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How the Audience Is Drag Race’s Harshest, Invisible Judge

Katya and The Vixen talk "RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars," Latrice Royale's elimination, and fandom anxiety.

Deciding which queen to send home every week on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars must be pretty difficult for any contestant on the show. But on Friday night’s episode, “Jersey Justice,” challenge winners Monique Heart and Manila Luzon were faced with a particularly Sophie’s-esque choice.

Whoever won the lip-sync to Tina Turner’s rendition of Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back” would have to choose between eliminating Monét X Change or Latrice Royale. Monét had done objectively better in the competition thus far, having won the girl group challenge during the second episode of the VH1 series, while Latrice had never placed higher than safe, landing in the bottom two, two weeks in a row. But Latrice isn’t someone anyone wants to send home. Not only is she a close friend of Manila’s and a longtime hero of Monique’s, she’s “beloved” by the fans — perhaps so beloved, that eliminating her would irrevocably tarnish a Drag Race girl’s reputation, marking her for life as that bitch who sent Latrice home.

“If you [eliminate Latrice], you’re fucking trying it,” Valentina told Trinity the Tuck while they were getting ready for the runway. “Sending Latrice home? That’s too much. She’s the dearly beloved.”

Valentina’s prescience, or at least pretension to prescience, speaks to a kind of growing self-awareness among contestants with each passing season of Drag Race. The queens have always known they’re being filmed — except maybe Rebecca Glasscock, who entered the season one workroom in bootcut jeans — but now, it’s like they know they’re being watched. They know that winning might get you $100,000 (or whatever’s left of it after taxes), some kind of Al & Chuck travel package, and a higher booking fee straight out of the gate, but if the fans don’t like you, where do you go from there? Who’s going to tip you? Book you? Buy all of your increasingly intricate enamel pin sets? “The real Race starts when the show’s over,” past All Stars winner Trixie Mattel once said, and you want to make sure that you hit the ground running.

Queens who have competed on Drag Race tell OUT that this anxiety over how they’ll be received once the show airs can lead to a lot of stress while filming and a lot of self-producing. The Vixen, who competed on season 10 and hosts Black Girl Magic at Roscoe’s Tavern in Chicago every third Wednesday of the month, has taken note of this kind of neurotic behavior — being whomever you think audiences might want you to be rather than just being yourself — and agrees that it has increased as time has gone by.

“In so many recent seasons, everyone is so hyper-aware,” The Vixen says. “I saw that clip of Valentina saying she’d be worried about sending Latrice home — it’s so meta! She’s on the show saying she’s worried about the audience while the audience is at home watching her on the show. It really is so meta.”

The Vixen considered the audience while filming her season of Drag Race — though to a different end. She didn’t care about viewers thinking she was nice as much as she cared about anti-Blackness informing their view of her. On her season of Drag Race’s companion show Untucked, The Vixen memorably broke the fourth wall during a confrontation that ended with a white contestant, Aquaria, who had actually started it, in tears. The Vixen told Aquaria that by starting something with her and then crying when it got too real, she was setting up the dynamics of a well-worn racist narrative. On screen, that narrative would recast The Vixen as “an angry Black woman” terrorizing “the little white girl” when that wasn’t the case. So, The Vixen said something. Being truthful was more important to her than being liked.

“Honesty really is the best policy,” says The Vixen. “You might try to play it safe or be nice for the cameras, but the audience will see right through it. Even if I’d been very P.C. and played it very safe, I would’ve had to deal with the baggage of knowing that I wasn’t genuine in the situation. I don’t know what’s better or worse.”

Katya Zamolodchikova — who competed on the seventh season of Drag Race and the second season of All Stars and now co-hosts UNHhhh, a popular web show with Trixie Mattel that spawned a televised spinoff called The Trixie & Katya Show on Viceland — agrees that it’s easy to tell when a queen just wants to be liked, or at least not reviled.

“On All Stars especially, most of the contestants come into the show very, very aware of the fans, the viewers, how this is all going to be perceived, [and] what’s the backlash gonna be like on social media,” says Katya. “It creates this added layer of tension. I see it with each season. It seems like the girls aren’t able to just fully be themselves — just be fully realized, unselfconscious versions of themselves. You get the sense that they’re kind of producing themselves a little bit, second-guessing everything they do because of how they might be perceived a year later when it airs. It’s a bummer.”

It’s also kind of pointless, says The Vixen.

“Being on reality TV and trying to control how you’re going to be portrayed is a gamble. It’s more a reflection of so many other things,” says The Vixen. “I was very aware of how I was going to be portrayed. I think what girls don’t realize is that being aware of it doesn’t prevent it at all. So, I knew I was going to be seen as a villain. I knew racial bias would come into play. So, I talked about it — and I still was the villain. There still was racial bias. It’s almost not worth worrying about because the world is going to do what it’s going to do.”

In the end on Friday night’s episode of All Stars, Monique Heart, with a lump in her throat, chose to eliminate Latrice Royale. Despite her competitors’ fears about sending such a “dearly beloved” queen home, it’s unlikely that Monique will face any kind of backlash. The decision was clearly a difficult one for her to make — at least, according to the heavily edited narrative the producers gave us. Perhaps if they’d subbed out some of the tense piano soundtracking for some shady rattlesnake sound effects and cut out a few of the tearful confessionals, Monique wouldn’t have been so lucky.

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