From a Bumpy ‘All Stars’ Season, a Deserved Crowning (and More than One Winner)
It’s been a bumpy season full of dramatic twists, shock eliminations, and jumps “from there,” but the third season of All Stars ended with a newly-crowned superstar in a contentious victory. Spoilers are ahead, so be warned.
We find out that the final challenge to a RuPaul song du jour will be a routine to “Kitty Girl” but the stakes this season are higher: the queens have to stick choreography from Todrick Hall, who has hopefully endeared himself enough as a talented guest worthy of more inclusion. The twist: an ambitious live routine done in a single take, with a majority of the routine happening backstage. It’s a huge task, and the idea of a live musical number is both an exciting elevation and a great chance for the queens to show off their talents.
We’re already wound up when we find out that the eliminated queens are back (again) and will be a part of the final deliberation. It’s a good payoff to the last time they were back, which didn’t really amount to much more than one block of intense conversation, with the added drama of Ben sitting there looking like the winner she was supposed to be.
Kennedy kicks off the performance and starts things off strong. Her dancing is truly singular, and her versatility is impressive, so it’s understandable that she’s openly frustrated about her lack of recognition compared to the others in the Top 4. Shangela’s routine is emotionally triumphant; having done so much growing in the public eye on seasons of Drag Race and through her other endeavors, this is a real moment or realization for a fixture of the show’s roster and its cultural impact. Shangela has truly come into her own, and has been a scene-stealer throughout the season right through this moment. Bebe’s performance is good on its own, but doesn’t quite top Kennedy’s or Shangela’s. Burdened with following two great dancers, Bebe’s minimal movements leave her totally lost.
The second I saw Trixie, I felt the competition was over.
The purple hair! The sparkle! The energy! This is Trixie the star. One of the consistent high points of her run on the season has been the ease in which she remixes and tweak her image while still being distinctly Trixie Mattel. This was precisely what she failed at on her original season, where she didn’t even fully commit to her iconic makeup, but this time is different. She serves up a routine which is less active than the dancing queens but lyrically strong and full of personality. I hope that Katya was out there watching, somewhere.
For their finale runway looks, Trixie again impresses with a poodle-bouffant wig and a sleek, curvy black silhouette. Shangela serves womanly elegance fit for an award show, and looks very much prepared to have a crown added to her ensemble. Kennedy shows up in Season 7 finale Kennedy 2.0 which is a nice callback, and the vibrant rainbow has the same effect of making her instantly stand out compared to everyone else.
Bebe was a jungle cat. Yawn. It’s not bad, but it’s not on the same level as the others. The point Trixie makes about Bebe’s growth speaks to Bebe’s weakness this whole season: she’s good, but she doesn’t even seem to have grown as much as Aja, who basically filmed seasons back-to-back and showed up having clearly done her homework.
We come to find out that the eliminated queens will be choosing a Top 2 for the final lip sync. This was something I saw coming, but as a vehicle to gently eliminate Kennedy from the final performance (with Bebe placing fourth). That all went out the window when Morgan announced that the final two would be Season 7 sisters Trixie and Kennedy.
The last lip sync is to “Wrecking Ball,” an odd choice (so was “If I Were Your Woman” of All Stars 2) that does no favors to Kennedy’s high-kicking dance style. She spins and leaps around the stage reminiscent of the Latrice Royale/Kenya Michaels lip sync, and the result is the same: Trixie’s stationary gravitas keeps the focus on her and Kennedy’s twirls lose their impact. Trixie’s reveal and hair-pulling is dramatic, but the slow song sucks a lot of the energy out of the finale. Am I the only one who doesn’t see it for ballads on Drag Race? Trixie is crowned the winner, and it’s a victory that feels like a deserved reward, although I could’ve said the same for a Shangela or DeLa victory. Such is All Stars I suppose.
Watching from a bar in a sea of Shangela supporters, I was a little baffled that so few people had recognized the inevitable teeing up of Trixie Mattel as the latest addition to the Hall of Fame, buoyed by a substantial and groundbreaking career outside of the Race (a folk album and cohosting gig on Viceland being two very unconvential moves from a drag queen) and a narrative of coming into her own while never having to make any tough decisions from a show structure that often demands drama. Shangela wisely points out during her interview with the eliminated queens that Trixie is the only one who hasn’t had to eliminate another contestant, and judging from the lipstick choices her Game of Thrones-style alliances didn’t amount to much in the end. (Side note: I am certain Morgan’s choices were specifically designed to tip the scales in keeping with her initial approach to the competition and it was delicious).
While there can only be one winner, All Stars is much more of a talent showcase than a competition, something that many of the queens, as alumnae of previous seasons, full understand (to varying degrees). In that spirit, I’d like to celebrate — in superlative fashion — some of the best performances and moments beyond the crowning:
The Winner*: Ben DeLaCreme
DeLa played the game better than anyone else this season, not only by way of her performance in challenges and runway looks but with a savvy that suggested she was playing 3-D chess where the contestants and audience were being sold a show about checkers. Chalk it up to a favorable edit or some heavy-handed narrative manipulation, but the decision to bow out after completely steamrolling the competition and to bring back the first eliminated queen was the pivotal moment of the season. Ben clearly favors the idea of airtime being an opportunity for queens to build their brand and endear themselves to fans, at the expense of how well they do within the show format. To employ this strategy while also being a clear and consistent frontrunner in basically everything made her departure all the more shocking.
Ben used her role in the show, both as a lip sync winner and as part of the panel of eliminated queens at the end, to buoy queens that would’ve been otherwise forgotten. We’ll never know if Ben would’ve gone all the way, but it seems certain that she had the capability, and she’ll join the ranks of queens who broke the show’s format with their departure (Willam, Adore Delano, and Valentina) only to be beloved by fans afterward. She will forever be the asterisk on the crowning this season; whether you liked her or not, her performance was undeniable.
Most Fearsome Tableau: The Eliminated Queens
There’s been a lot of discussion on whether leaving the choice of Top 2 up to the eliminated queens cheapened the merits of the competition, but can we just talk about how great they all looked? Seeing all the girls in what we can only assume are their favorite looks from the episodes they missed (Aja and Ben in particular wore “Red for Filth” looks that were situationally-perfect) was a fierce and intimidating image, and each queen brought their own interesting aesthetic and role to the interviews. Thorgy and Aja provide the most entertaining questions — Thorgy by predictably stirring the pot, and Aja with the thought-provoking, weighty questions of an actual interview. One of the best things about reunions and coronation episodes is the procession of queens who have taken the time to elevate their looks and bring out their best for their return. This was a great opportunity to do that for the All Stars cast, who were all aesthetically strong to begin with. I’d hold out hope for another such procession for a Ru-union episode, but it seems we’re already being scuttled into the next season, so that’s unlikely.
Quickest Study: Aja
Was Aja supposed to be on this season of All Stars? It certainly seemed too soon for Chi Chi, and yet the youngest queen with the least amount of downtime showed up with an astounding amount of growth and a significantly-improved aesthetic. Refusing to simply be a filler contestant, she came out swinging, sweeping the talent competition against other experienced queens (at least two great dancers among them) and proved she could be more than just a frustrated foil to Season 9 costar Valentina. From a blended anime/ball culture aesthetic to deep cut queer culture references, Aja brought it, and every episode premiere came part and parcel with social media stunts, a music video, and merch that you could Buy Now! suggesting an All Stars-level of savvy. In many ways, Aja embodied the spirit of Crystal LaBeija — a fierce advocate for telling the truth and speaking up for herself when the odds were stacked against her.
This was a season populated by queens who had done quite a lot with their limited successes on Drag Race, and while there were few top contenders, it still made for great television. The aim of All Stars is clearly to be a victory lap for its participants, and the ones that choose to make the most of this tend to find success far beyond their placement. It’s a difficult competition to judge fairly when most of the queens have rightly fleshed out their own aesthetics, and some of the conventions of regular seasons (sewing challenges in particular) just don’t amount to much when you’re dealing with seasoned superstars that have significant resources at their disposal.
Trixie Mattel will be a fine crowned queen, as she was before this season. She fills a significant and important comedy niche in the drag queen pantheon, and keeps the winner’s circle diverse as both a visually distinct performer and a Native American drag queen. Her status will be somewhat short-lived, as the Drag Race machine churns on and Season 10 follows immediately on the heels of All Stars, but it was another great television run with twists, turns, and perhaps most importantly: double wig reveals. The world of drag will never be the same. Halleloo.