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Can Chicago's Shea Couleé Become America's Next Drag Superstar?

By Kelly Bauer | March 15, 2017 5:59am

DOWNTOWN — Drag queen Shea Couleé is hoping to make Chicago and its vibrant drag scene proud when she competes on "RuPaul's Drag Race" this month.

Couleé, 28, of Ravenswood, will appear on the award-winning competition show when its ninth season premieres March 24. "Drag Race" forces drag queens to test their creative abilities by singing, acting, dancing, making costumes and "beating their face" while trying to impress judge RuPaul, herself a world-famous drag queen.

Chicago queens (and Shea's buddies) Kim Chi and Pearl were runners up on "Drag Race" in 2016 and 2015, respectively, but no queen from the city has ever been named America's Drag Superstar. Most of Season 9 has been filmed but the winner won't be decided until the end of the season.

“There was some pressure to live up to the expectations that have been created by Chicago queens," Shea said, "but mostly I guess the pressure came from wanting to do right by my hometown and make them proud.”

For Shea, who grew up in suburban Plainfield, appearing on Drag Race means things are coming full circle.

Shea moved to Chicago to go to Columbia College and graduated from the school in 2011 with a degree in costume design. She started doing drag six years ago after she saw performer Raja appear on (and win) "Drag Race" in its third season.

Shea developed her drag persona — which showcases her Cameroonian and Kenyan heritage in looks that are "Afrocentric and regal" — in Chicago and worked as a resident host at Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark St. She's also appeared at Roscoe's Tavern, 3356 N. Halsted St.

"The Chicago drag scene is not as divided as some other drag scenes that I've experienced," Shea said. "I think everyone is really open-minded and all about working as a collective. ... The people here really do accept and nurture your craft and your talent.

"It's really supportive. It's a great community."

It took years of work before "Drag Race" told Shea she'd been accepted as a contestant, though.

"I was just in shock. I had auditioned five times for the show, so I kind of got used to hearing 'no,'" Shea said. "To get a 'yes' was really just ... it was amazing."

Being in the competition came with a slew of challenges: Shea had to put together looks — outfits, makeup, accessories and wigs — that would satisfy judges during challenges and on the runway. She had to prepare and pack "very strategically," she said, and filming was sometimes stressful.

"I would say, mentally, I just also tried to focus and tell myself ... I needed to just kind of keep my inner saboteur in check [and] not to listen to any negative voices," Shea said, joking that sometimes "the calls are coming from inside the house."

The show also gave Shea a chance to develop a close bond with co-star Sasha Velour and the rest of the cast, she said, and she's heard from many new fans.

"The fans that have reached out to me and sent me messages on social media, they are just like really wonderful and I am so fortunate to be able to connect with all these amazing, beautiful little trolls," Shea said.

And, of course, Shea got to meet Lady Gaga, who will make a surprise appearance (to the queens, anyway) the first episode of the new season.

"For a hot second I thought she was a French queen named Bettie B---- who does an amazing Lady Gaga impersonation, but as soon as she opened her mouth and said something I was like, 'That is not a man. That is not a man. That is a woman!'" Shea said, laughing. "So when she revealed herself I was just like, 'Am I literally standing within 4 feet of Lady Gaga? And there is no security around her standing between us?"

Lady Gaga will appear on "RuPaul's Drag Race." [Courtesy of LOGO]

Shea's time in the spotlight is "still very, very new," she said, and she has many projects that are just beginning. The show taught her not to doubt herself, she said, and she tries to listen to "baby Shea:" the young boy she once was, who was "fearless" and has become her No. 1 fan.

"I would say the best piece of advice that I got was from Kim Chi," Shea said. "And she told me that ... especially when it comes to fans and kind of public opinion, to really only focus on the positive because ... the negativity could get to you easily.

"I think it's a good lesson for anybody, not just a girl going on 'Drag Race.'"

Shea will host the premiere of "Drag Race" March 24 at Roscoe's, 3356 N. Halsted St., with fellow performers Shangela, Naomi Smalls and Trannika Rex. They'll watch the episode, "gag over Gaga and kiki," Shea said.

Chicago performer Shea Coulee (fourth from right) will appear on Season 9 of "RuPaul's Drag Race." [Courtesy of LOGO]