We're about halfway through RuPaul's Drag Race season nine, and Mama Ru has once again proven she knows how to collect the most glamorous creatures in all the land. One of this year's stand out contestants is the brainy Brooklynite Sasha Velour, who has stunned audiences with her smart, transgressive take on drag. We chatted with Sasha about everything from beauty tips to future of drag:
You came out the gate repping NYC with your homage to Big Apple artists. How has the city inspired you?
Sasha Velour: I really wanted to reference the artists I had seen and the artists associated with New York. When I was a kid we would go into the city and I would see graffiti and sculpture, a lot of that beautiful, colorful pop art. I loved seeing the queer politics and the activist art. That's what really inspires me and why I wanted to move there as an adult and take up my own art practice.
Who are some of your other inspirations?
I consider some of the greatest drag queens of New York to be the most influential. People like Kevin Aviance, Lypsinka, even folks like Linda Simpson who have created drag publications and really documented drag history. To me, the best modern art comes out of queer culture. Of course Divine and John Waters, anyone who pushes the boundaries of drag.
You've been hailed as a proponent of androgyny, but what exactly does androgyny mean to you?
For me, it comes from what I personally find beautiful. I've always hated the [notion that] drag has to be presented a certain way in terms of gender. It comes from a culture in which men and women have to look a certain way. Drag, if anything, should disagree and challenge that. I love drag that takes aspects of traditional masculine fashion and makes it femme or traditional femme fashion and makes it butch. I love things that twist gender in every level, that's the most exciting thing to me.
I think it's great that drag and androgyny are starting to appear in fashion. That allows people to innovate and try to keep people on their toes.
What are some of your best beauty tips?
I love it when drag queens give beauty tips! But also, I kind of I wish I could give ugliness tips! Ugliness is what excites me. What people mean by beauty is often very conservative. For me it's all about self-exaggerating and embracing things about myself that I'm uncomfortable with. In some ways my inherent androgyny as a femme helps me be a butch drag queen; I really love exaggerating things I'm insecure about and learning to love them. Things like body hair and baldness too. And I think there are ways to do that in everyday life that are so stylish.
That's my number #1 beauty tip. I think I heard John Waters once say, "If you have a hunchback, don't disguise it, throw glitter on it!" Highlight the things that make you different from other people.
Do you have any advice for young drag queens or people exploring gender?
I just want to encourage everyone to stay away from all the cliches of drag. Look at what everyone else is doing and run some evasive actions. I also think one of the biggest mistakes of drag is maybe not going far enough right away. Never be afraid of going all the way. There shouldn't be moral limits to your drag. I love when drag forces us to get out of our comfort zones.
Does drag have its own set of beauty standards?
I've gotten a lot more push back than I thought I would get. I think it's because living in New York is like living in a bit of a bubble. For example, what is glamour fish by Brooklyn drag standards, the rest of the country is like, “What is this man doing in this crazy outfit?”
I think what I'm doing crosses a line for some people. And that's what I want to be doing, it's what I have to do. But I have been a little surprised and disappointed because so many people have limits on what drag can be. People who enjoy drag want to create boundaries. They say, “That's not drag-y enough.” It shows what we need to keep changing and transforming in the art of drag.
You've gone from underground Brooklyn fame to international acclaim. What's that been like?
It's cool! I get to do the same thing that I was doing in Brooklyn but with a lot of interest and engagement, which is really what everyone as an artist wants. The things I'm proudest of are the growth of my magazine, Velour, and the drag show Nightgowns that I do every month because those feature Brooklyn artists. I hope that just keeps continuing and that we get to show our art to a wider audience. Just last week I got to do a version of Nightgowns in such a larger venue. I got to put all of my favorite drag artists in this gorgeous space and watch them be celebrated as they should have been this whole time. I hope I get to keep not just Brooklyn — but anyone who is doing drag with an eye for a new direction — I hope that I can keep helping to bring those kinds of artists to the forefront.
Are there any celebrities right now you're particularly fascinated by?
I love pop culture, but there's nothing I can say that I'm really modeling myself after. I'm still such an old soul at heart. Time will tell which of the pop artists today that will leave a legacy like someone like Marlene Dietrich or even someone like Grace Jones.
It was great getting to do the Madonna runway again. Doing Marlene Dietrich right before Madonna — there's such a beautiful through line. Getting to think about those two together was really satisfying. The way that each generation can go back to icons of the past and reinterpret them — that's inspiring.
What's been your favorite challenge on Drag Race so far?
I really liked the princess challenge! I'm not sure the judges loved my super-intense storyline. But I love writing sappy, metaphorical children's stories.
I loved the morning talk show, too. I love tacky pop-culture. Morning news shows are so — they needed the intervention. But so do princess stories too!
How do you feel about Drag Race becoming more mainstream?
There's been a lot of deep conversations in this season about sort of heavy things. We've talked about eating disorders, HIV/AIDS — that's an interesting way that this season, even though it's on a larger network, it's still pushing a boundary about what drag is meant to be. I think maybe a more serious or more reflective side of drag is going to be very boundary pushing for some people.
Watch Sasha compete for the crown, Fridays on VH1.