We need to talk about Vanjie. Specifically, we need to talk about what Drag Race’s accelerated milking of a meme for every last drop its worth says about this season’s competition as a whole. When Vanessa Vanjie Mateo became the first eliminated queen, she claimed a few extra seconds on stage before asserting her worth in the only way she knew how: by dropping her own name thrice with the wounded delicacy of a Tennessee Williams heroine—“Miss Vanjie…Miss Vanjie…Miss…Vanjie…”—before then retreating backward up the runway while glaring directly at the judge’s table.
The moment was fierce and doleful—a fertile field for camp deification. The space Vanjie cleared around herself in that moment was instantly recognized by RuPaul and the producers; a behind-the-scenes clip showing Michelle Visage bringing Ru to tears by merely invoking Vanjie’s name was included right off the top of the second episode. And from that point on, the ghost of Vanjie never truly left the show. From the workroom to the judges’ critiques to deliberations to Untucked, echoes of “Vanjie” have never been few and far between, like some gay offshoot of the game Marco Polo.
Midway through this week’s episode, though, RuPaul interrupts the pomp of her own runway introductions by reenacting Miss Vanjie’s notorious exit, right down to the backward strut. The gesture could easily have just been a rehearsal lark that ended up making it into the final product as the show’s editors realized how widely the Vanjie memes were spreading. But arriving just as the six remaining queens are all desperately trying to plant their freak flag in the ground before the finale, the gag throws some major shade. Season 10 will almost certainly go down as the one where the number one breakout star was the one who went home in the first episode.
If Vanjie is the matron saint the axed too soon, the series continues to position Kameron Michaels as her diametric counterpart. Certainly with the way RuPaul chose to keep both of them in the competition last week, telling Kameron “shante, you stay” first before telling Eureka the same, she used the former just to make the latter sweat. By now, Ru recognizes that Kameron isn’t going to give us the drama that we crave—a quality that Kameron is now shrewdly turning to her advantage—and maybe that’s the impetus for this week’s questionable mini challenge, in which the queens are told to get butch for an advertising campaign centered around “trade.” RuPaul delights in getting Kameron to pop the A-shirt off and put some Masc4Masc in her vocal delivery…and then turns around and gives the win to Eureka. (If the camera catches disappointment on Kameron’s face, it also caught the moment when she tellingly laughs at the stupidity of the challenge.)
The storyline of Kameron’s unflappable decision to remain on her own little island, floating above the fray, reaches a climax of sorts this week. The maxi challenge is the long-awaited makeover challenge, and if runway looks have been Kameron’s biggest strength throughout the season, interacting with, well, anyone has been her Achilles’ stiletto heel. Eureka is about the only queen who’s formed a bond with Kameron, but when Eureka (with her mini-challenge win advantage) pairs Kameron with whom she clocks as the hottest makeover subject simply because “I want to watch that video,” it’s hard not to see Eureka’s interest as good ol’ fashioned body objectification.
The men getting ready to get their mugs beaten for the gods this time around are social media superstars, which is a stroke of nefarious genius. In the past, one of the surest-fire ways for a makeover challenge to blow up in queens’ faces has been to let their drag sisters overshadow them. As classically trained attention hogs, this year’s batch of willing human canvases come in primed to pull focus, making this week look like an uphill battle for everyone.
Eureka chooses Frankie Grande for herself. The joke is that Eureka picked the one who’s already basically a drag queen, though Monét X Change muses that Frankie’s personality will be the toughest to rein in. So will Eureka’s untamed libido; she basically vomits eggplant emoji all over her drag sister when she catches a glimpse of her huevos grandes. Even more NAGL, though, is Eureka’s assumption that Aquaria, who you may recall dissolved into a tearful puddle after being told what’s what by The Vixen, won’t know how to paint her assigned sister Kingsley simply because of their different skin tones. Aquaria was nearly laughed out of the workroom last week when she told Ru she didn’t have a particular strategy when she assigned the queens their roles in “Breastworld,” but Eureka’s willful saboteur act is far more disgraceful.
Kameron’s social media sister is YouTube celebrity and ex-Smosh’er Anthony Padilla, and if Kam was already going to end up straining a muscle making a human connection, her entire body twists with apprehension when she learns her partner is straight. Miz Cracker, on the other hand, rolls far more gracefully with the punch of having a straight drag sister (Chester See, who has yours truly feeling a Eureka type of way). It doesn’t hurt that RuPaul, who this week seems on some magical type of happy pill, seems to take extra delight in broadening straight workroom visitors’ horizons. In fact, the enthusiasm levels are so high that, for instance, Asia O’Hara’s sister, Raymond Braun, dives headfirst into the wardrobe to snatch a piece that Asia almost surely was hoping to save for the final round: a gorgeously bejeweled drape-coat that would make Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph green with envy. Tyler Oakley, Monét’s sister, starts serving resting bitch face the moment her feet get inside those cha-cha heels. Ultimately, the workroom becomes a real-life version of the Vogue Clips Facebook page as the social media influencers work the imaginary runway of their dreams. It’s chaotic but cute.
Such is the spirit of the makeover challenge that every guest queen gets lost in the fantasy and praised to the hilt, even if Monét and her sister Short Change’s drag looks are notably shaggier than everyone else’s. And whatever story Kameron is trying to tell about her bond with her drag sister ends up basically nonexistent beyond the coordinated disco moves. Aquaria’s mug for queen Kingsley is absolutely royal, even if their outfits don’t quite jibe, and the mug on Asia’s sister isn’t quite as big a showstopper as the pair of glittering coats, one of which Asia impressively whipped up in a minute. Eureka and Grande stop impressively short of clownery, but Miz Cracker’s slam-dunk win this week was a done deal the moment Miz Cookie was given a chair-spinning workroom reveal, to Cracker’s clapping-jumping delight. (Cracker’s excitement at finally hitting the nail on the head was nearly worth the painfully long wait: “It worked! I’m having a good time!”)
Once again, Kameron ends up in the bottom, facing off against a Monét who’s hoping for a three-peat, setting up for a battle of the season’s biggest lip-sync assassins. And once again, Kameron indicates her intention to do what she does best and slay her performance. Which, to guest judge Lizzo’s “Good As Hell,” she clearly does. But the “if I have to lip sync my way to the finals, I’ll take down every one of these bitches” strategy comes straight from Coco Montrese and Kennedy Davenport’s playbooks, which has never carried any queen to the finals. But Coco and Kennedy at least allowed themselves to give good drama on the side, which Kameron (noble or otherwise) seems programmed to not allow. Plus, Monét’s choice to leave the stage (acting out Lizzo’s out-the-door lyrics) and come sliding back in leaves Ru puzzled and a light bulb shattered, but at least indicates go-for-broke nerve.
Kameron’s lip sync is more polished, more on-point, more energetic, but arguably very paint-by-numbers fierce. And the editing gives every indication that the judges are eating both of them up, so any decision RuPaul makes at this point would be a legitimate surprise. Still, as though failing to realize that the season’s second biggest social media star after Miss Vanjie is that damned sponge Monét wore in the first episode, Ru tells Kameron “Shante, you stay,” further decimating the season’s sizeable New York City delegation and, at the same time, daring the editors to find another villain in someone who, like The Vixen, absolutely refuses to be used outside of her own terms.
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