in me. It’s hard some days to know you’re loved.” What did you think about his situation?
I couldn’t imagine going very long without seeing queer people. All my friends are queer. So I could not imagine not being surrounded by queer people. I am trying to fathom it but I can’t. It sounds so lonely to me.
What’s the show about for you?
It’s a show about helping people to be exposed to people in their communities who are already there. Helping people in the community to a stage they couldn’t get before. So it’s actually transforming your mind, your outlook, it’s not just just about, like, getting people in pretty dresses. Which, by the way, is fine and fun and a big part of the show.
You have to deal with some uncomfortable aspects like the Confederate flags in Gettysburg. How was that?
I grew up around several Confederate flags so it wasn’t new to me. I saw lots of Confederate flags. I didn’t completely feel safe but it wasn’t completely foreign to me. There were times I felt unwanted, when we got the cops called on us in Branson. I felt like, ‘Wow, people really don’t want us here.’ But I didn’t let it wreck my day or change my perception of these towns because we also found really lovely and amazing people.
What does drag do in a space like this?
Drag is attractive, it’s sparkly and it’s unusual. Drag becomes really compelling when you are attracted to something but then when you get there, all of a sudden this person on stage also has a really cool and interesting perspective.
I saw that after you shot in Twin Falls you made the local news. Does that stuff matter?
Representation is really important. if some queer kid got to see us on TV, and thought to themselves “I’m not alone,” that there’s someone like them, that definitely matters. That matters the most.
Hi honey! Well, I am fully socially distanced and quarantined in Paris, Texas.
How is quarantine going?
I’m a push through kinda girl. I’m really thankful for everyone who is out there fighting this and I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. My family is here, my mom and grandmother and we’re taking care of each other here.
Each of you take on a life coach role in the show. I’m interested to know how you approached Hunter’s dad, who in episode one, doesn’t fully accepts him as a gay man.
It was a loving relationship that needed a little extra understanding in it. Hunter’s dad had one clear definition of what masculinity represented. Hunter didn’t want his dad’s definition to make him feel less of a man. I was there to bridge the gap and show the dad what Hunter was feeling. And not just to tell him that he loved him but to show him by showing up for him. I didn’t grow up in a house with a dad. I don’t have a very strong relationship with my father. This made me think a lot.
How to build a relationship between a dad and a gay son, what that looks like. How could I make that better? And what would that have been like between my dad and myself as a drag entertainer – and whether he would have accepted that.
You have to listen to some people say they don’t accept their children’s identity. How difficult was that to hear?
I’ve learned that not all people who have a difference of opinion to you are bad people; sometimes it’s just important that we lead with the authenticity of who we are and hope that experience of knowing someone who is different from them, can sometimes create greater understanding. I think of my own family. When I first came out, not a lot of them supported me. But because I was unashamedly proud of being gay, black and a drag queen, people got on board because they saw me for who I am, rather than the stereotypes in their minds. There are bad people in the world, trust the duchess on that one honey. But I try to give people the opportunity to learn before we completely go against them.
You are also honest with the participants about their chances of transforming these relationships.
With a real life series, that’s exactly what you get. We would all love a happy ending but it doesn’t always end like that. I want to instil in my drag children the belief in themselves, more than looking for someone else to believe in them. We are excited to come to these communities and unearth support that people didn’t know existed there. But we want the individuals to know they have to support themselves before they can look for anyone to support them.
Is that why you’re such a tough drag mother?
I’m super sweet, you know me! But I’m a tough drag mother when it comes to being the best version of yourself. In taking on these babies, I was like, ‘OK, you Shangela’s daughter now so I need commitment, drive and confidence and I’m with you, just like a mother.’ And I expect the best. Very Joan Crawford, right?
How was being a consulting producer?
The creators wanted to give the best authenticity to what we do. We are consulting producers on this show but, let’s be honest, drag queens are consulting producers in their lives. I’m not sitting in this show thinking where do I get hair? I know where to get hair. We all brought each of our own teams to the job. People who know drag. It’s not people who have never put on a drag show, it’s people who know how to put on a drag show, with a HBO camera. And you’re going to get it, honey.
We’re Here is on Thursdays on HBO in the US, airing in the UK later in the year.