HL: When was the first time you ever saw drag? Who were your idols growing up?
SV: I discovered drag in my own mirror! I’ve been crossdressing my entire life. No one could stop me from putting on dresses, heels, and vampire capes as a little child. I thought I must be the only little boy in the world who wanted to star in the evil queen roles.
At first, I idolized the Wicked Witch of the West. I understood her struggle. I coveted Dorothy’s heels, too. After all, why shouldn’t us witches get to wear sparkly shoes?
I didn’t discover “drag” until later on, and it took me even longer to understand the full culture and history of what drag has meant to the queer community. I always think of an essay I read by Sylvia Rivera, a trans activist who was part of the Stonewall uprising. She described how drag performers (and she called herself a “drag queen” proudly) had transformed activist ideas into action and spectacle on the street, which ultimately brought about real change. Drag isn’t just entertainment and dress up, I realized: it has a vital and respected role within our culture. Understanding that made me want to immediately put on lipstick, heels, and a Shake-N-Go!
Do any early items of clothing influence your performances today?
I still have a lot of the costumes that really affected me. There was a turquoise ‘80s power suit that my mom used to keep stored in the hall closet. I’d sneak it into my room and try it on secretly in middle school. It represented an idea of my mother as a young woman that really inspired me. After she passed away from cancer, I found the suit again and it still fit, miraculously. I really feel that clothes can be sites of memory, so when I wear my mother’s suit as a drag queen, all those old memories (both of my mother, and the childhood drag she inspired) come ooding over me. I even wore the suit on RuPaul’s Drag Race!
Is it the same with the music you choose, in terms of selecting songs and artists? I love you lip-syncing to Kate Bush as Gollum, for instance. And your Annie Lennox performances at Nightgowns, your monthly live show.
Honestly, I just perform to music I personally connect with, whether it’s Annie Lennox, or Kesha, or Siouxsie and the Banshees. My best performances have always come out of an emotional connection to, or at least understanding of, a song. Kate Bush is one of my very favorite artists. When I first heard “Wuthering Heights” I thought it sounded like Gollum from Lord of the Rings starring in an Emily Brontë adaptation, running in sexy rags across the moors. I just had to bring that to life. My favorite song by Kate Bush is actually “And Dream of Sheep” (both the original and the live version); it makes me weep every time I really listen to the lyrics.
You’re also a visual artist. Does this medium influence your performance style?
I think it might have started out the other way! As a young person, I was always more of a theater kid than an artist. When I first started doing illustration, I thought of it as constructing little plays or performances for the page. Sounds great, right?! What people don’t realize is that illustrations — especially comics and narrative art — are really time-consuming... because you have to create every element from nothing! Over and over again! So I learned to be both incredibly detailed, and also very edited and efficient with my art. I fell in love with bold colors and shapes... and then I carried those things back with me into drag and fashion! These days, Sasha Velour is a piece of graphic design herself. Every image or show I release is sketched and workshopped like an illustration. Hopefully that helps me be purposeful and make progress with my drag!
At its best, the fashion industry has quite a bit in common with drag: both use clothing to subvert expectations and articulate identities. How do the performances you create and curate dialogue with fashion?
In a drag performance, there’s this ongoing exchange between the familiar and the strange, the “real” and the “fake.” Ultimately, a great drag performance inverts all those preconceptions: a queer gender feels more authentic than any “assigned” one, a lip-synch performance becomes as real as any song, and a mimed grandeur starts to seem genuinely regal! In that sense, drag encourages the audience to see the world as being fluid, illogically human, and infinitely capable of
change and possibility. I’ve always thought that great fashion shares that mission.
The idea that clothes and appearances are superficial is such a misconception. The way that people look is bound up with what we think of ourselves, what we think of others, and how we assign meaning to our lives. Drag is such an effective example of that power, because it literally uses clothing to create an alternate reality. And the best part is...it’s a version of reality where fashion isn’t seen as a set of rules we have to fit into, but rather a series of wild possibilities, available to all.
Tell me about some of the artists and performers you tapped for “The Gift of Showz.”
There are so many brilliant drag performers out in the world, this is just a tiny introduction! Each of today’s performers represents a different style of drag fashion and performance. And, needless to say, every single performer is a superstar. Lypsinka garnered legendary status in the community for developing a citational style of lip-synch that’s ever-so-gay, rooted in old Hollywood, and has inspired an entire generation! Shea Couleé, one of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s breakout stars, is celebrated for combining her edgy modern look and incredible musical talents to create stylish videos that set trends. Hungry, from Berlin, has pioneered a surreal makeup technique that’s been imitated around the entire world, and speaks to the power of drag to take fashion and beauty to surreal NEW worlds. Jiggly Caliente charmed audiences on RuPaul’s Drag Race with sparkly costumes, heart-stopping lip-syncs, and a winning smile. She’s gone on to be an outspoken voice for trans representation, and an embodiment of beauty and fashion at any size. West Dakota is one of New York City’s most exciting young artists, situated, like so many incredible New York drag performers, at the nexus of fashion and nightlife. Finally, we have Miss Fame, who has pretty much set the bar for classical beauty with a ravishing queer twist. There’s no doubt that she should be the hottest supermodel in the world! And those names are really just the beginning. We had a lot of surprise appearances, and I hope the show will inspire the audience to go out and continue to look for (or create) the drag that really speaks to them.
Many of these performers have attended or participated in fashion week events in the past. What was different about this show, where members of the drag community were also collaborators?
In drag we have the philosophy that there’s really nothing new under the sun. That’s why I move my lips to other people’s music and wear replicas of ‘80s couture! However, by combining and remixing things, being consciously referential (but with a slightly different intent), sometimes new things really do come into being. That’s the goal with this show, too. Drag performers and queer artists have appeared in fashion before (arguably it’s never existed without us, but that’s another discussion!). And we’ve certainly put on fabulous shows before (almost all of these performers have appeared in my show, Nightgowns). But for a group of drag performers to put on a drag show as the fashion show; for Opening Ceremony to encourage the industry by their example to treat queer artists as peers and creatives; and for all of this to retain its fundraising power (as we raise money to benefit queer activist organizations)... that’s something new. And it’s great!
Drag is centuries old. How do you see this artform’s journey unfolding in the years to come? How will it transform?
Yes! I always say that drag is so ancient, it predates modern conceptions of gender or sexuality. It really does. There’s clear evidence of drag in almost every pre-modern society, it’s just often times challenging to interpret, because history has been recorded and transmitted with a binary eye. It’s hard to say exactly where drag has been, so it’s also hard to say exactly where it’s going! I hope that audiences of drag want more than just a single TV show or fandom. Drag is deep and brilliant, diverse, and full of representation. I hope that drag performers can start having more opportunities to represent ourselves, so we can introduce audiences to our real lives and experiences.
Sasha Velour is a gender-fluid drag queen who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Velour won Season 9 of the Emmy-winning reality TV competition, RuPaul’s Drag Race, which was nominated for an additional eight Emmys that same year. She is the producer and star of the monthly Brooklyn drag theatre show, Nightgowns. The show continues to sell out within minutes each month, and has toured around the world for packed theaters, exposing thousands of fans to forms of drag not seen on TV. Velour is the creative force behind Velour: The Drag Magazine,
a yearly magazine that celebrates the art of drag through visual art, poetry, and interviews. Now with three issues and a collected hardcover book, the magazine has become a staple in the queer art world. Velour designs all of her own merchandise and products. Her illustration and comics have been published in QU33R, Posture, Cicada, Ink Brick, Suspect Device, and Comics Workbook Magazine. She recently created a Google Doodle of Marlene Dietrich.