INTERVIEW: SASHA VELOUR - TURNING HEADS
Today marks the completion of Sasha Velour’s ‘so emotional’ reign as America’s Next Drag Superstar, ever since snatching that crown in one of the most iconic moments in RPDG history, Sasha Velour has been turning heads performing to sold out audiences around the globe (including Beirut), creating her own drag show “Nightgowns” and making her mark in both the Art and Fashion worlds. Yet Sasha’s biggest accomplishment is the ever lasting impact she had shedding light on LGBTQI rights, and giving a voice to the marginalised members of the community.
Sasha has devoted her rise to fame to empower gay activists around the world, as well as to shed some light on other forms of Drag that the general public has not yet been exposed to. A living and breathing art installation, she consistently pushes the boundaries of drag with each of her head-spinning designs, fueled by an undying vocation to ‘turn darkness into light’. In order to celebrate her Queendom, Plastik is sharing a glimpse of her mesmerising limited edition cover to be featured in Plastik Magazine’s upcoming issue, shot by none other than Eli Rezkallah.
Rather than following the beaten path of her fellow Drag Race winners, Sasha Velour has devoted her rise to fame to empower gay activists around the world, as well as to shed some light on other forms of Drag that the general public has not yet been exposed to. A living and breathing art installation, she consistently pushes the boundaries of drag with each of her head-spinning designs, fueled by an undying vocation to ‘turn darkness into power’. Plastik took advantage of her iconic stay in Beirut to shoot and interview her.
Why did Sasha Velour choose Alexander as a vessel?
Alex is someone who takes things very seriously. Drag itself is not serious, but the passion that it takes to give yourself over to a life that makes no rational sense, the act of drag, requires someone who is tireless and who falls in love with something and follows it to its natural conclusion and beyond. Alex has always been amazing at that. He deserved a caricature of power and glamour in his life. In order to survive he needed something confident and beautiful and that is what Sasha Velour can provide.
When do you take over and when do you sit back?
I take over with the lipstick. As soon as the glitter comes on, Sasha Velour is in the room. It’s like a spell that conjures her… and there has to be a mirror. The fact that drag happens on your own body, that you can’t really look at, a mirror helps you love yourself in a new way: it’s not you as you are, but you as you made yourself.When the vulnerable side is required, I take a step back and let Alex take over.
Where does Sasha go when Alexander takes over?
The absolute origins of when I started doing drag were in a therapy context. A therapist asked me to reflect on an inner source of strength that had been there my whole life that maybe I ignored in times of need. All of the drag dress up that I had done as a child came to mind. A world appeared, like a beautiful glistening crystal iceberg inside the lava of my emotions, and on that iceberg is Sasha Velour putting on lipstick when she’s not on my face.
Is there something that Alex and Sasha fundamentally disagree on?
I don’t know that Alexander believes in himself the way that Sasha Velour believes in herself.
Who is the master, who is the slave?
Sasha Velour is the master, obviously! Alexander has many fears, and Sasha Velour is fearless, and that allows her to completely triumph over every aspect of my life, and to put her foot down wherever she decides.
Has Sasha ever taken Alexander by surprise?
Constantly! Especially while performing because that’s the time when Alexander is completely gone. Sometimes I have no memory of what happened during a performance. I can remember the heat, the loudness… I can’t remember the reasons that I make some decisions. Once in Australia, I found myself sliding down a stripper pole as Gollum. I don’t know what got me there, but Sasha Velour had identified where she wanted to go with the performance and just did it.
Where did Sasha Velour come from, and what brought her here?
Sasha Velour is like a collage of cultural references that exists in Alexander’s brain to navigate through the mess of culture that we live in.Everything that Alexander did was a spell to bring Sasha Velour into being… he had no idea the horrible spell that he was casting on his life. I would watch Wizard of Oz or Macbeth over and over again, and that’s what made Sasha Velour. What could be more human and inhuman than a collage of cultural references that exist floating in your brain at all times?
What does Sasha Velour like the most about humanity?
Nothing! Just kidding… humanity is really good at creative and intellectual collaboration… Bouncing ideas back and forth until you come to a solution or an idea that is beyond anything that one person could end up with. Whether politics or philosophy or identity… it all comes from people having conversations late into the night.
What does she like the least?
Working with other people.
What’s Sasha’s mission here?
First of all to show people that they can build their own Sasha Velour… it’s not a drag queen for everyone, but some version of yourself that you have made that isn’t decided by people around you. Another mission that I have, which annoys a lot of people, is to carry on the history of the queer community. Not just the one that people know in a fleeting way, but a deep understanding of it. Drag queens have to be history books for a culture that has no history books.Sasha Velour can help to carry on the traditions and the knowledge that have been cultivated by centuries of queer people making drag and making art and defining and redefining themselves. A person who doesn’t have history is fucked.
Why does it annoy people?
It annoys people in America because there’s a strong culture of anti-intellect… a fear that people who know things and want everyone to know things are constantly judging everyone else which is opposite from the truth. There’s sometimes a disdain for self-reflection… but I don’t mind being annoying.
You’ve been quotes as saying that your vocation is turning ‘darkness into power’. How so?
Dragoons know that beauty is much deeper than surface and finding beauty in dark moments, peace with pain, is a kind of optimism that hopefully isn’t about looking the other way but rather about looking directly at the problems and presenting them to yourself differently, as opportunities, as stunning and dramatic moments, and as power. Pain is hugely motivating for everyone. It’s about choosing what it motivates you to do with it. If it motivates you to create, then you will definitely create something beautiful.
Do you find that people avoid darkness?
Yeah, I see it even within fearless drag performers that I love and admire. People who really want to hide mental illness or horrible things within their family… Things are sometimes presented as being private rather than people not wanting to show their perceived imperfections. As a community, it’s important that our idea of what is perfect doesn’t close out human things like depression, being unmotivated, sadness, confusion and loss. That’s why I like dramatizing those things and putting them on the stage, because then hopefully when you experience that in real life, you don’t run the other way or hide it from the people around you or the people that admire you.
If Sasha Velour had to address the entire queer community what piece of advice would you give it?
“Dear queer people of earth, I hope you’re dressed well. Please remember that queerness and the way that we are and the way that we love and think about ourselves, is as old and as true as humanity itself. There is no reason to be afraid of showing it proudly and time and history will always be on our side. So, while you’re at it, learn the history, pass it around, support the people around you to do the same, model community, love and patience. Model loudness and power and going against the grain. Be disruptive and easy to work with, and please, learn how to be tacky in the right way.”
Why should everyone do drag?
Gender is universally limited. How we perceive our minds working is taught to us in a very gender-binary way. Drag is all about finding strategies of being gendered in the world on your own terms.It’s a very positive thing to see how a cis woman would be a drag queen, how a trans person would do drag… I’ve met a lot of trans men who want to explore femininity through the art of drag. I think that’s so powerful. Everyone doing drag means that drag itself becomes queerer and smarter and deeper.
If Alexander could borrow any drag persona from RuPaul’s Drag Race for a day, which one would it be and why?
Kimora Black because she’s loving, nice, calm and very easy to be around. Kimora is also so confidently sexual, and Alexander deserves to feel that a little bit. My academic background stands in the way of full, wild and tacky sexuality and that would be really enjoyable to be taken over by.
If Sasha Velour could take over any contestant for a day, who would it be and why?
This is so fun! RuPaul. If you imagine drag as a human species that implants itself in a human host, you’d want someone powerful and respected to get things across. But I also feel that RuPaul would look stunning with no hair. It’s a crime that we have not seen RuPaul’s beautiful face without a wig on. I would also love to fully style Eureka O’hara in a look and would love to make Eureka talk philosophy on stage, because she’s brilliant.
What makes an ideal RPDR fan?
Obviously I’m biased after being on the show but people should appreciate the good that every contestant brings to the table, and if there’s something you don’t like, you should keep your shady comments private. We don’t live in a world where it’s acceptable for people to be tearing down hardworking folks. It’s not funny, it’s not true to the history of drag… reading is not about that at all. I read my drag sister five times a day and she reads me right back. It’s something you say to the person next to you to remind them not to be crazy because no one knows how crazy you are but your best friend and yourself. Reading and shade comes out of close-knit communities. It’s banter between people who know each other very well… it was never meant to be public. It’s now become boring and arrogant. People should be humbler and accept new forms of drag.
What’s your take on political correctness?
It’s complicated. It always feels like it’s case by case. First of all, the term ‘political correctness’ was invented by conservatives, which makes it inherently judgmental. People using the language of respect to draw attention to themselves, or to pat themselves on the back, or to lower people around them, is a deeply negative thing. I also think it’s fair to tell people when you’re uncomfortable with something, as long as it comes from a genuine place and isn’t a self-aggrandizing performance of correctness… the world does not need that.
The fashion world has been experiencing backlash concerning cultural appropriation. It’s literally impossible now to get inspired from a foreign culture. Does that apply to drag and do you fear that one day it will affect the art of drag?
I feel I have to trust in the intelligence of humanity overall. I don’t think it’s going to be disastrous. What cultural appropriation is supposed to refer to, is taking elements literally from a marginalized culture and purely doing it for the aesthetics. There’s many white queens who have worn black hairstyles in a way that completely reduces black experience to a series of gestures, or hair or faces that are really upsetting for black people to watch. It’s a very positive thing to call that out and put an end to it. It’s not really saying don’t do it, but it’s saying if you’re going to do it, you need to do it so much better than how you’re doing it right now. It’s not that you can’t take inspiration from Indian fashion, you have to actually inform yourself and put some level of interpretation to it. It should inspire people to think harder and be more creative.
You come with a variety of different looks. What inspires them?
There are different facets of Sasha Velour. There’s an alien goddess who’s always bald, there’s the dramatization of Alexander who is usually crying… just kidding… whose looks are informed by alexander’s biography… the way my mother and grandmother looked really informs Sasha’s looks. I’ve always been obsessed with Dracula, which has inspired Sasha’s color stories and textiles and ways of looking at people. We’re all very multi-faceted and it’s nice to think about one’s overall look as a mood board.
You play with shapes a lot. How do you go about defining the shape of a look?
Every look that I do, I draw on paper first. I’ve never been very good at drawing the human body so the result is always very symmetrical and I get so attached to the sketches that I can’t stand to see something less symmetrical when it’s finally created. There’s a pureness in the idea of clothes not needing to be limited by the practically of arms and legs and stuff… I have some idea of what is flattering, but mostly I don’t care at all.
What would you want to bring out of RPDR as Sasha Velour?
A more open acceptance of what Drag can be and who can do it, and what bodies can do it. I’d love to have a role in pushing RPDR to be even more inclusive and risky with their casting. I think the show has already successfully sold the world on drag, and no one could ever take away from what Drag Race accomplished. It’s amazing. Now I feel that they can take it a step further. The step I’d want to take, is to show that our sense of what drag is, is founded on misconceptions, and that the real world of Drag is lawless in a fabulous and very queer way, and people deserve to see that.
INTERVIEWED BY RALPH ARIDA