RuPaul’s Drag Race
What makes a Drag Race loser? The first three eps of this season have not just shown us dazzling production numbers, avant-garde fashion shows, and experimental psychological torture techniques. They’ve also posed this meta question. RuPaul would have us believe there are no losers. He cites Shangela and Miss Vanjie as evidence that Drag Race placement is not indicative of real-world success. And, yes, there certainly are notable exceptions, but Ru also can’t deny that Drag Race’s elimination structure inherently creates a hierarchy within the show’s alumni, the consequences of which are plain as day. Merchandise sales, booking fees, and social-media engagement make this discrepancy painfully clear. To some degree, it’s unavoidable. Attention isn’t doled out equitably, and not everyone can receive the coveted “lovable underdog” edit. RuPaul isn’t running a charity after all, he’s making a reality-TV show. However, I’m happy to see the show begin to take some responsibility for the queens’ wellbeing, and start to challenge some of these constructs. These eliminations can have far-reaching consequences for the queens, but at the end of the day, elimination order is an incredibly arbitrary designation. Case in point: This week, we watch episode one’s “losing” team mount an impressive production number that even surpasses last Friday’s installment from the “winners.” Let’s dive in.
The one notable disadvantage to this split premiere style is that it can feel a little repetitive. If it feels like you’re watching the same episode twice in a row that’s because, well, you are! Luckily, this half of the queens couldn’t be more different, injecting some much-needed variety into what might otherwise be a redundant episode. After the girls finish ogling each other, RuPaul comes in to issue a half-hearted apology for any trauma experienced in the Pork Chop Loading Dock and explain that they’ll be showing off two garments in a “Lady and the Vamp” fashion show. Enter my favorite subplot of the episode: While the girls begin getting into drag for their first looks, Denali explains that, in Chicago, Kahmora is notorious for taking SIX HOURS to paint her face. Yes you heard right: In the time it would take me to not watch Tenet twice, Kahmora would be just moving onto her eyeshadow. If you were thinking this might pose a problem for a tightly scheduled TV show, you’d be right. As Joey Jay points out, “This is Drag Race, not Drag Walk.” So true, bestie! Ultimately, Kahmora does make it to stage, and she does look good. She’s giving Meghan Markle post-wedding but pre-move to Canada. A serve! Other daytime-look standouts include Rosé’s Moschino-inspired structured mini dress and Tamisha’s gorgeous red pantsuit. The nighttime/vampire runway goes off much smoother (i.e. sans Kahmora-based production delays). Denali stunts in a sheer black ball gown, as does Tamisha once again in an Elvira-meets-Atlanta floor-length dress. But the winner of this category has got to be Rosé. It’s a stunning McQueen-inspired garment that I’m sure Lady Gaga will be buying immediately and having shipped straight to her Chromatica P.O. Box.
Finally, it’s time for the girls to write verses and create choreo to Ru’s new single “Phenomenon.” I think this is my favorite RuPaul grift. The brilliance of having half a dozen other people do all the creative legwork for something and then just putting your name on it? The Elon Musk of drag. In the dance rehearsal, Denali, Rosé, and Joey Jay have each appointed themselves head choreographer. And even though Tamisha has more dance experience than the three of them combined, she wisely opts out of these BFA twinks’ battle royale. And good thing she does, because it’s a bloodbath. It’s Suspiria on poppers as Denali, Rosé, and Joey Jay fight each other for creative control. Eventually the chaos becomes too much for Tamisha, who swoops in to save the day with some well-placed pointing and walking. It breaks the stalemate, and the rest of the queens graciously cede to her authority. With the number finally locked, it’s time for the runway.
In the werkroom, Denali says that losing last week only makes her want to push herself that much harder, and baby it shows. There’s really nothing negative you can say about Denali’s presentation this week. She’s made sure of it. She’s crossed every “T”, dotted every “i”, and, with no ice skates to unbalance her, Denali is able to bring the full force of her Tonya Harding winner’s mindset to bear. Her verse is the best of the group and the splits are the icing on top. (Get it?) The judges praise Denali for her looks and the sheer variety of her self-expression. Denali is clearly a ferocious performer and competitor, and definitely one to watch. No, really, keep an eye on her because I think she might break someone’s leg.
When asked what she’ll be using as inspiration for her lyrics, Joey Jay says “I’m gay.” While not really an answer to the question, I can’t help but respect the himbo energy Joey is bringing to the confessional booth. Her lyrics are perfectly serviceable, and the spinning trick is cute, but it’s just not enough to stand out amongst monsters like Tamisha, Rosé, or Denali. Not helping matters is the fact that Joey essentially reused the same silhouette for three of her four looks this episode. While the judges love her performance, they make sure to emphasize that they are not going to tolerate this wiglessness for much longer. The consensus is clear: Be yourself, Joey! Just not like that.
It should be very obvious to everyone that Rosé intends to obliterate the competition this season, and lord help any queen that stands in her way. Rosé has a level of unimpeachable self-confidence that would probably be considered a personality disorder in other professions, but if you’re a Manhattan-based drag queen it’s basically a prerequisite to performing at Hardware. It serves her well this episode. In the performance, she easily looks the best. Her verse (particularly ending on a belted high note) is VERY Jan-reminiscent, which will be thrilling for some and triggering to others. The judges love it though: They praise her looks, her verse, just about everything except her final runway presentation. Ross tries to frame this critique in such a way so that he might avoid the combined ire of both Chicago gay Twitter and New York gay Twitter. (A losing battle, but I wish him the best.) “Crafty” look or not though, Rosé emerges victorious, and firmly at the top of this week’s crop.
Tamisha didn’t place in the pageant this week, but there’s no doubt she made her mark. Almost every werkroom conversation revolves around her, and it’s probably because she’s fucking fascinating. Tamisha has competed in over 200 pageants, won 95 of them, and in the meantime had three biological children and dozens of drag babies. Title holder, mother to the LEGENDARY Tandi Iman Dupree, and a fashion designer to boot. What can’t Tamisha do? Michelle clocks her for “holding back” in the performance (whatever that means), but to me Tamisha was a standout. The fashion show was perfectly executed, her lyrics were delightful, and RuPaul said her runway was one of the best dresses of all time (which she made, by the way!). Tamisha is here to stay, and I’m very pleased to see it.
Utica didn’t make quite as much an impression on me this episode as she did episode one. She seems like a sweetie, and she was perfectly willing to cede attention to some of the other queens who were more than happy to take up the screen time this time around. However, Utica brings it where it counts. Her performance is a nice tonal shift from the rest of the girls, and she sells her lyrics and wacky arm inflatable tube man-style choreo. While I can sense some growing fatigue with the “kooky queen” trope among the fandom, I think Utica is the real deal. The judges are intrigued by her, and I mean … How could you not be? She’s a Seventh-day Adventist for Christ’s sake! (Get it?)
Oh Kahmora. I can’t say Kahmora did “well” this episode, but I can say that I loved it. I mean, holding up an entire production because you’re still getting dressed? A bitch after my own heart. Kahmora has branded herself as a look queen (and after this ep I think we can confidently say that she’s not a dancing queen), but I posit that she’s also a funny queen. Kahmora is quick with a clapback, and served up some quite memorable confessional moments. My favorite: “I wanna look so expensive that they go broke just looking at me.” This episode was a rough start for Kahmora, but she still has time to turn it around. As long as there’s no more dancing.
With all critiques said and done, RuPaul names Denali and Rosé the top two of the week, and they are made to duke it out to Britney Spears’s “If U Seek Amy.” It is quite a spectacle. Both queens approach the song with the confidence and expertise of a seasoned performer who’s no stranger to a sold-out show, to a standing ovation, or to absolutely murdering a lip sync. Ultimately, Denali has the edge. The precision of her stunts come right on time and feel perfectly on brand for the Britney bop. Ru awards her the win, and you just can’t deny it feels correct. Next week, “losers” and “winners” will join together in what’s sure to be a thrilling spectacle/COVID-compliance nightmare. Place your bets, people. We’re off the races.