Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars
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After weeks of comedy challenges and last episode’s lip-sync bonanza, RuPaul’s Drag Race changes things up with a design challenge. That’s not entirely accurate. As Valentina says, this is a design challenge, a hosting challenge, a comedy challenge, and a branding challenge, all wrapped up in one. The queens must work in teams to create unique club nights, collaborating on a cohesive concept and name. Each team must design the club from scratch and include a VIP space, a themed signature cocktail, and interactive activities they’ll host. Previous seasons have tasked queens with designing spaces and shooting promotional videos, and this challenge is a natural extension of those. The resulting videos are surprisingly effective. A lot of credit goes to the camera work and editing on display in each video (the spaces themselves are far less enticing in the establishing shots), but the queens do well, dreaming up club fantasies on short notice and a shorter budget.

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The theme of fantasy and reality is central to this episode. Latrice and Valentina are the queens featured most prominently and early on, it’s hard to tell which of the two will do well and which will come up short. Valentina is all about her vision and her process. She’s been playing up her fantasy all season, inviting the audience into her projection of herself and how she’s doing in the competition, and that’s on full display here. Latrice, meanwhile, has been much more grounded. Her assertion in “LaLaPaRUza” that her popularity and stature outside of All Stars should have bearing in the competition felt oddly out of character and thankfully, that appears to have been a one-episode digression. Right from the start of “Queens Of Clubs,” Latrice is in the game and focused. She knows her Drag Race herstory; eliminated queens never stick around long after returning to the competition, so if she wants to stay, she has to win. Valentina is living her fantasy; Latrice is all too aware of her likely reality, and in the end, that awareness propels her and her team to the win.

It helps that Latrice has a graphic designer on her team. After announcing the episode’s maxi challenge, RuPaul lets Latrice pick the teams as a reward for her triumphant return to the season. She immediately pairs Monique and Monét, Valentina and Naomi, and Manila and Trinity, joining this final duo to make a power trio. As Manila quickly states, she had a career in graphic design before she started performing full time and that experience will come in handy. While Monique and Monét draw a basic layout of their space-themed club and Valentina and Naomi brainstorm their overall concept, Manila, Trinity, and Latrice run with Trinity’s bee idea and Manila draws up a detailed sketch of their club. When they get to the space to work, they’re ahead of the other queens in their visual planning, and it shows in the final products. Club Hive is much more specific and detailed than either The Black Hole or Club 96, and based on the judges’ comments, that may have been what wound up giving Latrice’s team the win.

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Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars

On pure entertainment value, the clear winners are Monique and Monét. The Black Hole is fun, engaging, and accessible. Monique and Monét are terrific together, playing well off of each other and bantering back and forth comfortably. Their club is weird, evocative, and encourages the audience to relax and be themselves, whatever that means. There’s not a lot of specificity to their cocktail, but their list of previous VIP guests is appropriately strange and ridiculous and they have the most engaging activity of the three, a guest walk-off with cash prizes. The design is somewhat lacking, but of the three clubs, The Black Hole has the best vibe and looks the most fun.

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Club 96 has a clear and definite aesthetic, and Naomi in particular commits to its tone, but whereas The Black Hole and Club Hive prioritize the guests’ experience, Naomi and Valentina feel like they’re in a comedy challenge. They’re fully in character and the club they’ve designed works as a punchline, but not much beyond that. Their over-the-top glasses, for example, are difficult to drink from and the cocktail isn’t fabulous enough to warrant the extra effort. Instead of making the guests and audience feel like they too are fashion icons and part of the Club 96 experience, Naomi and Valentina are so in their self-involved characters they wind up isolated. It feels strange when they launch their activity, because these characters wouldn’t try to entertain anyone; that’s entirely too much effort. The pieces of a good concept are here and the visual design is solid, but there’s a fundamental flaw at the center of the writing, and if viewers are to believe Naomi about Valentina’s limited collaboration, it’s not one she was able to identify and adjust for by herself.

The eventual winners of the episode are from Club Hive. Manila has the aesthetics on point and all three queens’ extensive hosting experience shows. Their team struggles a bit to juggle three hosts, but Latrice does an excellent job welcoming guests to their club and explaining the concept and Trinity is particularly engaging hosting their activity, the strip spelling bee. They also have the best cocktail of the evening, both visually and in description. As the judges comment upon later, Manila is a little out of her element here. She steers further toward comedy than Latrice and Trinity (or Monique and Monét), and her bits fall flat. First she pokes fun at their bee puns, then she jokes that their cocktail may prompt allergic reactions. She’s going for self-deprecating humor, but as is written all over Latrice’s face, these jabs only undermine the experience they’re trying to sell. Now is not the time. Latrice and Trinity commit fully, and in the end, they’re rewarded for this, named the top two queens of the challenge.

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Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars

After Club Hive sends in the bees, it’s time for the runway. Category is: Plastique Fantastique. Latrice comes out swinging with a fabulous purple plastic garment, complete with giant beads in place of hair. Manila works a cellophane-inspired look and Trinity wears a bubblegum pink sculpted number. Naomi goes full fashion with a plastic disc dress and neon yellow wig and coat, while Valentina becomes a Miss Venezuela Barbie. Monét suits up in clear, stoned armor and Monique takes inspiration from Josephine Baker for a colorful and fun, if ultimately disappointing look. After the judges’ comments, Latrice and Trinity are announced as the winners and Valentina and Naomi are up for elimination. The shoe is on the other foot now and Latrice was not prepared for how emotional she’d feel when forced to eliminate her first queen.

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Naomi is frustrated, feeling abandoned by her partner in this challenge and not particularly optimistic about her chances of making it through. She knows Valentina has closer ties with both Latrice and Trinity, and that counts for a lot even when the eliminating queens intend to be objective. Valentina is at a loss. Her fantasy is slipping away, and she doesn’t know what to do when the victory she’s been working towards doesn’t materialize. To her credit, she’s evenhanded and fair towards Naomi. She wants to stay, but will not tell the other queens that Naomi deserves to go home, because frankly, she doesn’t. The editing throughout the episode is kind to Valentina, and that doesn’t change in the deliberations. Her process may be weird, but she has good ideas working with Naomi (just not enough substance to support the style she connects with), and she shows a lot of self-awareness in her talking heads.

Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars

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When the time comes for the lip-sync, Trinity makes a Choice. She goes full comedy, putting on a short gray wig, huge glasses, and an old age suit, complete with dangling breasts and granny panties. There’s little to connect this choice with the song, Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record),” but it’s entertaining. She throws off a leopard print bathrobe early in the song and goes full-blast the rest of the performance, playing with her suit and committing fully. This feels like the kind of reveal that would have worked best later on, as a final push to the end of the song. Adding another layer of reveal may have been enough to swing the win over to Trinity. Rather than building, her performance stagnates and though fun, becomes more strange than compelling. Instead, Ru awards the win to Latrice, who does a good job and mostly stays out of Trinity’s way, before rolling across the floor as her final flourish. It’s not one of the best lip-syncs of the season, but it’s certainly memorable.

After a tearful acknowledgement of the emotional stress that comes with eliminating another queen, Latrice announces who she’s chosen. Early favorite for the finals Valentina will be going home. This would have been a surprise earlier in the season, but once again, the editors and producers do an excellent job preparing the audience. Valentina has been in a completely different competition than the rest of the All Stars. She’s not competing with them, she’s competing with her fantasy, and therefor when she’s upset it’s not because another queen let her down or did her wrong. They merely failed to buy into her vision and see what she does. Valentina left her original season embarrassed. She can leave All Stars with her head up, knowing she did her best, showed her particular skills well, won a challenge, and delivered at least one killer lip-sync. It’s surprising to see her out before some of the other queens, but it just goes to show how competitive this season is, and how strong all of the queens have become. Anyone can win, and anyone can go home.

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Stray observations

  • This has been a season full of entertaining guest judges, but it’s particularly neat to have Susanne Bartsch here for a club challenge. Rita Ora is fun as well, particularly during the club videos.
  • After Latrice’s experience having to eliminate a fellow queen, hopefully she’ll have a few words of apology or connection for Monique next episode.
  • I was initially leery of this challenge, as it seemed too reminiscent of Top Chef’s Restaurant Wars, but it was fun and it’s one I’d be happy to see All Stars put into regular rotation.
  • Michelle confusing Valentina’s emotional Miss Columbia Snatch Game performance and her much more doll-like Miss Venezuela is not a great look. It’s interesting that the producers kept that in the edit.
  • A quick word on Naomi: She has not been “safe” all season. She was top three consistently in the beginning of the season, just missing out on top two rather than coasting, as several other queens did for weeks. She definitely deserved to stay.
  • Manila is salty after not being top two, but she wisely keeps it in. She does not come off well this episode. We’ll see whether this is a blip she rebounds from or the start of a downturn in her season.

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