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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The queens hustle to stay alive through RuPaul’s Drag Race’s “Disco-Mentary”

Illustration for article titled The queens hustle to stay alive through RuPaul’s Drag Race’s “Disco-Mentary”
Photo: RuPaul’s Drag Race (VH1)
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Disco is an effervescent and evocative genre of music and, based on the sample set of the season 13 queens, far too few Americans are familiar with it. It’s long overdue the Drag Race treatment and while there’s plenty that “Disco-Mentary” struggles to deliver on, Ru’s reverence for the genre and the episode’s crash course in its history is refreshing. Unfortunately, the queens aren’t up for the challenge and this, combined with an underwhelming runway and some questionable judging, makes for a disappointing episode.

The episode begins with the queens reacting to Joey’s elimination and the lingering tension from one of the wildest episodes of Untucked in years. The editors splice together a quick catch-up for the non-Untucked viewers, but basically, Kandy and Tamisha got into it. Tamisha doesn’t have any patience for Kandy’s attitude and her dismissal of the B Squad queens, and as LaLa says, both Atlanta and Brooklyn queens do not let slights go. The Kandy and Tamisha tension is here to stay.

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The next day, Ru heads into the workroom rocking a red suit, a white shirt, and a red polka dot ascot, a nod to actor and comedian Charles Nelson Reilly. The queens play along, but none of them have a clue who Reilly is, which Ru handles delightfully. The queens will work in teams of two for both the mini and maxi challenges this episode, and as the previous winner, Mik gets to pick which pair he’d like to join. For the mini, each team will have 30 minutes to make a designer dress out of wallpaper from sponsor Spoonflower.com. Then one queen will model the dress in front of a wall covered in the same paper while their partner provides fashion commentary. The team who most stands out from the background will win.

The queens scramble to it, coming up with solid designs given the time constraints. Gottmik models in a sushi print while Kandy and Tina make fish puns. Denali channels a hopefully intentionally creepy button-eyed doll in a button-print dress, with Rosé introducing her as Button Foster. Elliott shows off a surprisingly cohesive hot pink animal print dress and Tamisha goes all in on Tiger King references, which Ru eats up. Utica commits to a bumbling character for her flower-print dress, and Olivia tries to sell it in the description, but everyone mostly seems confused. Last, LaLa goes minimal in a pizza print, with individual slices cut out as pasties, along with a collar, cuffs, and a skirt. Symone and LaLa have fun, and Ru is buying what they’re selling, but ultimately, Ru gives Elliott and Tamisha the win, with each awarded a $2500 gift card to Spoonflower.

For the maxi challenge, the queens will celebrate disco with a dance challenge. Each team will embody a different aspect of disco’s heyday, learning routines choreographed by Miguel Zarate. They’ll need to get their disco moves on and most importantly, convey the energy and spirit of disco. Gottmik, Kandy, and Tina will cover the birth of disco, while Elliott and Tamisha will cover the sexual liberation of disco. Olivia and Utica have Studio 54, the iconic night club, and Denali and Rosé have disco fashion. That leaves LaLa and Symone with disco sucks, the pushback against disco that marked the beginning of the end for the genre’s pop culture dominance.

Illustration for article titled The queens hustle to stay alive through RuPaul’s Drag Race’s “Disco-Mentary”
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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Elliott is thrilled to be taking on a challenge suited to his strengths and he’s not the only one. All the dancers are ready to strut their stuff and show what they can do. Ru returns to the workroom and calls the queens over, one team at a time, to talk through their subjects and give the audience a quick primer on disco. Denali and Rosé seem to be in sync and are working well together. They’re both eyeing a win in this challenge, particularly Rosé, who’s ready to give the producers the vulnerability they’re looking for. Symone and LaLa are pretty unfamiliar with disco, so they get a crash course on the disco sucks movement from Ru. Kandy, Tina, and Mik are similarly unfamiliar with disco, though Tina does manage to name three disco hits, even if he miss-attributes two of them. Given how much of a spotlight the queens’ lack of disco knowledge gets, it’s surprising that the episode skips right past Tamisha and Elliott. As the grande dame of the season, Tamisha is the likeliest to have a personal connection to at least the music of the era. Granted, he’s only 49 so the disco scene was before his day, but it feels safe to assume he’d at least be able to name some Donna Summer jams from his childhood.

Eventually the queens head to the main stage for their choreography rehearsal. Zarate introduces himself and gets to business, working with each group on their spotlight number. Kandy, Tina, and Mik are definitely outside their comfort zone, though Tina is much more at ease than his teammates. Symone and LaLa are next, getting pointers on their thrusting and shuffles. Elliott is excited to prove what he can do, so he’s less than thrilled to be handed a hula hoop. Tamisha struggles with his hoop, feeling foolish, and it doesn’t help that his mobility is somewhat limited by his ostomy bag. Tamisha may be in trouble. Denali and Rosé waltz through their rehearsal and according to Zarate, they have the most dance-heavy segment. If they can execute the routine, it should set them up well to contend for the win. Olivia and Utica, in contrast, are given some fabric to work. Olivia takes it in stride, but Utica battles with his fabric, and he’s not winning.

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The next day, it’s time to prep for the runway. Olivia opens up to Symone about his high school experience, including wanting to join the color guard and playing piccolo in the marching band. He was bullied about his weight in school—he was almost 300 pounds—and was incredibly insecure. After urging from his doctor and mom, he went on strict diets and found his way to theatre and other means of self-expression, which led him to drag. It took a long time for him to find confidence in his body, but Olivia’s in a much better place now, focusing not on a number on a scale, but how he feels.

Kandy also gets a spotlight, talking about his background. He grew up with his mom in and out of jail and spent a lot of time on the streets. He had to fight for himself in every situation, from school and work to relationships; he didn’t have adults sticking up for him. Kandy has put a lot of effort into releasing that anger and improving himself, and he sees his blow-up with Tamisha as a real step backwards. As for Tamisha, he talks with Denali about his childhood growing up in the projects and the community member, Miss Kim, who first introduced him to performance through cheerleading. Miss Kim saw Tamisha’s talent for dance and performance and celebrated him for it, but his grandmother did not approve, because, “boys don’t do that.” Miss Kim had a big impact on him and Tamisha traces his role as mother of the House of Iman back to her and the influence she had on his life.

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Illustration for article titled The queens hustle to stay alive through RuPaul’s Drag Race’s “Disco-Mentary”
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

On the main stage, Ru walks out covered in sequins, a purple and pink vision with fabulous orange hair. The panel looks great, but they’re surprisingly subtle with their wardrobe, leaving the ’70s fashions to the queens. Michelle is in a red dress with a chic up-do and hoop earrings, while Carson goes for a shiny pink jacket and returning guest judge Loni Love has on a blue, gold, and green patterned top, even bigger gold hoops, and lovely braids.

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The disco-mentary is up first, a combination of voice-over and clip packages from Ru and the queens’ dance numbers. Tina, Kandy, and Mik are up first. Tina looks fabulous in a red, orange, and yellow beaded fringe dress. It moves with every shimmy and swing and does a lot of work to cover for her more awkward movements. She needs more hip action, but she’s much more confident than Kandy and Mik, who are stiff. It’s a rough way to start out a celebration of disco. Elliott and Tamisha are second, and while it’s easy to see Tamisha counting her steps, she’s at least moving and feeling the beat. Elliott is in her element. It’s a shame she doesn’t get more to do—she’s clearly capable of it. Next are Olivia and Utica, who twirl fabric because… Studio 54? Utica is pulling the same faces she did in her runways last episode, and they do not work in this context. Olivia isn’t amazing technically, but she fully commits to the routine and she looks fantastic. Even Denali and Rosé’s segment is underwhelming, the choreography not living up to the hype. Rosé edges out Denali thanks to her look, but like the other queens, they need more torso and hip action and they could have gone bigger with their motions, extending their energy all the way to their extremities.

The group routines are actually the most impressive parts of the disco-mentary, and it’s in these moments that the dancers set themselves apart. This viewer’s eye flits right from LaLa to Tamisha to Elliott to Rosé to Denali, with props to Tina for matching their energy. Elliott and LaLa in particular stand out, arching their backs and getting low when needed. From the crispness of Denali’s flicks and hip pops, she’s likely right with them, but the camera moves away from her frequently, so it’s hard to tell. LaLa is the first queen to really nail her routine, hitting each move in her closing segment with Symone. The challenge ends with a Soul Train line and though the queens are much more relaxed and in the groove by this point, as a whole, the disco-mentary is one hell of a let-down. The queens needed more time to rehearse and, for at least some of them, more compelling choreography—get those hula-hoops out of there.

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It’s time for the runway, and category is: Little Black Dress. Tina’s out first, in a painter’s coverall tear-away that reveals a form-fitting black mini dress with red, orange, and yellow paint at the skirt and yellow and orange hand prints on her chest and cheeks. It’s simple, but effective. Kandy is the latest queen to take inspiration from Comme des Garçon, wearing a white canvas dress with Princess Diana’s famous revenge dress hand-painted onto it. Mik takes Valentina’s Madonna runway to a whole new level, wearing pasties and the littlest of black dresses, a fashion doll-sized garment glued to her navel that barely covers her crotch, with a bow offering some coverage from the back. On another queen this would land differently, but given Mik’s out-of-drag struggle to feel comfortable in his body, this look takes on greater significance. It’s frankly less shocking than she wants it to be, but Mik looks great because she obviously feels great.

Illustration for article titled The queens hustle to stay alive through RuPaul’s Drag Race’s “Disco-Mentary”
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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After the first group’s more creative approaches, Elliott’s traditional take is a little disappointing. She looks great and her gold and black coat is gorgeous, but her dress itself is pretty basic. Tamisha’s look is a bit more interesting, with a butterfly silhouette across the front. There’s extra fabric at the waist that doesn’t help her shape, but at least it’s somewhat distinctive. Olivia’s dress is less exciting. She’s in a strapless cocktail dress with gold embellishments. Her hair looks fantastic, but the garment itself is just fine. Utica doesn’t look all that great, but at least she’s interesting. She’s in an Audrey Hepburn-inspired dress, but with a gold bodysuit underneath and gold paint. She’s copying her stylized Hepburn earrings, but that detail is lost, as they’re far too small for the audience to clock, even in a close-up.

Denali’s dress is pretty straightforward, but she gives it a fun twist. When she takes off her hat, she reveals six more black eyes. She’s a spider, beaded webbing connecting her arms and torso, hanging from her hem, and decorating the back of her dress. Rosé calls back to her train runway in a little black dress with gray tulle framing and filling out the silhouette. LaLa’s dress is again pretty expected, a mini-dress with long sleeves and a little shape to the shoulder, with a silver neckpiece as embellishment. Symone is last, and she immediately wins the category, wearing a cute black dress with massive side and center cut-outs and gold rings holding the pieces together. The dress is made out of braiding hair, and adding drama is a platinum blonde wig, with hair styled over rings and into beads. She’s channeling RuPaul’s “Back To My Roots” music video and she looks fantastic. It may have dipped in the last episode, but Symone’s runway game is back.

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Ru gets right to business: Gottmik, Denali, Rosé, LaLa, and Symone are safe, and they’re not pleased. Tina, Elliott, and Olivia are in the top, which leaves Kandy, Tamisha, and Utica in the bottom. The judges loved Tina’s performance and they like her runway too. Kandy is read for her disco outfit and the judges want more variety in her performances. Michelle is not thrilled with Elliott’s runway, but she and the other judges rave over her dancing. Carson likes Tamisha’s dress, though Michelle has notes, but in the challenge, the judges wanted more from her. She was thinking too much instead of projecting fun and confidence. Olivia wowed the judges in the challenge, her positivity and energy shining through her movement. Utica is read for the second episode in a row for her face-pulling and though the judges love her look once she explains it, she shouldn’t have to explain it.

After deliberations, Olivia gets the win and the cash tip of $5000, and Tina, Elliott, and Utica are declared safe. That leaves Kandy and Tamisha up for elimination, lip-syncing to Blue Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!)”. Tamisha is in the pocket, feeling the beat and showing it with her whole body, while Kandy serves up more variety in her performance. Both do well, but this lip-sync isn’t the barn-burner that the past few episodes have delivered. Ultimately, Ru tells Kandy to shantay, sending Tamisha out of the competition much sooner than many anticipated. She’s certainly made a big impression during her run though, and should she return for All Stars, when she’s had more time to recover from her cancer treatments, she’ll be a strong contender. Tamisha came into Drag Race an established, formidable queen and she leaves with a new, nation-wide fanbase. Her journey to and on the show is truly impressive and the season will not be the same without her.

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Stray observations 

  • Need a palate cleanser from those lackluster disco routines? Seek out clips of Soul Train on YouTube. They’re a great way to immerse yourself in the sound, style, and energy of the 1970s dance scene and beyond.
  • I’m #TeamTamisha so perhaps I’m biased, but this is the first time this season I really didn’t agree with who was up for elimination. There were several queens who struggled more than Tamisha in the challenge. Yes, her eyes and face weren’t in it enough, but at least her hips were. This smacked of rigga morris, an opportunity to have a lip-sync pay-off to the recent Kandy and Tamisha drama.
  • Similarly, there are several queens I’d go to before Olivia this challenge as the performer you couldn’t take your eyes off of. If the judges are right on this, the camerawork and editing missed the mark in capturing her performance.
  • I loved Michelle’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman reference. A remake is currently being developed for Sony TV and Schitt’s Creek fans will be happy to hear that Emily Hampshire has been tapped to write, produce, and star in it.
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