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Drag Race winner defies conservative rule: 'Drag is a form of activism'

Sasha Velour tells EW ‘freeing’ art form will combat ‘cultures of fear and hate’

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Listen up, because the sweet sound of Sasha Velour’s lip sync-centric victory on tonight’s finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t just a singular achievement for the Avant-garde diva; if she has her way, her triumph will also serve as a battle cry for the drag community to stand up to the powers that be.

“I believe drag is a form of activism. It centers queer people and queer ways of being beautiful, especially in a political context where beauty is narrowly defined or what’s considered important or valuable is narrowly defined, and drag always offers a different option,” the Brooklyn-based queen tells EW, reflecting on the value of the art form she plans to help restructure as America’s newly-crowned Drag Superstar. “I took for granted how much drag is still about play, and how playing and being light about your identity and yourself is actually a form of resistance, too.”

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While the season 9 court of contenders Velour currently presides over was memorably hailed as the closest-knit cast the show has ever seen, things weren’t all sunshine and glitter; Valentina — largely pegged as a frontrunner from the get-go until her controversial elimination in May — caused one of the most contentious riffs in Drag Race history after her legion of followers repeatedly bullied remaining contestants Alexis Michelle, Shea Couleé, and Nina Bo’Nina Brown on social media in the aftermath of her unexpected ousting, an act the Los Angeles native didn’t appropriately take a stand against, according to her sisters during last week’s reunion special. Still, Velour, who sailed through the competition without ever appearing in the bottom two, says she plans to bridge the gap between those with differing opinions in the drag world and beyond with the Drag Race crown now resting atop her signature shaved head.

RELATED: America’s First Lady of Drag Reflects on 30 Years of LGBTQ Pop Culture

“Everyone in the top four is worthy of the [title] and deserves it [but] in the end, the job of a drag superstar is to take an audience and lead them on a fantasy that makes people feel inspired, strong, and proud. We got a chance to do that with these final performances, using just our bodies and our emotions,” Velour says, reflecting on Friday night’s sudden death lip sync pairings, which saw her sending her friend (and two-time challenge-winning companion) Shea Couleé packing, before an epic showdown with Peppermint for the win. “I don’t want to look at this as the final moment of the journey, but rather the jumping-off point, because I have a platform and resources to keep improving my drag, but [I also want to] use my spotlight and share it with other people in the drag community who maybe don’t have access to RuPaul’s Drag Race, but whose drag I still believe in.”

With a recurring variety show, Nightgowns, on rotation in New York City, and a self-titled art magazine, Velour, already laying the groundwork for her plans to broaden her peers’ perspective on alternative drag, the freshly minted Drag Race champion admits the process of stepping in front of the cameras for the show’s most-watched season since its 2009 debut taught her as much about herself as it did about the importance of blurring rigid boundaries that often divide her sisters on the industry circuit — an altruistic sensibility she says our country’s leaders would benefit from adopting.

“I learned a lot from the show about how to make all of my strangeness speak to a wide variety of people… I’m excited to deliver what I believe in more clearly, dramatically, and glamorously, and lead weird people who love drag to be political and countercultural, because that’s when I believe drag is most powerful,” she explains. “I’m an over-thinker with a fighter’s spirit. I hope my legacy is that sometimes that level of thought is an asset, especially now in this political moment. [It’s] very anti-intellectual, anti-information, and anti-historical.”

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She continues: “Clearly, I love queer history, learning, thinking about things really hard, and having these discussions about them… I hope that’s my legacy: this serious person with a tough veneer is about all these things, about what queer culture has been and should be, because we need that in order to combat from this political era. We need a historical, political kind of drag.”

Read on below for EW’s full interview with Velour, during which she discusses an emotional backstage moment she shared with Couleé that cameras didn’t capture, why her season 9 sisterhood embodies heroic qualities amid a stifling era of conservatism, her upcoming co-headlining college tour on queer identity alongside Peppermint, and how she plans to plant the seeds for the next drag revolution.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why do you think you’re the ideal winner at this particular time?
SASHA VELOUR:
Everyone in the top four is worthy of the crown and deserves it… in the end, the job of a drag superstar is to take an audience and lead them on a fantasy that makes people feel inspired, strong, and proud. We got a chance to do that with these final performances, using just our bodies and our emotions. I really fought for it. My skills as a drag queen lie in the performative aspect, and that’s a side of my drag I didn’t necessarily get to showcase in the show, but I’m so proud I got to [in the finale].

Right, we didn’t get a chance to see you lip sync at all this season, so you really did get to save your best tricks for last, but how did it feel knowing you were also sending Shea home in the process?
It was one of the most emotional days I’ve had in a long time, if not ever… We lip-synced to “So Emotional,” and it was no lie. It was such an emotional experience facing off against a friend. At the same time, we all went into the final show determined to put on a good show, and everyone delivered… I believe [Shea and I] were genuinely rooting for each other. It was bittersweet… when I was going out to perform against Peppermint, Shea said, “Go win this for us, for our team.”

That’s so cute!
Yeah! Our team did win.

Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

You also won with the benefit of having seen eight other queens take the crown before you. Have you studied their careers to mold your own?
The queens who’ve had the most success… have seen the crown as a starting point. I don’t want to look at this as the final moment of the journey, but rather the jumping-off point, because I have a platform and resources to keep improving my drag, but [I also want to] use my spotlight and share it with other people in the drag community who maybe don’t have access to RuPaul’s Drag Race, but whose drag I still believe in. That’s why I have the show I produce in Brooklyn, Nightgowns, that I want to take on the road, and Velour, my art magazine that features brilliant styles of drag… I want to invest in both of those projects because they allow a certain type of drag to move forward and grow.

Do you feel pressure to push the craft in new directions now that you have the title and everyone’s attention?
I’ve always tried to play by my own rules in terms of what beautiful means, what a monster looks like… my drag creations [are] completely my own fantasy. That’s what inspires people to break away from clichés. I want to keep pushing my look and my performances in new directions… I learned a lot from the show about how to make all of my strangeness speak to a wide variety of people… I’m excited to deliver what I believe in more clearly, dramatically, and glamorously, and lead weird people who love drag to be political and countercultural, because that’s when I believe drag is most powerful.

That’s so important, especially now. Where did you see the need for the most change in the drag world before going on the show?
The categories. People take those very seriously. Pageant drag or artsy drag, people have ideas about what those look like that run contrary to the idea that drag pushes the limits of identity. I wanted to dissolve those boundaries. I actually never thought of myself as an art queen before coming on the show, because by standards in Brooklyn I’m basically a pageant queen! Yeah, I have my vampire ears, but I also love sparkly gowns, and when I wear wigs, they’re gorgeous! We need more of that. Now that I’m seeing myself in a larger context, I know how to do it better… and unite drag queens across different worlds to get people working together… that’s the only way we can move the art form forward.

On TV, I finally saw what people mean when they say I’m intense, which is something I’ve heard my whole life… [But I had] to tap into my playful side… I believe drag is a form of activism. It centers queer people and queer ways of being beautiful, especially in a political context where beauty is narrowly defined or what’s considered important or valuable is narrowly defined, and drag always offers a different option, or a variety of different options… I took for granted how much drag is still about play, and how playing and being light about your identity and yourself is actually a form of resistance, too.

You said at Nightgowns earlier this year that every person who puts on drag is heroic. Why is it important to remind people of that?
There are lots of ways we can resist conservatism. It’s important queer people do that, especially, but also all of our allies because, in conservative systems, non-binary people, trans people, people of color, and even women are never going to be valued and safe. Drag resists conservatism in the most basic way possible, and also in the most effective way possible because it’s improper when it comes to looks, which is everything in conservative systems. Conservatism is all about surfaces and labels and presentation, and drag says, no, we refuse to follow any rules about that. It’s also fun and freeing, and that, in itself, is oppositional to cultures of fear and hate.

Do you hope that’s what your Drag Race legacy will be?
People before have been eliminated for being over thinkers, and I’ve succeeded because of it. I’m an over-thinker with a fighter’s spirit. I hope my legacy is that sometimes that level of thought is an asset, especially now in this political moment, because this political moment is very anti-intellectual, anti-information, and anti-historical. Clearly, I love queer history, learning, thinking about things really hard, and having these discussions about them… I hope that’s my legacy: this serious person with a tough veneer is about all these things, about what queer culture has been and should be, because we need that in order to combat from this political era. We need a historical, political kind of drag.

Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

I have to ask you about all of the drama at the reunion, too, as Aja even did a performance at Nightgowns with online comments projected behind her, and the digital vitriol was heavily discussed in that episode. Why is that type of online backlash so prominent with fans of this show?
People are really invested. I like that people feel that strongly about drag. I kind of relate to the crazy fans. When I watched the show in the past, I had strong opinions about the contestants. I took everything seriously… I can see myself as some of these overly intense fans. But, I think the challenge for the queens is to not take it too personally and to remember we’re just characters to some viewers, not real people. I love that people are passionate; I just wish they could be more appreciative of how much work we put into it. We’re all doing what we love, and there’s beauty and value in that, even if it doesn’t speak to you or you don’t like it or you think it could be better. People aren’t particularly respectful, but that’s okay because we aren’t real people to them; we’re TV characters and that’s part of the package.

Peppermint told me you guys will go on a college tour next year to combat this sort of thing, right?
The tour is going to be about the culture of drag and how that’s connected to gender identity, politics, and social media culture. A lot of fans of drag don’t necessarily see the whole picture or have access to the whole picture, so, hopefully having more discussions about what the history of drag is, what types of people do drag, what kinds of drag have been around and how long, that will all help viewers have more context, and maybe it’ll change the way that people talk about the show in future seasons… or talk about drag queens online.