Chicago’s Shea Coulee finally gets her chance to ‘Race’

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Chicago drag superstar Shea Couleé is among the cast of the new season of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” | VH1 PHOTO

Chicago drag superstar Shea Couleé gets a bit philosophical when asked why, after five auditions to compete on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” she finally got to sashay down that runway in Season 9.

“Everything happens for a reason and when it’s your time, it’s your time,” said Couleé, 28, of Ravenswood. “Luckily, drag is one of those art forms that gets better over time, especially if you really dedicate yourself and commit yourself to it.”

Timing and perseverance helped make the difference, but Couleé possesses the same ferocity and fearlessness in her heart that she displays in her performances at local spots such as Hydrate, Smart Bar and Roscoe’s Tavern.



“This year I was just in a better place than I was in years previous,” she added. “I went in there with a lot of confidence and just gave it 110 percent.”

Viewers get to witness Couleé’s efforts when the new season premieres at 7 p.m. March 24 on VH1. Cast members compete in a series of performance and costume challenges while trying to impress host RuPaul and weekly guest judges, which include Lady Gaga. Meeting Lady Gaga brought Couleé’s drag career full circle.

Couleé, who grew up in Plainfield, earned a degree in costume design from Columbia College in 2011. Gaga helped spark a “creative renaissance” at the end of her college career and even inspired her early drag creations.

The singer spent time with each contestant individually, Couleé said, offering one positive note and one suggestion for improvement.

“It’s really nice to be able to have a candid conversation with this artist that you respect so much and have them … validate your work in that way, but also give you advice as well because it’s so invaluable,” Couleé said. “She is so sweet.”

Couleé, whose birth name is Jaren Merrell, started performing drag six years ago, but the groundwork for her love of the art form was being laid long before that. Her mother exposed young Jaren to a bevy of “glamorous black women” who became Couleé’s inspirations. She counts 1990s supermodels (Naomi Campbell, Iman, Grace Jones), old Hollywood actresses (Dorothy Dandridge) and other stars (Josephine Baker, Diana Ross, Donna Summer) among those who inspire her.

“Pretty much any strong, beautiful black woman — I’m inspired by her,” she said. “It could be just some woman walking down the street and I’ll just feel inspired.”

The arts — drawing, theater, singing, dancing — also were an important part of her early life, she said. She continued those pursuits while studying costume design and fashion.

“At my core, really, I’m an artist,” she said. “Drag just felt like a medium where all those different genres and skills just all came together in a really fun and cohesive way.”

While Couleé often explores her Cameroonian and Kenyan heritage with her drag, she has an impressive range of expressive styles you can see at her website  and on Instagram. Couleé said her drag is an extension of her love of fashion and the fantasy that fashion provides both wearer and witness.

“The clothes that you put on your back and the way that you dress yourself really affects the way that you feel on the inside and how you conduct and carry yourself,” she said. “I think I’ve always been obsessed with the transformative power of fashion and clothing.”

Couleé already is reaping the rewards of her “Drag Race” experience with a growing social media fan base and appointment to appear at RuPaul’s Drag Con in Los Angeles at the end of April. She’s developing other projects, too, and sees a world of opportunity beyond the show.

Increased exposure to new audiences means growing expectations — and criticism. Participating in the show taught her to trust her instincts. She has learned to reject doubt in herself and focus on the positive, which hasn’t always been the case, she said.

“It took me a long time to get there,” she said. “I’m glad, especially here at 28 years old, to be in a place where I’m really confident in my abilities.”

Couleé will host a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” premiere watch party March 24 at Roscoe’s, 3356 N. Halsted, with “Drag Race” alums Shangela and Naomi Smalls, and local drag star Trannika Rex.

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