The History of the RuPaul's Drag Race Finale Format
Over the last 10 years, RuPaul's Drag Race's formatting has changed quite a bit. They have made the incredible switch over from Logo TV to VH1, the quality of their filming goes up and up with every year that goes by, and they have made a ton of changes to the formatting of the season finale and announcement of the winner.
Back in seasons 1-3, they would eliminate the queens up until the final 3, have them perform in a RuPaul music video, then eliminate the weakest of the 3, and have the top 2 lipsync against each other to the themed song of the season. After that lipsync, RuPaul would determine who was the winner of the season based on their stats, their final lipsync, and of course their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. But as we all know, Drag Race isn't filmed live like shows such as American Idol. The show would film in the summer and premiere in the following spring, meaning that the winner would be crowned many months before the audience even started watching the season. And people talk. The LGBT community is a very close-knit one, and after a while, human nature would spread the word about who the winner was very prematurely. And it didn't help that gossiper Perez Hilton spread the news about Raja's win to the public.
So in season 4, RuPaul shocked fans when she announced that she wouldn't eliminate any of her top 3 competitors the final day of the competition, and that everyone would have to wait until the reunion - held in front of a live audience after the season had finally aired - to find out who won. During the live crowning (prerecorded for television audiences,) fans in the crowd waited with baited breath until RuPaul announced that the winner was...Chad Michaels! Chad walked down the runway to be crowned by Ru and met with the cheers from the audience. After she said a few words and thanked Ru for the opportunity, someone apparently yelled "Reset!" and everyone from the crew shocked the audience by getting back into formation to film a crowning again.
They had downright tricked their live crowd into thinking that Chad Michaels had won for a moment, only to later inform them that they'd be filming all three finalists winning, and would air the announcement of the true winner a couple of weeks later when the show aired. It would be during the episode that everyone including the contestants and winner herself, would find out who won Season 4. So they wrapped up filming Sharon's crowning, and then Phi Phi's crowning, which according to members of the audience, was met with boos.
This was a shocking ending to the season that kept everyone guessing until the very end. And it solidified that even though you cannot stop drag queens, Logo PA's and the Perez Hiltons of the world from revealing who the top 3 of each season was, you could use shady Hollywood tactics to keep everyone from knowing the winner ‘til the bitter end. This strategy of filming multiple endings is still in use on the show to this day.
And it has been alleged that it was such a close race between Bianca and Adore in season 6, that they even filmed an ending where they both tie as winners. That sounds like it must have been pretty awkward for Courtney Act. Personally, I think a tied win would have been lame, and am glad they made the decision they did.
This also created a lot of mystique behind the coronation of the season. The finale taping is the highly curated and produced version of the crowning where Ru and the entire Drag Race staff plus audience members who buy tickets online, gather in Los Angeles to film the finale including interviews with the queens and their families, commercial break transitions, audience reactions both fake and real, and finally, the multiple crownings. Audience members are forced to turn off their phones and recording equipment and made to sit through the multiple hour-long process of filming an hour and a half long finale episode.
The coronation on the other hand is an event usually hosted by Voss Events in a New York City club, where the queens meet to crown the winner in real time while everyone watches the finale on-screen. Backstage, the winner finds out that they're $100k and an honorary title richer, and come out to collect their check in front of a live audience.
And because nobody can really say they're all too excited about the prospect of only seeing the fake reactions of the winners before they even know if the $100k is theirs or not, in season 5, Logo began posting the reactions of the queens backstage of the coronation online. See below Jinkx and Bianca's authentic reactions to their wins.
Part of the reason why I will always have a soft spot for Season 7 (unlike many people I know), is because my buddy Anthony and I went to New York City to watch the coronation. It was there that I got to witness their even newer format, where the three queens get their own original songs recorded by professional singers for them to lipsync to. The songs were always in a style of music that best pertained to their aesthetic, and the lyrics were usually about who they were as queens or their time during the competition.
And boy was this a boring concept. Ru really put on a show acting like these performances were going to dictate who was going to win the entire show. While I think the queens did great jobs performing the songs, I thought this was a big waste of time that could have been better spent learning more about the girls.
But it was during the season 7 coronation that I learned so much about the way the formatting works. It was nice to witness a piece of Drag Race history for the first time. Below are some photos I took from the event.
Now fast forward to modern day Drag Race, and we have what I consider to be the strangest format for the finale.
Season 9 was so intriguing to me, that Steven and I went all the way down to Los Angeles to see the finale taping. We got there the evening that the Top 4 dance challenge episode premiered. We lined up with tickets we had purchased online at the Alex Theater in Glendale.
We then shuffled inside after being told if we were caught with our phones out, we would be asked to leave. Then we found our seats and watched on tiny screens, the final episode of Drag Race. I was sure that Peppermint, who had the worst stats of the top 4, would be kicked off. But she remained and it was announced to the shock of our crowd, that they'd be having the first top 4 in Drag Race herstory.
After the screens turned off, we watched the filming of the episode for hours. To see exactly what happened, check out my video below.
I was shocked and frankly appalled to see Trinity Taylor and Shea Coulee removed from the competition. Then remained Sasha Velour, who hadn't won as many challenges as Shea and Trinity, and Peppermint who had awful stats. I couldn't believe it. I really felt like a huge mistake was being made. And true, Sasha won her lipsyncs fair and square...but when I thought about it, in real life I remember everyone loving Trinity's lipsync over Peppermint's wen they competing. The editing didn't do it justice either.
I just remember thinking to myself that something was up. My guess is that they really wanted Sasha to win the show as she may have stuck out the most to RuPaul, or matched the aesthetic they were looking for that season. And that they wanted to prove Sasha's worthiness despite her stats not being as high as Shea's and Trinity's. I feel that they kept Peppermint the lipsync assassin around for the top 4, so that they could use her to believably send Trinity home, so that it would be clear between Peppermint and Sasha that Sasha should win the series. Now I'm not saying that Sasha wasn't deserving of her title. She was. This I believe was just an easier way of crowning her so that fans couldn't cry foul quite as loudly.
I know what you may be thinking, "Put down the tinfoil hat, Sydney! I think Peppermint was the best and deserved 2nd place!" And we can agree to disagree. It's just a theory. But I’ve just always found something majorly suspicious by this format. Especially since I was there to witness the taping in person. *Twilight Zone music plays*
But then season 10 came around and surprised the hell out of me. When I found out that they were going to do the lipsync battle format once again, I said to myself "Well, see ya Aquaria. They're about to Shea Coulee you."
It was clear from the get-go that the show was trying to push Eureka on us. Eureka was their ru-demption queen. She was the big girl who was larger than life. They've never had a winner like her before. And I think they did everything in their power to push her as the winner. They even gave her a double save when Kameron clearly won a lipsync against her. And gave her a pass on many less than stellar outfits throughout the competition.
And even though Eureka was behind Aquaria statistically and I thought it was very obvious Aquaria had slayed this season the hardest, they still felt the need to do the lipsync battle. And that made me think that they were gong to send Aquaria home with a certain song or pit her against Kameron so that she had no chance, and that Eureka could take the crown being the person with the second best stats. Then when Aquaria had a stronger performance against Eureka in their lipsync together and they gave Eureka yet another double save, (her third ru-demption in the history of the show may I remind, you,) I really thought that my theory was coming true.
But no, they actually crowned the person with the most wins! Either my theory was way off, or they figured that there was no arguing that Aquaria had done the best this season, and had the most focused lipsyncs of the finale as well. Also, you could tell by this time after reading forums and comment sections that fans were not into the idea of Eureka winning. Who could know how they make decisions? The point is, this reset the way I look at the lipsync finale. It makes me feel as though they don't always have a winner in mind whether the fans like it or not. And that the format is just to prolong the crowning process and make it more exciting for viewers.
Still, I'm not a fan of the idea that someone could have a worse track record on the show and win it all based on one good lipsync. And I'm a fan of the good ol' fashioned finales from season 4-6, which were still surprising 'til the end without being gimmicky.
But that's just my opinion. What's your favorite finale format? Do you think that they will be doing more lipsync battles in future seasons? Please let me know what you think.
Until we meet again!