Vinegar Strokes may star in the West End in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, but on this week’s RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, Everybody’s Talking About Cheryl.
Before the second episode’s cold open has even wrapped, it’s become clear that Cheryl Hole will be our de facto villain for this inaugural season of Drag Race UK. We hear from the other queens, particularly last week’s challenge winner The Vivienne, that Cheryl talks about herself endlessly. On the runway during critiques, Cheryl throws Sum Ting Wong under the bus, even though Ru names Sum Ting and the rest of her winning team as safe.
Later in the episode, during the post-critiques debrief, which, I will henceforth refer to as Mini-Untucked (cute, right?), Sum Ting and Vinegar Strokes assess Cheryl’s “vibe” as inauthentic, like she’s putting on a persona for the cameras. Even Crystal, she of kind Canadian heritage and soft speaking, says Cheryl’s attention-hogging during Mini-Untucked (do you like it?) is too much. And indeed, watching Cheryl teary-eyed in her confessional during Mini-Untucked (I think it’s gonna catch on) over not her poor performance, but the other queens’ suggestion that she might be playing up her personality, feels like a lot to handle.
No season of Drag Race is complete without a villain. I’m surprised it’s Cheryl, when I had pegged Baga Chipz or Vivienne for that role. But such is the dark wheel of fortune of reality TV editing: One day you’re in, and the next day, you’re out. Wait, wrong show. Shantay, which means stay. Something like that.
This week’s mini-challenge—which RuPaul labels a micro-mini-challenge (trying to steal the white hot buzz of Mini-Untucked, I see)—tasks The Vivienne, in her capacity as reigning challenge winner, of arranging the queens from top to bottom in order of who she thinks is her most threatening competition. She rather dubiously puts bottom two placer Vinegar Strokes at the top, while 19-year-old bisexual and future Cats cast member Scaredy Kat is lodged at the bottom. Scaredy even says she expected it, being the youngest and most inexperienced. But see, when you do clownery, the clown comes back to bite, and Scaredy is immediately made the second team captain for this week’s acting challenge, next to Vivienne.
Scaredy wisely picks up noted actor Divina de Campo immediately, while Vivienne grabs noted thespian Vinegar. From there, it’s a mess, as Scaredy passes up grabbing comedy queen Baga to instead take Cheryl. Combined with wanting to have “another twink” on the team and picking Blu Hydrangea, and Vivienne gets an ideal team with Vinegar, Baga and Sum Ting, while Scaredy winds up with the quiet Crystal to round out her set of five.
I mention the team selection in such detail because I think it’s what ultimately damns Scaredy this week. The only strong actor on her team is Divina, who is not enough to carry a team of five. Since Scaredy herself is not much of a performer, she needs as many heavyweights to pull the group along and earn them the team win. Queens like Cheryl and Blu are not going to be those big personalities, especially when Drag Race acting challenges are actually all about over-acting.
That’s especially true this week, as the queens perform different acts of the same show: “Downton Draggy.”
It’s your typical parody acting challenge, a la “RuCo’s Empire” in Season 8 and “Why It Gotta Be Black, Panther?” in Season 11. There’s just enough references to the real Downton Abbey to please fans, with some truly random other elements thrown in. (For some reason, Sum Ting’s character is a Mariah Carey parody?) The writing is mediocre at best, but leaves just enough for the queens who will do well.
Baga, Vivienne, and Divina are the standouts this week, with Baga ultimately taking the win.
Overall, her team was better than Team Scaredy Kat, so she gets the win immediately at the start of critiques. Ordinarily, this annoys me, as I like hearing more detailed praise for the winners. But this was a case where the winner was indisputable. Baga understands that she needs to play her maid character as broad as possible, and she wrings laughter out of every line. Vivienne is very good in her group, too, but can’t compete with the sheer force of Baga’s comedy.
Divina, on the other hand, is ineligible to win based on being on the losing team, but earns effusive praise from the judges. They actually call her performance “fantastic,” which is rare enthusiasm, even for winners. I think she was definitely second-place on the whole, but I wouldn’t say she was better than Baga. But I digress; the point is, the judges are delirious for Divina. So it’s even stranger that Divina has a meltdown on the main stage, saying she thinks she didn’t do enough in the performance.
Does she realize that literally nothing else she could’ve done would have gotten her the win, since she was on the losing team? Is she trying to say she should’ve helped her team more without outright calling them bad? It’s mystifying, and somewhat troubling as a Divina fan.
It’s an emotional day on the runway in general, as Blu gets upset upon receiving critiques and, as mentioned, Cheryl cries in her confessionals about the Mini-Untucked (one more for good measure) confrontation.
The debrief segment is used much more effectively this week in general—it feels like an All Stars-esque interlude to get a sense of the queens’ thoughts instead of just rehashing drama that went on in the rest of the episode. Untucked has been rough in recent seasons, missing the electricity that defined the earlier years of Drag Race. This format offers a potential way forward for American Drag Race, as well.
While Cheryl gets the villain edit, she never seems in real danger of lip syncing. Instead, Ru obviously selects Blu, and somewhat less obviously selects Scaredy. As I said before, I do think Scaredy ultimately screwed herself in team selection, but it’s her challenge performance that seals the deal. She fails to take direction well from Michelle Visage, leaving her tone as a bratty lady of the Abbey at the same whiny note throughout. Failing to modulate your performance based on feedback is a death knell in Drag Race acting challenges.
What makes her placement in the bottom less obvious, though, is that Scaredy is remarkably chill about the whole thing. I’m not sure if this is Gen-Z apathy at work, or just general nihilism, but Scaredy seems genuinely okay with whatever result. Even in Mini-Untucked (gotcha, I had a bonus one ready), she notes that everyone else is freaking out while she’s the one most likely to lip sync. Still, she says “I’m shitting myself” as if describing what she’s planning on having for dinner that day: No panic, all chill. I like this low-key vibe, even if I believe it would’ve ultimately been characterized as a lack of fire to win the competition had Scaredy stayed around.
The lip sync comes down to twink-versus-twink—so sad to see strong twinks pitted against each other—to a song a decade older than either of them: Bananarama’s “Venus.” (I hope at least one of them asked if they could switch to Lady Gaga’ “Venus” instead.) Scaredy notes that this is literally her first time performing on a stage, so, y’know, place your bets appropriately. To my surprise, she does fairly well for herself: The lip sync is a bit of a mess, and she appears a little drunk in her performance style, but she’s fun to watch! The “mountaintop” move in particular nearly killed me. Blu is more skilled, likely because she’s performed on a stage before, and even a merely solid performance is enough to win.
So it’s a fond farewell to Scaredy, who leaves on as bright a note as one could imagine. “It wasn’t a bad first gig,” she cracks as she leaves the runway, and you know what? It sure wasn’t! Good for Scaredy for taking the leap out of her bedroom. I never took her seriously as a threat, but at the end of this journey of hers, I find myself rooting for her.
It’s the first design challenge of the season next week, folks! Is it too obvious to think Vinegar’s failure in the last fashion task will send her home here? Or is the biggest personality in the room doomed to repeat her failures?
💋 Time to rant: For the second week in a row—and third time ever, including the “LaLaPaRuZa” episode of All Stars 4—Ru explains what “shantay you stay” means (“shantay, which means stay”) before the lip sync. I expressed irritation about this on Twitter last week, but figured it was just a first-episode explanation for UK and left it alone in my recap. Now I’m officially frustrated. How many times does the audience need to hear this explanation, when the definition is in the catchphrase? She says “you stay”! On top of that, so much of Drag Race UK so far has been about how these queens have eagerly anticipated getting a Drag Race of their own. Blu called herself part of “Generation Ru.” They don’t need an explanation of “shantay you stay”; presumably no fan will need one, either. It may seem small, but this recurring explanation underestimates the viewer’s intelligence in a way no other part of this new series does.
💋 Ru’s dress this week, a black evening gown with a slit all the way up to her Snatch Game, is a drastic improvement over the neon green monstrosity she rocked last week.
💋 The Bond Girl runway theme produces strong results across the board, but The Vivienne’s tribute to Grace Jones may be my favourite. Special commendation to Blu for her tri-tit look, even if Yvie Oddly did already do it on a Drag Race season this year. (Ru’s “Three boobs, zero fucks” is a very solid off-the-cuff joke.)
💋 Graham Norton takes the rotating judge’s chair from Alan Carr, and he’s perfectly Graham Norton: Charming, honest and devilishly handsome. He doesn’t get off anything as scream-worthy as Alan’s trip to Regent’s Park Zoo’s finest face painters last week, but I do love his deadpan “it’s a gun” to Cheryl during her runway presentation.
💋 Maisie Williams fades into the background a bit as a guest judge, with much shallower critiques compared to Andrew Garfield’s last week. That said, I did love watching her flinch at Crystal’s whip. Not being a Game of Thrones stan myself, I can’t say I feel strongly one way or the other about Williams, but somewhere in West Hollywood, I’m sure Shangela let out a “Halelloo!”
💋 Ru gives Scaredy a Shangela-esque “we haven’t seen the last of you yet” on her way out the door…returnee for UK Season 2?
💋 We’re only two weeks in, but I’m ready to declare UK a success. The smaller pool of contestants is making these queens real, fleshed out characters much quicker than the American show manages. The more focused judging with just four panelists makes critiques much stronger and more coherent. And the bawdier sense of humour is what Drag Race deserves. There’s still potential for production fuckery down the line—Season 10 and All Stars 4 looked great right about now too—but if this season can keep this quality up? Well, then we’re looking at an all-time great one.