Saturday, February 28, 2009

Viva Glam

At Brandon’s suggestion I’ve decided to try my hand at recapping my favorite new reality show: RuPaul’s Drag Race. Honestly, I’m a little surprised that it has taken almost 9 years since the birth of the competitive reality TV genre for a show of this level of fabulousness to come around. Anyway, to watch the show instead of reading about it, it is on Logo Mondays at 10pm, posted on Logo’s website on Tuesdays, and rerun on VH1 at some point within the week (next week’s episode will be rerun Tuesday at 9pm). This recap is for episode four.

Previously on Drag Race, the queens were asked to channel their inner Oprah by reading a teleprompter story about Britney Spears hooking up with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. You know, our foreign policy already has enough challenges and something tells me that the Iranians aren’t going to find this challenge as amusing as I did. Bebe totally rocked the challenge and the runway show and won immunity for this week. Shannel and Akashia (who I think I’ve seen live once or twice) were in the bottom two and had to lip-synch for their lives to “The Greatest Love of All”. During the duel, Shannel’s headdress fell off and she persevered to survive. Of course, this was Akashia’s third duel in three shows so it was about time to kick her to the curb.

Six queens remain. Who will sashay away tonight?

The contestants enter the workroom and Ongina notices that all the mirrors have been covered or removed. Speculation and panic abounds as the she-mail arrives. A lot of reality television, for better or worse, relies on puns for establishing the show’s branding. Project Runway has the “In/Out” dichotomy, Big Brother “evicts” their “houseguests”, contestants on The Apprentice are “fired”, so on so forth. “She-mail” transcends all of those. Anyway, RuPaul pops up on the screen to deliver four readings of “who do you think you are,” placing the stress on a different word each time. No one really gets the message and after watching this episode three times I still don’t fully understand how it applies. I think Ru may have been working on her audition for Barefoot in the Park.

Male RuPaul enters the workroom and greets the contestants. He recaps that all of them have received criticism, some even constructive, from the judging panel but that the contestants have yet to critique each other. Oh, this should be good. Ongina is asked to critique Shannel. Ongina focuses her critique on Shannel not really listening to criticism. In a talking head segment, Shannel gets all defensive and it seems to be a case of hearing without listening, which is profoundly irritating for everyone involved.

Bebe suggests that Rebecca shows more Rebecca and, in a talking head interview, wonders if it is a question of identity or if Rebecca is just being strategic. I’m not really sure how effective it is to hold back when you are in a drag queen competition, given that exuberance is kind of part of the job description. There is not a lot of Marion the Librarians hitting the clubs is what I’m saying. Rebecca says in an interview that she hasn’t had a chance to show her personality because the other girls won’t shut up.

Nina thinks that Jade is too shy and should trust her instincts. Shannel also jumps in with similar advice and you can sort of tell from the editing that the room may have ganged up on Jade while trying to be helpful. RuPaul asks Jade why she has been so guarded and she talks about being hurt a lot and not wanting to be vulnerable.
RuPaul thanks everyone for their honesty and goes on to explain the challenge. He says that they will get the chance to do one another, but not in a Ki Ki type way. I don’t think basic cable is ready for that just yet. Instead, they will be doing one another’s make-up. The pairs are the same as the advice pairs from earlier, so there’s bound to be dramarama. Rebecca notices that Bebe is less than thrilled about who her partner is and calls her out. Ongina is rather excited that she is paired with Shannel and Nina and Jade seem okay with their partnership. The twist: each person gets only thirty minutes. Wow. I think Nina said back in the first episode that it takes about two to three hours to do her own makeup, so a half hour is pretty useless.

We see some frantic application and get a few soundbites here and there. Shannel thinks she has this in the bag while Bebe is concerned about having no clue what she looks like. After the second group is done, Ru walks back in flanked by the two shirtless Pit Crew guys. I guess now would be a good time to remind all the straight male readers who the target demo is for this show (read: not you). RuPaul goes down the line and holds up a mirror so all the contestants can see how they look. It’s a little tough to judge this competition given that the rest of the look (hair, outfit, etc.) is not a factor. It’s sort of like judging the makeovers at the JC Penney cosmetics counter. Regardless, Ru determines that the winner of this challenge is Jade. Shannel doesn’t take the news well since she prides herself on her makeup technique. Whatever.

With the winner announced, RuPaul gives the details for the main challenge. He starts by telling the contestants that he was the first spokesmodel for MAC Cosmetics’ “Viva Glam” campaign. The contestants will star in their own 10 minute screen test for an “I am a MAC Viva Glam Woman Because…” ad. Jade gets 15 minutes for winning the challenge. RuPaul then introduces a MAC VP who goes on to explain that they will be talking about the product in relation to the MAC AIDS Fund. As a final reminder, the contestants will be judged on their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. Almost as awesome as “she-mail”. “Gentleman, start your engines. And may the best woman win.”

After the Pit Crew and company leave, Jade asks if they can take off their faces. Nina is a little offended since Jade supposedly liked the makeover. Jade says she doesn’t want to do a photo shoot in that particular makeup. For some reason Rebecca interjects that Jade shouldn’t do the shoot with her nose looking the way it does. Bebe is shocked by this and Nina quietly says “Don’t put words in my mouth girl.” You see, if this were Top Model, the term “bitch” would have been used at least a dozen times by now. This exchange shows that, even with the cattiness, there is still classiness.

Back from commercial, Nina rehashes the challenge and all the queens share what their approach is going to be for the task at hand. Ongina is particularly excited. “I grew up in the Philippines so I’d never thought I’d get a chance to do this in my life.” I had no idea that Manila and MAC were mutually exclusive. Rebecca gets philosophical about the challenge since the HIV/AIDS angle really hits home for a lot of people. Bebe tells us that it hits home, as in her home in Cameroon. I really like this juxtaposition of a serious topic on what could, at first glance, be seen as a really goofy reality show.

We see more footage of the contestants getting ready, including Jade who decided to go with a Janet Jackson “Nasty Boys” inspired outfit that is showing her midriff. You know that can be so risky depending on your body type. There’s this one performer in Cleveland who is heavily inspired by Brittney/Christina, but she has a very lean body type so she can get away with halters and the like. Although Jade has incredible abs, they are man abs and are somewhat distracting from the illusion she is trying to create.

Nina is first up for the screen test and she is concerned that her presentation will be challenged by the fact that she thinks in Spanish but she will have to speak in English and that time will be lost during the translation process. Come to think of it, speaking isn’t really a necessary component of a drag performance. I hope this doesn’t hinder Nina Flowers because I like her. She walks onto the soundstage where there are a bunch of props, including the Pit Crew guys. Nina asks for the couch to be moved and one of the guys moves it to center stage. “Thank you, Kenyon,” Ru calls out. I’m hoping that’s his name (Kenyon) and not a description (Kenyan). Ru doesn’t scream “Puerto Rican, start your screen test,” so I think it is the former. Filming begins and Nina starts to improvise her speech which comes off, well, improvised. Her speaking pace is rather slow, but there is almost a Katherine Hepburn meets Sophia Loren quality about it. We see a couple more takes and eventually Ru shouts out a two minute warning. “Oh my God” Nina says all pseudo-panicky. There’s supposed to be some modeling going along with the speaking, so Nina uses her remaining time to work it out on the stage. It looks like Nina had fun which I think will result in a lot of usable footage.

As the other contestants wait their turns, you can see that Jade, Shannel, and Rebecca are getting anxious. “The more time I had on my hands,” starts Rebecca, “the more time I had to just think. Thinking is,” she sighs, “I think my worst enemy.” That’s really sad, and I’m not being sympathetic towards Rebecca when I say that. Thinking is my worst enemy? Grrrrrrrrrrrl, fo rizzles.

Rebecca goes on stage and is in a Leona Lewis mime costume. Her plan of attack is to approach this as a PSA. This is your brain on lipstick? I don’t know, that kind of takes the “Viva” out of “Viva Glam”, but let’s see how this goes. Rebecca shares with us that one of her close friends has AIDS and that is taking an emotional toll on her screen test. Eventually she is overwhelmed and walks off the set after prying a water bottle out of RuPaul’s hand. She goes into the women’s restroom and we can hear sobbing.

“One of my best friends,” Rebecca sobs, “he has AIDS and he’s…dying.” In a separate interview, Rebecca reflects on how this may have really screwed up her chances on this challenge. Meanwhile, Bebe questions whether Rebecca is putting up a front or playing the game. I’m wondering if that interview is being taken slightly out of context, but that might just be me not tempting karma by questioning someone’s grief.

Jade walks on set for her fifteen minute screen test. She has patter and choreography going on with her screen test and it reminds me of my all time favorite episode of America’s Next Top Model where they have to film improvised Cover Girl commercials. They were so awesomely bad but Jade’s (a different Jade) was abysmal. The dialogue that this Jade is improvising is really awkward. “So I make sure that I make time to spread awareness on different epidemics and stigmas that are affecting our community.” Stigma awareness? Really? Jade then goes into a dance sequence that incorporates a whip. Oh dear.

Next up is Bebe wearing a gorgeous ultramarine dress with gold detailing and a gold headdress. She says her outfit is reminiscent of what women would wear back home to celebrate. Awesome. Her screen test is also treading PSA, but there is a bit more optimism than Rebecca had.

Ongina bounces onto the set wearing a low cut candy striper’s New Year’s Eve ensemble. Her style for the ad is focusing more on the theme of celebration, including the tagline “Educate. Donate. Celebrate.” Ooo, that’s good.

Last up is Shannel. Hmm, you know that thing I said earlier about Marion the Librarian? Well that appears to be the look that Shannel is going for in her ad. We then get a series of quick cuts that suggest that the ad has turned into a ten minute speech about the history of MAC and AIDS. Even the Pit Crew is bored, which is really bad news since it is their job to just stand around and look pretty. RuPaul actually has to stop the clock to remind Shannel that this screen test is for a thirty second ad. Shannel interviews that she completely misinterpreted the task at hand. You have to listen, girl.

The next day the queens return to the dressing room to prepare for the runway show. Shannel expects to end up in the bottom two as does Rebecca since they both totally dropped the ball on this challenge. I agree. Also, I don’t really like either of them so it makes no difference to me which of them leaves.

Time for the Main Stage Show! Tonight, RuPaul is wearing a purple, heavily-tasseled gown. At least I think it’s purple, but the lighting and soft focus is so overwhelming that the dress is probably fuchsia or perhaps beige. Ru introduces the judges who are Merle Ginsberg, Santino Rice, the MAC VP guy, and Jenny Shimizu. The show begins.

First up is Jade who describes his look as dominatrix but looks more like a demure version of the outfits from the “Free Your Mind” video. The actual outfit is fine but Jade looks so mannish in it. Next up is Bebe in a black and white pattern bodysuit topped off with a Joan Collins Dynasty hat. The whole look actually screams “Joan Collins”, but Bebe makes it work. Rebecca looks like she is going for Rihanna-overly-sampling-Halle-Berry. She painted a large black star on her right eye which actually helps to complement the black and white striped halter dress. Ru makes a bunch of KISS and jail break comments, all of which are fair.

Ongina struts down the runway with all sorts of fierceness. She’s wearing a black dress with a poofy skirt and a small white jacket. She has a lot of makeup on which is slightly obscured by a tiny black lace veil. Ongina has on some gold heels which don’t really help the look but aren’t too much of a distraction. Nina Flowers takes the stage and is wearing a black pantsuit accessorized with feather covered gauntlets. Hmm, I’m not sure how I feel about this look. I like the idea behind it and I can see how it works with Nina’s aesthetic, but it doesn’t really work with Nina. She has looked much better in previous challenges. As she turns to head back down the runway, she loses her balance on one of her heels. Oh no! She recovers but looks pissed. Last up is Shannel and, oh geez. She’s going the showgirl route again, this time juggling pins as she walks down the runway. The judges are impressed and even more so when she turns around to reveal that the entire outfit is backless. “The juggling never ends,” RuPaul quips.

RuPaul reintroduces the challenge and tells the girls that the contestant who wins the challenge will become a Viva Glam spokesperson. That’s a great prize. Judging begins with Jade and as she walks down the runway we see Ru tilting her head in curiosity. “I did notice back there that you were adjusting your junk,” she says. We’ll have to take Ru’s word on that one because they didn’t show it happening. Jade says she wanted to be presentable and opens her jacket to show the final result. RuPaul takes a moment before clarifying that perhaps a full tuck isn’t possible for Jade, if you know what I mean. Jade sheepishly nods in agreement. Jenny is the first to offer a critique on the outfit. She thought that Jade came off as timid and I can sort of see where she is coming from with that observation. We go to the video of the screen test and it isn’t great. Jade comes off a little robotic, like Small Wonder robotic, and they kept that stigma awareness line. The judges are lukewarm about the video as well. Santino tells her he is seeing less of a star and that she needs to “step up or check out.”

Rebecca is up next for critique. Santino doesn’t like the outfit and says the makeup makes Rebecca look like a raccoon. Harsh, but kind of fair, actually. The video is okay, though it is a little heavy on the PSA tone. Ru also mentions the whole walking off the set thing which Rebecca tries to excuse with the whole “hitting close to home” argument. Honestly, that’s a really obnoxious argument to make. I’m sure every one of the contestants knows someone that is directly affected with HIV/AIDS, so it is almost a given that the topic is going to “hit close to home” for everyone. RuPaul advises Rebecca to seize every moment as she could have given the editors way more to work with if she used the remainder of her screen test time.

Ongina’s first critique comes from Jenny, who loves the name and compares her stage presence to Naomi Campbell’s. The MAC guy mentions that there’s too much makeup before they look at the video. Most of the video was in black and white, but all the reds were colored in creating a really nice visual. The whole panel loves Ongina’s presentation. Yay!

Shannel is next and Santino questions whether she is trying to be the next great drag performer or circus ringmaster. Ouch. Also, right on! The video is really wordy and Shannel also fell into the trap of sounding improvised and awkward. Santino rips into Shannel some more, saying that there was no glamour and the aesthetic was church lady/Sally Jessy Raphael. Again, right on!

Nina Flowers comes down the runway for judging. The panel thinks Nina looks too mannish in this outfit, though the MAC VP guy likes the gauntlets. “Can you fly with them?” he asks, leading to Nina flapping her arms and cawing. Love her! Her video starts with shots of her modeling and voicing over “I am…a MAC…Viva…Glamorous…Diva.” Then there is a shot of Nina on the couch frantically asking Kenyon “Papi…turn the fan on!” Fabulous! The panel loves it and so do I.

Bebe steps forward for her critique. Jenny tells her flat out “I would be completely doing coke with you if this were the 90’s.” This cracks up the panel so I guess that is high praise. The video is a little weird. It has the voiced over PSA vibe and a lot of shots of Bebe modeling. RuPaul calls the presentation powerful, which I agree with, but it is not necessarily engaging. It wasn’t a bad video, but Nina’s and Ongina’s were much better.

RuPaul dismisses the queens so the judges can deliberate. They start with Rebecca, highlighting that she can’t get caught up in her emotions and that the whole screen test was low energy. Ongina gets praise across the board. The MAC VP guy says that Ongina is quick with her answers, but that she always has the right answer. Santino appreciates Shannel’s showmanship but calls her “circusy”. RuPaul also reiterates the point of Shannel not listening. No one liked Nina’s outfit, but they loved the video. RuPaul’s comment for Jade: “There’s still a lot of snakes on this muthafuckin’ plane.” Santino calls her mediocre and Merle thinks Jade can’t own the room. Jenny loves Bebe’s presence and how she is capable of mixing fashions in an artistic way. MAC VP guy liked her screen test, but he didn’t seem overly enthused about it. RuPaul acknowledges that it is going to be a tough pick this week.

Nina is safe. Bebe had immunity, but that doesn’t matter because she is safe. Rebecca is in the bottom two. Ongina is complimented on her style and screen test. Ongina wins! Yay! She starts sobbing and crouches down to the floor. Wow, that’s…kind of a strong reaction. Everyone kind of looks at her not sure what to do. Ongina eventually stands up and tells the panel that she has been living with HIV for the last two years and that the win means a lot to her. Put another way, shut up, Rebecca. “I didn’t want to say it on national TV because my parents doesn’t [sic] know.” Whoa. This is raw. “You have to celebrate life,” she sobs. RuPaul calls Ongina an inspiration and congratulates her on still being in the Race. Nina interviews that “Ongina has balls to admit to the world her situation.” Absolutely. Ru reminds everyone that “You all are sisters. We are all family. And if one of us is in pain, we are all in pain, we are all in trouble. So let’s be joyous so we can all be joyous.”

RuPaul moves onto Shannel. She advises her to stay open to criticism before declaring her safe from elimination. That means Jade joins Rebecca in the bottom two. RuPaul tells Jade that she has plateaued and that Rebecca needs to move forward despite obstacles. The next obstacle: They have to Lip-Synch for their Life. This week’s song: “Would I Lie to You?” by Eurythmics. Hmmm, neither performance is all that interesting, though Rebecca has a more dominating presence on the stage. This is a close one.

RuPaul takes a moment before telling Rebecca “Chantez, you stay.” That means Jade will have to sashay away. She doesn’t like losing to Rebecca. “Rebecca is the fakest bitch I ever met in my life.” The girls dance off the stage, though Shannel lingers a bit to flirt with the judges. Boo.

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