Here is a very partial roster of people who were wonderful on TV in 2017: Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Carrie Coon, Elisabeth Moss, Laura Dern, Kyle MacLachlan, Sarah Gadon, Aubrey Plaza, Issa Rae, Rachel Bloom, Viola Davis, Pamela Adlon, Ted Danson, Alexis Bledel, Allison Janney, Keri Russell, Dan Stevens, Constance Wu, Jude Law, Maggie Gyllenhaal.
That is a list—and every one of them got smoked by a drag queen with a fistful of sweaty fake rose petals tucked inside her evening gloves.
This was an incredible year for performances on TV, but for roughly two minutes, no one was better than Sasha Velour. In one sequence of one finale for one reality show, she not only blew the doors off the place, but also threw down a vivid reminder that art that’s personal—art that’s interpretive and inventive and emotional and unexpected and rich in metaphor—can come from anywhere. All it requires is a bold mind, and perhaps a wig.
There have been great performances of RuPaul’s Drag Race before. There were even a few others in the reality competition’s ninth season, including the one going on across the stage from Sasha as she made every acclaimed actor on TV in 2017 look like a well-tanned, invisibly pored piece of dry toast in comparison. There are people out there who’d say that lip-syncing isn’t an art form, but I’m not one of them, and what fellow competitor Shea Couleé did with Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional” in that finale shouldn’t be sniffed at. It’s not easy to be a bottomless font of charisma. In every other year, that would have been almost enough to secure a win.
Not this year. Some of that is due to a welcome change in format, as Drag Race finally deigned to include a competitive element in its flashy, taped-live finale. The result was an episode with actual stakes. A well and truly hyped crowd was eager to lose its collective shit for the final four queens, and each of those queens came, not to play, but in fact, to slay. Sasha, though? Sasha was working on an entirely different level.
And with that, let’s dive the hell in. Here’s Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional,” as interpreted by one of the world’s best drag queens and a performance artist who is not to be fucked with. It’ll change your damn life.
As with most drag performances, it started with the look. At first glance, it’s a surprisingly demure choice for a queen who wore stuff like this throughout the season: a mid-century inspired floral cocktail dress, with reds that echo the rose she carries onstage. On closer inspection, though, the weird little details are all there: little-to-no padding of the chest; the relatively tame leopard-print heels; fringe that seems flimsy until Sasha actually starts to move, and it’s clear both how much fringe there is and that it’s hiding some acid-green beneath all the red; large, kitschy earrings that echo the leopard print of the shoes; and gold and mustard evening gloves that go all the way to her elbows. It’s gorgeous and odd, demure and wild, both highly feminine and far from a perfect illusion. It plays with our ideas about gender, and above all, it’s romantic. It’s a rose, and roses have thorns.
The rose Sasha carries onstage isn’t just a prop. It’s there to be demolished, almost instantly. It’s cool, and that would be enough, but it’s also doing a whole bunch more, because Sasha Velour doesn’t ever just stop at cool. She goes full “he loves me, he loves me not” on the thing, but doesn’t pull a petal at a time, instead destroying it in four yanks that coincide with the song’s opening drums. She’s left clutching the stem like a scepter, already having scattered the petals around her as though she’d been playing that childish game for hours. But even that’s not the real end-game; it’s there to establish a pair of motifs: that of rose petals as a symbol for an explosion of emotion, and one of shedding parts of your wardrobe (or self) to indicate vulnerability. She can hold the rose because she’s got gloves on, see? But the gloves are about to, literally, come off.
That all happens before the end of the first line of the first verse. I learned something more about all that just by writing about it, and I have watched this performance at least three dozen times.
That red wig does a bouncy thing, and it’s heavenly. It’s unspeakably charming. It does not look like real hair, and that’s good. It’s like a cloud of magic as seen in a shampoo commercial. Anyway, Sasha backs up, and in the story she’s telling us, she’s smiling and giddy but a little nervous. Her hair is bouncing, and her smile is enormous. Then, as the chorus approaches and we hear the build in Whitney’s voice, she starts to twist one of her fingers sort of nervously, excitedly, gleefully, and right when that chorus hits, bam. The sky is filled with rose petals.
They come out of her damned glove. She sheds, awkwardly and enthusiastically, a piece of her armor, and out comes an explosion of romance. It’s exhilarating and surprising and damned good stagecraft and lovely to see. One moment of vulnerability and the world is beautiful and weird again, right when Whitney freakin’ Houston really lets loose. She is so emotional.
There’s this moment where Shea, who as a reminder is lip-syncing very well simultaneously, but isn’t, you know, forever changing a classic pop song, points at Sasha. It’s on the lyric “every time I think of you.” Sasha catches it out of the corner of her eye, and even though that’s totally not the story she’s telling, she doesn’t miss a beat, and it’s suddenly a part of her world, too.
She is totally committed to that point, and then it’s gone and she’s back in the world of this woman who is so, so emotional. This is approximately the 57th coolest thing she does in these two minutes.
So the chorus ends, and Sasha plants her feet and gets this coquettish smirk on her face. It is worth noting that her teeth are almost cartoonishly perfect. They’re twinkly. You’d think that doesn’t matter in a performance, except she knows exactly how to use those teeth. Later in the episode, she wears this white dress and moves like a predator, and it, honest to god, feels like she could rip your flesh from your bones with her mouth if she wanted.
But that’s then, and this is now. She flashes those teeth, reaches for her glove, and starts to remove it one finger at a time. It’s a Gypsy Rose Lee moment, and I just in this moment realized that the word “rose” is in that name and what did I tell you, this shit is bottomless and wonderful.
So she’s taking it off slowly, and when it’s finally removed, another shower of rose petals comes out, timed perfectly with a high, lush “hee!” from Whitney. It’s almost casual. It’s like a sigh, only the sigh is beauty.
At this point, Sasha’s totally playing with expectations. She’s already dumped rose petals twice but she’s run out of gloves, so even though these things always occur in threes, it doesn’t seem possible that there could be more to come. In the second verse, the song focuses mostly on sex, with Whitney singing about the animal way her paramour moves (remember those leopard-print shoes?) and how she just watches their mouth when they speak. Sasha also goes animal, posed like a calendar pinup on the ground and showering herself with her own rose petals. She snarls a little. It’s all about sex, and as it starts to build, she seems more and more out of control, swept away by the song and, you know, emotion, because she is so emotional.
As she gets up, the lyric “I wish I didn’t like it so much” hits. She clearly, clearly wishes she didn’t like it so much. She quakes in those leopard-print shoes, and that lyric pops in a whole new way. When you fall in love, in out-of-control love, it’s terrifying and frustrating. Suddenly your emotions are subject to the whims of someone else. They don’t return a text and your life is over. Someone else has the power to hurt you in a way that feels like the end of the goddamn world, and she brings all that into the open by standing up and shaking a little bit. How the hell is that even possible?
Then she loses her hair.
Sasha Velour started performing bald when her late mother shaved her head after chemotherapy caused her to lose some of her hair. It’s a beautiful tribute, and a distinctive one, so the fact that she wears a wig at all is a big deal. Then it comes off.
It’s that vulnerability again, a means of shedding a protective shell that also echoes the phrase “keep your hair on,” or stay calm, be cool, take it easy. But when shedding that last piece of herself, the biggest shower of rose petals falls. It’s gorgeous and weird and totally magical. It is so emotional. It’s also liberating and triumphant, and not just because in that moment, she wins the lip-sync round that allowed her to win the next one. It’s a choice this artist makes, to expose herself, to shed the bouncing shampoo commercial and be nakedly who she is. Her reward, and ours, is beauty, otherworldly and rich.
Then she goes back to absolutely killing it the old-fashioned way, by perfectly matching her lips to the song we hear and by showing us, and making us feel, exactly what every moment of that song means, one hysterical scream and giddy smile at a time. The world could end and those teeth would still be twinkling.
Another contestant on this season, Aja, did this:
Aja’s slated to be on the next season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, and I am rooting for her because of this moment alone.
After a long chorus of Whitney belting “baby, baby” over and over again, there’s this wonderful little growl of a sound, and Sasha, who’s been essentially screaming her joy and fear at the heavens for almost 30 seconds, shakes it off with her hands, like she’s got too much inside her and has to shed some energy through her fingers.
It’s tiny and perfect. Then she lets loose one last “love can do,” half grinning and half shrieking, before the song ends. The Earth returns to its axis, and all over the planet, people drag the progress bar back and start the video over again.
Listen, RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t the best show on television, but this is the most exciting thing I saw this year. Every time I watch it, I get goosebumps. Every time, it shows me something new. Every time, I hear the screams of the people in that room and think about how magical it must have been to watch that beautiful drag queen shower herself with the rose petals she hid inside her wig. Not everyone can do what Elisabeth Moss can do, but no one but Sasha Velour can do what she did here.
There’s plenty of writing out there about what Sasha would have done had the song selected out of a bejeweled Deal Or No Deal suitcase, held by a shiny, muscled man in sparkly underwear, been Britney Spears’ “Stronger” rather than Whitney’s gorgeous pop gem. That she was prepared with another piece of art is impressive; that we’ll never see it is a shame. There’s also plenty to be said about her second performance, also to a Whitney Houston song, in which she snarls and preens and stalks the stage like a predator snake-insect-bird-alien who sheds a chrysalis from her face before absolutely demolishing her very talented competition. But what interests me is the artist who, while defying the gender binary, chose to take her moment in the sun and make it bigger, smarter, stranger, and more beautiful.
In this hot, stinking dumpster fire of a year, there’s somehow been plenty of great art, much of it produced by teams of people working together to make remarkable things. What Sasha Velour did for two minutes of that Drag Race finale is special, not because it was fabulous—which it was, and god bless it—but because it was messy, marvelous, and deeply personal. There’s nothing confessional about it, nothing obvious. It’s just an artist digging into what the work of another artist means; throwing it into a gorgeous, glittery blender; and coming up with something only that mind could have imagined.
All hail individuality. All hail empathy. All hail beauty, intelligence, and strangeness. All hail a person who took a moment of reality television fame and turned it into a moment of wild and wonderful creation. All hail Sasha Velour, America’s reigning drag superstar and a motherfucking world-class artist.