Why does ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ reigning queen Sasha Velour perform in drag as “Lady Gollum”?
In June, New York City-based drag queen Sasha Velour lifted a red-haired wig off her head during a lip sync on the RuPaul’s Drag Race finale, unleashing a cascade of rose petals onto the stage beneath her. It was an iconic moment that inspired countless screams and endless GIFs, eventually helping to earn her the title of America’s next drag superstar.
But in the months following her win, Sasha’s been unleashing a look on audiences that’s decidedly less glamorous: a drag interpretation of Gollum, the skinny, monstrous creature from Lord of the Rings.
In this number — which she’s performed at various clubs and performance venues — Sasha begins by performing a relatively straightforward lip-sync wearing a gown, usually to “As I Love You” by Shirley Bassey. As the song reaches its end, Sasha disappears behind an umbrella leaning on its side. She pops back up a moment later, having shed one of her more conventionally beautiful wigs for one with just a few sparse, stringy hairs. And in the place of her smile is a nasty, demented snarl. And that’s when dialogue from Lord of the Rings starts playing.
Sasha mimes an entire scene from 2002’s The Two Towers — the second film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy — when the hobbit Sméagol argues, at length, with his manipulative alter-ego Gollum. At the end of the scene, Sméagol casts Gollum away. Sasha then performs an entire lip-sync to Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” as Sméagol, wearing a glittery, ragged dress.
Even for a queen such as Sasha, who’s known for taking a more intellectual, art-school approach to drag — she herself was a Fulbright Scholar — to perform as Gollum is a bizarre, specific choice.
Mic recently chatted with Sasha to ask one simple but specific question: Why?
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Mic: When did you first decide to dress up as Lady Gollum, and why?
Sasha Velour: It’s a really old drag number of mine. It’s like, maybe my fourth drag number that I ever put together, and it was [actually] the very first one that I ever performed in New York City [in 2013 or 2014].
At that time I really liked putting together bits of pop culture and movies with songs — now I like doing [just] songs — but at the time I always wanted to have a character element. And Gollum had been in my magic bag of tricks for a while.
Gollum is such an identifiable character from Lord of the Rings, especially the way it was done in the film, where this split personality was given to the character. So, you see this childlike, broken version of [Sméagol] and then the monstrous coping mechanism of Gollum that they’ve created to cope with the world. And that feels very identifiable, and to a certain extent, kind of like drag. We do create alter-egos to help us navigate the world, and sometimes those alter-egos are monstrous and evil.
This famous scene from Lord of the Rings is like this fight with your alter-ego, telling your own dark side that you don’t need that person, that demon anymore, to survive — and that you’re going to make a go of it alone as a fragile, broken Sméagol. And that narrative has had so many different resonances for me, and I love performing it in drag on stage, because I feel like the audience is able to connect to it in the same way.
Can you talk about why you chose Shirley Bassey songs to lead into your Gollum performance? And why do you emerge on the other side of that transformation singing Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights?”
SV: This number definitely plays with heteronormative love ideas — and the idea of a ring as signifying marriage but also being this thing that makes you insane is not accidental. But even apart from any kind of heteronormative idea, I think [“As I Love You”] conjures up a story of love that is beautiful and hopeful, and then it becomes life-destroying.
And [as for “Wuthering Heights,”] I like to give all my numbers happy endings to some extent. Especially in a queer worldview of what a happy ending is. So, I wanted to show Sméagol really successfully liberating from Gollum, and I thought, “I don’t want to go into something that is beautiful and grand in a stereotypical way.” I still wanted Sméagol to be a little monster-y, but have it be a beautiful and joyous thing — and to me, “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush fully epitomizes that. It is still a stalker number. She’s waiting outside the window still. And she still has all these feelings, but it’s not a hideous or painful thing anymore; it’s a playful, joyous thing.
“In my truest depths, I really am Gollum always. I’m a bald, skinny monster trying to be gorgeous, and hopefully living her fantasy on the stage enough that people see it as beautiful.” — Sasha Velour
The thing about performing “Wuthering Heights” as Gollum is that I’m dancing around the stage in a gown, but it’s all still to Gollum’s sensibilities. My dance moves are not appealing by normal standards. My dress is not appealing by normal standards. It’s like a sequined, bejeweled rag. I think that is where people really see themselves on stage. [Laughs] Because we aren’t perfect creatures.
Most people can’t dance and don’t feel comfortable in refinery. In my truest depths, I really am Gollum always. I’m a bald, skinny monster trying to be gorgeous, and hopefully living her fantasy on the stage enough that people see it as beautiful.
So it’s important to you to celebrate ugliness and — I don’t want to say “make a fool of yourself,” because that’s too harsh — but being comfortable looking monstrous.
SV: Absolutely. Specifically, celebrating the things I’m afraid make me ugly. Finding comfort and joy in those [things] on stage for other people to see has been a source of power.
When I was looking into this, I realized there were a lot of through-lines to your Princess Uglina and Lump looks from RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine. Do you see those two characters as connected in some way?
SV: Well, I tried to basically consolidate [the Gollum] number into a fairy tale for Drag Race. I don’t think it quite translated, but the idea for Princess Uglina comes from the Gollum number.
Even the teeth Lump wears are the same you wear as Gollum, right?
SV: Exactly. My little insider tidbit is that I brought Gollum with the hopes that they would let me do it as my “Snatch Game” character [on the recurring Drag Race segment]. But they told me I wasn’t going to be able to do it, so I [applied Gollum’s characterizations to Lump in] the princess challenge.
What inspired you to bring the Gollum number back in 2017 on your United Kingdom tour?
SV: I got a new costume for her for the U.K. tour because I had always previously done it in a little nightgown or a brown rag dress, but I wanted to change it so that each stage of “deterioration” actually becomes more glamorous — so that by the end, Gollum is the most sparkly, most Hollywood, beautiful creature. There’s no doubt in people’s minds that I’m truly uplifting Gollum, that I’m not trying to make fun of her beauty; I really believe in it.
“I only got booked in Manhattan for Halloween shows for the first three years because I loved my prosthetics and monstrous ugliness.” — Sasha Velour
But you asked for the reason I brought it back. I wanted to reintroduce people to who I was when they come to see the live shows. I was really thinking about that. And I wanted to do it on my own terms, not necessarily the way RuPaul’s Drag Race introduced me. And the truth about my drag is that the whole beginning section was a whole lot of [the Gollum kind] of drag.
I only got booked in Manhattan for Halloween shows for the first three years because I loved my prosthetics and monstrous ugliness. I had three other numbers where I just, as Gollum, would perform normal beauty songs. I did “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” but just as Gollum in [Brooklyn gay bar] Macri Park one night. [Laughs]
How did that go over?
SV: It was scary for people. I never did that again. But it was really fun that one time. I wanted to introduce people to that side of my drag. The punk, lesbian-glamour side and then the really polished side now.
Did you get a twisted satisfaction pushing people’s comfort levels that way? If you knew you had these big crowds coming to see you just because of Drag Race, was it fun for you to freak people out by showing up as this hideous troll creature?
SV: So fun. And those venues were hot — I’d be sweating, dripping sweat onto them and then climbing over the stage. If there were architectural elements like pillars or poles, I always climbed them as Gollum. I loved doing it. And most of all, it’s fun for me. It gives me joy. I think when people go see a drag show, they want to see the performer having a good time, so that kind of sells them on it even if the concept would be off-putting on paper.
I never found that anyone in the audience looked at me in horror. Especially in the U.K., people were happy to see Gollum.
Also, with the Drag Race crown, I’m sure you get liberties to do weirder, more adventurous things.
SV: Right, like “this must be legit.” It’s nice to have the seal of approval because it does let you get away with strange and experimental things.
Are you still iterating on it? Do you have plans to bring Gollum back out again?
SV: In my heart, it’s always my No. 1 performance I think. So it’s just going to keep changing. I’m always going to keep costuming her differently. I don’t want people to know exactly what’s coming when I step out.