Last month on Saturday Night Live, comedian Kate McKinnon broke out her parody of American senator Elizabeth Warren after a particularly sassy presidential town hall. As McKinnon offered up hyperbolic responses to a question about LGBTTQ+ marriage rights, she dramatically lifted her wig and rose petals fell out.
McKinnon’s wig gag referenced a lip sync performed by Sasha Velour during the Season 9 finale of reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race to Whitney Houston’s So Emotional. Velour stunned the in-house audience and television viewers all over the world as she spewed rose petals from every angle; she tore petals off a flower on stage, had them tucked into her elbow-length gloves for a surprise upon removal and, of course, had them loaded into her wig, creating the now-iconic petal-shower moment.
For the average SNL viewer, it was just a hilarious, over-the-top bit, but for fans of Drag Race, it was historic. Just five years ago, heck, maybe even two or three years ago, a show like SNL A) wouldn’t think to parody a drag performer and B) wouldn’t assume their audience would pick up on the reference.
Times, as they say, are a-changin’, and drag has finally seemed to fully crack mainstream culture.
"I think it’s hitting at a moment where people are ready to get to know queen and trans and non-binary individuals," says Velour, 32, over the phone from a recent tour stop. "Drag Race was one of the very first shows to provide access to meeting people who are more fluid with their gender in that way, as real people.
"And it’s not just kind of the fun surface... Drag Race really pulled back the curtain on us as people and our lives behind the drag, too. I think that really is what has caused the phenomenon and that’s really special, because it gives us the chance to feel normal and loved as human beings, which is really the goal of any kind of performance."
Velour — who ended up winning her season of Drag Race — is currently on her first-ever one-queen drag performance tour, Smoke & Mirrors, which features 13 lip-sync numbers set to songs by famous divas such as Barbra Streisand, Annie Lennox and Shirley Bassey and presented as a mix of drag, live theatre, visual art, magic and storytelling.
Each lip sync tells its own fragment of a story but each also has its own narrative, Velour explains, both of which reveal something different about her as a person, performer and artist.
"Ultimately this is a performance that’s very much about breaking through the different versions of myself, some of which people may know from television, or think they may know, others of which may be surprising and shocking to them and kind of wrestling with the different possibilities for myself that could be and have been" she says, "and hopefully in the mixture of introducing all of that chaos, giving people a window to really meet me as a human being.
"I believe as a drag queen, the only way to do that is through this over-the-top fantasy version; fantasy stories are the best way to get to know someone’s imagination, which is really where their personality jumps out."
The show really is a one-woman gig, with Velour tackling the roles of director, producer and choreographer for all the numbers. Some of the acts have been part of her set in one incarnation or another for years, while others have developed over the last year or so as she has road-tested and altered them to fit within the context of Smoke & Mirrors.
"In some ways, this one-queen show is the final draft of these rough drafts I’ve been playing with throughout my time doing drag," Velour says.
Since her 2017 Drag Race win, Velour’s career has been in high-gear. She’s travelled around the world to perform and has expanded her reach into the fashion world, choosing more than 40 LGBTTQ+ models to walk the runway during the opening ceremony for New York Fashion Week in 2018.
But though her post-win world has been "wild" in a good way, Velour also faced some challenging experiences that have altered the way she conducts herself as a brand and a business.
"There’s so much going on in the world of drag that’s unregulated, so there were a lot of troubling things that I encountered, like wild disparity between drag artists and what they’re getting paid, really terribly organized drag shows that I would be booked for, real bad behaviour regarding managers and other kind of agents within the community," Velour says.
"So as much as it was an absolute thrill ride of getting to travel and perform, it was also seeing all these problems within our community, specifically economically. After that year, my jumping-off point was, ‘How can I take part in this world and maybe shift it in a positive direction that’s a bit more artist-focused instead of so money-crazed?’ And throwing myself and all my resources into performances themselves has been one of my ways of combating that."
Velour’s artistry is evident not only in her thoughtful, complicated and beautiful drag performances, but also in her passion for fine art and drawing. Velour’s comics and illustrations have graced the pages of numerous publications (her drawing of singer/actress Marlene Dietrich was even used as a Google Doodle in 2017) and in 2013 she founded Velour, The Drag Magazine, which included interviews, photography, poetry and illustrations (the three issues have been collected as a coffee-table book).
These artistic ventures are what Velour finds most inspiring, and her hope is that she can pass that spark on to her audiences through Smoke & Mirrors.
"It makes people laugh, it makes people laugh and scream — well, I force them to scream — and I see people with their tissues at the end crying as well. It hits lots of different notes and I’m really proud to share it," she says.
"It seems to get people very inspired to create their own artwork as well, so if anyone’s stuck in a writer’s block or artist’s block, it’s a good show for them, too."
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.