When fans of VH1’s Emmy-winning reality smash RuPaul’s Drag Race tuned into the second episode of the show’s 12th season, they were greeted by a title card that preceded the usually cheery “Previously on RuPaul’s Drag Race” segment. It read, “In light of recent developments and Sherry Pie’s statement, Sherry Pie has been disqualified from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Out of respect for the hard work of the other queens, VH1 will air the season as planned. Sherry will not appear in the grand finale scheduled to be filmed later this spring.”
Sherry Pie, whose legal name is Joey Gugliemelli, is accused by former classmates at SUNY Cortland and actors he worked with at a theater company in Nebraska of posing as a casting director to get the young men to send him videos of them saying and doing degrading things on camera in various states of undress. One man accuses Gugliemelli of talking him into masturbating in front of him as part of a casting process for a supposed HBO show. Gugliemelli issued a statement on Facebook that read, in part, “I know that the pain and hurt that I have caused will never go away and I know that what I did was wrong and truly cruel.”
So, Sherry has copped to it, Drag Race disqualified her, but we still have another 11 episodes left, all of which were filmed prior to the allegations coming out. Where does that leave the show, and viewers, as we venture into the rest of this season? (There there are some speculative spoilers ahead, so if you don’t want any talk about what happens in the remainder of season 12, go watch this supercut of Alyssa Edwards instead.)
Episode three, which aired last Friday, was the second since the news broke about Gugliemelli’s predatory behavior; it was also the first episode featuring a win by Sherry Pie. Considering a victor usually gets a bit more time in the spotlight, viewers accustomed to the usual rhythms of Drag Race took note of Sherry’s minimized screen time in the episode. We didn’t see her in any “confessional” talking-head interviews, though we did hear her voice talking about her florescent What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?–inspired outfit as she walked down the runway, just like we heard all of the other queens. (However, in the version that went out to the U.K., several of Sherry’s talking heads at the top of the episode, when she is practicing with her team, were left in. In the U.S. version, they were replaced with comments from Brita. Here is a side-by-side comparison to see how Sherry was scrubbed.)
It’s not like Sherry was completely erased from the episode — given how much she interacts with the other queens, that would be impossible to do without turning the episode into an unintelligible mess — but her presence was noticeably downplayed. That’s not that disruptive when there are still 12 other queens around to give commentary for the show to create storylines around, but what happens when they’re down to five or six and Sherry’s still there?
It’s also conspicuous that Sherry doesn’t say a single word during last week’s Untucked, the aftershow featuring the queens backstage while the others are on the stage during judging. Since Sherry was one of the top three, she wasn’t present for the beginning portion of the dialogue; however, it’s almost unheard of for the winner not to talk about their winning look and performance in the challenge on Untucked. Untucked is also a place where fans get to know more of a queen’s personality and her storyline for the season can be honed. Under normal circumstances, Sherry would likely be getting the storyline of an eventual winner, someone who clearly excels in the competition and is a threat throughout. But since we know that she’s disqualified, that means that storyline is void. Instead, what we’re left with is this external storyline about Gugliemelli’s abuses, one that can’t be addressed on the show and whose impact, I can only imagine, producers want to mitigate.
It’s generally assumed that Sherry is going to make it all the way to the final four; if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have had to be “disqualified,” because she would have been eliminated already. A well-regarded repository of Drag Race spoilers compiled by insiders and Redditors (seriously, don’t click this link if you don’t want the whole season spoiled) claims that Sherry will not only make the final four, but also that she’s going to win one or two more challenges, which means we’re very likely in for a long season of watching someone we now know is a predator receiving praise from the judges. How awkward is that going to be for all of us watching, knowing that her wins are moot and the $5,000 prizes that come along with each win this season are going to a sexual catfish? (There was a note at the end of the episode saying producers gave $5,000 to the Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for at-risk LGBT youth. It is not clear if they donated the $5,000 instead of giving it to Sherry or if they gave an additional $5,000 to offset what Sherry already won.)
Further muddling the experience is the fact that queens who stick around in the competition long enough are typically painted in one of the broad brushstrokes of reality TV — the clear favorite (see: Bianca Del Rio), the scrappy underdog (Adore Delano), the weird funny girl (Jinkx Monsoon), or the deserving veteran (Chad Michael). If Sherry continues to be minimized throughout the season as she was in episode three, though, the show won’t be able to build one of these storylines for her. She’s just going to be a weird, amorphous blob sitting at the center of this show, like a melting cake sitting in the middle of a picnic.
While editors can snip a bit here and there to trim Sherry’s screen time, it’s going to be impossible to completely erase her from the narrative. Episodes of reality shows take months to fine-tune and can’t be completely reedited as quickly as it takes to return a cheap wig to Party City. These episodes are created to fit the strictures of linear television, so retooling to completely remove one contestant basically means scrapping the whole episode and rebuilding most of it from scratch. Because a reedit takes time, that means it also costs money, and losing money is certainly not something that TV networks and production companies are looking to do, even if it costs them the goodwill of their fans.
Then there is the practical aspect. Even if Sherry could be erased, what happens if she lip-syncs against another queen? There’s no way to remove that without it looking completely insane. What about when she wins another challenge, or wins a mini challenge and is then the one picking teams? Her being in the season means her being in the season, as disgusted as that might make some of us feel.
As for what has yet to be filmed, that throws another wrench into the works. VH1 is not commenting on how this news will affect the show’s “grand finale,” which is usually filmed before a live audience in L.A. just weeks before it airs. In the past several seasons, we’ve seen a final four face off in lip-sync battles where the losers drop like Asia O’Hara’s butterflies and one winner emerges. If Sherry did make it to the final four, does that mean we will only have a final three? If that is the case, will there still be lip sync battles? If so, how will they work? Will the three remaining just stand around and do Rock, Paper, Scissors until we have crowned America’s next drag superstar? Will the fifth-place queen be elevated to fill Sherry’s spot? Or maybe all of the eliminated girls should get to vie for that one remaining slot — Dahlia Sin, now is your chance at redemption! But even if she could come back from Victoria Porkchop Parker last place and win the crown, would that be enough to make us feel good about this season? Can any of these girls feel good about winning when the biggest story of the finale is sure to be who isn’t there? I hope they can, but it’s going to be impossible for the audience to ignore.
This was all complicated enough before the coronavirus took over both the news cycle and the world. It’s impossible to plan a live event on the scale of a typical Drag Race finale while gatherings over ten people are discouraged. It would make it just as hard to film a finale with just the four remaining queens on a soundstage. Will we have to wait even longer to find out who wins and what the final crowning process will be like? Maybe. But at least it will give Drag Race the extra time to think about where it could go from here.
These are all production’s woes, though — what does it really mean for fans? Well, it means season 12 is a season like no other, and not in a good way. This is a show beloved by so many because of its relative wholesomeness, because it is a safe, queer space on television, where we so rarely get one. Now it has been invaded by a predator, and most of us are left scrutinizing the Sherry Pie of it all rather than the artistry of the other queens and their storylines. If this disclaimer is going to be at the beginning of every episode, like Law & Order’s reminder about the police that catch criminals and the prosecutors that try them, Sherry is going to be the dark cloud of acid rain (not Acid Betty) that hangs over all of the proceedings.
Sherry’s near-erasure from the season will likely mean that some other deserving queens will get more air time and focus, which is good. But it won’t change the fact that this season will be remembered primarily for one queen’s misdeeds, which is bad. No matter the outcome, no matter what production does, no matter how many times Gugliemelli apologizes, I think we will all feel like something good and pure and wonderful has been taken away from us, and maybe corrupted forever.