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

This season of Drag Race is missing more than Sherry Pie

Every new episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12 begins with a reminder. Sherry Pie isn’t in the competition anymore. No matter how well Sherry Pie does, she’s not a contender for the crown. The note stays on the screen for 15 seconds. The producers want to make sure you have time to read every word. And then the show spends 90 minutes (2 hours with Untucked) trying as hard as possible to convince you that Sherry Pie doesn’t exist.

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Sherry Pie (whose real name is Joey Gugliemelli) debuted on RPDR on March 6, in the second half of a two-part premiere splitting this season’s 13 queens into two groups. Earlier that week, a former acquaintance of Gugliemelli posted on Facebook that Gugliemelli had used a fake casting director identity to convince the aspiring actor to send suggestive videos and photos of themselves. One minute before BuzzFeed News published an article with new allegations from four more men, Gugliemelli issued an apology on Sherry Pie’s Facebook page, a statement that essentially functioned as an admission of guilt in the court of public opinion.

The show’s producers responded quickly and disqualified Sherry Pie from the competition. They added the aforementioned disclaimer: “In light of recent developments and Sherry Pie’s statement, Sherry Pie has been disqualified from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Out of respect for the hard work of the other queens, VH1 will air the season as planned. Sherry Pie will not appear in the grand finale scheduled to be filmed later this spring.” The shadow of Sherry Pie’s misconduct looms large on this season, and the show’s storytelling has been drastically disrupted by measures taken to minimize Sherry Pie’s screen time.

There wasn’t any time to cut a new version of Sherry Pie’s debut episode after her disqualification, so we’ve seen what this season would look like without alteration. And it is The Sherry Pie Show. She has the most talking-head interviews of any contestant in the episode, positioning her as one of this season’s core narrators. She’s a motivator and leader during the episode’s Fosse-inspired challenge, and on the runway, Thandie Newton compares Sherry to Meryl Streep.

Image: VH1
Image: VH1

The disclaimer lets us know early that Sherry Pie won’t be appearing in the finale because she probably makes it all the way to the end. Nine episodes into RPDR season 12, she’s won two maxi-challenges—$5,000 is donated to The Trevor Project each time to offset her prize money—and despite a small dip in the last two episodes, Sherry Pie would still be a frontrunner for the crown. But those talking heads are gone. Sherry Pie’s workroom conversations with RuPaul are never shown. Her rehearsals only end up on screen if she’s in a group, and even then, the editors pick shots where Sherry isn’t prominent.

The RPDR Reddit detectives uncovered concrete evidence of the Sherry Pie edit, posting a side-by-side comparison of the international and American versions of a scene from “World’s Worst,” Sherry Pie’s second episode and her first maxi-challenge win. In the episode pushed to international streaming services, Sherry Pie actively participates with her teammates and gets a dramatic talking head setting up potential failure for the group. The American version removes Sherry Pie’s workroom and confessional input, but it also pushes her out of frame, hoping that out of sight means out of mind for viewers. But Sherry can only be sidelined for so long, and the show can’t completely edit around her when she delivers performances that land her in the top.

This is where RPDR season 12 becomes a fascinating experiment in reality TV storytelling. How do you retroactively enforce disqualification on a contestant who does extremely well in a competition? Editing is what ultimately creates the narrative envisioned by the producers, and with Sherry Pie, it’s a strange situation where a top-performing contestant gets no attention from the editors. A win is empty if you don’t see the work that goes into it and learn more about the queen who succeeds, and even though Sherry does well in challenges and on the runway, she loses the screen time that gives queens the biggest opportunity to shine and gain pop culture prominence.

And it works. It’s easy to forget Sherry Pie is a contestant until she has a line in a sketch or a verse in a song. But the dropped story threads are more apparent because we’ve seen the narrative groundwork laid in Sherry Pie’s unedited debut. She loudly proclaims her passion for musical theater during the first challenge, but when she plays Evita-era Madonna in “Madonna: The Unauthorized Rusical,” no time is spent with the musical queen stepping into an iconic musical role, a performance that ensures Sherry Pie is safe for the week. [The original version of this article stated that Sherry Pie was in the top three this episode. She was actually safe.-Ed.]

Sherry Pie also lands in the top during this season’s “Snatch Game” episode, where she gives a Katharine Hepburn impression that goes heavy on the tremor-related humor. But what makes this episode unique is the runway portion where the queens wear looks inspired by Disney’s Frozen: The Broadway Musical. Sherry’s runway presentation is completely cut, and we only see her gown during the judges’ critiques. It’s the first time the series hasn’t shown a queen walk the runway in that week’s garment. Given the challenge’s explicit connection to a Disney franchise, it’s very possible that Disney got involved and insisted on removing Sherry Pie’s runway walk so that there’s less risk of associating her with a massively successful children’s property. [The A.V. Club has reached out to VH1 and the show’s production company, World Of Wonder, about this particular cut, and we’ll update this post if we receive a response.—Ed.]

Screencap: RuPaul’s Drag Race
Screencap: RuPaul’s Drag Race

RPDR isn’t a solo game, and alliances and rivalries come into play a lot because those make for good television. If Sherry Pie was a frontrunner, there were undoubtedly other queens that either wanted to ride her coattails or knock her down a peg. How much time did producers spend developing those relationships? How many contestants lost out on screen time because they had storylines built around their dynamics with Sherry Pie? The premiere spent time on Sherry Pie and Jan’s connection as musical theater queens from New York City, and the international version of episode three builds a similar bond between Sherry Pie and Brita, another musical theater queen from New York City. Did those relationships change when Sherry started out-performing her NYC drag sisters? We’ll never know because any Sherry content that isn’t completely necessary for narrative continuity doesn’t make it on screen.

There’s some tension between Sherry Pie and Jaida Essence Hall in their first episode, a conflict that fits nicely into the comedy queen vs. pageant queen rivalry this show loves to exploit. They faced off against each other in a top two lip sync, which Jaida won, but in the episodes since, Sherry Pie has pulled ahead with two wins. It’s easy to see this as a source of drama, but it goes untouched. Gigi Goode is blazing through the game this season—she’s the first queen to secure three wins by her sixth episode—and it feels like she doesn’t have any real competition because the other frontrunner has been cut out.

Sherry Pie’s disqualification throws off the balance of the season by removing a crucial part of the narrative, and there’s always going to be some cognitive dissonance when Sherry Pie ends up in the top without any support from the editing. The overall stakes take a hit because there isn’t much conflict at the top, but there’s also something compelling about seeing what a reality TV contestant’s arc becomes when they have no personal story behind them and appear solely in performance mode. Reality TV personalities are created by what the producers and editors allow the viewer to see, and without any on-screen relationships or solo testimonials, it becomes harder for the audience to root for an individual. There’s no way to completely remove Sherry Pie from the season without leaving huge gaps in the storytelling, but editing her out prevents the disqualified queen from reaping the rewards of exposure.

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