Sasha Velour Talks 'One Dollar Drags,' Creating Horror Movies in High School & More

Sasha Velour Pirate Jenny
Courtesy Photo

Sasha Velour in Pirate Jenny.

From Velour Magazine to her celebrated Nightgowns show, Sasha Velour has embarked on no shortage of creative projects in her work as a drag artist. The latest iteration is a series of six short films celebrating the state of drag right now, all inspired by different genres of film throughout the history of cinema, which will be released once a month beginning this month. The series features drag performers of all stripes, expanding the conversation of what drag is and can be.

“Right now, drag is exploding,” Sasha wrote via email. “So many people are dipping their toes in the waters of drag, pushing it in new directions, tugging on the borders! So we wanted to celebrate all that, to capture how wild and sometimes conflicted drag is right now. And of course how eternally over-the-top and mysterious it is too.”

Billboard spoke to Sasha about One Dollar Drags, its inspirations, and the experience of creating the films, which feature influences of everything and everyone from The Threepenny Opera to Bob Fosse.

How did the premise for One Dollar Drags come about?

Like many creative projects, this is like the 100th iteration of this project. The idea was, let’s do a video. People who are interested in me are people who have computers and watch television and like watching things. Like all projects we do, it got fabulously out of hand [laughs]. What could have been one four-minute video has now become six. We basically filmed three separate videos over the course of one week, planned to release them all at once, decided that we needed to re-edit, add more to give an even better context. I love colors, I love stage pictures. Getting to do that on film was something I wanted to do my whole life. I never thought i would have the resources or the connections. It was literally a dream come true. And then to cast our entire community. It’s everyone who was in town that week and didn’t have a gig.

What inspired the series?

One Dollar Drags is a drag translation of The Threepenny Opera and that is reflected in every film, but especially in the first one which is a direct, a tweaked translation by me of “Pirate Jenny.” Together it has the structure of Threepenny Opera, which I have always loved. It was an opera for beggars, which was very tongue in cheek and also a very radical statement. This is a film for drag queens and kings. I noticed that the music from Threepenny Opera has just continued to have an effect on everything from The Nightmare Before Christmas to the Dresden Dolls and it’s always very prevalent in my mind and very much aligns with my taste in music. I still think theatrically it’s very fresh even today and then most of all it is very autobiographical for me. It was something my mom introduced me to that I fell in love with as a kid. It contained the promise that art can be catchy and funny and revolutionary, which is what I’ve always wanted to be even though that’s of course cliched and self important. But that’s a part of drag too [laughs].

How did you decide what the story would be for each short film? How did you decide who you wanted to star in each?

Each film has its own unique story of creation (and many are still in progress, and keep changing!). Some (like the first "Pirate Jenny") grew out of a piece of music that we wanted to bring to life. Others (like the Fosse-influenced "1969") were inspired by a specific genre of film, and the idea of using that genre to tell a very queer story (for a change). I don't want to reveal too much, but a couple of the films were actually inspired by the actors in drag performers we love a chance to realize (even on a small scale) the type of cinematic world where they could imagine their character existing.

Why was this a format you wanted to work in? Have you done short films before?

When I was in high school, I used to beg my teachers to let me create films and plays instead of writing essays. I think they were at least happy I was excited about school. I just learn better through costumes. But the things I created were sometimes terrible. I once glued on a pair of butterfly print acrylic nails on in the middle of fifth period to film a horror movie for my foreign language project (I starred as an old witch's hands and just whispered the word "queen of spades" in Russian over and over again). When I started doing drag, I always put together multimedia elements for live performance. I started projection mapping a spotlight onto my face for numbers because bars had shitty lighting but they always seemed to have a projector. I've always tried to use whatever I have and turn it into something fit for a queen. My boyfriend Johnny and I filmed and edited my RuPaul's Drag Race audition in our bathroom, on a cellphone, wearing clothes from Beacon's Closet and construction paper, but it still looked like a million bucks! That's why especially now that I’ve been given resources and an audience like I'd never even dreamed of before, I see it as golden opportunity that I refuse to waste. Even if I hadn't won Drag Race, even if I'd never been on, I'd still be working my tail off, creating live shows, magazines, videos, anything I possibly could! So that's why I'm doing it now! ... At the end of the day, I just love drag so much that it's not enough for me to be a successful drag queen. I want to do right by my drag community as a whole ... creating opportunities for other performers, documenting and uplifting amazing drag, and generally just contributing a lot of love and respect to our fabulous little world!

How did making the films affect your experience of drag?

Well, I certainly have never worked such long and intense hours in drag before! I was fully corseted, foam hips on, running back and forth from behind the camera to in front of it, adjusting set pieces and actors, doing take after take, from early morning until the middle of the night. It was kind of empowering ... I've always only stepped into my drag alter-ego in order to entertain folks before. It was powerful to be dressed as her and creating a movie. Every day I learn to believe a little more in my own abilities, and I truly have my drag to thank for that!

What were the greatest or most unexpected delights and challenges of working on the project?

Working with other people! I'm an indoor kid who always kept to myself a bit, so I was afraid it was going to be quite overwhelming. Of course it was, but what surprised me the most were the moments of warmth and support. Even though we had work to do, we would have these little interactions that cut through any cold professionalism. We'd squeeze hands, adjust each other's wigs, stand in for each other, share a shot of whisky, even escape for a little hug and cry in the corner. I'm especially lucky that Johnny Velour (my boyfriend) and Olive d'Nightlife (my drag sister) agreed to help produce the film. We had so many moments on set where we reflected on our roots. We've been dreaming up and seeing through overly-ambitious projects together for a while now (going way back to the early days of Nightgowns and Velour Magazine), and it's been pretty emotional watching it all grow into the glittering production it is today.