This post might include spoilers from RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 9, Episode 7. If you are behind on the show, I’d strongly recommend that you catch up and come back when you’re ready. That being said, this post is an open letter to Sasha Velour which I have been wanting to write since Season 9, Episode 1. My feelings have grown as the season has continued, and so I have decided to write it for the world to see. All of these opinions are my own, as are the experiences I may share. If you have been effected in the same way as I have, or if you are going through similar things as me, please send me a direct message on Twitter @EmilyRumboldt and I will respond as quickly as possible.
Even as a writer, I am struggling to know how to start. Originally I was just going to tweet you, but that seemed grossly impersonal considering how, well, personal the list of things I have to say is. So, I’m writing you a letter, and I’m posting it online for everybody to see. I’m opening my heart up to you, to everyone, just as you have to us. Of course I’m nervous, wouldn’t you be? Then, of course, you’ve already made that sacrifice, which is exactly why I have writing to you in the first place.
I’ve been a fan of drag since I was 10 years old, around the time I started questioning my sexuality. Well, “questioning” is the wrong word. I didn’t have the simplest of childhoods, and 2010 and 2011 are without a doubt the darkest points in my memory. I was severely bullied as a child, simply because I was different. I was diagnosed with alopecia at the age of 6, so my hair would start falling out in large patches. And it hurt, in fact it still does. Physically, and mentally. The kids at school didn’t understand that, nor did they understand why I dressed like a boy or liked the colour blue instead of pink. Short hair, dark clothes, bandanas and baseball caps. The gay rumours started when I was very young. At that point in my life, I didn’t know anything about sexuality apart from that it was wrong to be anything other than straight. That’s what I was told, anyway. My family never talked about it, my teachers never talked about it, and in school it was – is – an insult. These kids, my then-friends, told me that I was gay, and so I believed it. I became Emily the Lesbian, and I hated it.
The stress of all this caused my hair to fall out again. My form of the disease, alopecia areata, isn’t permanent. Huge patches of hair fall out, it hurts (for me, anyway, though the doctors never understood that), and then it grows back a few months later. Still, seeing a half-bald lesbian was enough to scatter my friendship group like a herd of deer caught in headlights. Many thought it was contagious, many more thought it was cancer (though never bothered to ask), and everybody thought it was weird. I was isolated, depressed, and brought to the brink of suicide.
After the bullying became violent, I made the decision to move school, and by the age of 13 my best friend claimed that I had the mental age of 25. I guess that I had been so afraid of my childhood that I chose to ditch it entirely and move on to maturity, and so I was able to truly question my sexuality the moment I became a teenager. I experimented, and eventually I realised that they were right, I was gay, and that was okay, because what difference does it make? I’m still human, and not a bad one at that. Still, I knew that very few of my peers shared my mindset on sexuality, and so I kept it locked away in the back of my mind. There were rumours, of course, many of which had followed me from my old school (which was only a few miles from my new one). When I was 15, however, my privacy was taken from me by a catfish. She tricked me into coming out, and then she blackmailed me. If I didn’t do what she told me to, she would send the screenshot of my confession to everybody she knew. Scared, I did what she said. She outed me anyway. All of a sudden I found myself falling back into the vicious cycle of my past, and once again I was contemplating hurting myself.
Watching drag helped me through all of that, along with many other aspects of pop culture. According to my therapist, that’s why I’m so creative, and why I aspire to be a writer and director. It has for so long been my escapism, my plane ticket to Arcadia, so to speak, and nowadays I am so much better for it. About to turn 17, I am so confident and proud of who I am, of my community, and of my history. I write to tell these stories, to inspire, and to fight for everything I have learned to love so much about myself. I have watched drag evolve before my eyes, mesmerized by the journey it has taken me on. It is, for the sake of an extended metaphor, a train ride with no destination, cruising through generation after generation of pure artistry and talent. Each and every drag queen and king delivers something new to the industry, as each writer brings something new to theirs, and to this day I have struggled to find one who doesn’t inspire me.
Then RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 9 came along, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Until then, I actually thought I’d seen it all. I thought that surely, with everything I have already seen, all the drag shows I have watched and the social media accounts I have stalked, my drag experience had reached its peak. Wow, was I mistaken! The sheer level of artistry in this season is awe-inspiring, from every single one of the queens in the race. You, however, bring so much more than that. Sasha, your message is one that I relate to all too well, one that I needed more than anything, and I’ve got to say, you delivered it at the perfect time.
Let me start from the beginning. Your home-inspired look in Episode 1 was so different, so bold and beautiful and just about everything I live for. For reasons I have already discussed, seeing a queen walk out onto that runway without hair brings me so much joy, so much pride, that it literally brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me to love myself, a reminder which I desperately needed that day; the crown on your head just topped that off. Bald queens like us deserve the attention your bold use of technicolour provided, and I will forever be indebted to that.
Next, I want to talk about your look in Episode 3. I feel like Princess Uglina of Self-Doubtia is a metaphor for everything I have dealt with throughout my adolescence. The story of an “imaginary friend” trapping a young woman in a cage of “self-doubt and weakness” is still all-too-raw for me. I remember when I was that girl, locking myself in my room and listening to the voices in my head as they echoed everything my then-friends were saying. Voices mocking me, telling me that I wasn’t good enough, that I was too different, too gay. Then I rose above that, breaking free from the cage that I had locked myself in, only to be knocked down once again by people showering me with more self-doubt. People telling me that I can’t make films because I’m a girl, or that I can’t live my life without fear because I’m a lesbian. The recent changes (I refuse to call them “advances”) in politics were a real setback for me. One thing I can never forget, as much as I would like to, was a message I received anonymously after Trump’s inauguration. I’m fairly open about my sexuality on Twitter, and that had never brought me any problems before. Then, all of a sudden, I was receiving death threats. “It’s a new world, bitch. Kill yourself before we do it for you.” They told me that, if I went through with my dream of moving from England to LA to make movies, I wouldn’t last a day. They’d hunt me down before I even got on the plane at Heathrow. All of a sudden, I found myself back in that cage of self-doubt, and for a long time I was unable to find the key.
The most important thing about that outfit, however, was the story behind Princess Uglina’s escape. Overshadowing my self-doubt, my anxiety, and my depression with love for myself gave me a pair of wings. From then on, I was able to fly from that cage and land in a position so much higher, so much happier, than I had ever been before. I was free from the chains I had entrapped myself with, and now I have found myself in the position to really embrace everything about who I am and what I stand for.
I’m sorry if this next part is too sensitive, but I really need to get it out. I was watching Episode 7 today, and what you said about your mother really hit home. Like too many others, I have lost a loved one at the hands of cancer. I adored my granddad. I didn’t see him often because he lived so far away, which was completely out of my control and yet I regret it so much. When I did get the chance to see him, he was the most incredible man you could imagine. He was benevolent, loving of all no matter what, and he loved me and my sisters as though he saw us all the time. He lived in Devon with my Nana, and when I was younger we would walk their dog along the coast looking for stones to paint faces on. It’s funny really, how seemingly insignificant memories can end up meaning more to you than everything you hold dear in the present. I didn’t even know that he had been diagnosed with cancer until two days before he passed. It was the worst feeling in the world, not being able to say goodbye. I couldn’t even go to his funeral. I cried for weeks, breaking down constantly at school to protect my parents from my heartbreak. The bullies used this as ammo, of course; I was now Emily the Weak Lesbian Crybaby. All I can say now is that, of all the nicknames in the world, they couldn’t have come up with something more creative, could they?
Hearing you talk about your mother so honestly was such a relief to me. I have never really had that experience before, sharing memories of the people who were taken too soon. It was a reminder that I am not alone in anything, that whatever I am going through, there is someone else going through the exact same thing. Nobody’s alone, not really. In the past, you have been so open about everything – your mental and physical health, your family, your motives – and that genuinely means the world to me. I’m sure that you have heard this time and time again, but it needed to be said in my point of view. I needed to make sure that you, Sasha Velour, realise how special you are. You are more than just a drag queen: you represent the unique kids, the people in the world who may be seen as different, but make it work. As a bald queen, you not only stand out, but you give hope and confidence to all of us who are beautiful without hair. From now on, when my hair falls out, I’m not going to hide it. I’m going to flaunt my differences and show my uniqueness off to the world, just like Sasha Velour does.
So, the only thing I have left to say is thank you. Sasha, there isn’t a word in the English language that appropriately reflects my gratitude. I might never have met you, but somehow you have touched me in a way that has changed me forever. You have improved my entire mindset, blessed me with the gift of self-confidence and love, and taught me that I am special. I am me, and that’s an incredible thing. This may be the only chance I get to tell you this, if you ever see this at all, so I hope that I have been able to get through to you. You should be proud of who you are, of everything you have done and what you continue to do for the world. I love you, and I want you to know that no matter what the final result is, you will always be my next drag superstar.
16 years old. Reading, England.