Season 9 of RuPaul's Drag Race Was the Radical, Outrageous Entertainment We Needed in 2017
By Christopher Barnard
23 June 2017
Yesterday the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce announced it would be giving RuPaul a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, that ne plus ultra of runways. And what apt timing considering tonight she will cement her own star of sorts, the winner of RuPaul's Drag Race Season 9, and cap off a year of 10s, 10s, 10s across the board: the Emmy in September for reality show host, the engrossing All Stars 2 last fall, and the switch to the high-wattage platform of VH1 from the more provincial Logo Network for this current season. All signifiers that RuPaul has taken her latest, and arguably most sizable, juicy and successful, bite out of the show biz apple, the first of which she took some three plus decades ago.
Recent comers to the fluorescent and po-mo-patterned pantheon of the Race may see this second (or third or fourth) coming of RuPaul as a miraculous break-out. But that would elide the slow-burn at which the Ruvolution has been building since Season 1 debuted in February of 2009, just a fortnight after Obama was sworn into office and Ru made her own (one of many) inaugural dictate—Don't Fuck It Up! (And he didn't for the most part). Any armchair students of Ru (no, not the grads of woefully under-appreciated Drag U) are used to hearing her talk about the swinging pendulum of culture; how Drag Race was able to be conceived and miraculously flourish during a brief window when the audience was just open enough to let her radical concept--gay and trans drag queens of all shapes, colors and experiences from across the country compete in prime time--key into the country's consciousness and snatch trophies and Nielsen Ratings.
To say the pendulum has now abruptly swung away from that halcyon sliver of 2009 openness would be a gross understatement, but Ru might say it's been coming the whole time. Pendulums are funny that way. Even though this current season was filmed during the height of the 2016 election, when a majority of the country thought the gains of the previous 8 years were just prologue, the airing of Season 9 has taken on a wondrous significance given the way things turned out. It is hackneyed to see any art in 2017 as instantly poignant and an automatic rebuke of the daily horrors from our current administration, but the matrix on which we view anything now has shifted. And strong signals of real subversion, like this show, are practically beacons in our harsh new morning. Like Valentina in episode 9, we got caught off-guard and had to take the mask off. Though I would hope we have a little more fight left in us. Which was brings us to the many ways this season was full of moments that left us gobsmacked in the way only Drag Race can.
It's pretty telling that Lady Gaga's arrival in Episode 1 (remember that!?) has already been overshadowed by the arc of the season—due in no small part to the performances and drama of the queens. Though it is a VERY short list that could top Gaga in terms of guest star-power for successive seasons (Liza, Barbra, Cher, or perhaps Judge Judy?), the reigning queen of pop was an electric jolt that gave season 9 a running start. But in true Gaga fashion, her episode was more kumbaya than Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent. There was no elimination and in fact there was a surprise queen (Cynthia Lee Fontaine!) added. Though Nina Bonina Brown was the winner, the challenge did have an everybody-gets-a-trophy sensibility that had a, for lack of a better word, millennial bent. A recurring gripe of the season as a whole was that the queens were by and large—with perhaps Trinity Taylor a slight exception—too kid-gloved with one another; the usual work room make-up ki's were more about passing the social justice peace pipe and apologizing even for perceived slights. My kingdom for a "Look how orange you fucking look, girl!"
That being said, it took about an episode and a half for the queens to circle their wagons around the early breakout star of the season: Valentina. The doe-eyed beauty, late of the Prada store on Rodeo Drive, had been doing drag for about 10 minutes (or months) when she entered the work room. And if that weren't enough to turn the queens a bright shade of Michelle-Visage-green then the fawning (though justified) adulation from the judges rendered them Incredible Hulks in Pleaser stillettos. In the first viral moment of the season, Aja's patronizing coo's impersonating the judges critiques, "You're perfect, you're beautiful, you look like Linda Evangelista, you're a model" launched a thousand memes and soundcloud remixes. But you know what? Valentina did look like Linda Evangelista and she absolutely knew it and owned it. Welcome to drag—and to show business for that matter. It was hard not to recall the alienating beauty and poise of Tyra Sanchez in Season 2 and what it did to the rest of the queens. One wonders if Valentina would meet a similar fate, which is to say, ultimately triumph with the crown as Tyra did (she did not). Another curious circumstance of the Linda Evangelista moment was its galloping ubiquity: the episode aired on Friday April 6 and by the end of the week, Laganja Estranja of Season 6 was already performing to the Adam Joseph remix at a gig, thus mythologizing Valentina even further and catapulting her comet-like star.
But Valentina was hardly the only heavenly body in the S9 firmament. If any queen was the body it was Trinity "The Tuck" Taylor. The self-professed Alabama pageant queen and walking billboard for self-aware surgical enhancement, she was an early favorite to take the crown mostly owing to her glutton's appetite for competition. But unlike other pageant girls run amok (Roxxxy Andrews and Alyssa Edwards Season 5) she did not fall victim to the trap of maligning her fellow contestants. What with her sublime grasp of screwball comedy (9021-Ho, Stanky the Starfish) and prodigious dexterity at the sewing table, she knew she had the goods but was also not afraid to work for it. Whereas Valentina was spooked—and thus eliminated—the moment she was not the golden child, when Trinity found herself in the bottom two, she pulled off one of the most low key captivating lip syncs in series history.
Her fellow sync-er that episode, Charlie Hides, barely broke a sweat (theories as to why conspicuously varied when pressed at the reunion) and left the match Trinity's to win from the first pulse of Britney's "I Wanna Go." This just made her swiveling and bone-crushing acrobatics all the more breathtaking and telling; she took every moment in front of the judges as a make or break opportunity. She shined bright enough to be the center of an SNL skit starring Chris Pine--itself a barometer of the show's pervasiveness--but Trinity was the only queen mentioned by name. And for what it's worth, her hardscrabble back story of a mother lost to HIV and drug addiction and dropping out of high school only worked to bolster empathy for her hard-driving ambition: she was never going to be the queen to "get in her own head."
That role went unequivocally to Nina Bonina Brown, another early fan favorite. RuPaul speaks often of her own battles with the inner saboteur that plagues us all and in Nina's case it was outer, sideways and every which way but loose. Cursed with a protean self-doubt that manifested in constant displays of paranoia and self-sabotage, the Georgia-based queen's moments of runway genius (she won the first episode in front of Gaga! Her Jasmine Masters Snatch Game!) were inevitably eclipsed by her pathological tendency towards gloom. She was ultimately ousted by dance and runway powerhouse Shea Couleé, no doubt repeating her favorite refrains, "I shoulda been Blac Chyna," under defeated sighs.
After Nina's farewell, the final five were Alexis Michelle, Sasha Velour, Trinity, Shea and Peppermint. Alexis had brought a studied New York burlesque quality to the work room and it paid off when she was the first (!) queen to do Liza on Snatch Game and won—her Kris Kardashian was pretty on the nose as well. But it was during the reunion episode where her place in the season was most on view. She confessed to being the target of much online hate from trolls carrying the banner of Valentina who commented on her size and appearance, and in some cases telling her to kill herself. Though she was not the only queen to be trolled, the practice, newish by Drag Race standards, seems to have played a much larger and uglier role in the online life of the show. Alexis was ultimately doomed to sashay away by a less than prideful Rainbow Flag / Village People runway ("Your Native American couture left the judges with reservations.") and she lip synced unsuccessfully against Peppermint, who has had to lip sync more than any other queens in the top four, and has the fewest wins at just one. But that is less a denigration of Peppa's drag and more a credit to her grit. The New York queen, and trans woman, was a cast favorite, always there with a kind word and helping hand. She has been working in the New York drag scene for almost 20 years and has perhaps more stage bona fides than the rest of the queens. True to her name, she is sweet with a strong kick.
Rounding out the final four is yet another New York queen, the inimitable Sasha Velour. Arguably the girl with the most sui generis look, she is something like the woke step-daughter of Jinxx Monsoon and Acid Betty. Prone to over-intellectualizing and sharpie stained eyebrows, she can pull off an obscure reference and knows instinctually what will read on the runway. Somewhat of a dark horse, she has never once been in the bottom two but only has two wins, compared to group leader Shea with an astonishing four. Miss Shea Couleé of Chicago has been in most viewers predicted Top Three since episode one. Her runways have been bananas—her Construction Couture was sublime—and she is probably the most skilled dancer of the whole series (yes, that counts Katya's splits) and has a great personality and adaptability. Based on performance in the episodes alone I would put the battle for the crown squarely between Shea and Trinity, but upsets and rumors from the live finale taping this month in LA make it anyone's game.
I have always found it a fools errand to claim one season of Drag Race is better than any previous one and then set about trying to prove it. Are we not as equally engrossed in Aja v. Valentina as we were with Phi Phi v. Sharon? Is the dull, crestfallen ache of Valentina's rollover lip sync just as real as when Cynthia Lee lost to Robbie Turner in her first season? But it is the art of the queens and the truth of drag that decorates the same feelings, the same stories in different and compelling ways that make it all entertaining and compelling television each successive season: the hardscabble backstory queen made good; the beautiful but doomed ingénue; the big girl who finally caught a break (and then broke a knee). And in a moment when the very notion and health of the people on the show and the core viewership are in danger of being legislated out of existence, it is delicious and dead serious fun to see their stories writ large every Friday night on a slick, primetime cable network. Is Drag Race then by extension political? There is a slim argument for that, but it will always, no matter how slick and popular, be radical.
The Season 9 finale of RuPaul's Drag Race airs tonight at 8 p.m. EST on VH1.
Splash photos via VH1