Sasha Velour, who won the crown on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in Season 9, will present her new show, “Smoke & Mirrors,” on Nov. 12 at the Merriam Theater. The production combines drag, video and magic as the performer lip-syncs to songs, including Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional,” Judy Garland’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” — with real rain no less — and Celine Dion’s “I’m Alive.” She was touched to have her act described as, “being like bringing paintings to life.”
In a recent phone interview, the Brooklyn-based performer described her show as “its own specific genre. It’s lip-synch performance, and through these performances, I’m trying to tell the audience something real. So, it’s fantasy and over the top, but it has a lot of provocative imagery to stick in people’s minds for them to latch onto emotionally.”
Velour also explained that “Smoke & Mirrors” is “autobiographical.” She may do some theatrically driven numbers, with visual aids and multimedia interaction, but some segments of the show feature what the performer called, “stripped-down confessional numbers, which stand in opposition to the dramatic performances.” She likened these more intimate moments to her performances in gay bars, where she would talk honestly and openly about her life and then perform a number. She called it, “putting myself into the drag.”
“My show is similar to what I did when I was doing drag in bare club spaces. I was playing with the tools provided — a bare stage, a projection screen, and simple lighting. It’s that idea translated into a huge vaudeville.”
Velour’s origins as a drag queen began when she was very young. She would dress up in drag as a kid and put on shows as different characters. Velour came to learn about and appreciate the history and culture of drag when she was in college and saw documentaries such as “Pageant,” and “Paris Is Burning.”
She observed, “It’s something that’s been around for so long, and I was drawn to it, but I didn’t understand it as a place of self-expression. I realized I misunderstood this amazing art form. That’s why I’m trying to look backward at the drag of the past. I want to stay true to that tradition.”
Working on a larger scale takes time and planning, but Velour acknowledged that this has always been her approach to doing drag. “I would plan elaborate numbers on the subway during my commute to my day job. Once I had an idea fully formed, I’d bring it to life. I was economical.”
With “Smoke & Mirrors,” Velour goes big and gives her ideas deserved attention to detail. Creating the show required careful costume planning for video segments, prop selection, and even managing electric fans to keep things cool under the hot, bright lights.
In the show, Velour models, as expected, some dazzling outfits in her performance. She works with costumer Diego Montoya, who considers what a design might look like from a distance. Velour, therefore, favors bold colors and strong graphic designs. Her costumes begin as a simple sketch; she then adds detail that indicates fabric, how the outfit should move and what embellishments to add. Moreover, Velour uses color to communicate different emotions, so the costumes complement her song choices.
The performer claimed when choosing songs, she looks for amazing singers — “someone who can give it their all with their voice and has enormous range. I feel I’m providing the emotion and breath for the song. As long as there is emotion in the voice, it’s easy to give a drag interpretation. I make the songs about something other than what they are about. Romance is the least interesting narrative. I make the words metaphors and more about self-discovery, which is what drag is always scratching at.”
That said, when asked about singing herself, Velour confessed she does not even do karaoke, “From lip-synching, I should be better at doing vocal imitations. But no one publicly gets to hear my Celine Dion.”
“Smoke & Mirrors” does not rely heavily on camp; Velour focuses on appearance and aesthetics. “One element of camp I play with are moments of failure, and challenging that, and presenting it as success,” she insisted. “Instead of focusing on the tension of body, and my experiences, and society’s programmed ideas and narratives of gender, I’m interested in creating nonbinary and fluid ideas of gender. I have had success with that. That may be why [my show] feels less ‘classic drag camp,’ but it speaks to what people are craving — something beyond the binary. It’s about trying that out through fantasy, then onto the street into reality.”
As Velour enters this new chapter of her career, she admitted that it was the visibility of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” that enabled her to move more into the public eye. She indicated, “I see ‘Drag Race’ as this great trick where queer people proved what great success we have in mainstream entertainment in how we talk, and think, and present ourselves. It’s so good for so many individuals. I want to use my success and share with a national platform and also shift it back — that I come from a community where people have long been doing this.”
Velour hopes that her work will inspire people to go and create and paint or even perform.
But she also reflected on the difficulties of drag. She said, “It is quite intense physically, and sometimes we forget about that. There’s a lot of — I’ll say it — masochism in drag, but there is a bit of empowerment in that, too. We take charge of our bodies that we are told are ugly or undesirable. Putting ourselves through something intense can be empowering.”
Stressing the importance of self-care, Velour said that she deals with her “self-destructive spirit and ways I have put my career or relationship or health in jeopardy,” through performance “where I’m an evil magician and an innocent assistant sawing myself in half to a Lana Del Rey song. That’s how I tell it truthfully. It’s not just creating something beautiful, expensive or entertaining, but sharing the uncomfortable side and bringing that to the surface to connect with people.”
As for breaking through and becoming a household name and pop culture performer, Velour demurred, “A mainstream pop star removes the queerness, and the drag becomes an aesthetic phenomenon. The spirit of drag requires it to be more of a commentary on pop culture using and collaging something outside of yourself. I think queer people are celebrities across the board, and I hope that’s the change, regardless of drag or flamboyantly fluid, or nonbinary or trans.”
Sasha Velour performs “Smoke & Mirrors” at the Merriam Theater on Nov. 12 at 8:00 pm. For tickets and more information, visit www.kimmelcenter.org/events-and-tickets/201920/kcp/sasha-velour/