RuPaul's Drag Race
There are a few things a seasoned Drag Race viewer has come to expect from the weekly challenges each new season. There’s of course their marquee challenge — Snatch Game, just around the corner — some sort of music-related challenge (the fate of which is currently up in the air in the wake of resident music maker Lucian Piane’s social-media meltdown), and of course one or three design challenges that task the drag queens with creating a look (or three) from scratch. These challenges generally do a good job of shaking things up a bit, as it’s one thing to bring a suitcase full of impeccably designed lewks that you’ve farmed out to a talented seamstress in your posse, but entirely another to take to a hot glue gun yourself.
The question usually comes up: “Are design skills a necessary skill America’s Next Drag Superstar even needs to posses?” But trying to answer that question sort of unravels the entire premise the show if you follow it to its natural conclusion. I mean, what the fuck does impersonating a celebrity or writing a rap really have to do with being a great drag queen? The answer is both nothing and everything, and sort of encapsulates the ethos of the show at the same time. What does any of this mean? It’s the silliness of hot-gluing seashells to a bra butting heads with the seriousness of the competition (this show, after all, has and will continue to change lives) that makes this show such an engaging watch. The magic of drag is that it’s able to have its cake and eat it too — sure it’s art, but it’s also commenting on art, making fun of art, and dissecting art, all at once.
All that’s to say — yes, if you’re coming on RuPaul’s Drag Race, you should know how to sew even just a little bit. But someone inevitably doesn’t, resulting in the inevitable exasperated, “Why would you come on season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race without knowing how to sew?” a question uttered this season by Trinity Taylor, but echoed by any wine-drunk die hards at home too.
This week the girls are tasked with creating their very own princess persona, complete with a freshly constructed look, backstory, and CGI sidekick to accompany them (more on this later). It’s a simple enough task, which is fine by me because it gives us more time to see the girls in the workroom, and more importantly, gives Ru a chance to do her best Tim Gunn drag and coach the girls one-on-one. These moments are always a great departure for Ru because, let’s be honest here, she’s a living legend but oftentimes she’s stiff as hell when she’s spitting out her pre-written quips behind that judging table. Here it’s nice to see Ru a little untethered and improvised. She’s smart and funny, and watching her chemistry with individual girls is always a joy, especially when she’s interacting with someone like Valentina, who continues to endear with her Manic Pixie Dream Björk performance. It’s almost as though someone in a lab wondered what Amélie would be like with even less chill and created Valentina as a result. But seriously, sign me up, she’s a lock for top three or cannon fodder for fan outrage and an eventual All Stars 3 win. Those are the only two options.
With this extended workroom time we’re also able to dig a little deeper into the dynamics of these girls, their personal histories, and a whole lot of color that has been sorely missing from the past two episodes. We’re given a quick shade cymbal moment over Aja’s makeup, but the real target for the bottom edit this week is Farrah. I’m sure many were annoyed with her inability to work a glue gun, but against all odds I sort of found it endearing, and Eureka’s matronly assistance did a lot to boost my opinion of this season’s other potential villain. The two are giving me shades of Adore and Bianca from season six, but I’m not sure Farrah has the charisma to integrate messiness into her brand with the success that Adore has.
While there was plenty to highlight about this week’s workroom time, nothing in my life will ever compare to Cynthia’s iconic monologue detailing the origin story of “cucu.” Before this week I didn’t think I really needed anything clarified about Cynthia’s cucu, or ever needed to hear it spoken of again. But say what you will about Kimora Blac, she’s the only one willing to ask the hard questions, mainly — is the cucu referring to the butt or the hole? Before today I’d never really considered the difference, but this question had me spinning out into a full-blown existential crisis. Suddenly I had to know — butt or hole, which is it? Cynthia launches into an honest to god Emmy-worthy performance detailing from start to finish the who, what, when, where, and whys of cucu, and it turns out the answer is sort of both butt and hole, or I guess whatever the hell you want cucu to be — noun, verb, adjective, mineral, animal, gas, liquid — cucu encompasses all.
Of course they’ve only got so much time to dwell on these workroom conversations and before we can move on to the main challenge, the producers had to insert a tear-jerking inspirational story about the Pulse shooting last summer. This is tough. I’m glad these girls are given the opportunity to process their pain on the show, and that it was broadcast on VH1 to presumably a larger heterosexual audience than it’s had in the past. But it is kind of rough when they try to rush through Cynthia processing her survivor’s guilt minutes after she explained whether her catchphrase referred to the butt or the hole. Gay people contain multitudes and we’re allowed all those moments all at once if we so choose, but as a viewer it was tonal whiplash that was hard for me to move on from.
It’s especially weird as we move directly into the challenge, which was not just a simple runway challenge, remember! Oh, no. Not only were the girls tasked with creating all new looks and personas, they also had to come up with a CGI sidekick that somehow fits into the narrative of their princess, and let me tell you, these things were fucking bananas and 100 percent the reason I watch this show. For any other reality competition show, an addition of a CGI sidekick would read as desperate and signal the decline of the show. But not Drag Race. Oh, no. This show loves to add some kind of head-scratching non sequitur on top of relatively straightforward challenges and I live for it. Moments like this (or remember season eight’s inexplicable interpretive Oz dance?) fill me with awe and make me wonder, is this TV? How am I watching this? Is my brain melting? And every single time I whisper to no one in particular, “This show is god.”
Now, on to the looks!
Cynthia: Is there more to Cynthia beyond a catchphrase? It’s hard to nail down her point of view, and this didn’t really help things. A snooze.
Peppermint: This is the first time I remembered Peppermint even existed on this show. A fun, well-constructed look that maybe looks like something you’d see in a theme-park musical revue.
Farrah: We knew this fish was gonna be in the bottom. It’s outrageously basic, but ultimately not unpleasant to look at, and her story was at least somewhat coherent so I understand how she avoided the chopping block.
Charlie: Generically sci-fi, with a concept that is built upon a single pun.
Eureka: Another fantastic look from Eureka, and that dog was honestly kind of terrifying and hilarious. Really surprised she didn’t make the top three.
Alexis: What the fuck is a subway fish? For all the talk of Charlie being the oldest queen on the show, everything Alexis has shown so far just feels so old.
Kimora: This looks like Megan Fox fucked an Ugg boot.
Nina: This feels reminiscent of Detox’s all-silver look from All Stars 2 (a look Nina couldn’t have seen because of shooting schedules) but I’m not sure the makeup really elevated it.
Sasha: Another sort of half-thought-out, after-school mission statement. Having a positive message to accompany your look is fantastic, but the message can’t overshadow the look.
Shea: Very pretty, but a sort of muddy Sailor Moon backstory kept this from being top tier for me.
Valentina: This is very pretty (reminds me a lot of Adore’s diamond look from season six) and the makeup is jaw-dropping. The backstory was great too, which indicates that Valentina is more than just a pretty face.
Aja: A top-to-bottom bottom mess from concept to look. She looks like a second-tier Power Rangers henchman.
Trinity: Is Trinity turning out to be something of a dark horse? I love the look, I love the reveal, and her body is sort of unreal. The starfish was basic but well-executed, and it all had a point of view. I worry about versatility with Trinity though — she loves that color.
And so it’s Trinity for the win. This is set up as a bit of a Valentina upset, but methinks that Valentina was partially in the top three so an upset could happen. Who knows?
More importantly this week, we’re given the season’s first truly gag-worthy lip sync courtesy of Aja. While some may contend that it should have been Farrah in Aja’s place, how can you complain after watching Aja completely annihilate Kimora in this showdown? The wonderful thing about the show is while some queens may struggle in the competitions, each season usually gives us one or two of these queens making a mark for themselves early on by delivering an iconic lip sync (see: Dida Ritz, Leganja, Katya) and Aja certainly does that here. To break down every moment of Aja’s performance that made me scream would require a separate think piece, but watching her completely box out Kimora in their final death drop was not only fierce as hell, but damn good strategy as well.
Season nine has been a bit slow to start by most accounts, but this episode gives me hope that the mojo is still there. Here’s hoping we see even more wackadoo challenges and electrifying lip syncs in the future.