emergency discussion

It May Be Time to Rethink Drag Race’s All-Star Elimination Model

We’ve been blindsided by lipstick eliminations before, but this was a whole other level. Photo: WOW Presents

Occasionally it is necessary to convene a conversation between Vulture writers to discuss an important and timely issue in culture. This time, Drag Race devotees Rebecca Alter and Emily Palmer Heller sit down to process a shocking elimination on this week’s U.K. vs. the World and talk about whether the current All-Stars elimination model has overstayed its welcome.

RuPaul’s Drag Race used to be an event that happened around once a year, localized to California, like the Oscars or wildfires. Now it is a constantly happening thing taking place in overlapping seasons all over the world … also like wildfires. The latest of these wildfires is RuPaul’s Drag Race: U.K. vs. the World, or RPDR:UKVTW if you’re nasty. The BBC Three co-production is an ingenious concept, an All-Stars season bringing together queens from five different international versions of the show. It’s like a Drag Olympics, if the Olympics were heavily skewed to its host country (three of the nine competing queens are from Drag Race U.K. season one) and the figure skaters were judged on their knowledge of Dynasty references.

But a season that was meant to be a fun celebration of eight amazing queens and Cheryl Hole took a turn on Tuesday, when lip-sync winner Blu Hydrangea sent season front-runner Pangina Heals home in a shocking elimination that may have been one of the hardest-to-watch moments in the history of the franchise. These weekly eliminations in the All-Stars format (the top queen of the week sends a bottom queen home) had been reliably shocking, surprising, and dramatic up until this point, with queens not afraid to send fan favorites packing. But watching this talented, prolific Thai queen get absolutely broken while a look of real fear set in over Blu’s face was an extremely sour, depressing moment that has us rethinking what hath Ru wrought.

Rebecca: I call this emergency meeting of beleaguered U.K. vs. the World viewers to order [bangs Judge Rudy gavel]. That was … really dark.

Emily: Genuinely hard to watch! We’ve been blindsided by lipstick eliminations before, but this was a whole other level.

Rebecca: The All-Stars lipstick elimination model means that queens can go home based not on merit alone, but on interpersonal drama and dynamics. For a reality show, that concept holds a lot of dramatic promise. But with a few exceptions like Ben de la Creme sending herself home in All-Stars 3, American Drag Race has usually played it safe with its queen-on-queen eliminations, serving whatever natural narrative the season is heading toward. Whether that’s due to producer interference or fear of social-media backlash is hard to say. But this was so, so very not that. What are your feelings about lipstick eliminations overall?

Emily: I think they’re a misfire and should be eliminated (LOL). I totally understand why producers would think it’s a good idea, especially on an All-Stars season when contestants have built-in fan bases already. Cynically, it gives Ru a little cover so she doesn’t have to send home queens that are beloved by the viewers, and I guess more importantly it naturally creates drama and discourse within the fandom, which is a good thing for the show. But we’re starting to see the extent to which that calculation can tip over from fun, engaging discourse into full-on backlash. It’s not a good look for anyone! It makes the show look bad, and it makes the queen who pulled an undeserved lipstick look bad. Most important, it’s not fun to watch! It’s not exciting-shocking, it’s upsetting-shocking.

Rebecca: When Blu Hydrangea entered this week’s judging riding high on a fun Snatch Game performance, she asked the judges, “What’s the craic?” She didn’t mean facecrack.

You’re right about how this format places the onus of fan hate on the winning queen who draws the lipstick. It turns what could have been a victorious episode for a likable competitor into a disarmingly sad comedown. Moments like this don’t just screw over someone like Pangina, who frankly was on track to win the whole season; they put the other queen in the line of fire.

And to think that earlier in the episode, the Canned Makeup Mirror Discussion Topic of the Week was cancel culture, and the producers left in multiple moments of Blu expressing fear of saying or doing things that could attract fan ire. This was supposed to be a silly Snatch Game ep, not an hour of Michael Haeneke–style psychological torture for all parties involved. All this over a challenge where you put on a wig and say “shagadelic!”

Emily: Oh my God, those Teachable Moment mirror discussions are a whole other Emergency Discussion topic. Yet another example of producers throwing queens under the bus for the sake of Twitter engagement, IMO. But yes, you could tell Blu immediately regretted her decision. She was SHAKING. Probably partly because of how angry and shocked Ru sounded, but also Pangina’s reaction was just heartbreaking.

Can we talk about Pangina for a minute? You’re right, she was doing so well; she was my pick to win for sure. I didn’t keep up with Drag Race Thailand, but after enjoying Pangina so much on U.K. vs. the World, I want to go back and watch! She is such an exciting performer, and I’m sad we don’t get to see what else she had to serve.

Rebecca: I’ve been stalling by talking about Blu because Pangina’s elimination, and her reaction to the elimination, was the true devastation of this episode. Pangina was such a delightful host on Drag Race Thailand, presenting a refreshing vision of what a drag-based competition series can look like in a post-Ru context. And on this season, she had everything it took to be a winner: Her looks are conceptual, beautiful, and arresting. She is an imminently watchable TV personality, giving great talking head and dominating the first few episodes of the competition. She already sent home my own beloved Canadian country(wo)men, Lemon and Jimbo, and I couldn’t even get mad about it, because Pangina’s an unimpeachable competitor.

So to see her broken down by this, raw and sobbing in an uncomfortably real way that we normally don’t see on Drag Race, felt like a step too far for the series. As we saw her heart break in real time, and saw Ru try to wrap up the episode while Pangina’s miked sobs were still audible from offstage, it felt almost exploitative. It wasn’t drama, it was tragedy.

Emily: Hmm, do I detect some Brooke Lynn Hytes shade? Yeah, exploitative is a good word for it. Any reality TV fan knows that the “reality” has some pretty heavy quotation marks around it, so when something happens that is clearly not part of the “plan,” it can be an exciting gag, but it can also be jarring and off-putting. Pangina’s elimination and breakdown was obviously the latter, and producers absolutely should have let her get off set — or at least off mic — before continuing with the wrap-up. You could tell the queens didn’t really know what to do, though I will say Janey’s commitment to doing a cute little exit was admirable. Very Dutch.

You mentioned Jimbo, and I think that’s another element of this elimination worth mentioning. I am not the biggest Jimbo fan (sorry!!!), so I wasn’t as upset by her lipstick being pulled as some of my fellow Drag Race viewers, but I do agree that it wasn’t her time to go. So to have Pangina, who sent Jimbo home, face the same fate seems like karmic justice, but I think it actually just does Jimbo a disservice too, because now her elimination isn’t the one we’re all mad about. Does this make sense?

Rebecca: Firstly, LOL about Janey turning around and having her “to to to to the moon” wink-y moment while everyone else was death marching offstage. And yeah, it does make sense. I personally really like the bonkers vibes that Jimbo brings to the franchise, but I do think she’s kind of a limited and unadaptable queen, not to mention a competitor whose emotions never scan as authentic. Her elimination meant we were losing a fun queen, but it wasn’t a gut punch like Pangina’s exit.

These weekly lipstick pulls shouldn’t be a chain of mob-justice retribution. When All-Stars 2 debuted the lipsticks, it was part of the season’s larger break from format, and the experiment paid off at the time. But it has since become a format of its own, and an unpleasant one at that. I don’t need to see the same werkroom one-on-ones every week about loyalty and alliances and “what’s in it for me?” dealmaking. Drag Race isn’t Survivor, nor should it try to be. (Well … maybe they can have more obstacle courses and bug eating.) Whatever happened to “may the best drag queen win”? It’s time to pull the “lipstick elimination” lipstick.

It’s Time to Rethink Drag Race’s All-Star Elimination Model