Can I be a reality TV nerd with y’all for a second? I know what you’re thinking: “Kevin, you write about RuPaul’s Drag Race for a living and call yourself a herstorian, you’re always a reality TV nerd.” And you would be right about that! But I’m going to take the geekery to a new level for a bit this week, because I want to heap praise on the All Stars 5 story editors.
I love the cast of All Stars 5, but I understand how, in the wrong format, they could fail to gel. That’s what happened, in my opinion, with the All Stars 3 cast, which always felt like a selection of individuals instead of a collective group. Queens that season didn’t get much airtime unless they were going to win or go home. The same happened in Season 11, when several queens in the cast of 15 would disappear from the edit for episodes at a time. Even the best seasons can be guilty of this: You can point to multiple episodes in the middle of Season 6 in which Courtney Act—a finalist who never lip-synced once that season!—is all but ignored.
All Stars 5’s story editors are putting in the work to make sure we don’t forget about any of these talented queens. Every single person in this episode has a role in the narrative and gets plenty of screen time between the main episode and Untucked. When a queen emotionally asks to be eliminated during deliberations, you get a sense of what everyone else in the group thinks about her choice. When another doll questions why she’s known as “difficult,” half the cast gets a chance to weigh in. It feels like a real group, with the various cast dynamics that come with that, and thus every elimination feels all the harder to go through—for them and for us.
The performances are matching that energy, too, as the contestants continue to stand out. “I’m in Love” may not be as great a Rusical as the Madonna performance in Season 12, but it’s entertaining, and at least a couple of the queens are excellent. Combined with some stunning runways and a fantastic lip sync, and All Stars 5 is two-for-two on strong episodes. We have a ways to go, and other seasons that started strong ultimately derailed, but I’m cautiously optimistic.
RuPaul presents the queens with a new kind of Rusical challenge this week: They must work in three teams of three to write, record, choreograph and perform verses to a new song, “I’m in Love.” What makes that different, you ask? Well, they’re not talking about love in the abstract: they must actually name a celebrity crush and sing about them. It’s a little random, but the cute, bubblegum song (written by Leland and Freddy Scott) sells it. This is a teen bop fantasy, and the cast really works hard to sell it.
As the previous top All Star—though notably not the Lip Sync for Your Legacy winner—India Ferrah is asked to name her biggest competition. Perhaps trying to game the system and get strong singer Blair St. Clair and excellent rapper Shea Coulée on her team, she names them. This backfires, as they are instead made the other team captains. “I fucked the whole thing up,” she says in confessional. To her credit, she recovers quickly, drafting the best pure vocalist in Jujubee and a stellar dancer in Alexis Mateo. Blair picks up her Season 10 sisters, Miz Cracker and Mayhem Miller, while Shea gets ballroom queen Mariah Paris Balenciaga and last-remaining-pick Ongina.
Ongina is struggling at the start of this week’s episode; you can hear her voice going out in the cold open, which does not bode well for a musical task. She’s also taken down a peg by Cracker, who says she did the wrong thing by voting Derrick Barry out last week and should’ve grabbed some white-out and written Ongina’s name instead. “You’re not BenDeLaCreme, and you wish you were,” Ongina says in her confessional upon Cracker’s confession. She’s pissed, and I can’t blame her! Sure, Cracker may have thought Ongina was the worst in the challenge—I did too, for that matter—but it’s not up to Cracker to change the rules of the competition.
Moreover, the deed is done, and Ongina is still in the competition. What good does it do to bring this up now? Mariah even accuses Cracker of playing mind games over it, but I actually don’t think that’s the issue. This entire episode is a bit of a reckoning for Cracker when she learns the majority of the girls find her “difficult” and “egotistical,” as Juju and Blair put it at the makeup mirror. This especially comes across in recording her team’s verses and rehearsing their choreography; Cracker keeps stepping on toes and offering corrections to her teammates. Still, she doesn’t know how to fix her problem. “If I knew why people thought I was difficult, I could fix it,” she says in a confessional.
It seems like Cracker has very high standards for both herself and those she works with, but the other queens aren’t going to silently take it. It all comes to a head when Cracker realizes she needlessly went after Ongina and admits that she was too hard on the Season 1 veteran.
The damage to Ongina’s self-confidence is done, though, and her voice going out doesn’t help matters. She does nail the choreography, to her credit, but it’s not enough when paired with her incredibly low-energy vocals. Her trip to the bottom three this week, plus her poor Reading Challenge and talent show performances last week, have left her questioning whether it’s even fair that she’s in the competition. She emotionally pleads with the other girls to send her home and to spare the other members of the bottom three.
Those two are Shea and Ongina’s teammate, Mariah, who I don’t personally think deserves to be up for elimination, and last week’s challenge winner India Ferrah. India’s group is Old School Drag Race to the max, with All Stars 1 returnees Jujubee and Alexis with her. Though India won last week, her interactions with the All Stars vets reveal her limitations in this competition. She doesn’t have the same level of imagination; while Juju and Alexis decide to sing about John Stamos and Daddy Yankee, India wants to sing about her partner RJ. Considering the verse has to be about a celebrity, this is ill-advised, and her team tells her so. But even after changing, she only levels up to Justin Timberlake and chooses him so she can make Britney Spears jokes about Derrick.
India is an amazing drag queen in the most literal sense. Her drag is painted for the gods, exaggerated proportions, big hair—and it’s great! But Drag Race doesn’t really reward excellent traditional drag; hell, Jaida Essence Hall is the first true pageant queen to win a regular season, and it took 12 years to finally happen. Drag Race requires inventiveness, a great sense of humour and an ability to do anything that gets thrown at you. I’m not sure India has that ability.
Someone who undoubtedly has that ability is Shea Coulée, who absolutely smashes this week. She writes a killer verse for the song, all about Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman, and comes up with her team’s superior choreography. Carson Kressley calls her “professional,” and he’s exactly right: She’s a pro this whole episode. Shea also turns the party on the runway, in a “Nubian goddess realness” look that makes guest judge Tessa Thompson fully gag. Blair and Jujubee join Shea in the top, but honestly, there’s no contest: This is her week.
After an emotional deliberation and group vote, Shea meets her opponent in the Lip Sync for Your Legacy—and once again, All Stars 5 has brought out a big gun. Alyssa Edwards, who has lost exactly one lip sync out of her five on the show, and has produced iconic lip syncs like those to “Cold Hearted,” “Whip My Hair,” and perhaps most famously “Shut Up and Drive,” will be Shea’s opponent. “I’m back back back back back again / Giving y’all a dose of assassin-in’!” Alyssa rhymes as she walks onto the main stage. I love Alyssa so much. (That is an evergreen sentence.)
There’s $20,000 on the line if Shea can win. This is a genuine challenge for Shea, who underwhelmed in her one winning lip sync in Season 9 (against a defeated Nina Bo’Nina Brown to “Cool for the Summer”) and lost her crown in spectacular fashion in the iconic “So Emotional” lip sync against best friend Sasha Velour. Alyssa may be too much for Shea—is the tip going to roll over once again and give someone a chance to win $30,000?
The answer is a resounding “no,” as Shea absolutely demolishes her lip sync to the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance.” Alyssa puts up one hell of a fight, but Shea is perfectly matched to this song. She dances all over the stage, speeding up her footwork, doing the splits, grinding on the floor—she’s just excellent. She takes the win, and the $20,000. Which, as she notes in Untucked, is a hell of a chunk of change for three minutes of dancing!
But with that tip comes the task of eliminating a queen, and she ultimately chooses to honour Ongina’s wishes and send her home. I’ve wanted Ongina on this show for a very long time, and I could never have imagined her run ending like this. But there was no fairer result than this one. Ongina will always be a star, but she will not be this All Stars season’s winner.
Eight queens remain, and one representative of both the Old School and New School factions has gone home! Who will be eliminated third? And what Lip Sync Assassin waits behind the über-slowly-rising screen door next? We’ll find out together next week.
💄Though Bonnie Pointer wasn’t a member of the group when the Pointer Sisters recorded “Neutron Dance,” it’s nonetheless an unintentional and lovely tribute to the departed Bonnie to have her group’s song as the lip sync this week.
💄One bit of drama I didn’t mention: Mayhem is pissed to learn her friend Jujubee voted for her to be eliminated. She blows it a bit out of proportion—“I am gagged. GAGGED!” she says in her confessional—but you can tell she expected anyone but Juju to vote against her. That said, Juju apologizes, and I admire that she corrects herself when she realizes she’s about to pseudo-apologize. “That’s not a real apology. I’m sorry that I hurt you,” she says. More people could follow Juju’s example! I know I sure as hell could.
💄Alexis Mateo’s take on the do-re-mi musical scale: “Do! Re! Mi! Fa! So! Latte! Venti! Coffee!”
💄We officially have our runway theme for the season: It’s RuPaul and Taylor Dayne’s “Be Someone.” How appropriate to debut it on Alyssa’s Lip Sync Assassin episode, considering Alyssa won her first All Stars 2 lip sync to Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It To My Heart”!
💄“Loving the Skin You’re In” makes for a fun runway category, although Blair’s dressing up in all pink rankles both Michelle Visage and Mariah. I like the look, but hey, I gotta cede to the queen of the ball scene. Mariah knows her categories. (Shea’s is by far my favourite runway, but I also really like Alexis’.)
💄Jujubee is already calling her financial planner to talk about winning this week’s tip. “You know how many things I can get for $20,000? If I put $20,000 in an IRA Roth, you know how much money that is? $20,000 in an IRA Roth.”
💄A cute bit of extra content: The All Stars 5 queens put together a playlist of songs they’d love to lip sync to—a song specifically meant to represent their drag. Bet you can’t guess which one is Derrick Barry’s!
💄Along with Tessa Thompson, Madison Beer returns from Secret Celebrity Drag Race to guest judge this week—although she actually did this first chronologically, as All Stars 5 shot before Celeb. She and Tessa are both fine guest judges, although it’s not lost on me that this new All Stars format means we see a lot less of the guests. Fun fact: After Logan Browning’s guest spot in Season 10, Tessa Thompson makes for the second Samantha White from Dear White People to guest-judge!
💄“Gosh, I need to have sex.” Alexis is really speaking for me during quarantine.