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When Everyone Wins on RuPaul's Drag Race, No One Wins

Consolation prizes have increased while eliminations have vanished, but is that truly satisfying?
  • Kandy Muse and Jimbo in RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars (Photo: Paramount+)
    Kandy Muse and Jimbo in RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars (Photo: Paramount+)

    The news that World of Wonder will produce two new RuPaul's Drag Race spin-offs starring Jimbo and Kandy Muse has given the recently concluded All Stars Season 8 even more of a feel-good ending. While Jimbo may have taken the $200,000 cash prize as the season's winner, this tandem announcement of shows for both Jimbo and runner-up Kandy, just three days after All Stars ended, feels like a hasty make-up prize to placate Kandy, her fans, or some combination thereof. And even if that wasn't the expressed intention, it fits with an overall trend in Drag Race in recent years to make sure everyone wins, in one way or another.

    All Stars Season 8 has been at the center of a few recent trends in reality competition, but this "everyone's a winner" ethos feels particularly pertinent to how the show is poised to function going forward. This shift seems to be in response to the Drag Race industrial complex: or, what it costs a queen to appear on Drag Race, how the subsequent fame drives a queen's economic prospects after the show, and the ways that fan response to the show can affect the queens in good and bad ways. The producers of All Stars 8 were clearly conscious of this when they designed the Fame Games twist, which allowed the eliminated queens to return at the end of the season for a fan-voted consolation prize.

    Consolation prizes and efforts to keep the eliminated queens have been in the works for several seasons now. Season 13 featured the "Porkchop Loading Dock" twist, which kicked off the season with a series of lip syncs, separating the cast into lip-sync winners and losers, then going forward with a two-part premiere, all of which led to no queen being eliminated until Episode 4, a full month into the season. That season also featured one of the show's now-customary "double shantay" episodes, where both of the queens lip-syncing for their lives are declared safe to return to the game.

    This has happened more or less every season since Season 3, but only on rare occasions — like the Alyssa Edwards-Roxxxy Andrews wig-reveal lip sync in Season 5 — has it ever felt like a genuinely spontaneous decision that both queens had simply performed too well to eliminate. More often, the double shantay has felt perfunctory and unnecessary. This is because the double shantay has essentially been baked into the season's episode order — the double save is now needed for the show to have enough episodes for the season.

    The double-shantay tactic seems to have opened Pandora's box on Drag Race, but it also reveals a paradox at the center of modern-day reality competition shows. In general, the genre has gotten, for lack of a better term, nicer. Top Chef evolved away from volatile chefs having kitchen meltdowns. Survivor contestants are all so game-savvy now that hardly anyone takes the game too personally anymore. Shows like The Great British Baking Show are revered expressly because they're a kinder, gentler version of the cutthroat reality competitions that used to dominate the genre. On Drag Race, this has been a particularly intentional evolution. The queens are still combative backstage, though often there's the sense that queens are holding back so as not to incur fan backlash. That can happen to stars of any reality show, but Drag Race backlash can lead to queens not getting as many bookings for live appearances after the show is over, so it's of particular concern.

    The Drag Race fandom, over the years, has become aggressive and often been called toxic. Queens can receive the most enthusiastic praise and also the most vile attacks, often racist, size-ist, and colorist in nature. The fanbase also tends to be younger, with a hair trigger for outrage, and the show has in recent years seemed especially sensitive to that. As with any fandom, no one likes to see their faves eliminated. Combine that with the All Star queens being more wary about returning to the show and possibly doing damage to their brand, and the solution in recent years is to just let everyone win on some level.

    All Stars Season 7 was the long-awaited all-winners season, and since attracting a group of eight former champions back to the show where seven of them would be guaranteed to do worse than they'd done the first time was a tall order, the show's producers changed format. There would be no eliminations, with the queens instead accruing points (we're not getting into "legendary legend stars" terminology here, sorry) over the season, with a lip-sync tournament at the end to determine the winner.

    There are rumors that All Stars Season 9 will have the same format. It was an intriguing idea, and fans certainly got to see their faves throughout the season. But there still had to be a conclusion to the season, and in order for the producers to get to the outcome that was both just (Jinkx Monsoon winning) and narratively coherent (Monet X Change and Trinity Taylor's "twinner" alliance building up to a showdown) required production to press their thumbs on the scales in a way that felt ultimately unsatisfying.

    At this point, Drag Race is trying to serve two conflicting desires: for the drag queens fans love so much to be on their TV screens as long as possible, and for the thrill of competition to play out in the way that made them fall in love with the show in the first place. Right now, the show is trying to have its cake and eat it too. But as that viral clip of The Flash and its multiple universes of superheroes reminds us, fan service can turn into incoherence quickly. "Everyone wins" sounds nice, until you realize it also means no one wins.

    RuPaul's Drag Race and RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars are both streaming on Paramount+. Join the discussion about the shows in our forums

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Survivor, Top Chef, Jimbo, Kandy Muse