RuPaul’s Drag Race: Phenomenon

Posted on January 16, 2021

Once again, we find ourselves in the once-unimaginable position of being big cheerleaders in support of reality competition fuckery. There are good reasons to be wary of or annoyed with too much pot-stirring or format-shifting nonsense on a show like Drag Race if its only in support of creating interpersonal drama or to hide some indefensible judges’ decision, but that’s not the case in these first few episodes of the show’s 13th season. Whether or not it was the producers’ intent to stir up drama is somewhat beside the point because both sets of queens decided to go their own way.

Dividing the groups into sequestered teams, where one set is already crowned winners and the other is heading into the competition somewhat humbled might yet yield fireworks in that Werk Room. In fact, we’d be a little surprised if it didn’t at some point down the line. But for these first few episodes at least, the divided girls and the shift to lip-syncing for your legacy instead of your life resulted in back-to-back episodes that gave the queens space to breathe a little bit, get to know each other, and bond while giving them every opportunity to show what they’re made of. In each group’s case, they collectively opted to bond rather than treat each other with suspicion or resentment.

 

In a way, it feels like a bit of a corrective to the weird edits and elephant-in-the-room quality of last season, when they had to figure out a way around Sherry Pie’s ruined reputation. Regardless of what happens going forward, all of these queens were given many opportunities to show themselves off and none of them will truly be able to say they were Pork Chopped. We bet that mood will shift pretty drastically the first time someone’s eliminated, but we really enjoyed these first few episodes because of and not in spite of the producer fuckery.

 

It’s interesting how last week’s team just opted to get over their suspicion of Elliott and bond as sisters just as this week, what could have been an utterly disastrous clash of egos seemed to just sort of peter out with the results being fairly impressive. We’re not sure if that was entirely due to Tamisha Iman’s exasperated throat-clearing, but the editing sure made it seem like she quietly took the reins long enough to snap the girls into formation. We love that – so far, at least – the girls are all treating Tamisha with the respect she’s owed and we absolutely squealed with delight when she got the chance to teach the children about her iconic daughter Tandi Iman Dupree. We devoted a good chunk of the chapter on the history of lip-syncing in our book to describing and celebrating Tandi Iman’s absolutely legendary performance so it was wonderful to see the show give her her due. And even more wonderful to see a seasoned queen get treated like a legend instead of a throwback.

Let’s get to the lewks, shall we?

 

 

Denali’s concept is great, but we thought the fit on the dress was pretty bad and we’re surprised she wasn’t dinged for her sagging tights. Joey Jay’s look is fierce and stylish, but you just knew the lack of a wig was going to be a thing. We didn’t love Rosé’s wig, but her dress was great. We appreciated that her look had a homemade feel to it, but was bold and exaggerated enough to stand on its own in what can sometimes be a “Who has the biggest costume budget here?” showdown. Tamisha was pure dowager queen eleganza perfection. Utica’s looks all suffer from the same issue: Great concept, poor follow-through. The idea’s there, but the look is cheap. Kahmora’s series of meltdowns let us know she’s not just a drama queen and can be pretty charming and likeable, but she’s got to pull herself together. She has great makeup skills and high chic taste, but that’s not going to be enough.

 

 

 

Denali’s look was okay, but it came off like a bit of a ’90s runway cliche. Joey Jay is again fierce but already locked into a tiny box that she’s going to now have to prove she can break out of. It’s not a great way to start things off, but we’ll see where she can take it. She’s fun and fierce. Rosé’s look also felt like a bit of a runway cliche. We’re not super-impressed by any of her looks, but she’s got charisma and talent enough that we don’t think she’ll live or die based on her runway performance this season. Tamisha gave us glamOUR, but the weave dress was a little weird. Kahmora: once again, very chic and understated, which only goes so far. Utica: also once again, creative but the execution was only so-so.

 

 

 

Rosé and Denali handily established their threat bona fides with this performance. Utica was a surprise dark horse who commanded the stage. Joey Jay did well and Tamisha acquitted herself nicely, although we’d like to think she’s got more in her tanks than what she showed here. Kahmora, girl, you better work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We didn’t love Denali’s dress. Again, the fit was loose and the construction was kind of limp. This was no Iris Van Herpen. Joey Jay looks great and we’re already bored with Joey Jay. Step that P up, girl. If you can’t put on a wig, then grab a hat or something.

 

The judges really loved Kahmora’s Mackie style, but we didn’t think it was as great as they seemed to. We might have liked it more if she’d gone with a Cher wig, but the big Dolly-esque wig just didn’t seem to go.

 

The judges danced around it because they don’t want to come off too elitist about costumes, but Rosé’s just looked too crafty and unflattering. Tamisha once again served up pageant excellence and the judges were smitten by it. We’ve said many a time that Drag Race draws most of its inspiration from the pageant world, which is why it has a tendency to reward polished and mainstream forms of drag. And again (if we sound repetitive it’s because these first few episodes really established who each girl is, good and bad), Utica has a great concept with some dicey follow-through. The fabric choices are terrible.

 

When it came to the lip sync, there were few surprises as to who was facing whom, but we have to admit we were taken aback by what looked like a pretty big gap in terms of execution. Rosé was good, but it felt like Denali ate her whole.

 

Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life, a New York Times “New and Notable” pick, praised by The Washington Post “because the world needs authenticity in its stories,” and chosen as one of the Best Books of 2020 by NPR is on sale wherever fine books are sold!

 

 

 

[Photo Credit: VH1 via Tom and Lorenzo]

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