In the earliest seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, lip syncing for one’s life wasn’t just a she-mergency tactic for queens who failed the challenge. It was expected that, unless you aced every single task every single week — something accomplished by very few — you would sooner or later be expected to move your mouth and body to the tune of a danceable pop song in order to secure your place in the competition.
This has been a feature of Drag Race, not a bug,. The onetime Logo, now VH1 series is a master class in everything having to do with drag, from designing stunning looks for the runway to celebrity impressions in the show’s signature Snatch Game challenge. Lip syncing is perhaps the most cornerstone of drag arts: it’s what your local queen does multiple nights a week to raise her profile and keep herself well-tipped. So it makes sense that Drag Race would expect lip syncing even of its strongest queens.
Through the first four seasons of the show, only two contestants got away with never lip syncing for their lives (though they did perform in the finale episode): season 1’s Nina Flowers, who ultimately lost to Cameroon queen Bebe Zahara Benet, and season 2’s ultimate winner Tyra Sanchez. Everyone else had to, at least once, prove their mettle in a lip sync battle. After season 5, however, frontrunners became increasingly immune from having to lip sync. Through the next four seasons, five queens — winners Bianca Del Rio and Violet Chachki, as well as runners-up Alaska, Courtney Act, and Kim Chi — all avoided the bottom two every single week.
Since the show moved to VH1, however, this trend has shifted to exclusively applying to winners. Season 9’s Sasha Velour never lip synced until the finale, when she delivered her beloved and ballyhooed performance of Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional.” The same goes for season 10 winner Aquaria, who also delivered a barn-burner performance in the finale to Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj’s “Bang Bang.” The common thread in both of those cases is that the queens would have absolutely smashed a lip sync for their life, but for some reason were never asked to. In Aquaria’s case, at least, there was a great opportunity: she flopped the seasonal makeover challenge, but was for some reason kept safe.
In the current season, we’re seeing a similar trend with fan-loathed but RuPaul-approved queen Silky Nutmeg Ganache. The divisive “big girl” has shown off some shaky drag this season, particularly in the fashion department. During last week’s episode, as queens were tasked with putting on a magic show, Silky’s team (a high-personality quad that named themselves Da Black Magic) utterly flopped their presentation. Silky’s loose improvisational style, plus some tragic ripped tights, were a large part of that loss.
The other team, The Mighty Tucks, absolutely nailed it, both in the looks and entertainment departments. Seems like an easy reason to give their team the win and choose the bottom two from Da Black Magic, no? Well, yes, except Da Black Magic was made up of four queens who are either near-locks for the finale (Silky, Yvie Oddly, A’keria C. Davenport) or are otherwise needed for story (Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, a fun but exceedingly unpolished queen who seemingly only still exists in the competition to be sent home by her boyfriend, Brooke Lynn Hytes). Meanwhile, floater queen Shuga Cain was on The Mighty Tucks, and despite her solid challenge performance, she was nonetheless targeted for elimination. So down into the bottom two she went, inevitably sent home by Vanjie.
Thus Silky skated by another week without lip syncing. Despite her protestations week after week that she’s ready to lip sync for her life if necessary, the show seems unwilling to take her up on that offer. The reason for this is simple: Silky has seemingly been earmarked as a final four competitor, and the production team does not want to risk sending her home before her time has come.
Flashing back to season 9 for a moment: In that season, Latinx queen Valentina ruled the roost for most of the season. While she only won one challenge, she consistently earned praise from the judges for both her talent and runway looks, and never came close to the bottom — until she and clear lagging competitor Nina Bo’Nina Brown flopped an acting task. I’d bet my (non-existent) house that Nina was a dead woman, walking into a lip sync she was guaranteed to lose.
But then, Valentina completely failed, remembering very few of the words in Ariana Grande’s “Greedy.” She even tried to keep her mask from her runway look on to distract from her distinct lack of lip syncing. When RuPaul sent her home at the end (“I thought you had the stuff to go all the way”), he sounded more disappointed at losing a frontrunner than anything else.
Drag Race seems terrified of a queen pulling a Valentina once again. To lose a frontrunner is to have to scramble to fix the carefully curated story of the season. It is to be avoided at all costs — even if the clear loser of a challenge needs to be protected from the lip sync in dubious fashion. Even when frontrunning queens flop, as Brooke Lynn Hytes and Yvie Oddly did after this season’s Snatch Game, they’re protected by what has become something of an annual tradition: a surprise “double shantay” where Ru decides both queens will survive. (In fairness to Brooke Lynn and Yvie, their lip sync performance was truly deserving of a double-stay , but I think that would have happened no matter what.)
Somewhat ironically, these once-surprising double saves have sacrificed what I think is so wonderful about Drag Race: a true feeling that anything could happen. The Valentina elimination was one of the best moments in recent show history because it was a total surprise. It upended the course of the season, and opened up a slot in the final four for another queen. That queen was likely Peppermint, who went on to be the first Drag Race queen in a leading role on Broadway (in last year’s Head Over Heels). So, not the worst result, to say the least!
Drag Race needs to let up on the reins a bit and give its queens the chance to fail. And maybe that will still happen with Silky this season! There are still a couple of weeks remaining. If they do choose to remove her safety net, one of two things will happen: either she’ll fly and show she’s truly earning her spot in the competition, or she’ll prove that she’s not the girl the show thought she was in the first place. That kind of anything-goes mentality? That is drag.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.