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Willam Isn’t Getting Enough Credit for ‘A Star Is Born’

Who you love most in A Star is Born is a true litmus test. For example: I love Gail, which means I’m a gay man who stans supportive women. For many others, their favorite is Drag Bar Emcee, aka Shangela. And Shangela knows that she’s a fan favorite, too.

In a truly awe-inspiring display of hustle, Shangela has made the A Star Is Born moment her own, running with the narrative that Lady Gaga picked her personally to audition for the movie. Shangela, who I love to death and deserves a big win after losing RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3 in rather unfair fashion, is emerging as the unsung star of the movie, who gives (at least the first half) a queer edge. “Shangela Is the Real Winner of A Star Is Born,” no less than Oprah’s O Magazine declared.

But if Shangela is the winner, what does that make Willam, the other Drag Race alum to appear in  A Star Is Born? Because from where we’re sitting, Willam steals every one of the drag bar scenes, knocking every punchline out of the park. Her Emerald is a wonder, and the Season 4 queen is deserving of just as much praise. It’s a shame she’s not getting it.

As Vulture reported in their deep dive on the drag bar scenes — one of the only news pieces to focus as much on Willam as it does Shangela — Emerald is a Dolly Parton impersonator. Willam certainly gets the look right, using clothes she owns herself. She also apparently improvised a lot of her own dialogue, according to the latest episode of her and Alaska’s Drag Race recap podcast, Race Chaser.

Emerald is incredibly flirty with Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine, insisting that he perform a song for her after their drag bar closes down for the night. (She doesn’t care which song, just that he sings while looking into her eyes.) Willam and Cooper have incredible chemistry; you can see why Cooper said Willam is “gold” at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.

The line I personally loved most was a tossed-off shot at Shangela’s Emcee’s “bus driver wig,” which got absolute cackles out of the crowd when I saw the film. It’s a pretty savvy line, the kind of joke that straight audiences will love but gay audiences will find particular pleasure in. If that was one of Willam’s bits of improv — which, considering her sense of humor and similar jokes on Race Chaser, I’d guess it is — it was a brilliant bit.

Shangela deserves all the praise and shine in the world. I adore her, and it’s thrilling to watch her become a star in her own right on the mainstream national stage. But I’d love to see Willam elevated, too. Her performance is far too good to ignore.

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Kevin O'Keeffe

Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer and 'RuPaul's Drag Race' herstorian. He covers film and TV for INTO, and writes the movie review column "But How Gay Is It?" every Friday.

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