Smile Politely

Sasha Velour: “Own your gloriously unpredictable humanity”

It has been a homecoming to set the town on fire. You may still see a few smoldering red rose petals in the vicinity of Krannert Center after the triumphant, generous, and above all, high entertainment appearances of Champaign-Urbana’s own Sasha Velour.

She’s been in and out of classrooms, makeup sessions, the living rooms of old friends, and the KCPA stage; paying homage to her roots in this rich C-U soil. The highlight on Saturday night was a stunning performance of her new show, Smoke & Mirrors, exploding out from Colwell Playhouse to screens in the lobby of Krannert Center so that the whole town could celebrate.

To enter the world Velour has carved out for herself is to enter a vast realm: Of deep artistry, historical expertise and appreciation, love of life, joy, the pain of being human, and an intellect that provides a profound and elegant context. As she said to a class at KCPA on Friday, it’s taken a wide community of collaborators to create “Sasha Velour.” This branches out from longtime partner and artistic collaborator Johnny Velour (at left with Sasha), to the fashion designers, mentoring queens, and RuPaul Charles, who recognized the original brilliance of this emerging performer. When he crowned Velour Drag Race Queen in 2017, RuPaul knew she would urge drag toward a transcendence of its own forms. That fame has allowed Velour to tap the means to enter high concept design, materials, and production, as she delivers her message in person to audiences across the globe. 

To understand the trajectory of Velour’s scholarship and expression, start with Alexander Hedges Steinberg, raised from early childhood in Urbana, soaking in all the nourishment this community has to offer. For him that was centered at home, with parents Jane Hedges and Mark Steinberg, both steeped in Russian culture, history, and beauty. He was small, bookish, intense, clothing-fluid from the start, and always theatrically inspired. Local artist and performer Marc-Anthony Macon recalls, “Sasha and I were in a vampire musical together in the late 90s, titled Scarlet Lines: A Gothic Musical. He was a precocious 9-year-old then, playing a 500-year-old vampire, and the rest of us in the cast knew this kid was bound for some kind of stardom.” His first drag appearance emerged out of the theatre closet of Uni High, where he “borrowed” a sequined mermaid gown. Admiring his reflection in the privacy of his own room, he first declared “I’m a drag queen.” It wasn’t until ten years later, with her appearance on stage at Chester Street in Ceduxion Carrington’s lineup, that Velour claimed that persona in public.

Velour at KCPA, with, left to right: Olga Maslova, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Katherine Syer

During this visit, Velour shared her wisdom, encouragement, and gorgeousness widely — with middle and high school students, Spurlock Museum, and a class at KCPA that brought together students from Theatre and the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center. Titled “The Universal Language of Drag,” the gathering sparked memories of her early days, including a gap year before college which she spent as an intern at the Staatsoper Opera House in Berlin. Mostly she delivered coffee as needed, but was able to absorb the magnificence of the very best artists confecting a great opera from scratch — concepts, sets, costumes, staging. Her work today fully reflects that.

On one momentous day in Berlin, all the principal performers were sick, and opera eminence/director Bernd Eichinger needed visual help with staging. He instructed intern Velour to walk through each character’s moves and mime the most spectacular arias of Parsifal, Wagner’s telling of the quest for the holy grail. During that exhilarating day, Velour sensed the inherent power of lip sync as an artform in itself. Ever since, she’s explored its power to bring an audience to a transcendent emotional level. Any fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race knows the skill Velour brought to her crowning rendition of Whitney Houston’s So Emotional. When she recreated it Saturday night, the audience erupted.

Photo by Jeff Eason

At KCPA Velour was asked to describe the influences in her research for costumes. It’s eclectic: from art museums to a year’s exposure in her teens while father Mark Steinberg spent a sabbatical in Russia; the art deco fashion designs of Erté and the illustrations in children’s books. Velour knows her history thoroughly enough to realize there’s nothing new in fashion. She harvests the best details, adds her own sensibility, and concocts a fresh interpretation each time.

Velour works closely with Brooklyn-based, Peruvian-born and influenced, sculptor and costumer Diego Montoya. For Smoke & Mirrors, the two went back and forth from Velour’s detailed sketches to Montoya’s fantastic embodiments. They have learned to re-think on a razor’s edge, as with the Drag Race finale’s blue and white gown. They planned it in reds, but that was prohibited, as too similar to the background staging design. Montoya quickly adapted it to the blue of Velour’s Russian-rooted Fabergé Egg persona. The result: “Bride-of-Dracula-meets-Faberge-egg-meets-drag-pope.”

Every foray into a costume and character for Velour is informed by her expertise in graphic design and illustration, overlaying her sense of history and style. She spends as much time developing character as look; each costume contains a “reveal,” that transforms both the physical appearance and the conceptual essence of the character. Note the temptress emerging from beneath angelic purity.

Photo by Jeff Eason

The revelatory nature of Velour’s aesthetic emerges through her experience of the fluidity, restrictions, and potentials of gender and identity. For her, drag is essentially imagining possibilities about gender. She values its diversity, belonging more to outsiders — the marginalized, and the underclass, who are ready to flaunt conventions of beauty — than to the privileged mainstream.

In what Velour calls a “sacred” performance of drag, there is always the awareness that its outcast status invites violence and discrimination, too often socially sanctioned. Yes, today there is increased visibility for drag, both mainstream and in the queer community. But Velour observes that the most honest and vulnerable performance occurs only in queer-friendly spaces.

To an ecstatic crowd on Saturday night, Velour interwove lip sync performance with narration about the truth of drag, philosophies of life, and a touching homage to her hometown. She gave specific thanks to Urbana besties, and shared her gratitude for a supportive relationship with her mother Jane Hedges, which deepened through her chemotherapy and death. Velour’s baldness will always be a salute to her mother’s elegance throughout treatment for cancer.

Photo by Jeff Eason

The audience screamed, stamped, and rose en masse with ovations throughout, following Velour’s lead: “This is a drag show — when we feel something we show it!” She promised and delivered a “high concept” drag show, “sexy self-help seminar,” and flagrant romp through queer-favorite songs. Every number has its own bit of “smoke and mirrors,” from circus tricks to dancing with raindrops. Her use of projected images as characters and setting on stage is precise and brilliant. Which of this trio is the real Sasha?

Photo by Jeff Eason

A bit of genius was captured in a behind-the-curtain silhouette tease of undressing and dressing, with Velour emerging fully corseted and coutured from the back of the theatre. Brilliance, wit, comedy, tragedy, all meld into an autobiographical tour de force of heartbreak and triumph. Each song stood on its own as a complete statement, and raised the energy to begin the next, higher. She begins with haunting projections of her own lip sync onto a white costume through Sia’s “Cellophane,” a study of addiction and anxiety while being in the public eye. In Annie Lennox’s “Keep Young and Beautiful,” videos of three masked characters, performed by Johnny Velour, embody Sasha’s monstrous makeup trends. Shirley Bassey’s “The Greatest Performance of My Life” is a queer club staple, no explanation needed. The evening ends with Velour as tree, through the mythological seasons of growth and death, swaying to Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind.”

Photo by Jeff Eason

Her stories include frank admission of depression and anxiety, and vulnerability she doesn’t readily admit. A serious leg infection, caused by too much performance in extreme heels, required surgery and four weeks of bedrest, during the development of Smoke & Mirrors. She shares with the audience her struggles to grow into strength that’s graceful and fluid enough to embrace the shifting aspects of all her personas — both the darker and the wildly triumphal.

The show is also a love song to community. On Saturday night, she directed that pointedly at her own C-U: “Because we have each other, we can weather the storms and transform them into something sublimely beautiful.”

Velour’s hometown audience was held close in her exquisitely gloved fingers from start to finish. The steady shouts of appreciation, recognition, truth, and veneration, along with some tears, lasted from start to finish. Velour’s community left the theatre nurtured in every cell.

In love with Sasha Velour; in love with ourselves as reflected in her extravagant joy. Embracing the lesson that we each have a responsibility to create beauty and truth in this world. Above all, in love with the magic and mystery of Sasha Velour’s fantastical world of drag.

Top photo by Jeff Eason. Photos by Cope Cumpston, unless otherwise noted

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