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RuPaul's Drag Race gets a needed personality boost as a new contender blossoms

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Halfway through its run, RuPaul’s Drag Race season 11 has a personality problem. While there is energy and charisma to spare in the workroom, only a few of the queens consistently stand out in the challenges, delivering memorable, distinct performances. Most of those who do—Vanjie, Nina, and sometimes Silky—are hit-and-miss at best on the runway. Brooke, Plastique, A’keria, and Ra’Jah tend to present striking and beautiful looks on the runway, but they rarely develop a character to go with. As for Shuga, while she’s stepped up her game from earlier in the season, she has yet to make a strong impression. Yvie is the only queen to consistently bring her personality and distinct point of view to the challenges and the runway, and as of the start of this episode, she’s injured. The queens this season are talented and engaging, but few have developed the full package Ru looks for in a winner, and with the season ticking away, that’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem.

Normally, the solution would be a comedy or acting challenge, pushing the queens to come further out of their shells—and giving the editors some wiggle room if no one steps up. Instead, the season’s third design challenge is up next. The increase in sewing and design challenges this season has been great, getting Drag Race a step closer to its roots than the uber-polished All Stars and giving the queens the opportunity to show the audience who they are through their creativity and sense of fashion. Unfortunately, the increased profile of the show and constant pressure for polished, pristine looks has left the queens understandably less willing to take big swings and step outside their comfort zone. That leads to beautiful, but predictable runways. Ru is very aware of this, and with Snatch Game right around the corner, he and the producers do everything they can to amp up the drama, find teachable moments, and light a fire under the queens, pushing them to deliver as well on the main stage as they do backstage.

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“Farm To Runway” begins with Ra’Jah still hot from Scarlet picking her as the queen who should go home. She may disappear in challenges, but Ra’Jah is steering right into a villain edit at the top of the episode, to the point where Nina, Vanjie, and the other queens comment on it. Some may shy away from the diva role, but Ra’Jah knows exactly what she’s doing, serving up drama for the producers in the talking heads and ensuring plenty of screentime. The next day, Yvie leads the queens into the workroom, on crutches, and after a brief chat about which Drag Race alums these queens have been compared to, it’s time for the mini challenge.

The mini challenges have been delightful all season, with the previous episode’s Galisthenics with Love Connie the current high water mark. This mini challenge may not quite match that level, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. The queens need to get into quick drag and prepare to work their very best, “slo-mo, jugs-a-jigglin’ boobography.” The queens will compete in a potato sack race (even Yvie, who’ll compete while stationary), jumping up and down in their sacks as they make their way to the finish line. The queens with the most successful and satisfying boobography will win. This is absolutely ridiculous, and expertly edited and timed. The editors cut back and forth between the queens in various slo-mo speeds as they go whole-hog, embracing the challenge with gleeful abandon. The expressions from the various queens as their breast enhancements shake and shimmy out of place are hilarious and their complete commitment to the bit makes it soar. In the end, Ru declares Nina and Shuga the winners, but all of the queens did well.

Once everyone is back in place, Ru announces the maxi challenge. The queens will use all natural ingredients to create a farm-to-runway look that is sustainable and high fashion. The reactions run the gamut. Nina looks apprehensive, to say the least, Vanjie assesses the materials thoughtfully, and Shuga starts eating all the delicious-looking produce. After a brief exchange between Vanjie, who’s hyper-aware that she needs to change up her silhouette or face the wrath of Michelle, and Yvie, who Vanjie knows will give her the straight t, it’s time for Ru’s walkthrough.

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Ru’s there to check in with the queens and offer guidance, but even more than usual, this walkthrough is designed to whip up drama. Ru makes sure to ask each queen who they think should go home. Brooke answers honestly, citing Ra’Jah’s track record, but most of the queens hedge. A’keria chooses Brooke, wanting to send home her competition; Vanjie chooses Yvie because of her comments last episode, before clarifying that she knows Yvie was right; and Silky chooses Yvie as well, due to her injury. It’s clear from the reaction shots that the entire workroom can hear these exchanges, and Ru gets exactly what she’s looking for when Yvie bristles at Silky’s comments. She then picks Silky to go home, telling Ru that Silky’s not listening to the judges. After the cease fire between these two in the most recent Untucked, they’re back at it. It would seem this is a thread that will run for the rest of the season, or until one of the two is eliminated.

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If there’s one thing Ru likes more than a spirited rivalry in the workroom, it’s an emotional breakthrough and that’s exactly what she gets when she stops by Plastique’s station. Ru’s not just stirring the pot, she also makes sure to emphasize to the queens that they need to deliver more personality. Plastique has been a little closed off so far this season, struggling to connect with the judges. After a little prodding, she opens up about the pressure she feels to live up to her family’s expectations for her, having tiptoed toward expressing her full self with them only to see this cause them pain. It’s an emotional exchange and before long, Ru’s giving Plastique a warm hug and letting her cry it out. Ra’Jah’s highly skeptical, but Nina and Yvie are moved, and the editors do a good job of interspersing reactions from the other queens, both in the moment and as talking heads. Yes, it’s convenient that Plastique has a breakthrough with Ru just as Ru starts harping on personality, but that doesn’t mean she’s not being genuine. Having Nina, the season’s voice of maturity and perspective, express her sympathy and support helps keep the audience rooting for Plastique.

In case it wasn’t clear yet that this is Plastique’s episode, the queens head to the runway for a surprise coaching with Drag Race legend Alyssa Edwards, Plastique’s drag mother. Alyssa has the queens walk, giving notes on how to connect more immediately with the audience and stand out from their fellow competitors. Initially it feels like a stretch, but if there’s one alumnus to call in when the queens need an injection of personality, it’s Alyssa. She’s not impressed with Brooke’s balletic motion, pushing her to amp up her character, and she tells Vanjie she needs to slow down her strut and serve more face. Silky needs to cool it with her hands and, in one of the episode’s bigger surprises, viewers are treated to a much more animated Plastique, who mugs all over the place. Alyssa’s coaching winds up being a terrific aside, putting the queens in stark relief beside each other. Stripped of their extravagant looks, who can captivate? Nina, who’s yet to really wow on the runway, does great and Yvie manages the impossible: she shuts Alyssa up, impressing her and going above and beyond to show Silky just how recovered she is. Afterward, Alyssa choreographs a group line dance that the queens will perform before the runway.

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And like that, it’s elimination day. A’keria and Ra’Jah have had to make last-minute changes to their garments after running into trouble with their original designs. On the whole, though, the queens seem confident with their looks. What they shouldn’t feel confident in is Alyssa’s line dance. It comes across as a complete after thought. Yvie’s a lot of fun as the fiddler, resting on a bale of hay so as to stay off her ankle, but the number is nowhere near as polished as the rest of the season’s routines have been. The camera keeps jumping around and it’s likely the queens did not get enough time to rehearse. Alyssa’s previous choreography for Drag Race was much more successful. Hopefully this won’t be her swan song in this role.

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The runway itself is tricky. Ru is very nonspecific about what counts as natural materials and there doesn’t seem to be any particular weighting towards the queens who fully embraced the brief and those who didn’t. Shuga looks great, serving up a fun, spring-like look and a very different face. Silky’s garment is stylish and her use of candies and beans as stones works well. Yvie’s stunning, and the clear winner, had the narrative not dictated Plastique walk away with the win. Nina’s working on her proportionizing and her corn husk look is cute from the waist up, but it’s a mess below. Then there’s Brooke, whose dress is admittedly lovely, but it’s one made entirely out of fabric. How is denim eligible? The same is true for A’keria, whose darker denim look isn’t nearly as successful as Brooke’s. Vanjie’s look is not great, but at least she went for the spirit of the challenge with an all-rope top. Ra’Jah also uses fabric, but her burlap pants fall apart. If she’d made the pants of out denim, would she have been in trouble? And last is Plastique, who once again looks gorgeous in a corset and close-cropped headpiece.

Shuga, Silky, and Vanjie are quickly dispatched as safe. The top three are clear: Yvie, Brooke, and Plastique, and given the rest of the episode, Plastique’s win feels about right. Nina winds up safe, though low, thanks to her creative approach to the challenge and willingness to listen and grow. That leaves Ra’Jah and A’keria in the bottom, set to lip-sync to Sheena Easton’s “Strut.” It would take a lot for Ra’Jah to survive yet another lip-sync. The judges are tired of telling her she needs to do more, and A’keria is just coming into her own after last episode’s win. Both A’keria and Ra’Jah do a fine job with “Strut,” but A’keria clinches the win with her pivot to comedy toward the end. Ra’Jah’s been on her way out for a while, despite serving up plenty of drama and entertainment in the workroom. She’s yet another queen this season who will likely be well served by a future appearance on All Stars, but this is definitely her time.

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Stray observations

  • This challenge is a first for Drag Race, turning food into fashion, but reality fans will remember it as not far off from Project Runway’s first ever unconventional materials challenge. Queens tend to come into Drag Race familiar with previous seasons of the show, but Nina’s decision to use corn husks for her look immediately calls to mind season one Project Runway standout Austin Scarlett’s premiere-winning corn-husk cocktail dress. I’d love to know if Nina’s familiar with that dress, and if that influenced her choice of materials.
  • Yes, this is Plastique’s episode, but if Michelle doesn’t start reading her for delivering the same silhouette soon, I’ll be annoyed.
  • After this episode, Brooke and Yvie feel like a lock for top two, but the other top spots could go a bunch of different ways, particularly after the serious contender edit Plastique gets here. Not Shuga, though. She keeps delivering in the talking heads, but she’s all but cut out of the rest of the episode. I expected Nina to make top four or five for sure, but Ru seems pretty set against her. Here’s hoping Snatch Game changes her mind.
  • Speaking of, next episode is Snatch Game! I know many fans have tired of this challenge, but I’m excited as ever to see what these queens have planned.
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