Velour, The Drag Magazine's Brilliant Illustrated History of Realness (Exclusive)

velour the drag magazine realness

Published by Johnny Velour and his partner in business and in life, Brooklyn's "thinking queen" Sasha Velour, Velour, The Drag Magazine is in its second issue, which tackles the topic of "realness."

The term—originating from ballroom culture, and popularized by Jennie Livingston's landmark documentary Paris Is Burning—has been introduced to a new generation and a wider audience thanks to RuPaul's Drag Race. But with its increasing legitimization as a cultural phenomenon, the show has faced criticism for offering a reductive interpretation of drag and ball culture; similar criticism leveled at Paris Is Burning when it premiered over 25 years ago. 

Related | 25 Important Life Lessons from Paris Is Burning

The biannual Brooklyn-based magazine worked with over 20 contributors to put together this gorgeous, 116-page (ad-free) issue, available tomorrow October 21. One of those contributors, Laurel Lynn Leake, created an illustrated history of "realness," from the 1960s, through Paris Is Burning, Drag Race, and beyond.  

Here, we present that history, reprinted with permission from the artist and publishers, along with an interview with Sasha Velour on the mag, what it means to serve realness, and the endless possibilities of drag. 

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OUT: What's your mission for Velour? Who do you hope it speaks to?

Sasha Velour: Velour celebrates all different kinds of drag performance and showcases how truly smart and creative drag is. That's why we love to feature collaborations between visual artists and drag performers...it's our way of capturing and translating all the brilliance of drag to the printed page.

Our ideal audience is… anyone! Honestly, though. We try to craft a narrative that runs through each issue that explains (in different ways and voices) what drag is all about. So someone who's just learning about drag could it pick it up as an introduction. But someone who teaches queer theory, or an expert drag performer can also pick it up, and find new innovations, new directions of thinking, and sources of inspiration.

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Why did you choose "realness" as this issue's theme?

"Realness" is a word that you hear very casually in a lot of drag scenes. It came originally from the black and Latinx ballroom scene, and kind of got passed down through Paris Is Burning and RuPaul's Drag Race. These days, it's often used as a synonym for "look" (think "white party realness")... but the origins were much more specific and politicized.

In the balls, "realness" categories were about your ability to seem exactly like your straight counterpart.  Not really for purposes of parody, but almost life or death survival. Dorian Corey explained it best in Paris Is Burning: "When they can walk out of that ballroom into the sunlight and onto the subway and get home, and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their bodies—those are the femme realness queens."

When we sat down with a bunch of collaborators, and tried to tease out all the implications of all that—the contradictoriness of "falsely appearing to be real" or the strangeness of "performing heterosexuality"—it felt like it cut to the heart of what drag is all about, and how it interacts with (and transforms) the "real" world. "Realness" raises a bunch of pretty deep questions about drag, and this issue attempts to answer them in different ways!

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What are your biggest challenges re: putting together the mag? And your biggest rewards?

It takes a lot of time to put together a complete magazine with just two people! I do all the layout and design single-handedly, and Johnny wrangles the contributors and manages our social media! So there are times it feels impossible. But the rewards are huge. The finished project is beautiful and sophisticated and celebrates artists who deserve the spotlight. But for me, the most exciting part is that we've created an actual analog object that you can hold, share, and collect. Independent artwork and drag is so fresh and so exciting right now. I feel like we are doing our small part to help document and celebrate that for posterity!

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What is it about the Brooklyn drag scene that intrigues/inspires you?

We are so lucky to be surrounded by some of the most thoughtful, talented, original, and artistic drag performers in the country.  Every style of drag you can think of exists here, and all the kinds you couldn't have thought of exist here, too. Although this second issue skews almost exclusively toward Brooklyn drag, we are excited to expand our focus going forward. For us, it's really been a matter of working with people that we know first. We are surrounded by so many brilliant close friends, it was natural to start close to home!

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How do you feel about the continued mainstreaming of drag?

I mean..."mainstream" is a little generous, right?! I think 90% of drag in this country is still cutting edge, strange, very gay, and under-appreciated! But I know what you mean...I do think Drag Race has shifted people's expectations for what drag is supposed to look like...sometimes in good ways, sometimes in more mainstreaming ways. But drag is always going to be full of many different directions. If anything, the popularity of drag has pushed "weird drag" even further, to keep innovating, to think outside the box. I feel like we are in a real renaissance period for drag—and it runs the gamut from high fashion runways to underground punk trash monstrosities. Velour wants to capture all of that, and everything in between!

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What is the future of drag?

The future of drag is more diverse representation. It's drag infiltrating every realm of art, it's all different types and shapes and bodies of drag getting to showcase their unique styles and beauties.

You can order your copy of Velour here—and click here for more of Laurel Lynn Leake's work.

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