“Drag Race” Was A Drag For A While. Now It’s Better Than Ever.

The long-running reality show had started to feel humdrum and derivative, but the newest season is pure joy.

Earlier this month I was self-isolating in my room — PMS’ing, cranky, hitting the same pandemic wall we all are — when a scene from the current season of RuPaul’s Drag Race shook me out of my funk with a moment of ascendant joy.

By Episode 13 of what’s been, by this point, an unusually long season (no complaints here — I’ve loved every minute), we were finally down to the top five. On Friday night, the hilarious and enigmatic Kandy Muse and sweet, smiley Olivia Lux found themselves at risk of elimination. Neither their relatively one-note performances in the acting challenge nor their looks for a “Haute Pocket”–themed runway impressed the judges; Olivia’s minidress was kind of boring, and Kandy’s fit, god love her, was just a big old mess. But they both had the chance to redeem themselves with the traditional tiebreaker — a lip sync for their lives.

It immediately became clear that Bronx-bred Kandy, who had a panic attack while filming the gossipy backstage bonus show Untucked, wasn’t ready to go home. Both queens gave it their all in a lip sync to Cher’s “Strong Enough,” turning lyrics like “You gotta go” into fun, shady moments. But Kandy’s was by far the more triumphant performance, punctuated with a mid-routine release of confetti. I cried happy tears watching her burst into an ear-to-ear smile, twirling with joyful abandon. This was her third time in the bottom two, but Kandy was too confident (“fuckin’ delusional,” as she put it in her interview with RuPaul last week) to let a few near losses stand in the way of the finale. While a couple of the remaining contestants have avoided ever being in the bottom, Kandy’s redemption makes her own journey that much more exciting to watch, and that much more affectingly human.

RuPaul will crown America’s next drag superstar on April 23, and she’ll be selecting from the strongest top four the franchise has seen in years. There’s Kandy, mouthy and hilarious; Rosé, another perfectionist New York City queen; Symone, a small-town Arkansan turned Angeleno who has stunned the judges with showstopper looks and inspired cry-laughing with her pronunciations of certain words alone; and Gottmik, the show’s first trans man contender, a makeup artist from Arizona who’s since shown the world (and herself) that she’s also a killer comedy queen.

Season 13 is drawing to a close not too long after Drag Race UK had audiences gooped and gagged the world over. The franchise’s second UK season, which awarded its top prize to Scottish queen Lawrence Chaney last month, was a critical hit and a memeable bonanza; the bizarre (and bizarrely catchy) “UK Hun?” is one of the best things the Drag Race universe has ever given us.

It’s been delightful — and surprising, honestly — to enjoy Drag Race so much this year. Screaming my head off while watching former Drag Race stars Sasha Velour and Shea Couleé lip-synch to “So Emotional” in a gay bar with my friends four years ago has got to be one of the biggest pop culture highlights of my life. Not too long after that, though, I’d more or less fallen out with the series. I wasn’t alone in feeling burned out and increasingly bored with Drag Race, whose subversive, irreverent beginnings had since gone comfortably mainstream.

Drag Race at its best is all about bringing artists working and living on the margins to the center. TikToker Danielle Barrett recently spoofed the serious conversations that go down in the werkroom to very funny results; even though longtime viewers have seen a million of them by now, the queens’ stories about trauma and resilience are integral to the Drag Race experience. The rivalries and shade of it all make for fun TV, as do, of course, the unforgettable performances, but the hero’s journey of overcoming one’s demons, transforming the pain of alienation into something special and profound, has always been the real buy-in for me.

Now that Drag Race has been on the air for over a decade, young queens auditioning for the most recent seasons were likely to have grown up watching the show. The vibe had started to feel somewhat humdrum and derivative. Plus, there was just so much of it — arguably too much, with back-to-back regular and All Star seasons, not to mention the new international properties. I was also getting tired of RuPaul’s antics. He’s found and fostered an array of incredible talent, but he’s also had a horrible track record with anti-trans comments and an off-putting “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that suggests a positive attitude is all one needs to overcome systemic discrimination. (And then there’s the fracking.)

Last year’s season was already contending with the show’s overexposure and political issues when one of its top competitors, Sherry Pie, was disqualified following a BuzzFeed News investigation into catfishing allegations brought by multiple men. Most of the season had already been shot when the news broke; after every trace of Sherry Pie was edited out, the remaining narrative suffered.

But from the ruins of that disaster rose a new season’s worth of truly formidable queens. What’s more, RuPaul has finally worked on his odious views about trans competitors and expanded the show’s working definition of “drag” to well beyond mere “female illusion.” Gone are the days when Ru would get annoyed about seeing too much of someone’s “boy body.” Now, cis and trans contestants alike are bringing more androgyny and gender-bending to the main stage — and the show is so much richer for it.

One clear example: Even though Lawrence won the UK crown, nonbinary superstar Bimini Bon Boulash was the obvious fan favorite. I didn’t know anything about Katie Price, the British personality Bimini impersonated for Snatch Game, but I was majorly entertaint-ed nonetheless. Bimini’s commitment to “embracing the femme, whether you’re he, she, or them” has been dazzling to watch; from her punk-meets-high-fashion runway looks (the sheer artistry of the amoeba!) to her can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performances, basically everything Bimini does is legendary.

Viewers would be much worse off if RuPaul had stuck to his retrograde ideas about gender expression. I can’t imagine Season 13 without Mik, who’s smokin’ hot in and out of drag, adorable, charming, and so talented. Perfectly painted and dazzlingly styled, Mik was nervous to perform in the Snatch Game — a high-stakes impersonation challenge that intimidates even veteran comedy queens — but she ended up walking away with a win. Her Paris Hilton was a safe choice, perhaps (certainly safer than Utica’s disastrous Bob Ross or Olivia’s even more dreadful Tabitha Brown), but Mik excels at playing a “gorg” ditz; why mess with success? (And now I can’t stop saying “gagatondra.”)

As we head into the reunion episode and next week’s finale, fans are voicing support for their chosen queen. Though Kandy is my favorite personality of the season, I think my vote for the crown would have to be Symone, who’s really in a league of her own. She is the moment. Symone brings that glamour, honey! Her most recent runway look, judge Carson Kressley noted, was worthy of Anna Wintour: a midnight-blue ball gown with voluminous statement sleeves, topped off with blonde cornrows that, as Symone explained in voiceover, emphasized “Black excellence.” I so admire the care she takes to honor different communities and cultures in her work in ways both serious and silly, from her “Say Their Names” fascinator honoring victims of police violence to the striped scene-kid wig that paid homage to the emo kids she hung out with in high school. Symone says they allowed her to be “gay ol’ Black Reggie” (her real name out of drag) and didn’t love her any less for it — a moment of weird-kid solidarity that I, once a closeted emo kid myself, found remarkably touching.

Symone more than anyone else this season has struggled with what RuPaul calls an “inner saboteur.” Growing up Black and gay in rural Arkansas, Symone says, she didn’t always know that there was room for her in the world. (Watching her speak to a photo of her younger self in the latest episode had me weeping.) Her drag persona, as is the case for so many other queens, gave her the strength to be her bold and unapologetic self. “No one can take that from me,” she says during a confessional on the most recent episode, failing to fight back tears. It was one of many moments this season that felt like a return to the best of Drag Race: when its stars are celebrated for everything that was once vilified about them, and they finally find themselves worthy of celebrating. “I love me,” she says. “I can say that now.”

And now Drag Race viewers love her just as much. No matter what happens in the finale on April 23 — some fans are predicting a Mik-and-Symone double crowning — these queens are all superstars. During a pandemic, when I haven’t been able to spend IRL time with my beloved queer community, it’s been a real balm to bitch and laugh with these talented, outrageous, beautiful performers. Thank the gay goddesses! Drag Race is good again. ●

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