Shangela Cooks Wiener Schnitzel While ‘Quaranqueening’


D.J. Pierce, better known to his TV fans as Shangela, snapped a pair of tongs as if he were playing castanets and executed a high kick to show off his neon-yellow sneakers.

It was lunchtime on Easter Sunday and Mr. Pierce, one of the best-known queens of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” had taken over his grandmother’s kitchen in Paris, Texas, to make Wiener schnitzel for a virtual lunch over Skype.

“I like to tell people that it’s the second largest Paris in the world,” Mr. Pierce, 38, said. He was dressed in a hot pink T-shirt and wore his hair in a loose Afro that haloed his face. “It’s not a close second, but it’s definitely second.” This Paris also has an Eiffel Tower, he added, albeit smaller and topped with a cowboy hat.

A plate of ruddy pork chops sat on the kitchen counter, alongside a gingham-patterned dish slicked with egg yolk. An oiled skillet sat ready for action. “When I was a kid, my mom was in the military, and we lived in Mannheim, Germany,” Mr. Pierce said. “One thing she brought back to the U.S. was her favorite recipe for Wiener schnitzel.”

Although he lives in Los Angeles, Mr. Pierce has spent the last month sheltering or, as he calls it, “quaranqueening,” with his mother, Deborah, and grandmother Fannie, in Paris. The house was his gift to his grandmother last year. “Being able to do that for her was one of the proudest moments of my life,” he said. “We grew up on the rougher side of town in a small house but with a lot of love.”

From a kitchen drawer, Mr. Pierce retrieved a meat tenderizer and waved it in the air. “Sometimes you got to tenderize the meat, baby,” he said, bashing the pork and slapping it in the beaten egg.

It has been 10 years since Mr. Pierce first came to attention in Season 2 of “Drag Race,” when the show was still considered niche programming on Logo, the L.G.B.T.Q. channel. He was eliminated in the first round but returned the following season to make good on Shangela’s promise as a mistress of comic vaudeville, complete with the catchphrase that has become his signature: “Halleloo.”

Now that RuPaul has made drag safe for America, other networks are racing to catch up, including HBO, which on April 23 started airing “We’re Here.” Each episode follows Mr. Pierce and his fellow “Drag Race” stars Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara on a journey to small-town America, where they empower locals to put on a drag show and vanquish their differences.

The redemptive drag queen has long been a movie trope, reaching an apotheosis in “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” in which a bewigged Patrick Swayze transforms a woebegone town. “We’re Here” presents itself as the real-world version.

“It’s about helping people reach the potential they didn’t even know they had,” Mr. Pierce said. “And we get the opportunity to do something I never got in my small town, which is to have a drag show.”

Like their mini-Eiffel Tower, the Pierces’ schnitzel has been adapted to reflect regional differences, like using pork instead of veal. Mr. Pierce fetched a jar of Italian-style bread crumbs, another modification, and giggled. “If there is anything the coronavirus has taught us, it’s that we are one world, so these Italian-style bread crumbs are going on my German-style schnitzel,” he said.

Then there were the sides. Mr. Pierce rattled a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese. “This is Texas schnitzel,” he said. “My mom serves it with macaroni and cheese and French fries.” Since moving in with his mother and grandmother, Mr. Pierce added, he has ordered a treadmill.

Mr. Pierce was in sixth grade when he discovered drag, dressing as Sheneneh Jenkins, a character created by Martin Lawrence, for Halloween. “I begged my mother: ‘Please, I don’t want to be a football player, I want to be Sheneneh Jenkins,’” he said. “It was the early, prehistoric birth of Shangela.”

It was also an epiphany. “It was the fact that I could be who I wanted to be, as a fun entertaining person, without feeling shy about acting like a girl because I was in character,” Mr. Pierce said. Years later, working in public relations for TGI Friday’s, he oversaw the Halloween costume contest and wowed again. “The C.E.O. came up to me and said, ‘D.J., you know we love you but if ever you wanted to be an entertainer, you should go to Hollywood now, don’t wait.”

Six months later Mr. Pierce pitched up in Los Angeles, where he wound up renting the basement beneath his idol Jennifer Lewis, the actress and singer. (He still lives there.)

Returning to the task at hand, Mr. Pierce gingerly lifted a schnitzel by the edges like a magician holding a handkerchief. “OK, I’m dropping this in the hot frying pan,” he said. The meat landed in the oil with a dull slap, sans sizzle. Mr. Pierce examined the burner to confirm it was on and frowned. “Well, how long does it take to get hot,” he said. “I might have to call my mom.”

How often had he made schnitzel? Mr. Pierce gave the question some thought. “Probably, in my entire life, six times,” he said. At college, he learned that cooking also meant washing up. “I was like, ‘Never mind, I’ll eat out for the rest of my life.’”

The arc of Mr. Pierce’s career has tracked the mainstreaming of drag in popular culture. He has made cameos in Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande music videos, and he landed a small but pivotal role as the drag bar M.C. who introduces Lady Gaga to Bradley Cooper in “A Star Is Born.” At the Academy Awards in 2019, Mr. Pierce walked the red carpet in drag.

Mr. Pierce flourished his tongs again and pushed the schnitzel around in the skillet. “I think my burner is kind of low,” he said. “I’m going to bump it up a bit.”

The schnitzel finally done, Mr. Pierce decided it was time for his mother to give it her blessing.

Holding the tongs to his face like a microphone, he sang “I’ll Take You There,” by the Staple Singers, as he paraded the plate and his laptop to the dining room.





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