It’s rare that a reality show can pull off a “signature challenge,” one it returns to again and again, every year without significant alteration—think the “go-sees” on America’s Next Top Model—and even rarer a show has two challenges strong enough to get trotted out every season. The only other one I can think of is Top Chef, which pulls out the relay-race Quickfire and the “Restaurant Wars” main challenge every season without fail. It shares that distinction with RuPaul’s Drag Race, whose “Snatch Game” main challenge and “Reading Is Fundamental” mini-challenge are considered main events among a fan base that generally considers Drag Race one big main event in and of itself. And as with this season’s excellent-per-usual Snatch Game episode, tonight’s reading challenge separates the queens who came to play from the pretenders.
Was there any doubt Latrice, Sharon, Chad, and Willam would dominate a shade-throwing challenge? Dida’s sweetness—which is getting a little boring—practically disqualifies her from the moment she dons her reading glasses, though she gets in a well-aimed shot at Latrice’s prison sandals, while Jiggly obviously came in with her insults prepared. Granted, all of the queens probably did—and if they didn’t, they’re idiots—but making the insults seem off-the-cuff is a big part of the reading challenge’s charm.
Latrice is proclaimed eventual winner over Chad, Sharon, and Willam, calling on her acronym acuity once more to dub Jiggly “BMW: Body Made Wrong”—though her “hairs on your chinny-chin-chin” barb toward Willam is an obvious bite of Jujubee’s definitive reading in season two—but any of the four of them could have won. Personally, I’m a fan of Sharon’s crude-yet-hilarious Jiggly-burn, “You’re such a fat slut, after sex you smoke hams,” though Chad’s “Here’s my dentist’s card” bit—also directed at poor Jiggly—gets extra points for creativity. Willam’s “Chad Michaels, you so old you’re still on MySpace.com” is almost quaint in how un-mean it is, though she makes up for it with a jab at PhiPhi’s snaggletooth.
PhiPhi, meanwhile, fails to realize that reading is about more than just saying mean things in a catty voice, something she learns when Sharon Needles throws that lame “Party City” retread back at her with, “That’s where you got your Lady Gaga wig.” PhiPhi has the attitude but not the wit, and yet somehow manages to win a main challenge that’s essentially centered on wit.
Like season two’s autobiography challenge or season three’s patriotism challenge, tonight’s “Dragazine” challenge is only barely drag-adjacent in concept: Conceive of, pose for, and write headlines for a magazine cover based around one of seven titles and themes. (For those keeping score, they are: Battle Of The Bulge [health and fitness], Tastes Like Chicken [food], Sugar Walls [home décor], Kitty Cats [cat lovers], Eleganza [fashion], Sashay Away [travel], and What’s The T [celebrity gossip]. The Drag Race writers earning their paycheck, ladies and gentlemen.) On just about any other show, such an off-model challenge would seem shady as hell, but Drag Race has established its reality-convention-tweaking credentials well enough to pull it off; during judging, Ru comments that everything her girls do, she’s had to do at some point in her career, a refrain that should be familiar to anyone who’s listened to Tyra Banks try to justify the circus acts she makes her Top Model contestants take part in. Serving as faux editors-in-chief—I’d like to bestow Dida with the “Grammar-zon” title for pronouncing that properly—is nothing the queens are likely to have done or ever do again in their careers, but it does test two qualities essential to any successful drag queen: creativity and wit.
Oddly, while one queen is sent home for failing to bring either, despite having shown a relatively good handle on both throughout the season, another wins despite displaying very little of either over the past six weeks. It’s clear from the moment Jiggly decides she’s going to take a straight-faced approach to her health-and-fitness magazine, which is bestowed upon her by mini-challenge-winner Latrice (which mitigates its mean-spiritedness only slightly), it’s clear she’s going to be in trouble. She gets caught up in the idea that there’s nothing funny about weight-loss, perhaps because she’s apparently battled bulimia in the past. Jiggly sticks to her guns, eschewing the “silliness” she’s displayed throughout the competition because she got “1240 on the SATs, I need to show that I have intelligence,” failing to realize that wit and intelligence go hand in hand.
PhiPhi, on the other hand, chooses the path of least resistance once more, taking a “horny gay” approach to her travel mag that causes Ru to bring up her Lady Gaga choice for Snatch Game. Lucky for her, she manages to look the best she’s ever looked both on stage and on camera (though she’s still slightly boxy-looking in her swimsuit), so realistic-sounding but not particularly witty headlines like “69 hotspots for hookups!” earn a passing grade. Factor in all the other queens biting it hard—as the awesomely on-point Regina King puts it, “Did it look the most professional because everything else was so bad?”—and PhiPhi squeaks by with her first win of the season.
The rest of the queens all take a beating during judging, some more than others. Chad Michaels’ sub-free-weekly magazine cover draws Santino’s ire in particular, but she’s absolved of her crimes against fashion magazines thanks to a killer, ’80s-power-bitch runway look that addresses the judges’ concerns that her polished glamour is getting predictable. (Though Michelle’s smirking response to Chad’s claim that this is her “dirty” look suggests she might need to go further.) Dida’s flat-wig troubles are back, much to the dismay of walking hairspray-awareness ad Michelle, but her cute, chicken-centric cover is inoffensive enough to keep her safe. Though as Pam Tillis—who goes toe-to-toe with Regina King in terms of guest-judge awesomeness—notes, “I never equate fabulous drag queens and ‘cute.’ I want to be devastated.”
Sharon Needles is the only other legitimate contender for the win, bringing Grey Gardens realness to her cat-lady cover, along with every “pussy” pun she could think of. (“What? I’m talking about cats, you’re a pervert.”) However, her optical-illusion black-and-white dress is pretty tacky—a criticism I’m sure Sharon would embrace—and her ghoulish contact lenses scare poor Regina. Michelle chides Sharon that she needs to bring real, full-on glamour without the goth trappings, which is kind of shitty considering a) that’s antithetical to everything Sharon Needles is about and b) she already did that in the second week.
But it’s Latrice and Willam who really flub it this week, and they should thank their lucky stars that Jiggly already had two lip-syncs under her belt going into elimination. (The only queens who have survived three lip-syncs are Alexis Mateo and Jujubee, and Jiggly is no Alexis or Jujubee.) Perhaps not coincidentally, both of them lean heavily on the Pit Crew, literally and metaphorically, when shooting their covers, turning Latrice’s celebrity-gossip mag and Willam’s home-décor mag into something more akin to, as Pam puts it, “porn about to happen.” Willam’s decision to go nude with strategically placed pillows doesn’t help in that regard. Even worse, she blames her crappy cover on the failings of her “staff,” an extension of the bitchy attitude she displays during her photo shoot. At this point, we’re all pickin’ up the game Willam is laying down, but first impressions still count, and neither the guest judges nor the photographer are impressed with Willam’s HBIC shtick this week.
Frankly, I was sort of hoping that Latrice would face the lip-sync for her upholstery ballgown, which would have been great for season two’s “Gone With The Windows” curtain-dress challenge, but looks cumbersome and ugly here. Not because I want her gone—what would this show be without Latrice’s signature scream-laugh?—but because you know she’s gonna bring it when it inevitably comes time for her to throw down. However, tonight’s song choice, Pam Tillis’ “Mi Vida Loca,” doesn’t exactly scream “Latrice Royale,” so perhaps it’s best we’ve postponed that, especially considering how Jiggly (who would have preferred Lil’ Kim) fails to connect with the song. Since she can’t do a jump-split in her daffodil-yellow evening dress, Jiggly is forced to stand around waving her arms while Willam does a passable young-country-starlet impression, mostly settling for miming and flashing her junk at the judges. It’s pretty tame by the wig-ripping, taint-Swiffering standards we’ve grown accustomed to over the past couple of weeks, but now that the chaff is slowly but surely getting stripped away, the big lady-boys are going to be coming out to play really soon. PhiPhi, you’re on notice.
- Willam, to Jiggly: “Do you think you’re going to win the competition?” Jiggly: *dead-eyed stare*
- Man, between the opening sequence, the reading, and the talking-head clips, the queens were circling Jiggly like sharks with chum this week.
- “The thing is, me and comedy just doesn’t mix.” Neither does you and grammar, Jiggly.
- The delight with which PhiPhi throws Jiggly under the bus by encouraging her serious approach to the magazine cover, complete with halfhearted evil laugh, was kinda gross. At least Willam knows if you’re gonna be a complete bitch, you have to at least appear to remain above it all.
- Speaking of Willam, while she manages to squeeze in an “editor-in-queef” pun, she’s at a hilarious loss when Ru asks her who her target audience is: “Women… men…?”
- “I love Regina King. She’s on a show called Southland. Oh wait, I was on a show called Southland.” Willam’s name dropping has somehow transitioned from obnoxious to charming.
- Of course Jiggly has to jump rope during her photo shoot.
- A workroom discussion about gay marriage takes an odd turn when Latrice says she just doesn’t want it called “marriage,” though she eases the tension by saying she just wants it called something “more fabulous.” And in comes Sharon with the cherry on top: “I fully support gay divorce.”
- Chad Michaels’ MySpace page appears to have been taken down. She’s apparently moved on to Facebook with the rest of those whippersnappers! Her official site is still amazing, though.
- Have you seen these amazing illustrated Drag Race recaps illustrated by Chad Sell? I could spend hours watching this animated gif of Milan Swiffering.
- Thanks for Drag Racing with me this week! Watching this show with Oliver is always the highlight of my Monday, so I was super-excited to sit in for him this week. He’ll be back for next week’s episode, which apparently features onstage vomiting! Tres chic!