Shangela Laquifa is the only drag queen to compete in two different seasons of RuPaul's Drag Race. Since then, however, life has been harrowing.
It all began the Friday before last Halloween, while the L.A.-based Shangela was performing on stage for Night of the Living Drag at Providence in New York City. Feeding off the adoring crowd, Shangela didn't hold anything back, channeling the high-energy dancing of Tina Turner and Beyoncé. She recalls, "I did one of my classic moves - a leaping death drop." She's still not sure exactly what went wrong, but when she landed, she broke the tibia and fibula in her right leg. "The bone was sticking out under the skin," Shangela explained. "Not cute, not fun."
No one else was immediately aware that she was injured. "It's a performer's worst nightmare: to hurt yourself on stage and not be able to remove yourself from the stage," she says. Shangela signaled for help and got wheeled out through the dance floor.
Surgery followed. Shangela spent weeks in Lenox Hill Hospital before moving closer to her family in Texas and beginning grueling rehab sessions at the Carrell Clinic in Dallas. You might assume that such extensive medical care is expensive, and you'd be correct. Shangela says, "Breaking my leg has cost upwards of $100,000, and those numbers are still rolling in."
A broken leg and a six-figure medical bill would spell the end for most drag queens, but not Shangela. She'd have a lot to lose: Not only has she gained lasting notoriety from being a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race, she's well-known in L.A.'s drag queen circles.
It's debatable which of those two assets Shangela owes most. The cynical view of her career is simple: She owes it all to RuPaul's Drag Race, which returns tonight for its sixth season on Logo. The competition reality show is a hybrid of America's Top Model, Project Runway, Last Comic Standing and So You Think You Can Dance. In any given episode, drag queens can find themselves doing things as varied as creating flamboyant sock puppets, posing for an underwater photo shoot in a dunk tank and sewing two new dresses for the runway walk. Then comes the final showdown.
Near the end of every episode, RuPaul - who presides over the show like a gorgeous technicolor mix of Tim Gunn, Oprah and Joan Crawford - tells the the two queens facing elimination, "The time has come to lip sync for your life. Good luck. And don't fuck it up." The dueling drag queens dance and lip sync to an established gay club tune or to RuPaul's latest single. When the music stops, RuPaul allows the winner to stay in the competition. The loser is told, "Sashay away." The dismissed queen often leaves in tears.
In striking contrast to its cutthroat nature, RuPaul's Drag Race gave Shangela the most generous gift possible on a reality television show: a second chance. Despite being the first contestant eliminated in season two, Shangela was brought back to go for the crown again in season three, and finished in fifth place. No other drag queen has been allowed to compete in multiple seasons.
"RuPaul's Drag Race is the holy grail of drag," she says. Being on the show elevated her profile, making it possible for her to gain a national audience. Shangela has more than 71,000 Twitter followers and upward of 99,000 likes on her official Facebook page. The fan base makes her an attractive draw to nightclubs across the country. Call it the wicked price of fame: Shangela wouldn't have been on stage performing in New York City the night she broke her leg if she wasn't one of "RuPaul's girls."
But Shangela wouldn't be Shangela at all if it weren't for the Los Angeles drag queen scene. "My first show was at Here Lounge in West Hollywood," she recalls. Her friends dared her to enter the club's amateur competition. She earned second place, and loved the experience so much that she kept at it. The persona of Shangela (and her catchphrase, "Halleloo!") quickly took shape.
People noticed. She started hosting at Here, then moved her act to Micky's, another West Hollywood gay club. Within five months, Shangela was cast on Drag Race.
Unlike drag queens from the deep South, the Midwest, San Francisco or even New York, Shangela could tap into a well of opportunity that only comes from being based in L.A. She went Hollywood. Shangela's acting ability landed her roles in shows like Community, The Mentalist, 2 Broke Girls and Glee.
Acting turned out to be her true saving grace. That humongous hospital bill she's been racking up since she broke her leg won't fall squarely on her. She qualified for medical insurance from the Screen Actors Guild less than a month before the injury. She'd be screwed otherwise because, as Shangela notes dryly, "There's no union for drag queens."
Shangela is a model for other L.A. drag queens who hope to get on the show so it will raise their profiles. Take Laganja Estranja, who's competing this coming season. In addition to performing at West Hollywood's Rage, Hamburger Mary and the Abbey, Laganja hosts Hard Werk every Thursday night at Micky's, along with fellow drag queen Cake Moss.
An hour before one recent performance, Laganja greets regulars out on Mickey's patio. She describes the crowd as a collection of "outcasts, transgenders, underground Voguers, hipsters, twerkers and Drag Race fans." Laganja seems right at home among them.
Wearing gold earrings shaped like marijuana leaves and a necklace with a gun medallion, Laganja looks sort of like a hip-hop version of Uma Thurman playing D.C. Comics' Poison Ivy. Beautiful, but dangerous. Absolutely no filter. As she finished her tenth cigarette of the day, she promises, "Once weed is legal, I won't smoke cigarettes any more." As she downs a mysterious drink the bartender handed her, she guesses at its contents. "Something fruity and sour and strong," she says. "I let them surprise me."
Laganja has already noticed benefits from being on the show, even before its premiere. When a trailer for the new season went viral, she gained 200 more Twitter followers, 400 more Facebook followers and 1,000 more Instagram followers. "I'm not going to let this opportunity pass me by," she says.
Between the city's club circuit, theater gigs, stand-up comedy venues, television work and movie roles, drag queens can make a living here without having to tear each other down. As Cake Moss - who looks like a rich girl gone wild, but raps with the ferocity of Nicki Minaj - explains, "The L.A. drag scene is very big. Hundreds of drag queens. New ones coming every other day. And so many of us get steady work. It's crazy."
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There is a RuPaul paradox at play. The reality show put drag queens more prominently into pop culture. Gay clubs and bars started hosting viewing parties. They also started booking Drag Race queens to headline shows, which gave local queens chances to shine as opening acts. In essence: The talent pool increased as the job market widened.
The L.A. drag scene has become so robust that some queens wonder if appearing on Drag Race is even necessary. They want to see if they can achieve fame without having to "lip sync for your life." Cake Moss puts it best: "I don't want to be one of RuPaul's daughters. I want to be her sister."
Shangela, however, is a prime example of how the show can change a career. Now, nothing can stop her - not even a broken leg. Depending on how well her physical therapy continues, Shangela plans to make her triumphant comeback in late February or early March at Micky's. "I can't wait," she says. Halleloo!
Rasheed Newson is a television writer for the new sci-fi drama The 100 on the CW. Follow him on Twitter at @ra_sheed.