Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.
A canonical moment for Drag Race fans happened in the show’s fourth season during Untucked. During a heated exchange with Jiggly Caliente, Lashauwn Beyond tells her, “This is not RuPaul’s Best Friend Race.” In a show with no shortage of memorable quips, this stands among the most oft-repeated for its pointedness, directness and cattiness. Everyone knew this to be the case, but no one had yet said it — and with such precision. It was and still is reality TV gold: Bark and bite.
That was 2012. A decade later, the show has morphed into something more akin to the Best Friend’s Race that Beyond claimed the show was not. And it wasn’t through happenstance but rather shifts in the show’s format over time that have swapped conflict and competition for sisterhood and laughs. Gone are the days of “I’m not joking, bitch” in the workroom. These days, there are toy xylophones and yoga. To be clear: This isn’t a critique but rather an observation about the show’s evolution. In fact, it’s perhaps to the show’s credit that it’s chosen to update its format rather than suffer the same fate of other long-running reality competition shows like America’s Next Top Model and American Idol, which became increasingly stale in the rigidity of their confines.
We’ve seen inklings of this before: Season 14 didn’t eliminate a queen until Episode 3, for instance. But the latest iteration, All Stars 7, is the clearest rebuke of the show’s original format, which eliminated a queen weekly to discern a winner.
When rumors of an all-winners season of the show began circulating in 2020, many were wondering which of the franchise’s 20-plus winners would return. “We’ve been talking about so many iterations of it since the first All Stars season,” says Randy Barbato, who, along with his producing partner Fenton Bailey runs World of Wonder, which has been producing Drag Race from Season 1, Episode 1. “It’s always been the intention to do several seasons of winners. It’s just been about timing.”
Unlike the first six All Stars seasons, which gave runner-up queens a second shot at victory, the queens in the newest All Stars season are all previous winners. When the season premiered in May, it was not completely unexpected that a switch-up in format came along with the change in contestants. Instead of the bottom two queens lip-syncing for their lives only to have the losing queen sent packing, this new format would crown two challenge winners each, both of whom would lip-sync for the chance to earn a legendary legend star. The four queens with the most legendary legend stars would then face off in the finale. In short, there would be no losers but only one winner.
How did that decision come about?
“As producers, we’re always challenged on finding that balance between respecting the artistry of the cast and delivering some kind of stakes and drama,” says Barbato. “The producing team — Tom Campbell, Mandy Salangsang and Steven Corfe — we’re all fans of the cast. We’re rabid fans of the cast. So we want all of them to last all season. We have two goals: To create great entertainment and to create a platform for these artists to share their artistry. With the winners’ season, there was even more pressure to do this. They all deserve the platform to deliver their artistry. It became clear to us that this is an opportunity to do a show without eliminations, and how can we do that in a way that’s still entertaining, has drama and delivers some stakes, and that’s where we arrived.”
And though stakes remain, they are admittedly lowered, which, in turn, frees the contestants from taking the competition too seriously and lets them treat it more like a game. “When someone gets ‘blocked’” — a new twist added to the season that allows a winning queen to prevent another queen from earning a star the following week — “there is faux drama that is really tongue in cheek and fun,” says Johnny Atorino, who co-hosts the popular Drag Race-centric podcast Alright Mary. “This affects how the viewer watches the show. If their fav doesn’t get a star one week, there’s a feeling of, ‘Oh, maybe next week!’ which keeps us engaged.”
Throughout the season, the impact of this rule change has been felt in more ways than one. With no bottom two and sensitivity around not tarnishing a winner’s reputation as the crème de la crème, the judges have softened their critiques. “The critiques are all positive, which I’m sure enrages some viewers, but they would be enraged with bad critiques as well,” Atorino says of what he describes as the “Montessori-like judging” of the current season.
Take, for instance, a moment from Episode 6: The girl group challenge. Season 3 winner Raja admits earlier in the episode that although she’s a dancer, she’s more of a sexy lounge act. “This is like pop star stuff. Some bitches have them skills. I’m not the one,” she says. She’s offering a Gypsy Rose Lee type of admission: “Nobody laughs at me because I laugh first at me.” Later in the episode, during the performance itself, Raja, as self-prophesied, flounders a bit, unsure of the choreography — and the lip sync. However, both the editors (“the camera generously cuts around her sloppy choreo and spotty lip-syncing,” noted Vulture in their recap) and the critiques work in her favor. “Every girl group has that one member who is a little bit more off than the others, so maybe it works out,” guest judge Tove Lo remarks of the performance. “Yeah, that was my logic,” Raja replies with a wink in her eye, adding that “it’s a small Christmas miracle.” That level of self-deprecation earns her raucous laughter from the judging panel, who quickly steer the conversation to her look, which is predictably impeccable. No one would deny that Raja failed to stick the landing on the challenge, but in this iteration of the show, no one would admit it either.
raja probably spent more time preparing her outfit and makeup than memorizing her own verse bc she ate up this look #allstars7 #dragrace pic.twitter.com/s6ccSipXPR— icesis h&m (@srodulvss) June 17, 2022
And who really cares? If the show’s mantra — “we’re all born naked and the rest is just drag” — has taught us anything, it’s that it’s less about what you’re selling and more about how you’re selling it. Divert attention. Reframe the narrative. End on a laugh. This is all part of the game. “Raja probably spent more time preparing her outfit and makeup than memorizing her own verse [because] she ate up this look,” one viral tweet reads, underlining the shift in what it means to succeed on the show. It’s not about picking yourself back up so much as how you choose to land your fall. Will this new format continue? “All Stars will always reinvent itself,” says Barbato coyly. “It’s like a drag queen: It’ll have a different wig every season.”
If you enjoyed this story, check out Evan Ross Katz’s piece pondering whether or not queer characters need a coming out in today’s media.