The finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race is almost always a little bit of a, well, drag. After a season of carefully planned out challenges, rivalries, and makeup mirror breakdowns, the final episode is generally a lot of filler when most of us just want to see who won already. Last year, I didn’t even watch, just checked Twitter when it was over. And while stay-at-home orders made the RuPaul’s Drag Race finale a bit less grand than previous years, the homemade campiness of the season’s final episode was a stripped-down look at what actually makes the show good—the ingenuity of the queens themselves and the charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent of its creators.
But what could have quickly become a glittery Zoom meeting, was actually very endearing, with finalists Gigi Goode, Crystal Methyd, and Jaida Essence Hall, going all out to make their performances special despite being backgrounded by arts and crafts backdrops. The episode opened with Michelle Visage in full glam announcing the queens from her shoe closet as the season’s competitors served their finale looks from rooftops, living rooms, and backyards. Ru, perhaps unused to doing his own makeup these long years of fame, hosted in some sort of bedazzled anti-gravity mask, black turtleneck, and Freddy Kreuger chapeau that revealed little more than his nose and mouth.
Crystal Methyd, however, gave us all the dazzle Ru forgot, despite having a living room lacking all the taxidermy, velvet, and sequined pillows I’d imagined for her. But she did kick off the finale from inside a giant piñata then transitioned to asymmetrical, hairy-chested pink treasure troll drag for her one-on-one with Ru, so I will forgive her the tasteful decor.
For her part, Gigi Goode decided that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, sitting for her one-on-one interview with Ru in an exact copy of Ru’s MTV spring break 1993 drag. Her interview was a largely unremarkable ode to her “confidence,” an attitude not generally in short supply for gorgeous 20-somethings but which Ru seems endlessly impressed by. Yet the one-on-one did bear fruit by finally presenting us Gigi’s much-discussed costume designer mother, my initial pick for this season’s winner. She seemed nice!
And joining the finale from her nightclub-lit living room, Jaida Essence Hall was the most snatched anyone has ever been in front of an Ikea curtain. Her face, framed by a perfect waterfall of a wig, golden rings around her neck, and tassel earrings was absolutely beautiful and nearly filled her entire Zoom box, a smart move for stealing a show that would be determined, in part, by an extreme close-up lip-synch.
As for the winner of that lip-synch, set to a new track from Ru, mine was a house divided. Fifty percent of us—my roommate—believed Gigi’s rhymic eyelash flutters and strategic chin jerks won it. The other 50 percent—me—believed Jaida’s clever decision to fill the entire frame with her gorgeous face and wig, coupled with her refusal to back away from the camera, made it difficult to look away, which was the point. However, 100 percent of us agreed that Crystal’s pink face and dark, asymmetrical eyes would have probably looked great on a stage but unfortunately made her tight close-up a bit of a blob.
But in the next round, a homemade lip-synch to a song of their choosing, Crystal dominated. “Elementary school art teacher on an acid trip” is absolutely Crystal’s brand of drag and the “mommy and me but birds” story she created to accompany a lip-synch to Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” was like something out of a 1970s public access kids’ show whose creators were a bunch of hippies smoking hash between takes. Which is to say, I loved it, right down to the glitter and paper-mache beaks and thrilling regurgitation, a move we haven’t seen since Sharon Needles Season Four blood packet moment.
Gigi created a gorgeous and accurate re-creation of A-Ha’s black and white “Take On Me” set that perhaps would have stolen some other show, but Crystal’s performance simply proved the old showbiz adage I just made up—It is impossible to upstage bird vomit. And while Gigi’s set, costume, and face were meticulous, her lip-synch was a little like someone practicing in front of a mirror. In earlier episodes this season, Gigi often worried about her dancing abilities during choreographed performances, though she always performed her moves admirably, even winning the Madonna challenge with some truly stunning acrobatics. But when it comes to planning her own dancing, Gigi lacked a bit of that confidence Ru’s always on about, and it showed.
Jaida proved the exact opposite of Gigi. Though her performance of Ciara’s “Get Up” began with Jaida wrapped in a Snuggie on her sofa, the lack of an intricate set just meant that the viewer could focus on the black sequined jumpsuit she eventually revealed that helped showcase choreography straight out of a music video. Over the course of the season, Jaida has struggled with pageant queen insecurity when up against comedy challenges. But in the finale, she proved that pageant queen label means that Jaida knows how to put on a show using only her face and body, and despite the fact that she was simply lip-synching in front of her furniture and rug, she’s magnetic. And I would say that even if I didn’t also have that rug.
After a completely predictable shocker in which Ru let all three queens move to the final round coupled with a real shocker—a delightful surprise appearance from mine and Nina West’s shared mother Dolly Parton in which my sweet angel Heida was rightfully declared Miss Congeniality, we finally got down to the business of picking a winner. The final lip-synch was a three-way, full-body performance of Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor,” which, in my opinion, came down to wardrobe choices.
In what may have been her first sartorial misstep of the season, Gigi chose a simple grey gingham tribute to The Wizard of Oz, along with a pair of knee-high black boots that didn’t quite make sense. Her reveal, a costume flip that took her from black-and-white to color, referencing the film, didn’t quite come off since it had so little to do with the song and also seemed to make her momentarily stuck inside her costume. Crystal had better luck with her bejeweled Alice-in-Wonderland homage, but it was a bit too bulky to allow her to dance freely in the narrow frame. Jaida, once again, was deceptively simple, beginning the number in what appeared to be a neon-orange parachute.
Every layer she stripped revealed a more intricate and thoughtful look, from a strappy jumpsuit connected to her knee-high boots to a jeweled skirt that became a crown-anointed, self-styled backdrop, declaring her the winner before she was actually declared the winner.
Jaida also moved deliberately, having obviously spent time trying to figure out how to stand out in her corner of the screen, which had the effect of making the other two appear a bit clumsy.
These three were the toughest competition for the finale in a good long while for Drag Race, compelling enough not to be overshadowed by the other background drama of the season—allegations against Sherry Pie, news stories regarding Ru’s involvement with fracking, and the fact they had to fight for the crown from their own living rooms. Jaida won, and she deserved to, even if all the contestants—except for Sherry—deserved a season that wasn’t blighted by one disaster after another. Even her acceptance speech, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna—Look over there,” was a few much-needed bit of levity in grave times.
Overall, I had zero hopes for this finale, but those low hopes only meant I was all the more delighted. The ingenuity of the performers in extraordinary circumstances was a much-needed reminder that RuPaul’s Drag Race is still special after 12 seasons, and maybe a bit of overexposure, because at its heart, the show retains the ability to surprise by virtue of its contestants, who are incredible talents making the most of the few seconds they’ve been given to shine. From Heidi’s Guide to Social Distancing to Michelle’s husband’s bare ass and Carson’s fillers made of poppers, along with a beautiful tribute to producer Jacqueline Wilson, who died just as shooting wrapped on Season 12, the DIY finale was a lovely attestation to the fact that RuPaul’s Drag Race is the last great variety show on television. Congratulations, Queen Jaida. I didn’t realize how much I needed to see something good happen to a person who deserves it.