Your guide to the top four of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

Butler Students share their excitement as the season finale of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” comes out on April 23. Photo courtesy of Meaww.

ERIC NOFZIGER | STAFF REPORTER | enofzige@butler.edu 

After 15 weeks of blood, sweat and concealer, the finale of season 13 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” will premiere on this Friday. 

The four remaining queens, Symone, Gottmik, Rosé and Kandy Muse, will battle it out during the finale for the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” The winner will walk away with $100,000 and a year’s supply of free cosmetics from Anastasia Beverly Hills.

Drag HERstory

Though its exact origins can be traced back further, the culture of drag as an art form as we know it today began to gain notoriety in the early 20th century. During the segregation of the 1920s, Black queer people would gather and host balls where they would dress up as elegant women and put on extravagant performances in order to compete for recognition. This tradition continued into the latter half of the century, becoming more closely associated with the LGBTQ+ community, and specifically gay men, along the way. Drag queens like Divine in the 70s and the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning,” which details the dance-heavy ball culture of drag in New York City in the 80s, helped popularize the art form. In the 90s, actor and mogul RuPaul Charles burst onto the drag scene and helped kick start its transformation into the extremely popular discipline, and reality show, it is today.

The uptick in drag visibility— and gradual acceptance into the mainstream — was largely due to the “Drag Race” franchise, which was started in 2009 by RuPaul and has since expanded into a global phenomenon. There have been 13 seasons of “Drag Race U.S.,” along with five seasons of “Drag Race All Stars,” in which fan-favorite queens from different seasons return to compete again for the crown. There are also several international iterations of the show, including “Canada’s Drag Race,” “Drag Race Thailand” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.”

Lip syncs and runways and songs, oh my!

Each week’s episode of “Drag Race” follows a similar pattern. Usually at the start is a mini-challenge, which is often just a fun, quick performance or fashion segment. Then the queens are assigned a maxi challenge, which is the crux of every weekly episode. These range from performing a song in a themed musical — this year’s was all about social media — to reading fellow and past cast members to filth in a roast. Another popular maxi challenge is Snatch Game, in which queens impersonate celebrities in a Match Game-style game show. Snatch Game was a favorite this year for Emily Kacpura, a junior risk management and insurance major, who commended the queens’ consistency.

“Sometimes only one or two girls are good and for the rest, you’re cringing the whole time,” Kacpura said. “But there were actually a good amount of girls that did really well.”

After the main challenge is the runway, in which queens show off their fiercest looks that fit a given theme, which this season included gems such as “Trains for Days” and “Bead It.” Then, RuPaul, along with Michelle Visage, Ross Matthews, Carson Kressley and a rotating cast of guest judges, give their critiques of the queens’ runways and performances in the main challenge and subsequently decide the winner, those who are safe for the week, and those in the bottom. The two queens in the bottom finish the episode with a “Lip Sync for your Life,” in which they dance and lip sync to a popular song, and the queen with the lesser performance is eliminated.

RuPaul ends every episode with her signature signoff, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

Shantay, you stay

13 queens started out on “Drag Queens” this season, and now all that remains is the top four. Though the title is still up in the air, Emma Cushman, a junior chemistry major and neuroscience minor, is pulling hard for one queen in particular. 

“I simply want Symone to win,” Cushman said. “She just has this taste level that is immaculate; I strive to be like her. She has so much confidence when she walks on the runway.”

Symone has become a fan favorite and racked up four wins this season through her charisma and penchant for creative, elegant looks. 

Activism has also been a huge facet of Symone’s journey this season. “I love everything associated with my culture, specifically being Black,” Symone said in a recent interview with LA Times. She especially exemplified this during Snatch Game week with a white dress on the runway that had faux spots of blood on the back and “Say Their Names” written across the hat, referencing the ongoing struggle against the brutalizing of Black Americans at the hands of police. Alluding to the runway, Symone highlighted her duty to speak out against injustice.

“I have a responsibility to say something and not to just be pretty,” Symone said.

Rosé, a queen characterized by her vocal chops and performance talent as an experienced singer and actor, is another member of the top four and a three-time winner. She is Kacpura’s personal winner, as she has appreciated Rosé’s growth throughout the show.

“I think Rosé had a start where she wasn’t fully confident and everything, she really wanted to make everything perfect,” Kacpura said. “She’s slowly adjusted to accepting who she is and putting out what she’s happy with and not always what other people are happy with.”

Rosé has put on several homages throughout season 13 to her Scottish heritage, at one point sporting a bagpipe-themed runway and also portraying Mary, Queen of Scots in Snatch Game, unintelligible accent and all.

Gottmik is another queen in the top four who is not afraid to speak up about the issues she believes in. She is the first trans man to compete in “Drag Race,” and she has been vocal about trans issues on the show and beyond, selling shirts that feature pictures of her chest after top surgery and allowing fans to donate binders to trans people in need, with all proceeds going to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.

Adrian Prather, a junior critical communications and media studies and race, gender and sexuality studies double major, says Gottmik is a favorite of theirs.

“[Gottmik is a] personal favorite, just based on [her being] trans masc,” Prather said. “But also she’s just really cool and really funny and pretty versatile.”

Gottmik’s two wins on the season have been acquired through her unique, avant garde looks, her makeup and her realization as somewhat of a comedy queen. A particularly notable moment was her impression of Paris Hilton for Snatch Game, which was especially comical given her former role as Hilton’s makeup artist.

Rounding out the top four is Kandy Muse, a Bronx, New York queen. Kandy is somewhat of a surprising, though not disappointing, inclusion for some.

“I absolutely love Kandy so I’m happy to see her [in the top four],” Cushman said. “But I wasn’t expecting her to go there.”

Kandy Muse is the queen with perhaps the most nerve, not ever afraid to speak her mind, as evidenced by her savage takedowns in The Roast — the only challenge she’s won — and her mid-season beef with fellow contestant Tamisha Iman. Kandy’s looks are often very elegant, while still subverting common expectations of drag.

Sashay away

While most are satisfied with the top four, there are still some queens that students thought potentially deserved to stay in the competition longer.

“I really thought Denali was going to be there,” Cushman said, referring to an ice skating queen with a vibrant style. “I was really pulling for her.”

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Tamisha Iman, who was the oldest queen and also made all of her own dresses for the competition, was one of Prather’s favorites.

“I was a big Tamisha Iman stan going in because she’s literally iconic,” Prather said. “She’s like an elder in the drag community.”

Other favorites included Tina Burner, a New York-based queen, whose signature red, orange and yellow outfits and makeup always lit up the stage, and Utica, a quirky queen with an esoteric brand of eccentricity and creativity. 

“The look that [Utica] made for the ball challenge out of sleeping bags is one of the best looks I’ve ever seen on the runway,” Cushman said of Utica’s Week 5 look.

If you don’t love “Drag Race” yourself… 

“Drag Race,” more than most reality television, is often extremely personal for its viewers, and people connect to it in a myriad of ways. Prather, for example, said they love the LGBTQ+ representation the show brings to the table.

It’s some of the only queer programming that we get at a mainstream level,” Prather said. “I like to watch it because, even if it is a small section of the queer community, it still showcases a lot of what makes queerness so important.”

Prather also appreciates the way the show and its contestants play with notions of gender and gender performance.

“The gender-bending aspect of it is really fun to me,” Prather said. “I like how the show will go into aspects of, you know, what is a woman? What is a man? What do those things even mean? It’s a cool topic that a lot of people don’t think about all the time.”

Cushman is drawn to the show’s entertainment value, the so-called “drama conflama of it all.”

“As a former theatre kid, I love the drama, the costumes, the hair, the makeup artistry, the performances,” Cushman said. “I just want the rest of the world to be just as dramatic and fun as ‘Drag Race’ is.”

… How the hell is it gonna be loved by somebody else?

All of this might be a little overwhelming for someone who has not seen the show before or is not familiar with drag culture in any way. However, fans believe that even people with preconceived notions of “Drag Race” can get something out of it, and it’s best to go in with an open mind.

“There’s a lot of implicit bias and negative connotation that someone might conjure when they think of queer media,” Prather said in regards to first-time watchers. “But I think it’s important to watch. It’s really funny and it’s really dramatic, and it’s just fun to watch on that front. But you can also watch the show and really get a gauge on some of these aspects of the queer community.”

Kacpura echoed these sentiments, and said that sometimes perseverance can also be a key factor in getting into “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

“I say go in with an open mind, try it out,” she said. “But also, don’t give up on one season. The seasons are very different, you’ll get different experiences out of each one [because] there are wildly different drag queens on each season.”

Fans say the show is also a great way to become more involved in political and social issues. Cushman said the show helped her accept new ideas and that the real magic is not in the makeup and the runways, but rather in the stories.

“I feel like I was a very different person before I started watching RuPaul, and now I’m very involved with political things because I follow all these awesome [drag queens who are also] activists,” Cushman said. “Some of the stories that I’ve learned from the show have given me a whole new perspective of so many things. You hear about [POC and LGBTQ+ issues], but then you see someone that you love on TV talk about it, and it gives you a new perspective, you know?”

The finale of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” airs April 23 at 8 p.m. EST on MTV and VH1.

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