The bald and the beautiful Sasha Velour was always one to watch on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 9 — who else could make Village People cowboy couture look so chic? — but some fans, and even some judges, wondered if the 30-year-old Fulbright scholar, self-declared “amateur drag historian,” and Velour magazine editor’s high-brow intellectualism was the perfect fit for such a high-camp show. However, on the truly grand finale, when Sasha transformed Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional” into a woman-on-the-verge stalker song, and stripped off her scarlet wig to reveal a shower of rose petals, she set a new standard for American beauty. It was one of the greatest, most literally wig-snatching lip-syncs in the show’s herstory — and with that, Sasha snatched the crown.
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) June 27, 2017
It’s almost a shame that Sasha never landed in the bottom two and thus never had to lip-sync for her life throughout Season 9, because viewers never really got to see what she can do. Sasha, a true visionary and rock ’n’ roller who masterminds the theatrical showcase Nightgowns in Brooklyn, elevates drag to an entirely new level of performance art, pulling from the past while pushing the medium into the future. Utilizing what she says is a “very strange mixture of my favorite songs, everything from straight-up punk to old-fashioned, midcentury gay anthems that speak to the kind of sentimentality that I love in drag culture,” as well as “everything from lighting effects to reveals to projections of visual art,” she creates a magical, sometimes disturbing, and, above all else, highly emotional experience every time she takes the stage.
It remains to be seen if Sasha, like many Drag Race queens before her, will embark on her own original music career (“I’m interested in dipping my toes in those waters; I may have fun with that,” she muses), but for now, she is focused on putting her own creepy, creative spin on songs by everyone from Björk to Britney. Here, she shares with Yahoo’s Reality Rocks the music that has inspired her singular aesthetic. Suffice to say, Sasha rocks.
Siouxsie & the Banshees, “Cities in Dust”
“Siouxsie Sioux was such an inspiration when I was a teenager, because I connected with these goth college students who listened to this genre of music. She showed me that femininity didn’t necessarily have to look the way that I was familiar with. It could be more exciting, and much more identifiable… My own experience of gender has been about a lot of fluidity. In drag, I like to combine aspects of masculinity and femininity, and rewrite the rules for those. I’m so inspired by the artists that have done that before, especially in such high-fashion ways.”
Le Tigre, “Deceptacon”
“This is one of my favorite songs to perform to. I feel it has that femme punk energy that says, ‘I’m tough, I live life by own rules, and I’m fabulous — even while screeching at you!’ Hearing the beat of that song when it takes over, it’s so thrilling and I get such a rush. I typically perform it with backup dancers, which is maybe a little bit opposite to the style of the song, but I love this kind of classic draggy pageantry juxtaposed with tough, rough-around-the-edges punk.”
Dionne Warwick, “A House Is Not a Home”
“This was one of those songs that drag queens were performing in the ’60s during the Stonewall riots. I love thinking about the music that has spoken to queer people, especially drag queens, over the course of time, and tapping into those feelings — that sadness and melancholy and loneliness — because I think that’s still really present in people’s experiences. This song is very much about being lonely or being heartbroken. My performance of this song is actually what the little house on top of my head [seen in Drag Race’s Rainbow Challenge] comes from. I reveal this image of the house on different papers that I hold in my hand while I sing about this loss of home, and then at the climax of the song I reveal that the house has been under my hat, on top of my head, the entire time. Even though it’s silly and campy, I play it with a lot of real pain and sorrow. And that juxtaposition of this strange little hat and this real genuine feeling of loneliness — which is easy for me to tap into, because I’ve experienced it so many times in my life — that’s what I think is really fun and powerful drag. That was the number that I auditioned for Drag Race with, so this song played a role in helping me get on the show, showing my unique perspective.”
Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights”
“I perform this as Gollum, with kind of like stringy hair and monster teeth in a rag dress. There’s just something so strange and monstrous about the way Kate’s voice sounds while singing this. And I really relate [to this song], because for me so much of my experience of gender is feeling like some sort of indescribable monster. Even though I present myself at the height of glamour and beauty, part of my truth is being desperate and emotional, and unafraid of being unattractive. And that song, the sound of her voice with my presentation, really capture that for me.”
Barbra Streisand, “Gotta Move”
“I like a little Barbra Streisand! This song is super-empowering, because she talks about how she has to break away from this man who won’t let her live her life the way she wants to. I first heard this song on the soundtrack of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, which was this drag paradise movie I saw as a little kid. I wasn’t really encountering a lot of drag queens as an 8-year-old! But I got to see this movie, and I realized that there were adults who lived the kind of life that I was playing with as a little kid, as a gender-nonconforming lover of all things glamorous and fabulous. That movie really inspired me, so this song has always played a special role for me. I perform the song with a video of myself as two backup dancers. And together, me in real life and the backup dancers change from a kind of housewife-on-the-run costume to this bald-headed, blood-soaked monster of revenge, capable of securing her own life for herself completely independently from someone else’s idea. It’s so exciting to perform.”
Annie Lennox, “Love Song for a Vampire”
“I’ve always been obsessed with vampires. I definitely see them as a kind of queer figure, contributing to the destruction of smooth heterosexual relationships, living at night. That kind of gothic glamour really speaks to me, and that is the kind of drag that I love. This song is so emotional and so beautiful, and the pacing of it is really powerful. I perform it with a projection that shows blood dripping from two holes in my neck, and the blood runs down and becomes a dress — a beautiful red dress. And then I reveal the red dress underneath [my costume] all along. I love using different aspects of fear to convey the emotion of a song on many different levels.”
“This is a really emotionally raw song. I perform it standing in a white dress against a screen, and I let all these colors project onto me, onto my face, onto the background. The colors represent different emotional states. I love those swirling, dramatic — manic, almost — overwhelming qualities of our emotional lives. That’s such a huge part of my experience of being alive and being queer: the going up and down with my emotions. I love to transform that into something beautiful using drag, because I think so many people can connect with that.”
Celine Dion, “I Drove All Night”
“This is a Roy Orbison song, but with the Celine Dion version, I started listening to the lyrics … and she talks about climbing into someone’s room whether they like it or not, in the middle of the night, after traveling all night to get to them! And I thought, ‘This sounds absolutely mad!’ So I performed it in kind of this manic-obsessive, monstrous way. Fundamentally, I relate. My feelings sometimes take me to places like that — that I have to cover up — and it’s fun to get to explore that, and kind of be at peace with that level of emotional instability!”
Shirley Bassey, “My Way”
“This is one of my favorite songs to perform to; I actually performed it Sunday night at the Brooklyn celebration of this victory [the legalization of gay marriage]. It’s a song that I’ve always really disliked — until I heard this version. Hearing this kind of like powerful, emotional version, it took on new meaning, and I understood it. It reminded me how important it is to break away from clichés and from other people’s influence, and really live a life that is true to yourself with no regret. I think that message is so powerful, especially revisiting it after this win. It filled me with pride and joy, and I felt it was connecting me to the community, letting them know that I love them and I honor them.”
Britney Spears, “I Wanna Go”
“This is one of the first songs I ever performed to in drag. You know, the song that Charlie Hides didn’t lip-sync to on Drag Race! I performed it as this captured queer creature in the woods who’s forced into a wig and dress, and then at the end of the number she breaks out of it — she rips the wig off her head and rips the dress apart, and returns to her natural queer state. You know, I feel that actually has some connections to Britney’s own experience, in maybe her being pushed into a certain type of self-presentation that wasn’t completely authentic.”
Tom Waits, “Little Drop of Poison”
“I love not being wedded to always performing to women’s voices — just doing creative numbers that set a mood, and making surprising choices for drag. This is one of my favorites. So creepy. So powerful.”
Celine Dion, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”
“This is such a campy, over-the-top, and, frankly, endless song! I perform it as a duet with myself, using projections. I love making romantic songs into things that are very much not cliché romances, so I interpret this song, instead of it being about a romantic relationship, as being about my relationship with myself out of drag. It’s about the push and pull between my in-drag and out-of-drag selves. During the number, the projection of myself and my actual body on the stage switch — so I start out of drag and then put myself in drag onstage, and then the video gets out of drag. I actually instigate this by throwing water in my own face. In the video, I get drenched with a huge bucket of water that washes away the drag. It’s this sort of antagonistic but ultimately loving interaction between these two aspects of myself. It’s really messy!”
Lorraine Ellison, “Stay With Me (Baby)”
“This is a powerful ballad that I perform completely raw, begging someone to stay — and that has taken on so many different meanings, based on my feelings when I perform it. It can be about myself, or it can be a message to a lover, to a friend, or even to fans online.”
Björk, “All Is Full of Love”
“Björk has been a huge influence on my aesthetic. The way she really earnestly uses creative visual art, and visuals, with her music is so powerful and unforgettable. She’s definitely a role model. This is such a calming and beautiful song. I actually haven’t ever lip-synced to a Björk song, yet, but who knows what the future will hold.”
This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.