IN CONVERSATION WITH SASHA COLBY
Interview by Asia Lanzi
The multifaceted drag performer, actress and trans advocate Sasha Colby of the legendary ‘House of Colby’ has taken the world by storm. With her background in dancing and pageantry, which led her to win the title of Miss Continental in 2012, Sasha’s journey is a testament to her resilience, authenticity and transformation. From her humble beginnings in Hawaii to making history as the first Native Hawaiian trans contestant and crowned winner of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 15, Sasha stands as the iconic epitome of self-expression. She constantly redefines drag as an art form by challenging its boundaries of creativity. In this exclusive interview, she graciously opens up about her life experiences, her thoughts on embracing vulnerability, and her unwavering commitment to her chosen family and the LGBTQ+ community. As we delve into the world of Sasha Colby, she generously shares her empowering wisdom, the secrets of her success, and a glimpse into her promising future endeavors.
Let’s delve into your origins: What was your experience like of growing up in a strict environment and the journey of discovering your identity as trans and queer? What was that internal process like for you?
Growing up in an exceptionally strict religious environment while also identifying as queer and feeling like I was constantly in the wrong was quite a challenge. It often felt like I was living within the confines of the metaphorical matrix. Surprisingly, my queerness became the catalyst, the equivalent of the red pill that allowed me to break free from this constructed reality. The very aspect of my identity that was expected to be considered shameful or an embarrassment by my family turned out to be the saving grace that prevented me from being baptized and potentially leading a life dictated solely by religious beliefs. Looking back, I’m grateful to Jehovah or whatever higher power may exist, because they still made me.
I recently came across a thought-provoking quote that resonated deeply with me. So trans people aren’t what God originally intended. Instead, it’s as though God provided us with the raw materials intentionally – wheat without bread, grapes without wine – to allow us to experience the beauty of creation. This perspective aligns with what the human experience is all about creation.
What advice do you have for young trans or queer individuals who may not be receiving the family support they wish for? How can they navigate the challenges linked to expressing their authentic selves despite the lack of support?
It’s incredibly difficult, especially in many places and cultures around the world. Feeling alone can be one of the scariest aspects of this journey, as it may seem like you’re the only freak grappling with these emotions. My advice is to explore, search for a place where you feel accepted, and even consider traveling to such a place if possible. There, you may find a new tribe of like-minded individuals who truly understand and embrace your authentic self. In today’s world, with the power of social media and the internet connecting us globally, it’s a remarkable resource for young queer individuals. Unlike my own experience, where I had to wait until I turned 18 to find such friends, you can now go online and discover a community that provides the support you need. It’s truly incredible.
Even within video gaming platforms like Twitch, there’s a thriving queer community with drag queens and trans individuals. It can really be a welcoming space, where people focus on your skills and abilities rather than passing judgment based on your identity. So I believe it’s a fun place to experience a sense of belonging.
What does womanhood and femininity mean to you?
To me, womanhood represents the essence of creation and the embodiment of the divine feminine.
In a world often dominated by masculine patriarchy, I believe womanhood brings balance and harmony. It’s a source of tremendous power, as it involves the ability to create life and infuse the world with beauty and calmness, qualities that our world desperately needs. Personally, I’ve always felt a deep connection to this innate femininity, and as a trans woman, embracing womanhood and femininity has been a powerful and transformative journey for me. I see myself as a living example of the strong, inspiring women who have influenced my life. Ultimately, it all comes down to power – women are undeniably powerful beings.
When and how did you first discover your passion for performing and entertaining by embracing pageantry and drag as art forms?
My journey into performing and entertaining started at an early age, around five or six. I would find myself dancing around the house whenever Whitney Houston’s music played on MTV or VH1. My family would even call me in to dance for them, so basically I have been giving drag shows my whole life. Looking back, it’s no surprise that I ended up making a career out of it. My passion for performing deepened as I got into dance during my high school years, although I started a bit later than some, around the age of 15. Dance played a pivotal role in shaping me as a performer. It was my queer awakening as I became friends with gay boys and girls who acted like drag queens and accepted everyone. This marked my first taste of queerness.
All these elements – performing, embracing my queerness, and eventually realizing my transgender identity – converged into a cohesive journey. I fell in love with drag and pageantry. It was significant, especially because many of my friends from that time have gone on to become some of the best dancers in the business today. As we approached the end of high school, our dreams revolved around attending college, pursuing careers as backup dancers, and immersing ourselves in the creative world. While my friends ventured into that path, I decided to transition. Unfortunately, the dance industry, especially as a tall girl, posed challenges. Tall dancers often struggle to secure bookings because they need to match the height of the talent they’re supporting. Being a trans girl further complicated matters as there were few opportunities for someone like me. The only space where I could truly be myself while showcasing my dance skills was in pageantry. It became my way out of Hawaii and the pathway to building a career in the world of performing arts.
So everything seemed to just fall into place.
Yeah, it happened quite quickly, just like when you collect all your tools in a game like Zelda and then embark on your mission (laughs).
You decided to compete on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ later in your career. What motivated this decision and how do you see the importance of timing in achieving one’s goals?
From the very moment the first season of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ aired, I knew I wanted to be a part of it; there was no doubt in my mind. The idea of a reality show centered around what I do was incredibly exciting and inspiring. Over the past 15 years, I’ve been on a journey of personal growth, evolving alongside the show. I’ve witnessed how the show changed hands between networks and increasingly became more inclusive, showcasing a broader spectrum of drag. However, it was all about timing. I won’t sugarcoat it; it was a masterclass in patience. Friends and family would often question why I hadn’t pursued the show sooner as they believed it was totally me. But I understood that timing was everything. I had to wait for the right moment.
Looking back, it’s so clear why I needed those 15 years of waiting. Given the current political climate in America and the increased visibility of trans individuals, this is the year I can make the most significant impact. I’m here to be of service to people when they need it the most.
While it might have been fun to be on the show a few years ago, it wouldn’t have been as impactful or necessary. Now, it is necessary and I’m fully committed to doing the work.
Winning ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 15 as a transgender woman marked a historic moment. How did winning the competition feel and did you anticipate the victory? How does this recognition impact the transgender community and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole?
Growing up in Hawaii and later living in Chicago, the concept of trans drag was simply seen as drag; there was no distinction. However, during those times, many trans women didn’t quite understand my passion for it. I faced teasing and questions like, “Why are you trying to be a clown?” or “You’re clocking your tea in front of everybody!” I understand that back in 2005, it might not have been the safest path to take as some preferred to remain stealthy.
For me, drag was always about performance, a form of therapy and a sanctuary.
Even though I wasn’t embraced by a certain segment of my own community, I persisted because it was my passion. Now, I see it coming full circle. Many trans women are embracing drag and using this art form to express the beauty of their trans identities. What’s remarkable is that I didn’t go on the show as a trans woman doing drag; I went as a drag queen who also happened to be trans.
Your transness wasn’t put at the forefront.
Drag always took precedence. I mean, if I were on ‘Top Chef’, my identity as a chef would come before my transgender identity. Similarly, on a drag competition show, drag takes the lead. However, it certainly empowers trans youth to take pride in who they are, get excited, and set ambitious goals for themselves.
And to have that representation.
Once you realize it’s a possibility, you can start dreaming.
Reflecting on your time on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’, could you share some of your most memorable moments?
I approached the entire filming process with the mindset of giving it my all, putting my whole heart out there, and leaving everything on that stage. I saw it as my one opportunity to shine, regardless of the outcome. I was determined to make the most of it, wherever I ended up. Then during the competition, it became much more than that for me. It was a chance to heal many aspects of my life and simply being in RuPaul’s presence was a profound experience. RuPaul shared her wisdom and insights with us, even about what it’s like to be famous. It was incredible how she prepared us while allowing us to witness it firsthand. She created a safe space for us to step out of our own way, to avoid self-sabotage. I used the competition as a way to honor the people I love and those I admired while growing up, and RuPaul recognized and appreciated that.
One of the most memorable moments was during the soap opera challenge when RuPaul was directing us herself. Her approach was like she was playing with dolls, giving instructions with enthusiasm and humor. I realized that she wakes up every morning with the intention of having fun. It truly helped me shift away from being overly focused on competition.
This entire journey of ‘Drag Race’ has been built around RuPaul’s joy and the joy she shares with her friends. We are beneficiaries of her happiness. Her intention is always to make herself happy and excited about her work, and we reap the blessings afterward, including fame.
I carry that lesson with me: to ensure my intention is always to fulfill myself and find happiness in whatever I do. I would never want to be in a space, even for an hour, if I wasn’t happy.
Did it also feel like you were finally being truly recognized, especially because RuPaul was acknowledging you?
I often say that ‘Drag Race’ isn’t everything and you don’t need it to feel relevant, but it undeniably makes a difference. Not just in terms of money or opportunities that may come with it, but for me – as a Leo – receiving recognition for my hard work was incredibly fulfilling. Especially when I hadn’t always been allowed to participate in the conversation. To be honored and asked to share my knowledge, from my experiences with my queer Hawaiian family to my passion for drag history, was incredibly empowering. They would ask me to talk about being Mahu, discuss Hawaiian culture or delve into the topic of religion. All these aspects I had gathered from my life, including my traumas, now had a platform to be embraced. It’s like making friends with your traumas, smoking some weed with them and then telling them to leave.
It took me quite a journey in life to reach a point where I could truly enjoy these moments. When life hits you hard, you realize that we should be having fun at the end of the day. This journey isn’t as heavy as we often make it out to be. Life is meant for enjoyment because, in reality, many real-life scenarios aren’t much fun. So, we have to create our own joy.
What’s your secret to delivering an exceptional lip-sync performance and being a ‘lip sync assassin’? How do you embody the Sasha Colby experience?
It’s quite an interesting journey because I grew up as a dancer and even transitioned in the dance studio, transitioning from dancing with the boys to dancing with the girls. I considered myself a decent dancer, but I always found myself being pulled out of choreography and told to take center stage and do my thing, whether it was freestyle or something else. I used to believe I wasn’t a good dancer, thinking that I messed up choreography, and they pulled me out because the overall performance looked better without me. That was my perception. However, my dance instructor, my mentor, who discovered and nurtured my talent, had a different perspective. He told me, “You’re a fantastic dancer, but your true gift lies in acting, emoting, and expressing.” Hearing that from him allowed me to fully embrace my drag persona, including the pantomime and acting skills that come with it.
For me, a successful drag number has to have a personal connection. When I hear a song, I look for something that resonates with me emotionally, whether it’s tenderness or fierceness. Often, Sasha embodies fierceness, with hair flips and all that, but my personal favorite is performing a deeply emotional song that might make people feel uncomfortable, yet they can relate to it. I find these performances incredibly powerful. To deliver a great lip sync, you have to immerse yourself in it and connect with the intention behind the number. If you’re bored, your audience will be bored. If you’re excited, they’ll be excited with you. If you’re crying and emotionally invested, they’ll cry with you, not necessarily for the same reason, but because they empathize with your emotions. This, to me, is the essence of a powerful lip-sync performance. It’s not just about delivering the words; it’s about feeling them deeply.
Could you describe your creative process when putting together a drag look? As a fashion queen, where do you draw inspiration for your style? How do you consistently challenge the boundaries of creativity in the world of drag?
I have two best friends and we’re part of a group chat called The Conjuring. We’ve been using this chat to share anything inspiring we come across long before my time on ‘Drag Race’. It’s become a treasure trove of ideas and inspiration. When we’re working on a look or performance, we refer back to our chat notes to draw inspiration from past shares. My friends play a crucial role in bringing my looks to life. They assist with dressing me, help with rhinestoning, and ensure everything is in place. However, they also understand when it’s time for them to step back and for me to step into the role of Sasha Colby. They prepare me so well that I can fully immerse myself in a performance.
Typically, I’ll have a song in my head, one I’ve been listening to on repeat. As I listen to it, a story starts to form in my mind, inspired by the resonance of the song. The initial concept often revolves around a beautiful, well-put-together, idealized woman. But what I truly love is deconstructing that image, breaking the facade of beauty to reveal the vulnerability beneath. It’s about finding that human element that connects with people on a deeper level and touches their hearts.
You’ve previously mentioned the importance of chosen family, particularly within the drag community and sisterhood among trans women. Can you share your thoughts on the significance and joy of queer love and chosen family dynamics?
When I first met my chosen family, it was a matter of sheer survival. It was the only place where I felt safe because I couldn’t find that safety at home, and the streets were equally unsafe. My drag mom and my drag family created a sanctuary where I could be myself without fear or anxiety. The hardships and challenges that come with being queer bind us together in unique ways. I have an incredible drag family, and I also have amazing drag sisters who may not share the Colby name, but they are my sisters nonetheless. Some of them I talk to every day, like Mimi Marks and Chevelle Brooks, who are two of my closest friends. I used to watch them perform when I was in high school. Back then, we didn’t even have Google; it was something like Yahoo Search. I would search for ‘female impersonator’ because we didn’t know the term ‘transsexual’, and Mimi or Chevelle would pop up in my search results. To now be best friends with these individuals who were once my idols is the magic of queer chosen family. It’s incredible that today you can be friends with people you truly admire and look up to.
What’s your perspective on embracing vulnerability, authenticity and radical self-acceptance while navigating a world that often belittles those who defy norms?
I believe that vulnerability is incredibly important because it’s often the very thing we feel ashamed of that holds the key to unlocking our true selves. I had a personal revelation about this when I won Miss Continental after running three times previously. In the competition, there’s a question-and-answer segment where you’re expected to open up and be vulnerable to the audience. I always struggled with this because I was so focused on appearing perfect. It wasn’t until my final attempt when I embraced my past and openly talked about it that I won. I had battled a crystal meth addiction from the ages of 19 to 23, living as a trans drug addict on the streets of Hawaii. It was my way of escaping the isolation I felt as a trans person, but I was always ashamed to discuss it. However, the moment I confronted it and shared my story, it allowed me to connect with others, and it played a pivotal role in my victory. I received many messages from people, including fellow queens and individuals I grew up with, sharing their own struggles with meth addiction. Just hearing my story made them reconsider their choices and that’s the incredible power of vulnerability. Meth is a destructive drug that ruins lives and if my experience can help someone choose a different path, that’s remarkable.
Vulnerability goes hand in hand with authenticity. You have to be true to yourself and be unapologetically queer. When you embrace your authenticity, you begin to challenge norms and that’s where the radicalness comes in. It’s almost like these three elements are interconnected stages. You first find your vulnerability, then you use it to embrace your authenticity and finally, you shove it into everyone else’s face as a mirror – forcing others to reflect on themselves. This is when the radical transformation happens, as you compel them to confront their own truths.
As someone who exudes confidence and self-acceptance, how do you truly love yourself and stay comfortable in your own skin?
Let me be honest about this – I’m not confident and self-assured all the time. Not at all. There are days when I don’t feel like Sasha Colby. Most days, I feel like that little kid who’s just trying to fit in like everyone else. It’s about putting on that confidence when you need it or tapping into it when it’s necessary. I’ve had my fair share of very human experiences, moments of insecurity, the longing for acceptance and love, and the feeling of not having a clue about life’s purpose. That’s all part of the human journey.
I can’t claim to have all the answers on how to love yourself, but you do find those moments, those bursts of self-assuredness and moments of feeling like a goddess. It’s like riding a wave. Sometimes you’re on top of the world, and other times, you’re back to being a mortal just trying to figure things out. I couldn’t be a sage sitting under a tree like Buddha for the rest of my life, knowing everything. Life is about these ups and downs, and I don’t think anyone truly has it all figured out.
Being a creative often involves feelings of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and the fear of failure. What strategies have proven effective for you in navigating and ultimately overcoming these challenges?
As an entertainer, the key is to stay true to your art. You create for yourself and others are fortunate to witness it.
Never do anything solely for someone else; you do it for your own fulfillment. Regardless of what others may say, whether imposter syndrome creeps in or you receive negative feedback, remember that you didn’t create for them. Your creative expression is first and foremost for your own nourishment and satisfaction.
Despite achieving great success, you’ve managed to remain humble and grounded. How do you maintain this humility and kindness?
I credit much of my humility and kindness to my Hawaiian upbringing. The concept of the aloha spirit is taught to us from a very young age. In our culture, it’s not just about expressing love; it’s about living it. If I were to act any other way, my Hawaiian queer family would not be pleased. For me, it’s about representing my moral compass, which is deeply rooted in my indigenous culture, and I celebrate that aspect of myself constantly. Being true to my queer and indigenous identity keeps me grounded and humble. I know where I come from, who raised me, and I want to honor my ancestors by not being a b*tch.
Otherwise, they’ll hunt you down.
Well, they’re already here. At least they’re being friendly for now (laughs).
With a busy schedule, how do you prioritize self-care and maintain your mental, physical, and spiritual well-being?
To be honest, I’m still figuring that out. It’s a learning curve. I’ve been traveling and doing drag for many years, but not at this level. One of the biggest challenges is finding the right time to sleep, which is really important. There are a lot of flights and a lot of travel involved. On the plane, I often take the time to meditate. I enjoy looking at the clouds and listening to classical music. It’s a moment when I can truly focus on gratitude and set my intentions. This practice helps ground me when I’m heading into a new situation or gig. So the burden of being unable to sleep on a plane allows me to meditate. I’ve also been working on improving my sleep habits and not stressing about oversleeping. I prioritize getting enough rest, staying hydrated, and taking vitamins to help me stay balanced.
I’ll make a note of that. So I’ll do my meditation when I’m on a flight.
Exactly! I actually shared some advice with my niece, who is like a daughter to me. I see her achieving so much in her life, and I tell her that she’s in her manifestation phase, so she shouldn’t stop. Many people stop manifesting too soon, but that’s when you should ask for the next thing. I’ve been advising her to program herself.
Before your feet hit the ground every morning, you should say five things you’re grateful for or happy about. It really helps you approach the day with a kinder perspective. There’s so much to be grateful for, even in the little things.
It’s just so easy to forget that. But if you remind yourself, you become more present and appreciative of all the little things in life.
I definitely check myself a lot. I’ll be in my own world, caught up in this madness of being busy, and I can feel my inner observer, my soul, saying: “Girl, look at you. Look at you being human and forgetting how powerful you are.”
Looking ahead, what can your fans and the audience expect from you in the future?
I’m excited to introduce my very own hair extension ponytail line, Sasha Colby Hair, which launches on October 18th and is available for pre-sale now. In November I’ll also be embarking on the Sasha Colby Goddess Tour, a one-woman tour that will take me across the UK, Ireland, Milan, Amsterdam, Berlin, and more. It’s a chance for me to connect with fans around the world and share a piece of my crazy kooky mind with everyone. I’ve also been dropping hints about upcoming music projects on my social media channels, so stay tuned for some exciting musical surprises in the near future. There’s plenty to look forward to and I can’t wait to share more with you all!
talent SASHA COLBY @sashacolby
photographer JACK WATERLOT @jackwaterlotstudio
stylist JEAN CHUNG @jeanalina
make-up JAMES MICHAEL PEREZ @jamesmichaelartistry
hair CHIKA NISHIYAMA @chika_nishiyama
nails SARAH NGUYEN @chrmdbysarah
set design TAYLOR HORNE @taylorvincenthorne
producer PHOTOBOMB @photobombproduction
editor TIMI LETONJA @timiletonja
interview ASIA LANZI @asia.lanzi
cover design ARTHUR ROELOFFZEN @arthurroeloffzen