To describe the driving ethos of Chicago’s drag house Maison Couleé, you need look no further than the Chicago Black Drag Council’s June 20 town hall on racism at Sidetrack specifically and in Boystown in general. It was here that Bambi Banks-Couleé, drag daughter of Maison Couleé’s founding mother Shea Couleé, let Sidetrack know she was done putting up with the racist bullshit that has long been baked into the culture of Chicago’s north side drag bars.
“Sidetrack has been one of the main places where Black drag queens do not feel protected. At all,” Ms. Bambi stated, a storm of real-time comments cheering her on. Like mother, like daughter. Several days earlier, Shea Couleé took the mic at Chicago’s March for Change.
“We are Black, we are queer, and we deserve to take up space,” Couleé told an amped-up crowd. “Somehow I became lucky enough to be somebody who is viewed on TV all around the world and somebody who is considered of value because I’m talented,” the two-time RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant continued. “My value should be strictly based on the fact that I am a human being walking this earth right next to you.” She ended with a call to action.
“Y’all need to hire Black people in your bars. And I’m not just talking about to wipe up your drinks,” Couleé said. In the words of Alexis Mateo of Drag Race, BAM.
By the end of the week, Roscoe’s and Berlin had canned T Rex, a drag queen host accused repeatedly of racism. Sidetrack, meanwhile, verbally committed to hiring more queens of color and putting queens of color in leadership positions at the bar.
So it went in the latest chapter of Maison Couleé Saves the World. Shea Couleé was born Jaren Kyei Merrell. Couleé the drag queen uses “she/her” pronouns. Merrell the person who created Shea uses “they/them.”
“You can use my government name so the people in Plainfield who remember me will know who I am now,” they said. Where they are now is impressive.
In 2017, the self-described “banji-bougie” queen tied for third on season 9 of Drag Race. Couleé’s back for Drag Race All Stars 5, which reaches the halfway mark this Friday when the fifth episode airs. Shockingly early in AS5 (episode two), her competitors declared Couleé was “the one to beat. And on Tuesday, June 30, Couleé hosts A Queer Pride’s Chicago is a Digital Drag Festival, the virtual version of the first and only festival in the city dedicated to drag, which premiered last year. Among the many popular performers showcased via Twitch are the Vixen, Lucy Stoole, and Bambi Banks-Couleé.
Couleé’s meticulously crafted, stunningly imaginative runway looks bolster her competitors’ classification. For Couleé, fashion is a way of addressing social justice issues and elevating Black queens, be it stomping the runway in a skintight, bespangled body suit (for the “Love the Skin You’re In” category) or channeling Queen Nefertiti (season 9 promo look.)
At 31, Couleé has been merging art and activism since grade school. That was when her parents moved to Plainfield, Illinois—a city with a robust history of Klan activity.
“I had relatives who asked my parents were they really sure they wanted to move there. But my dad was able to get a plot of land there, and his dream was to build a house for us,” she said.
As a six-year-old, Merrell understood their standing in Plainfield. “I was the only Black child in my (elementary school),” they recalled. “I remember my parents saying that would be the case, and I was going to walk into these spaces as not just a representative for my family, but for all Black people.
“They were like, ‘You have to be smarter. Your shoes have to be cleaner. You have to be a shining example that is above reproach.’ That was a lot to take in for a little kid, but I always loved a challenge. It pushed me to do really well in school, even though I got in trouble for talking all the time.”
Couleé describes her drag persona as a mix of Naomi Campbell, Grace Jones, and Clair Huxtable. When she performs, she looks to Beyoncé and Tina Turner for inspiration. Since earning a degree in costume design from Columbia College in 2011, she’s performed across the country, always with an eye toward honoring her ancestors and making the future better for her drag daughters.
“Me just existing is part of the revolution,” she said. “My grandmother was a housekeeper, on her hands and knees all day scrubbing floors and then on her knees every night praying her children and grandchildren wouldn’t have to do the same thing. My success is just a reflection of all the legwork my ancestors have done.
“I want to be an inspiration and give people hope. I want to amplify Black trans voices. I want to encourage our youth to be actively invested in politics,” she said.
On Drag Race as in IRL, achieving those goals can be fraught.
“It’s weird on Drag Race, because if you do too well, people are like, ‘It’s too easy for them—they haven’t earned it.’ But when you struggle, you could go home. So it’s this double-edged sword. Sometimes I feel like Catherine Zeta-Jones dodging all those laser beams in Entrapment,” she said.
“Drag Race started when Obama was president, and we were all like, ‘This is great.’ Then Trump became president and it was like, ’Oh. Damn.’ This is the time for me to speak up and encourage my fans to get involved politically. Because our survival depends on it.”
In words, deeds, and looks, Couleé puts that survival in the forefront, setting an example for the increasingly legendary children of Maison Couleé and making it impossible for everyone else not to listen.
“Words are a powerful tool. You use them right, and you can cut through a lot of bullshit,” Couleé said. Her strategy for winning AS5 is also rooted in compassion.
“I’m going to be a solid upstanding competitor this entire time. Be kind to people. That’s how I am going to get all the way to the crown,” she said. And if she falls short? Ms. Couleé isn’t going anywhere.
“You can be the sweetest juiciest peach and maybe you’ll meet someone who doesn’t like peaches,” she said. “That’s OK. I’m just going to keep working.” v
For information about Shea Couleé’s upcoming gigs go to https://sheacoulee.com/.