Nikki Levy and Shangela talk Pride, protest and Coming Out Party on Audible

Coming Out Party with Nikki Levy and Shangela / Audible
Coming Out Party with Nikki Levy and Shangela / Audible /

Halleloo! Nikki Levy and Shangela are celebrating Pride Month with Coming Out Party: A Pride Celebration on Audible.

Pride season is upon us, and even though things are a little different this year, that doesn’t mean there’s not still something to celebrate.

In honor of Pride Month, Nikki Levy paired up with Audible for Coming Out Party: A Pride Celebration, where she and co-host Shangela, the drag superstar of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame, chat with other celebs all about their coming out stories. You’ll get to hear hilarious and heartwarming tales from LGBTQ stars like Angelica Ross, Nicky Paris, Jake Borelli and more.

We had the chance to chat with Nikki and Shangela to find out a bit more about the Audible Originals special. The pair also spoke about why pride is more important than ever, and what LGBTQ people can do this year to both celebrate their rights and continue the fight for equality. Keep reading to find out which queer icons the two would love to sit down with and also why they think it’s so important for people in the community to share their stories with honesty and humor.

Coming Out Party interview: Shangela and Nikki Levy talk Audible

FanSided (Marco Saveriano): Nikki, you first started Don’t Tell My Mother almost a decade ago. What motivated you to start it back then, and how has it evolved since? 

Nikki Levy: Well, the real story of how it started is that I was working as a movie executive and if you know anything about making movies, they’re made at a glacial pace — or they’re not made at all. My background is writing and performing and I missed the immediacy of art. I grew up with this overbearing, oversharing New York Jewish mother and I grew up as a closeted gay kid, never fitting in with the Jews, never fitting in with the straight girls, always feeling weird for so many reasons. When I kinda got okay with my own sexuality and I started owning my own stories, I realized there was so much freedom in that and that there was something really incredibly liberating. Forget telling scripted things and making up stories from thin air.

There was something really empowering about having artists, actors, amazing celebrities — like Shangela, Tan France, Teri Hatcher, Emily Hampshire from Schitt’s Creek, Ali Wong — these incredibly talented people sharing their own stories, and it felt like there could be a lot of community built if we would get up on stage and find comedy in our experience. It started out as something we would just do once, and I thought I was moving back to New York actually. We had a line out the door. I think it struck chords with people to tell their own stories and be real, and made people witnessing it to feel a little better about their own humanity when they hear these famous people sharing all their vulnerabilities. It kinda makes you feel like you’re not alone.

And obviously that’s a great message to anyone that’s listening. Shangela, how did you get involved with this project, Coming Out Party?

Shangela: Two words: Nikki Levy! I had the great pleasure to work with Nikki before in the Don’t Tell My Mother series. Honestly, she’s just very fun and very passionate about great storytelling in the LGBTQ and queer space. I was really honored that she invited me to be a part of this with her and I said girl, let’s have some fun! And so that’s what we did. I am just thrilled to be a part of it.

Nikki: I felt so lucky. Shangela was in the special last year that Tan France and I hosted and told this hilarious story about sneaking into this Beyoncé concert. The performers that I love are people like Shangela, who are funny but they’re honest and they’re kind and that is a very special kind of artist. We don’t need mean, we need real and vulnerable, and Shangela, that’s always something I’ve admired about you.

You both kind of touched on this already, but why do you think it’s important, especially during pride month, to talk to other LGBTQ people about their coming out stories?

There’s so much commonality in a lot of stories that make us feel less isolated and more visible.

Shangela: Honestly, it’s important that we share our stories because there’s so much commonality in a lot of stories that make us feel less isolated and more visible. I think being able to share it through this project with Audible is really cool because people get to listen to it however they listen to these types of broadcasts — in their home, by themselves, it goes all over. You get to touch so many amazing people.

I’m working on this new show with HBO called We’re Here and the beauty of that is that we’re able to take drag and our experiences from being able to travel the world to these small places and help build these communities of support where we didn’t know if they existed there or not. That’s what I think [Coming Out Party] is going to do. It’s sharing stories because we’re not so different after all. You can bring people together by communication. That’s what we’re really doing here.

Nikki: The thing that I think is so important about pride in general is if we can be honest, and with perspective, tell our stories with comedy — what do they say, comedy is tragedy plus time — no matter how difficult. As queer people, as LGBTQIA people, we’ve all struggled to be okay with ourselves, let alone other people being okay with us.

For me, oh my god, when I came out to my mom, I said “Ma, I think like girls,” and she said, “No you don’t, you’re just really close to Grandma Levy and have a bad relationship with daddy.” And I took that to heart! I thought I needed to fix something in myself.

Angelica Ross is on our special and she tells this amazing story about joining the Navy to try and “straighten” out by being this tough guy. I’m so glad that didn’t work out because then we wouldn’t have the icon of Angelica we have now. And Jake Borelli from Grey’s Anatomy tells this great story about his character coming out on the show as the first gay doctor and that actually inspired him to come out in real.

They get to help other people feel good about themselves… it’s contagious.

I guess that’s part of it, you know? The struggle leads to victory and feeling that we love ourself. I think when we see other people come through pain and then like themselves and even love themselves, I do think it inspires other people to like themselves and love themselves a little more too. People that have a platform, Shangela being one of them, when they get to be honest about their pain and they find joy in their foibles, just like on her show We’re Here, and they get to help other people feel good about themselves… it’s contagious.

You mentioned Angelica Ross and Jake Borelli. Were there any other stories that stuck out to either of you, whether because it was so touching or maybe that you found funny or interesting that you can share with us?

Nikki: Yeah, Angelica Ross told the great story “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” about going against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to join the U.S. Navy. Jake Borelli tells the story of being asked — when he wasn’t even out yet, by the way, as an actor — “hey would you like Levi Schmitt to come out on the show?” He was like oh my god, wow, I can tell a story that I wish I got to see as a kid, and that inspired him to come out on Instagram. He makes this amazing joke about how of course it’s Instagram because he’s a millennial.

Rosanny Zayas tells this wonderful story of her first crush, like that first love! And she’s a Queens girl, I’m a Queens girl, Shangela’s just a queen.

I will just say, Shangela and I would ordinarily be in a studio here in Hollywood recording together, but I recorded in my closet here in Los Angeles. Shangela recorded in her grandmother’s closet in Texas. So we literally recorded a queer coming out special from the closet.

Is there anyone that either of you would love to sit down and talk to about their coming out experience that you haven’t spoken to already?

Shangela: Oh my gosh, I would like to go back in time and talk to some people who have had such a great impression on where we are today in LGTBQ progress. I’d love to go back and talk to Marsha P. Johnson.

Nikki: Hell yeah!

Shangela: I’d love to sit down with her and ask what led you to being the strong diva that could help us kick off the Stonewall Riots? What gave you the strength to own all of who you were at a time when so much was against you, being a black person, being a queer person, being a trans person? Where did you find that, what was that really like, what were your struggles, how did you overcome this? I’m sure she would have a good tirade of hilarious and informative and touching stories.

Nikki: I second that. Someone else that would be so interesting to me, and I heard she was a bouncer at the Cubby Hole — which by the way, I mention on the special, because I came of age going to the Cubby Hole in New York — but she was a drag king, Stormé DeLarverie. She was a butch drag king badass.

Obviously, we live in a very different time than the two people you just mentioned, but there’s still so much to be done. What’s the most important thing you want people to take away from the pride special?

Shangela: I just hope that people take away from this special the fact that we have this unique thread between all of us as queer people, as part of the queer community, and our unique coming out stories. Our stories may be very different, but the fact that we all feel, a lot of times, that we have to have these coming out moments, that’s what brings us all together.

There are more things that unite us than divide us, so let’s look for those.

In a time right now when so many things are going on with regards to the protests and the country being in unrest, sometimes you just need a bright spot to look to to remember that it’s more important for us to remember the things that can unify us as opposed to the things that divide us. We definitely want  to continue to fight for equality among everybody in every community, and especially in our Black community. As queer people, we can’t forget our struggles. There are more things that unite us than divide us, so let’s look for those.

Nikki: To me, our stories are our superpowers, always. People can take all kinds of things away from us, but our stories live on. They live on when we record them. They live on when other people can share them long after we’re gone. The things that I think have made the LGBTQIA people fee  different and less than are really the things that make us the most unique and, honestly, the things that make us such amazing storytellers because we lived so long feeling like outsiders, and what’s a storyteller but a natural observer?

When I came out, I told Shangela this, nobody believed I was gay because I was so feminine looking, so I shaved all my hair off so I could look like a proper lesbian. I didn’t play softball, I had long hair, so everything was wrong with me. So I did it, and instead of looking more gay, I looked like Britney Spears circa 2007 nervous breakdown. I just want to say, even if we feel like, okay we’re gay, we’re supposed to look more gay — no, we just get to be who we are!

Shangela: Halleloo.

Nikki: Halleloo! I’m grateful to Audible Originals for doing this with us for the third year in a row and letting people tell their own stories. We don’t have to have other people telling our stories, we get to tell our own stories.

That’s why it’s important to have people who are outspoken like you, Nikki, and you Shangela. It helps so many people out there who don’t realize that there are other people like them out there. Shangela, you’ve done so much in your career, from Drag Race to All Stars, to A Star is Born, and now you’re continuing to be visible in queer projects like We’re Here on HBO. What’s next for you?

So many people have been great mentors to me. I want to continue to lend myself to being a mentor.

Shangela: The next stage of Shangela is really about what other ways can I follow my dreams and passion while also creating great opportunities for others to follow their dreams and passions. So many people have been great mentors to me. I want to continue to lend myself to being a mentor, I think that’s what we’re able to do on the show We’re Here and hopefully we’ll have more opportunities to do that going forward.

I also want to continue to work as an actor. That was my dream when I first moved to Los Angeles in 2007, honey. I packed up and moved out west with my dream — and savings that ran out very quickly! I’m thankful for being able to work in television and film but I want to continue that. I want to also continue to write and create. And also recognize the moment that we’re in right now, in regards to the state of our community and our country. I want to be someone that is involved with making a better and kinder place for those in my community, so that’s where I’m looking!

Obviously it’s a tough climate right now for pride celebrations for a number of reasons. Is there anything you want to tell LGBTQ people out there who may be feeling knocked down or discouraged, especially Black and other POC members of the community?

Just remember that pride was created from a need for action against oppression and against discrimination and in support of equality.

Shangela: I know that both of us are so passionate about this and about pride. That’s why we were so excited — and we still are — about Coming Out Party. Pride is very different this year, right, with the pandemic and the protests and the place that we are in our country right now. Just because we have to celebrate differently that does not mean we don’t celebrate. Just remember that pride was created from a need for action against oppression and against discrimination and in support of equality. So, we’re now being reminded about the origins of something that we’ve been really loose with in the last few years.

But it is about being able to not only express yourself freely, but also feel like you are allowed to do that in a free way, and that requires being supported by your government or the people around you, seeing yourself portrayed accurately and authentically in television and in film and the media. We got to be active in doing that, we can’t wait around for someone else to do it.

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For pride this year, I do hope that people will return to those roots that we have about activism and also to remember how important it is to be unified. We can still celebrate, just because we’re in lockdown, that don’t mean that our spirits have to be locked up, okay? I’m still going to have my little rainbows in my backyard and I’m still going to check in with our community and remind them that we care.

I’m a drag queen, I know plenty of drag queens, I’ve toured the world and have been entertained by and been able to entertain as a drag queen. And with the shutdown of nightlife because of this pandemic — which is kind of taking a backseat at this moment, rightfully so, but we’re still in a pandemic — so many drag queens are out of work. No job equals no wages equals people are going to be homeless and hungry and we have to pay attention to that. If you can, find a way to support your local queens. Those people that you run to for the pride celebrations that entertain you and you want to tip a dollar, you can still do that through social media! Make the effort.

Nikki: Shangela always speaks so beautifully. My wife and I have a Black Lives Matter flag and a rainbow flag outside our house right now for our black brothers and sisters. You have our love and support. I am with you 100 percent. As Shangela said, pride started as a riot at Stonewall, so we might like the glitter and the parades and the singing and the drinking and the assless chaps, but it started as a riot! So let’s honor that and God willing, this really, really, hard time we’re living right now will morph into something that will allow Black people to have more power.

As queer people, we get to stand up and support our brothers and sisters, that’s our job. Yeah, we’re not going to be in a parade, but we can still tell our stories, we can post about our stories on social media. We can write our stories and create something that we can look back on next year and other generations get to look back on.

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Coming Out Party: A Pride Celebration is available to stream now on Audible. The season finale of We’re Here premieres tonight (June 4) on HBO.