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RuPaul's Drag Race levels the playing field with "The Ball Ball"

Illustration for article titled iRuPauls Drag Race /ilevels the playing field with The Ball Ball
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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So far, the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12 have done remarkably well. There were a few stumbles in “World’s Worst”, but in general, everyone has lived up to what has been a demanding early set of challenges. They’ve particularly shined with their runways. Everyone seems to have packed well, bringing plenty of meticulously designed and crafted looks with them. But how much of their runways are their designers and their checkbooks, and how much is them? After “The Ball Ball,” viewers have a better sense of how the queens shape up. It’s still early days, but between the premieres’ writing and performance challenge, the improv challenge, and this design challenge, front-runners are beginning to emerge.

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The episode begins somberly, with the queens reacting to the first elimination of the season. Nicky is shook, having come so close to elimination, and does not appreciate the many queens disappointed to be safe. The next day, the queens enter the workroom full of energy. After a sports pun-laden RuMail, Ru enters and announces the mini challenge. They’ll be raising awareness of the world’s declining bee populations by getting into quick bee drag and flapping their wings to The Beehive Jive. The Pit Crew enters in one of their most entertaining outfits in a while—beekeeping shirts and hats, and white thongs—delivering bee-themed attire and accessories for the queens to use. Ru starts the clock, and they’re off.

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It’s a joy to have quick drag back! Each of the queens brings something completely different to their bee look, and it’s always interesting to see what they prioritize with such limited time. Once their 20 minutes are up, Ru puts the queens in formation and they scurry around to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight Of The Bumblebee,” before busting a move to a remix of RuPaul’s “Freaky Money” now with honey. The whole mini challenge is a hoot, with Rock M., Heidi, Jaida, and a few others standing out. The editors throw some shade with a well-timed record scratch and Ru does a good job of balancing a worthy ecological awareness message with campy, ridiculous fun. Ru gives the win to Gigi, who impresses with a back handspring and unabashedly goes for several more moves, despite her limited dance skills. Gigi receives $2500 as her prize, and Hask beauty products will also be donating $2500 in her name to The Honey Bee Conservancy, a charity that works to protect and support bee habitats.

With the mini challenge complete, it’s time for the maxi challenge, and season 12 again does not disappoint. We’re already to the ball challenge, entertainingly dubbed The Ball Ball. The theme is sports, and it’s a great choice, with plenty of material to draw from and puns and double entendres for days. The first category is Lady Baller: Sexy Title IX Realness, celebrating female athletes. The second category is Basketball Wife Realness: He Owns Everything, Henny. These two looks will be drawn from the queens’ wardrobes, while the third—Balls To The Wall Eleganza—will need to be designed on the spot and made with materials provided. This season, those materials are the standard F&S fabrics wall and an assortment of balls of all sizes, from beach balls to small fuzzy puffs that look like little more than cotton balls. Some of these materials lend themselves more easily to design than the others, but putting together anything that qualifies as Eleganza will require creativity.

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The queens’ reactions to the challenge run the gamut. Gigi and Nicky are over the moon, ready to show their design and sewing chops. Crystal makes all of her looks, as does Jaida, so they’re also in their element. Rock M. has some cosplay creation tricks up her sleeve, and seems focused. Heidi, on the other hand, is not a sewer and is less than thrilled, telling the audience, “Just pray for me.” Brita is completely lost, unsure where to begin. Eventually, she hooks into the idea of a pineapple dress, prompted by something Sherry sings, and gets to work.

Illustration for article titled iRuPauls Drag Race /ilevels the playing field with The Ball Ball
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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As the queens dive in, two storylines surface. Gigi and Jaida are excited about their looks, but run into trouble. Gigi realizes she’s been sewing the way she would if she weren’t under a deadline. She’s now behind the other queens, and may run out of time to finish. Jaida is fine on time, but after scouring the materials tables, realizes there aren’t enough balls to complete her white gown. She needs to pivot, and quickly, if she’s going to present a finished look. Then there’s Aiden. She is going for a simple, Bettie Page-inspired look which amounts to a black and white corset decorated with matching, small poof balls. She’s concerned it won’t be enough—a sentiment all the queens share—until Jan points out that it resembles a referee uniform. Given that connection, Aiden decides less is more, completing it with time to spare.

As the queens prepare for the runway, the conversation moves to their paint, and Rock M. shares how she developed her look. When she was starting out, she kept running up against racism in the drag scene. People would tell her that Asian queens don’t need to paint, reducing all Asian queens down to one stereotype. Rock M. decided to actively push against this, painting bigger and bigger and drawing from the anime and manga she’s loved since her childhood. Of course, once she’d established her signature look, critics accused her of copying Trixie Mattel and Kim Chi, who both use dramatic white paint to enlarge and exaggerate their eyes. Rock M.’s frustration is palpable; she’s heard this a lot from people not willing to look closer and appreciate her distinct, thoughtful work.

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Before long, The Ball Ball begins. Ru walks the runway, sporting a fabulous purple gown and a tall blonde wig, and welcomes guest judge Leslie Jones. Anyone who follows her on Twitter knows Leslie, who’s stunning in a Diana Ross-inspired blue jumpsuit, is a Drag Race superfan, and she is soaking in every moment of being on the show. Category one is: Lady Ballers. The queens approach this category rather straightforwardly. Jackie is a Canadian la crosse player, Nicky a rhinestone-covered football player, Aiden a vintage baseball player, Jaida a WNBA star with questionable ball-handling skills, Crystal a bowler, Heidi a golfer, Widow an equestrian, and Gigi a croquet player à la Heathers. Each of them looks great, very polished and cute. A few queens get a bit more creative. Sherry channels Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull as a shot putter and Jan goes all-in with her soccer look, even dribbling a soccer ball down the runway in her heels. Brita’s baseball-themed dress is solid, and Rock M.’s walk is easily the most fun, whipping around a tetherball wig as she works the runway. Unfortunately the rest of her look is completely forgettable.

The second category is: Basketball Wife Realness. Several of the queens deliver on Ru’s expectations, serving up rich bitch attitude and style. Nicky slays in a gorgeous red ostrich coat. Jaida is stunning in burgundy. Jackie, Heidi, and Widow, are all on point in white, and Gigi works a striking snakeskin coat. Even Rock M. and Crystal, whose gold and pink looks aren’t quite up to the others’, are still in the right area. Jan and Sherry fit the brief in a different way, both going for track suits. Jan’s is dripping in rhinestones, while Sherry’s is a more traditional black and red. The two weakest looks are Aiden and Brita’s. Aiden makes a distinct choice, going for a trashy, Peg Bundy style Basketball Wife wannabe. She doesn’t quite hit the mark, but at least she has a clear point of view. Brita’s look is a misfire. She wears a yellow dress, taking inspiration from Kim Kardashian’s 2019 Met Gala look. But that dress was a nude illusion, dripping in crystals. This is butter yellow. The reference doesn’t track, and she looks out of place.

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Illustration for article titled iRuPauls Drag Race /ilevels the playing field with The Ball Ball
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

That leaves the final category: Balls To The Wall Eleganza. This is by far the roughest runway for the queens. A few manage to deliver on the category. Jaida crushes it, her planned white dress repurposed into a luxurious bubble bath look that screams Eleganza. Jackie serves up a surprisingly lovely blue gown with accents and a coat from the ball table. Nicky’s corset dress is cute and colorful, her fringe and front-and-center koosh balls adding a welcome touch of camp. Gigi similarly opts more for cute than elegant, decorating her white dress with small, colorful balls that read as gumballs. Both Nicky and Gigi are more playful than glamorous, but in a design challenge, anything that looks this chic is going to keep you safe. In the middle of the pack are Heidi, Jan, Crystal, and Sherry. Heidi and Jan’s looks are well made, and make good use of the materials, but aren’t traditionally elegant, and the same is true of Crystal’s fun Carmen Miranda drag and Sherry’s forest fairy.

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The other four queens all struggle, delivering underwhelming third looks. The best of the bunch is definitely Widow, who at least has a strong vision. Brita’s pineapple skirt and top is confusing and looks cheap. Rock M.’s dress is an explosion of floof, colorful but a mess. She’s sorely in need of editing, but even worse, Aiden looks like she doesn’t care. For a lingerie category or a period reference category, maybe. For eleganza? Nope, a corset and panty doesn’t cut it, and she is rightly read by the judges for not doing more.

Ru sends Jackie, Crystal, Jan, Heidi, Sherry, and Widow to untuck, each of them safe. It’s quickly clear who the bottom and top queens are. The judges love Jaida, Nicky, and Gigi’s looks, and want more from Rock M., Brita, and Aiden. Gigi is ultimately crowned the winner, earning her first $5000 cash tip, and Jaida and Nicky are safe. Aiden soon joins the other girls, and that leaves Rock M. and Brita lip-syncing for their lives. Brita is floored—she was certain Aiden and Rock would be the bottom two—but being in danger wakes her up a bit. Rock M. is in her feelings, but determined to fight to stay.

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The music starts, “S&M” by Rihanna, and right away, Rock is in trouble. Her look is limiting her movement and she goes to tear off her skirt, but has to pull it off one strand a time, a process that takes far too long. She’s bogged down, while Brita is higher energy right from the beginning. Once Rock’s more able to move, she busts into the splits. Undaunted, Brita steals focus back, picking up Rock’s castoff skirt and whipping it around. Rock battles back, but she goes to the splits too often, and by the fourth time, it’s lost its effect. Frankly, neither performance is great, but as in the previous episode, there’s a clear winner here. Ru saves Brita, and it’s Rock M.’s time to say goodbye.

It’s truly surprising to see Rock already eliminated. She’s funny and warm, with a distinct and memorable look and a lot to offer the competition. With more confidence and a touch more editing, she could have gone far. As for the rest of the queens, a few frontrunners have solidified. Gigi and Jaida consistently slay the runway and both have shown self-awareness and humor, Gigi in the improv challenge and Jaida with her premiere verse. Jackie and Heidi are nipping at their heels and Crystal is already listening to the judges, tweaking her paint while maintaining her aesthetic. The rest of the queens—particularly Aiden and Brita—have some work to do. The competition is fierce this season, and if they don’t want to join Dahlia and Rock M. on the bench, they’ll have to up their game.

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Stray observations

  • Because of how Drag Race screeners work, I didn’t get to see Dahlia’s exit until after last week’s episode aired. It’s no Vanjie, but it’s certainly memorable.
  • Shout-out to any fellow Outlander fans who can’t hear “prêt” without thinking of the Fraser clan motto.
  • Speaking of Nicky, she has warmed up tremendously in only a couple episodes. Her “Guuuuuurl” to Crystal, when she describes her “World’s Worst” makeup as light, is great.
  • Rock M. is the first of what I assume will be many season 12 queens I can’t wait to see come back for a future All Stars season. From jumping rope with her Alice wig to her pre-lip-sync, “Happy thoughts,” I was with her the whole episode. Well, maybe not for that third look.
  • Leslie Jones was a terrific guest judge. It was great having a comedian on the panel for the runways, and it’s clear Ross loved working with her. That being said, the editors and producers let down the final two queens by over-inserting Leslie during the lip-sync. That moment should belong to the queens, and all the extra Leslie content was distracting.
  • That being said, Leslie was fantastic in Untucked. Her respect for the queens and for the art of drag was palpable, and her advice to Aiden was particularly potent.
  • Brita’s asthma cough sure reads differently right now, doesn’t it? I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy during this strange, difficult time.
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