I’m neither the first nor the last person to point out that, nine seasons in, there are some RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants who were in their formative years when the series was first making waves, contestants who’ve quite literally always known drag in a mainstream context. We caught an early, often irritating example of that in season six with the finger-wagging, tongue-snapping, “OK-r-r-r-r”-ing Laganja Estranja, but you always had a sense in her case that the drag persona was the result of an internalized split, and that the drag persona for ’Ganj was a brassy form of wish fulfillment. But Valentina’s win in last week’s episode feels like the next evolutionary step in the process. And, thankfully, RuPaul’s ready with a challenge that helps restore balance between the Valentinas of the competition, for whom drag is an almost subconscious element of their DNA, and the Eurekas or Trinitys, who are paying their dues and letting the world know it.
Before we get into all that, though, a moment of silence for the mini challenge, which at this point seems like a permanent casualty of the show’s drift toward mainstream acceptance. The pain cuts deepest whenever Ru continues to refer to “this week’s maxi-challenge” despite there not being any other challenges in any given episode other than to resist the urge to strangle Cynthia Lee Fontaine every time she says “cucu.” But as long as the “maxi-challenges” are as ingenious as this week’s was, I’ll dry my eyes without issue.
After launching queens (some older and wider than Violet Chachki) into the rafters last week in a cheer-team boot-camp blitz, this week Ru turns from assessing the contestants’ physical selves to their internal ones. The queens are forced to embrace, like so many queens before them, their inner Disney princesses. Luckily, the show’s budget doesn’t afford them the opportunity to explicitly name-check said entertainment consortium, or else we’d be watching a lot of queens making like ABC’s primetime lineup circa 1996 and heading out to Walt Disney World en masse. As much as I would’ve loved to see Eureka grasping at some eight-year-old on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or Nina Bo’nina Brown clutching her breastplate on the Mad Tea Party, I know I’m not the only one who already has had quite enough of queens Facebook checking in at Disney parks.
On the surface, it’s a sewing challenge, and the queens who lean into that aspect are the ones who most clearly set themselves up for failure—chiefly the ones who can’t sew. Farrah Moan lives up to her namesake instantly, long before she can plunge into her décolletage. Eureka, sensing she’s about to take a hard left turn into Serena Cha Cha’s infamous “soft sculpture,” loads up some glue guns and gives her a road map to simplicity. It’s arguably not the most Eureka could do for Farrah, but she’s got her own work to do if she’s going to pull off her own cockroach-strewn “sewer rat” princess look.
The inspired twist of the challenge is that not only do the queens have to get their frock on, they have to come up with a zesty sidekick to introduce their runway look. At first, it’s not clear how they’re going to pull it off, but once you see that they’re literally going to superimpose little animated versions of the sidekick characters cracking wise as the princesses stomp the runway, the ridiculous and the sublime truly bump uglies for the first time this season and it is everything! The duality that the most apt queens bring to the challenge stresses exactly what makes Drag Race such an endlessly rewarding series even during bum episodes. The roles they play are best when they touch on the truth inside. Or, if you prefer, fiction serving up literal realness.
Which the show does sensitively, if not cathartically (yet), as the workroom discusses the elephant in the room of gay rights circa 2016: the Pulse massacre. The show was likely being filmed mere months, if not weeks, following the tragedy, and it’s not even clear if the weight has sunken in. Cynthia Lee admits that she was supposed to be dancing her cucu off that evening—and had, in fact, been booked by season four alum Kenya Michaels—but had to reschedule, and that she was texting a friend who showed up just to see her that night and was among the victims. Trinity informs the group that she was once crowned Miss Pulse and entertained on the Orlando club’s Latin night just the week before the shooting. Though she didn’t know any of the victims, there isn’t a queen in that workroom who disagrees when Trinity asserts, “We are not safe completely yet, and we are not accepted 100 percent yet. But we have to continue to live our lives.” Sasha, contemplative, retorts, “Drag is a brilliant place to work through feelings of pain.”
Words fail when it comes to Pulse, and they fail again in a much giddier sense when the princesses and critters hit that runway. Those who fly do so because they understand just how much the truth will set their imaginations free. Peppermint wisely takes a moment of trauma from her youth, when she practically lit her whole kitchen on fire, and transforms it into a luxuriously nefarious evil-queen getup accompanied by a nefarious, Miyazaki-like talking pilot light. Valentina once again proves that 10 months of drag surely only means 10 months of active drag; she’s clearly been living and breathing the aesthetic since long before she started accepting tips for it. Her flawless ice-princess look is accompanied by a shady nymph who says her main advice for her protégé is: “Hate everyone.”
However, it’s Trinity who takes the win, not because she’s able to access her inner pageant girl, but because her mustached, redneck-starfish sidekick shows an ability to adapt that comes from maintaining a dedicated werq ethic. Meanwhile, Farrah Moan trots herself out in an adequate, if certainly not thrilling, outfit, but the true tragedy is her inability to tap into that lack of sartorial confidence, or to make her sidekick (a Flounder-esque blowfish) serve as a counterpoint. Instead, the eyes painted onto her downturned eyelids only serve to underline the pallor of wrongness.
She’s not the only one hiding though. Kimora once again surrounds herself in pads and feathers and it’s increasingly clear that, though she may be as she says “everyone’s sexual preference,” she’s got a lot to learn about banging her own self. She’s joined in the bottom two by not Farrah, but Aja, whose messy aesthetic is increasingly calling to mind Adore Delano. Though her red-hued princess looks worse than Peppermint’s kitchen walls all those years ago, Aja’s placement in the bottom two earns notable gasps of shock, and understandably so. In a week where the challenge hinges on presenting a multi-faceted sense of self, Aja tried. But sometimes, Ru has a way of stacking a Lip Sync For Your Life as a simultaneous wake-up call for one queen and a Mortal Kombat fatality for the other. And given how little growth Kimora has shown throughout, it’s to no one’s surprise that Aja slays Kimora, spitting fire to “Holding Out for a Hero” and knowing, as all the best Drag Race competitors know, that the hero is none other than herself.
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