Emmys FYC: 5 moments that made RuPaul's Drag Race the best competition on TV
Can gold gowns and hearts lead to gilded Emmys love for RuPaul's Drag Race?
Sure, watching people compete against each other while wearing fantastical makeup, sky-high wigs, and elaborate costumes made RuPaul's Drag Race season 11 the televised spectacle of the year, but beneath the sequins and lace-fronts beats a competitive heart punctuated in a deep desire to highlight the queer experience on a mainstream platform — a package slathered in transformative makeup and expertly slicked lashes. Not to mention some of the most intense challenges in series history (namely a Donald Trump-satirizing musical complete with Cheeto-inspired makeup and a singing drag version of Sarah Huckabee Sanders).
"Drag as a phenomenon is taking over because of what the show has done and the platform that this show has given queer people around the world to express themselves," season 11 champion Yvie Oddly tells EW. "There’s now more drag in more spaces than ever before. It’s creating a whole new lane on TV and changing the landscape of the queer world and queer expression."
So, Emmys voters, get ready to tip the girls with your ballots as, ahead, the ladies who made season 11 happen — including Oddly, A'Keria Chanel Davenport, Nina West, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, and makeup artists Jen Fregozo and Natasha Marcelina — tell EW why RuPaul's Drag Race is the reigning queen of reality shows — and the best competition series on TV right now.
A legendary lip-sync that gooped us all
As Roxxxy Andrews, Alyssa Edwards, Kennedy Davenport, and Katya have proven in the past, when two seasonal legends land in the bottom two, you know you're in for a show. When frontrunners Yvie Oddly and Brooke Lynn Hytes landed in the elimination arena after subpar performances in the Snatch Game, they delivered an electric lip-sync that saved both of their lives and gave us ours in a moment that epitomized Drag Race’s ace blend of grueling competition with classic showgirl spirit.
“It defines Drag Race as a competition because you wouldn’t be able to get such a crazy spectacle unless you had people who were really hungry for it and fighting to continue on in a competition,” eventual season winner Yvie tells EW of the set, which saw both queens fighting to remain in the competition as they lip-synced to Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry” while flipping, twirling, hand-standing, splitting, and literally bending over backwards to prove their devotion to Mama Ru. The result gagged the nation, and will go down as one of the best face-offs in Drag Race herstory. “Brooke said it best: This is what we do for a living, how we make our money, and pay our rent. My goal is to always put on such a fantastic show that people leave their jaws on the floor. It’s only at a place like Drag Race where you get to see people not only fighting for their lives, but also showing off a little bit! It’s amazing to see glamour intersect with the intensity of a challenge.”
Yvie admits that, after her take on Whoopi Goldberg flopped during the fan-favorite Snatch Game celebrity impersonation challenge, she was headed for a lip-sync showdown, but assumed it would be against Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, whose fashion-based shortcomings had been consistently clocked on the runway. When Brooke — who nearly dug herself out of a Snatch Game hole with an epic wig-and-costume reveal during her runway walk — landed in the bottom two next to her, it changed the game.
“I always have little moments planned out in my lip-syncs…. I had a few tricks planned at the right moments, and it so happened that it fit even better with Brooke’s,” remembers Yvie of her approach to the song. “When we both did handstands, it looked like I was trying to one-up her, that was one of the things I was definitely planning to do in that moment. It was funny shifting that energy to respond to the fact that I was lip-syncing against someone who was acrobatic as well!”
She finishes: “Even though I felt it was an excellent lip-sync in the moment, to see it back and actually lay eyes on the reason RuPaul decided to save both of us, it was magical to see that much energy and that many cool tricks all in one.”
Sticking it to Trump (with Cheetos and a meticulously beaten mug)
Seasoned veterans of the Drag Race makeup team, Emmy-nominated artists Jen Fregozo (who joined for season 6) and Natasha Marcelina (aboard since season 4) are used to making the show's crop of contenders look their best. Such was not the case when they were tasked with turning Drag Race alum Ginger Minj into Donald Trump for the epic political satire Trump: The Rusical challenge, which saw the season 11 girls singing and dancing their way through a fictionalized musical (as figures like Rosie O'Donnell, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway) about Trump's life.
"We actually wanted to be super cheesy," Fregozo says in carefully chosen words, laughing as she remembers attempting to transform the queen into one of the most controversial (and orange-hued) political figures of the contemporary era. "We wanted to go the comedy route."
So, where does one look for inspiration for Trump's cheese-colored facial palette? "Cheetos," Marcelina says.
"We went through a lot of oranges and bronzers. We also had a pumpkin-colored eyeliner," Fregozo adds. "I Googled him, and there was one particular photo where his hair was super crazy, so we had to get the wig right, too. The face was really bronzed that day, he must’ve been golfing or something. That was the main image we kept going back to."
The short, sandy wig — which the pair affectionately named "Covfefe," after one of Trump's infamous tweets — had to be teased and tussled to look a hot mess, to put it bluntly.
"It probably took us about 45 minutes," Fregozo says of the application time, which also involved layering orange foundation with bronzer and aqua coloring. "It probably would’ve gone faster but we were laughing so hard and having such a great time, it took longer!"
Then, there were the eyebrows. We're used to seeing lace-front wigs, children, but behold the pair of sun-kissed, glued-on lace eyebrows Ginger wore atop Fregozo's "clown white" makeup to make her presidential eyes pop with insane glee.
Even though the musical ruffled some feathers on the right (as all good art should), Marcelina feels "the Drag Race fans understand the brand of humor the show is known for."
"The element of satire is the most important part of this," she finishes. "The whole process, the whole episode, the whole idea of the Rusical is the element of satire and shedding light on a situation in a comedic way."
Too bad Covfefe was unavailable for comment.
Vanjie, The Case of the Missing Wigs, Oppalens, and more meme-able gold
Whether you watched season 11 or not, you've definitely seen one of Drag Race's many viral memes. From Ra'Jah O'Hara throwing one of Ariel Versace's "missing" ("What is the truth?," as Oprah would say) wigs at her during the reunion to Mercedes Iman Diamond's butchering of the word "oppulence" ("oppalens!" is definitely now a thing), season 11 took over pop culture — largely thanks to the return of season 10 competitor (and overall meme queen) Vanessa Vanjie Mateo. "I was surprised that the opulence thing took off, because I didn’t know that was gonna be a thing! That’s the truth, we didn’t know, so when it happened, they loved it. At the time we were like ‘s—, we’re gonna be in the bottom because of her!'" Vanjie tells EW of the challenge, which saw Diamond and fellow competitor Kahanna Montrese singing the word as they danced across the screen during an elaborate acting challenge spoofing the movie Get Out. "It’s part of the drag culture, and we're naturally funny. We all have moments that we just don’t expect. Drag queens are walking memes!" But, Vanjie's tenure — even though she anchored memes of her own, from spying on the queens in the Werk Room to her second elimination, which saw her leaving the stage and returning to the runway multiple times — gave season 11 a huge dose of personality magic, partly for her performance, and partly because of her blunt, invitingly hilarious observations. Speaking on Ariel's missing wigs (after her elimination Ariel claims she mistakenly left a few hairpieces in the Werk Room, which other queens allegedly "stole," though Ariel once claimed she intentionally left them behind as gifts for certain queens), Vanjie calls the situation a lovably "messy" one that gives Drag Race its kick. "I’m completely lost because there were so many different stories that were told about the wigs, so I don’t even know who they were left for," she finishes. "And I really don’t care, because they were ugly. Those wigs were hideous!" Hideous as they might be, per Vanjie, they still contributed to the beautiful, viral cultural phenomenon that is Drag Race.
Iconic community ally Nina West is the drag mother we need
Every drag queen needs a mother. Whether biological, adopted, or earned as part of a tight-knit drag house, the essence of maternity runs thick in drag culture. Though Mother Ru presides over the competition, season 11 wouldn't be the same without the warm embrace of this year's breakout personality, Nina West, whose dedication to activism and community awareness literally cost her the competition, but won her the world (and a rightful place as an adorable mama bear) in the process.
"There are so many funny moments that make the show entertaining, but there are incredible moments that make the show unlike anything else you’ve ever seen on TV," the Ohio native tells EW, referencing Plastique Tiara's coming-out narrative and West's own detail of the intense homophobia and harrassment she received while a student at college, which she hopes will help others struggling with similar situations. "It’s a queer show by queer people, gay people, and celebrating the stories of queer people. In this time period, where I feel any day we’re going to hear a different headline that’s heartbreaking and sad, it’s almost deflating to what we need to be fighting for. A show like Drag Race is saying 'Here we are. We’re celebrating!'"
As a lifelong activist who's raised millions of dollars for LGBTQ initiatives across her career, West tried to incorporate that passion into her Drag Race looks, crafting a trans rights-themed outfit for the family resemblance runway challenge that didn't go over so well with the judges — not because of its message, but becaue of the garments' construction.
"There are a lot of swords to fall on, and that was the sword I chose to fall on," West says, ever optimistic about her decision, though, in hindsight, she might've changed the silhouettes. Maybe. "The silhouettes were terrible. Ok, they were awful and atrocious," she says with a laugh. "I think the message of that runway was so important, bold, and brave.... However, that elimination propelled me to a different level, and has allowed me to speak further on these issues that are so important to me. I think I won in the season!I’ve been working nonstop for 18 years; I didn’t need the check! What I needed was the opportunity to tell the story. And they gave me that opportunity, and I’m so grateful for that."
She hopes sharing messages of hope — as well as her own resilience in overcoming her troubled past as a victim of hate — will pave the way for future generations to do the work we need to combat a volatile culture (and government officials, like Ohio Rep. Candice Keller, who blamed the recent Dayton shooting on "drag queen advocates") that's "dehumanizing women, the LGBTQIA community, people of color, and immigrants" at a time when "so few people really stand up and say they won't tolerate it because of party line or how it impacts their pocketbook."
"A show like Drag Race is so important for this reason. It’s probably trite and silly to soome, a show about gay men who get in drag and walk down the runway. It’s probably supremely superficial to many people. But, if I saw that when I was a kid, it would’ve changed my life and my outlook," West explains. "I wouldn’t feel so alone, knowing there were people who were queer like me, celebrating and living loudly in the world, doing the damn thing! A show like Drag Race is saving lives, showing there are people out there who exist, who aren’t freaks, but who are people’s sons, brothers, their best friends... I think that’s the importance of my story this season!"
Going for glamor and gold at the Draglympics
Though applying the perfect contour, honing your padding skills, and tucking like a master are technical skills on par with those of the world’s most precise athletes, the RuPaul’s Drag Race queens aren’t used to going for gold — literally — in the context of an Olympic-style competition. That changed on season 11 with the massive Draglympics challenge, which saw two sets of queen teams duking it out across floor routines comprised of voguing, fan-based choreography, and “shablaming” (translation: throwing oneself on the floor, but fabulously). Challenge winner A’Keria Chanel Davenport made the whole thing look easy, but she admits the ladies had under 24 hours to learn the complex choreography — and, girl, did they sweat.
“People underestimate the challenges. They see the glitz and the glam of everything, but they don’t realize that [this a grueling process] that adds drama to the everyday Werk Room situations. You’re under the stress of learning these routines and being pushed out of your element, on top of trying to win $100,000,” the eight-year pageant veteran tells EW, chuckling when she thinks of her now-iconic, campy facial expressions displayed while twerking and tumbling her way through the dynamic, gymnastics-inspired routine. “The one thing I took away from pageants is, when you can’t catch something, make sure your face doesn’t show it. I wanted to serve perky cheerleader with my A’Keria sass. That way, if I’m off on the routine, you’re so intrigued by what I’m doing in my face, you almost miss it! I thought, ‘Oh, bitch, don’t break face, catch this routine, catch your breath! If you drop the ball, everything goes up in flames.”
If everything had incinerated, however, at least A’Keria — who recently starred in Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” music video, and feels preparing for Draglympics was infinitely more difficult than keeping her cool next to the superstar singer — would’ve looked fabulous doing it, though the act of powering through rigorous athletics in drag added a level of minor torture: “[We’re doing this in] heels, makeup, wigs… rehearsing outside of that is different, but when you have everything on, you’ve added 10 to 20 more pounds, depending on hair size!” she remembers with a laugh. What’s more important, she feels, is what’s underneath the dressings, at the heart of the series’ blending of traditional drag foundations with contemporary pizazz.
“It’s breaking barriers and showing the world we’re more than just men in wigs,” A’Keria finishes, referencing the culturally significant art of voguing, popularized by New York City’s ballroom culture (as documented in Jennie Livingston's 1990 nonfiction film Paris Is Burning and on Ryan Murphy’s Emmy-nominated Pose). “This episode incorporates different monuments [of history]…. I’m part of ballroom culture, so it was good to see [its elements]. Sometimes we separate ballroom stuff, pageant, and Drag Race stuff, so to see them come together was really cute!” — and draining!