RuPaul’s Drag Race‘s star D.J. Pierce (who goes by the drag persona Shangela Laquifa Wadley) shines opposite Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born. But as the performer tells PEOPLE, if it wasn’t for Gaga, Pierce never would have done the role in the first place.
In the hit romance, he plays the emcee of a drag bar where Bradley Cooler’s weathered country crooner Jack first meets Gaga’s yet-to-be-discovered singer Ally. It’s a part that Pierce manages to make memorable among a sea of the film’s strong performances, stealing every scene. “[Gaga] called me in!” Pierce tells PEOPLE.
Pierce says he initially passed up on the audition as the casting notice originally described the character as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. “I knew no matter how much time I spend out of the sun, I’m never going to look like Miss Marilyn Monroe, so I thought I wasn’t right for it. But Gaga thought otherwise!” he says.
Having worked with Pierce in her “Applause” video, Gaga reached out through her camp again when Pierce didn’t show up for the audition a second time, insisting he give it a shot. “That’s something that’s even hard for me to get my head around,” Pierce says. “That Lady Gaga would even call me by name and request me? But she did. And luckily I was able to step up for the plate and, ‘Ta Da.’
Pierce knew something was special about his audition—so much so that he taped himself leaving it, still in his Monroe drag. “I sang, ‘I Want to Be Loved By You,’ ” he explained in the video, which he recently posted to his Instagram account. “I think it went well. I hope it went well. Let’s just pray that I get this job because I really, really, really want it.”
As Shangela, Pierce has managed to cultivate one of the most successful careers of any RuPaul’s Drag Race castoff, even though he never won the crown. After sashaying away early on in season 2, Shangela returned in season 3 and faired much better, placing a respectable sixth. It only went up from there. Earlier this year, Shangela made it into the top four for RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3—though die-hard fans of the VH1 Emmy-winning reality series think she was robbed of the crown.
“I’ve watched so much CSI and How to Get Away with Murder, I feel like I’m going to be able to solve the crime myself,” Pierce jokes of the loss. “I’m the Nancy Drew of drag!”
Shangela certainly didn’t take the loss lying down. Pierce picked up her wig and headed out on the road, for a massive tour that will play 181 cities this year alone. “This is the largest Drag Race tour by a single person that’s ever been done in one year so I’m really excited to do that,” Pierce says. “I have a song called ‘Working Girl’ and it represents my whole story. I came to work, I’m a professional. Truly, I hope to inspire people. You can go out there and make it happen. I’ve been on Drag Race three times. I’ve never won the crown. But I’ve never stopped.”
As for A Star is Born, Pierce describes the experience of working on the film as “a dream come true.” He and Gaga had a “sisterhood” on set.
Being directed by Cooper, whom Pierce “always idolized,” also wasn’t so bad. “You walk in and he’s an A-list actor, so you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh it’s Bradley Cooper! Let me make sure my wig’s on right!’ “Pierce jokes. “Thankfully, he made everyone on set feel so comfortable and able to do their best work. He told me, ‘Go there and if I need to pull you back, I will.’ He really encouraged me as an actor to do what I do. This is the drag scene. Honey, just let me do me. Keep it authentic! He was awesome about that. I just felt so protected.”
Meanwhile, if A Star is Born has taught Pierce one thing, it’s that if he sees an audition he’s not right for, he’s certainly experience. “You bet I got my blonde wig and white dress ready for the next one,” Pierce teases. “They’re going to say, ‘We’re looking for an Ethel Merman lookalike,’ And I’m going to say, ‘Yes, that’s me!’ Judy Garland? That’s me! Come on, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow!’ “
A Star is Born is in theaters now.