Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Drag Race queens Symone and Denali on Snatch Game and the lost art of impersonation

Illustration for article titled Drag Race queens Symone and Denali on Snatch Game and the lost art of impersonation
Photo: Courtesy of VH1 (Other)

“Snatch Game.” Just say the phrase, and many a RuPaul’s Drag Race alum will recoil in remembrance. The celebrity impersonation challenge has been a mainstay of the show since its second season, even making the transition to the show’s international spin-offs. It’s produced legendary performances, truly awful cringefests, and has acted as a marker for which queens will ultimately make the show’s finale. (As Snatch Game’s Wikipedia entry reminds us, “Across 19 iterations of the game to date, only four contestants have ever won the season after not receiving any critiques [i.e., being safe]… and only three contestants have ever won a season after being placed in the bottom for their Snatch Game performance.”)

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That’s why it’s just so damn thrilling that, come this Friday, it’s Snatch Game time again. Drag Race’s remaining season 13 queens are slapping on wigs and characters and entering the innuendo arena, all with the aim of making RuPaul laugh. In preparation, The A.V. Club talked to two of this season’s most exacting queens, Symone and Denali, about their expectations coming into Snatch Game, “Gen Z celebrities,” and the dying art of drag impersonations—all without revealing who they’ll actually be portraying in this week’s episode.


The A.V. Club: How long have you two been preparing for Snatch Game? I have to imagine that, even as a fan watching the show, you’d start thinking “Here’s who I’d do.”

Symone: Once you know you want to be on the show, in the back of your mind, you’re always thinking, “what’s fun, who’s funny?” How would I play this game, basically. But I think for me, when I really, really started thinking about it was when I made my audition tape, because it’s part of the process.

AVC: It seems like a lot of queens come into the show with multiple options in mind, just in case. How many did you bring, and how did you land on the one you liked the most?

Denali: I actually had four. There’s a really large improv comedy scene in Chicago, so I collaborated with a few friends. The biggest advice that I got was from a girl who told me to choose a character that’s very adjacent to your personality so that it’s easy to access when you’re in a high pressure situation. Pick somebody that is just a step away from you, so that when you turn it on, it still feels very natural and it still feels very fun. So that was the best advice anyone had given me in that sense.

When you are preparing, you mull over a few options, and the one that sticks out to you or the one that… Even while you’re there, you know, girls have made changes—but the one that really just feels close to your personality and the most comfortable is definitely the strongest choice.

AVC: As with all television, the Snatch Game shoot probably isn’t just what we end up seeing on television. How long are you actually playing and in character?  

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Denali: To me personally, it felt like it went kind of quick. I don’t know how you felt, Symone, but we were just rolling with it.

Symone: It felt very quick. It was very fun to do. I thought it was going to be much more nerve wracking than it was, but actually once you get there and the ball starts rolling, it’s really, really fun.

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But yeah, it is not a five-minute thing or however long it runs on TV. You have to stay in character for about two hours. It’s not easy to do by any means, because you have to be in character even while you’re not being talked to. So if there’s any banter in between anyone or the camera’s on you for whatever reason, you can’t turn it off. You have to be in it the entire time.

AVC: Is it clear in the room who’s having a good snatch game and who isn’t? Can you feel it?

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Symone: Oh yeah, you can definitely before the questions even start rolling. It’s really clear.

Denali: Yeah, absolutely. There’s just a sense of confidence in an answer or the quickness in an improv. Improv is all about speed and volleying and making sure that you match a certain type of energy, and it’s very, very clear when certain people have the energy and are naturally responding and it’s very clear when they’re not. It’s kind of an all or nothing deal, in my opinion.

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Symone: It’s not an in-between challenge. You either have it or do you don’t.

AVC: Watching Snatch Game and seeing someone bomb? It’s so uncomfortable.

Denali: It’s just such an important challenge to the whole series, so to not do well in the Snatch Game can be kind of devastating for sure.

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Symone: And there’s the added pressure of it being the twelfth Snatch Game. You have to bring it every time. RuPaul talking to you, whoever is there answering the questions, the cameras… It’s a lot.

Denali: I think that that’s one thing people don’t realize. As a viewer, Snatch Game looks very intimate. It looks very tight, it looks very small. Maybe it was because of COVID protocol, but when we arrived on set for Snatch Game, it really just felt a lot more magnanimous than what it was. The stage is very large. There are a lot of cameras on you, a lot of lights. It’s a lot more nerve-wracking than something like filming a commercial or an acting challenge where the space might be a little tighter. It’s pretty overwhelming.

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Plus, every girl is on set with you, so it does feel even more competitive because if you’re in a team [for another challenge], you’re able to tighten things up and have more communication. But for this, everybody is on their own. So it’s just a lot.

The A.V. Club: It’s also interesting because celebrity impersonation was always such a mainstay of drag and still is in places like Las Vegas, but so many queens who are coming up now maybe never had to have a Tina Turner or Cher in their back pocket. Drag Race U.K.’s Tia Kofi has said that celebrity impersonation isn’t really a thing that queens do in the U.K. except for a few exceptions, so this challenge was entirely foreign to them as performers.  

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Had you guys impersonated celebrities before?

Denali: Absolutely not.

Symone: Yeah, no. I wouldn’t say impersonated, but there are people where, when you a Tina Turner song, you try to do the mannerisms or if you do Whitney [Houston], you have a towel for sweating or whatever, but I wouldn’t say that’s a part of what I do. I think [impersonation] is becoming less and less of a thing in drag nowadays, which is kind of sad.

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Denali: I think it’s becoming somewhat of a lost art. It’s definitely more of an older art form when it comes to drag. Mainstream drag now is really being pushed into fashion areas and true mainstream acting like starring alongside Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born or things like that. Drag queens are making a lot of strides in modern day media.

I feel like celebrity impersonation touches on drag’s roots in the sense that we as queer people looked up to these divas and we impersonated them because we wanted to feel luxurious, feel opulent. It’s kind of like the ballroom scene where they would put on these balls. It was an opportunity for them to impersonate and mimic the styles of what they saw in Vogue magazine. That’s where the dance came from and things like that.

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So it all has roots in this sense of trying to be opulent and things like that. But that was the history of it. Now drag and drag queens are their own entities and they are their own businesses and they are their own pieces of art. Now drag is a lot more self-sufficient. We are our own celebrities and people are trying to emulate us now. We’re not trying to be Mariah Carey. We’re not trying to be Ariana Grande. We are the star. That’s what’s different about now and and why celebrity impersonation is not as common.

AVC: In Drag Race season four, Sharon Needles mentioned that she has the drag she wants to do, and then she has the drag she does when the electric bill is due. That’s when you pull out a Lady Gaga.

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Denali: That is a very good answer, because at the end of the day, if you want to be on Drag Race, you’ve got to know the ins and outs of the show. You’ve got to be able to sew. You’ve got to be able to do celebrity impersonation. So regardless of what experience you have, knowing that that’s coming up, you take the time to prepare. You take some improv classes, take some sewing classes, do whatever it is that you need to do to know that you can excel in those challenges.

So, for me and Symone, we did not do celebrity impersonation, but knowing that the challenge was coming up, that’s why I was like, “Okay, let me call upon my improv friends. Let me collaborate with people that I know have experience in this.” What does that mean? What does “yes, and” mean and what is volleying? These are all different things that I just didn’t know. And that was extremely helpful for the process of getting ready, because when you get on set and you realize that there are trained theater actors and actresses and there are other girls that have plenty of improv experience, you in whatever your brand in drag is have to fill those spots that you’re not as familiar with or as proficient in.

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As a dancer, I wasn’t going to take dance classes before Drag Race, because I was going to go do improv classes and sewing classes and things that I needed to improve on.

Symone: Yeah, because you never know what to expect with Snatch Game. You don’t know what’s coming at you. You may be good at something, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at it in the moment.

Denali: That’s what’s so great about RuPaul’s Drag Race in general. It’s like, “Oh, this person has so much experience in this area” and they don’t do well. And someone that you didn’t expect, someone has no acting experience or has been a very quiet personality throughout shines really well because they know you have to step it up. That’s what I love about the show. It’s that dynamic, and the “oh my god” unexpected twist or turn or performance.

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Symone: It also goes back to what Denali said earlier. Snatch Game is all about who you choose to do personality wise. Your character traits can make or break you in the soundstage because they may be funny, but you doing them may not be funny or you may not have it. It’s also the preparation for it, like knowing what this character does, the mannerisms, the catch phrases, the things that they would say, it’s all in character.

AVC: No one’s ever been able to do Beyoncé, no matter how many times people have tried.

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Denali: Don’t do Beyoncé. Don’t do anything close to her.

AVC: Is there at all a sense that you’re performing to an audience of one, with that audience being RuPaul? Do you have to think about what RuPaul likes, or who RuPaul knows?

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Denali: You’ve always got to know your audience.

Symone: At the end of the day, you’re trying to make people laugh. It’s really the only thing that matters.

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I think doing people that [RuPaul] knows or people that, just in general, are iconic characters helps a lot because celebrity nowadays is different than what it used to be. It’s just better to do a more iconic name than to do someone that is… not that people aren’t icons now, but it’s just in your best interest to do someone that has name recognition.

Denali: The Gen Z version of celebrities oftentimes are influencers or Internet personalities and things like that, but RuPaul might honestly not really know much about those people. Historically, sometimes when a drag queen chooses to go that route, it doesn’t really land because Ru’s probably not on Snapchat every day watching this influencer and that influencer. But choosing Carol Channing or somebody of RuPaul’s generation is just a wise decision for the competition.

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AVC: That’s shady! Carol Channing would be like 100 years old now, but you’re saying she’s of RuPaul’s generation.

Denali: But a lot of people know RuPaul loves her! Everyone that’s done Carol, like Bob The Drag Queen and Pandora Boxx, has been successful. It’s just smart.

AVC: Speaking of Bob and Pandora, do you guys have Snatch Game favorites? People you think just killed it, even if they didn’t go on to win?

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Denali: One of my all time favorites is Katya from All-Stars 2 as Björk. It was just so good and so stupid. And again, that was a really wise choice because Katya chose somebody that’s very adjacent to her personality and who’s just wild, manic, idiotic, crazy, bubbly… It’s very smart to choose somebody like that, and it translated so well. As somebody that appreciates idiocy and humor, I really loved that performance. I thought it was just so funny.

Symone: I think it’s anything Alyssa Edwards does, for me. When she did the woman from Mommy Dearest? That was the one for me.

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Also, Bob doing Uzo Aduba and Carol Channing. That was just brilliant.

Denali: Also Shea Couleé doing Flavor Flav. It was so good. It was a suggestion from one of her drag daughters who’s one of my good friends. She told her to do it and she killed it. Flavor Flav is somebody with such a big personality that you can just steal the whole scene.

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Speaking of that same season and performance, Jujubee as Eartha Kitt, so good, with that iconic line about “a sensible 74 degrees.” People are still saying that because she’s just so brilliant.

AVC: To switch gears a bit, you guys have both had a perfectionist narrative on the show or in real life. How are you using that notion of perfectionism to help you do better or have more fun with drag?

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Symone: I went in [to Drag Race] with a different idea than what I left with because I felt so much pressure to be on and to be right and to be perfect. Going through the whole thing, especially being in the bottom and having to lip sync, you just realize it’s just not that important. It’s about just being yourself and having fun with the entire experience. I don’t think I allowed myself to do that before being in the bottom.

Drag is supposed to be fun and you’re on national TV, so yes, you want to showcase your best, but you also want to come off like this is a fun time for you. I don’t think I allowed myself to do that beforehand.

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Especially watching myself last week, having that nagging in my head didn’t do me any good in the challenge. I think being on the bottom helped me combat that.

Denali: I a thousand-percent echo because all of those things, because truly having a similar personality to Symone in the sense that I also come from an athletic background where everything has to be perfect, everything has to be to the tea, and everything has to be correct, the optics of that mindset to a viewer makes you come off as overly intense.

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At the end of the day, like someone said, drag is about inviting somebody into an entertaining and fun time. And when I was , for example, watching myself have a mini-meltdown about the day where I was safe, as a viewer, I was like, “calm down.” Truly, it’s overreacting.

When I’m personally in a competitive environment, I really hone in and focus a lot, and I think sometimes that can be to your detriment. Because at the end of the day, the viewers are only seeing how intense you are about the competition and not how carefree and light and fun you are. That’s the difference between me and performers like Kandy Muse who just truly are having the best time. So I’m learning a lot about that and then learning how to try and have more fun in those competitive environments.

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I think a huge change came from the Rusical episode for me too, because I started that episode not getting the role I wanted, and I was really disappointed. I was in the space of thinking nothing is going my way. And then that conversation with Anne Hathaway really changed everything. I started to let go of all of that sense of control.

It’s such a common trope with Drag Race girls. Those girls just want to be really big personalities. You just want to be good, which is how we function as people or as competitors, when in reality we’re filming a reality television show and we want to be inviting the world to be having fun. When I started to let go of all of that and got with Gottmik, who is the perfect person to just absorb a carefree attitude from, that’s when I started to shine. It took me six episodes to finally be like, “girl, have fun.”

Marah Eakin is the Executive Producer of all A.V. Club Video And Podcasts. She is also a Cleveland native and heiress to the country's largest collection of antique and unique bedpans and urinals.