D.J. Pierce, better known as his drag persona Shangela Laquifa Wadley, knows the power of resilience. Shangela first appeared on the national drag scene as a contestant on the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2010. While she didn’t win, she went on to compete in two more seasons of the show.
Since then, Shangela, 38, has snagged roles in television shows like Glee and The X-Files and in the movie A Star Is Born, alongside Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Philly-born drag personality Willam Belli.
In 2013, while performing at a Halloween show in New York, Shangela attempted a dip (also known as a death drop) which is a dramatic dance move where the dancer slams onto the ground while striking a pose. During the landing, Shangela broke her left leg, “both the tibia and fibula bones.”
Pierce was devastated. But once healed, Shangela returned to the stage.
“I went from a walker to a boot,” Pierce said. “You can achieve anything in your life that you want as long as you’re willing to work for it."
On Saturday, Shangela will host Pride Bingo and perform a set at the Borgata in Atlantic City. Ahead of the event, Pierce spoke with The Inquirer about falling and getting up, metaphorically speaking, and about why the world needs drag. This is an edited and condensed transcript.
Tell me about your event at the Borgata.
I’ve never performed in Atlantic City before. It’s going to be a fun time. It’s bingo, but it’s Shangela so I’m bringing a little extra high energy and fun to an already fabulous event.
You were featured in Time magazine’s “Next 100” this year. How did you react when you first found out?
I was so honored and humbled. I mean it’s Time magazine. Time. Magazine. It’s a great milestone at this point in my career, and I’m hoping to continue to live up to that honor and to also inspire people. I was also thrilled that my friend Jenifer Lewis wrote the article for it. It was very sweet of her.
What has your drag persona, Shangela, taught you?
Fearlessness, true fearlessness. And the power of being your true authentic self. Before I started performing in drag I thought I was super courageous working my way through the world. But when I put on a wig and heels and walked 6 inches taller — both physically and in spirit — it helped me to understand there is no fear.
You go out there and you do it, and you don’t care about how other people look at you. As long as you’re going forth with light and with love, also with fierceness, you can do anything.
Tell me about a time when you had to be brave.
Auditioning in Hollywood — especially when going for roles in drag 10 years ago, when it wasn’t as accepted or applauded. [Back then], people didn’t go, “Yaas! Work! Here comes a drag queen.” They were like, “Here comes that man in a dress. What is he doing?" But I was going out there and getting the job. I didn’t have any formal training but I knew I wanted to be an actor. So I taught myself just by watching, taking classes, and I learned.
Why does the world need drag?
Well, I think the world needs inspiration from those who know what it’s like to be on the outskirts of the mainstream. [Drag queens] have had to learn how to be stronger, more resilient, more creative, more resourceful, and pick ourselves up when a lot of people put us down.
People are tired of being put down and they’re learning that they don’t have to fit into any particular mold. Drag queens have mastered that positioning of being outside the mold. [People] look at drag queens and go, “Oh, well, she figured it out, let me walk like that. Let me walk a little taller. Let me not take on what other people have put on me and live my personal truth and be happy with that."
Can you talk about the upcoming HBO series you’re in, We’re Here?
I’m so excited to be a part of this brand new show, a docu-series that’s coming out next spring. Me and my friends, Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka, are going around to small towns around America and connecting with people who feel on the outskirts and have a connection to the queer community.
We’re trying to show them that there is a larger community of support and that through the art of drag they can harness all their best powers. That’s what we’re doing, chile. We’re going city to city and hopefully changing lives, making an impact, and having some fun.
Shangela: OUT at Borgata
3 p.m. Saturday, Central Conference Center at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, 1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City, $35, 609-317-1000, theborgata.com