‘We’re Here’ Drag Queens on Educating Viewers: “We Are Natural, We Are Normal”

Since its inception, Max’s We’re Here has had a bold premise: Three real-life drag queens sashay out onto the streets across small-town America to coach ordinary people to perform in drag onstage, and hopefully foster some enlightenment and community along the way. For season four, the series underwent a complete overhaul, seeing the departure of the former trinity of Drag Race alums — Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela and Eureka O’Hara — for the fresh new faces of Jaida Essence Hall, Sasha Velour, Priyanka and Latrice Royale. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the queenly quartet about their respective journeys on the show and the importance of visibly existing as queer people in conservative towns.

What was your relationship to the show entering filming?

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SASHA VELOUR I immediately connected with the show, the drag performances that I would see clips of. That’s what I’m obsessed with, drag numbers that hint at your personal story but turn it into this work of entertainment that can bring people close and hopefully change hearts and minds. I saw some performances on the show that looked like my style, with projections and certain kinds of reveals, so I felt like it was beckoning to me. And then it was Bob the Drag Queen who called me up last year and was like, “Would you want to do We’re Here? Because I already gave them your name.”

PRIYANKA I love a good cry. I watch people win contests on YouTube just to feel some joy in my life — like, Oprah giving [someone] a car — and sobbing, so We’re Here definitely gave me that feeling of, “We can all make it, we can all feel good,” which is what I love about the show. In terms of the drag community, it just felt like a coveted spot. There are only three other queens who have done this job. It was exciting, such an honor.

LATRICE ROYALE I felt like this was just an extension of what I do. I’m always trying to motivate people to be their authentic selves and find the joy and love within themselves, and not to wait for others to validate them, and just be happy.

What’s your motivation to come on this show, which is such a different, more fish-out-of-water experience than something like Drag Race?

PRIYANKA I actually went in thinking that changing minds was the goal. I thought it was like, “I want [homophobes and transphobes] to understand that what they’re doing is wrong. And that trans people are real people, and that drag is beautiful.” But learning from Jaida, Latrice and Sasha, how they handled conversations, I realized, “Oh, wait, just being here, in full drag, is enough to give me the strength to show people who we are.” So, although I came in with a goal to be a little spicy, it didn’t end up being that way. It ended up being more just having conversations with people, to educate them about us. There’s a lot of anger, but what we have seen is that with our presence, they’re not big changes, but there’s been some really small changes in the community. The impact of just being there, it’s amazing.

JAIDA ESSENCE HALL I’ve done Drag Race twice now. The refreshing thing that [made me] excited about doing We’re Here was specifically that it was a setting that was not competitive with my sisters, and instead of feeling like we’re each on individual teams, where people could root for us, we’re actually one unit, one team, playing for the same goal. We’re here to support each other. I know that my sisters have my back. I felt like us being in drag in the world was almost like being investigative journalists in these cities, trying to figure out exactly what the story was and how we can help the communities.

VELOUR It’s this funny thing, because the show sets it up often that we are really shocking presences in these towns. And I feel like our united mission, the four of us, was really getting people to see that we aren’t shocking. That’s very radical, in itself, to say: Actually, drag is totally normal. There are tons of us, this is nothing new, queer and trans people are already in your community and have existed forever. That was always the mission; the message we were saying, is: “We are natural, we are normal. We’re here.”

Did your relationships with one another change significantly as a result of doing this show together?

PRIYANKA It was interesting, what I thought I knew of the three of them has completely flipped over and changed. When you watch a show like Drag Race, where we all came from, you pretty much only know the funny, “Look over there,” Jaida’s [line] or Sasha’s big reveals — these very top-layered versions of these people. You get to know us in not a jester, getting-ready-in-the-work-room way. It’s real. I’m excited for fans to see that because we were always encouraging everybody in the small towns of their community, so they feel safe. But between each other, we found this community [too].

VELOUR We did a lot of collaboration in the most positive way possible. There was a smaller group putting together the drag this season. I think that empowered us to do it the way we know how, to really use some drag tricks, to get together at midnight and come up with choreography in the hotel conference room, helping each other’s daughters [mentees] get into drag, and by necessity, those things actually don’t happen on camera. It’s really us figuring out how to do it, having meetings, having a smoke break together.

What were some of the most anxiety-inducing parts of filming?

ROYALE Honestly, the only anxiety and fear I had was going into the church [to speak with a prejudiced religious woman]. That was my only time I felt some type of way. It was an emotional experience. But I felt like I grew through it. And as far as going into the trenches, there was no fear. There were no nerves. I wanted to hear them out. But also I wanted to be heard, and there was never a moment where I was fearful to confront anyone or be confronted. I knew what I was up against, and I know what I look like, I’m stunning. And people can’t take that sometimes, and it’s OK. You don’t have to like it, but you definitely have to respect the fact that we are here and we’re not going anywhere.

HALL My biggest anxiety was making sure for [my drag daughter] Malika that I got it right for her. She’s like my sister, my family. I started to become protective of her, and I would just love to make sure that no matter what, she felt amazing and that she felt like she’ll find community and find out more about herself.

PRIYANKA The meet-and-greet we did, in the middle of a park, the open space. We put an ad in the [Tennessee] paper to show the community that we have to come together, knowing how public that was and seeing the Facebook comments that “three well-placed bullets would kill these pedophiles” before we stepped out there in all pink. You can’t say everything is going to be OK because you actually don’t know. I said, “Do you think someone has a gun up there?” But to Sasha’s point, by the time the door swung open, it was like, “OK, shoulders back, ladies.”

VELOUR I feel like drag has given us all armor. We don’t react with fear first. But for me, it was really those moments after we’d stopped filming. I was traveling with one part of my drag family from New York, and we’d just be in the car, having heard someone literally talking about where a bullet entered her bedroom, or my other drag daughter in Oklahoma talking about basically being left for dead in the parking lot outside her apartment building. Just that brutal reminder that this country is not a safe place for queer and trans people. We could be killed in our homes. When we step out of the host role and become people again, in the car, on the drive home, you’re like, “Wow, this is a lot,” and it makes you reflect differently on this country and how far we still have to come.

Is there anything you hope people take away from the show in particular?

PRIYANKA That it’s OK to ask the wrong questions. It’s OK to feel misinformed sometimes, because I asked questions that I didn’t know the answers to; I was scared to argue with people. It’s OK to make a mistake.

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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