Ahead of the highly anticipated premiere of HBO’s new unscripted series “WE’RE HERE,” GLAAD’s Head of Talent, Anthony Ramos, caught up with the show’s stars and executive producers to talk about their mission to highlight queer identities and call on people to open their hearts and minds.
Each of the six episodes will take Bob, Eureka and Shangela to a different small town in the United States where each of them will teach and guide their “drag daughters” to ultimately put on the most jaw-dropping, gag-worthy drag show anyone has ever seen!
The concept for the series, executive produced by Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram, appealed particularly to Shangela because of its potential to shine a spotlight on people who might never have had a chance to shine. Warren is a former Co-Chair of GLAAD’s Board of Directors and a recipient of GLAAD’s Stephen F. Kolzak Award for his LGBTQ advocacy and work to grow LGBTQ inclusion in Hollywood. You can watch his acceptance speech here.
“I immediately connected with this project because of its focus on LGBTQ stories and experiences in small towns across America,” she said.
Bob said that it was important that “We’re Here” was not a traditional makeover show.
“In my opinion, sometimes [makeover shows] lack a little bit of integrity especially when it comes to queer people making over straight people. Once [Warren & Ingram] assured me that it wouldn’t be a ‘queers help straights around the world’ kind of show, I was in,” Bob said.
While each city definitely gets its share of glitz and glitter realness sprinkled on them from Bob, Eureka, and Shangela, the journey proved to be one of high emotions and breakthroughs as well.
For Eureka, the process conjured up some tough memories from childhood.
“I’m an empathetic person and sometimes take on the energies of other people. Like them, I have also been through a lot in my life. I was bullied as a child, I had a rough coming out, and I lost my mother. You have to connect with people in a place of vulnerability,” they said.
Shangela, who grew up in Paris, Texas shared in that moment of reflection.
“Hearing some of my [drag] daughters’ experiences took me back to my own childhood growing up in a small town and yearning for a sense of community,” Shangela said.
Bob says it is all about seeing the similarities among people along the way.
“These stories are my stories; they are the shared human experience. It was emotional because you see a reflection of yourself in a lot of these people.”
The show, which will be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO on Demand and affiliate portals, features three drag performers as leads and Eureka says that they hope the show reaches people who might not be as familiar or truly understand the queer community.
“The LGBTQ+ is here. We are everywhere! We’re your friends, your family, your teachers, lawyers, mechanics and neighbors.”
Bob shares that same sentiment: “Queer people are genuinely your neighbors. We have a shared human experience, and yeah, we can celebrate that!”
Producers Stephen Warren and Ingram also say they hope this show sparks some important conversations where people need to have them.
“Judgment and oppression flourish in too many small towns in this country. People just don’t talk about their struggles, and tend to tuck them away to avoid town gossip, and this builds up a truckload of tension and emotion,” they said.
Looking back on the trip across the country and all of the people they encountered, Bob, Eureka and Shangela say each city had its own charm…and unique challenges.
“In one city we would find ourselves helping our people battle the unspoken stigma against gays, and in another we were battling the lack of local drag resources required to produce an amazing stage show,” Shangela said.
“The energy in Farmington, New Mexico was very ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ which made it difficult for people there to have conversations and open up in many ways,” Eureka recalls.
Bob says there was an important message that they took to every city.
“The confidence you have as a queen is a confidence that anyone can tap into. It is not always about being the most confident; it is about highlighting what you see about yourself as the most positive. Take what you love about yourself and highlight that,” they said.
Bob, Eureka and Shangela all gained major exposure after appearing on (and in Bob’s case winning) VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” After amassing a slew of new followers after appearing on the series, Shangela says it is important for her to keep a genuine connection with her fan base.
“I started as a baby drag queen in front of the world, and my fans have really been right there with me watching and cheering me on as I’ve worked my way up through the industry. They have seen me at my best, and sometimes even struggling. My supporters have lifted me up more than they know, and I hope to always make them proud.”
Eureka, who says their first flight ever was for “Drag Race,” is also grateful for the platform the show has given them.
“It’s been a journey of personal growth. I came from a small town with wishes to be famous that I did not always believe in. Joining the “RuPaul’s Drag Race’ family has really allowed me to grow as a person, as a performer and helped me become smarter, stronger and learn to better hold myself accountable,” they said.
Bob, who won the series in 2016, says that it is also important to remember the queens who paved the way before a mainstream series about the world of drag came to be.
“A lot of doors had already been knocked down before I even got here. From queens like Divine, Mona Foot (rest in peace) and Coco Peru, there’s a lot of queens who have been doing this stuff so far ahead of me and because they were doing it, now I get to do it,” they said.
So does it finally feel like drag queens are getting the respect and appreciation they deserve? Bob, Eureka and Shangela have mixed feelings.
“We are definitely not at a place where I feel drag queens are fully respected and appreciated at the highest levels…” Shangela said.
Eureka also says that people do not truly see drag as a real job.
“Just because it’s becoming more mainstream doesn’t mean it isn’t still viewed as a taboo form of art or as a legitimate career path. Drag artists do just as much work as, and sometimes more than, mainstream artists but we don’t always get the same recognition or respect for our craft, financially or otherwise,” they said.
Today, the world has to appreciate their favorite drag queen from afar – the worldwide COVID-19 crisis and forced quarantine has meant that Bob, Eureka and Shangela are not currently able to perform and entertain their fans in person.
Digital media has always been an important factor for queens to connect with a wider audience and is proving to be an even greater paramount tool in today’s climate.
In quarantine, I’ve been making a whole lot of online content. If I can put some content out there on YouTube that someone can appreciate and enjoy and it helps them through their quarantine, it would also help me throughout my quarantine,” Bob says.
Eureka, who says they have gotten used to life on the road and the many interactions that come with it, admits the isolation hasn’t been easy.
“It’s hard not being able to hug your friends and family. I also think our society, no matter the class, is kind of being humbled by this pandemic. It puts us all on the same playing field, we’re all afraid of the same things.”
“Drag queens are being hit hard with the shutdown of local nightlife and I applaud all the queens who are being resourceful and coming up with creative ideas to still entertain and make money,” Shangela said.
Nevertheless, we are seeing many queens adapt to the current climate of social distancing. Digital Drag Fest has brought many of the biggest names in drag together for a new digital concert festival, but Eureka says there is nothing like performing live in person.
“There is such a beautiful magic and power when there’s an audience there. Really though, I think it really just shows how dedicated we are as entertainers. Drag artists will always find a way. For now, this is our new world,” they said.
Beyond missing the personal connection, the lack of in-person gigs is causing a major financial blow to drag performers.
“I think that a lot of people think that we are rolling in the dough, that we are super-duper rich. But the truth is we are small businesses with employees trying to stay afloat,” Bob said.
Executive Producers Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren think the timing couldn’t be better for “We’re Here” to inspire people.
“This show is a reminder of who we are as Americans, that we are not as divided as we seem. We expose it all by bringing a community struggling with its identity together for one night in the hope they will take this as an opportunity to bond and celebrate their individuality, diversity, and the need for safe spaces.”
“We’re Here” premieres April 23 at 9pm ET on HBO.