Through 14 seasons, six all-star endeavors, several international editions, and a handful of specials, RuPaul's Drag Race has created one of the great ecosystems on television. Like Survivor and Big Brother before it, Drag Race has cultivated a fan base that's become fluent in its rhythms and rules and has come to value the signatures that recur every year. With Survivor it's the merge episodes and the family visits; with Big Brother it's double eviction night and the OTEV challenge. With Drag Race, it's the library challenge, the Ball challenge, and most especially Snatch Game.
Snatch Game was introduced in the show's second season as a parody of a game show; the original Match Game was a 1970s classic, featuring campy, caustic celebrities trafficking in double entendres and banter, and it fit perfectly into Ru's "Learn Ya History" vibe when it comes to imparting drag lessons onto the children. In a format's remained remarkably consistent over the years — the only tweaks have come in All-Stars seasons — the contestants each come as their best/funniest (often not the same thing!) celebrity impersonation and are then put through the paces of some filthy and suggestive Match Game-style questions. Since the actual mechanics of the Snatch Game don't matter, the queens who excel are the ones with a clear conception of the character they're playing, who can fire off one-liners and banter in character, and who above all else can make Ru laugh.
As the challenge became the signature episode of any Drag Race season, success in the Snatch Game has, over the years, become accepted by fans as one of the best barometers of who can win the season. We wanted to take this hypothesis a step further: what does it mean to do well at the Snatch Game in terms of winning the ultimate Drag Race crown? Does struggling at Snatch Game mean you can't win the season? We broke down twelve seasons' worth of Snatch Game results (Seasons 2 through 13) plus five All-Stars editions (excepting All-Stars 1's Laugh-In challenge which, while an obvious Snatch Game stand-in, was too different to count as analogous) to dreive some answers.
The short answer here is obviously "No," because not every Drag Race winner has won Snatch Game. Of the 13 Snatch Game winner in regular Drag Race seasons, only three have won their season outright: Jinkx Monsoon in Season 5, Bob the Drag Queen in Season 8, and Aquaria in Season 10. Three more Snatch Game winners have triumphed in All-Stars seasons (Alaska in All-Stars 2, Trinity the Tuck in All-Stars 4, and Shea Coulee in All-Stars 5), though the grain of salt there is that for three of those All-Stars seasons, there were two winners per challenge, which skews the odds somewhat. The real indicator, though, is finishing in the top three for Snatch Game. That's really where the percentages start to go up when it comes to season winners. Of the 17 seasons that have included the Snatch Game, 11 have been won by a queen who has finished in the top three in their season's Snatch Game. That's a 65% success rate.
It is worth noting that while only four queens have ever won their seasons after placing as merely safe in Snatch Game — Tyra Sanchez in Season 2, Violet Chachki in Season 7, Jaida Essence Hall in Season 12, and Symone in season 13 — the fact that two of these happened in the two most recent regular seasons means we may be on a trend moving away from Snatch Game supremacy being needed for an overall win. That being said, it's probably still best not to completely flub Snatch Game. Only two queens in 17 seasons have ever managed to win their seasons after finishing in the bottom three for Snatch Game: Yvie Oddly in Season 11 and Trixie Mattel in All-Stars 3.
It is very likely … though not guaranteed. Twenty-one queens have won Snatch Game either outright or in a tie, and of those, fourteen have made the finals of their season, a 67% success rate. Even merely finishing in the top three for Snatch Game puts you in a good position to reach the finals. Of the 48 queens who have finished in the top for Snatch Game, 27 of them (56%) have made it to the finals.
Winning Snatch Game and missing the finals entirely is rare, though not rare enough that it hasn't happened to one queen twice:
It's not great. As stated above, only two queens have ever finished in the bottom three at Snatch Game and won their seasons. Even making the finals becomes a tall order for a bottom finisher at Snatch Game. Of the 59 queens who've made the finale of their respective seasons, a mere 13 of them were bottom finishers at their Snatch Game, working out to a daunting 22% chance.
Oh we are FAR from finished in this deep dive. Where the queens finish in Snatch Game is only half of the story. The other half is which characters they've played. Picking the right impersonation for Snatch Game is paramount. All too often a queen will choose someone they physically resemble, so as to attain an uncanny visual presentation. Even worse, sometimes the queens will pick someone because they idolize them. These are both terribly misguided strategies! Snatch Game isn't a lookalike competition (even though some uncanny lookalikes have won, like Chad Michaels as Cher), nor is it a competition to portray one's idols (although this has also worked for queens like Alexis Michelle as Liza Minnelli and Ginger Minj as Phyllis Diller). Snatch Game is a comedy competition, and far too many queens have gone down in flames for impersonating someone they can't make funny.
Certain impressions might be said to be good luck charms, like Carol Channing (a winner for Bob the Drag Queen in Season 8, high placement for Pandora Boxx in Season 2) and Britney Spears (a winner for Tatiana in Season 2, high placement for Derrick Barry in Season 8). In turn, some characters have become toxic assets. Nancy Grace took Detox to the bottom three in All-Stars 2, and spelled the end for Acid Betty in Season 8. Joan Crawford was a fortunate safe play for Alyssa Edwards in All-Stars 2, but was unsurvivable for Mariah in Season 3. Maya Angelou, on the other hand, has been a feast-or-famine choice: Monet X. Change placed in the top for her Maya in Season 10, while Chi Chi DeVayne was sent packing for her Maya in All-Stars 3.
The absolute Hall of Shame for Snatch Game are two of the biggest pop stars in the world: Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. The queens have never once been able to make them funny, but it seems they can't resist trying.
Kylie Sonique Love's low-key Gaga got her eliminated in Season 2; Phi Phi O'Hara's bizarrely aggro Gaga in Season 4 put her in the bottom; and post-A Star Is Born, Miz Cracker thought she could score as "100 people in a room" Oscar campaigner Gaga, but that decision had Cracker up for elimination in All-Stars 5. Meanwhile, Tyra Sanchez was a rather fortunate "safe" for her rudderless Beyoncé in Season 2; Asia O'Hara was Bey to The Vixen's Blue Ivy in a wildly disastrous stunt in Season 10; and Kenya Michaels' infamous decision to play a heavily medicated Sasha Fierce in Season 4 got her bounced. Call it the "Telephone" Curse if you must, but warn all future queens away from Beyonce and Gaga at all costs.
Over the years, it's become easy to clock each of the types of Snatch Game characters. The queens, unsurprisingly given their demographics, have played a LOT of pop stars and legendary divas through the years, but other oft-selected types include reality stars, camp icons, actresses, and more than a few cisgender men. Some of these types have been more successful than others.
We pored through 21 seasons worth of Snatch Game and identified 16 distinct "types" of impersonations, which are presented below in order of most to least effective in terms of results. We've carried out a rough "scoring" system that weighs wins (+5), high placement (+3), safe (+1), low placement (-2), and eliminations (-5) to arrive at this hierarchy. When necessary, please indulge our squishy categorization.
Men/Male Presenting Celebrities: Right off the bat there's a gag, and historically queens Snatch Gaming as men have proven to be the most successful. This is notable, because when Kennedy Davenport decided to portray Little Richard in Season 7, it was seen as a huge risk, since no one had played a man in Snatch Game before. Kennedy won that week, paving the way for two future winners after her — BenDeLaCreme's Paul Lynde on All-Stars 3 and Shea Coulee's Flavor Flav — and only one low placement, Utica Queen's catastrophically misguided Bob Ross.
Theater Queens: Unsurprisingly, a drag queen impersonating a Broadway legend has been a reliable path to success in Snatch Game, starting with Pandora Boxx's Carol Channing, which didn't win the very first Snatch Game, but which probably proved the concept better than any other queen. Bob the Drag Queen's own Carol Channing helped push her to a win in Season 8, followed by wins for Alexis Michelle's Liza and Manila Luzon's Barbra.
Celebreality: You live or die in Snatch Game based entirely on how well you can appeal to RuPaul's sensibilities, and it seems Ru watches a lot of reality TV. Reality stars tend to be big personalities, too, which can help an impersonation mightily. Of course, that familiarity can be a double-edged sword if you flop. Ru's oft-repeated love of the Kardashians means you can soar with an accurate impression — like Trinity the Tuck's Caitlyn Jenner — or bomb out with a bad one, as Gia Gunn did with Kim Kardashian in Season 6.
Camp Icons: Defining "camp" is a fool's errand, and we shan't be attempting that here, but suffice it to say, Ru knows it when she sees it. And many a queen has found success by burrowing into the campy recesses of popular culture, from Grey Gardens to John Waters to 1980s infomercials.
Old Hollywood: This is often a point of contention among Drag Race fans, many of whom criticize Ru's reference points for skewing more heavily towards Turner Classic Movies than TikTok. But there's value in these drag children learning their queer history, so it's nice to see it rewarded when Alaska pulls off a note-perfect Mae West or Sasha Velour can mine comedy out of an esoteric Marlene Dietrich. Just be very careful about attempting Joan Crawford.
Drag Race Personalities / Other Queens: It takes a bold queen to poke fun at the very people in whose hands your fate rests. Impersonating Ru herself has never quite paid off, just ask Jessica Wild or especially Trixie Mattel. But while Ru may not like to laugh at herself, she sure does enjoy laughing at her friends, which is why Sharon Needles's Michelle Visage and Alaska's Lady Bunny did so well.
Geopolitics / Historical Figures: This is another risky strategy, to stray away from impersonating pop stars or actresses and attempt to mine comedy from politics or history. These are not naturally funny figures, and the queens are not Saturday Night Live stars. But it's been known to pay off if the concept is clever, like Aquaria's trapped Melania Trump and Rosé's bawdy Mary, Queen of Scots.
The Jacksons: Three queens in Drag Race herstory have impersonated members of the Jackson family, to fairly varied results, though notably no one's ever finished low for it.
Pop Divas: Right off the bat, we'd ask for a little leeway in dividing the pop "divas" from the pop "girls" you'll find below. It's not entirely an age thing, it's also a vibe thing. Unsurprisingly, Snatch Game is most heavily populated with pop stars, many of whom were pulled from the queens' existing acts. There are obvious benefits to this, including a familiarity with the star you're portraying. But, once again, Snatch Game is a comedy challenge, and the struggle often comes in trying to make these flawless vocalists actually funny. The variance in this category is severe, often elevating the real contenders (Chad Michaels's indelible Cher; Ginger Minj's hilarious Adele) and proving to be a significant stumbling block for the Beyoncé stans.
Actresses: Actresses can often give you more to work with than pop stars when it comes to personality foibles than can be exploited for comedy. Though what often happens here is that queens will work around the prohibition from performing copyrighted characters to just portray an actress in the style of their most famous character, as was the case with winning Snatch Game performances from BenDeLaCreme (Maggie Smith as, essentially, the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey) and Bob the Drag Queen (Uzo Aduba as, essentially, Suzanne from Orange Is the New Black). This is another high variance category with a lot of winning performances and also a lot of eliminated performances, most of which have been the result of queens not going hard enough into their impersonations.
TV Personalities: This is a bit of a catch-all category for queens who have portrayed talk show hosts, TV chefs, TV judges, et cetera. No one's ever won Snatch Game playing someone in this category, but you can pretty reliably skate by.
Fashion / Pageant World Luminaries: This isn't a huge go-to for the queens, and with the notable exception of Raja (whose familiarity with Tyra Banks goes back to their time working on America's Next Top Model together), there's good reason to stay away. There's probably a way to make designers, models, and fashion editors funny, it just has yet to be evidenced on Drag Race.
Pop Girls: Why is J Lo a pop girl and Beyoncé a pop diva? Why are Amy Winehouse and Cardi B and Nicki Minaj not in more specifically accurate categories? Bjork?! Really?! Look, this ain't the Grammys, and we're grouping these as best we can. Anyway, pop girls are huge faves among the queens for obvious reasons, but again, the problem arises when it comes to finding a way to make, say, Ariana Grande or Pink or Kesha funny. We've already gone over the great Gaga struggles in Snatch Game. The best results tend to come from very specific takes on the character, like Tatiana's airheaded Britney or Alexis Mateo's aggressively flirty Alicia Keys.
Real Housewives: We're keeping this as a distinct category from Celebreality mostly because it doesn't seem like Ru actually watches the Real Housewives shows. These women seem like no-brainer impressions with lots of angles to make them funny, yet through a combination of underwhelming takes on the characters (Kennedy's Phaedra) or poor execution (Peppermint's Nene), they've never been reliable hits in Snatch Game. Justice for Joslyn Fox's Teresa, though.
Literary Figures: Uh oh, looks like we got a brainy queen on our hands! It seems fairly obvious why impersonating a novelist or a poet or a journalist might not lend itself to the bawdy one-liners required to win Snatch Game. You can see the thought process that might guide Miz Cracker to imagine that Dorothy Parker, master of quips and bon mots, would be a perfect choice, but there's a subtlety required to pull that off that Snatch Game just doesn't allow for. Monet's Maya Angelou is the glorious exception that proves this rule, mostly because saying "punk bitch" in Angelou's regal tone is sheer perfection. You just know there's some smarty-smart queen out there thinking they're going to slay the room with their Joyce Carol Oates or Joan Didion, and to that queen, we say … honestly, give it a shot, it sounds fun. But beware!
Social Media / Extremely Online: Remember what we said about Ru's taste skewing closer to TCM than TikTok? So many queens, especially in the last five years, simply refuse to learn this lesson. Unless you stumble onto a social media star to whom Ru is familiar (Silky's Ts Madison) or win Ru over with a fierce commitment to a high concept (Gigi's Maria the Robot), you're just going to lose your audience. There is a youthful arrogance to making the decision to play to your desired audience of internet-saturated Zoomers rather than to the judges in front of you, but more and more queens keep trying it.
So that's where we're at with Snatch Game as we approach this latest iteration. The queen who wins will very likely be in the finals, and the path to winning can go through any number of paths ... but it's probably best to pander to Ru just in case.
RuPaul's Drag Race airs on VH1 Friday nights at 8:00 PM ET.
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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.