Tag Archives: RuPaul

The queens try acting with so-so results on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

Ever since RuPaul’s Drag Race moved to VH1, the reruns have been aired on weird hours, so I missed the last two episodes, but was able to catch this week’s episode “9021-HO” which is predictably a take on Beverly Hills 90210. The guest judges this week were Tori Spelling and Jenni Garth, and the episode’s competition was an acting challenge – never a good showcase of the contestants. For the most part, the acting challenges are a way for audiences to see how sloppy and unprepared the contestants are, though the comedy queens manage to shine.

But in this season, the funniest queens have all been booted out, which makes the competitions somewhat tedious to watch. And add two guest judges who seem woefully underqualified for their jobs, and you get a meh episode. Spelling and Garth are game enough, but really, if the producers wanted to inject some much-needed oomph, they should’ve gotten Tiffani Theissen and Shannon Doherty. Spelling – an outspoken queer ally – can be good for some humor (when she’s self-referential, she can be surprisingly sharp and ironic), but for this episode, both actresses are supposed to “direct” the queens and give them acting tips. Tori Spelling is giving acting lessons.

Anyways, the queens are given a “script” and it’s a mess. The queens lurch through predictable sex jokes, and two stand out: Shea Couleé and Trinity Taylor (who wins). Trinity channels the extravagant slapstick of Jennifer Coolidge (Michelle Visage name checked Coolidge, too), while Shea took on the scene-stealing role of Grandrea Zuckerwoman. What’s even cooler about Shea’s performance is that she took on the role after Aja threw a tantrum after being initially cast in the role. She pouts and throws an actual tantrum, which she regrets immediately, after she realizes just how childish she looked in front of the other queens. It’s rare that the queens are so self-aware, and it’s refreshing to see Aja taking responsibility for her actions. It’s not enough to save her, but I admire her integrity, even if she banged the pooch during the competition.

Though Trinity and Shea did win, it was a hollow victory because the competition was so absurd. The runway is tied to the 90210 theme by being vaguely 1990s, which vaguely meant big hair – but then again, when does a drag queen not have big hair?

The lip synch for your life was the early 90s club classic “Finally” by CeCe Peniston. It’s a drag classic (and will forever be attached to Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in my mind). The bottom two were Aja and Nina Bo’nina Brown, whose runway looks were okay (I guess) but failed in their performances. Nina’s runway look was the most hi-de-ous look – a sorta Cats meets Drag Race look. The makeup was disgusting and was very unattractive (it was busy and had way too much going on and her face looked more like a road map than a cat’s face)

The high point of the show was during the makeup scene, in which the queens share personal stories. Trinity’s story is especially touching as she saw her mother die when she was a child, and then she had to watch as her grandmother die. I usually find the editing during these sequences especially crass and cynical as the cutting and the splicing make it look like a chase to who had it worse. I wish the editors used a more careful hand when packaging episodes, because the impact is lessened when the sharing starts to look like a contest. There is some of that in “9021-HO” which is unfortunate because the stories are heart wrenching.

Despite its new home, Drag Race has been lackluster so far. I’m hoping the rest of the season will rally. The next episode is the comedy challenge with Fortune Feimster (I love her and she’s very, very fab). Jaymes Mansfield, Charlie Hides, and Cynthia Lee Fontaine are gone, and they were the most obvious stars of a comedy challenge. My money right now is on Trinity, who did so well in this episode, channeling comic hero Jennifer Coolidge.

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‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ eliminates its first contestant, gives viewers a cheer, and teases us with Lisa Kudrow

When the trailer for the ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race aired, I was very excited to see Lisa Kudrow. I was looking forward to see how she’d do on the show – I assumed she’d probably be some kind of mentor or coach for the comedy challenge (Cheri Oteri and Kudrow’s Groundlings pal Kathy Griffen were great teaching the girls the ins and  outs of being funny).

So, it was very disappointing to see the brilliant comedienne pop by the work room for a minute, throw out some great Comeback catchphrases, before dashing away, leaving the contestants in a daze. Instead of the great Lisa Kudrow, the second episode of Drag Race features the great B-52s as guest judges, joining Ross Mathews, Carson Kressley, and Michelle Visage to watch the contestants participate in a nutty cheerleading challenge, and then parade around in drag that is inspired by White Parties.

The queens are broken up into two teams, and are tasked with making a splash and stand out, despite appearing in a crowded and messy cheerleading routine. Immediately, we see that poor Jaymes Mansfield is struggling, which is a shame because she seems to be the only comedy queen (in last week’s premier, she announced her arrival with a puppet). Initially, she wants the character of Floozy, but fails to imbue the character with enough sex appeal, so she takes on Snoozy, which has unintended irony has her performance throughout episode two is a bit sleepy; it’s a bit of a wonder that she doesn’t do well, because she’s a very funny queen.

The other queen to struggle is Kimora Blac, a stunner, who has a stank attitude throughout the proceedings, especially when the queens are putting together their cheerleading costumes; she’s pissed and bored that she has to stud her uniform with jewels, and pouts throughout the activity. She also fails at the White Party runway challenge, recreating her leather Cher “Turn Back Time” look from last week, only this time in white (with a tacky Red, White & Blue bustier).

Valentina, the newbie, is the winner. She performs well during the cheerleading competition, but really rocks the White Party runway challenge by channeling a gorgeous virginal bride. Despite being a drag queen for only 10 months (she’s chosen last team captains were building their teams), she has the beauty and the confidence to be a contender.

Shea Couleé and Trinity Taylor also perform well during the cheerleading challenge. Shea is a Chicago queen (I’m from Chicago so I’m rooting for her), and she performed beautifully, doing some great tumbling

The cheerleading challenge was stupid – the kind of stupid that is a highlight of the show. The girls are jumping all over the place, trying to stick with the choreography. I find it amusing that the judges were supposed to assess who these ladies were performing, because the challenge was messy and a bit nuts, as 14 drag queens were flailing around, throwing their bodies around and launching into dodgy somersaults.

Because of the who was guest judges were, the lip sync was to “Love Shack.” Kimora Blac and Jaymes Mansfield are in the bottom, and are squaring off – both do okay, Blac manages to edge Mansfield out a bit, because she’s just more confident at this point (though Mansfield’s va-va-voom performance is fun). My partner pointed out that “Love Shack” is a silly choice because Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, and Fred Schneider each have solos, so it’s a bit unclear whose parts the queens should lip sync to. The queens just sort of mouth to all the parts, and Kimora is able to save herself.

Poor Jaymes Mansfield leaves and that’s too bad because comedy queens are often the most fun to watch: Biana Del Rio, Jinkx Monsoon, Pandora Boxx provided some of the best moments of Drag Race (they were great during the snatch games). Right now, Charlie Hides seems to be the only comedy queen left, and he was in the bottom three, so hopefully, he’ll be able to improve as he goes along.

Because I missed the first two Friday airings, I had to wake up hella early on Saturday, setting my alarm for 8 am so that I could catch the repeats (VH1 should follow FX’s rerun schedule of Feud and air Drag Race at decent times).

One thing that I noticed with this season of Drag Race is that two of the contestants are YouTubers. While the YouTube celebrity was a thing since the beginning of the show’s first season, the stars that came out of the channel have really blown up in the ensuing 9 years. That means that comedians and actors from YouTube have side-stepped due paying like summer stock, improv classes, comedy clubs, community theater. As a result, when YouTube queens like Charlie Hides and Jaymes Mansfield step outside the 10-minute online video, they have to rely on skills that may not be as fully developed, yet. Jaymes Mansfield’s videos are hi-larious, but she struggled to transfer her comedy skills to television.

Speaking of YouTube, next week, YouTube entertainer Todrick Hall – someone who has performed with RuPaul – appears with Cheyenne Jackson. What’s interesting is that if Hall wasn’t so famous at this point, he’d be a great contestant (he got strong reviews for his performance on Broadway’s Kinky Boots).

The only sour point – and this may be the latent Catholic in me – but I didn’t like how Valentina’s faith was played for kooky laughs. Not cute.

Otherwise, the second episode of the VH1 Drag Race is pretty much what I expect from the show at this point: bitchy jokes, maudlin scenes of forced poignancy, some high quality drag mixed with some amateurish failure.

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RuPaul’s puts together a fantastic show with ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 2’

I give RuPaul a hard time over some of her word choices when it comes to the trans community. I also find her support of drag/minstrel artist Shirley Q. Liquor a problem. That being said, I’m a fan of RuPaul – I think she’s an incredibly ingratiating and witty performer and a talented singer/entertainer. When she became a mainstream media celebrity in the early 1990s, she was extremely subversive, upending gender and race roles with her drag persona. I haven’t given her reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race a chance – but in light of all the controversy around the transphobic language that is reportedly on the show, I thought I’d give the show a chance and sped through the second season in a marathon binge of two nights. And even though I still maintain that anti-trans language is wrong, I have to admit, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a fantastic show, full of campy humor and some very intelligent and cutting wit from its star.

RuPaul’s Drag Race is a bit like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model. The contestants are but through various challenges in which they are asked to perform tasks and throw together great outfits and looks in a very limited amount of time. Then the queens are judged by a panel of experts which in season 2 includes Santino Rice, the reformed villain of Project Runway‘s second season, and fashion writer Merle Ginsberg, along with some really great, b-listy celebrity hosts, who add to the kitsch of the show (often the guests will somehow be tied to the theme of the show).

What’s great about RuPaul’s Drag Race is that it’s one of the few shows where there is such a large number of queer people of color – Asian, black, and Latino queer folks have been invisible on television, despite the LGBT community’s growing acceptance in the mainstream media. Also – and this is very important – many of the queens on the show are trying to transcend poverty. I know it sounds like I’m watching the show through a sociological or feminist lens, and that I should just be watching it as a fun, diverting bit of fluff – but when we’re dealing with groups as marginalized as queer folks of color, everything has some social relevance. As RuPaul herself once said, “Every time I bat my eyelashes, it’s a political statement.” The political is personal for these ladies, who overcome some heart-breaking adversity to be who they want to be and to achieve their goals.

I know some of you reading this review will think, whew, this is pretty heavy. And yeah, I can’t help but watch anything without dissecting it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t laugh and find the show ridiculously entertaining. Even with all the trappings of reality television, RuPaul’s Drag Race is the best of the lot.

The second season is a great introduction to the show (and the first season has yet to be released due to music licensing issues). The group of drag queens competing are wonderful, with some great standouts. Pandora Boxx is a breakout star – a kind and lovely performer who combines the ersatz glamour with a razor-sharp sense of humor. She was continually compared to comedy legend Goldie Hawn, and it makes sense – not only does Pandora look like Ms. Hawn, but she has a great act: beautiful, but hilarious. Because I look at a lot of drag queens as comediennes, I respond to the funnier ones more than with the glamazons, which is why along with Pandora Boxx, I also loved Jujubee, a Laotian-American drag queen who not only was funny but possessed a fierce intellect. And though a lot of her comedy was unintentional, Latina Jessica Wild (she was born in Puerto Rico) was a scene-stealing wonder, bringing to mind the cartoony, broad comedy of Sofia Vergara (and the two divas have the same accents). Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the funny drag queens that found the most mileage, but it was the more model-like beauties that prevailed. This is surprising because comedy is  such a large part of RuPaul’s act, and often when being judged personality was being raised.

And because this is reality TV and because we’re watching drag queens, there is drama. Like every reality show, there are villains – namely Raven and Tyra Sanchez. Raven is a hard-edged, viper-tongued beauty, whose vulnerability was well-hidden by the quartz-like armor she built up (a neat detail: when out of drag, Raven looked eerily like Joey Lawrence). And Tyra – billed “the other Tyra – channels the self-involved diva antics of Diana Ross at her worst. Happily ignoring the stank eye from her fellow queens, Tyra cared little about the feelings of others, and was gleefully self-centered – she must’ve been a nightmare to hang out with, but she made for great television.

As expected when watching a show about gay people, there are some moments of vunlerability, too. Most of these ladies have had some wretched backgrounds: Jujubee was abandoned by her mother at 15, Pandora Boxx attempted suicide, the late Sahara Davenport went through drug addiction, and Tyra was one of two drag queens who was also a father. I wish the show delved more into the issue of drag queens being parents: it’s not as rare an occurrence as many would think (I worked in an LGBT center and came across lots of drag kids who had kids of their own). These queens are dads (to sons), and issues of masculinity must come up – and I’d be very curious to see how they reconcile these two seemingly incongruous identities.

But maybe I’m expecting too much from a show that features puns like “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, Talent” (get it? I’ll give you a moment), or has challenges where the queens film a hixploitation commercial selling Disco vegetable shortening. But all of the groan-inducing yuks are purposeful and funny. What’s great about RuPaul’s Drag Race is how meta it is: it’s a weird blend of sincerity and irony. Winning a competition like this could change the life of one of these queens, so they do take the challenges seriously, but, there’s still a heavy dose of self-referential comedy.

The tattered, oh-so-slightly second-rate kitsch that is prevalent in drag performance, is proudly lampooned on the show – namely when it comes to the hilariously Love Boaty guests that judge: when a challenge uses award shows as a theme, RuPaul had a challenge: how can she get an Oscar-winner on the show’s budget: get Tatum O’Neill! When the queens have to do country & western burlesque, “Delta Dawn” warbler Tanya Tucker shows up. In a rock n roll challenge, the queens get coached by Berlin frontwoman, Terri Nunn. But not all of the guest judges are potential Dancing with the Stars contestants: comic greats Kathy Najimy and Kathy Griffin appear, as does punk rock giant Henry Rollins. And in a fantastic episode in which the queens were called on to drag out older gentlemen, Cloris Leachman and Debbie Reynolds were guesting, each trying to outbrass the other.

At this point, RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a cult pop hit, deservedly so. It’s also being credited with promoting LGBT rights to a larger audience – I’ll question that argument, as the show definitely feels like it’s preaching to a very specific (and flamboyant) choir. But for up-and-coming LGBTs, particularly, those of color, RuPaul’s Drag Race does provide a great image of fun, creativity, and wit – and that’s always a good thing.

Click here to buy RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 2 on DVD from amazon.com.

**quick note: as I’m not a regular watcher of the show, I didn’t know that the DVD set of season 2 does not contain a segment called “Untucked” which is the behind-the-scenes moments. For many, this omission is a deal-breaker. I still found the show hilarious, even without the segments.

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What’s on your iPod? June 29 2011

“I Dreamed a Dream” Lesley Garrett – Lately Susan Boyle’s version was very popular, but this ballad from Les Miserables has been recorded by tons of artists – this is a very pretty version by English opera diva, Lesley Garrett. She has a beautiful soprano voice, with impeccable phrasing/diction. This kind of classical cross-over music is often over-produced and this is no exception – Garrett’s voice has to compete sometimes with a fussy orchestration with syrupy string and faux-majestic horns. While Garrett’s singing is technically faultless, she doesn’t really do much emotionally – there is crushing poignance in the song, which she doesn’t convey. Still it’s a good song – a great cross-listen would be Boyle’s and an early 1990’s, gospel-fueled performance by soul great Aretha Franklin.

“Borderline” Jody Watley – I heard this song on the LOGO show, Noah’s Arc. The show was a black, gay take on Sex and the City – it was a terrible show (some found it campy, I found the acting/writing fairly atrocious – a shame, really, because gay LGBT folks seem invisible on TV). Anyways, I digress – Watley, an 80’s pop star covers this old Madonna chestnut, but slows the tempo down, so that instead of being a post-disco dance song, it’s a shimmery pop ballad. This arrangement allows for the song’s strong hook and chorus to shine, and you really see just how well-crafted the song was; Also Watley’s throaty, if thin, voice sounds pleasant – she’s never been a particularly strong singer, but the sympathetic production and arrangement makes the most of her good, if limited, vocals.

“Same Script, Different Cast” (Uncut Remix) Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox – the original was an overwrought, oversung ballad – but a White Label DJ redid this song with Houston and dance-club diva Cox as a dance song dual between the two singers. Houston and Cox both have very similar voices, and despite being a club banger, their voices are allowed to shine – they haven’t been remixed, manipulated or mutilated by producer. The lyrics are pretty soapy – Houston, the older, wiser one is counseling the younger, impetuous Cox who is now with Houston’s ex – they’re arguing over a dance beat about how each believes she’s right. It’s very campy and silly and sounds perfect for a drag show for a dueling duo of drag queen – Ru Paul take note.

“Who’s Johnny?” El DeBarge – this is a retro track on my iPod – El DeBarge for the young’uns was the breakout member of DeBarge – a sining family from the 1980’s – very similar to the Jacksons/Jackson 5 (in fact, they were signed to the Jacksons’ label, Motown and one of the members of El DeBarge was briefly married to Janet Jackson). El DeBarge has a pretty falsetto voice – reminiscent to Michael Jackson’s. This was the theme to a 80’s Ally Sheedy comedy Short Circuit (the video has DeBarge singing at a courthouse, while Sheedy sits in the witness box). This is a typically 80’s song – full of synths, drum machines and mile-wide bass. I don’t believe there’s one real instrument. This is a remix, too, so there are a whole lot of vocal effects – it’s like the producers just starting going mad pushing every button they could reach in the recording studio. I got the song because it reminds me of my childhood, so it’s more for nostalgia – it’s  not a very good song, to be honest, and DeBarge’s a genuine talent and deserves a lot better.

“Everyday People” Reba McEntire and Carole King – McEntire to me comes off as very moral and true to her values – it can come off as a bit square, though and this song’s uplifting, life-affirming lyrics don’t really help McEntire’s case – it’s about how you find heroes in everyday people – not really all that interesting or novel. King and (especially) McEntire sing this song very well – in fact the country diva can sing just about anything and sound incredible. Too bad, these two iconic baby-boomer divas decide to waste their considerable talents on this preachy tune.

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Shirley Q. Liquor, part 2

My Shirley Q. Liquor post got me to thinking about race, entertainment and comedy. I was thinking about that because when I wrote the article about Shirley Q. Liquor, I debated putting in links to Chuck Knipp’s Website so that readers could make up their own minds about the character, but then I thought I’d be giving Knipp free publicity (which I realize I’m doing when I’m writing about him).

I also was interested because when doing my research on Shirley Q. Liquor: the phenomena, I was surprised to see that RuPaul was such a fan. I have to admit, the first time I saw Shirley Q. Liquor I was almost traumatized. It was in a gay bar, and to be honest, I never heard of the character before I went to this bar with some friends. My friends neglected to tell me this was a character in black face, instead telling me Shirley Q. Liquor was a comedienne who “tells it like it is.”

So you can imagine my surprise and horror, when a large, overweight person strode onto the stage, wearing a voluminous, flowered housedress and whose face was blacked up. It was the weirdest sensation – almost like witnessing a crime. I was in the minority, though, because the audience loved the show (though I have to point out the crowd was vastly dominated by gay white men).

So after the show, I left went to my hotel room, not really into a partying mood – I was disturbed to the core. A few days later I shared my feelings with one of the guys that went with us, who waved away my thoughts as “overly PC” and “white liberal guilt.” He then told me RuPaul was a fan.

At first I didn’t believe him, but then I looked around and saw that yes, RuPaul – arguably the most successful drag performer ever – was a fan and supporter of Knipp’s creation. If you click on the following link: http://www.rupaul.com/news/2002/11/these-folks-is-just-plain-ignunt-last.shtml you’ll be able to read RuPaul’s reaction to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s boycott of Knipp’s shows. I’ll give you a few minutes to read the article…Well, I was blown away – I mean Joe McCarthy, Salem Witch Trials…Tipper Gore??? Was criticizing Shirley Q. Liquor really a way of stifling the creative outlet of one man? RuPaul certainly thought so.

So then I thought about RuPaul’s point that she made in an earlier article, “The Shirley Q. Liquor Conflama” http://www.rupaul.com/news/2002_09_01_archive.html in which she says that picking on Knipp is hypocrtical as the members of the rap/hip-hop community demean black women, but get an out because they’re black.

This immediately brought to me to mind the debate over homophobia in popular forms of black music – specifically rap and reggae. Some commentators  felt it was wrong to single out dancehall reggae performers like Beenie Man or Buju Banton, when Eminem was also performing violently homophobic lyrics. The argument was that because Eminem was a) white and b) a superstar, he got away with more then Beenie Man or Buju Banton, both black who also have arguably smaller audiences.

So in RuPaul’s estimation, as I take it, is that if we attack Knipp’s work, we should attack all work that demeans black women – and of course, he’s right, we should. RuPaul raises the question of there being a double-standard in that critics have a blind spot for some performers – he used the example of black members of the hip-hop community.

But then is Knipp’s Shirley Q. Liquor ” a loving homage to the southern black women that he obviously grew up around.”? I’m having trouble buying this, though.

I then looked to Keith Boykin for some advice – now it’d be great if I knew Keith Boykin – he’s one of my favorite pundits/thinkers. But I don’t, so when I said I looked to him for advice, I meant I went on his Website.

Boykin writes about the protests in New York City against Knipp’s show. Unlike RuPaul, Boykin finds offense in Shirley Q. Liquor, insisting “Knipp’s routine is not a case of using a stereotype to educate the public. His website suggests otherwise, as he repeatedly identifies black people as “ignunt” and even creates a ‘compendium of ignunce.’ Rather than challenging the ignorance of stereotypes, Knipp uses the stereotypes to show why he thinks blacks are ignorant.”

I thought about what Boykin wrote, specifically, “using a stereotype to educate the public.” Knipp has said that his homage to black women was a way of confronting stereotypes – but then how does one confront stereotypes without propping them up? It takes a skilled auteur and talent to do that. I guess what I’m saying is, Knipp isn’t all that skilled.

Satire is a tricky thing – politically incorrect satire is pretty much spiked with opportunity for hurt feelings, misunderstandings and incorrect interpretations. When I saw Shirley Q. Liquor onstage – and I don’t believe this was Knipp performing – I didn’t see a profound and intellectual debate on race and gender politics – instead, I saw a room full of white men laughing at a grotesque distortion of black womanhood.

And I guess that’s where we land in this debate. When Knipp is performing, I wonder does he really believe people are thoughtfully mulling over the implications of what he’s presenting on stage. Or is it just the audience finding it funny to hear Ebonics?

When you use potentially offensive stereotypes to point out discrimination or hatred, it’s a very tricky and difficult thing to pull off – not everyone manages to do it – though some have – Spike Lee is a great example. Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French are great at lampooning feminine stereotypes, at once portraying the stereotypes, but making it very clear with the text that the audience is meant to think about what is being said.

In the end, I was hoping that with more research I’d have a better understanding of Knipp’s mission and maybe back off a bit from what he does. Unfortunately, the more research I did, the more I saw that my initial feelings of bewilderment and disgust (yes, seeing white men parody a screwed up image of black women is disgusting) seemed justified. RuPaul’s ringing endorsement notwithstanding, I found myself looking at the character still with contempt.

In a perfect world, Knipp’s work would have no relevance in any context. Unfortunately, his “comedy” has an audience that embraces the work – even if his intentions may be good (which should be questioned), Knipp should also feel responsible enough to look around at his audience and see just what kind of reaction is he stirring.

Dave Chappelle once  told James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio, that one of the reasons he left his highly successful show, was that he grew increasingly aware that he was losing control of his work. Specifically, he was referring to a recurring character, a blind black man, who believing he is white (because he’s blind), is a big old racist – Chappelle mentioned that he used the “n-word” in character and saw a white crewmember laughing at the joke – but he saw the way the crewmember was laughing, and it wasn’t what Chappelle had intended the joke to be.

If Knipp’s intent is to honor black women and to skewer stereotypes, like Chappelle, I think he needs to look at his audience and look at the way its laughing.

 

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