Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan chats with the husband-and-husband team of Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram about HBO’s heartfelt reality series We’re Here.
“Three drag queens walk into a bar in Louisiana.”
This can either turn into a joke or a tragic headline, but We’re Here creators Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram choose to see something completely different.
Their HBO reality series takes three drag performers (Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen, and Eureka, seen on RuPaul’s Drag Race) and drops them into a small town in America to affect positive change on individuals in the community, which in turn spurs a positive change for the town.
And when the We’re Here team comes into these regions, they not only stimulate the economy with a performance, but they also utilize the services of local artisans for dresses and art used on the series (Warren/Ingram 2020?).
I had a chance to chat with the spousal team behind the show, about what it was like to put these queens in the line of fire, why America has a femininity problem to work through, and the biggest myth We’re Here dispels about LGBTQ individuals.
Awards Daily: How did you come up with this idea?
Stephen Warren: The way we originally came up with it was we were basically on vacation a year and a half ago, and we were watching a lot of TV cause the weather wasn’t good. We were watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Johnnie and I come from a very political background as well, and we were thinking, “What would happen if you took these drag queens and put them in a small town?” Both of us looked at each other and realized this is something special.
Johnnie Ingram: Also I think, combined with some of our advocacy work and watching RuPaul and wondering what would happen, too, if we could make a drag performance mean something to someone? Make it meaningful for people. Not something that’s just a lip sync performance. That’s where this whole show was born and in the executional details of that made it so unique and special.
AD: How did you find the people in these small towns?
JI: We had an incredible team of people in casting for the show that have just done a really wonderful job. They really found a unique way to find these stories. We usually began by looking at a local community organization or an LGBTQ organization that is on the ground and knows enough about the community or the general area that we could start to at least locate people in general and then try to find stories that way. Once we find a story that needs to be told, and it can be told through the art of drag, then we just hit the ground running and looked for more people in the community. They’re small communities, so once we started to poke around, we’d quickly find others, cause everyone knows each other.
SW: Another way to look at it is we’ll scour the internet, we know we want to be going to certain small towns, and we’re looking for certain types of stories we’re trying to tell. In Twin Falls, Idaho, there’s a group called Mama Dragons and we found them online. We approached Mama Dragons, which is an organization of women who are LDS (Mormon) who are opposed toward the church’s polices toward gay and lesbian people, and they’re supportive of their sons and daughters. So then we enter through the tunnels of that organization and they started to tell us about the people, and one thing leads to the next. And what’s interesting is that I think it’s a real testament to the queens. The story, every single time, got deeper and richer, because of the queens and the way that we filmed and allowed them to have space and to make them feel comfortable.
AD: Why did you decide to have these three particular queens spreading love across America? I read somewhere that you wanted these three.
SW: From the start, we knew there were basic qualities we needed to have. We needed to have queens of extraordinary talent. Johnnie and I watch a lot of queens, so we know what we like and what our personal taste is. So we knew the ones we thought were the most talented.
Second, we needed extraordinary intellect, where these three queens are really smart. It’s so much fun to talk to them. They get people. They understand what it’s like to come from a small town.
And the third thing, and I think the most important thing to find, was a deep sense of empathy. The only way for this show to work was for this connection to be obvious to the viewer, drag daughter, and queen. If they can’t feel someone else’s sensitivities or experiences, it wouldn’t work.
JI: These three of these queens are from small towns, and their careers have taken them to the big city. But their roots come from small towns, so they have the ability to relate and understand what it takes to live in a small town, the things you have to stand up for, and also what happens if you leave. So they have the ability to go back and take what they’ve learned and listen to the people in the small towns and hear their struggles.
AD: Were you ever worried about putting these drag queens in danger? After all, hate crimes have been on the rise since Trump.
SW: We were definitely worried. We would have security. The interesting thing, in Gettysburg, right across from the park where we had our camp, was a gun store with the second amendment emblazoned on the outside of it. And then the same thing almost right across the street from the hotel we stayed in in Branson was a gun store. And then in Idaho, one block away from our camp is a gun store. It is a different world.
JI: I think, too, initially—and I think this is part of what the show is about—we may portray we are a bit more divided than we actually are. Especially when you bring a camera crew and full pride parade into town. A lot of people will start talking online or behind closed doors, but they’re not gonna do it on camera—they don’t want to be seen doing it. It’s sort of this gossip trail. Small-town gossip is definitely a thing. Initially, we were afraid. Yes, we had some confrontational moments, as you’ll see in some episodes. But most importantly, we did find a community there that was very strong, powerful, welcoming, loving, and excited by our presence. Yes, people are gossiping behind computers and closed doors, but at least they’re talking. I think it’s been a long time, with people positioned not to talk. The things they’re talking about is actually progress or healing.
SW: One of my favorite parts of the show is the ability of the queens when confronted with people who call the police on them or who spread nasty views, they always respond with kindness and love and no judgment. We were a little scared coming into some of these places, but we always led with our own passion for what we were doing and wanting to connect with people. We’d go into the barber shops and some of them were really conservative. We’d introduce ourselves and have this dialogue going and say you should come to the show, and at one of the towns, the barber shop’s wife came. That’s gonna have an impact on that barber who wouldn’t come himself. Now that wife is going to go back and say, “Wow! These people are so nice. That was the most fun thing ever!”
AD: The show is very forgiving. Some people on the show admit to being more narrow-minded in the past, and you never villainize them. Was that important to you?
JI: Yes. I’m from a really small town in Tennessee, actually very close to where Eureka was born and raised. I don’t think a lot of small-town people are bad people or have bad intentions. It just depends on your background. People can evolve. My mother, when I first came out, was not happy or excited that I was gay. It took some time. I had to spend time and educate and help her understand the difference between her religious beliefs and backgrounds and being who I am and it not being a choice. It takes time and energy to bring people into your world. If you spend enough time doing it, there’s progress there. That is what this show is about, igniting these conversations. Some of it isn’t always great, but it’s a step forward and at least we’re having those conversations. But most importantly we have the episode, and it airs and you see drag and queer culture portrayed in a different light, celebrating the individuality of all types. We are all the same, even though we don’t look the same or have the same lifestyle. We all feel the same and have the same life challenges and pivots and twists and I think human kindness is all about, and that’s what we’re looking to do with the show.
AD: This series dispels the myth that there are no queer people in small towns. They’re everywhere! Was that something else you were trying to say?
SW: When we came up with the idea, the name occurred to us. I grew up in the ’80s, so “We’re Here” is a really important, significant phrase to me for the HIV movement. I think the major reason so much progress has been made is because people finally had to come out of the closet because they were forced to come out of the closet because of HIV. “We’re here”! You can’t bury your head in the sand and say small towns don’t have gay people.
JI: It’s a double meaning. Literally our queens are here, but all of the LGBTQ community shows up for these events and they’re bringing their families, allies and all kinds of people who can enjoy and celebrate this ceremonial, community drag show. People can learn and see each other and look around and say, “I have support in my own hometown.”
AD: This show is introducing small towns to the art of drag, but how much do you think it’s about supporting femininity and maybe even women’s rights in some way? I was struck how in the first episode, the father had a tough time with people calling him a pretty boy.
SW: You’re 1000% right. I have a daughter, and I’m an entertainment lawyer. For all my career, I’ve represented more of the top women than I think anybody. I’ve seen the difficulties. My law partner is a woman, and I’ve seen misogyny first-hand. Over and over and over, people will respond to me in a deep voice in a different way than they will to a woman negotiating or any of that. It’s so disturbing to me, but I think so much of it is a rejection of femininity. Some how femininity must be reserved for women, period. You have to be very clear about how you express your femininity. It’s a celebration and destigmatization of femininity.
AD: Have you followed up with any of these people? Have they noticed any changed mindsets in the community?
SW: All the time!
JI Every day!
JI: It’s a family.
SW: We LOVE them.
JI: I think a lot of times with reality shows, you come in, you jooge up a person, and leave. This show isn’t about that at all. We’re not going in and making over people’s lives. We’re not making your house more expensive. We’re just going in and throwing a drag performance that gets people talking. Especially when you’re working with people who haven’t been talking for a long time, they are really feeling changed from this, not only for the better within their families, but they consider actually becoming a drag performer. They’re actually creating change within their own community and being a leader. That’s important to us, especially when we were in the Navavo nation and what they’re struggling with right now, with the COVID-19 outbreak there that’s been devastating. Our drag daughters have become advocates there and helpers, really stepping up to help the community. They’re being recognized as the LGBTQ Navavo nation that’s trying to help everyone. We’re all in this together, and that’s really important. We talk to them every day and have fun Zoom pre-shows.
SW: I’m so proud of this show. This is something that I don’t think has ever been seen on television before and that it’s really giving an accurate, sensitive portrayal of people whose stories haven’t ever really ever been told. And we’re telling them through the most artful, beautiful, and in a sense subversive manner. It’s subversive on one hand but it’s so natural on the other.
WE’RE HERE is available to stream on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and on HBO via HBO Max and other partners’ platforms.