Sasha Velour: A rose-petalled cultural catalyst
We recently had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with someone who needs no introduction: the illustrious Sasha Velour.
Sasha joined our artisans for an hour over Zoom to wax poetic on creativity, business, and queer identity. Her insights, both poignant and thought-provoking, were informed by a lifetime of creativity and a behind-the-scenes perspective of the inner workings of drag. Below are some highlights from our magical voyage into all things Velour, separated into the five pillars of our creative credo.
Sasha Velour is a gender-fluid drag queen who rose to fame by winning Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. But she’s since carved out her own path in drag, both by touring sold-out shows around the world and producing her own stage shows, including Smoke & Mirrors and NightGowns. Velour is a creative juggernaut who effortlessly switches from profound philosophy to campy performance. As for her business savvy, Fast Company recently described her work as “disrupting the business of drag.”
Break a Rule: Staying true to herself on Drag Race and beyond
“In order to break the rules, you do have to know them. If you really are informed, and know your stuff, that prepares you to take your ideas and really go wild with them.
“At the end of the day, Drag Race is about Hollywood, and Hollywood is an institution. I was thankful for the lessons I learned there, but no matter what you’re serving [the judges], there’s a way you need to package it. There are certain messages that you can get across, but they must follow the conventions – a mix of fashion, comedy, and money.
“When it comes to my own creativity, I’m incredibly stubborn. But I’m thankful that I am so stubborn: it helps me stay true to myself. I don’t worry too much about what other people might think.
“I try to get other people in my orbit to look at feedback the same way I do. Did you like it? Do you feel like it’s your best work? When you do, it usually goes pretty well out there in the world.”
Context: How her work is informed by the social movements of our time
“People come to drag for a sense of escapism, but they come from a context too, and they bring that context with them. And when they come to a show and feels that its responding to the world and its concerns, that’s even more powerful. I turned to drag because of my politics – I wanted to find the kind of art and expression and nightlife that was inclusive and that charted an idea for what a gay community could look like that involved the full spectrum of who is queer.
“As an artist I’m very driven by an inclusive approach that transcends political movements. And as an editor, it's all about relationships with other people – who I bring in and how I curate the evening, far beyond just my voice which I think is never enough.
“When it comes to liberation emancipation movements, I think that sometimes the fine arts are too scared to speak directly to those issues, or to think about the ways that art can be used beyond visibility and for practical change. So I love that drag, or things like zine-making or other punk art forms without institutional support are able to make things happen. NightGowns raised $20,000 for local black trans-focused organizations across the country last year.”
Art Factor: On pushing the boundaries of beauty
“Beauty isn’t something that can be measured; it shouldn’t be measured objectively or plotted out in a straightforward way. It’s a way of seeing things around you; it’s an attitude. During my studies, I came across a 1910 ad from this huge vaudeville drag star, Julian Eltinge, where they sold cosmetics. It was saying, essentially, if a man like me can make myself soft and feminine, then so can you!
In a way I feel like we’re still kind of there. There’s this idea that beauty can be engineered. But I think the difference is that drag says it’s engineered with joy and freedom. And the beauty industry says it’s engineered with a sense of dread, or obligation. Sometimes that dribbles into drag. But that’s not what it’s supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about joy.”
Culture Shaping: On drag entering the mainstream
“I think drag performers want to be mainstream – we’ve been knocking at the window like, hello, we’re here and we’re doing great things! The problem is that the mainstream media traditionally hasn’t been open towards queer people. It’s a good thing to see more queer people in the mainstream, because it seems to brew acceptance for young people about the possibility of being nonbinary or trans, of gender not being such a strict binary phenomenon after all.
“On the other hand, there is something about the way that queer people have always informed the arts; how we’re able to think about fabulous ideas like removing our hair and having rose petals fall out. How we’re put on mood boards and then disinvited from the final product. This cycle is still happening.
“So I think there's still something to shift up. People recognize that we have something to offer, but somehow they don't take us seriously enough to involve us in the institution. I say this not even necessarily wanting to be a part of them, but still understanding that it should be a possibility for queer creatives to be taken seriously.”
Intended Outcome: Walking the tightrope between vision and business
“I pretty much broke away from the traditional management structure of drag and the typical touring industry that performers from RPDG take part in. What really bothered me about those shows is that they’re paid inequitably. There’s a huge disconnect between people from different backgrounds and experiences. So I didn’t want to take part in that any more.
“In the past year I’ve done a lot of thinking about what my ideal structure for running a drag show or working with other performers would look like.
“On NightGowns [this past summer], all the performers we worked with were producers on the live show. There was a guaranteed rate that we all shared, and we also did a profit share. It was the first time I had done full transparency with a spreadsheet; we could all see what every person was paid. It was kind of a radical experiment that had really positive results. We even made more money than we ever had on the show before. It's interesting how, although that wasn't the focus, when you try new models for doing things, they can really, really work.”