We speak to the avant-garde monarch – who’s just won the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race – about what it’s like living gay in Russia, why drag needs to be inclusive and channelling Frida Kahlo
This past weekend, drag turned a new page once more – Sasha Velour was crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar by RuPaul. After a season full of unpredictable twists, it became increasingly unclear who the winner would be. What was clear, however, was that Sasha’s drag was unique in the ways that it challenged you: sometimes it was uncomfortable, sometimes it was straight-up awe inspiring, sometimes it made you self-examine yourself in ways you weren’t ready to. And that, above all, is what the makings of a powerful drag queen is all about: their ability to jolt you.
When Sasha and I spoke over the phone, she hadn’t yet been crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar – in fact, she hadn’t even filmed the finale yet. She had just arrived at her home in Brooklyn, where she was only stopping over for three days before hitting the road again. Over the season, Sasha’s brand of drag was laid out from the start: she was an art queen, an intellectual queen, an overtly political queen. This, in particular, is what drew in the judges and fans alike; every interaction with Sasha on the show felt like a flash lesson in queer history – one that needed to be heard.
It’s no surprise Sasha’s drag developed through queer intelligentsia. Not only did she grow up in a house full of intellectuals – her father is a history professor – she also received a Fullbright scholarship to study political art in Moscow. However, after experiencing the sociopolitical instability at play in Russia, she felt forced to shift her focus of study to gay activism. “It was kind of a depressing experience because I felt like Russian artwork was very detached from the political needs of the people in the country. There was that instability that prevented people from shaping their own political path and that was so visible when it came to looking at what the experience was like for gay people,” she tells me. The way she sees it, activism itself was its own artform, even if it’s being talked about explicitly in those terms. The way people protest, no matter what it looks like, is an ongoing creative project. “Seeing not only seeing the shared struggles of people in Russia, but also the deep disagreements in the community about how best to go about shifting things, was really striking to me.”
Merely existing as a queer person in Russia is a radically political act. It’s a country famously intolerant of the LGBTQ+ community, where same-sex marriage isn’t legally recognised, the spreading of gay “propaganda” is punishable by law, and conversion therapy isn’t banned – even for minors. Queer activism in Russia is the strive to be visible, and figuring out what the most effective and safe ways to be visible are. To some people, Pride parades aren’t the most important thing – it’s job safety, HIV treatment, legal rights and social acknowledgment. “I had to disguise myself, like gay people in Russia do. I had to think about trying to act in a way that would be safe for me. I think it’s really hard not being able to be open and talk about your sexuality or your gender with the people around you on a daily basis. Experiencing it for a year was challenging, so I can’t imagine what it would be like for a lifetime,” she reflects, with a hint of dejection in her voice.
For some people, sexuality and gender – or the rejection of it – are such an integral part of their identity, that the pain of hiding it is like losing their anchor as a person, becoming completely unheard. “A lot of stuff felt like it was bubbling under the surface, and even the kinds of conversations people would have with me were very coded and quiet. We had to meet in private spaces because nothing was really explicit,” Sasha mentions when speaking about the micro-aggressions of everyday life in Moscow. Then, of course, there’s real aggression – the actual, physical violence. Even as recently as April, the Russian republic of Chechnya carried out an alleged ‘gay genocide’, led by the region’s President and police force, accusing them of torturing and beating gay men, or men they perceive to be gay. The government denied these claims, saying that they were “lies” and that homosexual people “simply don’t exist in the republic”. This statement itself is indicative of the way LGBTQ+ erasure manifests: queer people aren’t just being mistreated and abused – they’re simply being denied life.
After a few years in Russia, Sasha returned home to the States and went through a personal drag renaissance. The sociopolitical environment she knew first-hand inspired her art and allowed her to begin her new drag practice. “I was looking for a form of art that was non-pretentious and was accessible and fun and could engage with other people. Then I started to think of ways I could push my drag in ways that match my philosophies as an activist. I started thinking, “What would queer feminist drag look like?” and try to develop aesthetics that match my beliefs and personality.”
“Any form of a drag isn’t complete unless it’s diverse and showcases a variety of performers. There needs to be spaces for the voices of trans, non-binary and performers of colour” – Sasha Velour
Through her drag, she wanted to highlight the importance of inclusion politics in the queer community. “I realised how much drag had this history of being directly involved in bringing the community together and organising. Being creative with the activism, creating moments in queer history that people talk about forever – we queens have to be history books for the queer community and tell those stories to people in nightclubs like they’re classrooms,” she asserts. In her eyes, true drag has to twist people’s expectations in ways that challenges them – whether they’re annoyed, upset or just thinking about things differently. “Any form of a drag isn’t complete unless it’s diverse and showcases a variety of performers. There needs to be spaces for the voices of trans, non-binary and performers of colour.”
But it’s through performance that Sasha is able to reclaim her identity in the most powerful way, even if sometimes it’s what causes her the most pain. After Sasha’s mother passed away of cancer, her drag shifted a lot; she began to see clearly the way her mother inspired her understanding of being femme, and how it affected the way she interacted with people. Sasha began to integrate pieces of her late mother’s wardrobe into her drag; she began wearing her perfume on stage; she decided to be a bald queen to honour her memory. If hair was so important to femininity, she wanted to make the biggest statement of them all: to have none. “Drag has to go to the depths of who we are – our sadness and our joy, and be all of that at once. I want people in the audience to have an emotional experience and to be tapped into my real life, so it often goes to dark places,” she says. “With lip syncing, I love exploring the things that hurt me and turn them into triumphant and theatrical moments to help everyone feel powerful together,” she tells me, reassuringly.
“I elevate my own insecurities and reclaim the strength and beauty of looking different. The kind of femme that I needed to be has a dash of Nosferatu, a dash of Frida Kahlo” – Sasha Velour
The way Sasha’s drag aesthetic approaches beauty is completely subversive; it’s ham-fisted fashion, a resounding ‘fuck you’ to anyone who dares to police the way she expresses herself. She’s not afraid of what others consider beautiful or not – in fact, she’s fascinated by it, turning to it as a source of power and inspiration. “I elevate my own insecurities and reclaim the strength and beauty of looking different. The kind of femme that I needed to be has a dash of Nosferatu, a dash of Frida Kahlo,” she muses. “In the House of Velour, every time we see each other making a face that is so true to that person, we always shout out ‘oooh, beauty’ and that’s really essential from my perspective. Being unafraid of looking exactly like yourself – that’s true beauty.”
As I watched the finale on Friday night, which adopted a new tournament-style lip sync competition format, it was still unclear who was going to win. There were four finalists, all of which had earned their place to be there. Finally, when RuPaul revealed Sasha Velour was America’s Next Drag Superstar, it clicked; this was a win for weirdness, for every kind of beauty, and, overall, for queerness. As Sasha held up her crown and sceptre on stage, she howled “let’s change shit up! let’s get inspired by all this beauty and change the motherfucking world!” and in that moment, in all her elation and pride, it was clear that her work had only just begun.