RuPaul’s Drag Race U.K. Is a Meditation on the Limits of an Empire

The halls of Tinseltown, stretching out into a golden infinity in all digital directions, is ringing with a new sort of sound these days. Gone are the paparazzi shutters, clicking and clacking on the heels of a greek yogurt spokeswomen and American Express cover models. In their stead are one million heterosexuals, clamoring over each other in all forms to lap at the teat of RuPaul Charles, cackling from atop a marble plinth on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. 

Only now that blessed nectar runs sour, and slow. The well, to any onlooker, appears to run dry. 

Run anywhere on the internet and the average nobody will encounter some angry somebodies, tearing at their clothes and gnashing their teeth, clearly showing early signs of withdrawal. RuPaul is absent in this picture, already charting a transatlantic flight to somewhere called New Zealand, off to mine some other precious resource, now that her reserves in Los Angeles run low. Back home, the gay people join arms with those heterosexuals and chant “Drag Race! Drag Race!” as they slaughter each other in ritual combat, their matches particularly bloody in recent weeks, whipped into a rage by one particular fracking venture of the Empress: RuPaul’s Drag Race U.K. What’s got them into such a tizzy? Well, everything, and nothing, I suppose. But it’s grown increasingly obvious what, exactly, the limitations of Miss Rude Paul’s powers really are. 

It isn’t looking good for the supermodel of the world.

Season 3 of RPDRUK (assume this is legible to the yasspilled among us) came but months after the highly celebrated finales of both RPDRUK season 2 and RPDR season 13. Their respective winners, Bimini Bon Boulash–shhh, just go with it–and Symoné, have emerged from the coliseums to a cavalcade of successes. Modeling ventures, book deals, television spots, music videos, and more. Even the unsuccessful contestants have reaped the leftovers. Denali got mildly popular on Twitter while embroiled in a public beef with AlamabaStarr, and Rosé is now known as the less popular Jan Sport, Patron Saint of Not This and also Losing. 

Even runner up Lawrence Chaney was invited on Bob The Drag Queen and Money XChange’s podcast, a higher honor than the RuPeter Bades that she could burn, maybe, to keep warm through the winter. 

Season 3, however, is a different story. Producers invited back a still traumatized Veronica Green, who’d been open about her financial struggles after she was disqualified from her original season for contracting coronavirus. She was an early out, an expected outcome, considering she had but a month to turn around an entirely new wardrobe while her original season was still on the air, her already constructed looks unusable and unseen. Another frontrunner to the season was Veronica Scone, the first cis woman to compete on a mainline franchise. From the outset, it was clear producers had prepped for a victory lap, handing Victoria a top two placement in the first episode and a celebratory lip-sync, despite losing to competitor Krystal Versace, who took the win despite her young age (19) and relative newness to the art of drag.

The machinations were laid bare quite quick. This was, if anything, the expected top three. 

But reality had other plans for these reality show producers. Victoria injured herself in that lip-sync, while Veronica justifiably cracked under the pressure of the competition’s quick turnaround, and her increasingly obvious financial predicament. Both were gone by the season’s third episode. Krystal, then, took the mantle from the fallen warriors, skinny arms just barely able to hold its weight while her many rhinestoned body suits chaffed at her shoulders. In her shadow raced the British Rosé, Ella Vaday, whose theatre degree announced itself with a loud clown honk whenever she entered a room. Dark horse Kitty Scott-Claws also kept apace, sans any wins, while Vanity Milan defied every odd to keep herself with the frontrunners. 

Amid the arms race, the lesser competitors were sloughed off, but not before they filled their storyline requirements. River Medway had her comeuppance when, but a week after criticizing Scarlett Harlett’s attitude, was sent home in a double elimination for a lack of that same attitude. Choriza May, her double elimination sister, fit the “fan favorite who was robbed” costume quite nicely. As for Scarlett, she stuck around just long enough to have a full circle villain edit. First, she was spared in a double save alongside hometown sister Charity Kase. The very next week, they landed in the bottom again, only for Scarlett to emerge triumphant, Charity sent through the meat grinder because… well… it was never quite clear. Rumors have it she got into a verbal sparring match with RuPaul the week prior, but no one ever believes Willam anyway. Most likely, producers, desperate for a storyline, latched onto a minuscule moment in which Charity had selected someone other than Scarlett for a group challenge, a moment they mined in Scarlett’s confessionals for multiple episodes. 

Sadly for Scarlett, her temporary usefulness as RuPaul’s personal Macauley Culkin impersonator abandoned her shortly after River and Choriza’s elimination. Bye bye!

As such, we’re left with Vanity, Krystal, Kitty, and Ella. The four were spared elimination in a shocking no-bottom double-win twist, which gave Kitty her second win in a row, and Ella her third badge in total. If the programming schedule is to be believed, this means there is another two weeks of the competition before we’re any the wiser on who exactly the winner will be. Krystal seemed the obvious choice, but Kitty’s gained momentum as Ella was crowned the season’s Snatch Game champion. (However much the win should have been Kitty’s, but I digress.) Does the winner really matter at this point? Probably not. Any goodwill the competitors have garnered the last 10 years this season has been on have evaporated by now, the very walls of the BBC’s golden child crumbling in around them. 

A question, then, presents itself: Was the demolition of the show’s reputation a unexpected side effect, or the plan from the very beginning?

Let’s step back briefly to examine the structure of the competition itself. The format of the show is really no different than any other on air here in the states. Project Runway, Top Chef, and other high-fidelity competition shows generally feature a mini-game and a main challenge, with each win providing bonuses to the contestants in the form of cash or in-game immunity. Tops and bottoms define the judging structure, with contestants being sent to deliberate and generate storylines while judges lay out the plot for viewers. So and so was on a high but failed to meet expectations this week, while the other so and so has struggled, but really rose to the occasion this time around. Eventually, someone wins, and someone loses, and the game rolls over into the next week. 

Likewise, each competition features an in-game lynchpin, either in the form of a twist or “event” episode. For Top Chef, this is “restaurant week,” while on Project Runway it presents itself as the unconventional materials challenge. Drag Race, meanwhile, features a confusing mishmash of twists and event episodes: Snatch Game, double eliminations, double saves, and  the original song episode. RPDRUK season 3 featured all of these, and more, and yet more, and even more beyond that. 

In episode three, Victoria left the competition due to an injury, and Veronica was eliminated. The very next episode, Scarlett and Charity were double saved, only to both land in the bottom in episode five. Episode four also featured not one, not two, not three, but four whole winners. Conversely, episode five featured no winners, with RuPaul launching an undeserved attack on the contestants for their lack of creativity and originality. In episode six, Choriza and River were double eliminated, and by episode eight, nobody was eliminated, and Kitty and Ella were handed the season’s second multi-queen win. From all appearances, the wheels of the competition were off, and producers made it up as they went. 

From all appearances. 

A more discerning eye will see the game for what it really was. Not only did RPDRUK feature all the usual challenges, it also presented a franchise first for all iterations of the hit show: A twist on the unconventional materials challenge in which the top five had to tear apart the racks of a charity shop to make their looks in the first ever “Fugly Ball.” It was the season’s very first enjoyable episode. 

Contrary to the (justifiable) accusations of rigor morris on part of producers and judges, RPDRUK was not some slipshop production rushed in a pandemic that has decimated the queen’s financial security and mental health. Well, it was, but only partly. This season, more so, was a sandbox, just enough removed from the franchise’s golden children back home in the states as to not have any immediate repercussions. I mean, it’s all quite obvious, isn’t it? The season featured the very first cis woman, a hotly debated topic still being argued about by the lesser minds of our community. Likewise, it featured multiple twists on the judging structure, from double saves into double eliminations, no winners, group winners, double winner lip syncs, and even direct intervention by RuPaul, who informed the girls they were shit. (A definite escalation on her earlier H&M tirade.) By my estimation, World of Wonder is savvier than most anyone gives them credit for, having built this television empire in the first place. They’re already underway with season 14 of the American franchise, while casting for season 15 has begun, and production on RPDR Down Under also underway, or  having just wrapped up. In a world that seems no less likely to pry itself from the clutches of coronavirus in the next year, and more drag queens on television than any other point in human history, I bet they see the need to shake things up.

Too bad, really, as this season proves they’ve stretched themselves to the very limit. The well is dry, and chaos descends on the kingdom. But all’s not lost–yet, anyway. Drag queens are more resilient than that. 

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