Drag superstar Shangela reflects on embracing queer identity and a true self: 'You can make it, baby'

Shangela penned a personal essay for "Good Morning America."

ByShangela via GMA logo
October 21, 2021, 5:33 AM

Shangela, also known as D.J. Pierce, is an actor, singer and drag artist who competed on three seasons of the "RuPaul's Drag Race" franchise and made it to the finals of the third all-star season in 2018. Shangela currently stars in HBO's "We're Here," which returned for season 2, streaming now on HBO Max.

In a personal essay written for "Good Morning America," Shangela reflects on coming to terms with their sexuality and queer identity and offers advice to others struggling with embracing their true selves.

I've competed on multiple seasons of the series "RuPaul's Drag Race," but more than a contestant, I also consider myself a superfan of the show. And in watching the past finale episodes, I would always smile at the moment RuPaul would hold up a childhood photo of one of the finalists and ask the all-too-familiar question: "What are some words of advice that you would say to your younger self?"

On "All Stars" season three of the series, I competed fiercely and made it to the finale -- to that moment -- but I never got that particular question from Mama Ru. So when the opportunity to share my words presented itself recently, how could I resist?

Earlier this month, I was invited to my alma mater Southern Methodist University in Dallas to perform for the first time in drag as Shangela and speak to the students.

I felt such a rush of emotions as I stood on the same auditorium stage where 15 years ago as a student myself I'd held meetings, programmed events and introduced acts … but never one like this.

Shangela speaks to students at Southern Methodist University.
DJ Pierce

I thought, "What do I say to these minds -- to these images of my younger self -- that can truly have impact?" There was one message that kept repeating in my head: "Don't give up."

My freshman year at SMU, there were many times that I recognized how much I didn't fit in with the majority. I would sometimes convince myself that I didn't even belong there. I would sit in class with people who talked about their private tutors and lavish family trips, while I was thinking about the two extra jobs I was working to stay afloat. I was a low-income Black kid from Paris, Texas, surrounded by mostly wealthy, straight white kids from conservative families that I figured had zero interest in getting to know me.

Many times I felt isolated and confused, as I myself was still struggling to acknowledge and embrace my own queer identity. But running away was not an option for me. I learned early in my life that if I didn't strive to do my best; there would be no safety net to catch me.

'I felt isolated and confused, as I myself was still struggling to acknowledge and embrace my own queer identity'

I soon realized that my own stereotypes of those students around me was holding me back from really connecting.

So I took some chances.

DJ Pierce, also known as drag artist Shangela, as a student at Southern Methodist University.
DJ Pierce

Even when it felt uncomfortable, I began initiating conversations with others and learning about other communities. I got involved in activities on campus, and sought out friends who became like family. Not only was I involved in general campus groups like Student Senate and Program Council, but I also sought out the campus GLBSO (small queer organization), the Association of Black Students and even the gospel choir.

I began making friends with all the amazing gay dancers from New York City who strutted across campus with such pride. I even began back up dancing for local Dallas drag queens, which is how I met my own drag mother, Alyssa Edwards.

I got to know myself and chose to embrace the parts of my queerness that I thought I had to hide in order to blend in. I no longer would edit the feminine way that I walked and talked nor would I resist the urge to wear tight jeans or cutoff shirts for fear that someone would judge me. I didn't let the weight of feeling different crush me, instead, I let it empower me.

I did not give up, and because of that I went from being the quiet kid from Paris to thriving as a first-year student senator, a program council chair, and recently, I was invited to serve on the SMU Advisory Board for the Meadows School of the Arts.

So as I stood there on that SMU stage, that's the message that I gave to the students, to all the future Shangelas in the crowd.

DJ Pierce, also known as drag artist Shangela, at an alumni speaking engagement at Southern Methodist University.
DJ Pierce

And I offer this message to you reading this today: In order to make it through this life, you are going to have to be your biggest cheerleader.

Be kind to yourself.

Take care of your mind, soul and body.

And motivate yourself to keep going. I did, and now I'm traveling the country empowering others like me who still may feel lost or alone.

You can make it baby … just don't give up.

-Xo, Shangela

Shangela attends the Los Angeles Premiere Of Season 2 Of HBO's Unscripted Series "We're Here" at Sony Pictures Studios on Oct. 08, 2021, in Culver City, Calif.
Jon Kopaloff/WireImage via Getty Images
'You can make it, baby. Just don't give up'

Hear more from Shangela from ABC Audio's "Life Out Loud with LZ Granderson," streaming wherever you listen to your podcasts!