Sasha Velour is about to embark on a continent-spanning tour across North America, but earlier this year, a staph infection and subsequent surgery left her barely able to move.
The season 9 Rupaul’s Drag Race victor was in the middle of the New York City run of her one-woman show, Smoke & Mirrors, when she began to feel a “deep and muscular” pain in her backside.
“I’m used to having pain that I don’t understand because I’m in drag. So I didn’t think much of it. I let it go on for months before really looking into what it was,” Velour tells PEOPLE of discomfort in an area of her body that contends with tape, Spanx, tights and heels.
Eventually, the pain was so excruciating that it couldn’t be ignored. “I could not do anything. It had gotten so bad I couldn’t sit down, I could barely walk. I was in so much pain,” Velour says.
As a queer, gender-fluid drag performer, finding sufficient medical care was a challenge for Velour.
“I did have to go through a couple different doctors before I found someone who could understand — who would even, honestly, look carefully enough at my body, the way that I look on the outside without leaping to any kind of conclusion,” she says. “And who would evaluate my health and look into what I’m saying and believe me. I think I’m lucky to live in New York [City] where it’s possible to find health care providers who are queer friendly, who are trans and non-binary friendly. And that’s ultimately who was able to help me and maybe save my life.”
The understanding medical staff informed Velour that she was dealing with a staph infection “likely caused” by “shaving, tucking and all kinds of wild things that I had done for drag.”
“They’re like, ‘Pretty much shaving your body is risky precisely because of this reason.’ The doctor pretty much said, ‘Get it waxed or get laser hair removal or be hairy.'”
After having surgery to remove the infection, Velour was in for a “rude awakening” when she realized getting out of the hospital wouldn’t mean she’d be back to work, but on bed rest for about a month.
“It was like a huge chunk of my butt and leg that they removed that had to grow back. They weren’t able to do stitches because they removed so much,” she explained.
Velour depended on her partner, Johnny, to monitor her wound as she healed in her Brooklyn home. “Boundaries have been broken and we are very bonded after that experience. I am so thankful that I have even just one person who could stay by my side when I was scared and feeling weak,” she says.
While she let Johnny witness her weakest moments, Velour kept her health struggle a secret from fans and grappled with feeling “ashamed” about her situation.
“There is this sense with drag — but really with all pop cultural figures right now — that presentation of perfection, even perfect ways of presenting imperfection is so required,” she said. “[I had] shame that I wasn’t a flawless superhero who could balance a little bit of illness with a lot of overachieving and then like package it up nicely into the perfect Instagram post. And then it’s like, a sponsorship with so-and-so laser hair removal. It sounds silly to say, but I think people do feel like they always have to be on top of the spin of their own life.”
Velour was also hesitant to “make noise” about her suffering and come across as “ungrateful or difficult” in her position as a drag star. However, sharing the story of her infection saga during Smoke & Mirror‘s London run when she could finally get back on stage revealed the power in “being vulnerable.”
“I was like, ‘Okay, I need to actively encourage, especially these young people that are watching me, to be honest with themselves and be very very honest with each other,” she says. “Despite the way things appear, that kind of intimacy is actually really hard for people, but it’s the foundation of making a real community.”
Sharing her health hardship also helps spread the word about the dangers of staph infections, which Velour says are “very common” in the drag world. “Check into pain. That’s my advice, If you are experiencing pain, go talk to many people to try and figure out what it is,” Velour encourages her fans and peers. “There’s often a celebration of your ability to push through pain. I understand where that comes from, but you don’t want to ignore the signs of your body.”
As for herself, Velour is changing up her routine to avoid any future life-altering infections. “I’m determined to be a hairier drag queen,” she says. “Even though my chest hair wasn’t part of [the infection], that’s coming back into the picture too. I’m just like, ‘It’s all body hair all the time now.’ And femme can look like anything, right? Might as well be natural and healthy.”
The new, “natural” Velour will be performing her one-queen show in 23 North American cities over the upcoming months. And, in true Velour fashion, the star is now thinking about how her latest ordeal can be transformed into a jaw-dropping style. “I have a huge scar. I’ll probably do a look around it,” she says.
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