RuPaul, whatcha unpackin’?
These days mark a significant crossroads in the RuPaul’s Drag Race fandom. The dust has settled from the lackluster finale of All Stars 4. As someone who had her money on Manila Luzon, I liken watching this season to plowing through the five stages of grief. Fans once underwhelmed by the battle of the super queens are instantaneously whipped back into a frenzy over the next instalment: season 11.
In its first promo, Ru himself enthusiastically teases that Drag Race is back! And it’s bigger than ever! With “new looks and newer shade” and a new crop of who’s who in entertainment, it appears like this exciting new chapter means the dud that is AS4 is forgiven. A preview of the next season’s army of guest judges shows Miley Cyrus, Troye Sivan, Natasha Lyonne, Cara Delevingne, Amber Valletta, Katherine Langford and Gina Rodriguez are on board. That being said, who could stand to stay bitter?
Tuning in each week without fail, I for one can’t help but feel exhausted. And after having seen the painful fourth season of All Stars, I admit I’m still ready for more. That’s part of the charm, I suppose, of such a remarkable, original concept. That’s part of the appeal of such magnetic personalities cast season after season. And then, of course, that’s the part that reflects what Drag Race means to an entire community outside of the VH1 reality program.
This no-rest delivery, the taping of one season immediately after another, is forgivable and part of the Drag Race M.O, after all. But it is at this particular crossroads where an inkling starts: this phenomenon is aware of what it’s become and it has no problem cashing in on it.
What All Stars 4 taught us is that it really isn’t about the best of the best emerging victorious, though we are programmed to expect it. As Naomi Smalls so aptly reminded audiences of when she played the game instead of playing fair, it’s not about what’s rightful either. It’s about manufacturing the juiciest slice of entertainment for people to eat up. Regardless of one aspect of it being a train wreck, the point is that, no matter what, it should be a train wreck people are unable to turn away from.
From the beginning, the All Stars format (of queens being given the power to eliminate one another) was doomed to disappoint, but All Stars 4 gave viewers a glimmer of hope.
In All Stars 1, the downfall of the show was getting the queens to work in teams. In All Stars 2, producers flipped the script with the simplified premise upon which All Stars 3 and 4 were based. This format somewhat bore a fair finale: While some fans might argue Katya was a strong contender in the running, there was no question that Alaska deserved the crown. In the jaw-dropping twist on All Stars 3, as to fix something that wasn’t broken, Drag Race producers decided to gather a jury of queens in the finale and pulled a Survivor-type ultimatum on its final four.
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Team Katya ? Ps: There was also a moment where I dramatically lifted my top hat and a bloody severed hand fell out and then I said “oh my goodness I’m so embarrassed – that was supposed to be a live dove” but it didn’t make it into the episode. Condragulations to our queens !
All Stars 4 seemed like the season to learn from mistakes of the past. Bringing back Latrice Royale and Manila Luzon set the tone for this premise. The two queens, once paired up in All Stars 1, were given a shot at a do-over, hence my sense of hope––then the rest of the season happened.
It was clear that Murphy’s Law was in action following Manila’s untimely elimination. But the abrupt shift out of apparent time, effort and investment from All Stars 4 in the episodes that followed was the most unsettling part. From the random yet ambitious “Sex and the Kitty Girl” episode where everybody fumbled and struggled to the show cutting straight to a flavorless finale, I couldn’t help but wonder: where did the once gratuitous editing, sound effects, full-blown production and the works––the show’s Hail Mary––go? Heck, the “Snatch Game of Love” episode had more zest in it than the finale did. It was as though the show gave up on itself…complete with the cop-out of an ending: the double crowning of Monét X Change and Trinity the Tuck.
What made Monét’s win bittersweet, in particular, is that it’s difficult not to consider the long-standing criticism over RuPaul’s all-white––and blonde––All Stars Hall of Fame. How was it, fans asked, that such an influential black man at the frontlines of significant cultural change still manages to champion mostly white contestants? To add, All Stars 3 winner Trixie Mattel sat down with Digital Spy to share her own theory that aligns with the fans’ sentiments: “On All Stars 3 we filmed a tie between myself and Kennedy [Davenport] and they didn’t use it, and for All Stars 4 they didn’t even film a tie,” she said. “I was there, me and Alaska and Chad and they didn’t film it, so think about that. They must have decided on a tie in the past few weeks, in the last month. Honestly, I’m sure it has more to do with the public reaction than the competition. I think if they thought it was truly a tie in person, they would have filmed a tie.”
This wouldn’t be the first time RuPaul and his producers at Drag Race would have to yield to something: and fans aren’t alone in this. Jumping back to All Stars 4, frontrunner Manila Luzon took to Twitter and Instagram to share her original outfit for the “curves and swerves” category on the main stage.
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Ru said my ORIGINAL Curves & Swerves Runway look was in “bad taste” and production told me to wear my back up. I was really looking forward to wearing this gown that I think celebrates a perfectly normal human experience! Many of my fans are young women who may feel pressured by society to be embarrassed by periods. It’s empowering to teach young women about their bodies, encourage them to celebrate them AND to question people who tell them not to! My goal with this look was to normalize menstruation by looking sick’ning even if I was on my period! Instead, i decided to wear the beautiful quilted dress you saw in the episode because it is not my show, it’s Ru’s. But because of Ru, I have my very own platform to speak for myself and show you all my interpretation! ?? my Period Gown is by @theladyhyde
Known for her distinct brand of camp-meets-fashion, Manila explained she was made to replace her ingenious “period” piece with her safer Rococo Chanel look: “My goal with this look was to normalize menstruation by looking sick’ning even if I was on my period! Instead, I decided to wear the beautiful quilted dress you saw in the episode because it is not my show, it’s Ru’s.”
And it wasn’t long before other queens and fans chimed in:
Also if @SHARON_NEEDLES wore this on logo it would've been fine.
— Adore Delano (@AdoreDelano) January 7, 2019
I think @LogoTV would have allowed @manilaluzon to wear that beautiful gown w/ a powerful message. @sutanamrull wore a bucket of blood covering her head to toe & and was allowed to make that hilarious joke, “Anyone else just get their period?” Grow up @VH1 https://t.co/yf35Vlhmxg
— miz_cali_art (@cali_miz) January 8, 2019
But we know this already: business decisions are being made behind those red velvet curtains and Ru’s golden workroom door.
The RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise being bought by mainstream television network VH1 and later syndicated by Netflix has its implications. Would style a la Jinkx Monsoon still fly at this point? Unlikely. Would the raw, sloppiness of Jiggly Caliente be as endearing with the mainstream audience? Maybe not. Drag Race, as a mainstream program will now have to operate reflecting how mainstream walks and talks, what mainstream likes and looks like and herein lies the problem. Sure, more and more people are being dragged into this now-global phenomenon, but what kind of phenomenon will it shape up to be?
The signs point to more compromise and that’s precisely the direction in which producers are taking season 11. An unfortunate yet inevitable turn as far as “old school” Drag Race is concerned, but either way, one thing is true: there’s no denying we’ll still be on the edge of our seats, ready each week to stream the new episode. New queens on the 28th, you say? We’re ready.
Art Macky Arquilla