Sasha Velour seems most at ease while lounging in repose, wearing a silky robe in her brand new, two-story home in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights. It’s noon, and right after her house clears, she’ll begin the hours-long process of beating her face, cinching her waist and dressing up for Rihanna’s Fourth Annual Diamond Ball: a star-studded charity gala hosted by the pop star and entrepreneur at Cipriani Wall Street. The next morning, pictures of her in a gorgeous gown covered in gold metals and colorful jewels — and draped over with red velour, naturally — will be featured in “best dressed” slideshows and wrap-ups alongside the likes of Issa Rae, Donald Glover and Tiffany Haddish.
Prior to the popularity of reality competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race, the show’s namesake and hostess RuPaul existed as one of the sole mainstream drag queens. She had broken ground in music, fashion, film and television for almost two decades before Drag Race found a home on Logo. When it premiered in 2009, it was a low-budget fixer-upper on a little-watched channel with a lot of potential, based almost entirely on the charm of its contestants.
Velour appeared in Season Nine, the first season to air on VH1. By then, the prize money had jumped from $20,000 in the first season to $100,000; Velour snagged the crown after an instantly legendary lip-sync to Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional,” when she let rose petals shake free from her wig as she removed it from her signature bald head. It remains the most popular season yet, drawing in nearly one million viewers for both the premiere episode (which featured guest judge Lady Gaga) and the finale, in which Velour was anointed with her scepter. The cult-like following that afforded Drag Race that jump has turned into sports-fan-like frenzy: viewers pack bars across the country to watch live viewings and lurk Reddit threads to read season spoilers and contestant speculation. In both Los Angeles and New York City, fans shell out money to attend and meet the queens and judges at Rupaul’s DragCon, a convention featuring panels and personalized photo areas for the former contestants to pose in with the attendees.
“I really wasn’t sure I was a good fit for them, but I figured they would know better than I,” Velour says, looking back on what brought her to audition in the first place. “I was very, very surprised I got the callback. I thought Drag Race was all about having a specific type of personality that I don’t really think I have.”
Velour cut her teeth in the Brooklyn drag scene, specifically Bushwick bars such as Bizarre, where she launched Nightgowns — first as a solo show and later as a monthly event, featuring a bill of mostly local drag queens and kings. (It was most recently taken to Terminal 5, where Janet Jackson watched from the balcony). Right before launching Nightgowns, Velour had quit her job and was ready to make the jump to pursuing drag more seriously. It was a year and half before Drag Race.
“I’d go earlier in the day and hang the lights — I would always have to adjust the lights because the drag performers were taller than the burlesque performers they usually had there,” she recalls, noting that it was only a ten minute walk from her old apartment. “It really helped me define my drag, and that was the first time I really spoke as my drag character.”
And who was Sasha Velour? She found inspiration for the powerful woman she embodies from personal loss. “I realized that Sasha Velour is a little weird in a beautiful way. My mom had just passed away, and I felt like Sasha Velour had her energy. She was someone who had this circle of amazing people around her always. I wanted to give that energy to the performers I worked with and all the people in the audience of Nightgowns.”
Born Alexander Hedges Steinberg, she spent most of her childhood moving from place to place, depending where her father’s teaching jobs would take their family. Mark Steinberg (referred to lovingly as Papa Velour by Sasha, her fans and collaborators) is a professor of Slavic studies; her mom, Jane Hedges, was the editor of Slavic Review. Most of Velour’s childhood was spent in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, while her father taught at the University of Illinois.
“I was the only queer person that I knew,” she remembers. Velour didn’t come out until her last year of high school and feels fortunate to have been raised by “super hippies,” who let her crossdress as a kid in the privacy of their home. “It was a really safe place for that,” she adds.
After high school, Velour moved to Russia and then Germany with her parents during her dad’s sabbatical in St. Petersburg and Berlin. She recalls falling in love with a chorus singer in Germany while working at the opera. Upon returning to the states, Velour matriculated to Vassar College, where the theater program proved too focused on her being a “conventional man.” After graduating from Vassar, she moved back to Russia on a Fulbright Scholarship to research queer activism, and her work there is something she still talks about with bright-eyed excitement.
“I wasn’t allowed to study gay activism outright, because the Fulbright fellowship had to be approved by the Russian government,” she says. In order to circumvent any restriction on her studies, she claimed she was researching “political art on the street.”
“Sorry, I’m like super-nerdy about Russian art,” she apologizes at one point, during her detailed recollection of her studies. Once she finished the fellowship, she continues, she moved to Vermont where she got a degree from the Center for Cartoon Studies before ultimately making a home in New York.
Miraculously, Velour found a way back to her childhood affinity for dressing up and performing. Vermont was where Velour began to do both regularly, but she had made her drag debut back in Urbana-Champaign while visiting her family. “I went to the gay bar that I had always tried to sneak in as a teenager,” she begins before noting that said bar, C Street, has since closed. “I did Julie London’s ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’ as a striptease, and I did Marina and Diamonds’ ‘Primadonna Girl.’ I had a full on breakdown tantrum on stage, rolling around. I’ve been interested in taking off clothes and feeling strong emotions from the very beginning I guess.”
She experienced a turning point much later while performing her Lady Gollum character, set to Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.” (Yes, Lord of the Rings Gollum.) It was through feminizing Gollum that she unlocked the potential of her own femininity. “It helped me break away from an internalized idea about glamour and perfectness and beauty, that probably has some internally femme-phobic things built into it of a very limited idea of what femininity can look like.”
That same fearlessness would carry over to Nightgowns and later Drag Race. One of Velour’s secret weapons on the show was how she lacked any fear of the strange, ugly or weird. Her head is typically bare and her make-up is drawn on so dark and bold that, even at rest, her expression looks like it’s on the verge of screaming, crying or maybe some glamorously ghastly combination of both.
“Allowing my femininity to be a little wilder and acceptable as a queer person was so empowering,” she adds.
Since Drag Race, Nightgowns has moved to a larger regular venue: National Sawdust in Williamsburg (the Terminal 5 show was a one-off event to complement DragCon in the New York that same weekend). A few days before joining the A-listers at the Diamond Ball, she had creative directed Opening Ceremony’s New York Fashion Week showcase at Le Poisson Rouge. In the audience, Nicki Minaj, Kim Gordon, Troye Sivan and Whoopi Goldberg watched a slate of queer performers walk the runway, perform high-energy lip-syncs and speak to the power of community on the stage in personalized, gender-less looks fashioned from the pre-existing items in Opening Ceremony’s collection. Velour even got Christina Aguilera to perform her single “Fall in Line” at the show’s climax.
“As much as I love being in the spotlight myself,” says Velour, “I think my favorite thing is getting to be producer and director of drag so that my extreme pickiness benefits lots of other drag performers too.” She wants to be an advocate for her drag family and friends, putting them at top billing so that as they break further into the mainstream, they’re treated with the respect they deserve.
“The thing that would be new for drag is if all of the tools of production and representation are in our hands. Not like, ‘Guess I’ll see how some external producer wants to represent me,’ but rather, ‘This is how I see myself and how I want to tell my story.'” As her star power has increased, she’s making sure that those benefitting from its shine are a diverse array of artists who have a similarly utopic vision that she has.
“I’m trying to work with as many different performers as I can and help make that more of a reality,” she says.