Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

RuPaul’s Drag Race stumbles with a misguided Empire-inspired challenge

Illustration for article titled RuPaul’s Drag Race stumbles with a misguided Empire-inspired challenge

Much of “RuCo’s Empire” is painfully awkward, but for all its flaws, it should always be celebrated as the episode that brought roller-skating to the RuPaul’s Drag Race runway. Turns out drag queens on wheels are extremely entertaining, especially if they can’t really roller-skate, like Bob the Drag Queen or Naysha Lopez, who falls on her ass on her first episode back in the competition. The return of Naysha is the first disappointment tonight, and after a week of rumors about returning past queens or potential new additions to the season, bringing back the season’s first casualty is an underwhelming development. The queens this season have already sent Naysha home once before, and based on her performance this week, it won’t be long until she’s back in the bottom again.

Before Naysha’s return, the remaining nine queens compete in a minichallenge that has them dragging up judges’ robes and creating a Supreme Court Justice personality in 30 minutes. It’s a very silly test that is surprisingly relevant given current events regarding the Supreme Court’s vacant seat, and it also sets a general tone of racial insensitivity for the episode as the queens start channeling stereotypes for their hasty Supreme Court drag. (Key example: Kim Chi’s judge hails from the law firm of Ching, Chang, & Chong.) Unfortunately, that racial insensitivity becomes increasingly problematic as the episode continues.

The minichallenge and the runway this week are a lot of fun, but the main challenge ventures into uncomfortable racial territory as the queens perform a satire of Fox’s Empire, a show with a predominantly black cast, rooted in a specific strain of black culture. Empire has been faced with criticism that it portrays damaging black stereotypes, and when it’s reinterpreted through a drag filter, the potential for easy stereotypes is sky-high. That becomes an issue when the majority of the queens in the competition aren’t black, and some of the performances in “RuCo’s Empire” evoke blackface without the dark makeup.

Considering his “too hell with political correctness” attitude, RuPaul likely doesn’t give a damn about the racial implications of having non-black men appropriating the slang, behavior, and fashion of black women on his series, but it still makes for an uneasy viewing experience. The contestants are split into two teams led by Naomi Smalls and Naysha Lopez, and all of the black queens end up on Naomi’s team, giving Naysha’s group a significant disadvantage. “I think the other team should be worried because they have a lot of girls who are just, like, not black,” Chi Chi DeVayne says, and she’s absolutely right in assessing the major obstacle for Naysha’s cast.

Naomi’s team surprisingly ends up having the two queens that lip sync for their lives, but it also has the episode’s big winner. Bob dominates “RuCo’s Empire” with her performance as Rucious’ ex-wife Chocolate Chip Cookie, showing sharp comic timing and the ability to ad lib in a way that enhances the script rather than detracting from it. She’s far and away the most fun to watch, and when guest judge Tasha Smith says that Lee Daniels and Taraji P. Henson are going to love Bob’s take on Cookie, I believe it. I could see Bob easily stepping into the world of the real Empire, and there’s a coolness to her performance that makes the dialogue flow smoothly, which is a considerable feat considering how rough the script is. Bob has loads of charisma, which helps her on the runway as she manages to work a Tron jumpsuit while slipping around on roller-skates she doesn’t know how to use. As Michelle notes, it’s a basic look, but Bob carries it in a way that makes it much more exciting than it really is.

Thorgy Thor and Acid Betty fare best from Naysha’s group, primarily because they don’t try to channel a generic “ratchet” personality. They come prepared with big characters that fit into the world of the ridiculous script because they’re exaggerated, and they’re two of the top performers this week because they have a strong understanding of what is required to make the dialogue work without becoming offensive. They also turn it out on the runway, with Thorgy going for a simple but effective roller girl look inspired by Suzanne Somers in Three’s Company while Betty continues to go high-concept with a dramatic post-apocalyptic ensemble. Betty’s look is much more ambitious, but there’s a lot of charm in Thorgy’s outfit, and it fits the challenge very well.


Kim Chi, Naysha, and Derrick Berry have less well-defined characters than their teammates, so RuPaul and his co-director Faith Evans have to coax cartoonish performances from them by giving them direction that is basically just an assortment of stereotypical behaviors that they should incorporate more heavily into their characters. Kim’s performance isn’t good, but she follows the lousy direction given to her and delivers the lines with confidence, so she’s safe this week. The same goes for Naysha, who is tepid on screen, but has a small part that doesn’t demand a lot of her beyond getting beaten up by her mother, Chocolate Chip Cookie. Naysha doesn’t have very much to screw up, unlike Derrick, who plays one of the more difficult roles: Ginger Snap, Rucious’ daughter that comes out as gay in the middle of the family gathering. It’s hard to make the coming out moment work in the context of the scene, and neither Derrick nor Cynthia Lee Fontaine succeed.

Wearing a black turtleneck and a big black afro, Derrick is channeling the look of female Black Panthers in the ’60s, and it’s a bad fashion choice that accentuates the disparity between Derrick and the role she’s playing. She might be able to make it work if her performance had a stronger comic foundation, but maybe not considering Cynthia goes much bigger and still fails. Not only do these queens have to sell Ginger Snap’s coming out, they have to do it in song, and while they try very, very hard (too hard in manic Cynthia’s case), their attempts aren’t enough to keep them out of the bottom when combined with lackluster runway looks. Derrick looks sharp, but jumping from Britney Spears to Katy Perry for inspiration does nothing for the judges, who still don’t have a good grip on who Derrick is beyond her impersonation. Cynthia just looks a hot mess in ugly, ill-fitting clothes, and she rightly ends up lip syncing for her life.


Robbie Turner has ample acting training, but she freezes up during the “RuCo’s Empire” filming, landing her in the bottom despite her exceptional roller-skating skills. She continues to dig a hole for herself by giving the judges the excuse that she wasn’t able to absorb the directors’ notes quickly enough, but she redeems herself with a thrilling lip sync on roller-skates, giving herself a gimmick that makes it impossible not to watch her on stage. It’s a huge step up from last week’s abysmal lip sync, building to the phenomenal final moment when Robbie skates off the edge of the stage and dives onto the crash pad placed at the end of the runway. In that moment, Robbie proves that she’s a force to be reckoned with, although if she ends up in the bottom again, she probably won’t have the benefit of roller-skates to save her.

Stray observations

  • I wish this episode had a Xanadu­-themed main challenge that got more mileage out of drag queens on skates.
  • Naomi is proving to have a lot more personality than I expected her to, and while she’s still rough around the edges, she’s doing very well considering how young she is.
  • We learn about Thorgy’s rather intense family drama this week, which involves hostility toward his sister and father for keeping his mother’s cancer a secret from him when he was in college. It’s a heavy reveal that does a lot to show a different side of the bubbly, enthusiastic Thorgy.
  • Is Cynthia’s Justice name “Cucu Freedom” or “Cucu Frida”? It’s hilarious either way.
  • Whatever is on Michelle Visage’s lips is horrible and needs to go away.
  • I love the real talk Tasha Smith serves Robbie. Don’t play the victim. This is a competition. Get your shit together!
  • “If justice is blind, that bitch is missin’ out!”
  • “Nobody wants the bitch who was kicked off to come back, so I was glad to beat the shit out of her with a dirty broom.”
  • “What’s the best hand to slap a ho with?” The answer is left!
  • “Why you all gaggin’? I bring it to you every episode!”
  • “So he plans on falling and (what?) crawling across the stage like a Transformer? This is a mess I can’t wait to see.”
  • “Mad Maxi Pad”
  • “Aw damn! I’m dying.”
  • “When I call your names, please roll forward.”
  • “Be you but don’t be you. Give us less but more!”
  • “Tin Man needs some lubricant.”
  • “Derrick Berry, you’re safe. But…you better work, bitch.”