For all the things COVID has taken from us, at least it’s led to a few improvements on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Chief among them may be the effect on the beloved makeover challenge.
Along with Snatch Game, the makeover challenge is a reliable fan favorite. (Sorry, Ru-sical!) Typically, it occurs at a point in the season when we’re heavily invested in the remaining queens; it features emotional stories of transformation; and it pushes both the queens and the recipients to their limits. The makeover challenge has provided some classic moments (who could forget Wintergreen?), and even spawned a few Drag Race spin-offs like RuPaul’s Celebrity Drag Race and Drag U.
It’s too dangerous to fly in some normies mid-pandie, so this time, we’re keeping it in the family. Especially in the midst of this post-Drag Race, social media-fueled drag renaissance, brands and personalities are more at the forefront than ever before. So, embodying another fierce queen, simultaneously transforming and being transformed, is a thrilling experience to observe. Each queen treats the other with such reverence, such respect and love, it’s beautiful to witness. You truly love to see it.
Luckily, we don’t waste too much time before getting into it, but the time we spend is sort of, more or less, wasted. In lieu of a mini-challenge, Ru sends the queen to meet with psychic medium and author, Char Margolis. She psychic-reads the girls for filth, channeling Utica’s long-lost pet calf, clocking Rosé and Denali’s love connection and transmitting a message to Tina from her unsupportive father. Just when Tina asks for her predictions for the finale — literally the question we’re all the most interested in — Ru summons them back.
I guess the point is that Char got a read on the queens and paired them for our next challenge. Sure … However we get there, we get there. Ru pairs up the queens and lays out the challenge: make over your sister and walk a mile the runway in their shoes. Let’s break down our pairs.
First, Tina and Rosé. The New York queens spend the entire episode like two Real Housewives of Hell’s Kitchen, barely containing their simmering disdain despite the constant mouth-agape wonder over how much they’re learning about each other. For Tina, this week is about sharpening her serve on the runway to meet Rosé’s polished precision. Rosé’s challenge is to contain her need to over-choreograph.
When Tina puts Rosé in Burner beat, it’s … shocking. The queens find every which way to say Rosé is a “hard canvas,” and Tina does not risé to the challenge. The face is bad, the dress is too big, but the wig looks good. To her credit, Rosé makes Tina look her best in a fresh face and sexy, spiky runway. Both queens do their best to channel the other, but neither feels like a full transformation.
Char sensed something between Olivia and Denali, but it quickly fizzles. The two queens have had some up-and-downs for a few weeks, and both are struggling to outshine frontrunners like Symone and Gottmik. They bond over their influence of the strong women in their lives, and, I don’t know, it feels like a bad sign? Even if this isn’t statistically true, it certainly feels emotionally true that whenever a queen really leans into their deep, symbolic connection in a partner challenge, it means certain doom in front of the judges. The sort of mutual energy exchange should be the subtext, not the text. It just seems like they’re destined from the get-go to be lost in the sauce.
On the runway, Olivia looks like Queen Elsa by way of Bratz doll. There’s a heavy-handed ice skating motif, which does ultimately at least feel very Denali. Meanwhile, Denali-as-Olivia looks more like Susan Sarandon-as-Patti LuPone. Whereas Olivia typically looks effervescent and bright, Denali in Olivia drag feels heavy and dark. The judges hate it, and I don’t disagree.
Things really start to get interesting when we get to Symone and Utica. Of course, their personal styles are nothing alike, but the contrast goes beyond aesthetic. Their whole en-er-gy is wildly different. Anyone could have predicted Symone would struggle with Utica’s kookiness, but another wrinkle here is Symone’s insistence on sticking with a B*A*P*S-inspired runway for Utica.
Now, just last week, Utica was so uncomfortable donning Bob Ross’s afro, she opted instead to craft a whole new headpiece out of stuffed squirrels. (This was the least of that performance’s problems, but you can dig into that in last week’s recap.) Anyway, Utica is obviously even more triggered when tasked with embodying such an iconic black role. I never really understood the psychotic pleasure of “owning the libs,” but, honestly, there is something to watching Utica squirm.
The end result is far from offensive. Instead, Utica manages to perfectly embody all of Symone’s innate sexuality and power. Not only is there not an ounce of caricature, it feels high-fashion in a way we rarely glimpse on the runway. Utica eschews 99 percent of her tics, and the ones that remain only lend a little flourish to an all-around flawless presentation. Serve.
Symone delivers as Utica, as well. She ends up in a kind of restrictive silk charmeuse straitjacket with a vascular spandex suit underneath, complete with a floral headpiece. All in all, it looks like something Lana del Rey would hang in her den. Instead of mimicking all of Utica’s frenzied motions, Symone delivers an elegant, modern interpretation that is somehow more Utica than even Utica. It’s not just high fashion, it is high art.
That leaves Kandy and Gottmik. Unlike the other gals, most of whom are at least somewhat close to the same body type, these two have an added challenge to alter and fit their wardrobe. Gottmik could paint a bull mastiff, and it would look fierce as hell, so Kandy’s task is pretty simple. Still, she overdelivers. The vocal-fry on the runway might have been a little too “inside joke” for the moment, but overall Kandy did the thing this week.
Even though Gottmik really has a hard time giving us Kandy’s energy in rehearsals, she manages to werk on the runway. Unfortunately, it feels like Kandy hasn’t given us a consistent, iconic aesthetic to emulate, so, although Gottmik looks great and gives a hilarious performance, it doesn’t have the same impact as Symone and Utica.
This was overall a great episode for Gottmik, who dove deeper into both transitioning and growing up adopted. In both instances, Gottmik offered incredibly astute, self-aware and empowering narratives. The parallel between queer chosen families and being adopted is such a powerful reason to not only champion the destigmatization of queer identity, but to celebrate its power to heal. Additionally, Mik manages to distill down an incredibly layered and nuanced conversation about gender identity and gender expression that does more in mere minutes than a million TEDTalks. It’s honest and straightforward without being overly wonky or feeling too “very special moment.” At this point, this is basically a Gottmik-STAN blog.
Before Ru issues final judgments, the queens are asked to name who should go home this week. Tina, Rosé and Gottmik expertly couch their choice, Olivia, based on “the challenge” and “the judges’ critiques.” Olivia conveniently uses a rubric that involves the whole Race up until this point, singling out Utica to go home. Denali opts instead to choose Kandy. Big mistake. Huge.
When it gets to Kandy, she first takes a moment, and then, like Elektra in season two of Pose, she unleashes a torrent of rage, starting with how much harder she and Gottmik had it in the challenge due to their body types, and then really laying into Olivia and Denali. It was super extra, but the judges seemed almost impressed with the candor. I know I was.
Ultimately, the judges decide it’s down to Olivia and Denali, despite their uncanny ability to … channel each other’s love for their mothers? The lip sync is to Mary Mary’s “Shackles (Praise You)” which is insane in this context. Denali is at a disadvantage in the Olivia gown, but neither really outshines the other.
And yet, Ru sends Denali home. Was it her time? Probably not, but if not her, whom? I would put my money on Olivia over Denali, so I see the rationale. Still, it’s tough to say goodbye to Denali, a fierce AF queen who may be able to make a splash on All Stars some day.
Where does that leave the rest of the queens? Let’s hash it out in our rankings?
- Slow clap for Symone. Not to take too much away from Utica, but this week’s win is thanks to Symone’s insistence on the B*A*P*S look and sheer power on the runway. Symone had a vision, she stuck to it and she fully realized it on the runway. That’s what makes her so unconquerable: Talent will only get you so far without vision, and no one’s vision is as clear as Symone’s.
- If anyone can give Symone a run for her money, though, it’s Gottmik. On Snatch, on Ru-sical and on the runway as Kandy, Gottmik undersold and overdelivered. It wasn’t just an expert performance, it was savvy gamesmanship. Mik is one of those queens that … doesn’t need to win this. The work is so impeccable and unique, stardom is inevitable. Still, a Gottmik v. Symone finale has all the gays’ mouths watering, myself chief among them.
- Rosé had to have known she looked terrible, right? Why not say anything? Was it too late to redo that face before the runway? Was that just ultimately the best they could do? Regardless, Rosé sold the hell out of it, even while looking like she was in first-time Halloween drag. With fewer queens, Rosé has a little more space to showcase her skills. I still believe Michelle’s distaste for Rosé’s style will ultimately keep her from the crown, but she seems more likely for the finale as other queens stumble.
- The last two weeks have not been kind to Olivia. Perhaps this humbling experience is exactly what the divalicious diva needs to get her head back in the game. Judging on this week alone, Olivia was likely the worst offender on the runway, but looking backward (and envisioning the future), it’s tough to justify sending Olivia home before a few others. One more week in the bottom though, and she may slip too far.
- I have yet to be really blown away by Tina Burner, but I am enjoying her more in the werk room. It’s concerning that she hasn’t had a big moment, and what should have been her signature challenges — Snatch, Ru-sical — were sort of letdowns. Time is ticking to make a statement.
- Utica showed renewed potential on the runway this week. Imagine if this experience really was transformative, and she could really bring a little bit of Symone to her performance every week. She’d be unstoppable. That seems unlikely at this point, but it was thrilling to see this new dimension of Utica. The way she instantly snapped into Symone in rehearsals was awesome. The power has been inside you all along, Utica!
- Without a doubt, it was between Kandy/Mik and Symone/Utica for the win this week, so Kandy’s placement here isn’t a reflection on this week’s strong showing. I was struck by how hard it was to imagine a signature Kandy look for Gottmik to emulate. All the other gals have such strong identities, while Kandy has strong personality. That doesn’t discount her immense talent, but Kandy walks into the room pers(onality) first.
- Again, it’s tough to slot Denali at the bottom. She didn’t have a major flop this week, and it felt like she really was building some momentum. It was the only call this week, sadly, with such a strong cast left (and superior showing from Kandy). Denali could be like the namesake of Kandy’s former Haus, Aja, and make a splash in a future season of All Stars.
How would you rank the queens?