Drag star Sasha Velour is a lot more than her now-legendary lip synch performance of Whitney Houston’s ‘So Emotional’ that won her a RuPaul’s Drag Race crown back in 2017. She is a multi-media performer, illustrator, magazine editor and is now set to bring her acclaimed live show Smoke & Mirrors to London this month. We caught up with the multifaceted artist to find out what to expect from the show, what inspires her work and some very exciting recent news in her career…
You’ve been doing drag for just under a decade now, how would you say your drag has developed since you first started?
Great question. I’ve been doing drag for about seven or eight years, but I dabbled in it as a little kid and for most of my childhood of course. I really can’t think of a time when I wasn’t at least dreaming of putting on gowns, heels and lipstick. From when I started performing in drag, I’d say something that’s been consistent is that I always put that extra effort into my work and am constantly thinking of new ways to top myself and surprise the audience. I think everything to death a hundred times before I share it with anyone. That’s been very consistent. Recently, I’ve really been trying to learn more about the importance of image and fashion. They are very highly valued in the world of drag right now and it’s been a fun challenge to experiment with that and improve my sense of style.
You’re all set to come to London with your show Smoke & Mirrors next week, how would you describe the show and what can people expect from it?
It’s made up of thirteen lip synch performances that flow together to be something that’s so much more than what I thought of as being a typical drag show. I really try to be vulnerable, whilst also putting on a fabulous performance at the same time. I think the biggest challenge of drag is to tell a greater level of truth than you can just by being direct with words: to be the fantasy and invite the audience in not just to hear your story, but also understand it, feel it and breathe it. That’s what I try to do with Smoke & Mirrors. The lip synching is part of that because I want to give people songs they’ve heard before and pieces of culture that they recognise – but then twist them into something more personal and visual to break it down into something emotional. It’s kind of like a lip synch experience. Then it’s also a very visual show, that draws on visual references that feel very personal to me. I have always been fascinated by circuses and clowns, by magic shows and escape acts and this show is called Smoke & Mirrors as a reference both to magic and projection art which is a huge part of the behind the scenes working on the show. It’s also a love letter to theatre and the spectacle itself.
What made you want to bring Smoke & Mirrors to the UK?
I actually debuted the show on a tour of Australia and it was amazing because a production company over there helped me put it to its feet. Then I’ve been doing cities that I love – so of course New York, which is my home, and L.A., which is thriving with drag. Now I think London felt totally right, because the drag scene in London is just so artistic, so brilliant and I think some of the most exciting drag in the world is in the UK. I’ve also connected so personally with a lot of fans and audience members especially in London, or people who can easily get to London, so it felt like the natural place to bring Smoke & Mirrors next. It’s actually really long overdue that I’m coming to London with this show.
There’s a video of fellow Drag Race alumni Scarlet Envy and Laganja Estranja speaking very highly of the show after seeing it in L.A. – do you think it’s important for drag queens to support each other in that way?
I don’t think that anything is absolutely necessary, or that there’s a right way to be a drag performer – but it means so much to me that other drag artists have come to see the show. When another drag performer says they really like it that actually means so much. I try to see as much drag as I can myself, because it fills me with life. I love to go see drag shows in or out of drag myself – it just makes me feel happy.
You also host a monthly drag show called Nightgowns to showcase inspiring talent in the community. How did that idea come about?
Nightgowns started with a magazine called Velour, a drag magazine. My idea behind that was for it to be an art magazine that really talks about the artistry and craft behind drag and showcases drag as being deeply representative of lots of artists of colour, drag kings, cis drag queens, lesbian drag artists – lots of important assets of the community that are not necessarily shown on Drag Race. We threw a launch party, put on a show there and people loved it. Much more than a book as it turns out. So that started Nightgowns, which became a live show that celebrates drag as art. That means really allowing the artist to do whatever kind of performance they want to do and not necessarily forcing them to do pop music or a dance number. Some people bring really out-of-the-box numbers to Nightgowns, and some really personal things. A lot of our audience discovered that a diverse drag show is actually a really high-quality drag show. The platform of Drag Race brought so much attention to the work I was doing here in Brooklyn and we were able to expand the show exponentially. My partner Johnny and I have tried to be really responsive to the audience and to make sure that people who come see the show are comfortable and that we could get better venues and stage options for the artists as the show grew.
You also had some exciting news to share about Nightgowns last week, can you tell us about that?
We’re now turning Nightgowns into a TV series, so that people can experience it all over the world. I’m really excited about it! It’s cool because it’s going to be a mix of two formats. It’s part a behind-the-scenes show documentary that shows the work and community behind Nightgowns and all the things you don’t get to see as an audience member. Then it’s also going to be the lip synch performances captured on film. We’re working with Sophie Muller, who is my favourite director of all time and a Grammy-winning music video director. Her big thing is that a live performance doesn’t necessarily translate directly to a steady cellphone shot. And that’s something I’ve experienced watching Nightgowns back through a cellphone recording: it never quite captures the energy of the room. So we’re really trying to figure out how to capture drag lip synchs, that are really one of the most captivating things to watch, so that that comes across when people watch it on a phone.
Your live performances are a multi-media spectacle and like an art show in itself. Has that always been something you’ve aspired to, rather than doing a lip synch in a bar?
This is my concept of what a lip synch in a bar can be. Drag artists use every tool that they have in their tool box – I can’t dance, I can’t do the splits and when I started doing drag I wasn’t even sure if I could pose convincingly in heels. But I know I can put together a number that tells a story and I can design the performance in a very visual way. All my nerdy childhood theatre fantasies go into my performances. So yes, from the beginning I’ve been playing with lighting, costume reveals and all kinds of other tricks of the trade to do these multi-media performances as you said.
What do you think about the drag scene in London compared to your hometown New York?
In the US drag scene, especially in recent years, there’s been the pressure of Drag Race and a certain type of drag that appears on the show. Many people want to be cast on the show and I’ve felt this myself of course, it’s such a great opportunity. That’s shifted the style and aesthetic in a very particular way, even in New York. I know that Drag Race is coming to the UK now, so I’m curious to see how that’ll shift things. But right now, there’s almost a non-binary queer sensibility to the drag in the UK that I really respond to.
Drag is making its way into popular mainstream culture more and more – do you think that that could turn into an issue for the underground mentality of drag or do you mainly see that as a positive development?
I think it’s a positive thing. I’ve been trying to learn a lot more about drag history this year and it seems like there’s always been drag that crossed over into the mainstream. There’s really not been a time when gender impersonation has not been a part of mainstream culture entertainment, but I think the positive thing now is that it’s possible to be a mainstream impersonator and be out as a queer person. That is relatively new to history and I think that’s due to trans people having access and being out as entertainers instead of closeted and controlled. That’s unequivocally positive thing. Underground drag is going to still be thriving, no doubt about it.
You’re known for your artful and incredibly detailed fashion looks and in 2018 you collaborated with Opening Ceremony on their fall fashion show – how important is the world of fashion to your work?
Fashion and drag do have a lot in common. They both are about beautiful possibility, specifically how changing your appearance can change how you think and how you are received. But there are big differences too. I think drag is a lot more accessible. Anyone can put on a drag show – all you need is a stage. Fashion is traditionally much more closed. I was so blown away last year when Humberto Leon & Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony invited me to put together a drag show as the centre of their fall 2018 showing. They really trusted a bunch of drag artists and queer models to style and present their clothes. It was beautiful. The fashion really came to life and people were having fun. I will always be so grateful for that inclusion. For me it also showed another kind of possibility, about how fashion and drag could overlap to great success.
How do you put together a new outfit?
I work with designers that are in New York typically. I love to talk about stuff in person and to do multiple fittings, because I think fit and silhouette is one of the most important elements of how a drag artist looks and how we shape our identities. One of my favourite designers of course is Diego Montoya, who is another Brooklyn artist. I met him as a sculptor and then he has taught himself to be a fashion designer, especially recently that I’ve demanded that he makes me certain complicated things and dresses that reveal. It’s been amazing really collaborating with him. We take a lot of reference from history, I love going to museums and looking at different garments from the past. I like stepping back and looking at the silhouette and big details and Diego looks at really fine embellishments. That’s such a great combination especially for stage, because it looks good from the distance as a small dot but then it sparkles with texture. I also typically draw drawings of the stage picture as a starting point when I design a number. I use simple colour pencils so I get a sense of shape and colour. I think that’s really important, because trying to imagine what people see informs all the storytelling that I do and I always want to make sure that it communicates something.
You also do illustrations, graphic design and run your own magazine, where do you get this constant flow of inspiration from?
It’s a dumb cliché, but inspiration comes from everywhere. I am constantly looking at stuff and trying to take inspiration from the world around me – from everything from the plants in my house to a gorgeous fashion book, to seeing something someone is wearing on the street. It’s a blessing and a curse, I’m always working on my drag.
What do you think we can all do better to support and give back to the LGBTQ community beyond Pride month?
I love that you ask me that question. There’s been a lot of talk about how brands paint the store front rainbow just for Pride. I think it’s about finding ways to support things that the community is already doing. I love seeing drag shows sponsored by big companies. There’s generally always need for more money to make drag shows happen, to make them run more smoothly and to have security for the performers. There are so many organisations that help with legal matters for trans people and immigration rights for queer people, medical needs, housing needs, so I love to see people support those. Especially trans-focussed organisations, because I think that’s the area of the LGBT community that really needs funding. Just having the conversations sounds like an amazing start.