Review: RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9, Episode 11—”Gayest Ball Ever”


The ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race creeps towards the finale with a ball episode that’s high on fashion and light on drama.

“Nina is gone,” Trinity Taylor says at the top of tonight’s episode. “She did bring a side of drag that most people don’t see, but I’m relieved. The negative is gone.”

I can see why someone stuck in the trenches with Nina Bo’Nina Brown would feel this way. Nina was a very unique queen, but when her paranoia got the better of her, she could wear on the nerves. But as a viewer, that’s not always bad. The fact is that people don’t watch Drag Race — or any reality TV show — purely to see talented people be talented. Drama, conflict and surprise are part of what keeps us coming back for more, and Nina brought those things.

There’s a noticeable downgrade in drama this week. Yes, the queens bicker a bit while working on their outfits, with the normally unflappable Sasha Velour complaining that Shea Couleé was talking over her during their rhythmic gymnastics rehearsal, and the incredibly flappable Alexis Michelle complaining that no one listened to her ideas. But everyone stopped well short of hurting anyone else’s feelings, and there was a sense that we’d been here before — even Shae’s little “the claws are coming out” pantomime reminded me of when Jinkx Monsoon did the exact same thing in season 5.

It’s a difficult irony. Do we want these girls to get along and be role models for everyone at home or tear each other’s eyes out for our entertainment? There’s probably a middle ground somewhere.

Happily, the runway portion of the evening is more successful. This is the ball challenge, where the queens have to debut three looks, each one modeled on a different theme. Staying under the umbrella of “Gayest Ball Ever,” the themes are: Rainbow-She-Better-Do (rainbow flag), Sexy Unicorn (because gay), and looks inspired by different members of the Village People (minus the G.I.).

Sasha and Shae are the clear standouts tonight. Shae’s looks have occasionally perplexed me. She comes from a design background, so I expected her to hit the runway hard all season, but while I’ve never hated anything she’s worn, she’s brought out the swimsuit silhouette a few too many times for my liking. But tonight, she lives up to her promise. No, her rainbow flag look doesn’t read as a rainbow flag (Michelle: “There wasn’t one color of the rainbow in there. Not one!”), but it’s freaking rad. The graffiti on the skirt and the splashes of body paint are a lot of fun, and it all goes well with the chic grey bob.

Shae’s all-black S&M unicorn look is probably her weakest, but it’s still well put together. And her Village People couture (she’s draws the construction worker) is the outfit of the night. She has a blast combining disparate elements, contrasting dragtastic thigh-high boots with a tool belt and a white tank top. And kudos for matching the bright yellow pop of the hard hat with the boots and the lipstick.

But the outfit only works because of her flannel patchwork train/cape/shawl, which hangs off her forearms. I imagine it’s the kind of thing Wonder Woman would wear during New York Fashion Week. Without it, the outfit would be a cute, kitschy lark. With it, the whole thing ends up looking a lot more expensive and elegant than its individual parts, although it maintains a DIY aesthetic. It’s just a wonderful piece.

Sasha matches Shae look for look, and might even outdo her overall. Her rainbow flag look was my favorite from that theme. All the needed colors are in there, but show up as solids on different parts of the outfit — green gloves, orange skirt, blue earrings, etc. And when she pulled off her hat to reveal a pink house resting on top of her bald head…this is exactly the kind of high-concept look Sasha deserves to be known for, and the exact opposite of Alexis’ fatally literal take on the same concept.

Sasha was also the best in show for the unicorn theme. Her Egyptian-inspired medieval tapestry look is wonderfully detailed, and not something we’ve seen before. I wasn’t as over the moon about her Village People look as the judges (she was the cowboy), but it was certainly presentable. I dunno — she called it “beautifully tailored,” but the top half wasn’t exactly hugging her skin. The bandana fabric was neat, though, and the bright red color worked for her.

I was expecting the judges to hand Sasha the win for her consistency, but Ru gave the nod to Shae instead. Twist! Ru’s reasoning was that while Sasha’s looks were impeccable, they wouldn’t have worked at a New York ball as seen in Paris is Burning, and after all, this was a ball challenge. Sasha’s looks were fashionable, sure, but did they bring the realness?

It’s an interesting angle to take, and proves once again that doing well on this show isn’t just about being good at drag; it’s about knowing what talents to use and, more importantly, when to use them.

Of course, constructing outfits isn’t everybody’s strength. I knew Alexis was in trouble the second she talked about the “very ambitious” stoning she intended to do. If Alexis’ idea of being visually ambitious is gluing a bunch of turquoise stones to a bodice, she didn’t have much of a prayer, not with aesthetically inventive people like Shae and Sasha in the mix. The result of Alexis’ work — her Village People Indian outfit — was fine. Her body looked good in it, but it needed something to kick it up a notch or three, and plastering a bow to the side of her head wasn’t it.

Alexis was rightly in the bottom. Joining her was Peppermint, whose outfits have been shaky all season. (With the exception of that club kid look from a couple weeks back — that one was nuts.) For her rainbow flag look, she wore a gold corset and carried a long rainbow sash out of stage. Not exactly breaking the mold. Her unicorn look was better, particularly the prickles on her head, but it was shoddily constructed and bunched up in the wrong places. Her Village People look was solid, though. She was the biker, and it’s hard to go wrong in an avalanche of black leather.

The lip sync was to “Macho Man,” one of the few times the show has had the queens perform something sung by a man.

Relations with the gay community being what they were, it’s kind of hard to believe this song was incredibly popular. Good on the Village People for sneaking this into the popular consciousness.

Anyway, Peppermint dances her ass off, manages the smoothest wig reveal in the history of the show, connects with the judges, and is generally a joy to watch. She’s a lively personality in the workroom but comes fully alive in these lip syncs — I wish we’d seen more of them. Alexis Michelle sashays away. Thanks for the Liza impression, Alexis! It was a long time coming.

So we’re at the final four. Given their performances over the course of the season, I have a hard time believing Peppermint isn’t going home next week. She’s bumped along the bottom more than any of the other queens left. Trinity was in the bottom three tonight, but when there are only five contestants, that doesn’t mean much. True, her first two outfits were nothing to write home about — we’ve seen her highlight her impressive curves before — but she sold them harder than anyone else, stomping up and down the stage and daring the judges not to acknowledge her as a star.

Then there was her Village People look — she was the police officer. It was…very interesting. I’ll be honest: it didn’t really read as “cop” to me. The accoutrements were there, including a visor and lots of medals, but it bled into a long sheer black skirt that gave me more high-powered dominatrix than police. Put that together with sky-high pageant hair and an armored corset, and you have a look that’s a little all over the place, but one I definitely enjoyed looking at. And of course, Trinity sold it with truckfuls of attitude. She’s far from out.

I almost wish this challenge had gone to Sasha, cause then she, Shae, and Trinity would all have three wins apiece. Now that she has four wins, Shae’s victory seems a little inevitable, which is boring. Let’s hope Ru, or Shae’s competitors, shakes things up next week.

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Random Ruflections

  • Trinity to Shae: “If she woulda sent your ass home, I woulda been laughing all the way, bitch!” I love how open Trinity is about her desire to win this thing.
  • Every once in a while this show will book a guest judge who seems completely out of left field. Tonight, it’s Andie MacDowell. Remember when she was enduring Bill Murray in Groundhog Day? I do. Now she’s here. It was fun hearing her be so ribald, too. She wants to meet Peppermint in the park at night, people.
  • I’m not sure how long this has been going on, but Trinity was clearly giving the best cutaway interviews tonight, starting with her minor freakout over what may have been an imaginary knat. Also: “I’m gonna shit glitter.” Also again: “Sasha’s too nice, cause I woulda bitch-slapped somebody. Wham! And then twirled my ribbon.”
  • RuPaul as the girls reach through the wall to get their puppets: “You know, you’d think that hole would be worn out after so many years.”
  • Trinity on her Shae puppet: “I feel like mine’s very accurate.” Shae: “Bitch, that is a hot motherfucking mess.” Trinity: “Exactly.”
  • Sasha was far and away the best during the puppet mini-challenge. She was assigned to mock Trinity, but she made it an equal-opportunity bitch fest. “I like horse play (that’s where you have sex with Nina Bo’Nina Brown), couch play (that’s where you have sex with Nina Bo’Nina Brown’s padding).”
  • Even in the workroom, Trinity was selling her cop look. Shae: “Police brutality! It hits too close to home.”
  • The queens were freaking out during RuPaul’s impromptu rhythmic gymnastics performance and so was I. Forty-five straight minutes of that, please.
  • The puns were ON tonight at the judge’s table.
    • Michelle on seeing Sasha’s house/wig: “I’m filing for Section Great.”
    • Carson Kressley on seeing Sasha’s unicorn outfit: “The tip of her horn is bleeding. I think this is a period costume.”
    • RuPaul, not being overly mindful of cultural appropriation: “Alexis Michelle, your Native American couture left the judges with reservations.”
  • Guest judge Joan Smalls on Trinity’s ass: “I need to take myself to the gym after this.” Trinity: “No, just the doctor.”