Well, that was stressful. The premiere of the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars brought a fresh anxiety back to a reality competition show in a way I haven’t experienced since the first season of Survivor. While the show has already gone through nine iterations, RuPaul and his producers have found a way to change the game again. In the beginning of the episode, RuPaul told the assembled ten all-star queens that he wouldn’t be the one eliminating anyone, and that instead of a “lip sync for your life” between the bottom two contestants, there would be a “lip sync for your legacy,” where the top two queens would compete for $10,000 in cash. Yay, money! Of course, the real twist came on the runway when RuPaul revealed that with great cash comes great responsibility: The winner of the lip sync would have to choose which of the girls in the bottom three would go home. “Now who’s your sister in drag?” RuPaul drawls.
The twist messes with the whole premise of the show. You see, many of the queens are back on All Stars to prove that they’ve changed, and that what you saw on an earlier season wasn’t their best self — it’s a way of restoring their image. Having to cut a competitor can complicate a drag queen’s image in a way she has less control over.
Take season four’s Phi Phi O’Hara. “I’m Phi Phi O’Hara, and I’m playing a villain! Get it?” she laughed, as she walked into the workroom dressed as the Riddler. “After my season a lot of people had this perception of me, so it was hard to get bookings. People genuinely thought I would come and cuss them out. It took a lot of work to show people that I’m professional.” She’s back on All Stars, in part, to rehabilitate (sorry, Ruhabilitate) her image. So, too, is season five contestant Roxxxy Andrews. “I have a lot to prove I can compete and win because I deserve it and not because I’m knocking people out because I’m playing mind games.” She tells Phi Phi, “This is our second chance. Redemption, honey.”
Unlike the bachelor pool of The Bachelor or even the dancers on So You Think You Can Dance, the drag world is infinitesimally small. All of the queens, especially these ten, know each other. They’ve worked the same venues, they came up in the same drag families, they’ve competed against each other at pageants, and they’ve dated each other. This is to say that what happens on the show has a larger impact on their careers. Throughout the episode, we’re reminded that there is an entire world outside the hour of sequestered television we watch. These are real people, with livelihoods that depend on their success on the show. The decisions they make can affect how their fans, fellow drag queens, and the broader queer community see them.
Last night, that decision arrived quickly for Roxxxy, season five villainess. She was one of the top two finishers of the main challenge, and would have to pick which queen she would send packing. After the announcement of the twist, all of the drag queens have an extended discussion over it: Do they eliminate the person they see as a threat? Or should they just play clean, and eliminate the person they think the judges would eliminate? Ginger Minj points out, “If you squeak by just because of a friendship, don’t you think that the backlash from that is just going to be worse?”
Ultimately, Roxxxy made what most viewers would likely see as the sensible decision and eliminated her fellow season five cast mate Coco Montrese. She based her choice off of the challenge and the judges’ critiques, which hammered Coco for a perplexing dance number and ashy makeup. But as the stakes get bigger, the choices are going to get harder. “I don’t think that the decision to send someone home will always be based on the challenge or the critiques,” Tatianna, the runner-up of the episode presciently says. “I think later on people will choose friendships. I think alliances definitely will start to factor in. And girls will start kicking off other girls who they feel are a threat. Anything can happen in this situation.”
But that’s not all!* RuPaul appeared at the end of the episode for one final twist of the knife: Coco Montrese might be able to return. Just as Coco was delivering a boilerplate promise that it wouldn’t be the last we’ve seen of her, RuPaul popped up on the workroom monitor to make that dream come true. “Stay thirsty, girl, cuz’ it ain’t over,” RuPaul said. “You still have a chance to return … for your revenge.” Will this be like Top Chef’s Last Chance Kitchen, where the losers compete for a chance to return to the show? Or maybe it’ll be like The Hunger Games? Kidding! Coco was seen alive and well as late as this week.
* Because press screeners cut off at the elimination, and because this writer doesn’t have cable, the final twist just came to his attention. Please accept our sincerest Rupologies.