The Sasha Velour Effect: Are ‘Reveals’ Ruining the Art of the Lip Sync Performance?
When Sasha Velour won two head-to-head lip syncs for the crown during the Season 9 grand finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race last year, she set a new standard, bringing the crowd to their feet through jaw-dropping reveals as she showered herself in rose petals hidden under her wig during the first song’s climax and stripped pieces of a bony mask away from her expressive face during the second song. Pretty much everyone watching thought the same thing: “This is what it takes to win.” But as last night’s underwhelming lip sync reveals proved, Drag Race competitors took the wrong lessons from Velour’s performance. By going for big reveals they sacrificed the many smaller, more fundamental elements that really make for memorable lip syncs.
By now, everyone knows about Asia O’Hara’s butterfly fail. He had butterflies hidden in two wrist compartments and inside his breasts. But instead of flying upward and creating the beautiful, GIF-worthy image he’d imagined, the winged creatures stayed nestled within their cubbies, falling like leaves onstage, possibly to be trampled by O’Hara and Kameron Michaels’ glamorous heels.
It’s no wonder O’Hara apologized and promised 100 hours of service to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The show’s producers should forbid live animals in future competitions — it’s needlessly cruel. If you’re depending on live animals for your lip-sync reveal, you’ve already lost, which Asia did.
If the butterflies had flown, who knows, maybe O’Hara would’ve won and we’d all be sharing badass GIFs of monarchs fluttering from his body rather than watching in horror like Miss Vanjie and Monique Heart.
But O’Hara’s failure highlights the real misunderstanding about Velour’s memorable performance: Lip sync reveals alone aren’t enough to snatch the crown. In fact they’re meaningless unless you have the passionate presence, moves and face to back them up. And they’re hardly special if we’re expecting them.
Velour didn’t win that first finale lip sync just because she surprised everyone by showering herself with rose petals during the song’s high points. Actually, her second petal-filled elbow-length glove came off during an otherwise unremarkable part of Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional.”
Watching Velour’s performance to “So Emotional” and “It’s Not Right But It’s OK,” it quickly becomes obvious that Velour didn’t merely choreograph moves to the song and then wait for the right moments to offer big reveals like cheap props or musical punctuation. The lip sync reveals were part of a dramatic interpretation of the songs themselves that helped us connect with Velour rather than just the song.
About 35 seconds into “It’s Not Right But It’s OK,” Velour shed the rest of her bony mask — just as Houston sheds her anger before telling her man never to return. Velour had no other reveals throughout the song’s two-minute TV performance, and yet she still commanded everyone’s attention throughout.
While Peppermint, Velour’s competitor, started crawled around on the floor and briefly sprinkled glitter on herself and spun before strutting once again to the song’s ending, Velour delivered the song in the guise of a spurned lover defiantly proud in newfound freedom: her face passionately expressive, as if holding back tears while reclaiming her own worth, her white skirt shaken with flourish as he swoops across stage, spinning and then collapsing during the song’s soulful, wailing emotional climax, the horns on her shoulders signifying the prickliness and delicacy of love all the while.
The difference between Velour and Peppermint were clear: Peppermint performed the song, Velour embodied it. Acting out the song, mouthing its words, recreating its performer’s dance moves and using a quick reveal can help immerse you into a lip sync. But until you’ve internalized the song’s message and made it your own through a combination of physical presence and emotional affect, you’re not owning it — the song’s owning you.
Which brings us to last night’s lackluster lip sync reveals. Each performer’s outfit made it obvious to expect reveals galore — but it’s hardly a surprise when you’re expecting it.
One second into Aquaria’s and Eureka’s performance to Janet Jackson’s “If,” Aquaria removed his foil casing to reveal an outfit made of pink fabric spikes. About 13 seconds in, Aquaria reveals that his fan says … Miss Vanjie? Doesn’t matter — he throws it away mere seconds later.
Meanwhile, Eureka pulls a Roxxxy Andrews by revealing a blonde wig hiding underneath his bouffant. Moments later, he unleashes his purple feather coverup into a sparkling, long-sleeved red outfit. Less than 20 seconds later he sheds that outfit, too, to reveal a mirrored leotard just as Aquaria starts busting out Jackson’s iconic choreography to the song’s bridge. As Eureka and Aquaria high-kick, jump-split, death-drop and floor-hump their way into the song’s conclusion, Aquaria reveals that his breast spikes are in fact sparkling silver cone boobs complete with pink areolae.
We got no fewer than six reveals during that number, and while the stagecraft was remarkable it was nothing remotely close to the emotional power of Velour’s dramatic interpretations. The efforts tied the competitors rather than slaying either one.
Then, the final song: Jessie J’s “Bang Bang.” In a starry superheroic cape, Aquaria sets off a brief hand-sparkler at the outset, a gold glitter confetti-cannon conspicuously holstered on his left thigh. Entering the first chorus, Kameron Michaels whips off his huge red lace skirt. Right before the Nicki Minaj breakdown, Eureka reveals that his corset reading “THE BIG GIRL” (the name of his single dropped that same day) has a prediction underneath it: “WINS.” Aquaria mimes masturbating with the first confetti cannon before setting it off. Then, at the song’s conclusion, Aquaria pops off a second, hidden underneath his cape.
The performance is fleeting even before the last confetti scrap hits the floor. It’s impressive evidence of hard work and pre-planning, but none of the reveals seemed particularly groundbreaking or new, merely more animated than in the past. Mostly the audience just wanted to know which one Ru found most impressive so we could get it over with.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not hating on the queens. RuPaul’s Drag Race is an arduous gauntlet of artistry, and I couldn’t do even a teeny fraction of what these queens turn out. But in a night full of lip sync reveals, the biggest reveal of all was that the one thing we all remember most from Sasha Velour’s performance was only a small part of the magic. All the lip sync reveals in the world won’t make you a legend — they often just make every lip sync feel the same.