Last night at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, Calif., the 13 contestants from season 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race gathered for the show’s annual reunion and — because host RuPaul refused to pick a winner in Monday’s season finale episode — a very special crowning of this year’s winner. Only, you know that’s not how that was going to go down.
Were they really going to reveal the winner to a live audience armed with big mouths and Twitter accounts? Think again and allow me to explain exactly what went down, since I was on the scene for the three-plus hours of taping, which happened in front of a live studio audience for the first time ever.
As you might expect, RuPaul went through the whole evening, interviewing all the gals about the hot-button issues from the season and talking about their futures and whatnot — I’ll go into that in more detail later — but there were two specific things that everyone was dying to see play out on stage: the delayed crowning of America’s Next Drag Superstar and Ru’s interview with ousted contestant and egomaniac Willam, who was infamously disqualified earlier this season.
Let’s start with the weirdness around the crowning of America’s Next Drag Superstar. After a couple laborious hours of taping, Ru — dressed to the nines in gold slingback heels, wildly curly ‘do and a fluttery red number that she said was “a little something she sewed up back stage” — lined the three finalists — Phi Phi O’Hara, Sharon Needles, and Chad Michaels — up, pageant-style, and grabbed a tiara, ready to crown one of the ladies. “America’s Next Drag Superstar is…” Ru said, dripping with drama and a dramatically long, long pause. “Chad Michaels!” The crowd went wild, Chad took a minute to address the crowd and walk the runway like any good pageant queen, and then, Ru dropped the bombshell: The audience was to remain in the seats, as the production team would be retaping the ending two more times with both Phi Phi O’Hara and Sharon Needles as winners, too. Needless to say: Sharon and Phi Phi’s faces did not convey the idea that they were happy about what was happening.
It’s unclear, however, whether the queens on stage were in on the little prank, which was designed to stop leaks. (In my six years at EW, I’ve never heard of a show going to such lengths to protect a secret.) Did the finalists know that they would have to fake two losses and a win each? Who knows. But Ru explained that after what happened last year — the news about Raja’s win leaked on the internet halfway through the season’s airing — they weren’t taking any chances. Sources tell me that only a handful of need-to-know folks will be privy to what ending — and thus, which queen wins — makes the cut in the episode, which will not be put on tape but, instead, will be uploaded directly to a satellite in the sky to be broadcast Monday evening at 9 p.m. Viewers won’t ever see the two endings that didn’t make the cut, so enjoy the details here. (Although, maybe the two extra endings will make the DVD release? If there is one.)
For their parts, the queens — both the finalists and the cast-off queens, who were sitting off to the side — did an admirable job feigning their excitement as both Sharon and Phi Phi took their turns with the crown and the requisite walk down the runway. I have to wonder, however, how many of the wider group of queens on the stage were in the loop about what was happening. It seems like after the crowning had already been pushed off once, all involved would have been enraged and even more shocked than they appeared when RuPaul announced what was happening with the retapings. But everyone on stage just sort of went along with it all, oddly enough.
One interesting bit of speculation I heard from someone in the crowd concerned the order in which they taped the various endings. Since the crowd didn’t know what was going on, the reaction — naturally, of course — was more genuine with the first announcement, for that of Chad Michaels. Does that mean that he will be the eventual winner? Of course, no one knows that, but it’s a decent theory that they would want to have the winner get the taping with the most authentic reaction from the live, in-studio audience.
In terms of reactions from the finalists themselves, Chad didn’t do anything too memorable — she was gracious, as you might expect. Your usual hugs and whatnot, a nice message to the audience and viewers at home. Sharon, of course, quipped a funny line when Ru asked if she had anything to say to the crowd: “Happy Halloween, everybody!” And just before Phi Phi took her turn — she was last — Ru announced, somewhat wearily: “Only one more to go.” Sharon quipped yet again: “Can we skip this one?” That got a laugh, but it was most interesting to hear Phi Phi’s self-deprecating response: “This is the closest I’m going to get to it.” It was audible, and the crowd let out a big “awwwww” when they heard that. Phi Phi’s crowning was probably the most hilarious, actually, as she dropped a huge diamond off the corset she was wearing and her tiara fell off. She owned it all, though, and went about her business, commenting after the taping was done, “That was a mess.” Indeed.
In terms of Willam, I can’t say too much about what went down, just that there is a whole section of the show dedicated to an interview with her. Willam actually didn’t appear on stage with the other contestants who were cast-off early, but instead, she was dragged to a stool, kicking and screaming, by the boys from the Pit Crew, who were on hand for various tasks throughout the evening. I will say, however, that everything is finally cleared up and, until the very end of her interview, Willam isn’t really sorry for what she did. Also: Audience members got the chance to ask questions, too, and — very thankfully — someone asked about why Willam barfed on the stage just before she was ousted from the show. The answer isn’t out-of-control satisfying, but it’s very Willam, and it makes sense when she explains what happened.
As for the rest of the evening, tons happened. I don’t want to spoil too much — I’ve probably already given away too much and should expect angry calls from Logo and World of Wonder any minute! — but I do want to give you a taste of the evening. So here are a handful of drips and drabs and other things I noticed while on the scene for the taping of RuPaul’s Drag Race: Reunited:
+ THEATER SCENE: The audience was kept out of the theater while production lit the stage and various other production-y things, and it was a smorgasbord of queens from past seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Spotted: Yara Sofia, last year’s winner Raja, Sonique, and Pork Chop, the very first contestant to ever be eliminated from Drag Race in season 1. (In fact, Ru gives her a shout-out during the show, but it remains to be seen if that’ll make air.)
+ PRE-SHOW ENTERTAINMENT: Lady Bunny, Drag U judge and serious drag entertainer, warmed up the crowd with a comedy routine, aided by the Pit Crew boys. Quips dinged Justin Bieber, the three Drag Race finalists, former Drag Race winners — and even RuPaul. “I told RuPaul to act her age — and she died.” The crowd roared at that one.
+ RUPAUL REALNESS: She delivered on every level, imbibing the whole show with her signature catchphrases. I especially loved when she announced that the stage was slick because it was “dripping with charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.” Indeed!
+ STARRING MOMENTS: I’m not going to go into ever detail of what RuPaul talked about with each of the queens, but just know that each of them get their moment to answer questions. And for the most part, the whole thing came off as a lovefest — not one of those screaming, hard-to-decipher Real Housewives reunions.
+ CHARO! The Drag Race fave makes a cameo in the show. Again, won’t tell you details, but she’s got a hilariously funny bit with Kenya Michaels that will find you rewinding your DVR.
+ LATRICE! Even though the bulk of the show was designed to celebrate the three finalists — Chad Michaels, Sharon Needles, and Phi Phi O’Hara — a good portion of the love from the crowd went to Latrice Royale. Variously through the evening, you could hear audience members bellowing “Latrice!” at any moment that she was in the spotlight. I hope that comes through in the editing. And I’ll just say that, while Latrice sadly didn’t take home the crown — I can guarantee you that — she does very much get her moment in the sun (complete with…a choir!).
+ BREAKDOWN AWARD: Granted, the show was mostly a lovefest, but there was one big breakdown. You’ll see all the goods on Monday, but hopefully a big portion of Jiggly Caliente‘s sobby comments directed at Phi Phi O’Hara make the cut. It was juicy.
+ QUERIES FROM RU: My favorite question Ru posed to the finalists throughout the evening was: “What would being America’s Next Drag Superstar mean to you?” I know it sounds simple and expected, but truly, the answers were from the heart — even from Phi Phi, who doesn’t seem to have one! — and really illuminated why this show does change lives and makes an impact. Get your hankies ready!
+ DOWN TIME: There was much time between various acts of the evening, and oh, so many moments that you’ll never get to see! I can’t go into them all, because that would take forever, but some of the highlights were when Willam pulled a bag of fruit snacks out from inside her wig and shared them with the other queens on stage; when Sharon explained that the thing she was wearing on her forehead was Ouija planchette; and an ad-lib from Michelle Visage — who was playing announcer and wearing a delightful green outfit that left nothing to the imagination — where she promised someone (everyone, hopefully?) a blow job. Yes, this is Drag Race, y’all.
Drag Racers, start your engines for Monday’s airing now! Are you excited? Who are you rooting for?
Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky