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Drag performer Sasha Velour explains what the art form means to her


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: By many measures, drag is more popular than ever. At the same time, there's a growing number of states passing or debating laws to restrict or ban it entirely.

But what does drag represent to those who create it?

Jeffrey Brown has this look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A show at NightGowns, a monthly review at the New York City club Le Poisson Rouge.

Sasha Velour, Author, "The Big Reveal": Welcome to NightGowns.


Jeffrey Brown: It's been running in different forms and venues since 2015, and been adapted into a streaming docuseries showcasing many of today's leading drag performers.

Its founder and host, 36-year-old Sasha Velour.

Sasha Velour: Drag is heightened performances of gender. So we take all the ideas that make characters in this world, which are always gendered ideas, and we twist them around, exaggerate them, invert expectations, and create something new in the mixing of seeming opposites.

Jeffrey Brown: Sasha who is gender fluid and uses she/her pronouns in drag, gained national attention in 2017.

RuPaul, Host: The winner of "RuPaul's Drag Race" is Sasha Velour.

Jeffrey Brown: As winner of season nine of the hidden reality competition show "RuPaul's Drag Race," where she rocked the crowd with her so-called big reveal.

And that's the title of her new book, one that explores the history and art of drag and her own life in it.

Sasha Velour: I wanted to present drag as an art form that is also tied to a community and that is a site for people to advocate for change.

Jeffrey Brown: What's the art in drag? How do you define that part of it?

Sasha Velour: From beginning to end, drag is an art. We think about the colors and the textures. We tell a story on stage. Some people dance. Other people sing live. Some people tell stories or jokes. I lip-synch, which is a tradition in drag as well.

There's also just artistry in the appearance. We paint our faces like a painting, design costumes that go even wilder than contemporary fashion, bigger and more colorful.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Sasha Velour: And it's a place to have fun, to try things, to experiment.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a place to have fun and experiment, but also a place for saying something.

Sasha Velour: Yes.

The thing I want to say is, first of all, that queer people, that nonbinary and trans people are normal, that we can have beautiful lives in the world, and that it's good to be truthful about who you are, to exaggerate if you want or simply not to hide from it.

Jeffrey Brown: I think the disconnect for many people would be that you're appearing in a way that does not appear normal.

Sasha Velour: Why is that, I would ask.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, why is that?

Sasha Velour: That's so funny to me, because any time when you watch the morning TV, they have as much makeup on as I do. It's just they don't have any fun with it.


Sasha Velour: So, it's -- this is very normal. It's just I make strong and personal choices that are bolder than the things most people are willing to do.

So I guess, in that sense, I'm not afraid to look abnormal, because I know that this is just as normal as everyone else.

Jeffrey Brown: The book explores the history of drag, including New York's ballroom scene in the 1920s and '30s, participants in the 1969 Stonewall uprising, and key figures who've pushed boundaries along the way.

It also presents more personal stories and photos. Sasha grew up in a loving and accepting family in Central Illinois, child of a Russian history professor and academic editor, and always loved dressing up.

Sasha Velour: Learning about drag showed me a different way that made just as much sense, maybe even more sense. It showed me a path for people, regardless of what gender they are, to create characters and tell stories that they connect with.

And one of the reasons I wanted to share this history of drag, this history of queer and trans people and the art and communities that they make is because I needed that context personally to understand how I fit into the world.

Jeffrey Brown: Should drag be understood as a performance, as an identity, as both?

Sasha Velour: Drag is definitely a performance. Even when it's not on stage, it's purposefully exaggerated and over the top.

Sometimes, it's connected to the real queer identities that we have outside of drag too. Of course, when I feel most natural, I don't dress like this. But, in a weird way, I think something truthful about me is best understood through the makeup and the styling.

Jeffrey Brown: So there is a connection to identity?

Sasha Velour: There is a connection to identity. But we don't think that drag is real. Drag is a very needed escape from reality into a world that has more freedom.

Jeffrey Brown: Is it a political action, to be understood that way?

Sasha Velour: Not always. I think, sometimes, drag is just for fun, just to -- or sometimes for a job, a chance to entertain people, to make money, to have a party, to put on a great show.

But there is something political about this space that has always been welcoming to people of all gender expression.

Jeffrey Brown: According to the ACLU, 20 states have introduced drag ban bills. Three, Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota, have laws against adult performance that could be applied to drag, while two, Missouri and Tennessee, explicitly ban drag performances in public spaces or in front of minors.

Recently, the Tennessee law was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

Sasha Velour: They are trying to convince people not to be gay. And we believe everyone should have freedom of choice over their own body and their own life.

And so we just create a space. Our goal is to create space where that is possible.

Jeffrey Brown: And how worried are you about this moment we're in?

Sasha Velour: I'm not worried for myself.

I have been at this for a while. And I have seen the tide shift even in the 10 years that I have been doing drag. But I do worry for people in more rural areas, like the place where I grew up, in Central Illinois, people, young people without access to a strong community. I think that's who's going to be affected the most.

Jeffrey Brown: The new laws come as, arguably, drag is more popular than ever in the culture, with national shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race," drag brunches, and so-called storytime events in many cities.

Sasha Velour: People are going to drag shows. They're introducing drag to young people. That feels new. For us, it feels exciting, because we remember being kids and not having the same access to that knowledge.

The hopeful thing is that so many minds have been changed already. And it's not a question for us. This is not a debate. We know that our identities are real, and our community helps people and saves lives, allows us to live our lives. And it's going to be impossible to go backwards.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the book is "The Big Reveal."

Sasha Velour, thank you very much.

Sasha Velour: Thank you so much.

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