CHAD: At the start of the season, would you have ever imagined these particular queens would make it to the final four?
MANUEL: You know, if you’d told me after the season 9 premiere that these were our Top 4 queens, I’d have a) called you a lunatic for somehow keeping Ms. Valentina off your list but b) come around to seeing how these varied queens could actually make for the handsome quartet we have on our hands. Which is why I loved seeing Michelle Visage going full fairy godmother on them and gifting them Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent, acknowledging how they each bring something different to the table. I was always rooting for Sasha and Shea, who seemed like such no-brainer Top 3 queens from the get-go that their respective journeys here have felt almost inevitable. Then again, clearly the season was given a curveball they surely could not have anticipated.
CHAD: I don’t mean to dismiss any of the other queens, but I have this idea that, at the start of the season, Ru thought it might come down to Shea vs. Valentina. As Michelle said, Shea is the “postman of drag” who delivers so consistently that you almost take her for granted, whereas Valentina was the promising young talent with charisma and the “it” factor and a ravenous fanbase. Do you think that theory holds any water? And how do you think things have gone post “Maskgate”?
MANUEL: That seems like such an astute theory of how the season could have played out! Ru does love herself a young upstart (see: Tyra, Adore) and Valentina filled that role to a tee. Sadly, she shot herself in the foot with that lipsync, proving that being a seasoned queen (in Chad Michaels’ words, a “professional”) can often push you over the edge, especially in the eyes of Ru. That felt like such a softball lipsync, too! The “Valentina stumbles and comes back even stronger” storyline was there for the taking—in fact, they pretty much recycled it a few weeks later when Shea got her first taste of being in the bottom two! I think if Valentina had made it this far we’d be looking at a very different playing field going into the finale, where it really does feel like anything can happen. I do think there’s a way the show never really recovered from “Maskgate,” which became an infamous moment for the show’s fans that wasn’t much addressed on the show itself. Valentina left a sort of vacuum in the work room that was never quite filled. Of course, that this season has been light on the DRAMA with challenges that felt like a Greatest Hits of past seasons didn’t help. Instead, we ended up getting an extra week of Nina’s self-sabotaging narrative and the same of Alexis’ not-quite-villain-but-also-not-flattering-either-edit. The queens, it seems, ended up shaping the overall arc of the final half of the season: this is what RuPaul’s Best Friend Race looks like, a story that’s commendable in terms of LGBTQ representation, but perhaps not quite as riveting when it comes to must-watch TV.
CHAD: For many, many seasons, we typically saw a final challenge that required the queens to star in one of Ru’s music videos with various gimmicky and cheap special effects. But this week’s challenge is lifted entirely from All Stars 2-- how do you think it served as a showcase for the queens’ talents?
MANUEL: For all my criticisms of this season leaning heavily on what worked in the past and failing to really deliver any new or exciting riffs on past challenges, I have to admit that I like this finale challenge more than the usual music video one. It’s a perfect balance between the pre-packaged, “here’s what you need to do” challenges (see: cheerleading, 9021-HO) which I always feel needlessly limit what a queen can do and the free-for-all, “show me what you’ve got” challenges (see: TV pilot). There’s enough structure, especially with Todrick Hall’s coaching, that there’s an even playing field. But there’s also enough room to put your mark on what you’re doing and, more importantly, actually showcase talents and skills that real-life drag queens use when they’re out in the world. I think this is why the lipsyncs remain such an integral part of the show and why they help weed out weaker, or less-experienced, competitors. It brings the world of late-night bars and club performances onto the show—and that’s what “Category is…” felt like. In between Shea’s killer dance moves, Sasha’s Cabaret-like choreo, Trinity’s showgirl outfit, and Peppermint’s jaw-dropping vogueing, they all got a chance to shine. Nevertheless, I did miss the cruel “one of you will be cut from the video if you don’t make it to Top 3” threat that hovered over that final challenge in seasons past. Which is just another way of saying, I wish we’d gotten a “Read U Wrote U” with only 3 verses last year, if you know what I mean.
CHAD: On one level, the live performance aspect of the challenge seems a little less impressive of a final product than the music videos, but in fact, I think it was a much better showcase for the queens. Todrick Hall did a great job of catering the segments to each queen’s personality, but also put the pressure on. If there had been a bottom two this week, who would have been lip syncing?
MANUEL: I think you could flip a coin to choose who, between Sasha and Trinity, would have joined Peppermint in the bottom 2 this week. Peppermint is a star, and she definitely has great charisma (and can clearly wipe the floor with you when it comes to vogueing), but I cannot for the life of me believe that the judges let that final outfit go. Time and time again Michelle has read queens for filth for not bringing their A-game this late in the competition, and the first thing that I thought while seeing her dress was, “Really?” That hair was divine, and her sparkly makeup truly made her gorgeous face shine, but girl, come on. And much like her earlier runway looks, this was a stunning idea that got lost in execution, especially when you compare it with the attention to detail and overall polish of the other three girls. Were she not such a magnetic performer, I could’ve easily seen her sashaying away this week (and maybe giving Valentina a run for her money when it came to the Miss Congeniality title which will surely, even if a bit unfairly, work as a consolation prize of sorts this time around).
CHAD: They really piled on the intensely emotional stuff this week! To what extent do you think the podcast interviews and “speaking to your younger self” segments served to illuminate the queens’ pasts, and is there any aspect that felt like exploitative emotional porn?
MANUEL: This move towards making the show quite explicitly about self-love and personal growth, which was always in RPDR’s DNA, fascinates me. I even wrote an entire piece about it (shameless self-promotion alert: check out RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Art of Self-Love at The Atlantic). What was often a byproduct of bringing so many different queens together where they’d share past grievances and hardships has become an all too obvious, I think, dramatic crutch the producers have been leaning on a bit too much as of late. There is a fine line here, and I worry that we’re getting to a point where pushing the girls to cry (which was so long relegated to the Interior Illusions lounge and its infamous “videos from home”) in the service of sharing their story begins to feel exploitative. Or, in the case of Nina earlier in the season or Adore in All Stars 2, almost counter-productive. I also think the reason this all feels a bit more heavy-handed this time around is because so little else dominated conversations in the workroom throughout the season. Is it me, or did we used to have a lot more random moments where we’d see the queens getting ready and/or working on their outfits/challenges, where we’d see the mundanity of what it means to be on the show? This time around, it felt like every conversation was an EVENT. That said, the “speaking to your younger self,” which is in keeping with Ru’s conception of drag as self-care, makes for some good TV and gives the judges a chance to see a more vulnerable side of the queens. I sometimes wonder how different Ross, Michelle, and Carson’s views of the queens are given that they have such limited exposure to them.
CHAD: It was mentioned repeatedly that Trinity has shown the most growth this season -- do you think that’s true? She’s certainly proven to be one of the most surprising queens of Season 9, right?
MANUEL: Hm. I’d agree with you that she’s been very surprising, not so much showing growth as showing range. It’s clear she came into the show knowing that being a pageant girl alone wasn’t going to get her far (she even admitted she hadn’t given them a pageant gown until her final runway!) so I think the “growth” narrative is a bit disingenuous. I mean, she gave us a hilarious starfish sidekick by episode 3!
CHAD: Peppermint has been charismatic, professional, and kind throughout the season. She delivers a killer lip sync, but I just don’t feel like she has a shot at the crown. Is that unfair of me?
MANUEL: I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but I think it comes down to her sense of fashion. Where the other 3 girls have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Top Looks on the runway, Peppermint has stumbled on the style-front, something which was perhaps more obvious in that little recap they did in Untucked of every queen where most of her outfits (and wigs!) started to blend together a bit. So, no, I don’t think it’s unfair. Just the way the cookie crumbles when you have such a solid top tier of girls.
CHAD: I’ve been really, really impressed with Sasha this season -- she’s been totally true to her weird, thoughtful, intellectual style of drag while also excelling in nearly all the challenges. My one worry was that this wacky reality show would cheapen or caricature what makes her so unique, and I don’t think that’s happened at all. However, I’m just not sure that Ru gets her. What do you think?
MANUEL: You may have noticed this already, but I am IN LOVE with Sasha. It’s probable the inner academic in me. I love me a good deconstructed drag look and, like Raja before her, Sasha brings a keen intellectual angle to her drag that feels both knowing and new. But I agree, Ru seems lukewarm about her. Or, just not as smitten as you’d hope. Even the fact that she passed her over two times this season where her wins seemed all but inevitable (the Makeover and the Gayest Ball Ever challenge) suggests she wasn’t as eager to crown her as Trinity or Shea, both of whom seem so much more in keeping with the vision of what a Drag Race Superstar in Ru’s image looks like.
CHAD: With her impressive number of wins, (not to mention her stunning performance this week) it seems like Shea is the obvious frontrunner of the season. And Chicago would certainly love to see her win that crown. But would that be too predictable? Would you be excited if she wins?
MANUEL: Shea losing the crown would be the biggest upset I can think of. She wasn’t lying when she told us in that first episode that she came here to slay. And I would be so excited for her if she won. She’s clearly very much at the forefront of drag today. Shea’s look is very current, and she’d make for a great addition to Ru’s winning and winsome girls. She’s definitely earned it. Would it be predictable? Perhaps. But that hasn’t stopped past frontrunners from nabbing the crown.
CHAD: With her call to pick your “team” on social media, it seems like Ru wants to know which of the final four will have the most vocal fanbase. And…. I have no idea how that’ll go! I’m guessing that Shea will edge out her competition, but I think Sasha and Trinity could also be contenders. We both know that the crown and its $100,000 prize only mean so much, that the “real” winners of each season are the ones who make the most of their visibility and opportunities. Who do you think is poised to do that?
MANUEL: I actually checked the RPDR Twitter account before answering this because I was curious to see how the #Team tweets were going, and color me shocked, but the #TeamSasha tweet had almost twice as many Retweets as that of her fellow queens?! That might already have changed by the time you read this, but it suggested to me that even if she misses, she’ll have emerged as the breakout queen of the season this side of Miss Linda Evangelista herself. Maskgate already cemented Valentina’s name in Drag Race legend, and she’s clearly a fan favorite whose fanbase reminds me of Katya’s following her season, though I’ve yet to see this wide-eyed Virgen de Guadalupe-praying queen capitalizing on her post-show limelight. Is it too much of me to want her to wear a mask to the reunion/crowning and really own her misstep in ways less earnest than what she’s done and said to date?
CHAD: Thanks so much for joining me, Manuel! Where can readers find you and your work?
MANUEL: The easiest way of following my writing is on Twitter (@bmanuel), where you can find me gabbing about all things gay, Latino, and film. But perhaps you want to start by reading my most recent piece on Drag Race, “The Rise of RuPaul's Drag Industrial Complex.” Elsewhere, you can look for my writing at VICE, Esquire, Paste Magazine, Remezcla, and Electric Literature, among others. Easier: check out my site, www.mbetancourt.com
Nate and Miguel
Manuel's story THE PRINCE will also be in my upcoming graphic novel The Cardboard Kingdom from Knopf next year!