Over the past few years, much has been said about how drag has cracked the mainstream, thanks in no small part to the Emmy winning ratings magnet RuPaul’s Drag Race. But it’s also an open secret that drag has been mainstream for decades, just as derivative versions of its original art form. From fashion to makeup trends to dance styles to common slang, the drag community has been silently steering culture in significant ways. It’s true that with drag becoming more visible, the gay, trans, and queer artists at the heart of it are getting more recognition–but Sasha Velour isn’t resting at just “more.”
Since winning season nine of Drag Race two years ago, Velour (born Alexander Hedges Steinberg) has landed sponsorship and campaigns with brands including Lyft, Swatch, and Absolut Vodka; signed with WME; landed TV guest spots and cameos on Broad City and The Bold Type; produced, directed, and hosted Opening Ceremony’s NYC Fashion Week event that the New York Times called “the brand’s . . . most radical [presentation] yet”; and toured her first one-woman show Smoke & Mirrors across Australia, New York City, and Los Angeles.
Velour certainly isn’t the first Drag Race alum to leverage the show’s massive platform to create viable careers out of something most performers could only do as a side hustle. But Velour is being exceedingly deliberate not only where she’s steering her career, but how.
“The space I’m trying to carve out for myself is drag performers as the producers of their own art form, as people who actually are able to profit off of it as the director, as the business person,” she says. “So often in the history of drag, it’s our art form, but someone else is profiting. Someone else is controlling the discourse or framing it.”
The fact that drag is more mainstream than ever also means the industry is awash with brands and promoters looking to capitalize on the wave, and it’s Velour’s mission to make sure drag performers get equity, not exploitation, from their art.
“The truth is I always wanted to do drag. I started putting on gowns and imagining myself as the heroine or villainess of every story I encountered at pretty much age 4,” Velour says. However, growing up in Urbana, Illinois, didn’t offer any direct routes toward that goal. “I started pursuing other ways of telling stories, making my own queer world through traditional theater or through comics or trying to chart out the history of my gender-nonconforming people through academia.”
Velour studied at Vassar College, won a Fulbright Scholarship studying art in contemporary Russia, and later got her MFA in cartooning at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.
“Those I feel like were all different ways of me trying to do drag. And it wasn’t until I started putting lipstick and heels on as part of the expression of it that it really clicked,” she says. “Some people might think of it as almost a superficial quality, but drag embraces the tangible and the glittering and the exterior because so often that’s the realm that we’re judged for. That’s the realm that incites violence and anger and otherness. So we embrace it and make those choices purposeful and intentional [and then] glamorize and dramatize them, so that it’s not something we’re afraid of–it’s something we’re proud of.”
“And in that way it feels like high art,” says Jamie Carr, Sasha’s literary agent at WME. “It feels like activism. And it also feels like it’s strategically rooted in this larger cultural conversation. It feels smart. That’s not to say that other forms of drag are not smart or are not thinking about these things. But I think hers in particular stands out to me because it hits all of those beats.”
Sasha’s multidisciplinary background has shaped her style of drag, and, possibly most importantly, how she approaches the art form as a whole.
“I think from the very first time we sat down together to work on a project, it was clear that if I was thinking on one scale, Sasha was thinking on a much larger scale, with much more detail,” says Johnny Velour, Sasha’s romantic and full-time business partner.
The two first met at a dive bar in while they were both studying in Vermont. “We were two of, like, four gay people in town and probably the only ones under the age of 40,” Johnny says. “What started as something kind of easy and fun very quickly became our life.”
The House of Velour is Sasha and Johnny’s production/retail/publishing company that encompasses all of their ventures, including the drag magazine Velour; a merch shop with original designs and products; and live events, namely Sasha’s Brooklyn-based drag revue Nightgowns and her one-woman show Smoke & Mirrors.
When it comes to live events in particular, Velour is creating her own system outside of the traditional route of dealing with promoters. Typically, when a drag queen at Sasha Velour’s level goes on tour with a show, there’s a company on the back end handling promotion, securing venues, and so forth. At the House of Velour, it’s Sasha and Johnny coordinating everything themselves–down to what bartenders will wear.
“Other companies can potentially get in the way. While they may help you achieve an artistic vision, you may not be able to sculpt the whole experience for your guests,” Johnny says. “At this point of the career, it’s looking at all the things that we’ve been doing and things that we’ve maybe done for other people and doing them ourselves. Not just creating work for her to go on a tour with someone else, but creating our own tour, taking shows out on the road ourselves as producers.”
Most Drag Race alumni enter popular touring circuits like Werq the World or Haters Roast. While those events remain immensely popular with fans, Sasha has opted for creative control and a more discerning eye toward the context of how her drag is being presented.
“It can be challenging,” Sasha admits when asked about working with promoters. “Our approaches are very different. I generally have very little in common with the people who are producing large scale Drag Race live events. The priorities of the show are different, and they usually aren’t on the experience of the artist as creators. That works for some people, and it works less well for others. We can choose other options now, and I want to encourage people to do that. It’s definitely possible to make a living as a drag queen without having to work with promoters.”
Sasha is adamant about giving other drag performers that safe space to be the stewards of their own creativity. For three years, the House of Velour has been curating the monthly showcase Nightgowns, an event she hosts and which features a wide array of not only drag queens but also drag kings and every performer in between. The show has become a staple in the New York City drag scene (even Janet Jackson once came to check out the show). Sasha’s aim is to elevate Nightgowns to the level of her one-woman show Smoke & Mirrors, which, by virtue of it being just her on stage, is easier to manage and produce.
“I really get to plan out these performances like a professional–and that’s not necessarily a luxury that I had when it was a side hustle,” Sasha says. “That’s why I’m so excited to figure out how to raise more money so that I can get Nightgowns to this level of production and planning and budget and let other people experience what it’s like to have more theatrical free rein. Hopefully, it will encourage other people. Sometimes queens have a hard time figuring out how to get those resources, and I’ve already been trying to share what I’ve learned from all this with people–how you can produce things yourself and then count on a lot more return on your investment.”
One of the more formidable challenges the House of Velour is contending with is the fact that there’s no blueprint to what they’re doing. Because drag performers being able to make a viable career from their art is still such a new concept, figuring out how to build a career is trial and error in its truest form.
“She could get an endorsement offer where it’s basically doing something free for exposure and then 10 minutes later we could get an email where someone’s offering an obscene amount to take a picture with a water bottle,” Johnny says. “Because it’s so unregulated, it’s like the Wild West.”
The House of Velour is helping to set standards in how drag performers can interpret brand sponsorships. Take, for example, Sasha’s campaign with Absolut Vodka. “It wasn’t just taking a picture for her Instagram,” Johnny says. “It was creating kind of ad in a way and artistic directing that.”
“Corporations are used to paying tons of money for advertisement and we know how to use very little money to create enormous amounts of spectacle,” Sasha says. “As drag gets to have a larger platform, we really are able to put people’s resources to use much better than a lot of other forms of media and get a lot bigger bang for the buck and get a reach an audience that a corporation wouldn’t necessarily be able to access.”
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The House of Velour is balancing an aggressive business agenda, which leads to yet another learning curve in how to expand the team. Drag has a rich tradition of being a one-person entrepreneurial endeavor with performers being their own costume designers, hair and makeup stylists, chief marketing offers, and so on. But what happens when that business suddenly booms? Switching from managing yourself to managing others or having someone manage you is a tricky reality facing most Drag Race queens who have been catapulted to stardom.
“I had some bad experiences in the last two years of people who did want to come and be a part of [the House of Velour] but for the wrong reason and did a lot of damage financially and personally,” Sasha says. “Recovering from that has made me a little more careful about who we work with. The exclusivity of this period right now is we’re trying to gain our strength a little bit and be a little more clearheaded about who we love to work with and what kind of ethics coworkers need to have.”
That sentiment extends to talent managers as well.
“I had a romantic idea of what it would be like to be a successful creative person with a manager, but ultimately the thing I’ve learned is that you have to really be in charge yourself and know what’s going on,” Sasha says. “That’s been the hardest thing. There’s no system that just immediately works on its own. You have to build it yourself.”
As drag continues to occupy even more real estate in the mainstream popular culture, the House of Velour wants to be both a creative outlet elevating the art form as well as a meaningful resource for up-and-coming performers. Admittedly, Sasha and Johnny are figuring out much of it as they go along, but even in that process they’re constructing an innovative blueprint in drag’s whitespace.
“We’re trying to produce entertainment that’s really high quality and create an environment for people to work and that’s rewarding and respectful,” Sasha says. “We’ve really been thinking about all of those different elements and how we want to step forward. I would sum it up as trying to have a positive impact in this world that I care so much about.”