We know well by now what happens to RuPaul’s Drag Race queens who return to the competition after previously being eliminated: they get eliminated again. At best, they stick around one more episode at most, likely scoring in the safe group. But make no mistake: they cannot win, and elimination is just around the corner.
Latrice Royale, the Season 4 and All Stars 1 veteran, makes her return to the All Stars 4 workroom this week after winning her way back in a frustrating, lip sync-heavy episode.
She seeks to break the returner’s curse. She knows there’s been, as she puts it, “a herstory of girls who come back, and they go right back home.” Surely this legendary queen can be the first? Surely she can win the challenge, stick around and make a real run at the crown?
This week’s challenge is one of my favorites of the season, and a wholly new invention for All Stars 4. The top seven queens are tasked with designing, building and executing club concepts in teams. It’s a hell of an ask: they have to actually build the space, come up with a signature cocktail, add a game to play during the evening, then host the judges for a “night” of clubbing. It’s basically a Drag Race version of Top Chef’s beloved Restaurant Wars challenge, where teams have to come up with restaurants and deliver dinner service.
What I love most about this challenge is that it recalls the original thesis behind Drag Race challenge design, which was about reflecting some part of Ru’s career. The club scene was integral to Ru’s rise, and Drag Race has yet to find a way of testing that in any meaningful fashion. This new challenge makes for a fantastic showcase for the queens, with most rising to the occasion and even the lesser queens hardly flopping.
Latrice Royale gets to pick the teams as the returning queen, and she wisely chooses to work with BFF Manila Luzon and technically perfect competitor Trinity “Taylor” the Tuck. Together, they come up with the bee-themed Club Hive, and just thoroughly smash the challenge. Manila comes up with a fantastic design, complete with hexagon shapes to recall honeycombs on the wall. The trio’s black-and-yellow outfits complement the decor, their honey-flavored cocktails are a hit and their strip spelling bee is the perfect game element. They even smartly include the judges in the bee. It’s a home run from the team of older queens.
Unfortunately for Manila, the judges think that despite a great design, Manila does too much during the actual presentation and she is denied the challenge win. Instead, spelling bee hostess Trinity and grand dame Latrice serve as the top two queens of the week. Trinity’s win is clearly more for the challenge, while I think Latrice’s dynamite runway puts her over the top. It’s a surreal latex look, recalling some kind of sea creature. It’s unusual, high-impact and easily the best thing Latrice has ever worn on any season of Drag Race.
Latrice’s redemption comes quickly, as she accomplishes the previously impossible, but as Monét X Change notes, her journey is not over. “You need to be in the top every single week,” the New York City queen says during the episode’s intro, and she’s right. If Latrice even once falls into the bottom, the top queens will have reason to send her home. She must make it through the next two weeks without flaw to make it to the finale.
Speaking of Monét, she and her Season 10 sister Monique Heart make a great showing with their club, The Black Hole. The design of the club is strong, just outer spacey and weird enough to work, but where the pair really sells it is in their chemistry. Of all the teams, the two work together the absolute best, riffing off of each other in both the design process and their presentation. I’d most want to go to their club night, and I think they should work together professionally as much as they possibly can.
I cannot say the same for Naomi Smalls and Valentina, though. While Naomi mostly acquits herself well this week (save an uncharacteristically inelegant runway) Valentina really screws the pooch. She comes up with the concept for their Club 96 — like 69ing, but the people are too posh to look at each other — and that’s about it. She comes to the club construction workspace in an absurd, impractical outfit, while Naomi shows up to work in jeans. Instead of helping Naomi come up with a script for the club, she walks over to chat with the other teams.
Valentina’s unpreparedness shows during the presentation, as she and Naomi step on each other’s lines and act sloppy. Even their outfits show the difference in their preparation levels, Naomi’s wig is fabulous and Valentina’s is limp. The only thing about the club that really works is their insistence on whispering “Club 96” every minute or so. It’s just dumb and weird enough to be funny.
The writing is on the wall for Valentina all episode. She just isn’t focused enough to work with a partner in these team challenges; there’s a lack of seriousness about Valentina that’s fun, until it’s time to get down to brass tacks. She also failed in the similarly constructed TV pilots challenge during Season 9, where her and Nina Bo’Nina Brown’s Nina & Tina was a non-starter. (That was the challenge for which she landed into the bottom two, didn’t know the words to “Greedy,” and, well, the rest is herstory.)
Moreover, the other girls just seem to have stopped taking Valentina seriously. She once again monologues about her fantasy during the opening segment, and her fellow queens laugh her off. “She could just stay home and live the fantasy!” Monique says — which, while funny, is also very correct. Valentina just isn’t competing at the level of these other queens (which, you could say Naomi isn’t either, but “Adrenaline” went a long way toward fixing that). It’s not right to keep her around if she’s clearly the worst of what’s left of the crop.During deliberations, Valentina breaks down in a way she hasn’t all season. You can tell she knows it’s her time, and the fantasy is finally crashing down. To her immense credit, she won’t throw Naomi under the bus to Trinity, even as her Season 9 sister begs for a reason to keep her. Latrice, meanwhile, learns exactly how hard it is to make an elimination decision — but does ultimately eliminate Valentina.
It’s a sad moment, especially because I feel like we’ll never hear from Valentina again — oh, wait, no, she’s in Rent: Live on Sunday, she’ll be fine. Valentina is a star, and there’s absolutely no stopping her.
💋 Valentina makes a reference to the rampant rumor that she demanded red M&Ms from venues after Season 9. Like the joke about Maskgate during the Lady Bunny roast, it just doesn’t land. Alaska showed in All Stars 2 that these kinds of references can kill with the judges, but they’ve got to be perfectly sculpted to delight the judges.
💋 As I speculated last week, the inane workroom chatter proves there’s really no plot left for this season. Rough, considering we still have three episodes to go.
💋 Kudos to Trinity for giving up one of her prizes to Manila in acknowledgement of all the work Manila did. It makes for a nice moment, and softens Trinity a bit. Those kinds of things go a long way with the Drag Race fandom.
💋 Latrice says something quite beautiful to Valentina during deliberations when Val starts to cry: “If you show your emotion, you’re not any less.” It’s a lesson anyone can take to heart, and I really hope Valentina does. She doesn’t need to be the perfect character all the time.
💋 Naomi is really funny the whole episode, from not taking Valentina up on her offer to wear the same absurd outfit, to most of her Club 96 one-liners. “Isaac Mizrahi — before foreclosure!” made me howl. It seems like she may be the next to go, but I’ll truly miss her when she’s gone.
💋 I always love hearing “Jealous of My Boogie,” one of the better RuPaul songs and the Season 2 theme. It comes on at Club 96, thus instantly improving Club 96.
💋 The guest judges this week are Rita Ora and Susanne Bartsch, and to my delight, both are terrific! Rita is a ton of fun during the club scenes. Maybe my favorite moment: when she asks for the $100 she won at The Black Hole, Monét says she’ll Venmo her. Susanne, on the other hand, really shows why she’s a legend in the nightlife industry, with sharp, on-point critiques. She also comes dressed for the gods, and looking flawless. (She’s 67!) I’d say she’s up there with Jenifer Lewis and Cecily Strong among the best guest judges of the season.
💋 Oh, yeah, the lip sync. God, I wanted to avoid talking about this. For some reason, Trinity comes out in an old woman getup with saggy boobs for Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).” Yes, they lip sync to male vocals! Anyway, Trinity’s terrible, and Latrice is not much better, no matter how much Monique convinces us that her rolling on the ground is in any way gag-worthy. Latrice basically wins by not being the worst. Bad ending to an otherwise good episode.
RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4 returns next Friday, Feb 1, at 8 pm ET on VH1 in the US and OUTtv in Canada.