After a dramatic season and finale — in which the top four contestants engaged in an epic lipsynch battle — Sasha Velour was crowned the winner of RuPaul's Drag Race season 9.
The Advocate spoke with Velour about her stunning performance in the finale, as well as what it means to be America's Drag Superstar in today's political climate. Velour also weighed in on the history of Pride, its meaning today, and a possible future in political office.
The Advocate: Condragulations! I’m sure you’ve had a busy weekend.
Sasha Velour: Oh, my gosh, in every way. I had my 30th birthday yesterday as I was on the float of New York Pride, in full drag all day long, and then I ended the day with a celebration with my Brooklyn family in one of my home bars. It was really nice coming full circle and celebrating and reflecting on this whole crazy ride.
No one got me anything! Which I guess says something.
Just a crown.
What was the experience like marching in New York Pride? Particularly right after your win.
It felt really important. I’ve always felt a connection to New York Pride, because of the importance of the Stonewall riots to defining and shaping and instigating Pride. And [the] Stonewall riots actually inspired me to get into drag to begin with. I was reading Trans Liberation, this book by Leslie Feinberg. It’s a collection of essays from different types of queer people around the world. And there’s an essay by Sylvia Rivera about what the night of the Stonewall riots was like. I was reading it after college, and I never realized what an important role trans people and drag queens and gender-nonconforming, basically teenagers, had played in creating a revolution that shaped everyone’s experience. And kicking off Pride, this thing that we know so well, it made me want to tap into my own explorations with drag that I had been doing as a little kid and fully live my life the way that I had always wanted to. So it really did feel like coming full circle to get to be this drag queen on a float with rainbows everywhere, waving to this crowd, making people feel excited to be queer and excited to be themselves. It was really moving and emotional.
There’s been a lot of discussion about what Pride means today. Is it resistance? Is it celebration? What do you think?
I think it’s all those things. I think it’s obviously about personal pride and being able to live your life by your own rules and having the freedom and the power to do that. But it’s also I think, most of all, about the power that we have when we come together and define community for ourselves. And the reason that Pride celebration is so important is it’s really a chance for all of us to come together and insist on what we find important, and what we find beautiful, and what we find valuable. And in more conservative political moments, that really is an act of resistance, to say the things that we value are people exploring gender in fabulous ways, are people raising money for organizations that benefit trans people and queer people of color and our cities — the people who need it most. I think Pride, this year especially, has really taken on a very important political role around the country. But Pride evolves every year. I think queer culture, and specifically queer political culture, always has to move in step with politics in general.
There’s been a lot of internal debate over Philadelphia’s Pride flag, which added black and brown stripes. Are you for that change, of showing visual racial inclusion in the Pride flag?
I don’t feel too strongly either way. I think the negative response has been really shocking, because it’s been absolutely important to say out loud how much of a part queer people of color have in our community. And if adding more colors to the already gaudy flag [can do that] in any measure, I think it’s really important. In this moment, I think maybe grand statements — about how much we’re gonna center not just people of color, but trans people and gender-nonconforming people, specifically — is really important. Because that’s where we should keep our focus as a community, especially when it comes to what political battles we want to fight for.
All any gay person could talk about this weekend was your lip-synch and those rose petals. It was amazing. What was the story you wanted to tell with the rose?
I really tried to study what the songs were about, because I felt that the challenge was to put on an unforgettable, show-stopping performance. So I wanted to have some little tricks, some little surprises. But I wanted them to not just be random, but in keeping with what the song was about. And for me, “So Emotional” is about the excess of feelings, the excess of love, [the] overwhelming messiness of love. And since red roses are such a cliché about romance, I thought that the messy explosion of that from all over my body — as my outfit falls apart, as my beautiful hair falls off my head, and I become a little bit more strange, a little bit more monstrous — I thought that was a perfect way to capture the meaning of that song.
And the rose itself has such a wonderful history of symbolic meanings that differ. It was both love but also the petals of loss — how you had to beat Shea in order to win, and that must have been a bittersweet experience for you as well. Did you discuss that inevitable outcome with Shea?
Yeah. All four of us actually discussed it, because in the months since filming, we’ve grown really, really close. We have a kind of conversation between the four of us that was lasting the entire time. We really expected the competitive aspect of the show to be over, and the finale would be a celebration of all of our fabulousness. And even though it was very stressful to have to have this added moment of sudden-death showdown, we all saw it as an opportunity to make up for the lackluster lip-synchs of the season and remind people that the essence of drag is the ability to put on amazing shows. Whatever that means. There’s many different ways to put on an amazing show, but we were all determined to not hold back and give our soul [to] powerful performance abilities on the stage. Truly, all of us have secured a place in the spotlight, and that’s what matters most. But it was hard to face down in that moment, to see people lose their chance at winning in front of our eyes.
As you mentioned, you’ve had a lot of time to think about winning or not winning and what that would mean in a world that has changed very quickly. What does it mean to America’s Next Drag Superstar today, and how has that changed since you first started this journey?
The political climate has shifted in this country very abruptly. Maybe it hasn’t shifted as much as it seems, but certainly, my awareness of what’s going on is very different now. I think now more than ever, being a Drag Superstar has to be about being a community leader and about inspiring people to live life the way that they believe but also inspiring people to be engaged and aware — and aware of history, so that we don’t repeat it. Aware of what’s going on, so we know how to respond to it. So I think it’s my job to inspire and lead that.
One of the ways I’m most focused about going about that is this monthly show Nightgowns that I’ve been producing [for] two years in Brooklyn. In the past, it’s been about a theatrical, well-produced celebration about the diversity of Brooklyn drag — drag kings, queens who are assigned female at birth performing drag, nonbinary performers. But I’m gonna take this show on the road and turn it into something that unites queer people and drag artists across the country — from small towns to big cities. And at the same time, we’re transforming Nightgowns into a nonprofit organization that can raise money for queer people in need around the country, in terms of raising money to support housing and educational needs.
I love this plan. Would you ever run for office? Because it seems like the things you’re talking about, being a community leader, intersects with that.
I’ve thought about it a lot actually. The inspiration for my crowning outfit that I wore for the New York coronation was presidential chic. And one of my biggest inspirations in terms of what can be done with drag is this drag queen known as the Grand Empress of San Francisco, José Sarria, who created the Imperial Court system, which was also a drag show that became a really important charitable organization in the '60s. [Sarria] was the first drag queen — I think the first out queer person — to run for office in San Francisco. So there’s definitely a long history of drag queens taking public office. So who knows what’s in the future?
I’d vote for you! You also memorably said at the finale that drag performers were the keepers of our history and its tellers. It made me think of The Giver as well.
I love that!
What story from our history needs to be told and remembered right now?
I’ve always been a supporter of telling the story of the Stonewall riots as they actually were, and breaking away from the myths and looking at the context that required those riots: the level of police brutality and repression, the fact that it was gender-nonconforming homeless teenagers, drag queens, and trans women as well as trans men and drag kings who really were at the forefront of fighting to make sure that we were safe from the police. I think that that story takes on new resonances every moment. The importance of standing up against repression an fighting for protection of queer people is something that I think we need to remember, that that’s always been apart of drag history — that drag queens and queer people are the leaders of the fight for gay rights, and I think we need to have a renaissance of that spirit.
Fifty years from now, what do you hope drag queens will say about this moment?
Oh, gosh! That’s a really interesting question. I hope that, this is a moment where drag is everywhere. And I hope that this isn’t a highlight that we move downhill from. I hope that drag just continues growing, and people see this moment, when there’s so many different styles of drag that are all being respected and uplifted, when there’s so many drag queens. A lot of queer people are sticking their toes in the waters of drag and trying it out, and discovering how freeing and empowering it can be. So I hope this is just the start of a real explosion of drag.
Congratulations, Sasha! See Velour and the rest of RuPaul's Drag Race season 9 cast discuss their first Pride experiences below.