‘We need each other to help make sense of ourselves.’ Sasha Velour on camp and community

Sasha Velour is my favourite drag queen.

Watching the season 10 finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I saw season 9 winner Velour for the first time as she crowned her successor, Aquaria. Covered in pearls and scales with a dramatic headpiece and a red rhinestone snake wrapping around her, I was instantly captivated.

I was watching the series in reverse order, so I already knew Velour would win season nine before I even started it. Some might argue I spoiled the season for myself, but I disagree. It made me so excited to see how far Velour would come, how much she’d change and push the envelope.

So, of course, I was jittering as the packed Chan Centre crowd waited for Velour to come out on stage for her Phil Lind Initiative talk titled “The Big Reveal: Why Drag Matters” on April 18. My friends and I buzzed about the talk for months and finally, we were there.

Velour, in a yellow dress with a slit up the leg and a matching yellow ostrich feather headpiece, took the stage and spoke about the importance of drag, with the audience hanging on to her every word.

“The art of drag, though, has never been about deception. Drag is self-expression without shame, joy in the face of fear … drag is profoundly illuminating of humanity, but also not particularly serious.”

“It brings joy. It creates community and sometimes, at its best, it inspires us to stand up for justice, for each other’s lives,” said Velour.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought me closer to my friends. What started as a one-off hangout that ended with an episode of Drag Race in my basement apartment snowballed into almost weekly watch parties, cheering on our favourite queens and getting in on all that sweet, sweet Twitter discourse.

And recently, the show has taken stances on hot topics in US politics. In the show’s 2020 season, each episode ended with queens dancing with signs that urged Americans to vote in the country’s federal election. In 2023, one of the Drag Race challenges was to participate in a new musical, Wigloose (a parody of Footloose), which followed Heaven Bacon navigating a town that outlawed drag in the 1980s.

During her talk, Velour spoke about anti-drag laws in the US, specifically how Republican lawmakers have centred the drag debate around ‘protecting’ children.

“Despite the backlash, I think this is a time of great hope for Queer and Trans people … We are coming out of the shadows, we are finally refusing to be too afraid,” said Velour. “If these conservatives knew anything about Queer history, they would know that despite the pain they may cause us, their demonization of Queer and Trans people will never obliterate us.”

In March 2023, Tennessee was the first state to explicitly ban drag shows in public spaces (a court found the ban unconstitutional in June of that year). In May 2023, Montana was the first state to explicitly ban drag performers from public reading events geared to children in spaces like schools or libraries. Over a dozen state legislatures have advanced or passed laws that would ban drag in public spaces or from minors — and could result in a possible felony charge — often characterizing drag as a lewd or sexually-explicit act.

“Drag is no less appropriate than any other forms of entertainment,” said Velour. “In fact, I think it’s much more appropriate than most of the straight people TV and culture I was exposed to as a child.”

“It didn’t mess me up too much. I just love murder,” joked Velour.

"This is a time of great hope for Queer and Trans people."

— Sasha Velour

Despite Drag Race’s championing of Queer rights, it wasn’t always that way. Racism, transphobia and other types of discrimination have held space on the show. Notably, in a 2018 The Guardian article, RuPaul responded to journalist Decca Aitkenhead asking him if he’d allow Trans women on the show by saying “probably not.”

This remark — very reasonably — sparked backlash from fans and Drag Race queens alike.

RuPaul told The Guardian drag is “a big f-you to male-dominated culture” and a “rejection of masculinity,” and that drag “loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it.” And in the words of Vox’s Caroline Framke, by saying this, RuPaul “ended up dismissing all that trans women, trans men, cis women, and nonbinary people have contributed to the complex, beautifully weird world of drag.”

The importance of Trans people in drag is something Velour emphasized in her talk. She said drag serves as a mirror as it “plays with a culture’s views of gender, of beauty, of Queer and Trans people, and then really attempts to expand on those ideas and norms with a little gorgeous fantasy.”

“To me, drag isn’t really about transforming from one gender into another. It’s about the freedom that we can all experience if we just reject those,” said Velour. “What transforms is our sense of what is possible for ourselves, for each other … The truth always runs deeper than what we believe to be real.”

As Velour’s lecture-like portion of her talk came to an end, she moved from her podium to the stage’s centre, which was adorned with two armchairs and a red phone smack in the middle to talk about the word ‘camp.’

For centuries, according to Velour, camp was a term of “secret recognition for Queer people to make fun of each other and ourselves.”

“It’s not just making light of what would otherwise be serious. It’s acknowledging that the boundaries of taste, of goodness, are another frontier through which powerful people, powerful institutions exclude and oppress people for being a little different,” said Velour.

Camp, said Velour, requires self-awareness and recognition of “inevitable failure … some understanding that anything we do is going to be a little flawed, or a little tasteless or a little bad.”

“For Queer people who face rejection by various standards and norms all the time, this is a familiar feeling. We know it better than anyone,” said Velour. “That’s why we invented a cute little word for us.”

"Camp is turning all that human drama into an art, allowing yourself just to live ... as sublime as everybody else."

— Sasha Velour

Camp gives Queer people encouragement, according to Velour. Encouragement to “press on, in spite of judgment, or maybe even because of it.”

And Velour’s right. Whenever my friends and I fail, we call it camp.

Oh, we both went on a date with the same guy? Who cares? It’s camp. Oh, you’re going to use the cafe’s free milk to make your tea taste better? That’s camp. Oh, the situationship isn’t going to work out and you’re very upset and you don’t know what to do about it? Let’s sit and talk things through. The situation is camp, but everything will be ok.

But more than mocking failure, we celebrate each other’s wins; whether it’s starting an internship across the country, an intramural soccer team dub or getting that public service job you’ve always wanted.

And Velour said it’s up to entire communities to uplift each other as “representation alone doesn’t tangibly uplift our community.”

There has always been limited fame for a select few, said Velour. She said while ‘60s drag legend Danny La Rue appeared in Vogue and in sold-out West End shows, other Queer people were arrested for doing the same things in other contexts. And while Drag Race has won Emmys and has franchises in multiple countries, the Queer community is “still fighting for basic human rights and recognitions around the world.”

"Drag is self-expression without shame, joy in the face of fear."

— Sasha Velour

“Drag artists like me are sometimes guilty of upholding the myth of self-empowerment as activism — the idea that an individual can rise above their context through willpower and a good attitude alone and by doing so, help others by modeling the way,” said Velour. “But there are real institutional barriers that cannot be so easily toppled by individual determination.”

As Velour called on people to come together and fight for each other’s freedoms as a community, the red phone on stage rang.

“Hello,” said Velour into the phone. “Oh, actually, it’s a really bad time. I’m right in the middle of this talk.”

And then it rang again. When Velour picked it up, “Telephone” by Lady Gaga played. And then it rang again, this time playing Drew Barrymore’s scene with Ghostface in Scream. And again, with “Boo, you whore,” from Mean Girls.

The phone kept ringing, and each time Velour picked it up, a stream of campy (whatever that means to you) pop culture references spilled out.

Cher’s “Snap out of it,” “Nancy Jo, this is Alexis Neiers calling,” “I have never in my life yelled at a girl like this” and “Leave Britney, alone” played for the audience to guffaw at. America Ferreria’s iconic Barbie monologue played and so did Meryl Streep’s The Devil Wears Prada cerulean sweater monologue and Toni Collette’s “I am your mother” monologue from Hereditary. Joan Crawford’s “Barbara, please” from Mommie Dearest bled into Jennifer Coolidge’s “Please, these gays, they’re trying to murder me” from season two of The White Lotus.

As reference after reference was laid out for the audience to soak up, the entire room laughed and spoke along. The women beside me giggled to each other whenever they knew the references. My friends sat beside me, gagged, with each and every quote we heard. The room’s tone shifted — from an eager audience listening to the origins of camp to sudden warm laughter, like that of close friends watching Drag Race over $12 wine in a basement apartment.

"Drag isn’t really about transforming from one gender into another. It’s about the freedom that we can all experience if we just reject those."

— Sasha Velour

These references — cheesy, silly, iconic — are art. Velour spoke about the representation of camp as frivolous, unseemly or in bad taste. Sure, camp can be all those things, but that doesn’t make it bad. Camp is a rejection of normativity, it’s creative expression and it brings people — Queer people — together. In Velour’s words, “we find artistry in what is supposedly undesirable so that we at least never give up on ourselves.”

“Camp is turning all that human drama into an art, allowing yourself just to live in a way that is as absurd, as fucked up, as sublime as everybody else,” said Velour.

Queerness is camp and community. It’s just as much celebration as it is strife. Queerness, according to Velour, is a “collaborative and communal project.”

“We need each other to help make sense of ourselves.”