Bushwick’s gay scene is thriving by almost any measure. Happy Fun Hideaway is constantly packed to the gills. Bottoms is one of the hottest bands in New York. Rashaad Newsome, the artist bringing the fine art of vogue to the fine art world, has moved to the neighborhood. The annual drag fest Bushwig popped off for its fourth year in a row this fall, and drag king performances are seeing their biggest comeback in the city since the ’90s. And which Brooklyn neighborhood can claim its own glossy culture magazine dedicated to all things drag?
Bed-Stuy, actually, is where the editor-in-chief lives– but Vym magazine, born of the Bushwick drag scene, finds its spiritual home in this neighborhood, even if editor-in-chief Sasha Velour is looking well beyond Brooklyn for contributors and an audience.
We met up with Sasha Steinberg, (who goes by Sasha Velour when he’s in character as his drag alter-ego), the co-founder of Vym along with his partner, Johnny Velour, at their apartment in Bed-Stuy. Johnny was off on a Disney cruise but Sasha, the artist-brain behind the operation, was able to fill us in.
He’s not exactly a stranger to wigs, but nevertheless Steinberg-by-day, so to speak, has the unique quality of sharing a trademark “look” with his female drag counterpart, Sasha Velour, who hosts a monthly show called Nightgowns at Bushwick’s Bizarre. Strangely, it was the act of shaving his head that brought Sasha closer to solidifying his drag queen persona.
Sasha Velour got her start at Madame Vivien V’s Bordello (another show at Bizarre) before scoring her very own night at the Bushwick bar in August. Though Sasha’s a relative newcomer to drag, Velour’s reputation precedes her. At around the same time Nightgowns was taking off, we caught up with Lela Graham (aka Lee VaLone) at her own drag king showcase called BEEF. Lela spoke about Sasha in glowing terms: “Sasha is one of the most amazing, kind, and creative individuals I’ve ever met.” At this point, I’d never heard of this Sasha Velour, or Sasha Steinberg for that matter and, intrigued, made a mental note to keep an eye out.
Everything fell into place when I came across Vym, “the drag magazine,” a slick, graphically pleasing publication (makes sense, Sasha’s a freelance graphic designer), that immediately felt different than any publication I’d ever seen.
Anyone who follows the art world closely has probably noticed that almost anything involving LGBT artists, work that depicts queer people, and art that appears to even slightly acknowledge a discussion of gender, is slapped with the label “queer art” or “queer” what have you.
It’s not always a bad thing and is, more often that not, well intentioned as can be, but the label seems increasingly inadequate. And when it’s the only descriptor for an art show or a publication or whatever, and has been co-opted by non-queer people as a means of neatly boxing everything up, it functions to flatten the concerns of a diverse community into a gummy vitamin, something that’s easily swallowed by newbies. What’s lost is the complexity and variety of conversations going on– because there isn’t any one voice for the queer community nor is there one for trans people. And, likewise, as Vym magazine presses, there’s no single spokesperson for drag.
Sasha only started performing drag in public very recently, though you wouldn’t know it by Velour’s perfectly applied makeup and wardrobe stocked with sequined dresses, surreal headpieces, and skin-tight leotards. She occupies a strange territory between glamorous and sci-fi, which seems pretty advanced when you consider that for some people who are new to draggy dressing, learning how to walk in high heels might be challenging enough.
But Sasha Velour, the character, is the final realization in a long process of fits and starts. “I always say I’ve been doing drag for my entire life, because there are all these photos and videos of me at age four, in dresses, playing female characters, being Annie or being Clara from the Nutcracker,” Sasha recalled. “I also had my Lady Macbeth phase at age eight– I would take off whatever dress I was wearing and throw it out the window. So there was always a bit of darkness in my drag.”
But by the time Sasha was a teenager, like many adolescents he started to feel strange about being different. “I didn’t think that female characters and female fantasies were closed to me, as a little boy. That self-policing that some kids get right away happened to me when I was a teenager, when I was interacting with other kids and trying to learn what was ‘normal’ and what was ‘not normal,'” he recalled.
It wasn’t until years later that he would feel comfortable really embracing drag again. It all happened after he returned from Russia, where Sasha had been thinking a lot about gender expression. “The way that men and women assert gender difference in their behaviors and the way they styled themselves, to me, is extra-visible in Russia,” he explained.
He also discovered in himself a newfound determination to embrace his creative capacities. “It was actually a therapist who had me envision what my calm and happy and confident place was,” he laughed. “And I saw like heels and lipstick and crystals. So I went out and bought my first wig as an adult– that was, like, five years ago.”
He’d always been interested in drawing, but the visual realm now became a place for Sasha to express his feelings about gender and model a feminine character for himself within that context. After enrolling in school for cartooning, he started to dress in drag for parties. “We were having RuPaul’s Drag Race screenings, which I have my criticisms of,” he recalled. “But it does show how drag can be many different things, and even though the show doesn’t go anywhere near the level of diversity that drag has in places like New York, it’s a pretty good introduction. I was very influenced by it, of course.”
As a visual thinker, Sasha started to imagine his drag persona, Sasha Velour, through cartoons. “Right from the start, I had a sense of some of the visuals I wanted to go for, because that’s the medium I excel in,” he explained. “I started drawing these characters, and cartoons about my experiences as a drag queen, but at the time I had only really gotten dressed up a couple of times and gone out.”
Following the principles of cartooning he’d learned in school, Sasha drew up a character with a readily recognizable silhouette — a bald head with “strong eyebrows, all in red, with ivory white skin” — so that she could be easily recognized from frame to frame, even if she appeared far off in the distance. The next step was shaving his own head.
“I totally discovered this character through visual art, and that’s another reason why the magazine made sense– to me, there’s a really strong personal connection between visual art and drag,” he explained. “I saw the parallels right away between this self-created identity you have with drag and the ability of a cartoonist or an illustrator to craft a whole world of living, breathing characters on the page, with like no money.”
Drag was of course a fun outlet for Sasha, but it also became a form of serious artistic expression. “To some people ‘beauty’ sounds really superficial, but to me, beauty is a way of interpreting and stylizing the world that lets you have power as a marginalized person,” he explained.
His partner, who describes himself as a”theater artist and choreographer” also wanted to join in on the Sasha’s creative projects. “The DIY quality of drag is really integral,” Sasha remarked. It was actually Johnny who came up with the idea for the magazine in the summer of 2014, as a means of exercising some creative control. Sasha explained that Johnny’s career, though it gave him the opportunity to sing, dance, and perform in Broadway-style musicals, left him feeling that he had “no agency in terms of creating something or speaking for himself,” Sasha explained. Vym then became a joint creative project for the couple.
At first, the concept was not so different from a really well-produced zine which they printed that September. “We stapled it, folded it ourselves, and everything,” Sasha recalled. To their surprise, what they now see as the proto-issue sold out quickly. “We realized, ‘OK, people are interested in this.'” The couple then organized a Kickstarter to fund a slicker, thicker version of Vym and were able to expand the content and get the magazine professionally printed. “We wanted to go deeper into what some of these ideas about drag actually are,” Sasha explained.
The first issue of Vym centers around what seems, at first, like a really basic question: “What is drag?” But the variety of responses — in the form of essays, cartoons, photographs, art work, poetry, graphics, you name it — is remarkable. “We really tried to curate the most diverse group of drag performers we could find,” Sasha explained.
Drag king Lou Henry Hoover, who describes herself as a “showboy extraordinaire” penned an essay on her first experience with drag, part of “The First Drag” feature. She recalled that in high school she and her best friend were “a pair of right theater fags.” Lou lied about her age to get into a theater production, where she met a choir boy who shared a photo of himself dressed in “full showgirl pageant drag.” She immediately felt a “prehistoric” connection, from then on drag became “an implosion of forces” for her, “including a the desire to express my own gender expression #masculineofcenterfaggylesbian).”
Sasha said that it “was really important” to feature drag kings in the magazine. “I’m still shocked at how many drag queens are not down with drag kings, and by how many drag kings feel marginalized by the scene and see it often as a type of misogyny, which obviously is alive and well, even in the gay community,” he said. “To me, they’re totally brother and sister art forms. Obviously the references and the type of glamor are going to be different, but the way that we’re thinking and the types of performance that we do is so similar. Drag kings show me that you can stylize masculinity too, it’s not neutral and can be totally dramatic and silly too, and that being a man is performative as well.”
Lou Henry Hoover is hardly a token female in the magazine. In fact, Lou’s partner (in performance and love) Kitten LaRoue also contributed an essay. (The couple got hitched in Seattle back in 2013, after same-sex marriage was made legal in Washington.)
There are many more essays written by women in the magazine, including Crimson Kitty who wrote a piece on her introduction to drag. For Kitty, watching Jem and the Holograms on Saturday mornings as a kid, marked the first time she “really understood drag.” And, as Johnny Velour noted, more than half of the visual artists who contributed photography, graphics, and more are women, including Yuki Matsumura and Becca Kacanda.
“We put a strong emphasis on diversity in terms of gender and race, I think that’s really important for editors to do,” Sasha explained. “It’s not something to be light about, especially as two white cis-gender-ish men. It’s like, we have this background and this passion that’s driving us to create this project, but it needs to become a platform for a diverse group of people to speak for themselves. I’ve tried to have that with my show as well.”
I pointed out the very obvious racial divide between the drag and ballroom scenes, which admittedly are different types of performance in some ways, but I’ve noticed that, by and large, the drag performances I’ve seen are performed mostly by white men, while the vogue competition I saw at Rashaad Newsome’s “Coming Out Ball,” for example, was dominated by people of color.
“There’s a lot of crossing over though,” Sasha explained. “Drag queens have a really interesting understanding of race and what it means to be any sort of identity, and reflecting on that is so powerful right now. Obviously, right now in America having a conversation about trans lives and black lives mattering is important in every work of art and in every community, and the gay community has been extra-bad about not having room for those conversations.”
Sasha also emphasized the importance of including perspectives from trans people within the community. K. James, who belongs to the Brooklyn drag collective Switch n’ Play, appears in a photo essay shot by Masha Bogushevsky. “I do queer, campy drag,” reads K. James’ handwriting under his photograph. “For me, drag is parody and not about creating an ‘illusion.'”
It’s not so much that transgender drag performers are few and far between, it’s quite the opposite actually. “That really says so much about what the drag community is all about, and how much of this gender performance is actually connected to very real, personal gender flexibility or ambiguity,” Sasha pointed out. “And that gets written out of a lot of conversations about drag.”
This inclusiveness extends well beyond simply the backgrounds and biology of the individual people involved, the first issue of Vym spotlights an array of views on what drag actually means to drag kings, drag queens, and even people who are peripherally involved in the drag scene. Sasha attributes this complexity to the “deep intelligence of drag.”
But rather than single out certain types of drag for being smarter than others, and invoking some sort of hierarchy, Sasha is concerned with challenging people to think harder about drag. “I think people talk about ‘bad drag’ too much, and we need to focus on how powerful every act of drag is,” he said. “I think sometimes people treat drag queens and drag kings, and sometimes they treat themselves, like it’s not an art, or that it’s just silly and it’s just for fun– it is silly, and it is fun, but it’s also important. It’s a smart art form.”
If this all sounds stiff, you’d be hard pressed to convince someone the magazine is deadly serious. Vym is just as much fun as it is smart. And that’s because Sasha’s not out to intellectualize drag or make it into something that it’s not. “It’s giving credit to something that’s already there, and when you get treated — even by the people in your own community — like it’s not serious, it’s hard to move forward with the art form,” he said. We agreed that drag, especially innovative drag, is still very much a subversive art form.
This reminded me of B+B’s coverage of a panel at Miami Art Basel, which included Juliana Huxtable. The speakers agreed that the panel’s own title “Transgender in the Mainstream” was ridiculous because it implied (among other things) that transgender was mainstream, and thus widely accepted. When in reality, trans people are still at high risk for all sort of discrimination, violence, and other issues related to their systematic oppression for time immemorial.
Though drag is certainly not equal to being transgender, obviously, to say that drag is mainstream simply because Ru Paul has a popular TV show, would miss the point of fighting for equality. “It’s always the people who would struggle to feel fully satisfied in the mainstream party environment who are interested in drag,” Sasha explained. “It’s a home for weirdos and queers and people who want to express gender differently.”
Have we reached a turning point for drag? What about for elements of queer culture in general? Hearing about what’s happening in the Berlin “trash drag” scene certainly convinced me of this, and the advent of Vym magazine sort of sealed the deal. But maybe, in a lot of ways the world needs drag more than drag needs any sense of approval from the rest of the world. “We’re in a moment where people are just not very political in their entertainment — partying is so apolitical and consumerist, now more than ever — and drag still leads a conversation, it gets people talking,” Sasha argued. “And that, I think, is really revolutionary.”