“A Star Is Born,” one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, debuted on Friday. A remake of the 1954 classic love story starring Judy Garland, this modern reboot is headlined by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, who play an alcoholic rock star and a young singer in search of fame, respectively. Lower down in the credits, however, is “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star D.J. “Shangela” Pierce.
“Initially, the casting came out for a drag Marilyn Monroe impersonator, and my agent was like ‘Are you going in for this?’” Pierce recalled. “I was like, ‘Well, I mean it's a drag Marilyn Monroe. No matter how long I stay out of the sun, Honey, I ain't going to look like no Marilyn Monroe.’”
Pierce, who met Lady Gaga back in 2013 through a mutual friend, thought his chances of landing the Monroe impersonator role were nonexistent. “I didn't think it was a fit,” he said.
That all changed, however, when Pierce got an email from someone on Lady Gaga’s team asking him to come in for an audition.
“Honey, if LG calls, I answer,” he said of Lady Gaga. “I found the nearest blonde wig, I put me in a white dress, I put a beauty mark on, and I went in there and sang ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You.’”
While Pierce didn’t land the part he auditioned for, he said Bradley Cooper liked his performance so much that he was offered a bigger, speaking role as a drag bar owner and emcee.
In the film, Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine, stumbles into a drag bar one Friday night. While kicking back drinks at the bar, he notices Ally (Lady Gaga), a down-on-her-luck waitress who performs at the club one night a week — the only woman among a bill of male drag queens.
In an interview with Cinema Blend, Cooper said he “wanted there to be a special moment” when Jackson Maine first sees Ally. When he and screenwriter Eric Roth were discussing ways to make that first interaction “unique,” Cooper said they “really loved the drag bar idea.” He said once he met Pierce and Willam Belli, the other drag performer featured in the film, the creativity started to flow: “It just became endless the possibilities of what we could do in this space.”
Pierce, better known by his drag name, Shangela, starred in the second and third seasons of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and was a runner-up on this year’s season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.” He said the appearance of drag in “A Star Is Born” is an important moment for drag culture.
“When I was growing up, I never really saw a lot of gay people out or even drag queens — especially in major motion pictures like this,” he said. “Not even just when I was growing up, rewind back less than 365 days ago.”
Pierce stressed that drag was not a “punchline” in the film, rather just a slice of life, which he found refreshing.
“I hope that that guy in the middle of Wyoming who goes to see this film learns that drag, sometimes, will find its way into people's lives,” he said. “It deserves to be treated respectfully, and the gay community also deserves to be treated respectfully.”
Pierce said he hopes “A Star Is Born” inspires more writers, producers and studios to explore drag in their films.
“It is something that people are loving and that they are to be entertained by, and there is a way to tell our stories that’s not only respectful, but also something that will drive people to the box office,” he explained. “I hope that there are more opportunities, not just for me, but for all drag queens."
There are so many unique experiences that surround drag and our world that deserve to have a platform," Pierce added.