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  • “We don’t have any rules” Sasha Velour on her new streaming show, ‘Nightgowns’
  • April 7, 2020

“We don’t have any rules” Sasha Velour on her new streaming show, ‘Nightgowns’

Something about Sasha Velour makes us so emotional.

No doubt it has something to do with her triumphant performance of the Whitney Houston standard on the Season 9 finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which helped make her a drag icon…and win the season of the show. Born in California but raised in rural Illinois, Velour (real name Alexander Steinberg) earned notoriety for her elevating drag beyond bar numbers into high art. She developed the stage show Nightgowns with her boyfriend Johnny Lee as a full-theatrical drag show to give herself and other performers an opportunity to innovate performances beyond lip-syncing in bars.

Now Velour aims to take Nightgowns to a whole new audience with the digital series of the same name. This April 6, Nightgowns launches as a new show on the streaming platform Quibi, again raising the profile of Velour and her troupe of performers, and providing behind-the-scenes insight into the work needed to bring a theatrical drag show to fruition.

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Queerty snagged some time with Velour to talk about her inspiration for Nightgowns, working as one of the inaugural series on Quibi, and how to elevate drag to a full-on dramatic performance.

So where does Nightgowns begin for you?

Nightgowns came from the purest love of drag. I started doing drag very early. I grew up in rural Illinois.

Champaign, yes?

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Yeah.

I’m from about 60 miles north. So I feel your pain.

Oh my gosh. We do have our own drag club.

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C-Street?

Yes.

Been there. Many times.

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Amazing. So I was learning about drag mainly through research. I love the history of drag—all the amazing things its been. The stages drag artists have played in the past, or now. So I wanted Nightgowns to celebrate and pay tribute to The Art of Drag. All that fanciness, but for a divey local show. I was a queen without a reputation, just getting my feet wet. I had one pair of heels at the time.

[Laughter]

So that’s the equivalent of getting your feet wet in the drag world. I built my own style of drag by putting on this show. It’s all about creating an environment for other artists to thrive. We bring in people who do drag differently: drag kings, female drag performers, trans drag artists. Then we find out what number they want to do and we try to make—first a dive bar stage, later actual theatre stages—conducive to that performer. So I’d climb a ladder and hang lights. Today I was coming up with lighting cues for the show. Even though we’ve adapted to a new form, we’re trying to adapt to reach people a new way. It’s the spirit of loving and respecting drag artists.

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I have to say I was impressed. This is a lot more than just a drag show. What you’re doing is more in the spirit of an old-school Broadway revue: a series of group and one-off performances with a general theme. What made you want to take that approach?

It doesn’t always have a theme per se. People tend to bring complicated performances because they know that the audience is paying attention. I and everyone backstage will help them achieve whatever technical things they’ve brought. You’ll see in later episodes an artist wanted to make a giant cape and disappear into the stage. The stage we were working with had no fly space, but we found a way to do it.

Awesome.

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That to me is the clearest theme. People bring ambitious ideas. We make it happen.

You also include drag kings, which I think is great. Why is it they’re not more popular?

I think perhaps the effect of Drag Race has skewed people more towards queens. There just are not as many drag kinds right now. The drag kings that are out there are incredible. The more people see local drag shows—which is where drag really happens—and the stars of Nightgowns exist in that world, they’ll all fall in love with drag kings like Kay James, the most smoldering drag king I’ve ever seen. He’s such a short guy. But on stage he takes up so much space. He’s grand.

These numbers are also much more than just camp. They’re like performance art. What is it that makes a song right for Nightgowns?

We don’t have any rules. I let people choose whatever they want, which is on purpose. When I was doing other people’s gigs, they would sometimes say I had to choose a Top 20 song. Or I’d have to choose an upbeat song to keep people excited at 2 am. But I couldn’t do Barbra Streisand. That’s not true at Nightgowns, so I do a lot of Barbra Streisand.

[Laughter]

One of my goals with my performances is to take iconic songs that people know and are familiar with, and then give them a new memory of it, something they can’t quite shake. I’ve always encouraged people to do that, especially for this filmed Nightgowns. I said, “Let’s take iconic songs people love, iconic gay songs, and give them our own interpretation.” It works really well.

That also lends itself to all of you being more memorable performers. You’re being iconoclastic, but also re-edifying. Now, on this show, you work with your boyfriend Johnny. What’s it like working with a romantic partner as a co-worker?

I mean, it’s an adventure working with Johnny. We’ve seen our intense energy play out over the course of this Nightgowns series. We’ve always created a world of drag as a couple. The second-year we were dating we wrote a drag musical together.

Oh wow.

He got in drag, and we wrote a script together. Costumed it. Produced it. Put it on. The third-year we were dating we created the magazine Velour, which became the inspiration behind doing a show light Nightgowns. I actually started Nightgowns while he was working on a Disney Cruise ship. It became a side project, and when he came back, he started producing alongside me. We’ve evolved together in such a way that it’s the most collaborative experience of my life imaginable. He’s a different thinker than me in many ways. It’s a useful counterpoint. Nightgowns exists so much as a back-and-forth between us. We’ve figured out how to make many impossible things happen. Doing that for other artists we believe in is very satisfying.

There are obviously risks involved with working so much, so closely with a romantic partner. How do you challenge one another?

Johnny actually can dance. Even on the most literal level, he’s always reminding me to clean up my movements, or get my choreography together, to hold my arms properly. When I made the transition from performing on an 8×8 platform at a bar to an actual stage, he was always on me to take up more space with my body. So that was a really good piece of advice. And there are other ways too.

Related: Who wore it best… Sasha Velour or this dog?

Sure. How do you not let work consume every aspect of your lives together?

There are times where it has, where we realize we need to take a break because we’re in too deep. Thankfully, the work we do has a lightheartedness to it. It’s important to take what we do seriously. People’s art and artistry are on the line. But at the same time, we can take a step back and say we put on entertainment for a living. We’re also not on social media constantly, which is very helpful, as is talking about our dog too.

What’s the experience been with Quibi? You’re pioneering this new platform.

Quibi has been an amazing partner. For one, it really shaped the structure of the show in a brilliant way. I was saying this earlier, but I think the pairing between a drag show and this format, where storytelling is broken into short sections, really makes sense. Figuring out how to expand on our lipsyncing performances with short storytelling breaks that take people behind the scenes of our art and lives was a great challenge. In addition, the concept behind Quibi is to create quality stuff. They work very well alongside us filming, giving feedback, involving us in the editing process to make sure the show turns out well. Sophie Mueller, who directed, is an amazing director of all the filming. She did an amazing job. That’s such a gift to all these artists: that level of support.

What else can we expect this season?

You’ll get to see eight amazing drag lipsyncs and into the lives of every single performer in the Nightgowns family. There are really funny moments, really heartfelt moments, terrifying moments and a lot of gags. It’s a world of drag that people need right now to escape into. It’s helpful.

Do we know about Season 2?

Fingers crossed. Put the good word out there!

Nightgowns premieres April 6 on Quibi.

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