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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

COVID-friendly makeovers push the RuPaul’s Drag Race queens outside their comfort zones

Who’s excited for the makeover?
Who’s excited for the makeover?
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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Fresh off of “Snatch Game,” it’s time for another Drag Race favorite, the makeover challenge. Due to COVID-19 filming restrictions, the show can’t bring people in without a two-week quarantine period, so instead the makeover gets a branding tweak and the queens make over each other. It’s an idea born of necessity, but having to work with a fellow competitor adds an interesting wrinkle to the familiar challenge. Normally the queens struggle for control during the makeovers, trying to coax, coddle, bend, or break down their drag neophyte partners, rebuilding them in their image. This time, their partners are highly motivated to collaborate, but to do so they’ll need to let go of the drag style and persona they’ve honed for years. Easier said than done.

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The episode begins with the queens trudging back into the workroom after Elliott’s elimination. They seem weary, except for Utica, who is buzzing from her lip-sync win. Kandy and the other queens are at a loss as Utica gushes. It’s neat to see such a different response to being in the bottom, and Kandy’s reaction is particularly charming. As soon as they settle onto the couches, Olivia and the other queens commend Symone on her look and its message. Symone’s activism is core to her drag and it’s wonderful to see that celebrated. The queens also cheer for Mik, who’s now won two challenges. Tina’s a little disheartened, however. Despite her high profile and comedy background, she’s yet to win a challenge, even those that seemingly played to her strengths. She needs to make an impact soon, or she’ll be sashaying away.

The next day, the queens bask in having survived Snatch Game, before Denali and Kandy throw a little Chekhov’s shade at Tina for his makeup. The RuMail hints at doppelgangers and when Ru enters, in a brown suit and animal print blouse, he sends the queens off to meet with psychic Char Margolis. She throws out some readings to mixed reactions, from a more distant Tina’s emotional response to Char invoking his late father to Utica’s bubbling enthusiasm at the mention of his calf, Clara. Before Char can answer Tina’s question about who will make the top four, she sends the queens back to Ru in the workroom, pairing them up based on her readings of them. It’s a threadbare excuse to partner queens the producers think will provide drama, but the episode is surprisingly committed to the bit.

Tina and Rosé will be working together, as will Denali and Olivia, Utica and Symone, and Kandy and Mik. Ru introduces the makeover challenge and they all have a chuckle at the situation they’re in, filming during a pandemic. Everything in the already demanding show has been made that much harder, so of course that extends to the makeover. No one seems all that enthused about the twist, besides Utica, who’s still giddy. They’re very aware of how challenging it will be to replicate their aesthetic on their partners. Symone is particularly shook. How will she convey her aesthetic, steeped in black culture, with Utica?

Denali and Olivia dive in, Denali excited to channel his inner diva, now that Olivia has embraced the label. To no one’s surprise, Denali will be making Olivia an ice princess. Olivia is underwhelmed by Denali’s look, but convinced he can sell it to the judges. Rosé and Tina are slightly more contentious, shading each other left and right, but good-naturedly so, determined to make the best of their pairing. Symone and Utica have an easier time than most fitting into each other’s wardrobes, but they have such different aesthetics that Symone is quickly overwhelmed. He’s talked about his compulsive perfectionism before and this challenge will push him far outside of what he’s comfortable with. Then there’s Utica, so worried about appropriation that he made a squirrel wig rather than give Bob Ross an afro. Symone is putting him in a look inspired by B.A.P.S. and giving him even less wiggle room than Utica’s skin-as-constraint garment. Utica has to get on board, which means he first needs to accept that a white queen celebrating black culture respectfully, rather than through appropriation, is even possible. As for Kandy and Mik, who are getting along swimmingly but have the biggest logistical challenge of the group since they’re such different sizes.

Rosé gonna Rosé
Rosé gonna Rosé
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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When Ru comes in to meet with the teams, Kandy and Mik are still in it, doing their best to put together outfits, though at least they both have experience painting other people. Denali and Olivia seem to be on track and Rosé and especially Tina are raring to go, with Tina looking for her first win. Symone and Utica are the least confident, with Utica still uncomfortable wearing Symone’s look. Symone asks Ru for a second opinion and he agrees with Symone—if Utica comes from a place of love and respect, he should be fine. Utica is still uneasy, but he’s doing his best to get to the right headspace.

The queens head to the main stage to practice each other’s walks. Olivia is happy with Denali’s pageant presentation and Denali leads Olivia through a few tweaks to change his motions from regal stroll to skating-inspired glide. Tina and Rosé are a hoot, with Tina calling Rosé on his trademark flourishes. These two are performers and it shows; if they keep this up, they’ll be fine. Symone and Utica have the most disparate walks of the groups, but they pick up each other’s movement surprisingly easily, focusing on not letting their self-consciousness shine through. Kandy picks up Mik’s mannerisms quickly, but even by the end of rehearsal, Mik does not have the Kandy Muse attitude down. He’s trying, but he can’t make it through a complete walk without giggling.

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The next day, the queens return to the workroom to paint. Tina and Rosé hand content to the producers on a platter, bantering about what they’ve learned from each other during the challenge. They’ve come a long way since their teased rivalry at the start of the season. Olivia and Denali bond over their connections to the powerful women in their families, who inspired both of their drag personas. Symone and Utica are still wary about how Utica’s look will be received, but they’re committed to the Ivory Enchantress, which has now been hyped so supremely it will need to either soar or crash to be truly satisfying.

Illustration for article titled COVID-friendly makeovers push the RuPaul’s Drag Race queens outside their comfort zones
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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Mik and Kandy’s conversation is the most compelling, with Mik opening up about the inspiration for his black and white paint. When he started drag, he hadn’t transitioned yet and he was uncomfortable with how feminine he was, so he hid behind his clown-like makeup. As he became more accepting of his feminine side and after he transitioned, he finally felt empowered and comfortable as himself. It cannot be overstated how meaningful it is to have kind of representation on Drag Race. It’s incredibly generous of Mik to share his journey with the audience and conversations like this one will have a profound impact on viewers at home who are going through the same turmoil. Kandy’s journey to self-acceptance and love is different, but it mirrors Mik’s. It turns out Kandy’s swagger and confidence is a direct consequence of a choice Kandy made, looking in the mirror and knowing something had to change, that he couldn’t stay as he was, insecure and filled with self-loathing. Seeing these two queens come out the other side of that kind of pain, and Kandy’s reminder that he’s still a work in progress, is inspiring.

On the main stage, Ru comes out with a fantastic beat, but wearing one of the weaker ensembles of the season, a red dress with a nude illusion chest cut-out. Michelle is in animal print ensemble and a cute bob, with a bold red lip and giant hoop earrings. Carson is in a neat, colorful suit, while returning guest judge Loni Love is in black sequins, with lovely braids and soft makeup. The first queens out are Rosé and Tina. Rosé is wearing an oversized green and yellow housewife dress with red accents, an apron, and a giant red wig. The fit isn’t great, but the dress tears away to reveal an animal print leotard with red piping. Rosé serves up some Tina energy, but it’s definitely filtered through her own style. Tina, as she anticipated, does a better job of capturing Rosé. She doesn’t quite nail the face, but Rosé’s makeup certainly helps and it’s interesting to see such a different look on Tina. Olivia is immediately recognizable as Denali in Denali’s tulle puff outfit and long white braid. As Ru will later note, the makeup could use some blending, but Olivia looks good and again, completely different from how she paints herself. Denali is more of a question mark. She looks great and she’s doing exactly what Olivia instructed her to do, but she’s in a rather generic look. It speaks to Olivia being the least experienced queen of the cast. She doesn’t quite have her brand crystallized.

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In comparison, Symone is immediately and inarguably Utica. From her paint, wig, and outfit to her movement, this is a completely new feel for Symone, and it’s exciting to see. Her look—a stretchy skin-tone layer over an anatomical bodysuit—plays with volume and movement and Symone works it for all it’s worth. Utica is also completely transformed, serving fashion and plenty of attitude. She sells Symone’s animal print B.A.P.S. look with cool confidence, an overdue and welcome change. Mik is next, in a fiery jacket and a body suit that Kandy must have significantly altered. Her paint looks terrific and Mik does a solid job of capturing Kandy’s bravado. Last is Kandy, who’s immediately identifi as Mik in a black and white bodice with hip puffs, a neon wig, pasties, and black and white paint. She’s a little stiff, but she definitely conveys Mik’s playfulness. There are a few queens who stand out for better and worse, but on the whole, the cast did well.

Illustration for article titled COVID-friendly makeovers push the RuPaul’s Drag Race queens outside their comfort zones
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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Ru announces that the queens will be judged in teams—the main flaw of the challenge design, it’s too hard to separate out queen A’s painting versus queen B’s performance—and then proceeds to give all of the queens feedback. The judges are happy with Rosé and Tina’s looks and performances, with critiques that all but ensure they’ll be safe. Olivia and Denali aren’t as lucky, clearly positioned as the bottom team. Denali’s feedback is lukewarm, but Olivia is dinged for choosing a look that isn’t distinct enough to her personality. Symone and Utica get raves from the judges for their looks and performances, and are immediate frontrunners. Loni’s note about the pair connecting to each other’s energies is spot on. The judges also love Mik and Kandy, complimenting their makeup and personalities and noting that they excelled in the challenge despite having to contend with having such different body shapes.

It’s time for a little pot-stirring, so Ru asks the queens who deserves to go home. Olivia picks Utica, specifying that she’s judging based on the whole season, and Denali, not wanting to choose her partner, says Kandy, but everyone else says Olivia. Kandy swipes back a bit after being named, but it’s a surprisingly sedate cast poll. Olivia is clearly the weak point this episode, and she takes her lumps like a champ. Ru sends the queens off to Untucked, but pretty quickly they’re back. Symone and Utica are the winners, Mik, Kandy, Rosé, and Tina are safe, and Olivia and Denali are up for elimination.

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They take their positions, both determined to fight it out. The song is a bit of a change of pace for Drag Race, the 2000 gospel hit “Shackles (Praise You)” by Mary Mary. Olivia goes for a few broader, more comedic bits, but both she and Denali mostly stick with straightforward interpretations, conveying the movement and scale of the song. This is one of the weaker lip-syncs of the season, but Denali does get a couple good moments later in the performance. Given Denali’s stronger showing in the challenge, she should have an advantage here, but Ru gives the win to Olivia, telling her to shantay and sending Denali home. This is a bit of a surprise exit for Denali, who was finally picking up steam before this episode. That being said, it’s not a bad time for her to sashay away. Some tiers have developed among the cast and unfortunately for her, while Symone and Mik seem like a lock for the top four, Denali’s chances were looking slimmer and slimmer. She’s done well, and she should be proud. She’ll be remembered for two terrific lip-syncs—including in her ice skates—and a strong Snatch Game, and she goes out potentially earlier than she deserved to, which primes her for an All Stars comeback. As for the rest of the queens, that top four is starting to solidify, and with only a couple spots looking particularly competitive, it’s time to start throwing elbows.

Stray observations

  • There are lots of great reaction shots this episode, as the queens watch the other groups interact and plan their looks.
  • Denali’s mom is a sixth-degree black belt? Damn.
  • After these makeovers, I want to see some of these queens make over the entire cast. Rosé and Tina both go on this episode about Rosé’s pronounced brow, for example. What would Gottmik do with it?
  • I still can’t get over Utica’s makeup. She had the biggest transformation on the stage, by far.
  • The judges are pretty harsh on Tina’s makeup and aesthetic during deliberations—not a good sign for her prospects.
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