An artist in every sense of the word, Sasha Velour embodies and informs what’s exciting about Brooklyn nightlife, art and drag. Her amazing, expectations-defying monthly show Nightgowns returns in October to gag us, issue #2 of her dragazine drops soon, and her curious and distinctive artwork continues to haunt our dreams and tickle our nightmares. Also… Season 9!? Let’s get to the bottom of everything with the great Ms. Velour!
Thotyssey: Sasha, hello! Summer’s over and shit’s getting cold… what were some of your summer highlights this year?
Sasha Velour: I can’t believe this summer’s over…I think the biggest highlight was celebrating the one-year anniversary of my monthly show Nightgowns at Bizarre Bushwick Either that, or traveling to Russia and getting to learn about the drag scene over there! Or finishing up the second issue of my self-published drag magazine VELOUR. Okay…I guess it was a pretty major (and busy!) summer.
Yay, lots to talk about! Let’s start with Russia. What did you learn about the drag scene there? Those queens are warriors to still be doing it, with the ant-gay social climate there now.
It seems like a small but truly resilient scene, with a remarkably long history! I was surprised. There are famous drag clubs, a couple of interesting films (Veselchaki was pretty amazing), and queens throughout all of Russia turning amazing looks. I wish it were better documented (and celebrated)…but the climate is really, deeply repressive. I’ve been going to Russia with my family since I was a little kid, and I will always love it…but now, as a queer adult, it’s sort of heartbreaking to be there.
I can’t imagine. Are you from Russia, or are you ethnically Russian?
My grandmother emigrated from Russia (well, technically Ukraine, via Manchuria…but it’s a verrry complex Jewish/Communist/Pacifist saga [laughs]). Anyway, my dad is a professor of Russian History, so that’s the real reason I’ve been able to travel. And I learned the language as a little kid.
Has “Russianness” dictated your art at all? At first glance I’d say not much, because I see a lot of color and brightness (but of course I’m being stereotypical about what “Russianness” is!)
[Laughs] I actually think it has. I’m a huge fan of constructivist art and design…that’s bright and colorful! But I also read a lot of Russian fiction as a little kid. It’s pretty wild stuff…magic and witches and murderers and lots of existential crises. I think it’s all informed my art/drag imagination a lot!
Fascinating, I’ve got some reading of my own to do now!
So, where were you raised?
I grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois! I’m a midwestern girl at heart…
What were you like growing up, and what were your earliest artistic interests?
I’ve always been a head-in-clouds dreamer. I spent most of my time locked in my room making up stories–mysteries, spy adventures, romances. I loved drawing pictures, dressing up in costumes (especially dresses and witch hats, of course!), and putting on little plays with the neighborhood children. I always thought I’d end up as an actor or a director…but I think artist/cartoonist/drag queen actually makes more sense!
Has your family been supportive of your art?
Amazingly! My mom would sit down and sew costumes with me…Dracula cape, Cinderella skirt…whatever I wanted! Nowadays, my dad will even come out to drag shows! I was really really lucky to have grown up in that environment.
That’s great! So, Dracula and Cinderella… were you always playing with gender when you were creating looks and characters to play?
I never really distinguished! To me they were all just characters…I didn’t feel like any of them were closed to me because of gender. I always gravitated to the more fabulous, evil, and beautiful ones, though, for sure!
There’s something about your distinctive drag brows that reminds me of Siouxsie Sioux a little… did the goth scene inform you at all, speaking of evil beauty?
100%! I was a little goth 10-year-old, and then a preppy 12-year-old, and a vintage dandy 14-year-old! I always loved learning about different styles and playing around with them. I think that today…I’m a huge mixture of all those forces. I usually describe my brows as Kabuki meets Nosferatu…but I love the Siouxsie Sioux reference too! I see it!
So, what came first, as far as getting your art and performance out there for the world to see? Were you getting your art published or displayed, or were you making yourself known as a performer?
They really have always gone hand-in-hand! I did my first big drag show the same week that I graduated from art school (The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont). And my first published art piece (in the comics anthology QU33R) was all about drag! I do makeup like an illustrator, and I do illustrations like a drag queen. It’s all one huge mess! But I love it.
You’re quite a force of nature!
[Laughs] thank you! But yes…beware all!
When did you settle in NYC?
I came to NYC in 2013. Just passed the three-year mark!
How did you begin performing in NYC venues as Sasha… and where was your first gig?
My first gig was hosting and performing at a party called “Live Art,” hosted by the Circle Theater of NY. It was a crazy immersive art event, and I was the only drag queen, with a 25-min solo performance!
For a while I only was doing gigs like that: rare special events where I got to do something epic and strange! But then I really started falling in love with drag, and desperately wanting to do it all the time…so I snuck into the Brooklyn drag scene, and started performing more regularly.
Do all of your numbers have a performance art approach to them, or do you sometimes just have to crank out some fun Britney or Beyonce number just to get it out of your system?
At this point, even when I try to do a “fun” Britney number…it still turns out sort of performance arty. I think that’s just how my taste and mind work! But I always try to balance weird/arty ideas with light and fun stuff (campiness/glamour/etc.).
Well, the kids love it. Especially Nightgowns, your monthly multimedia performance showcase that returns to Bizarre Bushwick on October 13th. People rave about this, and it’s one nightlife event that I regret not having seen yet. Can you tell us a little bit about what happens at Nightgowns, and the genesis of it’s creation?
Sure! I think Nightgowns is a show for people who want to think about drag, and maybe think about it differently, or even politically! When i first started it, I really only had two goals: first, to have drag diversity–drag kings, lady queens, weird drag, pageant drag etc.–and second, to learn how to host a drag show [laughs]! I had no idea.
And I guess that’s probably why the show became so personal. I just opened up honestly about my thoughts, concerns, heartaches. It was actually a difficult time: I started the show about a month after my mom passed away from cancer, and I had a lot of really personal questions about how drag connects with sadness, and anger, and if performance can be useful in transforming pain into beauty or power.
I started experimenting with really personal performances at Nightgowns, and played around with using artwork and storytelling and projections in new ways.The audience and casts at the shows felt like a family. We’d gather and hug afterwards, sometimes cry, sometimes dance. And the show grew really quickly into a place where performers could try personal, or experimental material–and of course, silly choreographed campy things too!
No matter what happens, I think the audience is what defines Nightgowns. They love drag, and aren’t afraid to take it seriously…and they can be critics, too.
How much preparation and planning on your part goes into each installment?
Soooooo much. It’s a passion project for sure. I’ve pulled many all-nighters editing videos or gluing crazy paper headpieces. And I’m always up early in the morning ready to adjust the lights and run all the tech!
I also usually try to cook (or rather, order) dinner for the cast some night before the show. I like that all the different types of drag performers get to sit down and make new friends and talk, and create group numbers…I think it really changes the energy of the performance!
Who is Olive D’Nightlife? I see you two perform together a lot.
Olive is my drag sister. We met at a pageant, competing against each other, and instantly clicked. At that time, she was using the name “Didi Panache” and was a leggy, live-singing Manhattan queen. “Olive d’Nightlife” sort of emerged as her Brooklyny drag alter ego–experimental, creepy, crazy! She’s my best drag girlfriend and performs at every Nightgowns!
You’ll be a guest performer for Judy Darlng’s Stonewall Invasion this coming Sunday. It must be freeing to just do a number or two in somebody else’s show, without having to create this giant cohesive project, right?
Totally! I’m always so excited when I get to be a guest, especially for really amazing queens like Judy! And it’s my first time performing at Stonewall, too…I can’t wait!
Let’s talk about your art now, for a bit. First of all, kudos to your beautiful website! Lots of queens these days just rely on social media to promote and preserve images… but it’s always a good idea to have a home base to for everything, right?
Thank you!! I had so much fun designing it! And I totally agree–a website is such an important tool for any artist, especially drag performers!
You’re a professional freelance illustrator, so your work gets published everywhere. What media do you use to create these pieces, generally?
I mostly do digital illustrations. My friends make fun of me, because I use a mouse and the polygonal lasso tool in Photoshop to create almost everything. I like the simpleness! But I’ve also done pen-and-ink drawings, and I’ve recently started doing cut-paper collage.
I see a lot of your work feature these intricately designed interior backgrounds. Are these based on places that you’ve actually been in, or seen somewhere? Or are they just the products of your mental interior designer/architect?
Fantasy architecture, for sure! I love Edward Hopper’s paintings of city rooms, I think that was probably my initial inspiration…but I’ve just gone wild with it since!
I love drawing drag queens inside of rooms…not just against an empty background… I think drag always changes the space around it…it has a kind of magic, or aura…I love trying to depict that!
Fascinating! Has your work frequently showed in galleries, or are you mostly a digital dame?
My main game is magazines and books–so most of my work has been published like that…but I’ve also done two solo gallery shows–one in Manhattan, and one recently in Brooklyn (at Bizarre, where Nightgowns is)
A bunch of my new cut-paper collages are currently on view in the Bureau of General Services Queer Division inside the 13th St. LGBT Center. That’s part of the “Coney Island Babies” show, curated by Patti Spliff and Chris Bogia… art by Brooklyn drag performers! It’s really cool!
I have 6 cut-paper collage pieces on exhibit. The art was all created by drag queens, musicians, and designers in the Brooklyn drag scene (including Chris of Hur, Untitled Queen, BCALLA, and many more).
My pieces are about drag, and space, and art…and most importantly: they are really crazy colorful, and have tiny hand-cut details!
Your magazine focuses on drag and general queerness, which is about to see its second issue go to print! First off, cheers to you for understanding the beauty and importance of a physical, printed item, especially being a digital artist. What motivated you to create this… and by the way, is it not called VYM anymore?
We actually just re-branded the second issue [available October 21st at Bizarre] as VELOUR Magazine (#businessfish over here needed to market herself better). I started the magazine with my boyfriend Johnny as a tiny little zine, where visual artists and drag queens collaborated on interviews and art spreads.
It had to be print, because we wanted to take it around and sell it at comics conventions and drag shows. It sold out so quickly, and so many contributors wanted to be part of it…so we expanded into a 100-page full-color “magazine” (it’s really more of a book!). I think it shares the same spirit as Nightgowns. We call it a really great drag show for the page!
Indy publishing is a massive endeavor … are you staying sane?
Haven’t been sane in YEAAARS, thank goodness!
Were you back in town in time for Bushwig?
I missed Bushwig this year when I was in Russia, but I made sure to watch all the videos! It’s such an amazing event.
You know, there were some rumors that you were actually on a “cruise” this summer, as you vanished the same time as a few of our other gals in the city! Are we in for any surprises when a certain 9th season of a TV show airs?
[Laughs] If only! If only! I have my criticisms, but I definitely dream of being on the show someday. I didn’t audition this year, though. Damn you, internet rumors!
Yes! Especially because we all have different styles of movement, and costume, and character. I love collaborating…it pushes me to try new things.
We actually are expanding that piece into a full-length Chris of Hur-directed dance piece (starring Chris, Me, Patti, and Elle McQueen) called “Ulma Songz” At Brooklyn Studios for Dance (Friday & Saturday, October 28th & 29th at 8pm and Sunday, October 30th at 6pm)!
So, TnT closed this past weekend, sadly, leaving only one full-service LGBT venue in the Bushwick area. Of course there are still lots of mixed audience venues that support LGBT nights, like Bizarre. But is this a bad time for Brooklyn queer nightlife in particular, or NYC nightlife in general?
Everyone has a different opinion…but I think nightlife keeps evolving in interesting ways. Places come and go…that happens everywhere, and it always feels like a huge loss, but there are constantly new parties, new ideas, new drag queens and kings! I feel like queer nightlife in particular is very resilient.
I think (and hope!) you’re right.
And you’re performing at Monster in the West Village Friday night?
KWIR! I’m just doing a couple of numbers…Scarlet Envy does the main hosting. It’s a really fun event!
Excellent. Okay last question: If some billionaire became your benefactor–like in the Olden Days when artists had benefactors–what kind of single piece of art would you create, with an unlimited budget?
I have this recurring fantasy of a drag roadshow–like a traveling circus. A beautiful and stylish caravan of artsy drag talents that tours the country and gives pop-up performances. In a tent and everything! Creepy and sad and beautiful and funny…basically creating the kind of traveling circus that I would have run away with [laughs]!
That’s completely amazing… let’s all join the circus! Thank you Sasha, and good luck/have fun with your full, colorful plate!
Sasha Velour performs for the KWIR party at Monster on Friday night, October 7th (1am) and for Judy Darling’s Stonewall Invasion on Sunday, October 9th (11pm). Her monthly show “Nightgowns” is every second Thursday at Bizarre Bushwick, the next one being October 13th (10pm). She’ll perform in Chris of Hur’s “Ulma Songz” at the Brooklyn Studios for Dance on October 28th-30th, and some of her pieces are currently on display in the “Coney Island Babies” exhibit at the LGBT Center through November 27th. Issue #2 of her magazine VELOUR will be published on October 21st, available at Bizarre. Sasha has a website, and can be followed on Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.