Season 9 of Rupaul’s Drag Race has recently concluded with a bonanza of a finale and [spoilers], the artsy bald New York queen Sasha Velour sashayed away with the crown, 100,000 USD and a year’s supply of Anastasia Beverly Hills cosmetics.
Other crowned royalty in the Rupaul’s Drag Race pantheon have won by a combination of their looks, musicality, humour, or by being absolutely sickening. Sasha Velour stands out because she won relying on her brains – frankly, novel territory for the show. While others have openly shown a slant towards the political and social aspects of drag, neither had tackled their art forms from an intellectual angle.
Velour’s crowning is perhaps something that is sorely needed in the current zeitgeist. A gender bending, art wielding drag queen scholar as the winner of a pop culture behemoth? It seems perfectly placed to disrupt anti-intellectual narratives that pervade much of popular discourse.
Of course, her intellect has been polarising as much as it has been adored, with her “intense” personality and ability to over-intellectualise everything. On fan groups dedicated to Drag Race, Sasha has been characterised as the weakest of the Top 4. And disparagingly – the social justice warrior pick for winner due to her decidedly cringey approach to drag. Her initial pick for the celebrity impersonation challenge Snatch Game was the noted feminist thinker Judith Butler before she settled on German actress Marlene Dietrich; neither of which are within the standard remit of drag celebrity impersonations.
Now I talk personally, as academic impersonations would be the kind of self indulgent horseplay I would do as a drag queen. As someone who has pored over Judith Butler, Sasha managed to capture not only Butler’s cadences and distinctive style of speech, but also her hand movements. This means that not only had Sasha read Judith Butler, but watched or even possibly attended a lecture of hers. When the clip popped up on my social media, I practically fell out of my seat screaming. I had already pegged Sasha Velour as my bet to win. I felt some intangible connection to her in a way I hadn’t to any of the other competitors. She felt weird. As a fellow weirdo, I connected to her.
Academics and scholars are given a bad rap by society and this is amplified through the lens of popular culture. The fact that The Big Bang Theory is a popular show, goes to show the disdain that pop culture has for those that it considers geeky. I have always maintained that the show is about laughing at geeks, rather than laughing with geeks. This shows in the romantic dynamics and its treatment of female characters – but that’s a topic for another article.
When Sasha Velour opened up on the show on her over-intellectualisation of everything, I related to her in a way that I very rarely do with people on screen. Here is someone deeply beautiful, who plays with gender, who is a bald queen in tribute to her mother who had died from cancer. Here is someone whose references are pulled from a deeper and much more obscured pool than your typical Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, and Britney Spears.
There is of course, nothing wrong with taking your references from that. But it is refreshing, as someone with academic commitments, to see someone who pulls from Basquiat and Brecht as much as they pull from Lady Gaga and Madonna.
Approaching this piece, I found it difficult to talk about this as rationally as I’d like. I had messaged Sasha Velour’s fan page midway through the season, as her work is inspiring to someone like me: a geeky introverted scholar who likes pop culture too much during the lowest point of rewriting her thesis proposal. To my surprise, she replied.
It wasn’t a standard reply, but a heartfelt response which showed that she had read my message. She congratulated me for getting there, to trust in my knowledge and to be proud of what I had done. My great desire to merge pop culture with scholarly references have been looked down by gatekeepers on both sides; either for being too formalised or too base. Now that I have someone who has entered the popular domain in a big way, someone who mirrors my aspirations, I feel inspired to keep doing what I do.
Sasha Velour is weird. Sasha Velour is beautiful. Sasha Velour is theatrical. Sasha Velour knows how to do a reveal. Who else can say that they made it rain rose petals on the finale of Rupaul’s Drag Race through a wig reveal?
Sasha Velour is my queen and now she is Season 9’s.