Success on RuPaul’s Drag Race has always been as much, if not more, about being good at Drag Race than it is about being great at drag. In “Side Hustles,” Michelle gives Ginger some feedback on her beat, a piece of advice she gives about once a season, or whenever a queen is struggling to adjust her typical paint job to this unique environment. But Drag Race asks more of the queens than that they learn to paint for the cameras, rather than the stage (or, you know, Insta).
“Side Hustles” reminds the the All Stars (and us) that drag is just a part of the larger game. For some of the queens, that’s to their benefit; for others, quite the opposite. And because this is a psychological episode first and foremost, it winds up commenting, intentionally or otherwise*, on what Drag Race is, how it works, and what it costs (not financially, though there’s that aspect, too.) If you’re great at drag, well, that’s great. But if you’re not great at Drag Race and the many things that entails, it’s not going to be enough.
Beyond talent, intelligence, skill, money, charisma, more money, and even the ability to using a sewing machine, the things most likely to determine your Drag Race fate are emotional fortitude and self-awareness. Oh, and being great TV. But some of the people who make for the best TV are incredibly poorly equipped to deal with the fallout, and for precisely the same reasons. So it’s fitting that this episode, which sees nearly all of the queens either reflect on or act on lessons learned from Drag Race seasons of yore, ends with the triumphant return of Laganja Estranga, who’s pained and panicked “I feel very attacked!” greeted Untucked viewers in the opening titles for years.
I’ll be honest, Untucked isn’t always for me. I watched it religiously for years, but for every sweet video and funny conversation there are four or five scenes where people are in real pain with nowhere to hide (and a girl has anxiety, so no thanks). Sometimes the result is great drama with little-to-no permanent damage (“you’re perfect, you’re beautiful, you look like Linda Evangelista”), but not always. This week, it’s essential. Here’s Laganja in her brief entrance video:
I’ll be honest, I’m nervous, because this is my first time back since being on season six. But luckily for me, today we’re just doing what I do, which is dance [...] Today what I really want to do is have fun. I want to walk away from today being like, ‘Okay, that’s what it’s supposed to feel like. It was so good to be back.’”
The queens who are asked (and choose) to come back for All Stars know what they’re getting into, and know the risks. If you were a fan favorite the first time around, maybe you win, but maybe you chip away at the goodwill that got you the invitation in the first place, and the benefits (in bookings and publicity) might not be worth the mental cost. (We’ll get back to Pandora in a minute.) If you weren’t, it’s a different equation, but it’s still a risk—and one that’s almost certainly more daunting. Who’s going to be more anxious about going back on Drag Race: the Gottmiks and Jujubees of the franchise, or someone like Silky or Roxxxy? I can only imagine what it’s like to be in either position, but I know which I’d rather be. That anxiety comes through loud and clear here.
It’s not all bad. You wouldn’t know it from the editing**, but Pandora Boxx is doing really, really well this season, and the reason is straightforward: she’s putting into action what she’s learned from her time on the show. She got an always-the-bridesmaid edit her first time around, but one that seemed to be coming from her corner (after that season I, for one, didn’t need any additional reasons to think Santino is hot garbahgggge, though heaven knows we certainly got some). Not the case with that first All Stars! That was not a great time to be Pandora Boxx!
But here she is now, keeping it buttoned when things don’t go her way and striking like a motherfucking cobra when there’s a moment custom-made for her to demonstrate strength or growth. The library: “Say something funny.” The Blue Ball: looks that were funny and glamorous, over and over again. This episode: having learned a lot from group performance challenges of days gone by, she immediately takes charge without ever proclaiming herself to be the leader, simply reinforcing over and over again that it needs to be clear, fast, and yes, funny.
So her team triumphs, because they’ve all got their heads in the game. Pandora and Yara are on their third go-round; they know how this works. Ra’Jah and Trinity have their own ru-demption storylines they’re working through, and both are clearly keeping in mind the lessons of previous seasons without being bogged down by them. Every pitfall gets twirled away. The beef is squashed. No one struggles for control. No one complains they’re being upstaged. No one’s openly envious of Trinity’s well-deserved win, but nor does Trinity fail to credit Pandora for the team’s success. It’s the perfect victory edit, because the right team won and they handled the road to and aftermath of that win expertly.
The Eureka/Kylie/Scarlet team also does well. Like Trinity, both Scarlet and Kylie aren’t confident in the acting challenges, but they do well, and Eureka is Eureka in the best way possible. They’ve learned how to play this sort of challenge, and it’s enough to make sure they’re
Jan safe. But the biggest connection to the past here actually occurs in Untucked when Scarlet and Ra’Jah have a sincerely moving conversation about how their relationship has changed since season 11, and the universe should bring them only good things and they should be friends forever!
It’s team Rent-A-Queen that allows the past to trip them up, either because they’re mired in it or because they’ve forgotten some things. And this, friends, is why my beloved Ginger Minj deserved to be in the bottom with her teammates: If you haven’t learned to keep these challenges simple, fast and funny by your third time around, what is even going on with you***?
Did Ginger know her team was struggling—and to be clear, no one was disastrous, which is as it should be with All Stars—and choose to focus on her own performance, a decision which would probably have been fine had they been judged individually? (Although I’m with Michelle re: curtain pants.) Or did she think it was all going swimmingly? Either way, she helped steer that ship into choppy waters. Once it was there, though, it was the others who started to sink.
Silky knows it’s not going well, and she says nothing, because she doesn’t want to get season-elevened again. A’keria’s nerves get the better of her. Jan, despite her protestations, is definitely in the bottom with them, because she, too, wants to push back against her previous edit. Together the three of them try to produce themselves right out of contention.
The runway is pretty wonderful; even the weakest of the looks are still good. They’re all All Stars, and it shows. It’s the mental game that counts. And that’s a game that Trinity, Ra’Jah, Pandora, and Yara are all winning, as are Scarlet, Kylie, and Eureka. At least for now. That makes them formidable.
And speaking of formidable:
You can quibble with the declared winner here (and I do, though mostly I wish Ru hadn’t declared a tie last week because this one deserves) but really, they both win, because this is a stone-cold classic. Like the near-unbeatable Tati/Alyssa “Shut Up And Drive,” this is the result two great queens approaching a thrilling pop song in two very different ways. They’re excellent individually and unforgettable together. I hope Laganja left thinking “okay, this is what it’s supposed to feel like.” I hope Trinity felt like the victor that she was. And I hope they both like Dua Lipa, because people are going to be clamoring for that song for the rest of their careers.
And I hope the other queens see Trinity K. Bonet as the force that she is and act accordingly. They underestimate her—and any of these queensm really—at their peril.
* — My guess is it’s a little of both, though they couldn’t have predicted how things would play out when they booked Laganja.
** — It’s not a bad edit, it’s a barely-there edit, and that’s either only marginally better or much worse, depending on your perspective.
*** — It is, as always, totally possible that they crushed it and we saw the worst bits.
- Okay, “Fix It Bitch” single when? We got 917 singles last week and this is literally the only one I want, where issss itttt?
- Kate’s corner: There’s no Kate’s corner this week, sorry. She was a little busy:
- Good god Eureka’s body in that jumpsuit, holy crap. She always looks good, but goddamn.
- Whatever the game-within-a-game is, expect Silky to come out swinging. That edit was clear foreshadowing. (Again I say, Last Chance Kitchen?) And again, watch the Untucked, if only for an A’keria/Silky conversation that will get you right in the feelings.
- Side hustles as a theme for the week: depressing, or the depressingest?
- My gif-t to you for the week: