In this week's Drag Race Illustrated, Shea Couleé joins me for a kiki and gives me a shoulder to cry on. She's one of the fiercest queens in Chicago, but she somehow found the time to school me on the Drag Race.
Shea: What shall we talk about first?
Chad: Well! Yeesh! Obviously, I have very strong feelings about Dela.
Shea: I know! Just when you start to think the show is INCREDIBLY formulaic, they shock us all...
Chad: I think we should try to discuss some other aspects of the episode before going down that rabbit hole--it will be hard to see the screen through all my tears.
Shea: What did you think of the mini challenge? This is becoming a recurring one, and I must say I LOVE it.
Chad: I thought it was really charming and an interesting way of bringing out some shade!Dela obviously had the best with her crazy-looking Bianca puppet and her high energy impersonation of Bianca, gravelly voice and all!
Shea: The TEETH! Now THAT was just the "sock it to me" moment of it all. All of the emphasis on Bianca's big mouth--both literally and figuratively--really sold it for me!
Chad: Yeah! And in fact, we saw SO much of Dela in the workroom, so much of her fun humor, that I thought, "Wow, I wonder whether we're seeing her emerge as a serious contender?" Like, "Maybe the show is finally taking her seriously?"
Shea: She was so spot on! But I've realized that sometimes, when someone we love is about to go home, they get a lot of air time.
Chad: Honestly, all season, I've had this weird feeling that the producers weren't remotely interested in Dela. Like, even when she won, she was never really showered in praise, never given a moment to shine. And we never learned much about Ben!
Shea: I know! We get EVERYONE'S back story at one point or another. The only thing they talked about was the fact that Ben used to be overweight.
Chad: Yeah--it's really hard for me to say how much is the editing and how much is Dela--she's admitted that she is pretty guarded about Ben, even saying on "Whatcha Packin'?" that she prefers her boy self to remain in the shadows so that he doesn't distract from the cartoony personality of Dela.
Shea: I just wish we would have gotten a different angle on Ben besides the fact that she was this "character." I don't blame her for being guarded about her personal life. That's not a comfortable thing for everyone to talk about. Some individuals have really dark stuff in their pasts, and sometimes they prefer to look forward and not back.
Chad: Yeah, very well said.
Shea: Not everyone wants to capitalize on their personal pain to get professional success.
Chad: So, I wanted to talk about the two queens who, from the start, have pretty much dominated Season 6.
Shea: Bianca and Adore?
Chad: Yes, exactly. I've heard a lot of grumbling, even from Ru herself, that's it's CRAZY for a queen to come on the show if she doesn't know how to sew
Shea: YES. A girl NEEDS to know how to sew.
Chad: And you have an extensive background in costume design, right?
What are your thoughts on Adore, and specifically about her looks for the Glitter Ball?
Shea: In all honesty, I wasn't blown away by anyone's looks.
The ball challenge is my absolute FAVORITE challenge--it was the Hair Ball in Season 3 that made me WANT to do drag.
Chad: Yeah, I mean, it was Raja who got me drawing these damn queens to start with! But all season, it's been pretty clear that, among this cast of queens, there aren't many who could rival Raja on the runway. (Correction: there aren't any.) April Carrion had some fabulous looks, but her performance chops got her booted. Same with Milk!
So you weren't impressed with Adore's "diamond" look? Do you think she deserved the win?
Shea: I do think she deserved the win.
Chad: From my perspective, as someone who DOESN'T know fashion or how to construct a garment, I appreciated the subtle use of color in Adore's overall look, the dramatic impression of that wig, etc. Even though it might not have required sophisticated sewing skills, I knew I'd be excited to draw her this week!
Shea: I think they weren't really concentrating well on their categories.
EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE, dropped the ball on executive realness. Adore's was an absolute MESS, the fact that she went on the runway looking the way she did for that was absolutely awful. I think they really let her charisma carry her through that one. She, in my opinion, grasped the banji girl realness the best.
But also, how do you expect a bunch of white girls to nail banji girl realness? What do they know about being banji, besides what pop culture tells them what banji is?
Adore's diamond look really impressed me, though. I think she styled it well, made it high fashion, but also stayed true to her aesthetic. I mean Bob Mackie HIMSELF complimented her. I would have peed!!!
Chad: That's an interesting point. There's been so much discussion about drag appropriation of derogatory trans terminology, we don't hear much about cultural appropriation.
We saw that at play in the hip hop challenge, though, where Darienne explicitly said she's a white lady from the suburbs.
Shea: There are so many blurred lines within the world of drag. They of course try and tap into so many different cultures and subcultures that live within the drag community, but when you're gonna have a bunch of girls create a banji look based off of what's in their wardrobe, it's hard to expect a spot-on interpretation if it's not close to their aesthetic.
Chad: So, do you think it placed the queens in an awkward position?
Shea: For some, yes. I think the term banji isn't racially specific, I don't mean to give that impression. But it does come from a place of poverty and lack of monetary comfort. Banji girls dress to excess because they want to live the life of the rich and famous, but they're just ballin' on a budget. That's where a lack of taste comes in. But there are ways to interpret that exuberance and still make it polished.
Chad: I think you did a good job of explaining a complicated concept clearly right there.
Shea: Also, Courtney's banji girl? Not so much.
Chad: It was more grunge than banji, right?
Shea: Totally. I can see why she went that route, because she doesn't fully comprehend banji culture. But I think it speaks to Courntey's presence in the competition thus far. If there were one person who Ben should have said was sailing by, it should have been her...
Chad: Ha! Well, let's talk about "sailing" and about Bianca. It seems like Bianca and Dela are actually quite similar, despite the friction there this week. They both have a very particular character and a VERY consistent aesthetic.
Shea: Yes, though I feel Ben's character is a further departure from himself. It's clear that he is a real soft-spoken, laid back individual.
Chad: Essentially, I felt like Dela was in the bottom two because the judges felt they'd seen too much of her campy, showgirl fashion. But Bianca's fashion is even less dynamic and unexpected.
Shea: Well, Bianca's fashion is refined as hell. I GAG at some of the wardrobe she's brought out on the show, and no one can touch her wig game, even if I CAN see my reflection in her hair. It's so damn SHINY!!!! She treats her wigs how my grandma treats her sofa--covered in plastic.
Chad: Ha! I love Bianca, but I do think she's sailed through this competition. And by that, I don't mean that she's coasting at all. But rather, that she's dominated the season and there's no stopping her!
Shea: REALLY. It's her season to lose.
Chad: It seems like the queens who have been most successful on this show have been the chameleons--Raja, Sharon, and Jinkx all brought wildly different looks to the runway, with varying levels of polish. Whereas this season features a whole lotta queens who have a very clear vision for their drag and a fairly limited wardrobe: Dela, Bianca, and Darienne especially!
Shea: For me, Jinx was the Adore of her season. She was a little rough around the edges, not as polished as I would have liked. I feel like it's really hard to encapsulate all of the things that it takes to embody "America's Next Drag Superstar." I think Raja and Sharon were really great at providing alternatives to the stereotypical drag aesthetic that I think America is accustomed to. But the thing that made them so successful was their polish and their understanding of their own aesthetic and brand.
I think what tripped Ben up the most was his last outfit.
Chad: Yeah? What did you feel about it?
Shea: We had seen that about three times before on the runway.
Chad: Yeah, I think picking that rose quartz was a bad move--we had seen too much pink from her, already.
Shea: Now, she did a great job with executing a concept, but it was so overdone. If she would have come out in a really refined gown with a train and sickening updo, she might still be with us. It also just felt incredibly dated, and I think a lot of their runway presentation was hinging on that final look.
Chad: Right. Yeah, I agree--the dress was really similar to what she'd worn before, and I would have loved to have seen more elegance than showgirl.
So, here's another question I've had in mind: I asked before whether a queen should be on this show who can't sew. Well, what about a queen who can't, or at least isn't interested in, lip synching?
Shea: There will always be a queen who can't sew. It creates more drama, when someone enters a challenge with the shorter end of the stick, so to speak.
As far as lip syncing is concerned, if you aren't interested in lip syncing, find another job. That's the name of the game.
Shea: For REAL, though!
Chad: But, with Dela, I've seen her do some AMAZING numbers--singing live or lip sync--where she creates a whole ridiculous burlesque act around clever concepts. But it's no wonder that she can't wow the judges with a top 40 pop song.
(Watch the whole thing. Seriously.)
Chad: I feel like Bianca would have the same problem--I just don't think her strength or interest is in a lip sync.
Shea: Lip syncing is an art in and of itself, and I don't think people can just shrug at it. Lip syncing is about being COMPLETELY in sync with the narrative of the song, regardless of what it is. We are story tellers, and Illusionists. Putting on the physical illusion is one thing. But as a performer, you have to be able to completely lose yourself in the song. You have to convince the audience that it's YOUR story that you're telling. Darienne was in sync with the song, whereas I think Ben was trying to put on a big show. There is so much vulnerability that can be found in just connecting with a song and letting it resonate with you personally. That's where the breakthrough happens. That's the art behind lip syncing...
Chad: Yeah, I'm really glad you were able to put it that way. Darienne is a LEGIT lip sync artist.
Shea: You must be one with the song--You're not performing it, you're LIVING it!
Shea: That's what girls mean when they say a queen is LIVING. Because she's transcended the artifice of impersonating and has allowed the song to become part of her. Part of her own life story, part of her own life experience, and she's letting you peek into her soul. That's where you connect with people, and I think that's where Darienne was successful over Ben.
Chad: Is it a challenge to connect to some songs, though? Whether it's the style or content?
Shea: We are all human and we all have empathy. You have to find the common ground with the artist and allow the song to penetrate your soul.
Chad: Girl, this is like therapy. You're helping me come to terms with how things went down.
Shea: LOL! Miss Coulee, PhD. It is therapy! Why do you think I love performing so much?!
Chad: The tips?
Shea: That's a big part of it. But even if they're not pouring in, I still feel at home on the stage.
Chad: Are the queens at a disadvantage when they're performing for just a few judges rather than a crowd of adoring fans?
Shea: You're not performing for them. You're performing for yourself. And I think girls forget that when $100,000 is on the line. It's not about them. It's about you letting the song into your soul and reflecting the effect it has on you to the judges.
Chad: So given all this, the Glitter Ball, the season's progress, do you think Dela should have gone home this week?
Shea: I'm at a loss, because Dela has been a strong competitor this entire season. I just wish we would have gotten more from him.
I don't know. I just felt like Darienne fell even more short in terms of looks. But in terms of the lip sync, Darienne had him.
Chad: See, I thought Courtney and Darienne were in the bottom two, and I was curious to see that play out.
Shea: Honestly, If I could throw someone under the bus, it'd be Courtney.
Chad: You didn't like Courtney's looks? I was at least intrigued by the crazy red glitter mask-thing for her final look.
Shea: It was a red version of the blue look she did in the first challenge. A bra with some fabric draped around it. I mean, how many fashion togas can a queen pull off in each sewing challenge?
She's talented and all. But I've seen no growth from her in this competition.
Chad: See, I can't help but feel that Darienne, Dela, and Courtney have all been depicted strangely this season, though it's hard for me to say whether it's their actual performance or whether it's an edit.
Shea: VERY true.
Chad: Darienne and Courtney have both been spun as slightly catty, even though I think both are perfectly pleasant, talented individuals.
And Dela just never seemed to get the attention she deserved, but maybe that's because she didn't grab it by the throat and demand it!
Shea: I think Darienne has been villainized, but she's not as bad as I think the producers wanna make her. She has her bitchy moments, no doubt, but she's very upfront about her intentions and doesn't sugar coat the fact that this is a competition.
Everyone wants it to be Rupauls Best Friend Race. But she has a point that there is $100,000 on the line, and there's nothing wrong with a little bit of strategy.
Chad: I'm often frustrated that the bigger girls on this show always seem to struggle with their runway looks. How should they be designing better outfits for their body type?
Shea: I would say about 80% of the way someone dresses for drag is proportion. If you've read any of RuPaul's books, she talks about it all of the time.
She should ALWAYS cinch. There should always be a decent different in the size of your shoulders, waist, and hips.
If she doesn't want to cinch, Empire Silhouettes are really flattering on curvy women.
Chad: Forgive my ignorance, but is cinching the same as... a corset?
Shea: Yes. Cinching just means taking in the waist--I literally cinch with belts, though I do love a good corset. They're a girls best friend--besides diamonds.
Chad: So, basically, every aspect of being a drag queen is tremendously painful and uncomfortable?
Thank you so much to Shea Couleé for all her insight into the art of drag. This girl seriously knows her stuff!
Shea performs all over Chicago, like, all the time. She hosts #FACE every Wednesday at Hydrate, and tonight's guest performers are Kaycee Ortiz, Precious Davis, and Lila Star. This Thursday, she'll be performing in Beyonce night at Berlin Nightclub. And this Friday, she'll be in Drag Carnage at Hydrate, followed immediately by the massive Neverland "We Love Brasil" party, which she also hosts. Every Saturday, she performs in The Naughty Cabaret at Mother's Bar downtown.
Shea also co-hosts The Tony Soto Show, a weekly podcast that's available here. She'll be hosting Milwaukee Pride on June 7th, and she'll be hosting the Hydrate Mainstage for Chicago Pridefest June 21-22! And THEN she'll be in Minneapolis June 25th for Minneapolis Pride! Sheesh!
She also shows up in my comics and Chicago Queens illustrations, and she regularly performs in Drag Matinee and Trannika's Most Wanted with Trannika Rex and Kim Chi, some of the other fabulous queens who have joined me for these Drag Race discussions!
As I mentioned above, I really feel like we didn't see Dela's true strengths on this show. So I wanted to share some of my favorite videos of her performances, which really show off the many sides of her creative genius.
I LOVE Dela's playful use of her sexuality in this one.
Her music video parody of "Boyfriend." To die for.
The angle is awkward and some of the audio is hard to hear, but I LOVED this performance when she came to Chicago!
I could seriously go on forever, but if you'd like to see more sides of Dela, definitely look her up on Youtube! And don't throw any shade at Darienne for sending her home, either! (Pretty please?)