RuPaul’s Drag Race UK: Big Drag Energy

Posted on October 16, 2021

At the risk of sounding repetitive (far, FAR too late for that, we know), this was another workmanlike, fuss-free episode of Drag Race UK where the drama factor was low, the tension was nearly non-existent, and everyone just got on with the work of doing the best drag they can possibly pull off.


No mini-challenge, no grudges simmering or playing out, no meltdowns or arguments or even all that many cutting remarks. We don’t note all of this lack of drama to criticize it, but it does tend to make recapping a little tougher. So far, it seems like most of these queens really support each other and just want to do the best job they can for as long as they can. That’s sweet, but we sometimes wish someone would cut up someone else’s wig every once in a while, just to spice things up.


And speaking of spice (they segued badly), the challenge this week was a Spice Girls-themed girl group deal where the queens were split into two teams, each one having to perform a different version of the same song. One group had to do an uptempo pop hit and the other one had to do a ballad. It’s a great concept for a challenge, but it says something about these queens that none of them seemed all that stressed about getting down to business.


We think there’s an argument to be made that Gen-Z and young Millenial queens are a lot less likely to engage in the kind of knock-down fights, grudges, and reads that characterized the first decade of the show. You could attribute that to a whole range of things: the relatively savvy and self-aware nature of most reality show competitors in comparison to a decade or more ago, the more inclusive nature of Drag Race in comparison to the earlier seasons, the higher sensitivity toward bullying and microaggressions, and (perhaps the most likely explanation of all), the greater number of resources and rewards available to Drag Race alums. This show is a career-booster and a money-maker for these queens, whether they win or not. They don’t even need to make it all that far. They just have to make it on the show, not be too much of a disaster, and hold on for as long as they can. In the early seasons, it was all about going for broke and getting that prize money, come hell or high water. Now, it’s purely about exposure. Again, this isn’t a criticism. If this group of queens just wants to do good drag each week, we’re all for that. And as we noted last week when Charity opened up about her HIV, that lack of drama we’re talking about tends to give the queens more space and time to have some fairly revealing conversations.


When you watch early seasons of Drag Race, there are times when you get a glimpse of how things were different for queer people over a decade ago; whether it’s highlighting the lack of trans acceptance, the commonality of family estrangement, or the struggles of queer couples before they could legally marry. It’s just glimpses and moments between the glitter and shade, but over time, the show has served as a document of the changing nature of queer lives and especially of drag in the years since its earliest, low def, greasy-lensed episodes. But watching River Medway weep over his mother, who died of Covid, feels different; like a sliver of a larger piece of history. Of all the things that tend to stand out in Drag Race’s history as a document of its time, we predict this one will rise to the top of the list in years to come. People are going to watch this episode on some streaming service a decade from now and gasp at this scene, the same way we might at a newscast or talk show from September 2001. It was very brave of River to open up this way and we hope he can take some comfort in the idea that this scene will be watched for years to come, gaining in importance and poignance each time it’s viewed.


The Slice Girls (Charity, Kitty, Scarlett and Krystal) were up first, with the uptempo song. Scarlett was last week’s winner and got the chance to pick which version of the song she wanted for her team. There was a lot of snickering and smack talk aimed at the other team, because for some reason, the Slice Girls all assumed they had the easier path to winning. This struck us as really odd. Uptempo songs usually require more complicated choreography and ballads tend to give way more opportunities to be funny or campy. They all had SO much to do during the number that a lot of of it felt mechanical and every one of them gave the impression at one point or another that they couldn’t wait for it to be over. Kitty was a standout simply because she generates her own light on stage and Krystal proved once again that she should not be counted out or underestimated. Charity was just okay, but we thought Michelle’s critique of her costume was just a little bit bullshitty. Groups like the Spice Girls are defined by the distinct costumes each member wears in order to create a character. “Your costume didn’t match” just felt like a made-up critique so that Scarlett would have someone to lip sync against, since her performance was so clearly the worst one on the stage. Kitty’s costume and Krystal’s costume bore almost no similarities to each other. In fact, the longer we look at it, the more we think Charity actually had the best costume on that stage.


Pick and Mix were up next and anyone who knows even a little bit about how reality competition shows are edited could have predicted that they were going to hit the stage with a superior performance. As we said, ballads give drag queens way more of an opportunity to be campy and funny in ways that aren’t that hard to mess up. The constant repetition of that chest bump move was not remotely difficult to pull off or sophisticated in its comedy, but it was absolutely hilarious nonetheless. That’s what drag is all about. Ella Vaday was the standout here, largely because she knows how to command attention during a song. Compared the Slice Girls, we got the impression that they were all enjoying themselves up there and that none of them were dying for it to be over. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter; they were just more fun to watch. The Slice Girls felt so tense.


Next up: Spice drag. We were unexpectedly charmed by just how breathlessly thrilled so many of them were to pay homage to this group. We’re kind of surprised Drag Race UK doesn’t go to the Spice well more often.


Krystal’s Baby Spice was flawless and clearly made Emma Bunton proud. We think it’s inevitable that Charity’s vision of drag is going to bump up against the (American) judges and we’re hoping she can last in the game long enough to make her case for herself (no pun intended). Even so, we had to side with the judges on this one. It’s a really interesting look but it doesn’t really satisfy the brief.


Ella had her first really good week and if they’d named just one winner instead of a whole team, we think it should have gone to her. Her take on Sporty was on-point, even if it was a little underwhelming. Same goes for River’s Ginger. It’s fine and clearly recognizable, but it’s not a winner. We liked Vanity’s Scary and Choriza’s Ginger (the first fairly unfussy, simply glam drag she’s exhibited).


These bitches all needed to be side-eyeing Kitty way more. They are underestimating her at their peril. She looked great here. Scarlett’s look was cheap and looked like she bought it at a Halloween shop. Nothing about that bouffant says “Spice Girl.” Given her terrible performance and her lackluster costume, it would seem her elimination was an inevitability. But we weren’t buying it. All that inspirational talk from the judges about understanding what it feels like to fuck up on stage and how you have to take from that and commit to being a better blah-blah-blah was simply not going to result in an elimination. They all but said, “That sucks, kid, but here’s your redemption arc. Don’t fuck it up.”


Which is why we were a bit of a wreck during start of the lip sync. We feared they were going to keep the conventional queen who did a disastrous job in order to send the freaky queen home because they didn’t like her (spectacular, by the way) costumes. We can’t say we knew Ru was going to unleash a double shantay at this point, but by the time the song was over, we figured she had her best opportunity to use it. We know it’s gimmicky, but we’re glad Scarlett’s getting her second chance and Charity’s gets a little more time to be her freaky-ass self in the spotlight.


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: WOW via Tom and Lorenzo]

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