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Photography Tanner Abel

Sasha Velour: ‘Art can save your life’

We catch-up with the RuPaul’s Drag Race winner ahead of her return to London for her solo show – Smoke & Mirrors

When you think of Sasha Velour, it’s likely you’ll imagine her truly iconic (and we mean, truly) lipsync to Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional”. If you missed the show, the GIFs, remakes, etc, the powerful performance saw the finalist surprise the audience with rose petals appearing like magic out of her gloved hands, with more cascading out from under her wig in a monumental finale moment. It snatched her the crown, but what it taught us – for those who didn’t know already – is that Sasha Velour is an incredible performer. 

Since taking the title, Velour has continued honing her skills as a performer, last year culminating in the debut of her solo show, Smoke & Mirrors. Travelling all over the globe performing 13 lipsyncs, with only the accompaniment of extremely clever digital backdrops, the show covers everything from her greatest triumphs to tougher topics like pain and loss.  

For those of you who were unlucky enough to catch the show the first time around, Sasha has continued tweaking and honing her performances since and has returned once more to the UK with Smoke & Mirrors – taking over London’s Palladium this weekend. Here, we speak with the performer about everything from accepting beauty to the people who inspire her to create. 

When you were putting Smoke & Mirrors together, what did you know you wanted to do? 

Sasha Velour: I knew I wanted to start with things that people were familiar with. Give them the greatest hits, obviously they wanted to see “So Emotional” and I wanted to do it as well, it’s super fun. Then, I wanted to move into more of the style that I’ve been doing on my own and my own drag scene and shows. Those numbers were kind of serious, in a way. 

I’ve always seen drag as something that can face some of the more serious stuff we talk about; about loss, identity, depression, and through a drag performance you turn those things into something all-inspiring, gag-worthy, or something that makes you feel positive and empowered. So, I wanted the show to move from the greatest hits to a seven-minute lip-sync to Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” where I transform into a tree. 

Did you find it difficult exploring such personal issues via your show? 

Sasha Velour: For me, it's more comfortable to go to personal places through abstraction and fantasy of drag than it is to have my life reduced on a reality TV show. I'm of the philosophy that sometimes fantasy can be more truthful than realism or certainly than reality, whatever that is. So it was a chance to tell my story in a medium that I am very comfortable with. 

What have been some of your highlights since you’ve been touring? 

Sasha Velour: A definite highlight was when Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez came to see the show in Washington D.C. Getting to perform the show for people that I really respect and look up to and receiving encouragement and kindness, not just from people literally shifting American politics, but also drag legends like Peaches Christ and Sister Roma. One of the producers from RuPaul’s Drag Race came to see the show in LA and getting responses from Alyssa Edwards, Kim Chi, and Bob the Drag Queen, it means so much that people in the industry would come and support the show, but the fact they like it was really the highlight. 

What do you hope people take away from Smoke & Mirrors? 

Sasha Velour: When I was a little kid and I would go to see the ballet, I’d come home and be dancing around the room for the next few days. I hope people leave Smoke & Mirrors taking off their gloves dramatically or pretending to remove their hair. But I also hope they tap into their creative, whatever that is. People tell me that they’ve started painting again or quilting, embroidering, or even doing drag. 

Smoke & Mirrors is about how art can save your life to some degree. I talk about getting through some really hard moments of my life through drag and through pouring my heart into self-expression, I feel like people are able to see that and say ‘Okay, maybe creative work isn’t superficial or indulgent. Maybe it is really healing and transformative.’ I hope the show gets people making some art. 

What does ‘beauty’ mean to you? 

Sasha Velour: I’ve struggled with this one because for a long time I rejected beauty outright and I thought it was so much more empowering to never use that word. I now understand that beauty doesn’t have to mean an inherited idea of beauty, that often comes with oppression. Beauty can be a mission to improve the treatment and response to greater varieties of appearance. Beauty is the attitude with which something is received, not a closed set of standards. Now, I am very driven by beauty and maybe find things beautiful that other people don’t see in the same way. With drag and beauty, we get to say over and over again that trans people and non-binary people are beautiful, queer people of every age, of colour, queer women, all the facets of our community are elevated and beautiful. 

What are some things you find beautiful that others might not? 

Sasha Velour: I find bald femininity very beautiful and it’s definitely something that I have embraced, but instead of saying ‘I love looking like a monster’, (I’m) realising the reason I do this is because I think I look gorgeous like this and I know that scares people. It’s like when the picture of my RuPaul’s Drag Race win made the rounds of American conservatives who weren’t familiar with my drag and they thought I was an alien and dressed like one. They didn’t think I was human and that just shows how limited people’s familiarity with people of different appearances is. 

How has doing your art helped you realise your identity and how you express that?

Sasha Velour: Oh my gosh, in every way. Through drag, I’ve discovered my fluidity and come to identify as gender fluid. As I said earlier, it’s sometimes easier to find the truth when you step out of reality and find a fantasy that feels more truthful. It helped me connect to other people better and taught me a lesson about who I really am. But, the thing I have learnt is that I have no fucking clue. I am still trying to discover how I identify and I think that’s normal because we’re not surrounded by a great variety of models for what is ‘normal’. So, we have to figure it out and hopefully be bold and public enough that anything we discover can help others. 

Who are some creative people who inspire you that you want to spotlight? 

Sasha Velour: There are a lot of specifically non-binary people who are. Alok Menon is putting forward very different ideas about what non-binary means and looks like, but still brings people to having these conversations that gender can be outside of these two options – that changed my life in really dramatic ways. 

In my own scene, I am most inspired by this drag collective Switch n’ Play that’s located in Brooklyn. It’s a group of people that I came into the drag world with and they were some of the first people to book me in Brooklyn. They are a drag collective where no one in it is a cis man, so it’s all drag that could not be on RuPaul’s Drag Race, in other words, but I think it’s some of the most important stuff that’s happening in the art form today. It’s led by a married couple named Miss Malice and K. James and then part of their collective is Nyx Nocturne and Vigor Mortis who travelled as my assistant when I was doing the Drag Race circuit. I’ve grown up with them showcasing their bodies and beauty on stage and it shocks me to my core while inspiring me to be bold in myself. 

What do you think the future of ‘beauty’ is? 

Sasha Velour: The most obvious thing I think we’re seeing is more inclusive ideas of beauty; expanding the pinnacles beyond youngness, thinness, and whiteness. It’s the direction we are moving in, but we need to go all the way.

I also think the future of beauty is going to move away from the aesthetic and people will crave the beauty of an approach to life. That’s what I find to be the most enduring beauty, it’s one that relates to other people, even the way that they relate to themselves and you can’t really through social media. So, once that ends, beauty will return to its rightful place as a philosophy, rather than a phenomenon.