Season ten of RuPaul’s Drag Race started off so strong. Then came The Vixen arc, which was polarizing, fiercely political, but never boring. However, as the competition got fiercer, it fell into less thrilling/more standard narratives, the blossoming of Kameron Michaels, the refining of Aquaria, and the redemption of Eureka. These stories seemed as safe as the top four picks for the crown. And last night’s finale proved a major disappointment after what started out as a season all about 10s across the board.
Another pretty, thin, white queen won the crown. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, as New York look queen Aquaria follows in the footsteps of Sharon Needles, Violet Chachki, Sasha Velour, Alaska, and Chad Michaels. But in a season where both fans and the show itself began questioning RuPaul’s Drag Race’s perceived bias towards white queens, it felt a tone-deaf choice. Perhaps not the most tone-deaf. After Eureka had repeatedly thrown down white tears to tear down The Vixen, and make herself a shimmery phoenix rising from the ashes of shade, shame, and conflict, there could have been a worse choice for the show’s optics issue. Still, I mourn for Asia O’Hara, the lone black queen to make it to the final four, and did so by showing not only charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent, but also fashion, humor, and deep compassion. Asia would have made an amazing spokesperson for the show and LGBTQIA people. She will be without the crown too. But hey, Aquaria’s pretty and sometimes clever.
Politics always came second to putting on a good show on RuPaul’s Drag Race. And “Grand Finale” was all about the spectacle. Yet it was a letdown. Something has been lost since season nine’s finale, where Sasha Velour strutted onto strange in a strange dress, red wig and opera-length gloves, then got “so emotional” as she shed two of the three, revealing roses. It was a moment so bizarre and beautiful that it was instantly iconic and is far better remembered than the performance that actually won her the crown.
114. Sasha Velour vs. Shea Couleé - So Emotional pic.twitter.com/QY1UCiEIJt— daniel 💫🌹💞 (@lgbtvelour) January 26, 2018
Next came RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, a third season in which Shangela slayed again and again with lipsyncs that relied heavily on gimmicks. It didn’t win her the crown. (The self-proclaimed Khaleesi got snarled when the eliminated queens chose the finalists.) However, it did win her a lot of love online, where every gimmick was cheered to the point that fans got mad at winner Trixie Mattel for keeping them from seeing what stunt Shangela had planned for the finale. And now we’ve come to RuPaul’s Drag Race season ten’s, where every queen came out for that first potential lipsync in an outfit that clearly teased a reveal.
Aquaria’s head poked out of a silver dumpling. Kameron Michaels wore a chic but simple kimono cover-up. Eureka donned a wig so big even Texas queens did a spit-take and a plenty of purple plumage. And Asia O’Hara was wearing a butterfly-bedecked gown with oddly protruding boobs. These were key to a gimmick that proved her undoing. When she faced off against Kameron for the first elimination round, Asia revealed that her bracelets and boobs were filled with live butterflies. It seemed an attempt to one-up Sasha’s season nine moment. Because what would be cooler than falling petals, but flying butterflies? But she miscalculated, and despite practicing this stunt at home, the butterflies weren’t ready for their moment.
We are all Monique Heart.
Asia shared what went wrong with Entertainment Weekly. I recommend reading the interview in full. In it, she explains why she took on such a tricky gimmick, saying, “I knew when Kameron picked me that this was my moment to outperform her. She was, as people call it, the lip-sync assassin of the season…so when she picked me I was like, okay, this has to work because I’m not going to be able to outperform her with just a performance.”
Every one of the queens followed suit, attempting to one-up each other through some sort of bonus spectacle. Aquaria shed her dumpling to reveal a strange fleshy pink and pointed unitard. Kameron kicked off her kimono for a flashy bodysuit. And Eureka did a string of transformations, from dropping her skirt in the first runway walk, to shedding her feathers, her big hair for a wig-veal, and so on. Perhaps it played better live in the theater. The audience sure seemed thrilled. But watching it at home, I was just pained by how predictable these gimmicks were, and how they missed what made Sasha’s performance so stellar.
Sasha LIVED that song on stage. I cannot hear the words “so emotional” without remembering her extreme expressions during the performance. She didn’t just wait for a break in the lyrics to pop off a wig or reveal a racier outfit. And she sure as hell didn’t telegraph her reveal by coming out onstage in a half-hearted cover-up. Most importantly, she made shedding those gloves feel like an emotional reveal, not just a spectacle-based one. She made removing her wig (a recurring stunt on Drag Race) unique with the roses, but iconic with the radiant emotions that showed through her physicality and hysterical countenance. She was giving us a story and experience! She gave us a vulnerability so naked that it felt titillating and almost obscene. It felt not just a pleasure but an honor to watch it. None of last night’s performances came close to this.
Sasha’s real lesson has been lost on the queens who’ve competed since. They hope to save themselves with splits and stunts and reveals. They hope to win by plastering words across their chests, unleashing butterflies in a theater, doing the splits, or busting out a confetti cannon for a bawdy joke. The three-way showdown didn’t help matters either. The finale felt like a three-ring circus, which isn’t an event much known for bracing emotional moments. But perhaps this is really all RuPaul’s Drag Race aspires to be: a shallow spectacle with a generous helping of glitter and catchphrases, with a splash of politics, but only if it’s the uplifting unity kind and nothing that might disturb the core audience! If so, then perhaps Aquaria is their perfect queen.