Update, May 31, 2019: I could tell from the response on Twitter that I wasn’t alone in my reaction to this commercial, but to be sure, I reached out to some bona fide authorities. Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, the minds behind the terrific TomAndLorenzo.com, are also the authors of the forthcoming book Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life, set to be released by Penguin in April of next year. They had this to say of Shangela’s bah-dah-bah-bah-bah moment:
In the grand scheme of things, getting weepy over a McDonald’s commercial might seem a bit overwrought, but we’ve been spending the last year working on a book tracing the journey of Drag Race toward its current status as a social and cultural phenomenon and how that journey sits perfectly alongside the larger journey of queer people toward acceptance, equality and celebration. McDonald’s is practically synonymous with mainstream America, and to have not only a queen of color, but one of Drag Race’s most famous alums sit there and sell the world a McMuffin with a smile and a little shade and some high-glam drag? Yes, it’s enough to make these two queens a little weepy, dammit. Good for you, Shangela. Good for all of us.
Original story, May 31, 2019: In 2009, RuPaul’s Drag Race began airing on Logo, a Viacom network initially aimed at an LGBTQ audience. You could see the fabric walls gently flapping in the breeze. There was a very soft focus. Here’s a glorious shot with a ladder just sitting on the stage. It was rough, looking every bit the low-budget show that it was, and reader, I loved it. Still do. Drag Race was funny, engaging, sometimes heartwarming, often relevant, and slyly (and sometimes overtly) subversive. That’s still true, though in the years since its move over to VH1, its teeth have been occasionally filed down. Then it started winning Emmys—nine to date, with more likely to come later this year—and I thought to myself, “Wow, Drag Race has really broken through to the mainstream. This show with somewhat regular glory hole jokes is snagging real trophies that aren’t even shaped like Ru.”
Yeah, that was nothing. Behold: a RuPaul’s Drag Race McDonald’s commercial.
Even if you don’t watch Drag Race, there’s a chance you might recognize Shangela, who in addition to plenty of TV appearances, played a minor but significant role in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born. And last night, Shangela LaQuifa Wadley, First Of Her Name, Coiner Of Catchphrases And Wearer Of Corn, appeared in a McDonald’s commercial that aired during the finale of Drag Race’s 11th season.
Shangela isn’t the first “Ru Girl” to shill for a big company. Starbucks ran a commercial a couple years back featuring Bianca Del Rio (winner of season 6) and Adore Delano (a runner-up that season); Orbitz has done several; and Shangela and a few other notable Drag Race queens (including one of my favorites, Manila Luzon) also did this anti-smoking ad for the CDC, which I missed when it was airing.
Nor was McDonald’s the only corporation to try to get in on that sweet, sweet Drag Race action yesterday. The Miss Congeniality award was sponsored by Crest Whitestrips, for crying out loud. There was also this lackluster attempt from Pepsi which, in the true spirit of Drag Race, was promptly read for filth.
Seriously, that’s a treasure trove of responses.
The McDonald’s attempt is much better. My feelings about the co-opting of queer culture by the mainstream will always be complicated—brands are not your friends, latching on to something popular and creative does not mean equal allyship, creators are often left behind, et cetera. But the thing that makes this particular ad, and its corresponding campaign (complete with hashtag #YaaasBreakfast), stand out is this: It’s not just McDonald’s attempting to get in on the Drag Race conversation, which often goes viral. It’s McDonald’s giving Ms. Shangela some of that McDonald’s money. The company wanted drag queen magic, so they hired a professional pro.
I was not alone in that response.
Shangela was the first queen eliminated in Drag Race’s second season, but made a big impression despite all the vaseline on the lens; the next year, she became the first queen to be brought back to compete again (Miss Vanjie, Shangela walked so you could run). She came back for a subsequent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, and was robbed. She went to the Oscars this year, and brought drag to the red carpet. Now she’s a McDonald’s spokesqueen.
There are downsides to Drag Race no longer being the teeny tiny scrappy show that could, but artists like Shangela getting paid and introducing a broader audience to queer culture at once is a pretty remarkable thing. Air the Shangela McD’s spot during the NBA Finals, you cowards.