Art may be subjective, but it’s clear that the judges (and producers) of RuPaul’s Drag Race sometimes take more than the queens’ weekly performances and runway looks into consideration while picking the tops and bottoms of the episode. Fans of reality television are largely aware that “reality” is a loosely used term, and understand that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. More often than not, real life isn’t full of the TV-worthy highs and lows that keep us coming back for more.
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That being said, if viewers wanted pure fiction they would tune in for a scripted show instead, so it’s important to find a good balance. Drag Race aficionados have developed a nose for deception, and after 15 seasons of the main series, 8 seasons of All Stars, and various international sister shows, many have caught onto how production and editing tricks shape each season— especially when it comes to All Stars. Start your engines, and we’ll race into what makes All Stars uniquely unfair.
Returning queens have built-in narrative potential, whether it’s facing the challenge that sent them home last time or interacting with a queen they have history with. In a successful season, these storylines will play out organically— or will convincingly appear to, at least. Throughout All Stars Season 2, the trio of Roxxxy Andrews, Detox, and Alaska (dubbed “Rolaskatox“), is reunited, which creates a compelling struggle for Alaska, who wants to come into her own as an individual, but finds herself unable to vote out Roxxxy even when it’s clearly her time to go. If this was a pre-planned excuse to keep Roxxy on the show, Alaska and the producers got me, gal. Whether it’s real or produced, it comes across as genuine, and that’s what matters in the world of reality television.
On All Stars Season 8, which is currently airing, the narrative beats have felt notably more forced. In Episode 3, “The Supermarket Ball,” LaLa Ri ends up in the top for what’s frankly a passable package. The look she creates in the werk room is undeniably a major improvement from her Season 13 “Bag Ball” look, but can it really get worse than some gift bags sloppily glued to a corset? The Miss Congeniality winner has a lovely personality, so it doesn’t feel great to take a moment of triumph from her, but any fan with functioning eyes knows her top placement wasn’t earned, which undermines the point of ru-demption. With how iconically awful her first ball was, LaLa being safe would’ve been enough of a comeback to satisfy fans. Instead, the episode received heavy criticism for not giving Heidi N Closet or Kahana Montrese a spot in the top.
LaLa’s top placement might seem harmless. It’s not like she got the win, after all. However, track records play an important role in All Stars because of the format’s advancement system. Although the queens technically can vote to eliminate whichever bottom queen they please for any reason, those who try to take out the top competition are effectively declaring open season on themselves if/when they end up in the bottom, as Jimbo swiftly learned on UK vs The World after taking out front-runner Pangina Heals. If top and bottom placements are going to be used as a metric of fairness, they should be, well, fair.
It seems likely that in addition to attempting to make good TV, the forces behind RuPaul’s Drag Race also might’ve felt like they should throw LaLa a bone for using her “Bag Ball” failure as a recurring source of entertainment, in a similar vein to the treatment of Victoria “Porkchop” Parker, whose name became synonymous with failure after subsequent seasons referred to being eliminated first as “getting the porkchop.” LaLa Ri received the first ever “Golden Boot” for her look, which denotes the worst look of the season. Seasons 14 and 15 also gave out Golden Boot awards, so it doesn’t seem like anyone will be forgetting it anytime soon… or ever, if Porkchop is any indication.
While those traditions are all in good fun, RuPaul’s Drag Race does bare some level of responsibility for the contestants’ public images, which makes All Stars the perfect time to right any slights with the benefit of hindsight. Similarly, there’s good reason to keep the queens who represent the show well in a positive light, which was especially the case for All Stars Season 7, which pitted the franchise’s winners against each other for the title of “Queen of All Queens.” This season used RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK’s badge system with the added twist that the winning queen could block a competitor from earning a badge even if they won next week’s challenge. Additionally, nobody would be sent home, which meant that the four queens with the most badges by the end of the season would compete in lipsynch smackdown for the crown… in theory.
Those familiar with the showdown are well aware that Jinkx Monsoon, the season’s winner, clearly lost the final lipsynch against Monét X Change. What you may not know is that several of the queens present for it alleged that at one point, Jinkx was so certain that Monét beat her that she stood in place and watched her perform. If that really happened, it was edited out, but even that edit wasn’t enough to convince anyone Jinkx won. Later, ADR of RuPaul including that the winner would also be determined by overall performance throughout the season was added in post to justify her crowning, which is obvious from the way the camera cuts from Ru when the line is delivered.
Monét X Change also benefited from some rigging— as did Shea Coulee— when the season’s final qualifying challenge was revealed to be worth three points, which rendered the entire rest of the competition pointless because anyone could advance to the lipsynch showdown if they won the talent show. Monét and Shea are the strongest in lipsyncing among the cast, and both did showcase incredible talents in the challenge. But production also knew what their talents were going to be in advance and understood that Jinkx, Shea, and Monét were the three fan-favorites from the jump. The interference was far from subtle.
RuPaul’s Drag Race clearly puts a lot of consideration into what fans will like, but the truth is that most fans just want everyone to have a fighting chance. With $200,000 on the line, the competitors deserve that, and fans deserve to be treated like they aren’t too stupid to pick up on blatant production tricks. Reality TV may not be as real as those involved with it would like us to believe, but it should lean more into fact than fiction at the end of the day.