Sasha Velour, a winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is bringing her first one-woman show Smoke and Mirrors to Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House on November 14. Smoke & Mirrors is a blend of drag, visual art, and magic. Velour introduces audiences to a whole new side of her artistry, through 13 dazzling and genre-busting lip-synch performances, all directed and choreographed by the queen herself.
Recently, Hampton Roads drag legend Jennifer Warner had an opportunity to speak with Sasha about her show, her style, and her shyness in the presence of celebrities.
Jennifer: I was really impressed by some of the people you had entertaining in your show, Nightgowns. Sasha Colby and Latrice, who’s always a fan favorite. You weren’t just like, “I’m a one woman show, that’s it. Off my stage.”
Sasha: Obviously, I am doing a one-woman show now. But I miss doing Nightgowns, and I know that being around other drag performances and sharing the stage, like that’s my forever passion. I’m just now learning the ropes on this solo act thing so that I can take that experience and produce shows for others in the community.
J: The press often describes you as a gender-fluid drag queen and visual artist. What’s your take on that?
S: I’ve experienced gender in a fluid way my entire life. And I didn’t have a good understanding or healthy relationship with it. As I’ve gotten older and tried different things and been different people, I’ve discovered that I’m feel strongest and most balanced when I get to try on different binary stories of gender and in-between stories that feel tailored to me as an individual. I’ve discovered that the stage is a very safe place to play with gender and express that, to try on different things in new ways. It’s very much safer than the streets in everyday life. Little by little, that trickles down into my day to day life, and my drag shifts and changes and informs my soul person.
J: Back in the 1400s when I started performing, everyone did the same thing. We called it “cookie cutter. drag” I always wanted to do something different, and when I was exposed to New York drag, I began to get it—that there were innovative performers out there toying with new ideas. And now you’re becoming that icon, leading the way for a new generation. How do you feel about becoming such an inspiration for these young queer people?
S: It’s pretty surreal to think about. It warms my heart and makes me proud that I can make a difference in people’s lives. It does make me reflect on the drag legends that changed my life. Like Divine, those movies like Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos that I used to watch over and over again and helped me build my sense of myself. Of course Ru Paul, Lypsinka, all those wild experiments that they do on stage. To think that I can have that effect on somebody pushes me to want to work and make new stuff and push out high quality for everyone who’s watching.
J: With Nightgowns, I loved the opening with you in that white patent leather gown and up on that ladder, telling a story. Which, by that way, that ladder really made me nervous as an entertainer.
S: I love climbing ladders in stilettos.
J: I’m sure it made you nervous on some level. Have you ever had any malfunctions? I know that’s kind of the premise for Smoke and Mirrors.
S: I like to stay true to my origins in drag, and in the dive bar where I started producing Nightgowns, all kinds of things would go wrong. I was constantly climbing a ladder go up and adjust things in the booth, to try to plug and replug the sound system, to push the projector with a big stick to position it or turn it on. So I think that’s why I cheekily incorporate those things into my performances now. I want to be climbing the ladder, I love that. When you do drag, you’re not just in the spotlight. You’re also climbing up to adjust the spotlight, pressing go on the sound system, and running offstage to direct other performers. That’s what I love about this form of theater. It’s what makes it so communal and joyous.
J: We’ve all heard ‘the show must go on,’ no matter what. I’ve often seen major malfunctions in every level of shows, and to me, it’s always that real moment where you get a glimpse into who they are. Because I do believe that audiences truly want to see behind the curtain and see who you really are.
S: And drag is always full of those little malfunctions. Even in the act of trying to be perfect we still reveal so much about ourselves, including the failures. But I think in Smoke and Mirrors, because there are choreographed malfunctions, it builds a question about what’s real and what is not. I think that is very true to the art form as well. It’s like you pull back one curtain to pull back another curtain to pull back another one. It’s that Shakespearian adage that all the world is a stage. You see that all there are stages behind each other but somehow, you’ve learned something.
J: You’ve become a celebrity in so many ways, and as a performer myself, although certainly not on your level, I have moments where I wonder about boundaries with fans and other performers. Do you ever have moments meeting another performer or a celebrity when you a little nervous?
S: Oh, I’m always way too nervous to talk to anyone. Like, with the other Drag Race girls, I get tongue-tied when I talk to them. Actually this summer for Nightgowns, I performed an Allie X song called Girl of the Year, and she actually came to the show.
S: And I’ve never lip-synced someone’s song in front of them before. It was actually one of the best experiences of my life. She was giving me all her energy and was very into it. Thank goodness. That made me so nervous and so excited.
I also saw Stockard Channing at a restaurant in London. My heart started racing just being near her, and I ended up going over and introducing myself to her. I told her that of all her moments in Too Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything. Julie Newmar that could have made me into a drag queen, it was actually the moment she stepped out in that red gown, lifted the veil, and said, “I am a drag queen.” So I thanked her and quickly ran out sweating. But it was so great to be able to tell her what an impact she had on my life.
J: I love the fact that you are a sketch artist and design your costumes and set pieces. I’m an old pageant queen, and I used to do the same thing. But I can’t draw, so it was like really bad stick figures with boobs.
S: Well at least you got the important parts in!
J: Right? I would draw to oversize breasts, then draw an arrow that said “me” with a few more stick figures behind me that said “dancers.” I loved it, and I would give it to my designer and choreographer thinking I was the only one in the world who had thought of such a thing. But your sketches are almost like a comic book, they’re so beautiful and detailed, and I’m sure it helps you in your planning. Do you ever feel like you overthink things or over plan?
S: Oh definitely. I think because I was fantasizing about my drag on paper without ever bringing it to life for so long, I’m used to building things in isolation. So sometimes getting to bring it to life feels like a weird puppet show of myself. Which can be fabulous. But the thing I’ve learned is that getting other people involved can really improve an idea. And that’s been the biggest thing for me, making sure I don’t over plan and trusting other people to bring their brilliance to it where it’s required. But also knowing when my over planning is just what the doctor ordered.
J: Who are some of your favorite artists to perform with?
S: There’s a drag family here called Switch N Play, and they’re my closest drag family here in Brooklyn. They’re a really inclusive drag troupe that focuses on anyone other than cis men who do drag. They are definitely the antidote the community needs. They infuse the community with their art form, with amazing politics and incredible performances.
J: I’m dying to ask you this. What is your favorite part of drag, and what part do you dislike the most?
S: My favorite part is being immersed in the world. It’s kind of like all the parts of it together: the spotlight, the music, the corset, the heels. I come alive on stage and on stage in that kind of fantasy that’s over the top and all-consuming drama. Straight theater never had enough drama for my tastes. I dislike the process of getting ready. I just wish I could wake up and be her instantly, ready to go on stage.
J: We call that the Wonder Woman effect where you just spin around….
S: What’s your least favorite part?
J: I hate getting to a gig, because when I’m ready, I’m ready to go on stage that second. And I don’t like getting ready at venues because I like my space with some quiet music where I can transform.
S: I know! It’s like you get ready at home, then have to carry two suitcases and sit in a car for a half an hour.
J: What’s your favorite in your new show, Smoke and Mirrors?
S: There’s a number that I’ve done many, many times in my drag career called Deceptacon, a Le Tigre song, kind of queer punk. It’s my upbeat pop contribution to the entire evening of mainly older songs. And there’s a moment when we blast the entire audience with colorful light. And they can see me, and I can see the entire audience in the same light, and they’re bouncing around in their seats and clapping and doing the hand jive. That exchange is a real pay off. It’s my favorite moment.