Makers of HBO drag show say upcoming episode is ‘love letter’ to St. George

ST. GEORGE — Since creating the documentary television series “We’re Here” for HBO in 2019, Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram have taken their crews to 18 cities and small towns around the country, but they say there was something special about St. George. 

(L-R) Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela and Eureka O’Hara of “We’re Here” at Pioneer Park, St. George, Utah, May 2022 | Photo courtesy of HBO, St. George News

“The Chamber of Commerce of St. George, I hope, loves this episode because it really is a bit of a love letter to the town. And that the overwhelming number of people that we met that were absolutely wonderful,” Warren said in an interview with St. George News. “It was magical.”

On Friday night, the third episode of the third season of the series described as “spreading love and connection through the art of drag” will debut on HBO and the streaming service HBO Max with St. George in the spotlight. A premiere of the episode also will be held Wednesday night in a sold-out event at the Megaplex Theatres at Sunset.

It will be the visual result of months of local debate concerning a one-night drag show in Town Square Park on June 3 that included multiple hearings before the St. George City Council – including as recently as a month ago – as well as the resignation of the city manager.

St. George News was provided an advance copy of the episode by HBO. It features prominently several shots that show off red rock and street visuals that could easily double as a tourism presentation, from Pioneer Park to Sand Hollow to Judd’s General Store. Along with that are several shots of the word “Dixie” around town. 

It also shows off its hosts. Well-known drag queens, including recent “Dancing with the Stars” fourth-place finisher Shangela, as well as her fellow “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestants Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara can be seen strutting near Dixie Rock as well as the St. George Temple. 

Ingram, who created “We’re Here” with Warren, with both serving as co-executive producer, said unlike many of the locales they have traveled to for the series, St. George is a place he wants to return to on his own outside filmmaking.

(L-R) “We’re Here” co-creators Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren in front of the drag show stage at Town Square Park, St. George, Utah, June 3, 2022 | Photo courtesy of HBO, St. George News

“We had such a great time, and it’s so beautiful,” Ingram said. “We talk about the places that we really would like to go back to, and St. George is top of the list.”

The episode shows the three drag queen hosts providing emotional support to local residents and families of different LGBTQ sexual orientations culminating in the residents participating as performers in the Town Square drag show. There is also a segment devoted specifically to the debates in the St. George City Council, with the focal point being Councilwoman Michelle Tanner. 

Pride of Southern Utah Executive Director Micah Barrick, who uses the pronoun they and identifies as nonbinary, and their family was one of the local residents profiled and is declared the local “Queermander in Chief” by Bob the Drag Queen. 

Barrick, who has also already seen the episode, said it represents Southern Utah’s largest city well for both the support they said they received from supporters at the June show and the council hearings and what they described as a hidden side of hate and fear of being harmed either mentally or physically. 

“It kind of shows St. George in that there’s a lot of love here for our community, that there is a lot of support despite all the negative, loud rhetoric around everything else,” Barrick said. “I think they did such an incredible job representing our community and showing the love that we have here. What I felt at the end of that episode was love. They did such a great job in a respectful way of exposing the harmful nature of the rhetoric that certain City Council members are repeating.”

In the episode, Bob remarks on how friendly people in St. George seem to be but also how they might be saying terrible things about him behind his back. Unlike other “We’re Here” episodes that usually feature locals making anti-gay slurs and other disparaging remarks, the St. George episode features just one person making a leering remark. 

Pride of Southern Utah Executive Director Micah Barrick gets some drag show pointers from Bob the Drag Queen during the filming of “We’re Here,” St. George, Utah, May 2022 | Photo courtesy of HBO, St. George News

Peter LoGreco, who directed the episode, told St. George News that was a byproduct of just not being able to find anyone who would disparage the LGBTQ community on camera. 

“When we were filming, there was never really any hostility,” LoGreco said, who noted unlike many of the places featured in the series, he felt St. George was far from being a “small town.”

“It feels more like a city than a small town that is dying. St. George felt alive.”

In fact, Warren said any hostility came after the main filming was complete and only the filming of the drag show itself was to come. He said they only heard about possible opposition to the show 48 hours before the planned Town Square show when they were told that the St. George City Council was going to consider pulling the previously approved permit for the show. 

LoGreco said he scrambled to look at alternate sites and the Tuacahn Ampitheatre expressed that they might host but had a performance of “Mary Poppins” that night. If the council reversed the permit, they would have to settle on a private airport outside of town. Both Warren and Ingram said after a week of filming where there were impressed with the friendliness of the city, it was a headache out of nowhere. 

St. George residents Gaby, left, and Anjanae, right, try out their “We’re Here” drag costumes with support from Eureka O’Hara, St. George, Utah, May 2022 | Photo courtesy of HBO, St. George News

“We weren’t aware while we were filming the extent to which there were forces working to try to stop us. It is reflective of a lot of the places that we go, but particularly of St. George, where I think people are very comfortable talking behind your back,” Warren said. “They’ll be smiling to your face and saying, oh yeah, thank you. And then behind your back, they can get on their keyboard, they’ll talk to their friends on the City Council and try to stop your show. It’s like they won’t say that to your face in St. George.”

But Warren said that would result in what he said was one of the most heartwarming segments of any “We’re Here” episode. 

‘You Might Like It’ 

The June 2 St. George City Council meeting fills up an entire segment of the episode. It is titled, “You Might Like It, Michelle,” referring to a statement made by Bob about Councilwoman Tanner. 

St. George Councilwoman Michelle Tanner, right, during a council meeting in which members of the LGBTQ community shared concerns related to social media posts she made and rumors of the possible cancellation of a pre-approved drag show to be held in the St. George Town Square, St. George, Utah, June 2, 2022 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

During that meeting and in statements since, some opponents took issue with a segment of the episode that is rated TV-MA for mature audiences only being filmed in a public park in close proximity to the St. George Children’s Museum, children play areas and the St. George Carousel. 

A spokesperson for HBO, Alyssa Michnevitz, said the TV-MA rating has more to do with language than anything seen on screen. 

“‘We’re Here’ is treated like all other HBO original programming when it comes to content rating and advisories purposes,” Michnevitz said in an e-mail. “The Adult Content and Adult Language advisories were selected since the show includes discussions of suicide, self-harm, abuse, as well as some suggestive dialogue (including song lyrics), curse words and mention of discriminatory language/slurs.”

Opponents also took issue with city administration approving the permit without consulting the City Council. Other opponents say tax dollars shouldn’t be used to promote one’s sexual orientation and that drag shows and other LGBTQ events “groom” children to steer their gender identity.

The episode shows two of the opponents speaking but then turns to what was reported by St. George News in its story of the meeting where the two opponents were followed by several members of the LGBTQ community and their supporters who “lined the street” with their vehicles outside St. George City Hall. 

“What I would say is that was one of the most moving experiences that we’ve had in the show,” Warren said. “It’s very interesting to see in that City Council meeting how the beauty of people speaking their truth really came through.”

Tanner is shown several times, but other than written statements, she is not heard speaking. 

Warren said the makers of the episode intended to include Tanner speaking on camera and invited her to do so. 

“I somehow got her number and I texted with her. I said, ‘I would love to sit down and talk with you.’ And she said, ‘I’m busy,’” Warren said of his interaction with Tanner. “She said, maybe after we left she would talk. But you know, she knew she didn’t want to talk to me.”

When asked if he had a message for Tanner, Warren said, “Love more, fear less.”

St. George Councilwoman Michelle Tanner during a meeting of the St. George City Council where residents used the public comment period to protest the city’s handling of the “We’re Here” drag show event held in early June, St. George, Utah, Nov. 3, 2022 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Tanner, when asked by St. George News, said the producers of “We’re Here” lied about their correspondence with her and that she had text messages as proof. Tanner said she would be “happy to clarify anything” but asked that questions be emailed to her.

St. George News emailed questions about what it was the producers lied about and what the LGBTQ community has misunderstood about her positions, as well as other topics. The councilwoman was also asked if the St. George Children’s Museum and the Carousel being closed at the “We’re Here” drag show’s starting time of 8 p.m. made a difference.

In response to the emailed questions, Steve Brazell, a media and brand strategist based in New York City, responded saying he was speaking for Tanner. Brazell, the founder of the media strategy firm Hitman Inc., said there was nothing more for Tanner to say beyond statements she has already made online including that Tanner supports adults in their freedom of expression in appropriate venues and opposes “attempts to normalize men scantily dressed as women, gyrating in front of children.” 

“We are frustrated with the press in Utah as it seems you fail to focus on the facts of a story and instead insinuate, or in some cases post stories with misleading or false information for the average reader. This is defamatory and may result in a lawsuit,” Brazell said in an email to St. George News. “Your recent emailed questions are absurd and mostly irrelevant to any meaningful journalism — you should be embarrassed. There are substantial pressing issues in Southern Utah, it’s fascinating the Utah press is caught up in only one.”

Barrick said that they and other local LGBTQ leaders have determined they will not be doing any further outreach with Tanner, describing the councilwoman as a “kind of a pillar that … will not be moved.”

Ingram said he was also disappointed by former City Manager Adam Lenhard’s ouster as a result of the show. LoGreco said they never actually spoke with Lenhard, working with other city officials. 

“The retaliation against the people that helped us put on the show, I mean, that was very heartbreaking,” Ingram said. “I’m emotional just thinking that we create this show out of love and to see someone just turn that into hate and to change someone’s life and their livelihood based on just us expressing our right to exist … it is really, really sad.”

‘Put on a show’

In the episode, Shangela thanks the council for getting the word out about the show, saying “People chose to discriminate in sneaky ways, but what we do is tie up our laces and put on a show.”

Onlookers during the taping of the “We’re Here” drag show, St. George, Utah, June 3, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed St. George News

And with estimates of more than 1,000 showing up in Town Square, LoGreco said regular viewers of the show will notice something bigger about St. George. 

“It was without a doubt the largest show we’ve had,” LoGreco said. 

For the locals featured on the show, it was another big moment that Barrick said was not as much a coming out for those performing as it was a coming out of support – something they said was presented well in the episode. 

“A lot of people felt like people would say things privately, but nobody would really come out and show up for our community when we really needed it. But I feel like with the drag show in Town Square, that was kind of an opportunity for those people who said they supported us to really come out and that they did,” Barrick said. “It was overwhelmingly filled of joy. I couldn’t even see the back of the crowd.”

Warren said it was also a big moment for him and Ingram.

“I think one of the most beautiful moments that we’ve had filming this show up until this point was Johnny and I being in that crowd – not on the rafters, not anywhere else, just being in that crowd – looking behind us and seeing the pride lights on the mountain,” Warren said, noting how the Dixie “D” on the Black Hill was lit up in supportive rainbow colors, which was seen by those in Town Square that night but is not seen in the episode.

The Dixie D on Black Hill lit up for the taping of the “We’re Here” drag show, St. George, Utah, June 3, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed St. George News

“The steeple of the church, the temple lit up, seeing our beautiful stage and being surrounded by people being themselves and filled with love. I’m hoping when people see this show, they will be able to say, ‘Wow, that is a beautiful moment.’ The moment where people say, ‘I wish I was there and maybe my thoughts and my beliefs could be opened a little bit more. I may have judged prematurely.’”

Overcoming fear

Ingram said a major point of the series is to dispel fears about drag performers. 

“Yes, there are drag artists that will perform typically in the evening hours at a nightclub. But there are also drag artists that are very loving and that are representative in that they should be able to walk in the streets and to sit down with children and educate and to share that there is absolutely nothing to fear,” Ingram said. “A lot of times it happens in online chat rooms or Facebook groups that people love to hide behind a keyboard. What we’ve noticed this season in particular — season three — based on the political rhetoric and sort of this heightened fear of in positioning drag queens and trans people as these terrifying group of people.”

That fear has resulted in recent weeks with violent incidents directed at other drag shows and transgender events around the country. 

St. George resident Toni during the Town Square “We’re Here” drag show, St. George, Utah, June 3, 2022 | Photo courtesy of HBO, St. George News

On Nov. 20 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at a gay nightclub, 22 people were shot, five killed, during a drag show. While the suspect has been identified as nonbinary by their defenders, prosecutors and neighbors said they used anti-gay slurs online and in public before the incident. 

On Saturday, two seperate incidents took place. The FBI is investigating whether a continued power outage from vandals shooting up a power station in In Moore County, North Carolina, was motivated by an attempt to shut down a drag show; and in Columbus, Ohio, a fundraising event at a school by drag performers was cancelled after 70 members of the far-right Proud Boys group armed with weapons arrived

Warren said St. George is at a crossroads when it comes to toleration of the LGBTQ community. 

“St. George metaphorically could be the canary in the coal mine, where there’s a great deal of loving and supportive individuals within that town that are really trying to make the place all-inclusive and a place that everyone feels welcome and loved, yet there are voices that are amplified to a disproportionate degree that use falsehoods and twisted words to instill fear,” Warren said. “If we’re not careful, that fear is amplified to a degree that’s completely unnecessary and very, very dangerous.”

Pride of Southern Utah is hosting the premiere at the Megaplex Wednesday night as a fundraiser, and the event has sold out. But Barrick and others have some concern for their safety, especially in the wake of recent events and the Colorado shooting. 

St. George residents and the stars of “We’re Here” take the Town Square Park stage, St. George, Utah, June 3, 2022 | Photo courtesy of HBO, St. George News

“I think something like that could happen here. After (the shooting), a large portion of our community reached out to me and said they are afraid of that. People were afraid of that at the drag show in June. People are afraid of that at our premier or at all of our events,” Barrick said. “People are very afraid that that kind of thing is going to happen here, especially with some of our elected leaders regurgitating that negative rhetoric towards our community.”

Barrick notes there will be private security, and St. George Police Officer Tiffany Mitchell told St. George News officers will be posted at the event. Barrick hopes that won’t put a pall on what they say is an episode that shows the love St. George has and a better place it could be if hate and fear are set aside. 

“We do live in a very beautiful community, you know? I hate the fact that such a beautiful place is marred with such a small, loud population of hate,” Barrick said. “If you could just take that out. I mean, St. George would be just perfect.”

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