Sasha Velour is on tour! After winning season 9 of RuPauls Drag Race, creating her sold-out and insanely popular revue NightGowns, being the first drag queen to illustrate a self-portrait for the cover of The New Yorker, and publishing her first book, this world famous drag queen is just getting started. Velour is currently performing a 27-city tour across the US, the UK, and Europe until April 9th, and we interviewed her for more insight into her mesmerising craft.
Back in 2017, Sasha Velour made history with her finale performance for RuPauls Drag Race. While lip syncing to So Emotional by Whitney Houston, she famously pulled off her wig to let down a shower of rose petals, which has since been recreated across pop culture. However as a drag artist, Velour is more than just a performer and she incorporates activism and education into everything she does. Across just six shows of her revue NightGowns, her guests raised over $20,000 for organisations in New York that provide food and housing for the LGBTQ+ community. Her debut book that was released last spring, The Big Reveal: An Illustrated Manifesto of Drag, is a memoir of her life, journey as an artist and also a history of drag itself. Her words praise and pay tribute to this historical artform, while also serving as a lesson for the real and much unknown timeline and early performers of drag. Velour is outspoken and bold with everything she does, and her current tour, The Big Reveal Live Show, is a testament to who she is as a performer and as artist, while also incorporating important themes from her book into the 90-minute performance. In this conversation, we delve into the glamorous and eccentric life of Sasha Velour and her life behind the curtains of The Big Reveal.
Sasha, thank you so much for talking with us! You not only are a winner of RuPauls drag race, but you're also a writer, a cartoonist, an activist, and above all, an icon. How would you say that all of these identities have formed you as a person today?
I think at the core of it all, being a drag queen is so important to me. I take that as the type of artist, the type of activist, the type of person I want to be is as a drag influenced person. I love drag's approach that everyone is welcome to make art or to be part of a political movement, to be part of a community. Basically no matter what your background is, or what your style is or what you like, you have an important voice that needs to be heard and only you know how to direct it and bring it into the spotlight. And that has formed everything I do and how I relate to other people too.
What or who inspired you to become a drag queen? Was there a certain moment when you knew that it was something you wanted to try?
I always loved dressing up in drag as a little child, I didn’t know there was a word for it or this grand tradition. I remember watching, Some Like it Hot' and seeing drag, which I have since learned that they were actually trained by a world famous drag artist named Barbette, but of course I didn’t learn those stories as a little kid. And that's why I think we need to make culture, including queer culture, accessible to children because there is no reason that young people don’t deserve to know the truth of what's out there in the world. When I was an adult, I was reading the words of Sylvia Rivera who was one of the leaders of the activist New York organisation called STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and they participated in the Stonewall uprising and the early queer rights movement that wanted to make sure that the gay rights movement didn’t forget about trans people and non-binary people. And hearing her voice and her pride to be a drag queen is what helped me see that through art and through fantasy, we can help make the world better for our entire community and all people through drag.
You’ve mentioned your family before as being very supportive of you and your identity. What influence would you say that they have had on you as a drag artist?
Well both of my parents were hippies, so their biggest concerns about my love of drag was that I was getting too materialistic, they didn’t want me to have Barbies because Barbie is about obsessive consumption and consumerism (laughs).You know, I don’t take for granted what a blessing it is for me to have a family, including my grandparents, who just accepted me for what I was and who I was and let me be me. But they also challenged me in surprising ways and wanted me to think about everything I did and really taught me to ask the tough questions, to make sure that the drag that I do is feminist and in line with progress, to make sure that I’m challenging materialism and overcommercialisation wherever I can. And then discovering the fantastic things about, not materialism but the materials around us. There's life in velvet and feathers and sequins, I believe.
So after you won season 9 of RuPauls in 2017, your finale performance completely blew up. What was your first reaction to that attention, and what has the journey been like to where you are now?
I was really shocked at the response from everyone watching. I just wanted to put on a good show and get to do my style of drag, which is all about storytelling through a performance and ridiculous stunts that keep people happy (laughs). But I couldn’t have predicted how it would become part of pop culture. They reference it in two, I think three, different shows running on Broadway right now, referencing the rose petal reveal. I’ve seen it on SNL, it just keeps going. And I guess, to me it just shows there's a hunger for the kind of imagination that drag can give, a culture. And even though maybe people aren’t sure whether they want queer art like this to be visible, a hit’s a hit and that shows me there's a place for us in the big picture. I’m just going to keep on doing what I do and hopefully people will keep loving it.
You are also currently on tour right now, how has it been so far? Is there anything or any performance that has stood out?
So, I wrote a book that came out last year called The Big Reveal, all about the art of drag and the story of my life, and I adapted it into this new show called The Big Reveal Live Show that features, like, ten plus different drag lip sync reveal performances. I think they are all even better than my rose petal one (laughs) but I’ll let the audience be the judge. And recently, I did a revamp of that in the last couple months in preparation for this big European tour that starts off in March. Truly, I did my debut performances in New York City, which is my hometown and the place I’ve got to practice all of my new drag acts at my show, NightGowns. It went so well and I’m really excited about what I get to bring on tour. I think the favourite thing I get to do in the show is a duet performance with a different guest every night. So, I’ve invited special guests like drag artists that I’ve admired and really want to work with who have some connection to each city that I’m going to. They do their own performance, first of all, which is always so inspiring and shows an even further wrinkle in all the different things drag can be, but then we get to jive on stage together and those are the most fun moments. And it creates surprises for me as well.
So I did hear about your book, how would you say that the tour is an extension of your book and how does it influence your performances?
Yeah, in the book I really tried to combine personal storytelling, anecdotes and silly stories from my life together with the history of drag, and use both stories to shed more light on each other. I tried to think of numbers that would speak to both, like in some cases the reveal is a tribute to a drag act that's been around forever and that really influences me, but maybe the story of the number and the meaning is more personal. And other times it's kind of the opposite, like the story is something that I know is a big theme in drag but then the aesthetics or the reveal itself has a reference to my own life. And then in adapting everything into a drag number it just became so much funnier (laughs), including all of the heavy stuff that is part of the book. Of course, you know, literature is great for the dark, heavy deep thoughts, but drag is perfect for getting enough distance through the stylisation of life that we can laugh at it. And we can appreciate that all the twists and turns are exciting when you can’t expect what happens next in life or in art. It reminds you that life is really, truly worth living.
Yeah, I really like that your book not only illustrates the history of drag, but it's also part memoir. So you combine both and it's just so personal to you and your journey as well. What was your main goal in making this book, and what was the initial reaction when you first released it?
I really wanted to give the ultimate proof that drag is something natural and historic and belongs on the world stage. At the time that the book came out and still now a year later, there has been all of this controversy about whether drag is appropriate for children and about whether drag should be visible in public spaces at all. I thought that those two stories, the story of my life, particularly what a queer child I was and how I naturally wanted to dress up in drag and all I needed was a little encouragement and a sense of possibility, but also the history and the fact that this is not something new, this is something that goes back to indigenous traditions and the origin of all the arts, which shows you don’t even need to make a case for it, the facts speak for themselves. Drag is for everyone, and it should be a part of world culture.
I think I also saw that your book is one of the first to illustrate the whole history of drag, am I right?
There's been lots of attempts. There are some academic books that are a little out of date, but I don’t think a professional drag queen like myself, who really makes their living doing drag, has ever been given the platform to talk about the art as an artform. People are so interested in the personal story, and I get that and like, my personal story is spicy and whatever, but who better than someone who does it and has insight into the story of the art itself.
Yeah definitely. Another thing about your book is that it also includes cartoons that you drew, which makes it even more authentic to yourself as an artist. So what was the decision behind including your illustrations?
I just love a multimedia artform, I think that's what drag is. We dance, we sing, I always have little animations and designs that are part of my performance through video elements and through my costumes. And I guess makeup is kind of a drawing too. But then, I got my start in comics and I think there are things that can be communicated only through visuals. So I wanted the comics to slightly undercut some of the messages in the writing and speak in dialogue on the page. So the cartoons often bring a different perspective or a bit of humor and a little drag-y touch.
Moving on to more of your personal style, I noticed it's very bold, and a bit avant-garde. Where do you get your style inspiration from?
Everywhere can be a source of inspiration, I often look at historical costumes and fantasy. The most extreme couture is more interesting to me than any kind of ready-to-wear, just because I don’t see Sasha Velour living in a world of realism. Realism is not that real anyways, it's really just about being conformist, so fantasy is really where people can express themselves and explore what's possible.
Do you have a favourite one of your looks from over the years?
Oh my gosh, hard to pick. I think one of my favourites is for the adaptation of my show NightGowns that we did for the streaming service, Roku. I had this dress made of a gold lamé and it actually had metal woven into it so it's really gold and really shiny and then we put a giant fan on it and it just ripples in the wind. And something about the way that it's like liquid, as a gender fluid person getting to wear the most fluid costume imaginable and look like just a pile of liquid, it really tapped into something personal.
You're also based in New York and your self portrait was on the cover of The New Yorker in June, which is a huge accomplishment! Although you're not originally from the city, how do you think that living there has impacted or influenced your journey as a drag queen?
I love being in New York city, and I always read The New Yorker as a little kid in Illinois, dreaming of what it would be like to be in the center of culture, so getting to be part of The New Yorker was exciting. I just love being in public in New York, I go for a long walk everyday and I just love meeting random strangers with my dog and striking up conversations about music or fashion or politics sometimes. I think being around people who don’t look like you is key in life, and just reminds us to put our own context in perspective. I think it's healthy. And I get my best ideas on the subway, I have to admit. Something about just- well, A: you're stuck there, and B: there is so much to look at (laughs), sometimes it's upsetting but it's always inspiring. 
In researching and educating about the history of drag, what do you think is the most important thing for people to know about this art form?
I think the thing about drag is that a lot of people when they’re first coming to it maybe think drag is about dressing up as the opposite gender, and the more I research about it, that's not so important. I think one of the great things about drag is that it doesn’t really matter what your quote on quote real gender is, it's all about the fantasy. So we just accept people as however they are presenting themselves, and it turns out as an experiment as all you need, and sometimes that tells you more about them then what they look like without the makeup or when they’re not dressed up. And it's for that reason that drag has been a safe space for many trans and non-binary people to find out who they really are. And so, the tradition of trans people doing drag and being able to step into a world of fantasy that is even more free and accepting than life on the streets, cannot be underestimated. And then of course there's drag kings of all varieties, there's people who do drag that are beyond gender all together who become goddesses and divine spirits far beyond anything we can imagine in real life. That to me is the essence of drag and why it is such an important part of the queer community.
Finally, in the face of social media, reality TV, and also the homophobia and political culture of today, how do you stay true to yourself through it all?
I know it's a cliché but finding space away from all that is essential. I think what I see online is so different from how people are one on one and the kind of positivity and encouragement that we experience in our community and in our drag spaces. You have to just stop worrying about how people are going to receive you and focus on what feels right and makes sense. Not just from a personal perspective, but in terms of your place in the world as well. So I don’t know if I have all the answers yet, but I’m determined to not give up and to stay true to myself, even though myself keeps changing.
Is there any advice you have for people struggling with being their authentic selves?
I think the wider you draw your references from, the better and faster you can understand yourself. Because with one particular time period and one particular medium, there is no way that can represent everyone. We all recognise ourselves in fragments of little things that we see out in the world, so you have to just consume as much as you can. Go to the art museum, watch reality TV, read classic fiction, study your history, and somewhere in the chaotic mixture of all of those you are going to find yourself, in the way that only you can.