Drag queens are sissying that walk on television left and right these days. Who knew back in 2009, when RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered on Logo, that we would one day be drowning in TV shows about drag? From Dragnificent to AJ and the Queen to Shade: Queens of NYC, programming about men in wigs and heels appears to be all the rage.
Another show to add to that growing list is HBO’s new unscripted series We’re Here, which follows the Holy Trinity—Drag Race vets Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka O’Hara, duh—as they travel across America and drag up small-town USA along the way. Think of it as To Wong Foo… the TV series or Queer Eye with drag queens.
But We’re Here shines a little brighter than your average show about drag queens. The six-part series has big hair and an even bigger heart.
We’re Here’s resident queens travel to five different small towns over the course of the show: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Twin Falls, Idaho; Branson, Missouri; Farmington, New Mexico; and Ruston, Louisiana. But the locations were not chosen at random, according to series co-creators Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren.
“It was a very complicated process. [With] the towns we were picking, we tend to want to lead with a town that’s sort of struggling with its own identity,” Ingram tells NewNowNext. “The town is also a character in these stories alongside the people. Oftentimes, these towns are just struggling with a conservative majority and a younger generation that wants to feel represented and have their voices heard.”
However, Warren says selecting the queens who’d serve as We’re Here’s cross-country crossdressers was much easier.
“We needed three performers of the highest level,” Warren tells NewNowNext. “And, most importantly, we needed three people that had a tremendous amount of empathy, because empathy is the key to be able to connect with so many different people, and all of these different towns across a wide variety of circumstances. We knew we loved watching the three of them on Drag Race. And we really didn’t even think about [other queens].”
Thankfully, the three queens in question were also on board, with Shangela telling NewNowNext she was “immediately interested” in the project.
“This show targets LGBTQ stories and LGBTQ-adjacent stories in small towns,” the Drag Race Seasons 2 and 3 alum remembers. “I’m originally from a small town. I’m from Paris, Texas. I know what that experience is like. I know what some of those challenges can be. I was excited to be a part of something that was going to help create or find community support for gays in small towns.”
Bob the Drag Queen met with Ingram and Warren and was also sold instantly. “After hearing their pitch, I was like, ‘You know what, this sounds really great. I’m in,'” the Season 8 winner tells NewNowNext. “I felt like Barbara Corcoran on Shark Tank.”
In each episode of We’re Here, the queens makeover a small-town local and teach them to release their inner queen. The transformations are emotional for everyone involved.
“I love all of my kids, but I will tell you that in our first city, Gettysburg, Hunter will always have a special place in my heart,” Shangela says, referencing the premiere episode. “Your first-born is always going to be special to you in a different way. He reminded me so much of myself.”
According to Eureka, the “actual physical makeover”—think hair, makeup, and heels—is always the easiest part of a drag transformation.
“We know how to make people pretty; it’s making people feel it,” the Seasons 9 and 10 contestant tells NewNowNext. “That’s the part about the makeover that is the struggle. It’s getting people—especially with me having two heteronormative males as my children [on the show]—is having them shed at a lifetime of how to act. There’s muscle memory in your movement, so it’s hard to let go of it.”
Each transformation culminates with a drag show in the participant’s respective town. Shangela compares the stress of watching your new drag daughter perform for a large crowd for the first time to Drag Race All Stars: “I was putting all of my name, my energy into someone else, and I’m just reliant on that person. It was almost like All Stars Season 1, when they had to have the other person lip-syncing for them, and you just stand there like, ‘Please win.’”
The queens might look out-of-place as they tower over locals, but throughout show, they are mostly met with friendly greetings—except for Branson, Missouri, where one townie threatens to call the cops. Later in that same episode, however, there is a surprisingly large line of people waiting to snag a seat at the drag performance.
“It gave me a new inspiration because we found allies in places that you would not expect us to find allies,” Shangela recalls. “I’m excited for people to see that because I hope it encourages people to break down walls between us, and start to love and accept each other and listen to each other a little more.”
That moment also proved to Warren and Ingram that major metropolitan areas don’t own drag as an art form.
“It’s incredibly important for communities, and it’s not just a night of fun and celebrations with a lot of glitz and glamour,” Ingram believes. “Drag is an art form that belongs everywhere, and I think it’s important for everyone, even in small towns, to say, ’Oh shit, maybe we need to have a drag brunch. A safe space.’ It brings people together.”
It just took three larger-than-life drag queens sashaying into Small Town, U.S.A. to untuck the possibilities.
We’re Here premieres Thursday, April 23, at 9 pm ET on HBO and the YouTube Premieres platform. At 8:30 pm ET, leading into the premiere, the queens will be hosting a digital pre-show with celebrity guests on HBO’s YouTube and Twitter.