It’s been almost a year since Brooklyn, New York-based drag queen Sasha Velour took home the crown on the ninth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” And she’s showing no signs of slowing down.
“Johnny [Velour] and I always joke about how everything that we’re doing now was basically the same thing that we were doing before, except the scale, the audience and the resources have drastically changed,” Velour told HuffPost.
The pair, and their larger art collective and family dubbed House of Velour, have built an empire over the last year. Not only have they traveled around the world performing shows night after night, but they’ve created an important space for queer people ― particularly young queer people ― through their monthly theatrical showcase Nightgowns.
“The most transformative part is being able to truly see all that work and all that passion having an effect, reaching people, being meaningful for people’s lives,” Velour said. “And also, being meaningful and effective within in our community.”
In an interview with HuffPost, Velour reflects on the year since her win, the role of queer art during tumultuous political times, and her own vision of a queer, inclusive future.
How do you deal with the intense emotional responsibility that comes with who Sasha Velour is and what you represent to so many young people?
It’s interesting. I started performing drag in public after reading a lot about ― found this book called Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue, curated by Leslie Feinberg. And there were two or three testimonies from drag performers who were all activists. And understanding the way that drag, which for many people on the surface is something that is pure entertainment ― understanding the way that can be so linked to real community-shifting, dialogue-shifting work within the community ― is what inspired me to take my cross-dressing to the streets and into the public space. And from my perspective, it’s impossible to do drag that’s true to the art of drag without being accountable to a larger community of queer people, being someone who does listen to the pain and just really the real experience of being queer today and take that on and be a counsel for people, be someone who passes the mic to people who need to speak on their experiences. That’s what drag shows have always been. That is what drag queens, what drag kings, have accomplished in queer communities for a very, very long time.
So, I feel it’s part of the responsibility. And part of the glamour of being a drag performer is taking on the emotional weight of being a significant member of the queer community. But there’s balance, too, of course. Taking care of your mental health is important, and being able to model that for queer people who are out there every day dealing with their own struggles is very significant. So, I don’t want to hide the very real struggle of working hard and dealing with heavy issues. But, at the same time, I put so much love and intensity and passion every time I’m on stage. It’d be weird for me if I wasn’t getting emotional responses back ― that’s part of the exchange. It feels like an even exchange. Drag performance is really emotional.
How do you take care of yourself when you’re on the road? What are your strategies for self-care?
A really, really good skin routine [laughs]. I mean, I’ve heard a lot of people joke about that, but if you establish little rituals for self-care that bring some measure of joy into your life ... Drag is very ritualistic, so our people understand the power of going through a self-care ritual that makes you feel like you’ve transformed into a different person on the other end of it. And, I feel that when I paint my face, when I corset my body to a point of not breathing, and also when I’m winding down at the end of the night, reflecting on things.
I’m an only child; I’m a very private person. I take a couple hours — this is why I don’t sleep — I actually take a couple hours after I get home truly just by myself. Johnny goes to sleep, Vanya goes to sleep, and I just take a moment. And I do put on my oils, make sure my skin looks cute for everyone who has to look at me up close with pancake makeup on. But that time is really important to just reflect, reflect on what people have said to me, reflect on the people that I love.
As a public-facing queer person, when something bad happens in our community, how you process that? Do you feel like you’re even able to personally process it? Or do you have to process it in a way where you’re being something for other people?
I like to do a lot of processing in person with people, like in conversations. And also by just being quiet and listening to what other people are saying and taking that in, ’cause a lot of times I have things to learn, I have new things to think about, too, when it comes to dealing with something that kind of shakes our community. But as a public-facing queer person, like you say, I feel it’s very important to speak about the stuff that’s going on, that affects us.
And so, social media to me is kind of an extension of a drag show. It’s a place where statements are important to help people out there who are not within. Maybe they don’t have queer people that they can talk to every day in person. They need to see, they need to experience solidarity, to feel hope, feel like they’re sharing pain with people. And social media has been really powerful at crafting that kind of internationality for queer people who need it. And so I think that there can be public processing that we do together.
I think also significant is that most of these issues don’t necessarily have an effect on my life directly. Most of the things that are going on affect queer people of color, trans people, trans women of color, especially. And so personally processing isn’t really as important because, for me, it’s about really passing the discussion onto to the folks that are experiencing it. Trying to not center on my personal feelings about it, but really have an engaged conversation that refocuses to the experiences within the community that I’m a part of that are really relevant, that are vital, that aren’t always necessarily talked about.
In your opinion, what is the role of queer art and artists during tumultuous political times, like the one we live in?
That’s been a big question recently, right? Because do we have this feeling that this time is very tumultuous and is an opportunity for artists to really test the idea that art can be used to make a difference. And I think step one is not feeling like we have to immediately make a statement. Good art is not going to come without really listening, and paying attention, and informing ourselves first about what’s going on. Listening to the voices that maybe aren’t necessarily on the forefront, but have more important things to say. And then, I think art can probably most importantly create spaces where conversations can happen.
Queer art is as much about starting conversations as it is about making dramatic statements. It’s as much about the intersection of many people working together as it is about a single artist. And I think just that phenomenon, just the way that we make art, has something to offer this moment. And maybe the way we make art can affect the way that people think about how policy can be made, the way that people can think about how business is done frankly, to be more intersectional, to more responsive to people’s needs, to hold awareness of the real life-or-death issues that people do face within the queer community and engage with that.
What does Pride mean to Sasha Velour in 2018?
Pride. Pride as a collective, as a community, being proud of what everyone is doing around us, as well as proud of ourselves, being proud of who we are and what we look like, but also being proud of the very real accomplishments that are coming from within our community, the great, and sometimes even surprising, amount of success that queer people are able to grasp for themselves right now. In 2018, that’s a big deal.
Pride always has an element of performativity, which is great. Like drag queens know, to really make something land and have people listen, you have to have an element of performativity to it. But it also has to be about the real activist engagement with the issues, too ― not just performative centering of the diverse queer community, but the actual refocusing of conversations. Actual refocusing of hierarchies and queer businesses to respond better. And I’m trying to think about my own role in all of that as well.
The theme for HuffPost’s Pride coverage this year is #TheFutureIsQueer. What does a queer and compassionate future look and feel like to you?
I think we’re very lucky, we’re very lucky to live in Brooklyn, in New York, in a big city where a lot of the conversations that people are dying to have out loud are kind of day-to-day casual chats with each other. That is an enormous privilege, because there are places where the language that we use casually is unimaginable in their context. And I think that true queer acceptance and inclusion all around the world is coming. I love saying “the future is queer” ’cause it’s a description of what is going to happen, it’s not a request. And that is very real because it’s moving that way, whether people are comfortable with it or not.
And so, outside of our world, I think, outside of, sometimes, the bubble, the queer bubble that people in cities get to experience, I think the future is queer means safe spaces, a safe life, a life where you are told that you are valid and important for queer people, especially queer people of color, especially trans people. The future is queer means that existing everywhere all around the world, outside of privilege, outside of America, outside of cities. And thanks to the internet, thanks to social media, the queer community is becoming very international, and that’s gonna be very powerful as we move forward.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 different cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.