Artifice and illusion. That is what was promised to us, the audience, at a performance which Mikayla and I attended this past Sunday by Sasha Velour (real name: Alexander Steinberg), an American drag queen. Sasha was the winner of Season 9 of the now-mainstream show RuPaul’s Drag Race, and, like many of the winners of RPDR, has brought the art (and artifice) of drag to a much bigger audience. There is no better evidence of this than the fact that we were sat not at some bar or dive, but in the plush seats of the historic London Palladium.
Sasha’s show was amazing– it was clever, beautiful, extremely intellectual, and incredibly artistic. There was more creativity and invention on display in her two hours of lip-synching, monologuing, and dancing than in most modern art museums. If art is meant to interpret and comment on life, then Sasha has used drag as an art to do that brilliantly.
Indeed, the show was timed very well as additional inspiration for an annual Purim tradition for me and Mikayla: going out in costumes that are purposefully gender-swapped. Some years this has meant the barest suggestion (a dress, a wig, poorly executed make up) and other years we put more work into our illusions. The first time we did this was six years ago and it became a tradition because of the reactions it garnered from friends and strangers. People mentioned it was “frightening” when the illusion was done well and we felt the need to push back a bit against those comments by continuing with our Purim drag. It seems to me that the visual reminder that so much of what we associate with gender and sex- make-up or hair length or jewelry or clothing- is artificial prompts unsettling questions as a result.
One of RuPaul’s many quotable maxims is: ‘we’re all born naked and the rest is drag’. Indeed, what well-done drag artists like Sasha can do is expose the artifice and illusion of how we present ourselves to the world. All of us, regardless of sex or gender identity, compose and construct a persona which we walk out of the door every day having put on. We fall into comfortable patterns of appearance, behaviour and dress based on our gender identity, our culture, our community, or our family. We act and dress and talk the way that we do because we are creating a character, even if we don’t think of it that way.
What’s so interesting about drag is that it exposes, through exaggeration, how much we’re all engaging in the same endeavour: dressing, pressing, and presenting ourselves to be a particular version of our many possible selves for the world around us. There is no better time than Purim, the day of turning things on their head, to consider how costumes and illusions aren’t just for fancy dress parties, but are a piece of ourselves and the armour that we wear each day before we face the outside world.
Whether we often push our own boundaries, whether we do so daily – or whether only on Purim – we would do well to consider that although we’re all born naked, the rest is certainly artifice and illusion.