Sasha Velour photographed by Daniela Federici for The Untitled Magazine wearing a cape by Zang Toi, custom-made gloves by Wing & Weft gloves with earrings and a ring by Hammerman Jewels

Just as drag queen Sasha Velour’s style is dead-set on breaking the boundaries of gender identity, so too is her view on the concept of uprising incredibly nuanced. After starting out in the Brooklyn scene, Sasha’s growing profile gained enough traction to get her cast on RuPaul’s Drag Race’s ninth season, where she would claim the top prize. From there, Sasha raised her groundbreaking drag stage shows to a whole new scale, starting with the acclaimed ensemble project Nightgowns. From Nightgowns came the world-acclaimed one-queen, autobiographical show Smoke & Mirrors, an 87-performance tour around the world seen by almost 100,000 patrons.

As for what’s on the horizon? A brand new stage show. It’s in its early stages, but Sasha knows it’s going to be a big one. Planning to combine the one-queen show and ensemble elements of her previous outings, the show will take her multimedia trademarks even further, incorporating original music. Sasha also has a book coming, The Big Reveal: An Illustrated Manifesto of Drag, which will combine her stories with irreverent illustrations, collages, and comics throughout, as well as photographs, all with a touch of humor.

For The Untitled Magazine’s “REBEL Issue,” Features Editor Jason Daniel Levy sat down with Sasha to talk about her journey to drag superstardom and just how rebellious the art of drag inherently is. Read the full interview from “The REBEL Issue” below.

Sasha Velour photographed by Daniela Federici for The Untitled Magazine wearing a gown by Son Jung Wan and earrings by Hammerman Jewels

How did you get your start in the Brooklyn drag scene, and was drag something that was always on your radar as a career?

It was never on my radar as a career. I’m proud to admit that it was a happy or tragic accident, depending on how you look at it. But I was always doing drag even as a child before I knew what it was; dressing up and pushing the bounds of identity, usually a show for my grandparents and my parents – which they blessedly tolerated. That was such an important way for me to express myself and try out ideas and repeat stories and myths that I had heard out in the world and then put myself in them.

It was really natural when I first started discovering the history of drag. I saw RuPaul on TV and I watched Divine movies, I saw Hairspray, and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar was very influential. That stuff started making me just dress up for fun and incorporated it into my art. The Brooklyn drag scene was just where I wanted to go out and what I wanted to be a part of when I moved to the city. It took me a while before I started having my own show and building the kind of drag career path that people think about. It was really out of necessity because I don’t think I was on people’s radar at first. I wasn’t getting bookings, and I didn’t really know how to do it that way. So I was just like, “I have ideas. I have things I want to put on the stage. Let me just find a space and then I’ll make the connections.” So I really started performing as a way to meet new people in the scene and to let people know who I was.

I think a lot of drag artists, like many artists, are surprisingly very anxious or unsure people, and when we put ourselves in drag, it’s a different side of ourselves. So being able to introduce yourself to a community, not necessarily in the traditional social way but by staging a show and sharing your art with people, just felt so comfortable.

That’s funny, you don’t think of drag queens as anxious people. Quite the opposite.

Behind the scenes you would!

In terms of the drag that you do, you’ve been called artsy, experimental, and a disruptor. How would you describe your drag artistry? What do you ultimately hope people will feel when they see a drag show by Sasha?

I hope that people who are not familiar with drag will see it as rebellious, and people who know drag very well will say that it honors the grand traditions of drag. And thankfully that is usually what happens. I feel like people really don’t know what drag is all about, so when they see the best drag, they think it’s never been done before, but it’s always been boundary breaking. I take so much inspiration from figures in the past – more political figures like Sylvia Rivera, who are of course known more as activists, and then really artistic figures like Leigh Bowery and Lypsinka, who I was really excited to work with at Nightgowns. She’s still doing her fierce, groundbreaking lip sync mashup performances.

I had the great honor of seeing Nightgowns at Pride back in 2019. I actually won a painting in one of the raffles at the end. 

Oh my god, I love that!

And then you go on to this amazing stage show, Smoke & Mirrors, with 87 performances seen by almost 100,000 people around the world. What’s it been like finally wrapping that up, and do you have any memorable experiences you can share?

Each show was different. It was so different than anything I had done before. I always joked at Nightgowns that I always took the shortest stick for myself. I would barely have time to rehearse my numbers because I was so busy designing the lights for everything else and doing all the communication and the bookkeeping. Those aspects of running a show were not the first ones I thought about as an artist. I, maybe selfishly, wanted the chance to just really focus on my own art, so that I could come back to Nightgowns and to group work being the sharpest performer I could be. Getting to do Smoke & Mirrors so many times, I feel like that has had the biggest [effect] on the way I think about drag performance and also my abilities on stage, my comfort level; literally just the strength of my legs and heels doing 10 drag numbers a night. That was really exciting. 

But then the way the tour ended up – not really the size of the audience because sometimes when the audience is too big, I’m like, “I need to see every single one of you, even in the back, to really make the magic work” – but the places that we went, too. We didn’t know what was going to be going on with Russia and Ukraine, but being in Poland during that time and having this rare queer space that was such an escape to be open for all the people in the audience. We were speaking about the connections between drag and anti-imperialist projects and the necessity of raising our voices against empires, and how that is a queer issue in many ways. Queer legacies are always destroyed as part of imperial expansion. Smoke & Mirrors is so personal, and I talked a little bit about how my own family and I have a complex relationship because my family was driven out of Ukraine by Ukrainians committing anti-Semitic pogroms in the early part of the 20th century. Even still, we are fighting for those people to be able to stay, even though my family didn’t get to. It’s still part of the same struggle, I think, to preserve these small communities and to resist tyrannical rule of empire. I think we have to deal with that in different ways, and Russia is definitely one of the most literal and old-fashioned that we can see.

Sasha Velour photographed by Daniela Federici for The Untitled Magazine wearing a gown with a coat by Romona Keveza with earrings and a bracelet by Hammerman Jewels

You talked about how you want your drag to be boundary-pushing, and Smoke & Mirrors, even from a technical and entertainment standpoint, is boundary-breaking because it’s the first drag show of its kind. How does your drag accomplish the activist goals you have? What are the biggest agendas you want to push with your drag?

Right from the start, I was passionate about talking about the inclusivity of drag. It seems like a lot has shifted since then, but people didn’t believe that drag should be gender-inclusive or even genre-inclusive. I feel like I was going to drag shows and just seeing the same type of performances from people who looked similar. One of my main goals, first of all, was inclusivity within the scene itself, and more equality in terms of payment and even the kind of presentation around what kind of drag is high art, and seeing that all different kinds could be respected and appreciated as true art. 

And then, once it felt like people were vibing with that and we had a larger audience, it became more about rejecting visibility, and saying, “Now we actually have to do the work and take action, and use shows like Nightgowns and my platform to raise money and distribute resources to community organizations. Specifically, ones focused on legal battles for trans people and for queer immigrants, covering housing and medical costs. 

I began to see the way that drag shows had always been spaces for charity work and raising money, going back to the ‘50s with José Sarria, who founded the Imperial Court System. We can raise tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars for our community, for small community organizations that don’t get funding from large corporations. I became really excited about that, and now I’m interested in shaking up the few paths to work or to be seen as a queer person, even within drag. Anything I can do to point to different ways to get your voice out there, and also to show the ways that this is not a new phenomenon, and that drag has been consistent and has a history and deserves study and respect beyond just the present moment. 

I know you are in the early stages of a new stage production. If Nightgowns is a big ensemble piece and Smoke & Mirrors is a one-queen show, what comes next? 

I’m always working with people, of course. Even though Smoke & Mirrors is a one-person show, for me, the experience was so much about the people who I was working with backstage and offstage to make it happen, and in some ways trying to make them visible; calling out the spotlight person and the stage hands and the people that even in a one-queen show are left offstage. I think I’m going to continue exploring that. Maybe I didn’t believe that my own artwork could sustain or deserve a single show that was all about me. But I’ve explored that, and now I want to choose to incorporate people. Not because I’m afraid that my work isn’t good enough, but because it really is stronger to have multiple voices in conversation with each other. So I’m excited to bring that kind of in-between of the one-queen show and the ensemble piece for the next thing.

I also want to go even darker. I’ve always believed that drag can be a space for difficult emotions too; not just feeling confident and powerful and sexy, although that always should be part of it. But finding ways to tell stories about anger and grief and jealousy and all those parts of the real truth that I think is tempting to just edit out – bringing that into the art and making it beautiful, making it resonate with people. I’m excited to explore that. So it’ll be darker, sexier, and even more in conversation with others.

Sasha Velour photographed by Daniela Federici for The Untitled Magazine wearing earrings by Hammerman Jewels, a vintage miniature crown by Patricia Field and boots by Betsey Johnson

Can you tell me about that process? You’re known now for multimedia performances, specifically how you incorporate video and different lighting. Bring us into your mind a little – how do you go about designing a number?

I do love exploring with different techniques. I keep trying to balance affordable and simple stagecraft that is really effective with trying new things. A lot of Smoke & Mirrors was numbers that I took directly out of the bar. So it all had to be a projector and a white background; that’s as complicated as it could be. It’s amazing how much you can do with just that. I think now I’m going to push it a little further. I’ll always be playing with projections because it’s such a good way to get visual artwork up as a living part of the stage. But I learned more being in these real theaters during the process of Smoke & Mirrors. I love getting ideas from accidents. I’d see someone moving the screen and their handprints would press through the fabric, and I’d have a memory of that. It strikes me in an emotional way, so then I try to have an archive of these possible images to use to tell a story. So then when I’m listening to a song, I try to put in some of those visual moments that I’ve seen – those happy accidents – and try to tell something. I’ve always worked from iconic pop songs that I love that have a great beat, a great singer’s voice, but I also want to do some original music in my next show. Not least of all because working with other people’s music is really complicated from a legal perspective if you ever want to record a video of it. That’s going to be a fun, interesting challenge where I’m not even bound by the text, so to speak. I can create my own ideas and my own sounds.

That’s something to look forward to. So it would be original music that you make specifically for the show?

Exactly. Mixed in with, of course, the divas.

You’ve got a book coming out next spring, The Big Reveal: An Illustrated Manifesto of Drag. What can you tell us about that? Will it be similar to your drag zine? 

It’s a piece of writing that I’ve been working on for three years. It’s similar to the piece I wrote for The Washington Post; that’s a teaser. I finished it, it’s submitted, I think it’s pretty good. I’ve never done anything like it, and I think writing is really hard – so much respect for what you do. It’s really tough to put thoughts together, and stories. I really tried to combine stories from my childhood and my own life about how I came to be Sasha Velour in all the senses. As I tried to tell that story, I realized I had to talk about the history of drag that has informed me so much and my own family history, the history of ideas about queer people and what our genders and sexualities mean, and even some more general ideas about art. About what revolution means, what oppression and inequality really looks like, and trying to combine all of those. So it’s its own genre. It’s its own gender of book [laughs]. Not a memoir or a history of something, but something non-binary.

Sasha Velour photographed by Daniela Federici for The Untitled Magazine wearing a gown by Son Jung Wan with earrings, necklace and ring by Hammerman Jewels

“Manifesto” sounds like the right word for it. I think you chose the right title. Part biography, part manifesto, part memoir. Is there a big visual/photographic element to the book?

Yeah, there are photographs, collages, and comics that run in and around it. I have a little cartoon self that gives anarchic commentary on the text and takes issue with some of the things I myself have said because that’s how my brain works and I want to capture that for the page.

I know even before you had a big profile in drag, you were doing a lot of comics and illustrations. I’m glad you’ve been able to still incorporate that into your work. 

That was very satisfying personally for that exact reason.

Was it difficult over the last few years working on the book, specifically because of the pandemic? You had to take a break from Smoke & Mirrors, too. How did the last few years affect your creative process?

It was a roller coaster, I think for many people. I had moments where I felt I was really useful to the world and could put myself to work even from home, and moments where I felt I had no idea if anyone wants this, or if I should be doing this, or if I should just change careers and give up. So it was really the full ups and downs of the moment. I’m not sure that’s even resolved now, but I did decide to just keep staying true to my intentions, even with the moments of self-doubt. It was surprising that reconnecting with people in my life and my community, some of the cast of Nightgowns, with Johnny, my partner, and really holding onto those private relationships that aren’t part of Sasha Velour, were necessary to survive.

It’s been a time, and you got through it in style. You came back and finished your Smoke & Mirrors tour and have a book coming out! 

Work, she got there somehow. That’s all that matters. And the disasters define the process actually, and will go into the next creative work. Hopefully as something more beautiful. 

I think that’s a common thing with a lot of art that’s coming out now. The pandemic was not as much an obstacle – although, of course, everyone would prefer it didn’t happen – it was just part of the work itself.

I think when you are trying to work as an artist, everything is an obstacle really, so you have to change your attitude or stop.

Sasha Velour photographed by Daniela Federici for The Untitled Magazine wearing a gown by Cyril Verdavainne, a necklace, bracelet, rings, and earrings by Hammerman Jewels, and gloves by DooWay

You’ve talked a lot about how Republicans are currently attacking the art form of drag and how that’s nothing new. What do you think the people who are attacking drag right now are so afraid of?

To me, it is about policing gender. It’s connected to the fear of real queer and trans expression off the stage. Of course there’s nothing really threatening or dangerous about a stage show, as much as we don’t want ever say we’re not dangerous – we want the theatre to be intense. I think the fear is really about not indoctrinating young people with conservative fears around gender expression. They’re trying to convince people that it is normal to have all these rules and restrictions for what are possible experiences to have in your body. And drag, in which people are fully capable of making decisions for themselves and of trying things outside of the “norm,” and then becoming part of the norm – queer expression becoming normal –  drag really says that that is okay, and I think normalizes queer expression, non-binary expression for our community, like nothing else. And that, obviously, is scary to Republicans fighting against queer and trans expression. 

They don’t like change. 

Yeah. They don’t want people to think for themselves.

You talked a lot about how they target children as well. And of course, there’s the very popular Drag Queen Story Hour, which is what they were attacking. Why do you think it’s important for young people specifically to be exposed to drag? 

I’m not a parent myself, but as someone who was once a child, I think it’s important to see the world as it is. Hiding simple truths from children does not help them adjust to the world in healthy ways. And the fact is, drag does exist. Lots of people love it. There’s no need to hide that from children or make them feel like it is shameful or shocking when that isn’t really how most of the world views it, especially people who actually have seen it firsthand. I also think it resonates with kids on a level that shouldn’t be ignored. So many of us queer people love drag because it does speak to the inner child that maybe wasn’t cared for or supported when we were children. The feeling that we can be ourselves freely can be a source of joy and expression. Those are encouraged in gender normative ways for people, but for that to be encouraged in this queer way is so healthy, not just for queer people, although I think it’s obvious why that would be true, but for everyone. Let all boys and girls and whatever people want to be dress in whatever way they want and twirl and put on a character. Drag is a good way of tapping into authentic gender experiences, but it’s also just a way to have fun and not have stigma around something as innocent as clothing. That’s supposed to be a tool, that shouldn’t be a set of obligations.

So what do you think is the most effective way to rebel right now when there are so many people against us as queer people? 

Not conforming to the pressure to either be silent or to change your art or to appeal to the detractors. You have to find ways to keep putting forward your unique voice – your message – as you really see it, and make the kinds of spaces where it’s possible. I worry about the fate of Drag Queen Story Hour, for example, which is just a business in some ways. But we need the reality of drag artists being out there, being visible, putting on shows in places where all audiences can come. I do think that’s important. Obviously, only being in bars is a kind of censorship because only certain people can get into a bar.

You have this whole side of things with Republicans and other people all over the world against queer people and drag specifically, and then you have the flip side where, these days, we’ve also come a long way and you’ve got corporations at Pride. Do you think drag – and queerness – is becoming too commodified or too commercialized? 

As long as it’s not the only form. Maybe that’s something that’s unique about queerness is that we can be simultaneously so part of normal mainstream culture that a bank does want to visibly support our actions at Pride, and then at the same time our very existence or right to be seen publicly or exist on paper is being questioned or erased. That’s a pretty complex position to be in-between. It feels like there’s no middle ground often. That’s the way to rebel – to not have to be fully homogenized – because the corporate representations of queer culture are never the real deal. They are a version of it designed to sell something.

I always believe that representation is not enough. For the corporations, the extent of their interest in queer culture is the symbolism and a statement. The real action has to come from us, to be in-between those two forces saying that a singleminded corporate reduction of our stories is not enough, even though it may help advance us or infuse our community with money, which we desperately need. At the same time, we are not going to bow to the conservative voices that want to silence us or restrict us. We’re finding our own spaces that don’t need conservative approval or corporate wealth to exist, which I think we’ve always done and are still doing in great ways. It gives me hope. 

Sasha Velour photographed by Daniela Federici for The Untitled Magazine wearing a corset by The Blonds, trench coat by Zang Toi, with earrings, bracelet, and ring by Hammerman Jewels

It’s our “REBEL” Issue, so if you were to boil it down to a few words, what does it mean to be a rebel today?

I always think it’s about staying true to a unique and personal message. A viewpoint. There’s no point raising your voice if you haven’t thought for yourself, done the research, and challenged your own self. I always think that a rebel is really invested in self-critique and is always trying to rethink their assumptions, relearn new information, inform themselves, revise their approach, and give themselves a makeover. I think drag is particularly well-suited to “rebel,” especially because it’s so capable of self-criticism and self-transformation. And then I think a rebel these days is a deeply intersectional thing. It’s about creating communities and relationships with people who are not the same as you, who look different, who have different goals even, but finding ways to get really impressive things done with limited means and to change things. At least for the people involved, and ideally in an ever-expanding circle for the people who show up, for the people you raise money for, and for the people [who receive and resonate with the things you say].

It’s an interesting concept that nowadays, “rebel” isn’t just fighting the system. Of course, it is that, but it’s also about empathy. You wouldn’t necessarily equate the two, but it makes sense.

That’s true. I think to be meaningfully engaged in fighting, it has to come from a place of empathy.

And of course, my final and most important question: How is Vanya, your greyhound? 

Oh, thank you! Vanya is doing well. He’s hiding because he can’t stand the air conditioner [laughs]. He surprisingly loves being under his covers. 

Interview by Jason Daniel Levy for The Untitled Magazine
To read our print feature on Sasha Velour, pick up your copy of “The REBEL Issue” here.

Photography by Daniela Federici for The Untitled Magazine
Make-up by Sasha Velour
Styling by Ty-Ron Mayes
Digitech Isaac Shell
Photo assistant Oscar Federici

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