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Among the Rose Petals, Queer Possibility: On Sasha Velour’s “The Big Reveal”


SASHA VELOUR IS best known for a reveal. Lip-synching to Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional” for the finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s ninth season, Velour began by crushing a rose. She went on to fling off evening gloves secretly stuffed with rose petals, and climaxed by removing her wig to reveal a cascade of rose petals. The spectacle was iconic, showstopping, legendary, never before seen; unsurprisingly, it won her the crown.

The impact of that iconic performance has been widely felt. It changed the way Drag Race contestants prepare for finales, and it was spoofed on a Saturday Night Live sketch about Elizabeth Warren. Yet for true fans, Velour is much more than this rose petal reveal. She’s better known for her signature bald head, painted unibrow, vintage-meets-monster camp aesthetic, intellectual rigor, and high-concept performances. As much as Velour loves a reveal, hers are never merely a stunt or a tearaway. They’re incorporated into broader, meticulously thought-out performances—for her, a reveal doesn’t just do something; it says something.

It’s fitting, then, that Velour’s book is titled The Big Reveal: An Illustrated Manifesto of Drag (2023). The book builds on the cachet of her famous moment and incorporates her love of history, queer theory, and visual art, as well as her desire to make a statement with each reveal. The result is an invaluable contribution to our modern understanding of drag, theorizing and contextualizing it as a “queer and feminist project” that “cuts across boundaries of gender and culture.”

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Velour proposes several definitions of drag throughout her text. In the first instance, she writes: “To me, drag explores things that are true … but can only be reached through make-believe. Drag is the art of the reveal—constantly surprising us with the possibility of our own extravagance … and transforming the familiar into the unknown.” Her invocation of the personal—“to me”—is especially telling, acknowledging her subject position as simply one drag queen among many. She retains similar self-awareness and humility throughout the entirety of the book; though undeniably an expert, she never claims singular authority over her subject matter.

Instead, Velour presents a slew of ways to define and conceptualize drag. For her, “[i]t’s not the makeup, the wig, the clothes, or the shoes that make drag. It’s the conjuring of a space where adherence to gender and cultural norms isn’t important.” She continues, “Through constant transformations and reveals, drag embodies the queer possibility that exists within each of us—the infinite ways in which gender, reality, good taste, and art can be lived.” The importance of the reveal—of what drag itself reveals—echoes across her myriad definitions. At her most expansive, Velour quips that, “[l]ike gender, drag is really just whatever you can get away with” and concludes that drag is “never exactly one thing; it’s always many things at once.”

Velour is also quick to point out that identities like queer, trans, cis, gay, and straight are modern conceptions with complex, intertwined histories. She argues that these conceptions used to be significantly more fluid than they are now, positing that “[i]t would almost be easier to find commonality in the ways people have transgressed and subverted the expectations of gender than in the ways people have embodied them.” A key part of Velour’s project is excavating this long history of drag, gender variance, queer community, and performance rituals. Stating, somewhat boldly, that drag has “always been a part of culture,” she goes on to trace its origins to a wide range of global Indigenous cultures, including Mesolithic Age shamans in Central Asia and Siberia, Southwestern American Zuni lhamana, Chilean Mapuche machi, and South African Zulu isangoma. Despite Christian and colonialist attempts to stifle it, drag has always found a way. Velour guides the reader through queer spaces, such as 18th-century molly houses, 19th-century fairies’ balls, and the Harlem balls of the 1920s and ’30s (revived in the late ’60s). She explores global performance traditions that embraced drag, from ancient Greek drama and Balinese Barong dances to “boy players” on the Elizabethan stage, Japanese kabuki actors, and nandan roles in Chinese opera.

Velour offers brief profiles of an impressive litany of drag performers throughout history from around the world, spotlighting many who have faded into obscurity or are not as well known as they should be. Among her extensive list are Barbette, Danny LaRue, Belinda Qaqamba Ka-Fassie, Bassem Feghali, Mei Lan-Fang, Akihiro Miwa, Julian Eltinge, Buddy Kent, Gladys Bentley, José Sarria, William Dorsey Swann, Bert Savoy, and Crystal LaBeija. Velour professes, “The kind of queen I want to be never gate-keeps, but instead opens gates for others, and shows them the way,” and she puts this inclusive ethos into practice in both her book and her shows. NightGowns, her monthly drag cabaret—which she dubbed “the thinking queen’s drag show”—has always been more about Velour’s guests than her. Each performance on her current “The Big Reveal Live Show” tour includes a hand-selected local drag performer. Likewise, much of Velour’s book is about community; uplift and inclusion are central to both her theory and her praxis, her onstage and offstage work.

Of course, Velour also provides an intellectual autobiography, emphasizing the personal importance of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque; Judith Butler’s conception of gender performativity; José Esteban Muñoz’s queer utopia; Sylvia Rivera, Leslie Feinberg, and Kate Bornstein’s trans activism and theory work; and Leo Tolstoy’s treatise on the purpose of art (which she translates from Russian herself). The Big Reveal thereby boasts an impressive engagement with scholarship, additionally citing bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Michael Warner, Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, and Jack Halberstam. Suffice to say, Velour has done the reading (she was a Fulbright scholar, after all).

Velour’s performances and reveals likewise draw from an eclectic set of inspirations. These range from Judy Garland and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) (for “Come Rain or Come Shine”) to Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), the Cheshire Cat, and Samuel Beckett’s “Not I” mouth monologue (in her rendition of Lorde’s “Writer in the Dark”), and even Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” (Deep Purple’s “Child in Time”). In this way, Velour’s performances offer a compelling peek inside her very active mind. While some have said she’s too smart for her own good or talks too much during shows, we’re immensely lucky to have a drag queen who is also a queer theorist—as she once sang, “There’s a lotta pretty girls, but a queen better know shit.”

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The Big Reveal Live Show opens on a bare living room set, featuring a TV, a lamp, a shag carpet, and a chair. As the music begins, an antimacassar on the chair pulls away to reveal Velour’s face, lip-synching to J.Lo’s “Waiting for Tonight.” Velour completes a series of increasingly impressive and campy Transformers-esque reveals as the performance goes on, reshaping the chair into a fabulous outfit. This is hilarious, but it also has meaningful symbolism and recalls the structure of her NightGowns shows. In these, after performing a number, Velour usually sits to the side of the stage on a chair, gleefully watching each performer with pride in her eyes. Similarly, The Big Reveal Live Show ends with Dionne Warwick’s “A House Is Not a Home,” an encapsulation of Velour’s project of creating a home for queer people, trans people, and drag performers to thrive together.

In addition to queer history and gender theory, Velour is an expert on camp. She devotes an entire chapter of her book to it, engaging directly with Susan Sontag and Christopher Isherwood—both of whom she believes misunderstand camp, obfuscating rather than clarifying its meaning and origins. In particular, she finds that Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” dilutes, co-opts, and abstracts camp for an academic audience, making rules and rigid guidelines. Velour disagrees with Sontag’s declaration that camp should be unintentional, arguing instead for the importance of some self-awareness: “Maybe camp is at its best when the creators understand that what they are creating is a little flawed or tacky by some measures (including their own), but still see the value in it nonetheless.”

In this way, Velour’s take on camp is wholly original and compelling. Likely due to the fact that performance is inherently campier than prose, her thoughts on camp are more effective and impactful in her stage show than in the book. In one section of the show, she performs a campy mental-breakdown lip-synch of Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” from Follies (1971), then features a playful but passionate lecture on camp intercut with Lady Bunny–style mini dance breaks. She ends with a bravura take on Lypsinka’s famed “Telephone Mix,” updated with some of her favorite campiest references. It’s a glorious moment of show-and-tell, talking and demonstrating—a fusion of all Velour does best.

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Velour weaves in family history and anecdotes from her rise to fame throughout the book. She writes about her grandmothers, who introduced her to drag and encouraged her to play with costume, gender, performance, and general fabulosity. As a child, Velour became enthralled with vampires and witches (which still inform her drag, as in her glamorous bat rendition of Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”). In one especially endearing story, she describes staging a backyard production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where she cast herself as Flute/Thisbe (the one drag role), donned a blonde wig, and put balloons in her chest, which she popped with a fake dagger as she stabbed herself to death.

An impressive visual artist, Velour illustrated The Big Reveal herself. This is far from her first foray into illustration: she has created a great deal of artwork for her eponymous magazine and various other creative outlets. In the book, Velour recalls a moment when she was drawing a cartoon about Sylvia Rivera, repeatedly sketching arched brows, winged liner, blocked eye shadow, and stacked lashes. From there, she made the creative leap of trying her illustration skills on her own face; to this day, she still sketches her looks in 2D before creating them in 3D. This explains Velour’s attention to detail and the graphic nature of her drag. First, she treats her face and body as a canvas; then, she brings those drawings to life.

Velour’s performances similarly incorporate her visual art and frequently make use of projections—often of herself standing in for background dancers (Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon,” Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen”). In her rendition of Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind,” she stands against a screen and lets her body become part of the artwork as it transforms into a growing tree.

This connection between drawing and drag poetically peaked last June when she drew a self-portrait for the cover of The New Yorker. Like that cover, The Big Reveal is timely and political. Velour addresses the current conservative wave of anti-drag sentiment and the politicization of gender and sex, explaining that “the thing that makes drag powerful is the same thing that has made it so threatening. The idea that all expressions of gender could be worthy and useful […] continues to upset hierarchies.” Dragging conservatives to filth and reading them for their actual, unstated reasons for targeting drag, she makes a strong case that “[t]he censorship of drag is much less about the imagined sexual dangers of a drag show than the feared dangers of failing to indoctrinate people of all ages with shame around queerness.”

In the face of this, Velour asserts that drag is vital and revolutionary. Across her career, she has seen drag variously be a fringe art form, a mainstream phenomenon, and a political target. Accordingly, while she has a strong appreciation of RuPaul and Drag Race and all it has done for herself, for drag queens, and for queer people, she understands its limitations and asserts that “[r]epresentation alone has never fully brought about more radical changes in politics; we may have Drag Race, but many in our community are still fighting for basic human rights.” Even so, inspired by Muñoz, she believes that acceptance of drag is an important step toward queer utopia: “A society that fully accepts drag as a natural part of human expression might finally be ready to make room for queer and trans people to exist in real life, not just onstage. Perhaps that day is not so far off.”

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Though Velour’s pithy motto “Gender is a construct, tear it apart!” says a great deal, she uses the book to further elaborate on her ideas about the relationship between drag and gender. Going against much of conventional drag wisdom, she posits that “[i]t’s way too reductive to define drag as ‘men dressed as women,’ or ‘women dressed as men,’ although that might seem like the most obvious way to put it.” This certainly rings true for Velour, who is gender-fluid; she writes that drag helped her explore her gender and think more expansively—which she believes can be a path for others as well. For Velour, gender fluidity is important whether she’s onstage or not; her drag “has never been about becoming a woman, or even imitating one.” Instead, she claims, “[I]t simply frees me from the tired constraints of being a man (or anything else) and lets me be me.” This freedom and gender euphoria imbues many of her performances, such as her rendition of Celine Dion’s “I’m Alive,” in which a shadow box projection shows her joyfully getting in drag, dancing around as she laces her corset and dons heels, elfin ears, and a caftan.

In the book’s prologue, Velour says that she hopes The Big Reveal is seen not as “a love letter to the art of drag” but as “more of a scathing takedown, a makeover.” She characterizes drag as nearly ubiquitous, writing, “Drag is everywhere. There isn’t a corner of the world that hasn’t seen a little drag at some point […] Sure, you might have to dig around some fragmented sources and do a little reading past the euphemisms, exclusions, and whitewashings of history to clearly see it.” This is exactly what Velour has done in her book, expanding the history and understanding of drag and writing about marginalized figures with compassion and nuance. In the end, Velour says she is “passing this archive” on to us, her readers, hoping that we can use it as a tool, a textbook, a fortune-telling deck—or even a prop.

In this regard, we might confidently predict that Velour’s dreams will be fulfilled. Gleefully taking up the torch first lit by Esther Newton’s Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (1972), Velour provides a more global and detailed history of drag. While The Big Reveal is not the only major work on drag written since 1972, it is the first of its kind written and illustrated by a drag queen. She is writing from within, with the investment and knowledge of someone embedded in the drag space. Moreover, like Velour’s understanding of drag as “many things at once,” the book is improved by its multifaceted, interdisciplinary nature: it is equal parts a primer on the history of drag, a memoir, a queer theory text, and a visual archive.

It’s no surprise that fans of Velour or Drag Race will find much to savor here. But this is also an extremely effective text for academics to engage with and assign to students of performance, gender, and sexuality. Already known as a top-notch drag queen, illustrator, and performer, Velour has now proven with The Big Reveal that she is also an exemplary historian and theorist. Just as Velour works in her book to celebrate historically significant drag performers, The Big Reveal will surely canonize her as not only one of the best drag queens of her generation but also one of the definitive voices on the history and art of drag.



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