Poor Shea Couleé. The RuPaul's Drag Race season nine competitor is something of a scholar of the show, dropping references like "Bitch, I'm from Chicago" and "Sickening, no?" without breaking a sweat. She came in, rocked the challenges and racked up four challenge wins, a number only matched by season four winner Sharon Needles. She did, in short, everything she could to win RuPaul's Drag Race.
And she lost.
Shea is the clear victim of a brutal finale format switch this season. While previous finales have been non-competitive crowning affairs — with a few performances and sit-down chats with the queens — this finale featured major decision-making at the last second. The top four lip-synced against each other in a bracket-style tournament, with the winners of the individual lip syncs battling it out for the crown.
Sasha Velour was the big beneficiary of this rule change — winning the crown despite only having two challenge wins. Shea and Trinity Taylor, on the other hand, didn't even make it to the final lip sync. It's a shame for Shea, the season's most consistent performer, and somewhat unfair: She didn't know when she entered this season that RuPaul would change the game. If such a major format switch were on the horizon, competitors should've been told of it well in advance.
Yet as disappointing a result as it is for her, it's also the smartest thing Drag Race could have possibly done. After years of being fenced in by inevitability, television's best reality competition show is finally surprising again.
"A dull drag competition" is one hell of an oxymoron. Yet that's what the past few Drag Race finales have been, with winners like Bianca Del Rio, Bob the Drag Queen and Alaska marching toward their inevitable victories. Violet Chachki was the last winner resembling a surprise, and considering her impressive record during the show, her crowning wasn't really a shock.
To argue that these wins were unearned would be folly. Alaska and Bianca put on master classes in how to win Drag Race, while Bob won three challenges in a short season where most queens could only manage one (her closest rival, Kim Chi, won two). But the consistently applied criteria for winning — which Bob herself has noted — turned the actual finale into a glorified victory lap, drained of any suspense.
So Ru, after a season of queens throwing lip syncs left and right, decided to change the game and emphasize just how important it is to perform for your life. Whether this format sticks, or the finale challenge changes in subsequent seasons, one thing is clear: Inevitability is dead on Drag Race.
This change in format is more precedented than it seems. Similar shows like Project Runway and Top Chef throw track records out the window in the finale and have their finalists compete solely on the merit of their last performance. This gives the judges a bit more freedom to reward growth.
Season three Top Chef winner Hung Huynh, for instance, won only one elimination challenge in his run, at the very end of the season, but his finale meal still brought him the title. Perhaps the best example, however, is Project Runway season one's Jay McCarroll, who never won a challenge during the show, but took home the top prize for his inspired Fashion Week collection.
So yes, Shea and Trinity performed better throughout the competition. But who could deny Sasha's rose petal-assisted performance in this finale? Or Peppermint's general excellence as a lip sync artist? Simply put, under the rules set out, they won. It's thrilling to watch great work win out, even if the source is unexpected.
To emphasize: None of this makes what happened to Shea any easier to swallow. She put on a dominant performance all season, and did what, in any other season, would've earned her the crown. She deserves an invite to a future All Stars season, where she will no doubt slay the game again.
But this is where we are now: a new set of rules that makes the finale a legitimate free-for-all. While congrats are due to our winner, more than anything, this ups the anticipation for season 10. How will a new crop of queens perform knowing that winning the most challenges doesn't guarantee success? Will lip syncs become more important than ever?
It's not the smoothest way to transition to a new format, but with this season nine finale, Drag Race is setting up countless more seasons ahead of surprising, compelling TV. That level of gaggerini is worth it.
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