For Sasha Velour, Imagining Drag’s Future Means Learning Your Drag History

Sasha Velour has the cure for those who don’t learn their drag history.

Since her crowning as the winner of the ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Velour has used her national stage to expand people’s idea of drag, both what it is and who can do it. Here’s the gag: that’s nothing new for Velour, something that should become even more apparent with the release of Velour: The Drag Magazine, a collection of three issues of her drag zine which was in circulation years before Velour catapulted to her place as one of the foremost voices in the drag community.

Velour will use her voice to advocate for a more inclusive view of drag when she speaks in December at the Smithsonian Institution’s The Long Conversation, a day-long event about imagining the future of American art and culture.

Velour sat down with INTO to talk about the queerness of coffee table books, why drag is always shading itself and the history of wig reveals.

Velour the magazine ran prior to your time on Drag Race and now because of who you are, a lot of the essays and cartoons and contributions get a second life. What’s most exciting to you about these essays living on?

I think when we created — every person who created work for this magazine intended to create something to document drag as it exists right now, has existed at previous moments for posterity. The fact that it’s getting a bigger audience is so exciting, not just for me and for all the contributors. When we first created this in 2013, there wasn’t, from my point of view, there wasn’t a lot of claiming of drag as a high art form and now I feel like there’s a lot more of that. Drag has changed so much so quickly. I really see people attempting to uplift this thing that they did or this thing that they saw happening around them and say, “This is one of the best creative work that is happening out there.”

Even though there are more people making that case now, it rings just as true now. In a lot of ways, we’re not done saying drag is a legitimate art form. There’s more than meets the eye and there’s more amazing work happening that people might not be aware of. This will push people to uncover a little bit of art history.

In a lot of ways, we’re not done saying drag is a legitimate art form.

A lot of Velour fights back against the false idea of drag as a cis gay art form and shows that it hasn’t been for a while. How have you seen that idea evolve in the mainstream since the first zine came out over 5 years ago?

Yeah, it’s pretty amazing to see what once felt like a truly unpopular opinion, but a harsh truth — that drag has never belonged exclusive to cis gay men, especially cis gay white men — and I’ve seen really in the last couple of years that conversation is now mainstreamed and people are growing increasingly comfortable with that. That’s really amazing, but at the same time, I feel like people’s awareness of it is focused on the present moment. I don’t want to lose track of all the legends that inspired me to do drag that came before.

What has it been like for you as a drag performer to see those conversations move from controversial to the mainstream?

I mean, it’s amazing. It feels like people have more than just an introduction to drag now. They’re on the 300 level. A big part of that is that drag performers have been able to present themselves in their own words, on their own terms a little bit more. You see TV shows like Alyssa’s new show [Dancing Queen] where she’s able to have more of a hand in presenting herself. Lots of music has been produced by drag performers and projects like this, like Velour, which started as a local zine within a local drag community without any RuPaul’s Drag Race girls being involved. It still gained traction and started conversations and helped make money for working drag artists who had no connection to Drag Race and weren’t writing about Drag Race. All that has nourished Drag Race and drag artists over the last five to ten years. Now people are engaged in the conversation on a large level about who does drag and the politics of representation.

When I was reading through the book, I was thinking about the art form of the zine and the art form of the coffee table book. One is a very small art form, very inexpensive and kinda edgy and the other is an expensive, pretty book that your guests might read while sitting in your living room. What does it mean to you to kinda queer the art form of the coffee table book?

Well, I think queer people already use coffee table books. All the drag performers that I know take inspiration — if you get a drag performer near a coffee table book, she’s designed an outfit in 30 minutes. When we started the zine, we made zines because that’s what we could afford. I was not at the point in my career when we could make a hardcover book. We made a stapled zine that was wishing to be a hardcover art book, just like I think every drag performer sees themselves in a much grander venue. That’s part of the fantasy we created with a stapled beautiful 10×10 product. It always was meant to be seen as this grand collection of this amazingly grand art form and it’s finally getting to see the iteration that we dreamed of.

Queer people already use coffee table books. If you get a drag performer near a coffee table book, she’s designed an outfit in 30 minutes.

You’ll be speaking at the Smithsonian in December about the impact of drag on global culture. I’m wondering: what’s an object or piece of art about drag that you think the Smithsonian should have on display?

That’s a great question. I’m not sure … I’ve never been to the Smithsonian before. I feel like, I could imagine like a museum of outfits worn and created by drag performers over the years. We should do a special exhibit of clothing going back to like the early days of the ball scene, early pageants, like the 60s and then some club kid fashions from New York. I’d love to see that actually in person. That’s an interesting point, which is why this feels so political, the history work we’re engaged in now, because that stuff hasn’t been collected and it probably can’t be recovered now if we wanted to. Creating a context for the work we do is close to impossible because no one ever thought it was important to document it in the past. So we have to create work like Velour now and create museum shows for ourselves, so that going forward people who want to explore drag don’t have to do it in a vacuum.

You talk a lot about drag breaking the status quo, so I’m wondering, especially as you’re about to speak at the Smithsonian: what do you think that means as drag becomes more mainstream? Does that mean the status quo is moving? Does drag have to evolve to break whatever the new status quo is?

For sure, always. Drag always has to keep shifting. I think it is inherently critical of the status quo, even of the status quo within drag. Drag is always turning in on itself and shading itself for this reason, just because there is this push to advance beyond the obvious. I think this event in DC is going to be really really interesting because I get to position drag as this answer to a question about how to fix this fucked up country and fucked up world. I always really like doing that because there is kind of this purposeful, intentional happiness about the world of drag that not a lot of art forms care about cultivating.

Drag is always turning in on itself and shading itself for this reason, just because there is this push to advance beyond the obvious.

The fact that drag cares about it so much is so significant and speaks about the people who have needed drag throughout its history of development. Drag performers are constantly carving out both emotional escapes and ways to make people emotionally survive being under conditions of oppression or violence. I think drag is able to channel that in ways that are appealing and enjoyable for people, because of that spirit of optimism and joy that is inherent in everything we do. I’m excited to share that with people who might not think of drag at all or think of it as something that can save the world.

What do you think about the drag world having these conversations at this particular historical moment? I’m sure you’re thinking about your talk happening a stone’s throw from the White House.

Yeah, it’s interesting that people, there are just a lot of eyes on what drag performers are doing right now, lots of excitement to see drag because there’s so much grimness in our leadership and our governments and people’s real lived lives too. And drag is utopian. So I feel like, that’s always like why I’m framing it as a utopian project. A drag show is an escape for people, first of all. That’s why people tune into Drag Race, because it’s so entertaining and fun and funny and thought provoking, but it’s’ definitely an escape from the reality of people’s lives. But I’m interested in how it can be more than that, too. I wonder how someone in the spotlight as a drag performer can make sure that it’s all for good, too. To make sure that the art form, that we’re actually changing things too, not just indulging our fantasies.

So, I have a few questions about Drag Race, as well! You’re a New York queen and you are part of a streak of New York queens who have won four of the last five seasons. You’re someone who is all about multiple voices in the drag world, so I’m just wondering if you’re worried all about one scene being represented in the winner’s circle too often?  

Yeah, I was never a part of … I was not invited to be a part of the scene that Bob and Aquaria and Bianca are a part of, so I could never get those bookings, even though we’re from the same city. I think, no one really has control. I don’t believe anyone has control over who’s winning Drag Race. When it comes to the question of who are the greatest drag performers in America, the answer would come from all over the country, from people of every gender, age, race location. Ideally that should be represented when it comes to the most famous drag performers. I hope that that will continue to shift.

For the Season 10 finale, a lot of the girls relied on reveals in their lip syncs and most people felt like they didn’t quite nail it like you did. What do you think about your innovation now becoming a kind of “requirement” to win the show?

I hope it’s not a requirement. Yeah, I mean, I don’t know what to think about that. I think, I don’t even like performing the same number repeatedly, so I don’t know why anyone would want to recreate my numbers. I feel like it’s important everyone find their own way to do things. I think that people will lose interest in Drag Race if you try to find a formula for success. It’s a good reminder for people to do what works for them. Most of the time it’s a combination of forces.

I think that people will lose interest in Drag Race if you try to find a formula for success.

Well, it’s kinda like, people were gleaning the wrong thing from your performance. They gleaned the reveal instead of the innovation.

It isn’t just the reveal, of course. I’ve been trying to learn as much about the history of drag as I can and i’m learning that stunts and different tricks and theatrical surprises have been the signature of drag performances for many years, but it’s not just the stunt, it’s the emotional intention and it has to move the audience, as well. I’ve done numbers that worked and ones that didn’t work very well. It has to have power and clarity from the audience’s perspective. It’s not just the fact of theatrics that makes a moving performance.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tags: Drag, TV
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