Drag queens are basically real-world comic book heroes. Both take on new names and identities, with flashy costumes to match, face marginalization for being exceptional, and turn this potential source of exclusion into a source of power. It makes sense that Sasha Velour, the drag persona of Brooklyn-based artist Sasha Steinberg, who's currently starring on this season of RuPaul's Drag Race, first began life as a comic book character.
Velour is an artistic polymath—she holds a Masters from the Center for Cartoon Studies, and spent a year studying LGBT art in Russia as a Fulbright Scholar. She creates collages, enamel pins, and co-founded and edits a drag magazine. Her early dabbles in drag began on the page. "I'd started playing with makeup, but my skills [and wardrobe were] too limited," Velour tells Creators. "So I started fleshing out the character on paper, where anything is possible."
Sasha Velour didn't leap directly from the pages of comics and onto TV screens. Before her time on the show, she was a star in Brooklyn's drag scene, a community that embraces a definition of drag that spans far beyond female impersonation, and prizes artistic innovation in lip syncing. Velour's signature look—beautifully bald with a striking unibrow—and sensitive, video art-accompanied syncs made her a local success. And she's kept up her visual art practice even as she's become a well-known performer.
Drag and LGBT themes pervade Velour's art. She's working on a full-length graphic novel about the Stonewall riots, which sparked the contemporary gay rights movement and in which drag queens and trans women were integral players. Velour creates drag-related collages, initially inspired by a visit to the Museum of Modern Art's 2014 exhibit of Matisse's brightly colorful paper works. "I was completely blown away," she says. "I loved the efficiency, the bare-bones quality of it. That was when I started playing with collage." Her own works are stark in their simplicity and bold in their intent. For her, collage is "like a meditative practice."
But one of Velour's most moving works is also among her most personal. Her comic What Now was written in the aftermath of her mother's death, and depicts Velour going through her mom's belongings. "I'd selected a couple of pieces from her closet that I wanted to incorporate into my drag, as a way of bringing her with me," she says. In particular, she latched onto a wondrously 80s neon-bright turquoise suit, which she'd secretly tried on while growing up.
"Are these things mine now?" reads the accompanying text. The grief of this ownership is analogous to drag itself, which explores the sometimes painful reclamation of new identities, finding male performers adopting modes of femininity that society has insisted they're not supposed to access. Velour performed Shirley Bassey's What Now My Love?—a mournful song of goodbye—while wearing the suit.
"To me, what's most interesting about drag is that addition to changing the body, it changes the space," says Velour. "When a drag queen walks into a room, suddenly the whole environment changes."
To learn more about Sasha Velour, click here. Catch Sasha in the next episode of RuPaul's Drag Race, on VH1 on Fridays at 8PM Eastern.