We said what we said: How RuPaul's Drag Race Untucked gets the best drama on TV
By now, RuPaul's Drag Race fans know what's up; As RuPaul says at the top of each episode, "If you aren't watching Untucked, you're only getting half the story." It's a tongue in cheek quip that's opened the reality competition's companion docuseries for years, but there's a sequin of truth stitched under Mama Ru's verbal concealer. Can you imagine Drag Race culture without Shangela's alleged sugar daddy? Mimi Imfurst acting "a fool, girl?" Brooke Lynn Hytes hiding under couch cushions? Silky Nutmeg Ganache primed and ready to lip-sync for her motherf---ing life? Tammie Brown's father f---ing Marlene Dietrich? Tamisha Iman saying what she said to Kandy Muse!? The long-running aftershow — which presents the queens in pseudo cinema verite-style after they receive critiques from the judges on the main stage — has captured some of the most iconic moments in franchise history, and there's a reason.
For the first time ever, EW goes behind the scenes of the show — which itself competes at the 2021 Emmys in the Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program — for a top-to-bottom explainer of how the Emmy-nominated aftershow shoots, edits, and presents moments that not only compliment RuPaul's Drag Race, but bolster the show's glistening legacy.
Setting the stage for Untucked excellence
When co-creator Randy Barbato pitched seasoned TV producer San Heng his vision for VH1's version of Untucked, he had one clear distinction to make: This isn't an aftershow, and should feel like a documentary. With an eye on Heng as showrunner thanks to her experience in news and other fashion-themed reality shows, Barbato enlisted her to be the driving observational force in the room capturing the queens in a "unique space and time within the structure of the show that people don't [usually] get to see," Heng recalls. The team then sought to differentiate Untucked visually and thematically from the main show, with slower pacing and a pulled-back footprint on set, with, at most, four cameras capturing all the action and a minimal crew designed to foster intimacy and authenticity.
SAN HENG (SHOWRUNNER): The thing is making the queens feel comfortable. It's a space where they figuratively and literally untuck…. what makes the show special is: How do we find the best possible way to make the queens shine as themselves?
SHAYNA CASEY (EDITOR): It requires being able to tell emotional stories; the happy, sad, and funny. I even get moved, and that's a big deal for an editor to watch footage and feel a lot of emotion from it. Being able to relate to and tell that story in the most authentic way, that's probably the biggest skill you need on this one.
HENG: The Untucked set is really the backstage where we put things. Obviously, I found ways to elevate all of that when it went to VH1, because there are so many fun props used throughout these fun challenges, so we got them from the stage to the Untucked space, so we have them visually and you're really sitting in the show.
KANDY MUSE (SEASON 13 QUEEN): People were like, "You talked so much in Untucked." I'm just directing the mood. Some girls shut down and don't want to talk about their emotions, and, unfortunately, that doesn't work for the camera. Sometimes there must be one person who directs it, going, "How are we feeling?" You don't want to be part of the boring season. You want to be part of a dope season that gives meme-able content. You want to give what you want to watch. A lot of girls go in with a mission of, well I'm going to be this or that, but you have to go in as yourself, and I promise you'll be fine. No one can blame the edit; you gave yourself to those cameras. Know you're filming a TV show and have a good time!
Shoot every Untucked like your name is Kandy "Producer" Muse
With roughly 90 minutes to film each Untucked while the panel deliberates on the week's elimination, Heng and her team mine the palpable emotion in the room as the queens sashay their way as "their most vulnerable selves, very quickly," Heng recalls. Essentially, they have to make sure they're capturing emotional lightning in a bottle each time. And since the cameras roll the moment the queens exit the main stage, it's on Heng to delicately nudge the queens for their stories without steering the narrative, while the queens know they have a unique opportunity to get screen time (and the cameras trained firmly on them).
KANDY: When you're coming off stage, you're either being critiqued or told you're safe. You're feeling good or like s--- because you might be in the bottom two! You get back there, they turn on the cameras, you sit down, and they let you unleash all the emotions about what you're feeling. Everyone's emotions come out because…. you're sitting there knowing someone is going to go home. If you know you're in the bottom two, it's the only time that you know that this might be your last time here, let all of your emotions out and let everyone know how you feel.
HENG: My plan of action is to let the queens lead and see where things go, and bring them back on track if things veer off. By the first or second episode, they come in, like, I've got things to say, like, "I can't believe I'm safe," or "when they called my name, I thought I was in the top and bottoms" and it's about being a good listener. If someone says that, I'm like, "You think somebody sitting in the room with you is a bottom." It's like, "Wait a second, did anybody hear what she just said? What do you guys think about that?" It's letting them lead, but making sure they're hearing each other.
KANDY: Making sure you're the star of Untucked, take charge of your own narrative and the story that's happening. Always make sure you're asking the girls how they're feeling, what's the tea, without being too much in anyone's face or camera hungry. You have to be assertive and stand up with your chest high and your nose up in the air and make those bitches know you're the girl and it's your Untucked. Every girl knew going into Untucked that Untucked was my Untucked. This is The Kandy Show!
HENG: I might be shooting an hour, but I have this conversation over here, that conversation over there, there's lots happening. It's an hour of shooting, but it's footage that's expanded because there's more than one thing happening at once. That gives us a lot of options because they come in and regroup, but then they break off and we get those colorful moments of intimacy that we wouldn't get if we kept them on the couch the whole time... It's that unique time of being a moment in their experience in the competition where they get to have that sigh of, like, okay, this challenge is over, I can let loose. Or, I might be on the chopping block and I need to get my s--- together!
KANDY: On the main show we're mainly focused on the challenge and the runway looks and making sure we're hitting those marks and doing great in the challenge. We're more focused on making it to the next week rather than when we're in Untucked, we're more focused on ourselves and our emotions. We let it out about how we're feeling.
HENG: We encourage them that this is their time. In a true docu-style, we're letting them lead the action. As producers, it's important to be a good listener. You need to be. For me, it's about making sure there aren't any missed opportunities.
Shooting emotional volcanoes: Be (motherf---ing) ready to do so!
It's, admittedly, reality TV heaven when something as jaw-dropping as season 13's iconic Kandy vs. Tamisha fight — which saw the Atlanta icon seemingly entering the Werk Room to drag her sister for being "arrogant" — unfolds organically. And when things heat up, it's on Heng to evolve from quiet observer to field commander as she sends cameras flying across the room to capture every detail (from explosive action to hushed conversations in the corner) happening within all reaches of the set.
HENG: We have no agenda in Untucked, other than capturing whatever we can. We try to anticipate what might happen, but they surprise me all the time, and what they surprise me with is far better than anything I can anticipate… The big highlight of the past season is the confrontation between Tamisha and Kandy, which was unexpected. In the way that it happened, I don't think Kandy expected it. She was shocked and put off guard, but I don't think Tamisha even expected it to go the way that it did. It came out, it was a flame that ignited that had to see itself and fizzle out. We had to let it play and have its own resolve.
KANDY: It really shows what's happening in the room. The way that fight happened is the exact way it happened in real life. We came off the ball challenge, and the ball challenge is one of the hardest ones because we're pressured to do those three looks, and it's one of the longest filming days. So, going backstage and at that point there's still 12 of us there, there are a lot of emotions and personalities, and it's true to the way it happened in person. It did happen out of nowhere. I wasn't sure how it was going to be shown or portrayed, but it was MTV Movie & TV Award-nominated and Emmy-nominated, so.
HENG: It's satisfying because it was unexpected. And because two people were speaking their truth. When we have people owning what they feel and think, there's satisfaction in that.
KANDY: In that moment, people got to see the raw emotions of how we were feeling. It was two queens from two different generations from different cities and drag backgrounds, two very strong-minded people butting heads with each other. People think that because Drag Race is on a pedestal that we're these cookie-cutter queens, but that's not the case. We get stressed out, we fight, we argue. We made up later on in the season, but it goes to show that you can fight with your sisters and make up. Drag Race is a pressure cooker of emotions and this showed people how hard it actually is.
Cutting queens in post isn't a matter of splicing, but proportionizing(!) content
After the show's producers sift through the day's footage for elements that best capture the overarching story, the footage falls into the hands of Casey, who gets an initial cut of the season together for executive and production notes in a few weeks' time. An experienced editor, Casey has worked on the original Queer Eye, Chopped, Say Yes to the Dress, and more, and though she's amassed a robust roster of credits, the reality TV veteran feels that her three seasons on Drag Race have gifted some of the most raw and authentic footage she's ever seen.
CASEY: I've worked on shows where people maybe aren't shown as authentically as they are, and I do think that with this, it's showing the different parts of who each queen is, and giving people a little bit more of what's going on inside of them. It helps you connect a lot more to each queen.
HENG: It's our responsibility to make sure that we don't short-change the queens. I believe that what we don't put into the show is as important as what we do. That's what editing is. For us to focus only on that moment, you have to focus on the beginning middle and end. Could we have made the whole episode about [the Kandy and Tamisha fight] and it be amazing? Yes, but that's not what happened. Showing how things unraveled, allowing those moments to live honors the queens and their actual journey and what actually happened.
CASEY: There's no guidebook. It's showing them as [genuinely] as you can!
HENG: I came up in reality TV before social media was the way that it is. I can't speak for how other shows are edited, but for our show and for Drag Race at large, there's a sense of responsibility to honor the queens who are putting themselves out there… The fandom aside, that's what we think about. We want to make sure we're putting the queens in the most realistic, authentic way possible as they are in the competition, but that also highlights who they are. Good story is about beginning, middle, and end. If you're not doing that, you're not telling a good story.
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