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 studied modern literature at Vassar College, was a Fulbright scholar in Moscow, and in 2013 received an MFA in cartooning. This summer Velour was crowned winner of season nine of RuPauls Drag Race. Presented by drag queen, musician and entrepreneur RuPaul Charles, the Emmy award-winning reality TV show is a competition to find Americas next drag superstar in which drag queens compete in various challenges, including fashion design, acting, comedy, 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 humour, 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, orofintellectualism?
A little bit of all those things. Drag has always has been very intellectual: it observes the world and comments on it in really sharp ways, culturally, politically and philosophically. I was raised by intellectuals so I have that quality a little bit, but Im a big believer in entertainment first I want to do great drag thats creative and clever and observational. I think sometimes, especially 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 theyears?
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 Ive turned to drag more to deal with real sadness at times, with real suffering, and then translate it through all the glamour and glitter into something that is empowering for me. There were times when coming up with drag performances was the only thing that gave me optimism. After my mum passed away, for example, I threw myself into drag because it gave me hope and joy. Thats why people connect with drag on such a personal level: its all that darkness turnedintopower.

How is Sasha different from Alexander?
Sasha represents some of the most vulnerable parts of myself theres the femininity I hid for many years, the really sensitive and emotional side of myself that Ive protected a lot but it also represents this constant strength of being fabulous, which is something I think queer and gay people often turn to when they need strength. And thats 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 time drawing in notebooks. But at the same time I took school very seriously. Doing well in school was a way that I protected myself in the social hierarchy of school. Because I wasnt 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 mother was diagnosed withcancer?
It was right after Id 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 sparked a lot of conversations between us and our relationship deepened in many important ways. We became much closer than I ever thought we would be. Which was especially 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 passedaway.

And she is the reason youre a bald queen
We had so many conversations about hair and baldness. At first we thought, Oh, itll be so much fun, well go pick out wigs together. But later on in her treatment 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 really inspired me, and I saw 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 theres Boyfriend Velour and your greyhound Vanya Velour. How important is it to have that network?
Its so important. My dad has recently become part of the family of Velour in the drag community people talk about chosen 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 family. That is really beautiful, because not everyone has parents who want to be involved in their queer adult lives.

Alexander
Alexander Hedges Steinberg: We need 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 Id seen it on television as a little kid, as a teenager, it would have changed my life: seeing queer 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 show together and it changes what they see as possible for their own lives.

Its also a great platform for talking about issues, for example eating disorders in the LGBT community
They dont shy away from serious topics. People speak to me about being gay 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 just queer people but all people. But then the show is also so full of life and happiness, so its a really safe space to have those conversations.

Your lip sync performance to Whitney Houstons 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, reveals, twists and turns. It helps the lyrics of the song 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 only had a limited supply. It was really an experiment. Ill 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 dragtoday?
Its still difficult to make it as a drag queen if you have not been on the show and the future of drag needs to be a lot more than just RuPauls Drag Race. I hope local drag starts getting appreciated more, so that drag performers can support themselves. And Im still shocked to discover there are people who think of it as a mental illness. Theres still a lot of ignorance and hate out there.

How can drag help bring about politicalchange?
I think about that all the time. We need actual change, such as more legal and structural protection for queer people especially people of colour and trans people. The first step in accomplishing anything is organisation, and drag does bring people together in a really powerful way: its a way to get the queer community passionate, get us talking, get us listening. And drag pushes against conservative ideas, over and over again: about gender, success, family. It directly challenges a lot of ideas about what normal American life should look like.

You lived in Russia for two and a half years. What was that like?
Its difficult to be gay in Russia, especially in a major city: to feel its scary or dangerous to be yourself is a strange feeling. But its something a lot of people have to deal with around the world. I guess I took for granted how many freedoms and how much openness we have here. And its important we dont 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 their lives, how they get dressed in drag and have parties and laugh and have their inside culture. Thats 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 hide that?
I didnt disclose that at all. I did talk in my proposal about wanting to see the way art has an effect on politics; what I didnt 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 theres not much dialogue about sexuality.

Now that you have a higher profile would you be able to go back safely?
Thats something Ive thought a lot about. I still have my visa, so I certainly can try. Im curious whether Drag Race has made 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 stay quite under the radar in Moscow.

You are also a comic artist, and have donecomics about Stonewall and about your mother what do you like about them as a medium?
Comics are kind of like drag in the sense that you can start with absolutely nothing and create a whole world. Theyre almost like a film you can create just with ink and paper, and you see the entirety of an artists vision on the page: story and world and characters. Drag does that too: we also build worlds to stage our emotions and the fantasies we want to share with people.

How do you feel about Trump aspresident?
Its horrible and embarrassing and dangerous for our country. Were already seeing the way its inspired people with hate and violence in their hearts to act in his spirit and do real, real harm. I love that drag performers have spoken out against him very specifically. We have to keep doing that.

What do you make of his transgender military ban (blaming tremendous medicalcosts)?
Its horrible: it places money above human life. Its 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 current administration will last?
Its hard to know, unfortunately. A lot of us have given up predicting, because we were confident we knew what the limits of hate 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 president with the slogan Make America fierce again. Would you ever contemplate a future in politics?
Id love it if RuPaul went into politics. But I dont 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 dont put up with bullshit wed start complaining as soon as it stopped making sense.

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

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/oct/29/sasha-velour-drag-is-darkness-turned-into-power-rupaul-drag-race-interview

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