As longtime readers surely know by now, I am not one to shy away from RuPaul slander. I’ve called our legendary mother queen “maniacal,” “a psychological terrorist,” “a gay Joe Rogan,” and, baby, that’s just what I’ve said in print! So believe me when I say that RuPaul truly freaked it with the challenge this episode.
Halftime Headliners is the platonic ideal of a Drag Race maxi challenge. It elegantly presents a solution to a problem that our world’s most brilliant scientists have struggled for years to decipher: How do we highlight the talents of incredibly talented queens whose primary skill is performing the heavily copyrighted music of female pop stars in bars? Snatch Game is the obvious solution, but that only caters to a very specific type of comedically minded queen, leaving excellent entertainers like Trinity K. Bonet to flounder. “Well,” you might reply, “there are Rusical challenges, like season 12’s ‘Madonna: The Rusical’! Don’t those pick up the slack left by Snatch Game and cater to the performance-heavy queens?” (Okay, I was getting there?? Stop being rude??) These also have major drawbacks. By selecting one diva to focus on, like Cher or Madonna, you put queens who would never even think to impersonate that particular star at a distinct disadvantage (e.g., Heidi N. Closet, Asia O’Hara).
Enter the Drag Race halftime show. For this maxi challenge each queen has preselected a pop diva whom they will impersonate in order to serve up a brief Superbowl halftime show performance, lip syncing to RuPaul tracks remixed and re-recorded to emulate the sonic qualities of that particular diva. Not only does this allow queens like Trinity and Yara to shine (I’ll get to that later) it even allows savvy, non-dancing queens like Pandora to show off their Snatch Game-level comedic timing. The cherry on top? It’s fucking fun. Perfect. Elegant. Ingenious. The Theory of Relativity of Drag Race maxi challenges.
However, if there’s one thing Drag Race is gonna do, it’s overproduce an entertaining episode with questionable judging. But in order to understand how we arrived at this episode’s winner, we have to turn the clock all the way back to season 12’s “Madonna: the Rusical,” or as I like to call it, “the Jokerification of Jan.” It was quite the sight to behold: Jan’s BFA was weaponized with enriched uranium as she screlted, twirled, and kicked through her number, only to lose to season 12’s golden girl, Gigi Goode. Even casual fans of the series remember Jan’s single-minded, militant determination to win the Rusical challenge, and the subsequent face-crack of the century when Jan realized she had lost. After all, who could forget when Drag Race and Jan herself remind us in practically every episode? We’ve had two flashbacks to the moment itself, and countless appearances of the “Jan was ROBED!” Bathrobe. Monetizing your JanTSD? We have to stan! It’s a branding strategy straight out of the RuPaul playbook, and one year later it finally pays off.
From the beginning of this episode, we’re treated to a full recap of Jan’s Rusical journey to this point. It’s repeatedly emphasized that this moment could represent her “redemption,” and after rehearsal Jan explains how perfectly she emulates Lady Gaga and her indomitable spirit. (… Sure!) Have you guessed what the outcome of this challenge might be yet? Sure enough, Jan does, by all accounts, a good — nay, a great — job in the halftime-show challenge as a foot-on-the-piano-playing, spastic Lady Gaga. So, give her the win! Simple enough, right?
Not quite. Because then, along comes Trinity K. Bonet. As Beyoncé, Trinity killed this maxi challenge and left not one survivor. Not only was the choreography executed to perfection (shout out to MY boyfriend, Jamal Sims), she also layered in flawless imitation of Beyoncé’s mannerisms and performance ticks that could only have come from years of study and utter reverence for Queen Bey. And while Trinity receives ample praise for her performance, it’s Jan who comes out on top. Why is that? Trinity’s narrative this episode is equally compelling. After all, her idolatry of Beyoncé on season six was ultimately a large part of her story arc. In her desire to impersonate Beyoncé in Vegas, she found a hard time showing the judges her true self. So to come back to All Stars, thrive as a fully realized entertainer, and win a challenge by paying homage to the queen herself? Redemption arcs don’t get any better than that! True, Trinity’s excellence was also foreshadowed in the second act of this episode (albeit not quite in as heavy-handed a manner), but her success in the choreo rehearsal was framed more as an obstacle for Jan than as a triumph of Trinity’s own skill. After Trinity marks a truly sickening eight-count, we cut immediately to Jan saying, “I think that she is the person who could potentially beat me in this challenge.” Well … maybe she should have! But the judges disagree. Robbed queen no longer, Jan is awarded the win this week, finally receiving the one title she’s desired for years: Rusical challenge winner.
But there are other questionable placement choices beyond our top two titans. Eureka finds herself in the top three this week after a deeply fine performance as Madonna, and A’keria lands in the bottom two after an entertaining turn as Prince and the season’s most staggeringly beautiful runway presentation yet. Ginger is given a pass for a decidedly un-Fergie-like lip sync to “Geronimo.” (Probably as a pseudo-apology, as Ginger was unjustly sent home on this challenge years ago on All Stars 2.) I was also quite disappointed to see Yara’s All Stars run cut so short for what I judged to be a well-executed (albeit impassive) impersonation of Shakira. Alas, such is life, mawma.
But, besties, please don’t interpret my word-vomiting a laundry list of gripes as a sign that I hated the episode. Au contraire! To reiterate, this challenge was fun as hell, and the queens each served such a high caliber of drag that it makes it all the more painful to watch incredible performers land in the bottom. The fact that I haven’t even mentioned Pandora’s joyful Carol Channing or Kylie’s daring and transgressive Steven Tyler only speaks to the immeasurable talent of this crop of girls.
With the halftime show and runway wrapped, Jan is left to lip-sync to “Womanizer” pitted against the chaotic excellence of Jessica Wild. Jan commits to a comedic, robotic approach to the song that ultimately pales in comparison to the cyclonic hair-flipping of the season 3 lip sync assassin. Mmm, I love this drink. For the second week in a row, A’keria escapes by the skin of her teeth and Yara is left to sashay away with a parting message of “fuck you all!” Honestly? Fair. Little by little, the cast is being whittled down, and frontrunners are emerging. If I were a betting bottom, I’d put money on Jan, Ra’Jah, and Trinity K. Bonet. Let’s see if I’m right!
Until next week!