When Sasha Velour snatched the crown in last season’s finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, many felt it came out of left field. Even though we never got to really see her lip-sync for her life at any point in the season, it was a minor upset to see her ascend beyond three lip-sync assassins. In retrospect, the live auditorium atmosphere played as much a role as anything in selecting the winner, because Sasha had the good sense to recognize that, when you’re playing not just to RuPaul, but to the back row, you’d better be packing some impossible-to-miss stunts under that lace-front. So even though it may not have made a ton of sense to crown Sasha from a narrative sense, it played into the overt populism of national politics.
In doing my now-annual season finale assessment of which queens most deserve the title, the element that matters the most is, like Lady Gaga sang, the applause. A rundown of how they got here and what they did with it on the finale leading up to the coronation:
Strongest Challenge: Despite her reputation as a lewk queen, Aquaria didn’t fully come into her own as a potential drag superstar this season until “Snatch Game.” In true Tatianna fashion, Aquaria made jaws drop with her devilishly funny riff on Melania Trump, which managed to be gonzo and political in equal measure. Best line: “No wonder why my husband is complaining about [China] all the time!”
Strongest Runway Look: Each of Aquaria’s looks for the “Last Ball on Earth” challenge slayed, but her oil slick-covered mermaid getup, again from the “Snatch Game” episode, was a perfect 10.
What Letter She Deserves: So, last year Michelle Visage took time in the final critique to give each of the queens a specific letter from RuPaul’s C-U-N-T litany. She didn’t do so this time around, but if she had, Aquaria would probably merit a U for Uniqueness. Unless you ask Miz Cracker. [Insert shade rattle here.]
What Letter She Doesn’t: N for Nerve. I mean that in the Paris Is Burning, “It do take nerve” sense. If we found anything out from the good-evil twins challenge, it’s that Aquaria really and truly doesn’t have an inner saboteur. Hence, she has no need for Nerve. Follow?
Stop Relying On That…: Boy body. Aquaria’s disregard for padding, breastplates or really anything other than her svelte, Naomi Smalls frame kept her in her own lane most of the time.
Finale Q&A Performance: To Ru’s interview question about which of the other three queens is her biggest competition, Aquaria chose Asia, noting that she’d been doing drag for at least 46 years, and then pulling back and saying that’s not shade but a sign of respect for her level of experience. Whatever she says. In any case, Oprah’s into the age of Aquaria, in a surprise pre-taped cameo. And much love to Aquaria’s restaurateur parents for correcting Ru on what they call Philly cheesesteaks in Philly: cheesesteaks. Duh.
Strongest Challenge: “Tap That App,” a win she stole right out from under the rest of the girls without saying a word…or even being in the foreground. Her freeze-frame ugly face was fierce and fearless.
Strongest Runway Look: Raja and Raven would probably give their top Asia toot of the week to the infamous Tweedy Bird feathers, but I can’t get over the perversity of her flipping the mermaid challenge around and coming out with a big old trout face on her mug. Which brings us to…
What Letter She Deserves: N for Nerve. Not just for serving that putrid fish fantasy, but for standing up to none other than RuPaul herself during the reunion episode, rushing to The Vixen’s defense and asking how dare the rest of them not have her back.
What Letter She Doesn’t: U for Uniqueness. Aside from those aforementioned exceptions, Asia is first and foremost a pageant girl.
Stop Relying on That…: House-mother attitude. Asia took it upon herself this season to have each of her competitors’ backs, which very nearly sent her home halfway through, and then nearly sent Miz Cracker off the deep end when Asia let the evil twin challenge lapse into sheer meanness.
Finale Q&A Performance: All bonus points in the world for sitting up on stage and telling the world that your boyfriend of one year better soon be your husband. And then if there are any extra points left over, throw them in too for paying tearful tribute to her parents, fielding a question from gay Olympian Ken Kenworthy, and musing, “It was through dressing up like a woman that I learned how to be a man.” That’s the silver lining of pageant training on full, bejeweled-headdress display right there.
Strongest Challenge: The one she served the show’s producers and editors, daring them to give her any screen time. Otherwise, I vaguely remember her doing about as well as anyone with the dreadful material they all had to work with in the notoriously grim “PharmaRusical” challenge, which in my book counts for hella something.
Strongest Runway Look: Forget Aquaria’s evil twin look, it was Kameron’s Maleficent feathered couture that was this season’s true all-time contender.
What Letter She Deserves: T for Talent. So long as it’s not in the form of an acting challenge. Or in serving up producer-friendly workroom drama. Or conveying relatability. Okay, let’s just say she had more than her fair share of great looks and she can truly sync a mean lip. It do take talent.
What Letter She Doesn’t: C for Charisma. Just…no.
Stop Relying on That…: Thirst-trap fanbase. Though even that’s more on Instagram, where she has more control over the narrative, than during season 10, where she seemed reluctant to pop off the shirt unless a mini challenge called for it.
Finale Q&A Performance: Kameron sits bolt upright, embodying every inch of the tagline “muscle-bound Barbie,” as Ru lets the audience in on the secret that prior to the “Cher: The Rusical” challenge, Kameron didn’t let anyone know she was an expert Cher impersonator. “Does that make you a silent but deadly queen or a shady queen?” We all know the answer to that one. And when Ru presents Kameron with a clip of her grandmother that brings this season’s ice princess to tears or thereabout, Ru seizes the opportunity to clap back at the show’s growing legion of social-justice-warrior opponents: “RuPaul’s Drag Race, still bringing families together after all these years.”
Strongest Challenge: Of all the times she played to her girthy strengths, her “Snatch Game” Honey Boo-Boo was the most amusing. Even more impressive given she was flanked on both sides by the slow-rolling disaster of Asia and The Vixen’s Beyoncé and Blue Ivy.
Strongest Runway Look: Would it be terribly rude to go with the Trade Cologne mini-challenge look? Yeah? Well hell, then, let’s say her reunion-episode frock.
What Letter She Deserves: C for Charisma. There’s no denying her ability to seize a room and make it her own. And while she rubbed on the last good nerves of more than a few contestants, to say nothing of Trinity Taylor’s, what do you expect a drag queen to do except seize the room?
What Letter She Doesn’t: T for Talent, but really only because I ran out of letters. In her own way she’s been as inconsistent as plenty of other the girls, but no, I really did just run out of letters.
Stop Relying on That…: Narrative of overcoming. Eureka, having already seen how the strings get pulled from her time in season nine, was never not in control of how her narratives were being crafted. As a snarky comment on Reddit pointed out, if Ru had announced a challenge where the queens would just have to sit and watch cute animal YouTube videos, Eureka would’ve confessed in her interview footage that she’s “just always had a problem with watching cute animal YouTube videos.” And then go on to with the challenge.
Finale Q&A Performance: If Asia brought pageant to the stage in her segment, Eureka swallows it whole by telling Ru that, should she end up winning the $100,000 payout for being named America’s next drag superstar, she’ll give that money right back to her cash-strapped family, as her mother deals with mounting medical bills but won’t be kept away from seeing her son take the crown. Somewhere, even Trinity is throwing a hand up in praise.
Recently, I decided that the thing that’s kept season 10 from greatness or frequently even okay-ness was its lack of superstar queens. That even though she’d managed to collect an almost across-the-board above-average cast, no one other than The Vixen seemed capable of seizing the season’s overall thrust. If someone had, do you think Ru would’ve stacked this finale with so many tributes to prior seasons? Would she have brought the queens from season one (pointedly minus Tammie Brown) to the stage to introduce the show and then later perform a medley of RuPaul lip-syncs against this season’s queens? Would she have stopped mid-ceremony to serve up a montage of iconic moments that didn’t happen these last 14 weeks but years and years ago?
Speaking of iconic moments, few recent moments now feel as game-changing as Sasha’s wig reveal cascade of rose petals. And wouldn’t you know that the four queens vying for this year’s win all come out to the stage for the main event wearing various levels of baggy and poofy, promising reveals upon reveals as they do battle against each other. (Aquaria’s look in particular resembles nothing so much as a metallic tulip bud waiting to blossom.) Ru then tells the four finalists that they’re all going to have to perform one of her favorite Janet Jackson tunes. And the wheel of queens lands on Kameron, meaning she gets to select her opponent. She takes on Asia O’Hara.
The two go toe-to-toe to “Nasty,” and it doesn’t take long to see how this one’s going down. Kameron, who came out on stage in what I guess you’d describe as a boxer’s kimono, sticks with what she knows best; her only trick, per se, is taking the robe off to reveal a pretty killer architectural bustier. Asia, who’s flounced for the gods with her baby-doll dress, starts removing her cartoonishly oversized breasts to reveal…what exactly? It takes a while for everyone to realize that each breast or jewel removal releases a live butterfly on the stage. While eventually it works in close-up, the effect is clearly lost on the audience. You can already see it written on Asia’s face when Ru sends her packing and Kameron advancing to the final round.
Aquaria and Eureka return to receive one of the only songs I’m confident Kameron could’ve slayed even harder to: “If.” When Ru says, “Don’t fuck it up,” she clearly means it this time. Aquaria immediately opens the pouch she’s wearing to reveal her thin frame covered in flesh-colored thorns, and wins early approval with a knowingly gratuitous flick of her hand fan, revealing the message “Miss Vanjie.” Eureka, meanwhile sheds a wig, turns her coat inside out in quick-change fashion, and strips it away to reveal a shattered disco-ball bodysuit. But, splits aside, her dancing isn’t a patch on Aquaria, who executes to the letter Janet’s iconic dance breakdown, right down to those pumping hieroglyph arms. The combination of both going for the throat gets the crowd on its feet, and Ru declares them both safe to go on to what will now be a three-queen final LSFYL.
Ru declares that the online vote for Miss Congeniality showed irregularities, and so the producers had to lean on the votes of the season’s own queens. It’s at this point that Valentina arrives (via satellite) to name this year’s winner. Valentina takes a dig at Aja, who decided Valentina’s win last year was really for being Fan Favorite, and not actual congeniality. But when Valentina names the winner, balance is restored to the actual title, because it’s shockingly not fan-favorite Miss Vanjie who wins but the reliably delightful Monét X Change, who can hardly believe it herself. Cue the arrival of last year’s winner Sasha Velour, who from the looks of her “Eve in the intergalactic Garden of Eden” look has been spending her $100,000 quite well.
Pity the final song choice wasn’t also a Janet one. It’s Jessie J’s “Bang Bang,” which given the two guest artists—Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj—seems more than just a tad fishy. Eureka lets her clothes once again do the talking, with a massive panel reading “The Big Girl” that gets torn away to reveal “Wins.” Kameron doesn’t remove much of anything but some screen time compared to her previous performance. And Aquaria stunts with some confetti cannons. By the time the camera widens out to show them all in various stages of splits and death drops, flopping around on stage like Rose Nylund gasping for air on a party boat, the three-way battle capping off a season that repeatedly said “Shantay, you all stay” seems like it’s about to throw its hands in the air and say it one more time. When Ru names Aquaria the winner, even taking into account her stellar in-season track record it feels arbitrary and compulsory, not triumphant, leaving the audience glad that Miss Vanjie will almost certainly be coming back next season.
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