What is a “brand”? If you’d asked someone 15 years ago, they might’ve said Sears, Oreo, or Microsoft. But these days, it means a whole lot more. A brand isn’t just a corporation: it’s a former Bachelorette contestant who sells pre-workout on his Instagram story, an entrepreneur who once gave a TED Talk on “cultivating a growth mindset,” or (most notable for the purposes of this recap) a drag queen on TV. In this week’s challenge the queens are tasked with creating a commercial for a soda that conveys and sells their brand to an audience. This style of challenge isn’t new: RuPaul has had the queens shilling products since season one. But the focus on cultivating and selling the queens’ personal brands is a relatively new twist, and I’m not sure it’s for the better.
Mainly, the format change doesn’t necessarily lend itself to “fun.” Back in season three, for example, the equivalent of this challenge was creating a morale-boosting video “for the troops.” In one of Drag Race’s most memorable moments, Alexis Matteo created a completely deranged PSA dedicated to her overseas boyfriend Bobby. Joke-heavy? No. Endlessly entertaining? Absolutely. I think part of the reason Alexis was able to succeed was because the focus wasn’t on her marketability, but on her creativity and charisma. The result was one of the most successful and organic “brands” in the history of the franchise. So it’s interesting that the queens who are most successful in this week’s episode aren’t the ones with the most clear cut brands, but the ones who seem to have the most fun. After a delightful little self-referential mini-challenge (Are You Smarter Than the Pit Crew?), the queens get to work on making their soda commercials pop.
Tina thinks she has the challenge in the bag. After all, who has a more cohesive “brand” than Tina Burner? She understands the assignment and knows where to insert all the requisite Tina Burner brand signifiers (flames, housewife, camp aesthetic), so when Michelle calls her Drag Race package “one-note” she’s rightfully a little confused and hurt. As mean as it sounds, Tina’s problem isn’t necessarily repetitiveness, it’s that, well… what’s being repeated just isn’t that good. Her housewife character is nothing revelatory, the orange and yellow runways aren’t particularly aesthetically pleasing, so what we’re left with is a meticulously crafted, very consistent brand that just doesn’t spark joy.
Rosé on the other hand, understands “branding” in a more nuanced way than Tina does. She uses her commercial for “Rose-Aid” less as a time to rehash the things we already know about her, and more as an opportunity to kiki and poke some meta-fun at herself and Michelle. The biggest laugh of the sketch comes when Pit Crew member Bryce (who deserves a SAG award for the work he puts in this episode) enters dressed in Rosé’s infamous tulle dress and asks “is this flattering?” After which Rosé turns to camera and deadpans “No, it isn’t.” Sure, the joke delivery isn’t the most artful, but there’s an audacity to Rosé punching up at the judges’ panel, and, as they say, it DO take nerve! On the runway, Rosé is a gorgeous, red she-devil in what might be her best look yet. I don’t think it was necessary to give her the co-win with Symone, but, hey! A runaway season gets stale quickly, so I’m happy to see another real contender for the top four.
While the other queens struggle with the prompt for this challenge, Symone wins by almost disregarding it. When I think of Symone’s brand, I think “Ebony Enchantress,” impeccable taste, attention to detail, and a wide pool of cultural references. But Symone’s soda (Sweet Tooth) is a sugar-filled, heart attack-inducing drink that “makes you go from uptight to just right.” I don’t particularly associate Symone with being uptight, but I do associate her with being great at Drag Race. And in that way, she delivers. Symone’s commercial is fun. Not to mention the fact that she’s one of the only queens to write actual jokes, which earns her a lot of points in my book. For the beast runway, Symone serves pre-redesigned Lola Bunny realness in the most furry-adjacent runway Drag Race has ever seen. It’s quite entertaining and culminates in Symone snatching her fourth win. Damn, sis!
The rest of the soda commercials subscribe to the “no jokes, just vibes” school of comedy to varying degrees of success. On the “…huh?” end of the spectrum we have Utica. This commercial has everything you never knew you didn’t want: Utica licking a can, Utica sucking on cow teat, and Utica dressed like Sasha Velour spent six months on the Manson Family ranch. Despite a pretty runway, the performance doesn’t coalesce, and she finds herself in the bottom for the second time alongside Tina.
Gottmik and Oliva, while not quite as dismal, don’t fare well in this challenge either. Between tonight’s challenge and Snatch Game, I don’t think anyone will accuse Oliva of being a comedy queen any time soon. Her commercial isn’t great, but, even worse, she can’t take direction. Carson and Ross do their best to coax a frown out of Olivia, but it’s just not happening. She manages to escape the bottom two this week, but with the field narrowing, performances like this just won’t cut it anymore. Similarly, Gottmik also struggles with taking the big fat hints Ross is throwing at her. Her concept is much stronger than Olivia’s, but she doesn’t quite have the comedy know-how to stick the landing. With a few tweaks, this sketch could have been one of the best of the week, but Gottmik is too stressed to be able to adjust her mangled storyboard on the fly. Another stunning runway saves her from the bottom two, but it’s a close call. On the other end of the spectrum, no one pulls off “just vibes” like Kandy. It’s another really strong concept: “The K Special,” a soda that’s secretly just ketamine. Perfection. Kandy isn’t so great at expanding on this premise, but it’s endlessly entertaining to watch Kandy fake-order ketamine soda at an empty bar in an empty club, then trip balls with the two pit crew boys. The platonic ideal of a Kandy Muse comedy challenge. Her runway is unhinged, and not in the gag-worthy way, so Kandy is just safe, but she continues her streak of strong mid-season challenge performances.
In the bottom two, we’ve got Tina Burner and Utica lip syncing to the seminal gay hymn “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas. It’s quite the perfect lip sync song for two comedy queens, and doubly so for Utica, who gives her spooky, monster-like spin on the Fergie vocal track. And so Tina sashays away, joining the long list of big city nightclub veterans who just never quite hit their stride on Drag Race. Love her, though! See you in Cherry Grove, queen!