Sasha Velour: Drag is darkness turned into power

The winner of this years RuPauls Drag Race on LGBT activism, being gay in Russia, and how her mothers cancer inspired her to be a bald queen

Sasha Velour is the drag persona of Alexander Hedges Steinberg. Born in Berkeley, California, Steinberg analyse modern literature at Vassar College, was a Fulbright scholar in Moscow, and in 2013 received an MFA in cartooning. This summertime Velour was crowned winner of season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race . Presented by drag queen, musician and entrepreneur RuPaul Charles, the Emmy award-winning reality TV show is a competition to find” America’s next drag hotshot” in which drag queens compete in various challenges, including fashion design, acting, slapstick, and lip sync performances. Available on Netflix in the UK, the show is broadcast on American cable television network VH1; the season nine premiere, with a guest appearance by Lady Gaga, attracted close to a million viewers. Sasha Velour was praised for her avant garde runway looks, highbrow witticism, and in-depth knowledge of LGBT history.

Before you won, your style was described as too intellectual for drag . Is that a misunderstanding of you, of drag, or of intellectualism ?
A little bit of all those things. Drag has always has been very intellectual: it observes the world and comments on it in actually sharp styles, culturally, politically and philosophically. I was raised by intellectuals so I have that quality a little bit, but I’m a big disciple in entertainment first- I want to do great drag that’s creative and clever and observational. I think sometimes, particularly in America, education and learning have a bit of a bad reputation. People are put off by it, which is a problem, because information is the ultimate weapon that queer people need to arm ourselves with.

What has drag meant to you over the years ?
As a little kid I felt most represented by femme characters in pop culture, so I would dress up as Cinderella or Lady Macbeth or little orphan Annie- I wanted to explore those identities and my own femininity. But as an adult I’ve turned to drag more to deal with real sadness at times, with real suffering, and then translate it through all the glamour and glisten into something that is empowering for me. There were hours when coming up with drag performances was the only thing that “ve given me” optimism. After my mum passed away, for example, I threw myself into drag because it “ve given me” hope and elation. That’s why people connect with drag on such a personal level: it’s all that darkness was transformed into power.

How is Sasha different from Alexander ?
Sasha represents some of the most vulnerable sectors parts of myself- there’s the femininity I hid for many years, the really sensitive and emotional side of myself that I’ve protected a lot- but it also represents this constant strength of being fabulous, which is something I guess queer and lesbian people often turn to when they need strength. And that’s maybe not something I know how to access as Alexander all the time, but Sasha always represents that.

What were you like at school ?
Lost in books and in my head. I was a loner, and spent most of my hour drawing in notebooks. But at the same period I took school very seriously. Doing well in school was a route that I protected myself in the social hierarchy of school. Because I wasn’t just very gay, I was also very very small, so being book-smart was my protection a lot of the time.

What was it like when your mom was diagnosed with cancer ?
It was right after I’d finished university and had returned from studying in Russia. I was in New York, she was in Illinois, where I grew up, and I spent a lot of that year visiting her. It was such a transitionary moment- we both were in these strange moments in between things , not knowing what the future would hold- that it triggered a lot of conversations between us and our relations deepened in many important ways. We became much closer than I ever thought we would be. Which is most important because I wanted to share what I was learning about drag and about myself with her. She was really open-minded to it in a lot of ways that were really wonderful. And I learned about her experience with cancer in ways that have informed me ever since, in the way I think about beauty and health. It was a very difficult and also very impactful time. She went in and out of health for about five years before she passed away.

And she is the reason you’re a bald queen …
We had so many conversations about hair and baldness. At first we believed,” Oh, it’ll be so much fun, we’ll go pick out wigs together .” But later on in her therapy she decided to shave all her hair off, and not be afraid of what it looked like, even though that had been her first instinct. That genuinely inspired me, and I insured the beauty and glamour of being bald. I think that was very important for her confidence and for her health, to be able to see that side of it. I wanted to honour that with my representations of beauty through drag.

You have a very supportive father, known as Papa Velour, then there’s Boyfriend Velour and your greyhound Vanya Velour. How important is it to have that network ?
It’s so important. My dad has recently become part of the family of Velour- in the drag community people talk about” choose family”- which was part of my second childhood growing up as a drag queen. My dad was so supportive that he joined my chosen family as well as being part of my biological household. That is really beautiful, because not everyone has mothers who want to be involved in their fag adult lives.

Alexander
Alexander Hedges Steinberg:’ We require actual change, such as more legal and structural protection for queer people .’ Photograph: Nicole Disser/ bedfordandbowery.com

What do you think the impact of Drag Race has been since it started in 2009 ?
I watched it on TV for the very first season and was blown away by how entertaining it was. If I’d seen it on television as a little child, as a teen, it would have changed my life: find fag people succeed, win things, and nail challenges. Or struggle and then come through it in the end. Touring the country I meet young queer people with their parents, which is a new phenomenon: they watch the demonstrate together and it changes what they see as possible for their own lives.

It’s also a great platform for talking about issues, for example eating disorder in the LGBT community …
They don’t shy away from serious topics. People speak to me about being lesbian in Russia, or dealing with eating disorders, or personal loss, or cancer. These are real things that we have to deal with in our lives. Not simply queer people but all people. But then the show is also so full of life and happiness, so it’s a really safe space to have those conversations.

Your lip sync performance to Whitney Houston’s So Emotional in the final- fans will know it as the ” rose petal moment “ – was incredible. How did you come up with the idea ?
When I perform I like to tell a story on a lot of different levels, with dancing, acting, with the costume, and I love it when there are almost drag magic tricks- surprises, uncovers, twists and turns. It helps the lyrics of the sung take on their meaning. So I thought of rose petals, because roses are such an important signifier of emotion. I had only been able to practise it one time in the hotel room the night before, and then I had to re-harvest all the rose petals off the carpet because I merely had a limited supply. It was really an experiment. I’ll never forget the experience of walking off the stage afterwards, in disbelief. It was a whirlwind of an evening.

What are the biggest challenges facing drag today ?
It’s still difficult to make it as a drag queen if you have not been on the reveal- and the future of drag needs to be a lot more than only RuPaul’s Drag Race . I hope local drag starts get appreciated more, so that drag performers can support themselves. And I’m still shocked to discover there are people who think of it as a mental illness. There’s still a lot of ignorance and dislike out there.

How can drag assistance bring about political change ?
I think about that all the time. We require actual change, such as more legal and structural protection for fag people- especially people of colour and trans people. The first step in achieving anything is organisation, and drag does bring people together in a really powerful style: it’s a way to get the queer community passionate, get us talking, get us listening. And drag pushings against conservative notions, over and over again: about gender, success, family. It directly challenges a lot of notions about what normal American life should look like.

You lived in Russia for two and a half years. What was that like ?
It’s difficult to be gay in Russia, especially in a major city: to feel it’s scary or dangerous to be yourself is a strange feeling. But it’s something a lot of people have to deal with around the world. I guess I took for awarded how many liberties and how much openness we have here. And it’s important we don’t move backwards- having lived in Russia I can see what that would look like. At the same time I was so inspired by how queer people in Russia do find ways to live “peoples lives”, how they get dressed in drag and have parties and giggle and have their inside culture. That’s inspiring, that even under horrible conditions they still find a way to live vibrant lives. That gave me hope in a small way.

Your research there was about LGBT activism- how did you conceal that ?
I didn’t disclose that at all. I did talk in my proposal about wanting to see the route art has an effect on politics; what I didn’t tell them was that what I was interested in was LGBT activism. It was interesting, because Russians love political art- they love the idea that art is rebellion and resistance. Even today the art world in Russia is full of critiques of Putin and war, but there’s not much dialogue about sexuality.

Now that you have a higher profile would you be able to go back safely ?
That’s something I’ve supposed a lot about. I still have my visa, so I surely can try. I’m curious whether Drag Race has induced it to Russia yet. I know it has to a small extent because I interact with people on Twitter. But I think I would still probably bide quite under the radar in Moscow.

You are also a comic artist, and have done comics about Stonewall and about your mom … what do you like about them as a medium ?
Comics are kind of like drag in the sense that you can start with there is nothing and create a whole world. They’re almost like a movie you can create just with ink and paper, and you consider the entirety of an artist’s vision on the page: tale and world and characters. Drag does that too: we also construct worlds to stage our feelings and the fictions we want to share with people.

How do you feel about Trump as chairman ?
It’s horrible and embarrassing and dangerous for our country. We’re already insuring the style it’s inspired people with hate and violence in their hearts to act in his spirit and do real, real damage. I love that drag musicians have spoken out against him quite specifically. We have to keep doing that.

What do you induce of his transgender military forbid ( blaming” tremendous medical expenses “)?
It’s horrible: it places fund above human life. It’s very disturbing, because there are thousands of trans people who have served this country and deserve to be protected.

How long do you think the present administration will last ?
It’s hard to know, regrettably. A plenty of us have given up predicting, because we were confident we knew what the limits of dislike were in this country, and were disappointed to discover that we were not right. The challenge is to keep observing, stay informed, and help other people be informed.

Earlier this year John Oliver said RuPaul should run for chairman with the slogan” Make America fierce again “. Would you ever contemplate a future in politics ?
I’d love it if RuPaul went into politics. But I don’t know if I know any drag queens, myself included, who could deal with the bureaucracy. One of the things that defines drag queens is we don’t put up with bullshit- we’d start complaining as soon as it stopped making sense.

Sasha Velour produces the drag reveal Nightgowns in Brooklyn, New York, and Velour: The Drag Magazine

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