BY Eric Rezsnyak
Well, that was one of the loveliest episodes of “Drag Race” I’ve ever watched, in any franchise. A really beautiful, uplifting hour of television. Makeover episodes often tug at the heart strings, but this one was especially effective in doing so. It was also compelling in a way some makeover episodes are not. Typically you can check out during the garment construction or runway training segments, but I was completely fixated on this episode from start to finish.
The show wasted absolutely no time in getting to the meat of the episode: the loved-ones visit for the Final 5 queens. Aurora Matrix was visited by her best friend (who gave Aurora a letter written from Aurora’s parents, who have not always been supportive of Aurora’s sexuality — I was a little worried when Aurora started reading something so private out loud, but it was ultimately fine). Denim was visited by their mother, who seems like the absolute best. Melinda Verga was visited by her partner, Scott, who had fairly recently had a minor stroke, and I found their interactions deeply touching. Nearah Nuff was visited by her blazingly hot fiancee. And Venus was visited by her mother, who was also just wonderful.
The visitors were the makeover partners for the maxi-challenge, but they were also involved in the mini-challenge: the loved ones had to do the make-up and styling for the queens as they did quick drag and then headshots — the queens could not actively help their loved ones for this. I don’t recall another mini-challenge like this is any franchise, and that’s criminal, because this was a hoot. Everyone was game and the results were hilarious pretty much across the board. In the end Melinda won, I think primarily because of the way she sold it to the camera.
For the makeover, the queens were specifically tasked with transforming their loved ones for a red-carpet moment. It wasn’t just about family resemblance — always a tricky judging criterium for this challenge — but specifically red carpet. That played a bit part in the top teams, although frankly there was one clear winner this week, and three pretty obvious bottoms.
Let’s go over each queen one by one.
Aurora Matrix was Low for her makeover of her friend, who went by Supernova Matrix (bad drag name, I’m sorry). I honestly wondered if we might have another Bottom 3 lipsynch, because this was not good, at all. The garments were very simple, and still not well executed. In Aurora’s defense, she switched design concepts fairly late after receiving bad reactions from the judges at walkthrough. But still. Supernova’s make-up was beautiful, but Aurora already had a beautiful girl to start with. The judges all agreed it was not enough. Aurora got lucky that there were two other queens who did demonstrably worse than her in the challenge, because this would have been easily a B2 placement in many other makeovers. The other queens — and many of the comments I’ve seen online — seem to think Aurora is the obvious winner this season, and I’m just not seeing it. Yes, she has more wins than anyone else, with 2. She’s beautiful. A killer lipsynch performer. I like her as a person. But there’s a wall up there that I think keeps people (myself included) at bay, and I don’t know if she has enough star quality to push through that liability.
Denim won the challenge for their makeover of their mother, who went by the name Velvet. This was very obviously the winning duo of the night. There was really no competition. Denim’s gown — which I’m fairly confident was brought from home, as I think all the queen’s looks this episode were — was gorgeous and fully on brand for Denim, but also gave us a vampy side that we haven’t really seen before. Velvet was in a corresponding velvet look with so many great details, and it was styled to perfection. The two of them were a delight on the stage. This was a great week for Denim, and I think they needed it. They’ve been getting a lot of pushback online for perceived favoritism, but there was none of that this week — Denim earned this win, and a deserved place in the Final 4. I also loved watching their interaction with their mother, particularly when Denim was stressing at the sewing machine. The emotional connection between them was palpable. Total feels.
Melinda Verga was Bottom 2 for her makeover of Conchita Verga. There’s a lot to unpack here. According to her story, Melinda was going for a Dynasty-type vibe — which I am fully onboard with — in which Conchita was her former assistant who newly came into money, and Melinda was the old-money bitch being replaced by her. None of the judges got that in the presentation. I actually thought Melinda did a good job on the garment she designed for Conchita — I may have liked it better than the basic dress Melinda herself was wearing. But we have to talk about the make-up, specifically on Conchita. It was BAD. Like, among the worst make-up applications I’ve ever seen on “Drag Race.” The judges were again very kind in their remarks about this. Brooke alluded to previous critiques in which they urged Melinda to warm up the colors on her face, which: yep, that’s a big part of the issue. I’m almost positive the promo from last week’s episode included a judge saying that someone’s make-up looked like a first time in drag look, and I have to assume it was directed at Conchita — but interestingly that clip did not make the episode. The judges were quite restrained, and I think at least in part it was because both Melinda and Scott/Conchita are so damned lovable. Even with the make-up issues, they were fully committed to their presentation, and you could see how much they care for each other. I think that counts for a lot.
Nearah Nuff was also in the Bottom 2 for her makeover, Buffy Nuff — now that’s a great drag name. Listen, I’m just going to be basic and predictable for a second: Nearah’s fiancee is hot as all fuck, handsome as hell, knows how to work the camera, and those arms should require a treaty because they are LETHAL. Good for Nearah! But also bad for Nearah, because that man is built like a brick shithouse, and turning that into some red-carpet-worthy bastion of femininity was always going to be an uphill battle. Nearah didn’t even get halfway there, doing what she could to create a kind of toga that was still, unfortunately, pretty badly constructed. Buffy sold it on the runway, he was so into the whole thing — icon. But Nearah knew that she was in trouble, and took the criticism like a champ.
Venus was High for her makeover of her mother, Uranus. I thought the judges were a bit effusive in their praise here. There was a transformation. The garment was decently constructed. They were great together on the runway. But the judges went on and on about how amazing this was, and it was…fine. Venus’s gown was beautiful, Uranus’s was acceptable. For sure good enough to advance to the finals, and a big step up from Venus’s previous design challenge. But the fact it was High was really because the remaining three looks were so obviously Low.
In the end, Aurora was spared, and it was Melinda vs. Nearah to “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” by Canadian pop royalty Carly Rae Jepsen. Both Melinda and Nearah are strong lipsynchers, but they approached this in very different ways. Melinda started off at a 10 and never really let up, giving intensity and tricks in regular intervals. Nearah started slow, and built to her bigger moves, but was fully entangled with the song. Nearah has a musicality to her performances that is rare; she really connects with a song and uses her body to tell the story. It’s bewitching. She didn’t throw out the number of tricks that Melinda did, but I felt her connection to the song more strongly. Nearah lived that number, Melinda performed it. There is a difference.
They both did well, and I could see the judges going either way. But ultimately Nearah was named the victor — and secured the final spot in the Final 4 — while Melinda was eliminated. That’s going to upset a lot of people. Melinda WAS the story of this season. No disrespect to the Final 4, who are all great and deserving of their spots. But Melinda captured the viewers’ hearts this season in a way only special queens do — Kitten Caboodle did the same — and on top of that, she made for legendary television. That work-room meltdown after the first design challenge is up there with the all-time great “Drag Race” clips, from any season of any franchise. Brooke Lynn Hytes was absolutely right when she told Melinda that she is a superstar — I think she will be the queen people most remember from this season. She’s had an incredible arc, from walking in wearing that Rainbow Brite clown suit to winning Snatch Game to placing a very respectable 5th. She is endearing in a way that makes you forgive any shortcomings in her aesthetics, because you want her to succeed so badly. (For the record, I’ve seen recent photos of Melinda, and honey, the mug is CORRECT. You’ve come a long way, baby.) We will see Melinda again, I have no doubt about that.
But for now, we’re at the finale. That seems crazy to me, since we’re only 8 episodes in. But next week we apparently crown a winner. I’ve said all along that Venus seems like the obvious frontrunner to me, but Aurora has the heat, Nearah has the passion, and Denim has the uniqueness. I won’t go so far as to say it’s anyone’s game, because I still genuinely think it’s Venus’s crown to lose — she’s the total package in a way that the others just aren’t yet. And no that’s not a reference to her untucked bulge. Or maybe it is.
Anyway: who are you rooting for in the finale? Do you wish that Melinda had made the cut? What do you think of this season overall? Drop your thoughts in the comments.
ALSO: Having a “Drag Race” Season 16 viewing party? You should absolutely play with our S16 Premiere Bingo Cards right here!
Did you miss our other “Drag Race” Recaps? You can click right here!