When Drag Race decided to kick off season 13 with a lip-sync extravaganza, it was exciting and fun, subverting expectations and keeping the queens on their toes. When they decided to follow that up with a spotlight episode centering on the queens who won the opening lip-syncs—and Elliott—the energy dipped somewhat, but the queens’ personalities and fashion did a lot to keep things moving. With “Phenomenon,” the momentum stalls. While it’s an interesting counterpoint to “Condragulations,” with the two groups of queens serving in different areas, “Phenomenon” is the weakest of the three introductory episodes, only picking up at the end thanks to a strong maxi challenge performance. The actual start of the competition, complete with eliminations, cannot come soon enough.
The episode begins with the winning queens relaxing and recovering from the main stage. Symone is glowing, fresh from her win and the judges’ raves, while Kandy and Gottmik are relieved to have been safe. The group bonds, dubbing themselves the Winners’ Circle and cementing a firm us-versus-them narrative, before heading to de-drag. The next day, the Pork Chop queens dance into the workroom, thrilled to start their first traditional episode. They take a moment to soak in everyone’s out of drag looks and Denali calls it: The Pork Chop queens are the trade of the season.
Ru heads into the workroom in an embroidered white suit and introduces the mini challenge: They’ll be repeating the Lady and the Vamp dual runway from “Condragulations.” While it’s a bit repetitive, using the same categories allows the audience to compare apples to apples, and the Winners’ Circle cast a long shadow with their runways. The Pork Chop queens scramble to get started. They only have an hour to get into drag and that will be quite a challenge for Kahmora, who according to Denali is notorious in Chicago for taking his sweet time getting ready. Long after the other queens are dressed and ready to go, Kahmora is still beating her face and running around half dressed.
Denali kicks off the Lady 2021 category, looking cute in a blue forget-me-not dress with yellow hair. She’s going for dainty doll and while the look isn’t hugely memorable, it fits the category. Joey is up next, rocking her own hair. She’s in thigh-high boots, a faux fur vest with a leather belt, shades, and a gold shirt-slash-mini dress. This feels much more like Joey than her entrance look. Rosé ditches her signature pink and shows some versatility for her first runway, wearing a Moschino-inspired paper doll look with bold color blocking, stripes, and puffed shoulders. Tamisha is next with the winner of the category, a lovely raspberry jumpsuit with a lace coat. She looks fabulous. Utica goes a completely different way, in a colorful mini dress with plastic ball accents at her hem, neckline, ankles, wrists, and hair. It’s playful and fun, though a bit of that dread word, crafty, and not as elevated as one would hope for a non-unconventional materials runway. Still, it captures her personality and for a mini challenge, it works. Last, after a brief delay, is Kahmora, who looks beautiful in a white button-down day dress. She’s going for Kate Middleton realness and she nails it, from the pumps to the fascinator to the teacup and saucer.
The Vamp 2021 category is more hit and miss. Denali wears a sheer gray dress over a black corset, panties, and hoop skirt. It looks a bit under-baked, though her dramatic hair and makeup are a nice contrast with her day look. Joey’s in all black with big, dangling earrings, metal accents across her chest, and her hair now red. Rosé’s look shares some inspiration with Denali’s, a sheer black skirt over a black pannier and bright red bodysuit and boots. What makes it stand out, though, is her sheer, gathered top and dramatic hat, which pairs with the pannier to give a caged through-line to the entire look. It’s striking and one of the best looks of the category. Tamisha’s second look is more matronly than she may have wanted, but it’s certainly memorable. Inspired by Elvira, she’s in a black dress made of hair, with sparkling silver accents at the torso and neck. Kahmora’s night look contrasts well with her day look, but doesn’t match its effortlessness. Her orange wig is going for the wet look but seems to have dried out over the hours of filming. Kahmora looks strained on the runway, far less convincing than her confident first walk. Last is Utica, whose dramatic quasi-fantasy look takes the category. It’s completely different than her goofy day look, a heightened Edwardian ensemble complete with exaggerated collar and hair and a burgundy skirt and cape over black leg and arm straps.
Still buzzing from the runway, the queens return to the workroom and chat as they de-drag. Going through the stress of their Porkchop Loading Dock experience seems to have connected them, and Tamisha and Rosé remark on how close they already feel with the other queens. While he’s obviously there to do his best, Tamisha is most excited for this social element of the Drag Race experience. To him, this is just another pageant, and he’s done at least 200—and won at least 95—over his 30 year career. Someone asks Tamisha his age and the other queens are floored to hear that he’s 49. The next oldest queen in the room is 31 and the rest are in their 20s. After a round of compliments to Tamisha on his skin, and a fresh round of gasps at the revelation that Tamisha has three biological children, the queens pick their jaws off the ground and welcome Ru back into the workroom.
It’s time for the maxi challenge. The queens will be writing original verses to add to a new RuMix, “Phenomenon” from the RuPaul’s Drag Race: Live soundtrack. They’ll also be choreographing themselves. Unlike the Winners’ Circle, the Pork Chop queens have multiple choreographers among their number—Denali, Joey, and Rosé each have strong concepts—and they’re all eager to show what they can do. Tamisha is also an experienced dancer and choreographer, but he’s still recovering from his cancer fight, so he lets the kids take this one. Utica has at least some dance experience, though mostly modern dance, but Kahmora is not a dancer at all, and is anxious about keeping up with the rest of the group.
When the choreography rehearsal starts, Denali, Joey, and Rosé jump in with both feet, talking a mile a minute. They chatter back and forth, each wanting to be in charge, while Tamisha gets irritated at their dithering and Kahmora increasingly seems like a deer in headlights. It’s only when Tamisha puts his Mother voice on and takes lead that Kahmora is able to pick up what he needs to do. At the end of rehearsal, Tamisha is worried and based on what we’ve seen so far, he’s right to be. The next day, the queens head into the workroom to get ready for their performance. The dancers are feeling cocky, to which Tamisha raises an experienced eyebrow. Kahmora is still worried about letting himself and the rest of the queens down and Tamisha does his best to reassure him, reminding him to breathe. Kahmora shares that while he loves drag, he doesn’t have a big support network at home. He’s confident his boyfriend of eight years wouldn’t want him doing drag full time, so he only works a couple shows a month and keeps his drag compartmentalized from their life together.
Watching the other queens react to this is telling—the audience immediately wants better for Kahmora, and these queens do too. Tamisha and the others encourage him not to focus on proving something to his boyfriend and not to worry about letting them or anyone else down, but to do his best for himself. Spurred by Tamisha’s supportive words for Kahmora, the topic moves to Tamisha’s drag family and the other queens are gagged to realize he’s the drag mother of the late Tandi Iman Dupree, whose entrance while performing Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need A Hero” at 2001 Miss Gay Black America pageant is iconic. Tandi died years before Drag Race premiered and it’s wonderful to see her legacy celebrated on the show.
On the main stage, RuPaul once again looks fantastic, in a bright orange dress and blonde wig. Michelle looks gorgeous in her favorite color, green, though that may be lighting—it looks blue in the promo shot. Ross is in another terrific suit, and guest judge extraordinaire Nicole Byer is back. Ru calls her one of the family, and she needs to be careful with that language; this viewer would be happy to see Byer become a staple on the judging panel. “Phenomenon” starts and though the introduction is underwhelming, the performance kicks into gear once Denali jumps in with her verse. Denali immediately demands attention, with solid vocals and lyrics and impressive dance moves. Joey keeps the energy going with a strong start and good physicality. Her lyrics peter out a bit, but she does well overall. Kahmora isn’t as successful. Her opening delivery of, “The house of Hall” is great, but she quickly starts stretching for time. She may look impeccable, but she’ll need to have more to say if she wants to stay in this competition. Rosé lives up to her reputation vocally and is a confident performer, but whether it’s her or the editing, her timing seems just a bit off. Tamisha is less comfortable than the other queens, defaulting too frequently to a fixed, pageant smile. Her verse is pretty good, though, with enough specificity to help her stand out. Utica is up last and while her lyrics don’t always make sense, they’re certainly entertaining (“Gonna wiggle to the top, wig-wiggle to the top”). The Winners’ Circle had better verses, but the overall performance of “Phenomenon” is definitely stronger. These queens are more interactive and engaged and there’s no question which group has the dancers.
After the performance, Category is: We’re Here, We’re Sheer, Get Used To It. Denali comes out first in a pale lavender petal-inspired dress. More movement in the top would have been nice, but she looks good. Joey keeps her trademark hair for the runway—her fourth wig-less look of the episode—and pairs it with a sheer black, fringed layer over a black leotard. It’s another fun look for her that captures her energy well. Kahmora goes full nude illusion for her runway, a beautiful stoned bodysuit with a gauzy sheer layer accented with feathers and paired with a giant blonde wig and enormous earrings. She looks gorgeous and is living every moment she’s on the stage. Rosé’s look is more of a swing. She comes out in a blue and purple dress with plastic accents and giant, gauzy, ruffled sleeves. She loves the contrast between the flowy fabric and static plastic, but the sleeves feel like an afterthought. Her light pink hair is cute, though, giving the whole look a more playful feel. Tamisha is an immediate standout in a sheer, gold, glittering pageant gown with a front bustle. It’s entirely expected, but when you look that good, that doesn’t really matter. She renders the panel speechless, no mean feat. Last is Utica, in a black and white leotard with a black sheer top layer and accent scarves. Her Stevie Nicks inspiration is clear, but her paint is more surprising, a combination of Star Trek Trill spots and paint specks. As the judges later remark, her look is simpler than some of the others, but it’s very Utica.
As in “Condragulations,” the judges are generous with the queens, giving warnings to some of them, but couching them as such, rather than as critiques. They love Denali, praising her runway and commanding performance. Joey gets complimented on her runway look and performance, but the judges ask after her wig and the message is clear: If Joey doesn’t change up her hair, they’ll get bored. Kahmora has by far the toughest go of it. The judges love her fashion, but warn that she’s giving flat, personality-free performances. Ross and Nicole argue over whether Rosé’s runway look is crafty—it doesn’t have to be a bad thing, Ross insists—but regardless, Michelle notes her command of the stage. After keeping mum for most of the critiques, Ru speaks up when they get to Tamisha. She’s head over heels for Tamisha’s dress. Michelle loved her mini challenge looks as well, but dings her for holding back in her energy during the performance. As for Utica, she’s very much herself and the judges commend her for that. They encourage her to stay true to herself and her drag.
The judges deliberate, then call the queens back to the stage and once again, the top two queens are announced, leaving the rest safe. This time, it’s Denali and Rosé in the top. They’ll be lip-syncing for a $5000 tip to Britney Spears’ “If You Seek Amy.” Denali serves up Britney, while Rosé goes a bit broader. She includes a few trademark twirls, while Denali pulls out some duckwalking and voguing. They drop down into dramatic splits together late in the lip-sync, and Denali stays in character to the end, while Rosé returns to a more comedic interpretation. Both do well, but Ru gives Denali the win, opting for character over comedy. It’s another happy non-elimination ending, but as Ru warns, the last for quite a while. Starting next episode, eliminations are back. With this performance and lip-sync under their belt, the Pork Chop queens have declared themselves. When the groups merge next episode and the season proper kicks off, it’ll be fun to track how much of the Team Looks vs. Team Performance—with a few notable exceptions—dynamic remains. If the best of each group manage to match their counterparts, it’ll be a strong season. If not, at least these queens can lip-sync.
- LaLa Ri seems to be the main Winners’ Circle queen focused on not being complacent. The episode hits this note a bit hard, but it’s a valid point: It will be easy for them to get cocky.
- I am absolutely loving Tamisha. I hope he is able to keep up with the others. This is a physically demanding competition for anyone, let alone someone less than a year out from chemo. His motherly energy in the workroom, not to mention pitch perfect reaction shots, are definite highlights of this episode.
- Can Nicole Byer please stay, or at least become recurring? She’s always terrific on the judges’ panel.
- Since I somehow haven’t mentioned it yet, I love the change to, “Racers, start your engines and may the best Drag Queen win.”
- In case this isn’t enough drag for you, Drag Race U.K. season two just premiered and will be running concurrently with season 13. I won’t be covering it at The A.V. Club, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed it’ll live up to the show’s incredibly charming first season.