According to drag performer Shea Coulee, drag is "so much more than what people think it is."
I met Coulee at Coffee Chicago to discuss the art of female impersonation and why it's been a calling for so many. "Drag means the freedom of self-expression," Coulee said. "As a gay man, I get to explore my femininity and make money without being shamed for it." Coulee explained that he's been drawn to women and divas from a young age, particularly performers like Diana Ross, Grace Jones and Paula Kelly. "I think Black women are so fierce and so fiercely real," Coulee explained. "There's a power that a Black woman exudes that I'm always trying to express."
It was Jones, in particular, who mesmerized Coulee at a young age. "I remember the first time I saw Grace Jones," Shea Coulee recalled. "It was in James Bond. I remember seeing her and being so shocked by her presence. She had such a masculinity about her, this tall, feminine Amazon woman. She was otherworldly. I wasn't looking at her as a woman or a man. I was looking at her as a being." Watching Jones made it more possible for Coulee to be himself, and everything that meant for a queer youth. "For her, to step out and embrace the way she is was an inspiration," Coulee said. "Would you rather live an authentic life or a safe one? You only have this one life."
What made Jones interesting to Coulee was the complexity of her gendered identity and the way she was able to embody so many things at once. "Masculinity is built on strength and how much you can conquer," said Coulee. "Femininity has layers, and character wise that's more fun to explore." Although most of Shea Coulee's influences are older, he believes that the performers who are most fun to impersonate are singers like Beyonce, who absolutely love being women and embrace the strength in femininity. They embrace it. "Divas are more vampy about their femininity," Coulee explained, "and in drag, you have to vamp it up."
But as a performer, Coulee is more than his influences. Developing the character of Shea Coulee has been about "going beyond the images," taking "influences from this person, that person, that photograph or that piece of art." Coulee graduated from Columbia College in 2011 and got into drag almost by accident. He was asked to perform at a burlesque show called Jeezy's Joint as a dancer but mistakenly got an email about doing a solo act. Coulee agreed to still do it, but only if he could perform in drag. According to Coulee, the audience feedback was incredible. "I'd never gotten such a response from people as when I started doing Shea Coulee," he said. "I had never felt so loved before."
His dramatic background from theater school helped him further develop and conceive of Coulee as a character, using her not only to be creative but also political. "I want Shea Coulee to be a subversive statement about how we portray masculinity and femininity," Coulee told me. "We make everything so Black and white. We make everything absolutes. But in drag, there's a sense of fluidity." According to Coulee, embodying this character has helped him exist in the present moment as a performer and pretend like he's living it all for the first timeand that experience has changed him. "Normally in person, I take a very soft approach to people," said Coulee. "I'm very shy. But when I go through the transformation of becoming Shea, there is no hiding. It brings out my fiercest self."
Growing up as the only Black kid in a "lily-white town," drag helped Coulee find his voice and a place in Chicago, where drag is becoming ubiquitous. "You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a drag queen in this town," Coulee joked. "We are everywhere." As for why he feels the drag movement has so exploded in recent years, Coulee replied, "It gives a community of people a way to express themselves. I also think RuPaul's Drag Race has played a huge part in making drag more commercial, and the relationship with drag in the community is shifting right now. More of the community is banning together to support drag queen as artists, not just a novelty. They're taking the opportunity to get to know us."
Coulee said the LGBT community's drag moment is also important in breaking down many of our entrenched barriers. "People can definitely feel that there's a race divide," Coulee explained. "As African-American queens of color are concerned, there [are], maybe, like four of us." These performers include Chicago notables like Taj Mahal and Dida Ritz. "It's interesting because with a majority of the shows I do with Trannika Rex at Berlin, culturally diverse cast." For drag artist Kim Chi, a friend of Coulee's, Coulee mentioned that performing K-Pop has been transformative. Coulee said, "She's introducing people to her Korean culture and making them love it. It's what feels authentic to her."
For performers like Kim Chi, Coulee felt that drag can be a way of "representing all the faces in the community who don't always get a stage to stand on." "I think to we can give hope to others who feel like they don't have a voice, so they feel like someone's being heard," Shea Coulee told me. "Having that kind of attitude makes people feel welcome. We're all in this together. Though it feels like we can be very divided, we have to remember that we're all family." Coulee feels that drag can be a liberating force for the LGBT community by giving people a platform on which their identity can be affirmed. "Drag can, in turn, inspire someone to express themselves and share with the world what they want to share with the world," Coulee said. "I want people to enjoy themselves, feel fierce and feel fearlessno apologies."
As far as Coulee's message for the world, that's something he's still figuring out. "I feel like more and more I perform, the more pieces of the puzzle fit togetherbut I have a lot of pieces left to fill," Coulee admitted. "She's still incomplete."
Coulee is currently performing at Berlin and at the Naughty Little Drag Show, while working as a co-host on the Tony Soto Show. However, Shea Coulee advised followers to stay tuned as the character goes through a process of invention and looks toward the future, developing as a brand and an online media presence. "I envision so much I'm afraid to even say it out loud," Coulee said. "I don't even think you're ready for it yet."