White River Junction has become a hub for visual artists, actors and cartoonists in recent years. Now a drag queen who credits the Upper Valley community with helping her get her start has risen to national prominence as a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Sasha Steinberg, a former student at The Center for Cartoon Studies whose stage name is Sasha Velour, is competing against 13 other queens for a prize of $100,000 and the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar.
“It feels important to be a visible queer presence on TV now more than ever,” Steinberg wrote in an email last month. “I get to be part of showing how talented and beautiful and resilient a roomful of drag queens can be, inspiring young teenagers or even older generations to be their authentic selves ... which is to say, to have fun, to be daring, and to be fabulously unique!”
For the uninitiated, Velour offered a concise description of the unconventional art form in a YouTube video of a performance during her monthly revue Nightgowns in Brooklyn, N.Y. earlier this year:
“What drag does is it takes normative narratives: The songs that we hear around us each day, the images, the characters that we surround ourselves with and it squeezes our fabulous, little queer bodies into it,” he said. “That shifts the meaning of that culture of those normative stories of love of beauty ... it changes it and it makes it weird and makes it fabulous.”
Drag shows include singing, lip syncing, dancing and other forms of storytelling. Velour’s performances often include animation, which is projected onto her body and a screen behind her.
Steinberg credits the Upper Valley community with supporting and encouraging him to pursue drag. One of his first public outings in costume was to attend an Oscar party hosted by Kim Souza at Revolution, her White River Junction clothing shop, in 2012. Steinberg, who donned a teal sequined dress and a wig, won “Best Dressed” at the event that year.
“Honestly just getting that level of encouragement that night is what inspired me to keep going,” he wrote in the email.
He collaborated with several Upper Valley residents on Whatever She Wants: A Drag Musicale at the Main Street Museum in the spring of 2013. The musicale told the story of Veronica, a night club singer on the downslope of her career, and Jayne, an upstart ingenue bent on success.
“It was a pretty big drag milestone,” Steinberg wrote.
Steinberg was able to plug into White River Junction’s burgeoning art scene, said Michelle Ollie, the president and co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies.
Through the existing arts community, which included the Tip Top Media and Arts Building, the Main Street Museum, Northern Stage and Revolution, Steinberg was able to cultivate friendships that helped to feed his art, Ollie said.
There was “already a cultural movement here that really embraced that sort of work,” she said.
The Upper Valley was both a professional and personal source of inspiration for Steinberg, who met his partner, actor John Jacob Lee, in White River Junction. Lee was performing in Annie at Northern Stage while Steinberg was attending the cartoon school. Their paths first crossed at Tuckerbox and, according to Steinberg, “it was love at first sight.”
“I knew I was going to find a haven to explore and develop certain skills as an artist, but I never expected to fall in love with the community,” Steinberg said in his email. “I found that the Upper Valley was filled with queer and allied folks, open minded and generous people who believe deeply in the power of teamwork, art, and community.”
Steinberg has maintained Upper Valley friendships even after his graduation from the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2013 and his subsequent move to Brooklyn, N.Y.
“To this day I still get some of my wardrobe from Revolution, and Nancy Heyl has sent me countless vintage dresses from the Upper Valley (I’m also the same dress and shoe size as her mom, so that helps!),” Steinberg wrote. “She’s been a big part of my journey as a queen, even helped me pack for RuPaul’s Drag Race!”
In a phone interview, Heyl, who met Steinberg while she was working at Revolution, said that Steinberg’s roots in drag go back to childhood, when he wore heels while playing dress-up.
But Heyl, a White River Junction resident, said she was there when Steinberg decided that drag was his calling and encouraged him to wear as many sequins and feathers as possible.
The influence goes both ways, she said.
“I would call him a feminist through and through,” Heyl said. “Through his drag he helped me appreciate myself more. How he honors women really helped me to honor myself. He’s a drag queen with a lot of heart ... It was really under his tutelage that I felt I was able to find my own fabulousness.”
Heyl, who started designing costumes while employed at Revolution, also works as a stylist. Her work also has roots in childhood when she dressed up her Barbies in different outfits. She said she enjoys sculpting a look to suit the individual.
“I really love matching people with clothes that make them feel awesome,” she said. “Feeling (Velour) make these clothes live really makes my heart soar.”
Heyl held a watch party for the season premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race, now in its ninth season, which happened to air the same week as her birthday last month.
“I’m so excited I get to see these clothes,” she said. It’s like “seeing your children out in the world.”
Velour’s style is inspired by Art Deco, film noir and ’60s-’80s pop art, Steinberg wrote.
“I spent most of time at the Center for Cartoon Studies playing with combinations of those art styles through comics ... and I get to do the same in drag!” he wrote.
While the connection between cartooning and drag may not be obvious, Steinberg said he’s honed his character’s fashion sense and makeup by drawing them on paper first.
“I constantly sketch out Sasha Velour, and imagine new looks for her ... she’s always evolving, as I get more and more ambitious with my costume imagination,” he wrote.
Steinberg also learned skills necessary to his career in the arts while at the cartoon school.
“So much of the business of drag is about marketing yourself and producing/selling your own merchandise,” he wrote.
Steinberg designs and operates his own website, creates art for T-shirts and pins, and edits his own photos.
“I’m a one stop shop!” he wrote.
From a performance standpoint, Velour’s character has evolved over time, Steinberg said.
“At first I saw her as this perfect strong goddess ... but I think every drag performer experiences this, where eventually you and your character become one and the same,” he wrote. “Letting in my humanity, my sadness and my pain into the character has helped her become even more powerful, maybe even more fabulous!”
Velour participated in Revolution’s fall fashion show last year. Though the White River Junction show took place before her appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race was announced in January, her celebrity status was already sufficient to inspire admiration from many teens at The Junction: Listen’s Teen Lifeskills Center, said Katie O’Day, the center’s director of teen services.
“They love Sasha,” O’Day said.
O’Day said the teen center has a large population of LGBTQ youth and it was inspiring for them to see Velour on stage and backstage.
“I’m pretty sure none of them had ever seen a drag queen in real life,” O’Day said in a phone interview last month. “He’s a huge inspiration to them.”
Steinberg’s art extends beyond his on-stage performances to a gay ‘zine, Velour: The Drag Magazine, which he publishes with Lee. The third issue of Velour is due out this spring.
Steinberg also hosts a monthly drag revue, Nightgowns, in Brooklyn, which aims to showcase the diversity of drag.
Ollie said she was teaching design at the cartoon school while Steinberg was a student. She remembers him as a “very ambitious” student whose thesis project addressed the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. The incident, in which people threw objects at police following a police raid of a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, was a turning point in the gay rights movement.
“The one thing that I’ll say about Sasha: If he sets in his mind to do something he’s going to do it,” Ollie said.
RuPaul’s Drag Raceairs Fridays on VH1 at 8 p.m. Learn more about Sasha Velour online at sashavelour.com.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.