Life in Drag: Getting into the Chicago drag scene

shea coulee drag chicago 1

Shea Couleé. Photo: Jaren Merrell.

Performing in front of a large audience had always been an aspiration for Jaren Merrell. But if you had told him years ago that he would be doing so dressed in full makeup, a wig and five-inch heels, he wouldn’t have believed you.

“I always thought that it’d be in theater, performance, acting-related, which this, still, in a way, is,” said Merrell.

Performance and theater has always been in Merrell’s blood, being a graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a focus on theater and costume design. Upon graduating he worked in various segments of the industry, most recently having worked as a wardrobe stylist for Broadway Costumes, Inc.

But doing drag had always been something Merrell’s friends insisted he try, and it wasn’t until the summer of 2011 that his start in drag began, when his friend Jeez Loueez, founder of the all-black burlesque review Jeezy’s Juke Joint asked him to take part in the show as a chorus dancer in a group number.

“She accidentally sent me an e-mail asking me to submit information for [a burlesque] act … I thought it was intentional, so then I developed this act and sent it back to her,” said Merrell.

Despite the confusion, he was given the opportunity to perform solo in drag—the debut of Shea Couleé.

“I did it and the audience just loved it … so then after that I was just like, ‘Alright, I think this is like a thing, I think I can try this.’ So then I started doing some amateur shows and then after that I just started getting booked and the rest is all history,” said Merrell.

The Chicago drag scene

shea coulee chicago dragThe name Shea Couleé is a combination of his middle name, Shea, while Couleé, stems from the rhyming game, “Shay, Shay Koolay,” which is “about building unity and togetherness,” explained Merrell.

In the two years since he started drag, Merrell found that same concept of unity and togetherness, having worked with many other performers in the Chicago drag scene.

“I was never really comfortable about asking people for bookings, so I always felt like if they wanted to book me, they would ask me. So I waited a little bit longer for people to just start asking me to book,” he said. “[But] once I started getting bookings some people started to understand my persona and my drag, and my whole brand, and who Shea Couleé is. So many people have been so loving and accepting and complimentary, and it’s so nice because I’m just doing what makes me happy and it’s so nice to see that it makes other people happy, as well.”

Merrell has been able to book regular showings at local clubs like Scarlet Bar and Berlin with fellow drag performers Trannika Rex and Kim Chi.

And despite the competitive edge some drag performers may have, Merrell explained that he and his drag family really try and focus on maintaining a fostering environment.

“[Trannika Rex and Kim Chi] really focus on keeping an environment of drag queens that get along really well, and are really nice and cordial with each other backstage. If girls are creating drama, [they don’t bring them on] because no one has time for it,” he said.

“We’re just … goofy, really funny, laid back, [and] really try and punch up the comedy,” said Merrell of the group’s drag style, which he says is the tone of the Chicago arts and entertainment industry, as a whole.

“A lot of what the Chicago pulse is about is creating really good, thoughtful, well-researched artwork and I feel like that translates into other markets, like New York and L.A.,” said Merrell. “People in Chicago have really great street cred … because there’s this standard for doing things really well, and because it’s not so industry-based. It’s not like we’re all chasing this higher kind of goal here in Chicago. It’s much more laid back and focused on building yourself as a really good artist.”

shea coulee drag chicago 2Building his brand

Among the challenges he faces as an up-and-coming drag performer is representing himself as a private contractor and young entrepreneur. Despite this, he said that his education has helped him get to where he is now, professionally.

“Going to school and getting a degree in theater kind of set me up for how I needed to present myself individually as a product and as a brand,” said Merrell. “What I’ve learned is that you’re auditioning 24/7 for the job. People hear things and it’s just always important to be nice and relatable, and easy to work with.”

Staying relevant and keeping abreast of current events is important for Merrell, as well.

“You have to be on top of constantly promoting yourself … It’s kind of like staying on the edge, staying relevant, doing my homework [and] making sure I know what’s going on in pop culture because that’s really important,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing, constantly being on the pulse of what’s going on.”

This work ethic has landed him other projects, like collaborating with queer rapper Big Dipper for Shea Couleé’s video cover of Azelia Banks’ “Luxury,” as well as becoming a back-up dancer for Dida Ritz’s video cover of Beyoncé’s “Ego.”

But among his projects, Merrell explained that riding as Glinda, from the musical Wicked, for Broadway in Chicago’s float in this summer’s pride parade has been the highlight so far.

“I remember when I started drag [I said to myself], ‘Two years from now I want to ride on a float in the pride parade, and damn it if I didn’t do it,’” said Merrell. “It was so wonderful, I felt like the belle of the ball [even though] my feet hurt for days after.”

Looking back, looking ahead

Merrell explained that he’s experienced personal growth, not only since he’s created Shea Couleé, but overall since he’s moved into the city.

“Being immersed in a city and being in a more liberal environment where you’re constantly being exposed to so many different people, from so many different backgrounds, from so many different views, really forced me to open up my perspective on everything,” said Merrell.

“Just in this past year alone, I feel like I’ve grown so much as a drag queen, as a performer,” he adds. “As a businessperson, I just learned so much industry-wise about how to present myself. It’s been such a journey of just constantly striving to be better.”

And as far as advice he has for aspiring drag queens: “Keep it cute.”

“People take drag too seriously and people like to get their egos get in the way,” said Merrell. “Keep it cute, be professional, be nice, be approachable.”

About Carlo Calma

Journalism graduate from Lewis University. In addition to writing for Chicago Phoenix, he is currently working as an editorial assistant for a trade publication in the West Loop. Outside of writing, Carlo enjoys cooking, exercising, karaoke and Netflix movie marathons.