Many RuPaul’s Drag Race viewers will remember Sasha Velour for one moment out of the entirety of Season 9: her finale lip sync to Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional” that involved cascades of red rose petals. But Velour has traveled a long journey from the work room and runway of Drag Race and she brings her latest performance piece, Smoke and Mirrors, to TPAC this Thursday night. We spoke recently about her career, how she defines her art, and what she hopes to be for younger generations.
Will: From the moment you entered the collective consciousness of most people, walking into the Drag Race workroom, it’s been clear that your style and perhaps your brand of drag are very influenced by performance and pop-art. How do you describe your art? Is it possible to define it?
Sasha: I usually keep things simple and do just described as drag. I love the traditions of drag performance from Lypsyinka in the fabulous New York drag scene and performance artists like Ethel Eichelberger. I think drag is kind of a good catch all for that exact mixture of performance art and pop art.
And of course, I take reference from everywhere and anywhere, from the highest of highs of performance artists that I studied in college to a 90s television magician, so I was watching as a child.
Will: You talk about your studying in college different performance artists. You have an extensive background in literature, graphic design, and cartoon art and even time with the Staatsoper Unter der Linden, which blows me away. There’s one video that you have up on YouTube doing an homage to Pirate Jenny… like anybody who’s able to pull out Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya is super okay in my book. Let’s talk a little bit about “Smoke and Mirrors” coming here on the 7th of November. From what I can tell it’s designed to be a very novel experience for the audience.
Sasha: Wow, damn… you did your research. It’s an immersive drag experiment. It has lip syncing, it has surprises. It has tears, it has confessional speeches, it has stand up comedy. It has a little bit of everything that I think is part of the drag equation. But I tried to make everything flow together into almost a single thought. It’s fragmented into a million different lipsyncs and magical moments, but I tried to think about what would give it a kind of narrative flow, like a style that runs throughout it.
It’s definitely all those things you mentioned – those forms of theatre that I’ve gotten to work in or gotten to see. Those have all influenced in different ways. There’s a bit of opera, a bit of performance art, a bit of magic shows, like I mentioned. This show is just kind of my love letter to theater itself. And that’s all done through the language of drag.
To be really real, I believed my love of this type of theatre was going to make it impossible for me to ever work in theatre. And it turns out to be the secret to my success. That reflects a huge shift that’s happened and Drag Race has played a big part in it. But I also think there’s just a general opening towards queer and trans artists and our experiences and our imaginations happening in the culture. That’s a that’s a really big, positive thing.
Will: Outside of your time spent as Sasha Velour, you identify as genderqueer or gender fluid? What do you find is the most difficult and maybe, conversely, the most rewarding part about being able to set the binaries aside in 2019?
Sasha: Certainly the most rewarding part is being able to live authentically and having language and some mirrors out in the world. There’s a sense of community for living and presenting in non-binary ways, whether that is non-binary, fluid, genderqueer, or genderfuck. There’s so many. The community is broad and we’re all very different from each other, but it’s so helpful to see other people who want to not follow necessarily binary stories for their own gender.
And the most difficult part is that there’s there’s still such a disconnect between what is championed on stage and on the screen and real life experiences on the street. I get to live a life of theater now. And so that has made me much safer than I was previously. And I thank my lucky stars every day for that. But it’s there’s still a disconnect seeing people in my community, people who present gender just in the way that I do being in danger. And I think that is that makes it hard sometimes to put on the makeup and get on the stage.
Will: I think I would absolutely have my gay card punched if I didn’t ask you this question, because it’s one that has been haunting me for a couple of years. What inspired the rose petals for the Drag Race finale lip sync? To me, it’s one of probably the most iconic moments in Drag Race herstory.
Sasha: Oh, well, thank you.
The song inspired the rose petals. I had 24 hours with all of the song choices that it could be. And I was like, “Hopefully, I will get ‘So Emotional’ because I have the perfect idea for I tried to prepare something for all of the songs.” But for “So Emotional,” I saw the roses, because it’s just obviously a very good straightforward metaphor for passion and for relationship.
But then when I thought about different things you can do with that image, how you can distort it and explode into it and hide it in my hair and all those things, it took on really personal meaning for me. It’s a performance that’s about many different things every time I do it, since now it’s a part of Smoke and Mirrors. I get to perform in a slightly different way.
Will: Has the has the tour changed? Has the performance changed and if so, how has it altered over the time that you’ve been doing it? Because from what I’ve read, you seem like an artist who loves to continue sort of fucking with the norms and wants to keep improving things.
Sasha: I’ve really worked on trying to improve my own abilities as a performer and as a drag theatre maker, whatever that means. So I’ve really worked on my dancing, on my reveals, and my abilities as a stage magician, which has become something that I sort of accidentally got known for and then wanted to actually take seriously. When we do drag, so often it’s like one performance and then never do it again. A wild experiment. And with this show, I really wanted the challenge of getting things polished and really, technically correct. And it’s sometimes it’s frustrating, because it can feel a little antithetical to the kind of wild, creative spirit of drag, but I try to leave spaces to still bring something totally different every night.
So it’s like, there’ll be just the right amount of planned. With Smoke and Mirrors, the projections, which are a huge element, kind of move without me. So I have to keep up with the show and do certain things correctly every time or else the magic won’t work. But I also give myself room to interpret it differently. Sometimes “So Emotional” is very sexy and insane. Other times, it’s very vengeful and angry. I think that being able to approach things with different characters night to night is an essential part of having fun with drag.
Will: My final question here, and this is one that I really do like to ask people who have traveled a lot, had some experience, and really become comfortable in their own flesh as a member of the LGBTQ community. What would you today at age 32, want to tell your grade school, your high school-aged self, if you could?
Sasha: Take dance lessons.
But for real, in a sense, that is kind of what I would say because I didn’t necessarily believe that there was a place in the world for myself as I was. And I tried very hard to change myself, to fit – and even still being comfortable as a gay person – I really had to fight to negotiate my queerness. And drag for me is the triumph of really being at peace with that side of myself. I don’t regret any of the struggles and the back and forth and the self discovery, but if there was a way to expedite that in any way, and to tell my younger self that genderfluid and gay as all hell and being a total drama queen as you are, is good enough – and is in fact quite special – then I think things would have gone a lot easier.
I actually recently went back to my high school. We did the we did kind of a kickoff party for the for the Smoke and Mirrors tour by going to my hometown university. My dad teaches at the University of Illinois and we gave a show in the very theater where, as a nine year old, I performed A Tale of Two Cities and got run over by the Marquis’ carriage.
And I visited my high school on that trip and in honor they made a Sasha Velour Day where all the queer students got to come in looks of whatever it is they wanted to. There were rainbows everywhere and my guidance counselor, who helped me get into college in New York, papered the hallways with printouts of my face in drag. And I cannot tell you how surreal and emotional that experience was. But I was like, “This is what I needed to see, as a young person that there there were spaces there were successes to be had as queer people.” Hopefully I can be part of that.
Sasha Velour’s Smoke and Mirrors tour comes to TPAC this Thursday, November 7th. Tickets are available at TPAC’s website or at the box office.