Sasha Velour's New Show Unpacks The 'Magic Act' of Drag
The 'Drag Race' winner uses her background in comics to devise her signature look.
Photo by Mettie Ostrowski.
I didn’t make the connection until Sasha Velour said it, but drag is a magic act. Well, sort of. There are transformations and reveals left and right, but the key difference is the queen isn’t trying to trick you into how it’s happening. “Drag very much puts the illusion on the table,” she said. “And I feel like it’s a less oppressive version of magic; you're not trying to like dupe the audience. You are trying to like let them in on the secret.” And in her new one-woman show, Smoke & Mirrors, the fashion is what drives that thrilling illusion.
Smoke & Mirrors is described as a combination of “drag, visual artistry, and magic,” and is Velour’s attempt to expand a typical drag set into full-length show. Velour, the winner of the ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, already knew she could nail the traditional show. “I was curious whether this very draggy, contemporary draggy performing where you lip sync and a narrative built through reveals, and discoveries and emotional lip syncing; whether that could be a whole show and tell a whole story,” she said.
Velour originally designed the looks in comic book form. Velour, who holds an MFA from the Center for Cartoon Studies, said that her comics background helped her visualize her looks. “A specific lesson in comic books [is that] to draw a good character you to draw it really tiny, and make sure that the person is recognizable,” she said, so she wanted to make sure in a large theater, you knew what she was going for, even from the back. Velour’s looks stick to a pretty basic color palette—red and white—with some black and blue and shine thrown in. The silhouettes are also pretty classic; she has a bodysuit and a flowing gown and a suit, but for her, the beauty is in the details. It’s the contradiction between bold monochrome and delicate ornamentation that, Velour says, is perfect for the vibe of the show.“There is something so pure about not even looking like a human anymore through clothes,” she says.
The looks came to life with her collaboration with Diego Montoya. “Diego is able to see, transform this two dimensional drawing into something that not only is alive, and can move, and can transform, but he adds all this texture and ornamentation. And I love to be ornamented and sparkling like any queen,” she says. Montoya says it took weeks of fittings and staging to make sure the costumes worked the way they were supposed to, whether that meant an on-stage reveal or a quick change backstage in the middle of a song.
Nancy the Girl, the show’s wardrobe manager, who met Velour while working at a vintage store near the Center for Cartoon Studies, says working with her on her costumes is “same process as when she was creating the characters for her comic books, but now it's in 3-D.” But working with her on the show afforded Nancy new opportunities to think about the semiotics of fashion. She mentions realizing how many options there were for lapels on a suit, and how each option changed the implications of the costume, and how much they worked to get the details exactly right. “It's all on purpose, really.”
But aside from the fun and drama of changing clothes, these looks are meant to tell a story of maturity and growth, from Velour’s first days as a drag queen to where she stands now, and all the emotional ups and downs in between. “You can see the first act Sasha's kind of a younger character and the clothes are brighter and sort of towards the end of the act you see some shots in black and white,” says Montoya. “The second act is much more grown up, kind of a sharper character.” Even if there were no music or words, the goal was for the clothes to tell that story.
There’s also a moment where Velour becomes a tree. Velour calls it the “ultimate metamorphosis,” evoking Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree. But the tree is specifically one outside Velour’s mother’s house, which she visited a lot when her mom passed away. But it’s perhaps the ultimate illusion of the show, Velour turning into an object instead of another version of herself. “There is something so pure about not even looking like a human anymore through clothes,” she said.
Recently, there have been more conversations about what drag is and who is allowed to do it. Velour, who identifies as non-binary, says “drag for me is not like a literal recreation of what a woman looks like, but is rather an experiment with gender that goes purposefully beyond what people are familiar, or even comfortable with.” And while she knows you can’t understand drag through the lens of a single performer, she hopes her show can expand people’s ideas of what drag can be. “Drag hasn't always been lip-syncing (that’s a 20th century invention), it hasn't always been comedy, it hasn't always been men, it hasn't always been anything, so you know I try to honor all of that by doing basically a million and a half different things and pack it all together.”