“I should fuck it up”: Sasha Velour on the importance of staying true to drag’s creative roots
We chat to the artist and Drag Race winner about her beginnings in comic books and graphic design, and how her creative vision permeates all aspects of her craft.
When Brooklyn-based artist and drag queen Sasha Velour arrives for our interview, we immediately start laughing. By some fortune, we’re wearing the exact same shade of amber yellow. It’s an oddly specific shade to wear, and we recognise it as a sign of good things to come. At the time of our conversation, Sasha was preparing for the European leg of her widely-successful Smoke & Mirrors tour, which already sold out multiple venues in the United States and Australia prior to the pandemic. The show, Sasha explains, is essentially a culmination of everything she has been working towards in her career thus far: an explosion of art, camp, play, matriarchy, and history. Most importantly, however, it’s a tribute to drag itself.
Getting her start as a comic book artist and graphic designer, Sasha has always infused her drag with an artistic splendour. It’s a quality that sets her apart from many of her contemporaries and rewards her with esteem in both the world of drag and contemporary art. Of course, winning season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2017 certainly helped catapult Sasha into stardom, but it’s her steadfast dedication to the craft which keeps audiences coming back for more.
Most importantly, for Sasha, drag is and always has been an art form. She’s spent her entire career pushing forward this idea, often challenging the ways in which we engage with performance. By uncovering histories of the art form, Sasha pushes back against capitalistic and domesticated notions of drag that are ubiquitous in our culture today. What follows is an eye-opening discussion about art, design, and drag as seen from the point of view of an artist who still sits at the margins of the artistic canon.
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Sasha Velour: Nightgowns poster (Copyright © Sasha Velour, 2020)
It’s Nice That: I’m very interested to know what your earliest creative artistic experience was.
Sasha Velour: I think like so many kids, my earliest artistic endeavour was dressing up. I saw a gorgeous dress in my grandma’s closet, and she encouraged me to put them on with her. And that’s how I discovered how much empowerment you can get from play. To me, all the arts should be about playing: playing with ideas, testing new ideas of yourself, and then connecting with other people through that. I’ve never been a believer that you have to have special skills to be an artist, which is good because I don’t think I’m very good at drawing, but you don’t need to be. All you need to have is a love of play and a willingness to try new things.
INT: A lot of the artists we interview often echo that same sentiment. There’s so much debate around attending art school to become an “artist”, but many agree it’s irrelevant so long as you’re experimenting and playing with your innate creativity.
SV: Absolutely, but I did go to a bizarre and amazing art school for my MFA. It was the Centre for Cartoon Studies in the mountains of Vermont, and it was all about comics. We learned the structure for telling stories, strategies for self-publishing your work, and being able to make money from art, which is all very different from your typical art school programme. I was making merchandise to help supplement my art even when I was a comic book artist, which has really helped my drag today. I was making zines, T-shirts, enamel pins, which are all things that now continue to pay the bills.
“Everyone I knew from the art world loved dressing up and partying, and everyone I knew from the drag world had a passion for design and visual art.”Sasha Velour
INT: Your publication Velour: The Drag Magazine came to life around the time of your MFA I believe. What made you want to create a magazine of comics that were about drag queen characters?
SV: I had a couple intentions with that. One was to depict and celebrate the truth of the gender inclusive world of drag, which I was not seeing on shows like Drag Race. Another was to be really historical, which I also felt was getting lost in drag. Each issue of Velour re-published pieces of drag creativity from the 50s, the 70s, and the 90s. That was to emphasise that what we’re doing now is just a continuation of ideas that have been started by our queer elders and ancestors. That sounds kind of self-important, as if people were reading the book, which they weren’t at first. Well, I sent a copy to the Library of Congress, so it’s definitely in the Library of Congress now. The other reason I created Velour was to create a genuine connection between visual artists and drag performers, the former I knew from attending various comic conventions and the latter I knew from going out into nightlife. I felt like these people have so much in common, everyone I knew from the art world loved dressing up and partying, and everyone I knew from the drag world had a passion for design and visual art. It was like an artistic matchmaking across disciplines that don’t communicate that much with each other, but have so much in common.
INT: Did the comics and art you were making influence the creation of Sasha Velour, the drag queen? Or was that something that you were working on separately in tandem?
SV: At first, I thought it was separate. I was invited to be part of an anthology called Queer which was one of the first multi-generational comics anthologies of different queer artists. They wanted me to do a piece about my drag character, because I had appeared at a couple comics events in drag, but I realised I needed a last name for her in the piece. I came up with the full name Sasha Velour in the comic Sasha Velour goes to Walmart, which was about how I shoplifted a lot of my drag from this really sketchy Walmart in rural Vermont. In the comic I transformed Walmart into a queer paradise by using my powers of shoplifting and imagination. That comic then gave me something to work towards in my drag. I felt like I was becoming this character that I had drawn on a piece of paper. To be honest, that’s still kind of my method for doing drag, because every single costume number I do starts out as a sketch. The same goes for my current show Smoke & Mirrors. It’s shocking how much the original sketches of mine look like the actual show.
INT: Sasha Velour was born, and you quickly made a name for yourself in the Brooklyn drag scene, where you stayed as a fixture right up until you got onto RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine. Was there ever a time where you were hesitant about diving more into your drag career as opposed to becoming an illustrator, cartoonist, or graphic designer?
SV: I’m not sure I gave it that much thought. I left Brooklyn and quit my day job as a layout artist for a children’s comic book company when my mum passed away. When I came back to the city, I didn’t really know what to do. I knew I could have like one drag gig a month, which paid a whopping $150. Funnily enough, by going out and being part of the queer nightlife scene I started getting more graphic design gigs. During the day, I would work on Linda Simpson’s website for her Drag Bingo, or I would make a poster for Kitten ‘N’ Lou’s tour in Australia. I can’t say I really was a full-time drag performer before being on Drag Race because I don’t think I did the kind of drag that could get booked multiple nights of the week without the status of RuPaul’s Drag Race. That has to change, but since it wasn’t going to at the time I decided to work the system for myself.
INT: I think, unfortunately, something similar is happening here in the UK now, too. Many queens are forced to compete and operate on the same wavelength as those who get on to, and subsequently validated by, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.
SV: I think that’s really too bad. I feel like that comes from producers of these drag shows who are disconnected from the art of drag. They have a very narrow idea of what’s even on Drag Race or what people are liking about Drag Race, and it becomes a copy of pop culture rather than what it should be, which is its own fabulous art form producing new things for the culture.
INT: We both know drag is an art. Do you think the mainstream is finally considering drag as an art as well?
SV: I think by people who love it, yes. However – and I’m sure this has come up with your conversations before – so much of being considered an artist is about being recognised by various institutions rather than the spirit of the art itself. To me, of course drag is an art. Drag is one of the best kinds of art, because it is a little resistant to those institutions, because it combines so many different forms of media. But ultimately, having us recognised by institutions is still tentative. I don’t feel like we have a secure place within the history or the canon of art. Maybe the end goal is to completely disrupt those things and get rid of them. Or, maybe it’s to be seen and recognised. I don’t know which one would be better, but I don’t think we’re there yet.
INT: Interesting. I think one thing that could help is being in creative control. For example, you’re spearheading your entire art direction – from your merchandise and your graphics, to your promotional materials and typography. What kind of advice or thoughts do you have for drag artists who want to take ownership of their art direction in the way you have?
“That’s the history of drag graphic design… it’s free from all of that corporate hierarchical bullshit”Sasha Velour
SV: Well, I think they definitely should. I mean, art direction kind of makes me laugh because it is ultimately just advertising and it should really be something that we’re having fun with. Isn’t it just another avenue for doing what we do? Drag is the vision of the queen, and it’s about creating and conceptualising. If you’re not doing that yourself, are you really doing drag? Or, are you living a pseudo-celebrity fantasy for yourself, and spending all your money on it? I save a lot of money by doing this work for myself. I also get a lot of enjoyment from it. I pursued this career to be able to bring all my visions to life, like getting to choose the colours of my costume all the way to the hand lettering.
INT: Especially your hand lettering.
SV: I see hand lettering all the time now. When I was doing hand lettering for Velour like a decade ago, it looked crazy because everyone was using these crazy digital fonts and photos, and now I’ve been able to encourage people to make things more hands-on-looking. But the key to it is you have to do it with your own hands. One of my biggest inspirations is Linda Simpson, who was publishing My Comrade in the 90s when they didn’t have Photoshop. She was taking photos of people and literally cutting them out and photocopying them, and adding things and doodling on them with a Sharpie. That’s the history of drag graphic design. It isn’t this high-tech thing that mirrors the real world of advertising. It is something so much better because it’s free from all of that corporate hierarchical bullshit. It would be tragic if drag becomes something that has to be involved in that system too, because we’re meant to be breaking from capitalistic structures, not reinforcing them.
INT: That reminds me of other great drag artist legends like my hero, Dr. Vaginal Davis.
SV: She’s truly an artist. I recently discovered that one of the executive producers of Drag Race sang back-up for her in the 70s. It’s folks like that, who are behind the scenes and know what they’re talking about, that make the show so good. We need more of that in the management companies and agencies that represent drag queens day to day.
INT: I definitely agree. Genuine fans of drag should be involved with drag, not people who are seeing it as a money-making machine.
SV: People who know that drag has these origins in the world of art and in the underground scenes and don’t want it to lose that, versus people who see it as an opportunity to step out of those things.
INT: With your show Smoke & Mirrors, I want to discuss projection mapping, because that’s something that’s been prevalent in your career since before Drag Race. I remember watching the Cellophane performance in 2016 before your time on Drag Race, even. How did your relationship with projections start and how do you continue to incorporate it into this current tour?
SV: I always joke it started as an accident. At my home bar Bizarre Bushwick, which is now closed, I couldn’t create a background visual without being in the cast of the projector myself on stage. The stage was so small, that if you had the background visual it was going to project on your body too. So, I just started using that to my advantage and playing with that. It took a lot of work, so it’s definitely not for someone who wants their drag to be really easy. Eventually it became my way of having excitement and gags in my shows, in addition to my reveals. It was also another way of having my say over the creative process of drag. I take so much passion in everything, not just in the costumes, song, and movements, but literally down to how the lighting and the stage looks.
With Smoke & Mirrors, it’s kind of that ideal. It’s really what I imagined I was doing in a bar, but now it’s actually in a theatre. I tried to remake Cellophane with a proper camera because the way I filmed that one was with my computer camera and a flashlight, and then I edited it in iMovie with a screen recording of myself painting stuff in Photoshop. But, I feel like I can’t do better than that original video because there is something about the raw first attempt with all of its messy edges. I want to say you don’t need an expensive camera, or a professional animator and some video editor to make something great, you just need to have an idea and to put in some effort.
Copyright © Sasha Velour, 2021
Copyright © Sasha Velour, 2021
INT: I guess as a performer elevates their drag, they have to remember what drew people to those bars or to their shows in the first place and not losing that magic.
SV: Exactly. And in Smoke & Mirrors I kind of joke about that because there’s this moment in the first act where the effects just keep getting heightened and then suddenly it just fails. I really thought that was key. I need a disaster in the middle of this show, where I’ve thrown everything at the wall. I have backup dancers, I have flashing lights, I have curtains and backdrops and it all should come crashing down. I should fuck it up. It’s like a myth of some kind. A tale of what happens when you lose sight of what we’re all about. You shoot for the stars and lose yourself. It’s so important to not fall into that trap.
INT: I can’t wait to see that. I’ve got my tickets! You’ve also been getting into masks lately. First, I saw your Faces of Drag series where you created paper mache masks of drag icons throughout history. Then, I saw that you made a mask replica of your face for Smoke & Mirrors promotional material.
SV: That replica was fun, I had no idea if it was going to work at all. I also wanted to teach myself a new skill. To be honest, I particularly had fun giving myself a partial nose job when I shaved down the mask’s nose to make it facially feminised.
INT: What brought about the Faces of Drag? They’re amazing creations to come out of newspaper, clay, wire, and spray paint.
SV: Around that time, I was really starting to fear the idea that we would lose the rich history of drag, that people would think we’re inventing new things when we are really honouring these traditions and continuing on the legacy. Every time I read about the history of drag, when it was so much harder to be queer, I’m particularly struck by how deeply integrated performing and political activism work was for all these people. José Sarria, for example. The masks became a great way to tell these stories, and now I see each mask as a selfie of a historical drag artist that we have very few pictures of throughout history.
INT: I also love that you included Divine. There are probably people out there who still don’t even know who she is, but to anyone who loves drag it’s a no-brainer.
SV: The bar is so low. Everything on the internet about drag is copy and pasted from Wikipedia. I took the time and showed respect to these people by doing independent research by actually looking for primary sources to make sure the things that I’m saying about them are true. I see that basically nowhere else, which says a lot about where we are in terms of truly appreciating our history of this art form.
“There’s nothing about drag that is linear or binary, and it allows us to look at the world in the same way.”Sasha Velour
INT: I saw that you mentioned in another interview that José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia is a favourite text of yours, which I love as well. He also wrote The White To Be Angry, which largely covered Dr. Vaginal Davis’ career and the Marxist aspects to drag as a whole. I mention it because his words remind me of your line of thinking, especially when he says “in a depoliticised gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption,” there comes “the advent of the mass commercialisation of drag,” which works to “sanitise” the art form.
SV: He must have been talking about RuPaul, who in the 90s was selling Rockport shoes saying “I feel comfortable as a man too”! It’s interesting how drag can be utilised by domestic and capitalistic notions, even though that’s not where it comes from as an impulse. I think there’s something about the surface qualities of drag that makes it a natural fit for advertising and for cliches, which is remarkably contradictory.
INT: I think that’s why it’s so important that drag continues to be seen and discussed within the realm of art.
SV: But, also discussed as something that is not always perfect. I think people can get kind of idealistic about the arts, but it’s really a location of tension. Drag has a very intimate connection with blackface minstrels, because some of the first touring drag artists in the United States in the 1800s were in blackface. Drag is not free of problems, which is why it’s not automatically transgressive. We have to keep it transgressive by breaking away from easy narratives about it or overly idealistic visions of what we’re achieving when we step into that. That’s why I’m always criticising myself and everyone around me and trying to do better.
INT: How does Smoke & Mirrors play on these philosophies?
SV: Of course, I want to give people a great night in the theatre. I want to entertain, but I also want to create a possibility for what the art of drag could look like and should look like, as an opportunity for complexity. I want an event and a type of art that can fold really complex ideas and make them so accessible and fun, all whilst being critical of itself. In that way, drag continues to be such a rich metaphor for life. There’s nothing about drag that is linear or binary, and it allows us to look at the world in the same way.
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. He was part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.