a star is born

How Shangela and Willam Dragged Up A Star Is Born

Condragulations, Willam and Shangela! Photo: Getty Images

In A Star Is Born, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), the country rock star who’ll drink any liquor as long as it’s wet, meets the supremely talented but undiscovered Ally (Lady Gaga) at a gay bar called Bleu Bleu just outside of Los Angeles. The concept of starting the film in a drag bar came from long conversations Cooper and his co-scriptwriter Eric Roth had with Lady Gaga. “I would just ask [Gaga] tons of questions and listen back to it and try to take things and think, How can we mold this? And we really loved the drag bar idea, and I really wanted her to sing ‘La Vie en Rose,’” Cooper told Vulture earlier during a round-table interview at the Toronto Film Festival.

It was the casting call heard round drag queen dressing rooms everywhere, but in the end it was two alums from RuPaul’s Drag Race — Shangela, the people’s queen, who appeared on multiple seasons, but most recently as the runner-up of All Stars 3, and the dry and deadpan Willam from season four — who made the cut. At first, A Star Is Born was looking for a half-dead Marilyn Monroe impersonator; originally, Shangela, didn’t even go in for the audition, because Marilyn wasn’t exactly in her wheelhouse. “Later I got an email from Lady Gaga’s camp and they were like, ‘LG heard you didn’t come in for the audition. She really wants you to audition. She wanted to see you for this role,’” said Shangela. “I had to step away from the computer for a second, I was like, ‘LG … Lady Gaga? Oh my God.’ So I was really thrilled. Honey, I went and found me a blonde wig, I found me a white Marilyn Monroe dress and I went in and sang ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ for the role. I was black Marilyn.”

Ultimately, Cooper dropped the Monroe idea — and the idea of a Barbra Streisand impersonator — and instead had Shangela play the head drag queen in charge at the bar. Willam plays Emerald, a Dolly Parton impersonator with a fitting breastplate appropriate for the real-life country queen. They shot their opening scenes over the course of two days at the Virgil in Los Angeles, where much of the dialogue was unscripted and ad-libbed. “Once I met [Willam and Shangela] on set, the possibilities became endless of what we could do in this space. It was so exciting,” said Cooper. “Willam and Shangela just blew my mind.”

As drag queens are wont to do, Willam and Shangela created many of their looks themselves. Willam’s Dolly-in-white look came together at the last minute. “The night before [the production department] said, ‘Can you do Dolly?’ I said, ‘I got the tits for it, sure,’” said Willam. “They were like, ‘Bradley wants you in white.’ I said, ‘Okay. Well I have a white dress at home, that’s perfect.’ My husband literally went to my production space where I keep all my drag, picked up the dress and the shoes and then brought it to the set. It was a perfect ’80s Dolly look that randomly I just had laying around and it was white. Then I took their wig and then stacked my wig on top of it because the higher the hair, the closer to God.”

The scenes in the dressing room off the drag bar were similarly ad-libbed. “Bradley just said, “Go off and do your thing,’” said Willam. One of those things: the moment when Emerald asks Jackson Maine to sign her breast plate. “[Cooper] told us, ‘Jackson’s gonna come in the dressing room, and just act like [it’s] a normal drag dressing room.’ I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to be a cheeseball because this guy’s one of the most famous rock stars in the world, and I’m a Dolly Parton guitar-playing drag queen, so what would I do if Willie Nelson came into the bar? I would be like, sign my tits, dude.’”

So that’s what Willam did. “I ran off set and I was like, ‘Somebody give me a Sharpie.’ I think a wardrobe person or a PA handed me a Sharpie, and I went in, and he signed them. Then I was like, Please let this wipe off between takes, because I knew we were going to have to do it a few times, and it wiped it right off. I was like, Jesus loves me. The titties are upstairs right now.” (An extant “J” remains on the breastplate.)

As far as gay icons go, Willam and Shangela report that Lady Gaga was everything they wanted her to be. For one, when she performed “La Vie en Rose” in Édith Piaf drag, the mic was on and she was singing live. “It was so good because she’s in her element. She’s an entertainer. She’s a performer. Trust me, before I’m a co-star I’m a fan first. I’ve been to every Lady Gaga concert,” said Shangela. “We were like, we’re at the Gaga concert, the gays we’re freaking out like at concert. They’re like, ‘The rose fell, we’re going to do it again.’ Do it again, lovely, do it again.

It was the same in between takes. “She was hanging out with us the whole time. She was never in her trailer. She was cool as hell,” said Willam. “I’m shameful,” said Shangela. “You know they couldn’t keep my mouth shut. When they said, ‘We’re going to switch cameras around. You guys have a moment,’ she could have left. She didn’t. She stayed right in that seat and was like, ‘So Shan, what’s going on?’ And I’m like, ‘Let’s do it.’”

After they finished shooting the scenes at the drag bar, Lady Gaga handed out long-stemmed white roses to everyone. “She had gotten a bouquet of white ones and she went around the set, handing them out to lots of people and she gave me one,” said Shangela. “I have a petal from the rose that I pressed in my journal that I kept because I was like, Oh my God, Lady Gaga gave me a gift.”

Both believe the relationship between Ally and her family of drag queens reflects the world that they lived in. “When I call [Ally] my drag baby, it’s true, because there are so many places, drag bars where not only gay boys and transgender people, but also straight girls go,” said Shangela. “You’re like my family and that’s what this scene is all about. It’s establishing where she comes from. She was on the outside out there because of the way she looked or whatever, but in here, she was our star and we let her be on our show and we said, Girl, go out there and do your number, get your roses and come off. French fish, come on, give it to us.”

How Shangela and Willam Dragged Up A Star Is Born