The world might feel like a schizophrenic hellscape where every day you find yourself asking, “Is this real life?” At least there is some comfort in knowing we still have RuPaul’s Drag Race. The Emmy-winning drag queen reality competition jumped from boutique LGBTQ Viacom channel Logo TV to VH1 this year, making it more accessible to a mainstream audience than ever. Fans feared this shift might mean a tamer version of an already Disneyfied brand of As Seen on TV drag, but thankfully the cheeky euphemisms and double entendres that queer media relies on continued to fly like a rainbow flag in June.
The show used its elevated platform to not only promote the careers of its fourteen contestants, but to address issues like the Pulse shooting aftermath, eating disorders, lookism, growing up trans, and the HIV crisis. For nine seasons and counting, Drag Race has triumphed in humanizing a historically maligned group to an increasingly younger, straighter audience, making the only reality show that matters all the more vital.
The season started out with a bang when Lady Gaga surprised the contestants with her eminent presence in the You Betta Werkroom. And while the queens lived for Gaga, it wasn’t the biggest shock of the season. That superlative belongs to fan favorite Valentina’s abrupt exit midway through the competition. The darling ingenue dazzled early on, but when her performance in an acting challenge fell flat, she had to Lip Sync for Her Life to the Ariana Grande banger “Greedy.” In honor of that week’s runway theme, Club Kid Couture, Valentina’s look included a red sequined mask, which she left on while mouthing to Grande. RuPaul herself stopped the track and demanded Valentina remove it. When she demurred, the usually composed hostess snapped, “This is a lip sync. What part of that don’t you understand?” When the song resumed, it became evident Valentina didn’t know the words, and she was unceremoniously sent home. See you in All Stars 3, Valentina. Don’t fuck it up!
This season also marks the first time in Drag Race herstory when the pick to win America’s Next Drag Superstar isn’t obvious. As an obsessive of this show and reality TV in general, I can usually call the winner after the first episode airs, but this year is an exception. Ru had a hard time deciding, too; this season it’s a final four at the grand finale instead of the usual final three. Each remaining queen brings her own unique flavor and would each make a fine choice for the winner, but only one can rule them all. So who will it be, eh?
Peppermint: This New York City sparkler won over the judges with her infectious smile and winning personality. However, her sartorial style on the runway often came up short. Peppermint endeared herself to the fandom early when she shared with her fellow sisters that she is a trans woman. This isn’t unfamiliar Drag Race territory, but it’s the first time where the admission wasn’t some tearfully painful confession. Trans women and drag have a long, complicated history, but there are many trans women within the drag community, and it was refreshing to see Drag Race at last portray that honestly. With only one challenge victory under her belt, she is the least decorated of the four finalists, meaning a crown for Peppermint is unlikely, but that doesn’t make her any less a superstar. Odds of winning: 25:1
Trinity Taylor: While I’m not usually a fan of pageant girls, this Florida queen’s silicone-padded ass quickly grew on me. Her inspired choice to play legendary New York club kid Amanda Lepore for Snatch Game showed off her bizarro sense of humor. And when Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling showed up to direct the girls in a Beverly Hills, 90210 parody (called “9021-Ho,” naturally), Trinity’s turn as a drug-addled “cool” mom was as hilarious as any Jennifer Coolidge performance in a Christopher Guest movie. Nicknamed “The Tuck” because her tuck is a thing of poetry, Trinity proved her versatility throughout the competition, winning three main challenges. She played a long, strong game, but a Trinity victory would only happen in an upset. Odds of winning: 6:1
Sasha Velour: While RuPaul’s Drag Race has always boasted a slew of smarty-pants queens, New York’s Sasha Velour is the series’ first true intellectual. While prepping for Snatch Game, Sasha told Ru she was considering performing as Judith Butler. She went with droll fräulein Marlene Dietrich instead, which proved to be a much more entertaining choice than the queer theorist. A bald queen, Sasha is a true artist (she’s also a celebrated comic book artist and illustrator) whose playful avant-garde style nods to Dadaism and New York New Wave, making her a frontrunner before the season even started. While she often sports a Basquiat-inspired felt crown on her bald pate, a winner’s crown on Sasha’s head would be simply wunderbar. Odds of winning: 3:1
Shea Couleé: This Chicago-based dancing queen’s tagline upon entering the Werkroom was “I didn’t come to play — I came to slay,” and that wasn’t just first-episode bravado. Shea proved her Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent by winning four main challenges, the most of the season. America’s Next Drag Superstar needs to prove that she can sew, act, sing, and dance, and Shea succeeded consistently in almost every challenge. If this were a numbers game, Shea would have this win in the bag, but Sasha’s ardent fan base might give her the edge. It’s going to be a tight one, but I think this is Shea’s crown to lose. Odds of winning: 2:1
The season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race airs Friday on VH1.