Star quality. Who has it, and who doesn’t? Long before the trailer dropped for the forthcoming, ludicrously Oscar buzz-attracting remake of A Star Is Born starring Lady Gaga, that question has been hanging over this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. That Ru has a very specific vision of what makes a star a star should come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched any of the show’s half-dozen or so burlesque dramatizations of her own underdog life. Ru’s diagnosis of star quality all but requires a razor’s edge of self-sabotaging doubt, a nefarious but fire-stoking internal voice that both keeps one self-aware but also driven to overcome. Without it, you’re merely talented.
Surely by this point in the season, no queen knows that more acutely than poor, dazzling, yawn-inducing Kameron Michaels. Multiple times this season her lewks have rivaled those of the other queens, including Violet Chachki’s heiress apparent, Aquaria. Her acting performances have been spotty but occasionally better than those of, say, Miss Frame and Pearl. But in the last two episodes of the show, she’s revealed herself to be utterly in control of her face and body even while lip-syncing for her life. In fact, she’s the season’s breakout lip-sync assassin. And just as Kameron’s gym-trained body can contort itself into a fierce pretzel, so, too, are the show’s producers and editors bending over backward to turn Kameron, perhaps the only queen in history to aim specifically to avoid drama rather than actively seek it out, into a villain. And they’re coming damned close to succeeding.
Kameron isn’t the only self-control freak in the workroom though. And this week’s episode is a fascinating compare-and-contrast exercise between her and Miz Cracker, who’s smart enough to suspect that she’s not smart enough. No more so than when she’s put into a challenge that deliberately puts her into her own head. This week, Ru pits her final five against none other than themselves. In something of a dark twist on the previous season’s princess-and-sidekick challenge, Ru tells the queens that they need to walk the runway in two distinct iterations: their idealized drag self and their inner saboteurs. (Ru delivers the message by showing up as her own evil twin, who apparently wandered in from the margins of The Florida Project and will key your car when you’re not looking.) Furthermore, they have to write and record the dialogue running through their head as they tell themselves the best and worst things about themselves. What could possibly go wrong?
The latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race is a fascinating compare-and-contrast exercise.
Well, if you’re Aquaria (who actually voices that previous sentiment), the answer is: Nothing, nothing at all could possibly go wrong. Despite Ru workroom-goading her to go deeper to access the raw nerve-ending of fear that lives inside every performer, Aquaria floats through this week on the very soft, very plush psychological cushion of youthful naïveté. When pressed, she hands Ru an unconvincing but admittedly clutch observation about how her fear of dealing with people as her true self is what drives her stage looks toward perfection. That could just as easily be Kameron’s case, but it only works when you’re already on a winning streak as Aquaria clearly is, not when you’re fighting to stay in the game. Either that or vulnerability just reads better when its subject weighs 98 pounds and doesn’t look like she wears a torn Gold’s Gym tank while chugging 12 ounces of protein shake twice daily.
That Aquaria is destined to win this week’s challenge is clear from the moment her rabbit skull-masked evil twin steps out to share the stage with her totally unitarded angelic half, via the magic of trick editing. (The entirety of this week’s episode of Drag Race is a dead ringer for, well, Bette Davis’s Dead Ringer.) And it’s fair and square even if it doesn’t feel like Ru’s stacked the deck fairly. Aquaria’s dark side, we come to learn, basically doesn’t exist. But, of course, it doesn’t matter, because it manifests itself in a presentation that flamboyantly embodies her lack of low self-esteem.
Eureka and Asia O’Hara are experienced, perceptive enough performers that they give Ru enough of what she wants—and the latter in particular comes up with cunning visual cues (e.g., balloons) that connect the two halves even if they don’t immediately seem interrelated. Which, at this late stage in the game, leaves Kameron and Miz Cracker unquestionably at the bottom of the pack. Because both of them are so fixated on transcending their weaknesses, neither manages to convincingly portray a dark half that matches the judges’ preconceived notions of what blocks them. Kameron’s outfits are somehow too samey but not different enough. Miz Cracker, who originally planned to do the same thing as Kameron by having a good and dark version of the same outfit, abandons the evil version when a sewing machine defeats her. Unfortunately, she ends up pairing her Marie Antoinette against incongruous and basically sad One Million Years B.C. cavegirl garb, and her voiceover stops well short of achieving the true depths of self-loathing that she’s already convincingly brought to previous acting challenges.
Without doing a deep dive into the archives, it’s hard to remember the last time a queen has lip-synced a third time during the main portion of the competition and survived to fight another round, especially when up against a first-timer. So Kameron and Cracker go into this week’s LSFYL with odds heavily favoring the latter. But practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. Kameron doesn’t do a whole lot we haven’t seen from her before, but Ru is clearly impressed when Kam plants her back on the stage to twist her way through some pornographic inverted version of leg day. Cracker serves a few nice moments, and who could’ve predicted that she, of all uptight souls, would have it in her to pull off a split? Disappointingly, or predictably, neither fully gets into the spirit of Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl.” (Would it have killed one of them to mime a rimjob on stage?) But, maybe because it’s more disappointing for Miz Cracker to have failed to tap her considerable supply of self-sabotage this week than it was for Kameron to fail to tap something that was never there, Kameron comes away with an unprecedented third lip-sync win in a row. And, as the sheepishness in her “thank you” to Ru indicates she knows all too well, the world’s biggest target on her back going into the final leg.
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