It's Time For Gay Icons On RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars (And That Includes Stevie Nicks)
For some girls, a spoof of VH1 Divas Live is a Patti LaBlessing, but for others, it's Mariah Scary.
We begin with a close-up of Morgan's message on the mirror. In slashes of red lipstick our eliminated queen has written, "Keep Rocking and Stay Fabulous."
OR HAS SHE? A few minutes later, just before she wipes it away, DeLa reads the message aloud as "Keep Rocking and Slay Fabulous." Slay. With an L. To me, it really looks like "stay," and also..."slay fabulous" is not a thing people say. If this were Alyssa Edwards, I might accept it, since she coins a neologism every two minutes. But Morgan is a well-spoken ho.
Hilariously, just after DeLa's "slay" reading, we hear some off-camera queen say, "Stay! Does that say 'Stay?'" I had to watch this moment two or three times before I noticed this correction from the peanut gallery, and I feel like I've uncovered a treasure. Thank God someone else was hung up on that. Also, that's the perfect place-setter for an episode in which people makes mountains our of molehills. Or mole-heels, I guess.
Speaking of Morgan: I really hope the Handmaid's Tale redemption opportunity (whatever that shapes up to be) gets her back in the competition. I like her, and she's clearly got the goods. As Trixie interviews: "Somebody really fierce, Morgan McMichaels, just sashayed away. Next week it could be me. It could be Shangela. It's probably ChiChi." Bwaaaaaaa! See, that's how Trixie do. She's quite gifted at saying something serious and then slipping a little read in there. And she's correct about ChiChi. As the Germans say, homegirl was ge-busted last week, and honey, it is far too late for you to be coasting on your country-ass charm. When Aja reveals that she would've auf'ed ChiChi had she won the lip sync, I must truly holler amen.
Plus, if Aja had won, we could've been spared Ben's overwrought crying about how BAD it feels to send a girl home. This makes it feel like she didn't even WIN, she mewls, and literally everyone in the room, plus everyone in West Hollywood and everyone waiting to see Black Panther, is like, "Shut up." Plenty of queens clock her for this baloney bathos, but Shangela says it best in a talking head:"Miss BenDeLa is giving y'all boo-hoo fish over here at the mirror. Gurrrl. She sent Morgan home because Morgan was sayin', 'Oh, let's get rid of the strong competition.' And BenDeLa's a strong competitor. That's why she sent her home. Miss DeLa is playing the game, just like the rest of us."
After that, we cut to a dramatic shot of DeLa wiping her manicured hand down Morgan's message on the mirror, and her fingers make a chilling squeak as she does it. It's like a horror movie and a catfight all at once.
Sidebar: I really like how reality show contestants are now officially over it with people's tears. Back in the day, any bitch crying would get a sympathetic reaction, with at least two fellow contestants following them into the bathroom and Dr. Drew recording an intro to the episode that warned us about the danger of untreated mental health problems. Now, people are like, "Quit playing, child, and grow it on up." For more evidence of this, please see the recent episode of Project Runway All Stars where Helen pitched a titanic hissyfit, and while she was sobbing in the corner, the other designers basically talked about their lunch orders.
As DeLa pulls it together, the rest of the queens discuss their goals for the week. ChiChi tells us not to sleep on her, because she's coming for our asses. Provided our asses are low enough to be reached without the boost of a high heel, she might have a chance.
Once again, though, it's Shangela who comes through with the best comment. (This will be a theme of the evening.) This time, she says: "I'm comin at this like Game Of Thrones, okay? I am the Daenerys Targaryen of drag. Shangela Stormborn. Baby, I'm the mother of dragons. I'm the breaker of chains. I'm comin' for the crown. Y'all, give me powder, 'cuz I feel sweaty." Okay, that last part is said in the workroom, not during the talking head, but it's edited to seem like the end of Shangela's thought.
Speaking of the workroom: ChiChi (correctly) reads Milk for her lackluster talent show performance, which as you'll recall featured her lipsyncing to an original song while she attached paper-doll-style cut-out dresses to her undergarments. As Trixie says, "Milk, your talent can't be Velcro." But that launches another of this week's themes: Milk's hubris. "My performance was killer," she says. "And the original song is gonna become a bigger hit than 'Supermodel.'" I'm sure that was said ironically, BUT STILL. Then Milk smiles her male supermodel smile, and she looks like Seth Meyers's incredibly hot brother.
However, Milk cannot rely on those looks alone. Well, except for everywhere else in the culture.
Ru enters the workroom in a suit so vibrant that it justifies the money you spent on your HDTV. The shirt is such a bright shade of robin's egg blue that it would actually pull robins from the sky. But it's nothing next to the suit itself: The base is a raging pink, overlaid with a variety of kaleidoscope patterns. From within this fashion miracle, RuPaul announces that this week, the queens will be resurrecting Divas Live, that 1998 VH1 concert special that taught queens everywhere how to upstage a bitch. I remember the show's final number, a group-sing of "Natural Woman," as a literal tornado with a bunch of wigs in it. It's a wonder Gloria Estefan made it out alive.
This time, Divas Live will be a tribute to RuPaul herself, with all the contestants lip-syncing to RuPaul songs while impersonating famous female singers. Let's pause to consider that in this format, Ru is co-opting the image and legacy of nine legendary musicians in the service of his own brand. This is why RuPaul wins. You don't need to be the next Celine when you make Celine become the next you.
Speaking of Celine, Milk is going to play her. The rest of the assignments are as follows:
Thorgy: Stevie Nicks
Trixie: Dolly Parton
Bebe: Diana Ross
Kennedy: Janet Jackson
Shangela: Mariah Carey
Aja: Amy Winehouse
DeLa: Julie Andrews
ChiChi: Patti LaBelle
The runway, meanwhile, requires the girls to recreate their worst fashion disasters from their original seasons, thus setting the stage for a ru-demption. I'm guessing the girls were told about both challenges in advance, so they'd be sure to arrive with proper looks. Therefore, it's even MORE annoying when Thorgy grumps that she's been set up to fail. She had time to plan! Still, Thorgy says there's no way she can make Stevie Nicks a big, winning character. As she explains, "When have you ever seen Stevie Nicks do something where some gay is in the front row of her show going, 'Work, Stevie! You'd better fuckin' work!' No! That's not Stevie!"
Which...two things. (1) That's an awfully narrow way of defining gay fandom, particularly for a drag queen from goddamned Brooklyn, who should've seen enough to know better. (2) Suggesting that Stevie Nicks is not a gay icon is like suggesting Clueless isn't funny. There are people who will agree with you, but they're fools. And it's not just me who thinks this way. Twitter went hard to defend Stevie's gay icon status. Thorgy, however, is too committed to her persecution narrative to think clearly, and without Bob to resent, she latches onto Shangela, grousing that Shangela has been handed the win with her Mariah assignment. We'll get into that later, but let's not front that you can just stroll on, say "I'm Mimi," and take home a crown.
Sidebar 2: When RuPaul assigns Shangela her role, she refers to Mariah as "the elusive chanteuse," which is a reference to this absolutely perfect album title. As luck would have it, the very day this episode dropped, Sarah D. Bunting and I dropped a Mariah-themed episode of our pop music podcast, Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs. We ALSO talked about that album title. It was an accident of timing, but it feels like a blessing.
In the category of "things that make you go hmmmm," Milk says she's going to wear Celine's Met Gala outfit from last year. Unless you're Rihanna dressed like a bottle of Lemon Pledge or whatever, nobody's going to remember your Met Gala outfit the next day, let alone a year later. But Milk isn't worried, because one time, the event planner for Celine Dion's wedding said that Milk did a great Celine impersonation. Shangela congratulates Milk on this sterling endorsement, then rightly adds that Ariana Grande is the best Celine. Milk playfully swats at her with a binder. Shangela hollers in mock fear.
Then it's time for rehearsal, with choreography provided by Todrick Hall, who is wearing a very cute sweatshirt with the word "VOGUE" splashed across the front. Until this moment, I've been assuming it's a reference to the dance, but maybe it's the magazine? Or both? Only Todrick knows.
In less than a second, though, Todrick is upstaged by Shangela, who has decided to start channeling Mariah right away. She strolls in late to rehearsal, wearing giant sunglasses and wrapping a fur coat around herself. She's not wearing the coat, mind you, with her arms in the arm holes. She's just wrapping It around her shoulders and pulling the lapels together over her chest. This suggests she'd prefer to take the coat OFF, but the room is too cold for her liking. I once did a video interview with a Tony-winning actress who pulled the same shit. She allowed herself to be shot on camera with a puffy jacket pulled around herself, because she insisted the room we were in was freezing. Reader, it wasn't freezing. It was actually rather warm. So I give props to Shangela's verisimilitude here.
This bit may annoy everyone else in the room, but it ought to be intimidating them. This is some next-level, high-drag commitment, and I love it. It's clear that Shangela eventually backs off and lets people work, but she serves this performance just long enough to make sure she sets herself apart. It's committed and innovative, and it proves Thorgy wrong. Shangela, and not her assigned character, is the reason Shangela's going to win.
The other girls struggle in rehearsal. Like...STRUGGLE. Kennedy? The excellent dancer? She cannot master these Janet Jackson moves for a damn sight. She says she's a freestyle dancer, so choreography is hard for her, but should it be THIS hard? Then there's Thorgy, who manages to shit on Bob again while complaining that she never won a challenge in her season. SIGH. She also says that Stevie has been called a witch, but that Thorgy will not be paying attention to all that. Aja interviews that this is a stupid move, since "witch" is a great starting point for funny shit. "Bitch, I woulda came out with a pot, a broom. I woulda came out with a wand like, 'WOO! WOO!'" Hahahaha! Aja, you are my sister this year. But again: No witch for Thorgy. No nothing. Just a stubborn insistence that there's literally NO option for making Stevie interesting.
We then return to Shangela-Mariah, who somehow ropes Todrick into holding her hand as she walks down the runway, like Todrick is presenting her at a cotillion. Milk is mad about it, but as Shangela notes, Milk thinks she's better than everyone anyway.
When Bebe steps up for her Diana Ross rehearsal, Todrick points out that Ru loves Diana above all, so Bebe had better bring it. Diana has revealed the weakness in many other queens on this show, including Milan and Lineysha Sparx, and the editing leads us to believe that even Bebe may be unable to match her. We see her doing very little on the runway, just pointing and smiling and whispering lyrics to herself, but then we see Todrick saying, "That's great. I love it." The other girls clearly disagree, but it's also clear that some element of Bebe's rehearsal has been edited out. The show is trying to make us doubt Bebe, is what I'm saying, even though Todrick thinks she's doing well.
Ben is told she has to bring "swag juice" to Julie Andrews, without sacrificing her British elegance. Todrick's worried about the footwork DeLa isn't quite nailing, and this section of the show is really boring. Note to the story editors: You don't need to suggest that everyone is doing a terrible job. We'll watch to the end of the episode anyway, even without startling reversals of fortune.
One more rehearsal moment: Thorgy tries to fight her perceived exclusion by loudly insisting that she be included in more group numbers. After Todrick adds her to something, she says, "Thanks for including me," in this REALLLLLY passive-aggressive way that makes me want to slap a ho. I believe we've all experienced this -- someone is so trapped in their anger/fear/unhappiness that even when they get what they ask for, they can't be happy about it. It's like this scene from the "Diwali" episode of The Office where Angela looks askance at the Indian buffet and says, "Ugh. I can't eat any of this. I'm a vegetarian." When she learns that all the food is, in fact, vegetarian, she pauses, then says, "I'll just have bread." THORGY IS ANGELA, Y'ALL. She'd rather just have bread because what's really feeding her is her own resentment.
The next day, as the girls prepare for their runway ru-demption, they discuss their prior seasons. Shangela notes that she's recreating her outfit from the "Queen Who Mopped Xmas" episode in Season 3. She almost got booted, and Vanessa Williams was there to see it. And guess what...Vanessa Williams is guest-judging this runway, too! It could be a double shaming! ...Sidebar 3: Vanessa Hudgens was last week. Vanessa Williams is this week. I assume it's all Vanessas from here on out. Vanessa Redgrave. Vanessa Huxtable. My college classmate Vanessa Miller. Trixie, meanwhile, says she came across as "talentless" on her season. And...I'm disagreeing. But what a treat to see how much she really has to offer! It's a good reminder that being a good reality-show contestant is not the same as being good at the thing you're on the reality show to do.
Kennedy talks about people thinking she was a bitch, but I mostly remember Kennedy providing care for her physically impaired sister, which will always make me like her. Trixie fondly refers to Kennedy as your grumpy grandpa in a wig. Then the girls swerve around to tell Thorgy that they got tired of her competitiveness with Bob. And she's still not over it. She jokes that she hopes Bob dies, and you can tell it's not really a joke. AWWKWAAAARD. Hilariously, Thorgy says that she gets upset because she always gets talked over, and then Shangela, Kennedy, and Aja completely talk over her. I will give Thorgy two credits in her bitchy bank account for that.
As the runway begins, Ru enters in a dress that looks, for lack of a more genteel phrase, like a slutty plantation frock. (This is not an insult.)
It reveals her bare shoulders, and it has ruffles all down the front and sides. Oh, and it's pink and black. The wig is a butterscotch halo.
Ru introduces Michelle, Carson, Todrick, and the glory of Vanessa Williams. Do not EVER come to me about Vanessa unless you are preparing to praise her. This woman makes being stripped of her Miss America title look like the shrewdest career move in history. Chart-topping single? Check. Tony-nominated Broadway role? Check. Emmy nominations galore for Ugly Betty? Triple check. And by the way, when a queen is referred to later as the black Miranda Priestly, Vanessa points out that Wilhelmina Slater is the black Miranda Priestly. When I heard this, I honest-to-god shouted in my living room with a single hand raised to the ceiling.
And now: the lip sync portion. By and large, I don't love this segment. I wish there were more to the joke than these ladies simply lip-syncing to RuPaul songs, and it's really only Shangela-Mariah whose narrative gets fleshed out. (Two more credits to Thorgy, I guess.) But that said, I quite like watching queens tackle a fully scripted lip sync, because it requires a very unique talent to make it seem like more than a mere impersonation. This is why John "Lypsinka" Epperson is a legend. She could lip sync to anything and show you a world underneath the material. As we'll soon see, some of these girls are on that level as well. I just hope that the next lip sync challenge rises to the writing of Glamazon Airways, or the cleverness of the challenge where the girls recreated famous fights from previous seasons of the show. Sidebar 4: Mad props to Christina Bianco, who provides the vocals for many of these numbers. Her impersonations of Stevie, Celine, Amy, Julie, and Mariah are all fantastic, and she helped me out on Twitter when I was trying to learn her name. She's also a musical theater performer and seems cool. I hereby pronounce her the hidden diva of the week!
And now...the big show. I'm going to go queen by queen, covering her diva performance and then her runway look as a package.
Child, if only Milk's Celine were as accurate as Christina Bianco's. But this performance of "Peanut Butter" is just a disaster. The look might be last year's Met Ball, but it's in no way "Celine." It's a silver bathing suit with a black wrap dress on top, and worst of all, it's topped with a black wig. Celine doesn't have black hair, bitch! Even if she does in real life, she does not in the popular imagination! Milk should be thanking twenty gods that she's safe this week. Instead, she literally cries because her performance isn't in the top. She is distraught that nobody saw her work for the triumph that it was. But girl? This was terrible, and your ru-demption glamor look is just a ballgown and a red wig. Hard pass.
Kennedy's Janet look is on point, recalling the "What's It Gonna Be" video, but her lip syncs are just...not. She clearly doesn't know the words. She does know how to ru-deem herself, though. Her runway look starts with a sheer peignoir, a face-obscuring mask, and a fire-red mohawk wig. She peels all that off to reveal a skin-tight, jewel-encrusted skating outfit, complete with jewels all over her face. Yes, Kennedy has rocked the jeweled-face look before, but it still works.
Aja, meanwhile, is here to slay. Her Amy Winehouse is glorious because she chooses to make Amy a squinting, hard-edge, dockworker type with a gruff edge to all her movements. That's not quite who the real Amy was, as the documentary taught us, but it plays. Aja's makeover also works like a goddamned dream: She transforms her Princess Disastah look into a Psycho Disney Princess. The red wig looks like a flame frozen in mid-air. The lovely red bustier has gold swirls at the bust. And the black opera-length gloves are just gagging me for days.
ChiChi's Patti LaBelle is a triumph of wig work. Or rather, a short black wig with a giant black cone on top, like something you'd put around the dog's neck but has now become a headpiece. It immediately reads as LaBelle to me, and I didn't even know I knew that about her hats. I also like how crisp ChiChi's lip sync is on "Jealous Of My Boogie." She lets us see every word. OH AND ALSO: The backup dancers behind ChiChi are holding sweet potato pies, which is a reference to the Patti's Good Life line of desserts.
You just know that RuPaul has eaten a Patti's Good Life pie. Perhaps while wearing a sweater made from Vanna White's brand of yarn. ["I hope not. That shteez is itchy as hell." - ed.] ChiChi's runway look is fine. It's a neon lemon hooker dress with pink paint splatters, with a pink fur wrap and neon yellow wig. It's better than last week, but it still looks cheap.
Trixie's Dolly Parton is good, but honestly, her Dolly from last week was better. The wig this week is more of a generic blonde number, while last week's was a perfect recreation of Dolly's '70s updo. Trixie owns the country diva space, though. No doubt. She also owns the "ugly dress" experience. Her frock is truly terrible -- a pink cylinder that hangs off her body like a paper lantern. It's festooned with tiny pink bows and a strong whiff of desperation.
You guys...Shangela as Mariah. This is what dreams are made of. And again, yes, Mariah's character is more fleshed out. She doesn't even lip sync to anything. Instead, she just talks over a track, insulting her backing vocalists and demanding to hear more of herself in her earpiece. It IS more to work with. But Shangela. Does. The. Work. She seems tipsy-but-not-drunk, wobbling on her heels and blinking too much. She wears a severely low-cut, stretchy white dress with an enormous breast plate. She also wears a headdress of butterflies. Like, there are dozens of butterflies sticking out of her wig. Since Mariah uses butterflies as her personal symbol, this is an exceptional ode to her insanity.
Another key thing is that Shangela fills every silence. When Mariah isn't saying anything, she does these weird little arm-pump gestures, like she's getting in a quick workout. Or she holds onto a backup dancer for balance. This is what I meant about inserting a story underneath the material.
I also love Shangela's runway look. The outfit is cute -- a white, form-fitting pantsuit with red stones applied all over -- but the real attraction is the plastic ball she's walking in. She's turned herself into a snow globe. Vanessa Williams says, "Wow, fantastic!" when she sees it, and I concur.
When Thorgy arrives as Stevie, the look is great: There's a black tophat with a white feather, a spangly black cape over a red velvet dress, and a tambourine dripping with streamers. She's wearing a long, platinum-blonde wig that looks just right. But there's very little else. Thorgy is not interpreting Stevie at all, which happens when the queen respects the celebrity too much. (Remember how Morgan McMichaels was afraid to mock Pink in Snatch Game?) Thorgy's runway look is an agreeably tacky combo of lime green and black vinyl. There's a bizarre headpiece that looks like a cliff escarpment, and there are wild green eyebrows that burst about six inches off her face. It's interesting, though the judges don't like it.
Ben DeLaCreme, y'all. She absolutely makes me believe in Julie Andrews as a veddy proper gangsta. Lip syncing to "Call Me Mother" (which I declared one of the top 10 songs of 2017, btw), she rocks a "so excited to see you!" facial expression while hitting all her freaky moves. She also pulls a mic stand out of a carpet bag, in a saucy nod to Mary Poppins. But her runway look is a little basic for me. She's wearing a "dripping in jewels" outfit covered in pink stones, and it's like every flapper look we've seen before. I'll give her credit, though, for carrying a long cigarette that's also dripping in pink strands of beads.
Bebe's Diana is not a failure, despite what the earlier editing led us to believe. In fact, Bebe uses her inherent charisma to just stand there with her voluminous wig and own the stage. (Vanessa Williams praises this wig for its Diana-appropriate bounciness.)
As the judges will later say, this stillness is very Diana Ross. The reason she's a legend is that she doesn't have to do much beyond simply exist, and you still want to watch her. The only other queen I can think of who could've pulled this off is Latrice Royale. She and Bebe both have the confidence to let US come to THEM. Save the sweaty effort for Cindy Birdsong. And speaking of being the boss -- which was also the name of a Diana Ross hit! -- Bebe's runway look is executive realness at its best. (It's meant to update her entrance look from the first scene of the first season.) She's wearing a black leather skirt suit and I can't get enough.
Happily, Bebe's in the top three, as are Shangela and DeLa. I might've put Aja in there, since I didn't love DeLa's runway look, but I can't be mad at this. Meanwhile, Milk unfairly skates to safety (as I mentioned), while Kennedy, ChiChi, and Thorgy land on the bottom. For me, ChiChi was better than Milk, but her wan runway look is what got her into trouble.
The judges come hard for Kennedy's failed lip sync, and Vanessa tells the world that her choreographer once left her to work for Janet on videos for the "Control" era. Make room in your calendar for both ladies, dude! The judges like ChiChi's Patti, and while Michelle is willing to acknowledge the improvement in the look, Carson says it's too basic. ChiChi focuses on Vanessa. "Can I just say, I just loved you in Eraser", she says. Only in her crawdaddy accent, it sounds like "ee-RAY-suh." It's awesome. As for Shangela: She gets praised all around, and Carson cites her ability to capture Mariah's "wonderful, quizzical blend of confusion and confidence." Well said.
Michelle tells Thorgy that her runway look is disjointed and that her Stevie had too much Thorgy and not enough Nicks. Then, when Vanessa is offering what sounds like gentle feedback, saying that Stevie is hard to do, Thorgy interrupts her. Yes, SHE INTERRUPTS VANESSA GODDAMNED WILLIAMS. Vanessa smiles and literally throws up her hands. Thorgy again says Stevie isn't a gay icon. RuPaul quickly corrects her.
Ben's look, we learn, features the earrings she wore in the original challenge where this look was a failure. Her Julie Andrews gets high marks. RuPaul reveals that it took her five days to record "Call Me Mother," and as someone who has tried to learn every word of that song, I can attest it's a heavy lift.
Shangela and Ben are named the top two, while Thorgy and Kennedy land in the bottom.
Then we get the 400 hours of pointless negotiating about who's gonna kick whom off the show. The key takeaway is that Shangela is openly looking to make alliances. She'll save you if you save her later. But that's stupid. The likelihood that the tables will be precisely turned, with Thorgy or Kennedy deciding Shangela's fate, is slim. Honestly, I hate this section. It's so much filler in an otherwise meaty show! (And yes, I said "meaty.")
Finally, the lip sync. It's set to "Jump (For My Love)" by the Pointer Sisters, and that's one of the eighties' greatest contributions to humanity. This lip sync is glorious from the first note. Both ladies start by giving you classic performance styles, with jumps and points and hair flips. But then it gets better! Shangela pulls a jump rope out of her costume and jumps it while wearing heels. Sensing that she's being upstaged, Ben immediately creates a bit where she's trying to copy Shangela's moves and failing. This only underscores Shangela's excellence, of course, but it turns Ben's rhythmic weakness into a comic strength. A true performer can improvise like this and remind you what she's got.
Still, jump roping is jump roping, and Shangela wins. This episode has been legendary for her. And by the way, if these two are the top two of the whole season, I won't be surprised.
In short order, Shangela sends Thorgy home. Back in the workroom, Thorgy leaves a nasty note on the mirror telling Shangela to suck it, and it makes me tired. While she's doing her exit interview, Alaska and Chad once again pop up in their handmaiden outfits. (They were clearly added in post, but so what?) I remain curious to see what this becomes!