Introductions are far from necessary when you’re international icon Shea Couleé. The household name holds weight across the board; drag, fashion, film, music. You name it, the Chicago artist has thrivingly twirled her way through countless art forms over her time in the spotlight.
Earning their star status through Season 9 and more notably, All Stars 5 & 7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Shea Couleé however is not a product of the Emmy nominated show, in fact, her clear cut vision for her art has been present since starring in 2017’s Lipstick City – a lavishly shot short film both written and directed by the visionary herself.
Over half a decade has passed since then and Couleé’s growth continues to soar. “I’ve learned to focus on staying in my own lane and doing what feels right, appropriate, and authentic to me,” says the Drag Race Hall of Fame enlistee, as she’s learned to avoid comparisons over the years to become the most refined version of herself today. “Most of my growth has come from being more reflective and looking at myself and making thoughtful decisions on how I want to present my artwork in a way that feels fulfilling. And in a way that makes me happy.”
Couleé surrounds herself with the cream of the crop of the LGBTQIA+ community, more recently on a 22 city escapade with further queer hero Betty Who on The Big! Tour, a safe space that enabled her to connect with fans on a more intimate level, with the opportunity to perform original material from her recently shared debut album 8.
“I spent two years working hard, trying to hone in on my style and my sound,” Couleé shares on laying the foundations for her grand debut release. Partnering with major collaborators Sam Sparro, The Caesars and GESS to construct in-depth and cohesive soundscapes for this project, 8 celebrates prominent themes of self love, self acceptance, and a ferocious desire to dance.
Inspired by the utmost legends of the dancefloor; Chaka Khan, Janet Jackson, Luther Vandross et al, Couleé notes these as some of the earliest sounds she recalls in her upbringing. “I wanted 8 to feel like it was a reflection of the music that I heard growing up because those artists’ sounds created such a strong imprint on me, my taste, and my understanding of music.” Further naming Frankie Knuckles, Honey Dijon and CeCe Peniston as prominent staples in her artistic journey, Couleé makes a point of continuing to highlight Black artists through her art.
“We are the tastemakers when it comes to creating music. A lot of times things that are sampled and referenced are created by Black artists and the wider public and audience doesn’t even realize that. For me, as a Black queer artist, it was super important to focus on the contributions of my predecessors and what they’ve given to the world of music and to my own life, personally.”
8 is the soundtrack to a euphoric queer excursion — a night encapsulated of unforgettable moments and outrageous antics, exploring the many vignettes of what an evening could feel, look and sound like through queer eyes. “For me, having a narrative underneath the entire piece is extremely important because at my core, I am a storyteller,” she explains. “So, even when it comes to a makeup look or I’m styling something or writing a song, there’s always a story that’s underneath so that when I’m creating it, it feels like it’s something that’s fully realized.”
Partial to a fierce collaboration between her peers (Alaska, The Vixen, Aja, Jujubee, Yvie Oddly), it was her conscious approach to focus purely on Shea Couleé in 8 that transforms the body of work into something far from your typical Drag Race alumni record. If anything, 8 is a balls to the wall effort in breaking down barriers that shelter drag artists into producing frivolous content, to unveiling a side to drag that takes music as an artform seriously.
“I wanted to allow my voice and my point of view to come through strongly on this,” Couleé expresses. “I knew even before completing the album that I wanted to do an extended and deluxe version and have that as an opportunity to expand on the original concepts. But as far as the release of 8 as its own entity, I wanted it to be 100% me.”
When it comes to her artistic vision, no one’s to interfere with the inner-workings of Couleé’s creative psyche. Self-directing the videos for her singles ‘Let Go’, ‘Your Name’ & more recently ‘Material’, her meticulous eye knew what it took to produce a silky smooth visual teeming with high-fashion and vigorous choreography.
Couleé is an Aquarius, and they tend to live in dual realities, so she thinks. “You know, there’s a real world, but then there’s a fantasy world that’s basically like a film where there’s cameras everywhere. My process is trying to articulate to the best of my ability what it is that I see and feel and experience in that fantasy-reality. How do we capture that here in this natural realm in a way that allows us to showcase that back to viewers and bring them into my world?”
Planning to entice others into her own fantasy land through her first-ever solo international stage tour, The Lipstick Ball, expect to witness a visually exhilarating, metaphorical backdrop that reflects Couleé’s first-hand experiences of Chicago nightlife.
“Where am I emotionally? I’m anxious. It’s a lot to do. It’s my first headlining tour and obviously I’m very passionate about this project, it’s my baby, so I want to make sure to present it in a way that feels like it honors all of the hard work that we put into creating The Lipstick Ball world.”
Even the most unapologetic performers get stage fright, as one would expect when laying the groundwork for a 10 date European tour. But for such a confident performer like Couleé, this is somewhat of a rarity. “I think when it comes to confidence, a lot of it is about the perception of others. What I feel that other people perceive as confidence is just my own self-love. That’s something that everybody should experience and embrace. Life is too short to doubt yourself and be down on yourself.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t have her moments. “We are literally all human. We all have a complex range of emotions that we deal with daily. However, when it comes to my life and the way that I’ve operated ever since being a little kid, I’ve always reminded myself that I am special and that I have something special to offer the world. The only way that I can do that is by truly believing in myself and loving myself exactly for who I am.”
This very mindset has propelled Couleé in all aspects of her life, and with 8 it was key she explored and shared parts of herself outside of just her confidence. “A lot of times it’s easy for people to look at someone who’s presenting mostly their successes and think that’s how their life is 24/7. No one sees the failures and the struggles, and I feel like those are also important.” 8 plays the pivotal role in embracing humanity and sharing endured hardships that enable you to come out the other side a better person; to showcase to other people who otherwise might think everything is, in Couleé’s words, all sunshine and rainbows.
As The Lipstick Ball is in motion, Shea Couleé braces for her most eccentric performances yet. 8, with its genre-bending, underground drag-pop elements, tied in with a seamless blend of sultry R&B, quintessential disco and stirring house make for a night of ferocity and jubilation to be celebrated in safe spaces across the globe, which is exactly what these shows are for.
Taking place at some of the most sentimental venues across the UK and Europe, including one night only at London’s Heaven – “the first nightclub that I had ever been to when I was 19” – both The Lipstick Ball and 8 represent six years of hard grafting in a world that is now finally recognising the beauty of drag, non-binary and BIPOC individuals, and it’s so beautiful to see.
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Interview: Jordan White
Creative Direction & Photography: Nicolas Marchal
Executive Producer: Dan Polyak
Editing: Jan-Balthasar Schliephack
Assisting: Tara White
PR: Coakley PR
Location provided by Peerspace
Cover Design: Sophie Rose Meeson