Shea Couleé on the Essentials of Drag Queen Makeup

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Every single thing we know about makeup today we owe to the art of drag. For decades, the makeup artistry vanguard toiled away on the fringes of the mainstream, usually late after sunset, in the dressing room of a bar you wouldn’t walk into by accident. Until 2009, when RuPaul’s Drag Race turned the feminine performance into…a reality competition. The show, now in its 13th year and umpteenth season, put its performers on the world stage, inspiring a new generation of queens. The queen of queens: Chicago-based Shea Couleé, who snatched her own crown last year. “I love manipulating [my] face,” Couleé tells Allure. Lucky for us, she also loves to share how.


“Three different colors are needed for my foundation to build dimension. I start with a cooler tone around the perimeter of my face. Next, a shade that closely matches my skin tone on the center of my forehead, cheeks, and around my lip area. Then, around my T-zone, I go in with a warmer, lighter foundation.

With my years of doing art, painting, color theory, I have learned about the complexities existing within heavily melanated skin. There are really warm tones, cool tones, oranges, yellows, and reds. I’ve taken time to recognize where those tones are pronounced on my face.” 


“I kind of go really light with my shade selection to highlight my face. Taking the wand, I’ll do about three dots of under my eyes, two dots on the sides of my nose, one underneath my nose, one under my chin, and then four on my forehead — kind of in the shape of a cross but with little dots.” 


“The difference between a day-to-day and a drag highlight and contour would be the sheer amount of product. Even though this makeup looks natural, I’m wearing three different shades of foundation, two highlighters, and concealer, as well as powder and cream contour. When it comes to contour, you’re going to want to make sure it’s sharp at the bottom and blend upward. That illusion creates a stronger, more pronounced bone structure.”


“With Fenty Beauty’s Killawatt Foil Freestyle Highlighter in Sangria Sunset, which is a nice pink tone, on my cheeks, I lightly dust it on the bridge of my nose, on my cupid’s bow, and above my brows. Then, I’ll go in with an icy pink color on top for a shinier highlight.”


“I don’t have much eyebrow to begin with, so trying to block them out with a glue stick creates more texture than not. [Editor’s note: Many queens glue down their brows until they’re flat enough to paint over.] So for me, it’s better to just work with my natural brows. I do the bottom highlight first because it helps me figure out what my overall arch is going to be. I go in with a fine-tipped angle brush with the Anastasia Beverly Hills Dipbrow Pomade and lightly draw in the shape of my brow. Then, I highlight on top of the brow with a very, very, very fine detail brush and 
Juvia’s Place concealer before I go with a fine-tipped liquid liner and draw in individual hairs.”


“I don’t like a super full, heavy lash because you spend all this time doing makeup, and then, it’s covered up by the lash. I make custom eyelashes for myself. I like to take a pair of [beauty supply store] 301s and cut them up into fours, spray them with hairspray, and then style them into individual points so you can see behind the lash. Then I glue those on top of 99s.” [Editor’s note: She even has a genius tip for adhering her falsies.] 


“I do a little bit of contouring with lip liner, like MAC’s Lip Pencil in Chestnut, on the outer corners of my mouth, working my way inward. Then a nice, neutral pinky tone, specifically the Fenty Beauty Stunna Lip Paint in Uncuffed for this look, on the center. Around the perimeter, I went in with a mocha liquid lip. Then give them a nice pat, pat, rub, rub, to blend.”


Good, old-fashioned press-ons — love them. Long nails elongate the fingers and hands and make them look really elegant.”


“I pluck around the hairline to make it a little bit thinner because a lot of times factory-made wigs are too full in the front and look artificial. Then, when I’m trimming the lace, I make sure it’s a little jagged. It looks more natural if you actually kind of mess it up.”

Shea Couleé’s Result 

“I absolutely believe drag celebrates femininity because I feel like for many drag queens, we were, as little boys, oftentimes made fun of or bullied for being feminine or different. Drag is a way for us to reclaim that and express the power that exists in femininity. For me, and my makeup, I always want to express pure feminine energy, and it comes from the purest feminine parts of myself.” 

A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Allure. Learn how to subscribe here.

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Read more from Allure‘s 30th Anniversary issue: 

Now, watch Monét X Change’s drag transformation tutorial: 

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