BOOK REVIEW by Steve Desroches
Ever since winning season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race in a shower of rose petals in 2017 Sasha Velour has toured the world showing that drag can indeed be high art. Prior to being cast on the pop culture phenomenon Velour had already wowed audiences in Brooklyn with her show NightGowns, an innovative drag revue that distinguished her as a force in the crowded and competitive drag scene of New York City outshining the Manhattan queens in the process. And after her victory she brought her solo show Smoke and Mirrors to eighty cities including Bogota, Colombia, Warsaw, Poland, and Auckland, New Zealand with special performances at the London Palladium and the Folies Folies Bergère in Paris. She masterfully managed to balance the camp and fun of reality competitions and drag in general while using it as a platform to deliver her viewpoint and voice as an artist and in the process showed drag fans of all ages that drag is indeed an art form, limitless in its possibilities. A graduate of Vassar College and a former Fulbright Scholar who traveled to Moscow to study art and its relationship to modern Russian society, that academic nature is infused with everything Velour creates including her new book The Big Reveal: An Illustrated Manifesto of Drag published this month by Harper Collins.
To be a bit intellectual about it, when it comes to drag the canon is scant and spotty, often falling to more superficial works of light weight airy pop. And that element is fine and serves a purpose. But as mainstream culture continues to embrace drag, and reactionary political and cultural forces attack it in response, it’s all the more important drag receive a full examination, discussion, and a complete documentation. Far too much of drag was ephemeral for all kinds of reasons from censorship and legislation that drove it underground to necessity for safety as well as homophobia, transphobia, and a snobbery about the art form in general. That’s why The Big Reveal is so important and such a breath of fresh air in its mixture of memoir, history, cultural criticism, and art and design. When it comes to the vast record of human knowledge the absence of serious inquiry into drag further exaggerates the lack of LGBTQ representation in the historical record and The Big Reveal seems acutely aware of this. Again, the splashy and whimsical books and other forms of media many drag queens produce is an extension of this style of entertainment.
The Big Reveal is indeed entertaining, too, but hopefully it inspires others, be they drag performers or not, to see there is a vast amount of room with which to roam when it comes to writing about drag. For those interested in Velour as an artist they will be delighted to read her life story. And there’s juicy tidbits of behind the scenes of RuPaul’s Drag Race to keep fans enchanted. But one of the biggest accomplishments is the drag history Velour weaves into the narrative of the book navigating anthropology, art, sociology, and theater all ensconced in the camp of the genre. Fans of drag can go on a rare deep dive of this uniquely LGBTQ art form that puts the now into context. None of this came out of nowhere, and The Big Reveal delivers a compelling chronicle of how drag got to where it is both in the macro sense as well as the micro, with Velour using her own career to shine a light on those that came before her and inspired her to do what she does. Velour is also a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, and as such the book features graphic novel components and a captivating design. Drag pulls inspiration from all directions Velour notes.
while it scavenges pop culture and high art and the political, absurd, and comedic. It’s not every art form that not only allows but encourages an artist to mix the imagery of the Soviet proletariat with the style of the 1960s sit com Bewitched. Drag does that in spades. And Velour, who made her Provincetown debut at Town Hall last Carnival Week, does it marvelously. In one form or another drag has been a presence in cultures around the world for centuries, including here in the United States. And despite the current backlash in America (which is not the first time it’s happened) it is not going anywhere as Velour contends. As she states in The Big Reveal “In the years I’ve spent researching the swinging pendulum of drag’s sometimes popularity and sometimes marginalization, I’ve come to believe drag will always exist, and that it will always push against binaries. I think some people are simply called to put drag on – to inhibit the world between genders, the worlds between the past, present, and future. Others just want a chance in the spotlight, to show as fully as possible who we are and how we can be. Whatever the reason: give us a stage and a little love, and we’ll put on one hell of a show for you!”
All images from “ The Big Reveal: An Illustrated Manifesto of Drag by Sasha Velour” ( Harper, 2023)