Words: Tim Heap
Playing a sold-out show at the 2,286-seat London Palladium is a dream for many performers – and a distant one at that for most drag artists until now.
The shift of drag from the cultural fringes to mainstream audiences is one of the great (and unexpected) phenomenons of the past decade, but Sasha Velour’s first solo show, Smoke & Mirrors, justifies the art form’s ascension perfectly.
The winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine, who also appears in Attitude's April Style issue, out now, proves herself a true creative and drag visionary – a testament to the show’s ability to celebrate and amplify queer talent.
Perhaps something of a dark horse for much of her season, Velour’s success has been made all the more likely by the fact that her brand is so well-formed and well-informed. Unlike many Drag Race contestants, she stepped into the workroom already knowing who she was – “a bald, fashiony, artistic, weird queen,” in her own words – and has never veered far from that.
Smoke & Mirrors then, is a perfect visualisation of her world: a lip-sync-filled two-hour show which is “part-bootleg magic show, part-sexy Ted Talk and part-melodramatic performance art” (again, her own words).
Taking to the hallowed stage – just as Velour’s personal icons Judy Garland and Dame Shirley Bassey have done before her – in a flowing white gown, she stands in front of a large screen, upon which graphics, images and videos are projected; a performance technique developed out of necessity when she started performing at a New York bar which lacked a spotlight but did offer a projector.
The first number, Sia’s ‘Cellophane’, is an arresting performance that sets the bar high for what’s to follow. Lip-syncing to ‘Precious’ by Annie Lennox, Velour starts in full angel get-up, complete with golden wings and a matching halo, but slowly sheds it piece by piece to reveal a rhinestoned-to-the-gods, devil-red bodysuit that wraps around every inch of her corseted body.
As the song climaxes, the halo is torn apart to reveal devil horns, with the spotlight casting a satanic silhouette on the screen behind her.
The use of the projector allows Velour time between numbers to change outfits and prepare for the next performance. In the hands of a lesser artist, it might be a warning sign of a lack of originality – but in Smoke & Mirrors, it’s not at the expense of audience enjoyment: the video sequences are an extension of Velour’s imagination rather than a replacement, allowing her to achieve effects that would be impossible otherwise.
The penultimate performance of the first act will be familiar to anyone who’s worth their Drag Race salt. Recreating the lip-sync which all but won her the season nine crown, the stage is strewn with rose petals as Velour theatrically discards her gloves and, lastly, wig while miming her heart out to Whitney Houston’s ‘So Emotional’. A defining moment of her career, it’s incredible to see it recreated here – and the applause is almost deafening.
What follows is perhaps the only mis-step of the evening, a quasi-magic trick where an on-stage Velour slices a projected version of herself in half while Lana Del Rey’s ‘High By The Beach’ plays. Over-complicated and lacking the energy of previous performances, it’s a slightly anti-climactic end to the act, especially after ‘So Emotional’.
Addressing the audience at times during the show, Velour speaks candidly about her pathway into drag, her gender-fluidity and mental health, and her mother’s battle with cancer and decision to not wear wigs – the inspiration for Velour’s own bald drag aesthetic. These moments are full of insight and heart, as well as being occasionally political, defiant and rousing, showing solidarity with oppressed members of the LGBTQ community.
A performance of Judy Garland’s ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ delivers astonishingly quick wig changes, while Le Tigre’s Deceptacon is a hugely fun moment as Velour is joined by two projected doppelgangers for slick group choreography.
Shirley Bassey’s ‘If You Go Away’ provides the platform for one of the night’s most mesmeric numbers. First performed for her mother at the last drag show she would see before passing away due to cancer, it marked the start of Velour’s journey as a bald queen (completed, at the time, with pointy monster ears), and she tells of how her mother passed on notes about how she could improve it after the initial performance. Velour took them into account, of course.
The final lip-sync of the night is set to Nina Simone’s hauntingly beautiful and breathy cover of ‘Wild Is The Wind’, in which Velour transforms herself – with the help of a structured Diego Montoya gown and projected illustration sequence – into a tree, gaining and losing leaves as the seasons change, limbs blowing in the breeze.
Midway through the prolonged standing ovation, Velour is handed a microphone and says sardonically: “No amount of applause will result in an encore – the most I can do in this dress is shuffle backwards carefully off stage.”
And so, after two hours of high-octane high drag, that’s exactly what she does, with the sound of applause following her back to the dressing room.
RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants are judged on their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent, and with all of those attributes on fine display in Smoke & Mirrors, it’s hard to not think that Sasha Velour may just be the finest ambassador the show could wish for.
The Smoke & Mirrors European tour continues throughout March. For dates, visit smokeandmirrorslive.com
For more great deals on tickets and shows, click here.