Drag Race is no stranger to a twist. From the calorie-burning (LollapaRuza) to the carbo-loading (“it’s chocolate”), RuPaul has tried just about everything to create viral moments and maintain interest in a show that’s been marathoning for over a decade. And before you trash the very concept of a twist, don’t forget that some of them work pretty well. All Stars 2 is considered one of (if not the) best the franchise has to offer, and safe to say that’s more than a little due to an early twist that overhauled the season’s entire format. And while the penultimate twist of this All-Winners season won’t go down in herstory as one of the best, I think it’s getting an unnecessarily bad rap.
For the season’s final challenge, we return to an All-Stars staple: the Variety Extravaganza (née “the Talent Show”). This time, each queen picks a charity to support that has a chance of up to $30,000 payday. Hell yes! While in recent years, this challenge has tended to become more of a demonstration of DJ Mitch Ferrino’s producer talents rather than a means for the queens to showcase an underutilized or unique talent, I think it’s nonetheless a net positive for the show. After all, how else would we have experienced Tatianna’s iconic spoken word piece or Derrick Barry’s ingenious impressions? Indeed, the Variety Extravaganza must stay. But before the queens get to work brushing out wigs, scheduling put-in rehearsals with dancers, and warming up their vocal cords, Ru announces The Gag: this challenge will be worth three whole stars. As soon as the clip with this announcement went live, Twitter became incensed. “Rigga Morris!” They cried, borrowing the old Alyssa Edwards adage. And there’s something to that: by making this challenge worth three weeks of competition, it’s now weighted such that the queens who win it are guaranteed a spot in the top four, regardless of their star count up until now. Most notably, our only competitor with one star, Shea Coulée, is back in the race. On its face, I’m not as outraged at this twist as my internet cohort. It ensures that this episode has some stakes for just about everyone. The one and two-star queens all have a shot at the top four; Trinity and Jaida, who just last week considered themselves locks, now have to fight for their spots, and Jinkx, well, she’s earned a little break. Take a week off, babe!
So, with rekindled fires under almost everyone’s asses, the queens get to work. And when I say work, I mean work. For what proceeds is undoubtedly the most high-budget variety show in Drag Race herstory. The dancers have matching outfits, costume changes, and full choreography for every number; the queens are lit by specialty gobos and flanked by fog machines. Production value aside, the content is that of a rather typical Drag Race Variety Show, which is pretty great! No one’s performance bores, and the standouts are truly remarkable.
Let’s start with the megamix girlies — Yvie, The Vivienne, Trinity, Jaida, and Shea — who each perform a lip sync to an original track. The popularity of this format makes perfect sense, as it touches upon three resolute pillars of the drag community: lip-syncing, self-promotion, and circumventing music copyright statutes. All five queens are great performers and have songs created that play to their individual strengths. Yvie begins hers with an effective and well-executed switcheroo where she’s crammed her bendy body into a trunk, the Vivienne boasts the Diane Warren as a songwriter for her number, Trinity’s has Vegas-like production value, and Jaida leans into charisma, humor, and likability. But the gimmick of Shea’s? Pure talent. With a masterful performance channeling the swagger and dance skills of Michael and Janet, Shea stuns this week. I think it’s part of why it’s hard for me to be mad at the idea of the episode being “rigged.” If the performances had been closer together, or Shea didn’t stand out this much, this week would definitely have felt like a heavy-handed attempt to gerrymander the top four according to producerial whims. But Shea did stand out. She was the best. At the very least, she undeniably earned her win this week, bringing her to two challenge wins along with half the cast.
Next up, let’s chat about the queens who took (relative) risks with the format: Raja, Jinkx, and Monét. While the original songs have a harder time standing out, they’re also a safe choice. But when you take a big swing like these three, you risk an equally big whiff. Maybe it’s the kindness of the edit and the talent of the winners, but there were no whiffs in sight in this episode! In a lovely tribute to her her South Asian heritage, Raja engrosses us with a traditional performance of Balinese dance, and Jinkx sings a cute and kitschy original song demonstrating her ease behind a mic and prowess as a cabaret queen. But the star of this group has to be Monét. And once again, the differentiating factor is pure talent. Monet infamously sang once before on Drag Raceon the talent show of All Stars 4. Enough it to say, it didn’t go well, and Monét has done all she can to distance herself from it since. But now she’s back, and she’s flipped the script. Or, rather, the vocal register. As opposed to reaching for a feminine falsetto, Monét embraces her status as a powerful, classically-trained deep basso and stuns us with an expertly performed Italian aria. It’s a pitch-perfect redemption arc from her All Stars 4 stumble and a definitive victory in this variety show. Brava, Monet.
In the end, Twitter’s apparent worst fear comes to pass, and Shea does indeed secure her spot in the top four, along with Monét, Jinkx, and Trinity. Jaida, once thought a sure thing, is unfortunately relegated to runner-up status by royal decree of top star-earner Monét X Change. But as far as Drag Race robberies go, I think Jaida’s won’t go down in history. While on a star level, the twist seems egregious, at the end of the day, both Shea and Jaida earned two challenge wins this season. When it comes down to it, the one who truly suffered under this season’s antics was The Vivienne, the only queen with three challenge wins not to make it to the top four. And by the look on her face her, she’s pretty pissed about it, too. But rest assured, Monét and Shea are here to assuage any misgivings you may have about their presence in the top four, and they do so with a lip sync to Kylie Minogue’s “Supernova.” It’s an excellent performance on both their behalf, and it gives me hope for a climactic and memorable final episode lip sync smackdown. Shea wins by a hair, and all that’s left is for RuPaul to announce one final twist. A secondary lip sync smackdown will also occur next week, where the bottom four queens have a chance to compete to earn the $50,000 cash prize. Not too shabby!
And just like that … we’re at the finale, folks!! Next week promises to be full of stunts, tricks, questionable judgment calls, pop hits, and insane tweets. I can’t wait.