‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ season finale recap: Who won Season 12?

The first-ever socially distant finale gave us Drag Race’s 12th winner

Well, that was fun!

I gotta be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from a socially-distant Drag Race finale. I don’t think anyone did—least of all Drag Race itself! But thanks to the magic of drag, the most game cast the show has ever assembled, and some good old-fashioned TV editing, this year’s finale actually turned out to be one hell of a show. It may not be as impressive as the old live finales on a technical level, but the DIY spirit and sense of fun that permeates every bit of this episode make it the perfect ending to this season.

The Drag Race Twitterverse was set alight by Ru’s announcement at the end of last week’s reunion that there would be five lip syncs in this finale. What format could possibly allow for five lip syncs? Would they all be competitive? Would they be separate or together? The possibilities seemed infinite. It turns out to be quite simple: Each queen gets a solo lip sync, while they must perform against each other in two bookending the individual numbers.

The first is a mini-challenge of sorts, tasking the queens with lip-syncing up close to Ru’s new single (and, it must be said, utter bop) “Bring Back My Girls.” Gigi Goode and Jaida Essence Hall both keep up nicely, Gigi using a blinking trick to stand out, while Jaida moved back and forth to play with the viewer’s depth perception. Crystal Methyd is the clear loser this round—she seems behind the words a bit, and a heavy coat of makeup keeps her from really being able to emote.

Like I said, though, that’s just the warm-up. The show really starts with the solo lip syncs.

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 12 finale

Credit: Courtesy VH1

Each queen performs a fully staged number, complete with set and production design, and individual cinematography and editing. Instead of assigning numbers, Drag Race lets the dolls choose their own—and these are other artists’ songs that require music licensing, not just Ru songs or original tracks. Good on Drag Race for letting the queens do this, because the results are terrific—rather impressively, each number fits the queen themself perfectly.

Crystal chooses Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird,” and when I tell you this is one of my favourite things I’ve ever seen on Drag Race, I’m not bullshitting you. She dresses up as two separate birds, making puppet bodies and using her own head as theirs, and performs the entire thing as a mama bird singing to her baby—from egg to infancy, then flying away together. It’s a thing of beauty. The same could be said for Gigi’s “Take on Me” lip sync, which uses A-Ha!’s iconic video as a jumping-off point for a meticulous, impeccable performance. It’s another reference from Gigi, who was known for them all season on the runway, but it’s maybe her best of the season.


Jaida goes much simpler than the other two, doing a performance of Ciara’s “Get Up” (flawless choice) as if she were shooting her own hip-pop video. She goes dance-heavy in her performance, which looks much more classic and standard compared to Crystal and Gigi. But what I admire is how Jaida really embraces the “at home” part of the task. She doesn’t even bother moving her furniture! She turns it all into part of her performance. I can envision a world where she gets critiqued by fans for not doing as much, but I appreciated how much she did with what she already had. Still, Crystal easily wins the round for me.

At the start of the episode, Ru says he’ll be eliminating one of the queens to make for a top two at the end, but he never feels really committed to that idea. This is a terrific top three, and it feels inevitable that all three will Lip Sync for the Crown at the end. (Hey, if Aquaria, Eureka O’Hara, and Kameron Michaels deserved a three-way final lip sync, these three definitely do.) But before we get there, we take a brief detour to crown our Miss Congeniality, which for the third season in a row the queens themselves have voted for.

Is there any doubt who wins? It was obvious from episode one that Heidi N. Closet would take this particular prize—and $10,000—home to Ramseur, North Carolina. Heidi is the definition of a Miss Congeniality, and no matter how obvious her win, she is nonetheless bowled over by it. She gives a heartfelt speech directed toward young people, and yes reader, I cried. Heidi is a special kind of queen, one who is charismatic and talented, but still ultimately leads with her heart. I have loved watching her this season so much, and I will cherish inevitably having her back for an All Stars run.

But that’s for the future! For now, we still have to decide America’s Next Drag Superstar. Ru charges the final three with one last lip sync, complete with the exact same staging: a simple silver fringe curtain, and balloons on the side. They also all have to record on the same phone camera, with no dynamic cinematography allowed. This is honestly what I wanted to see throughout the finale, and it’s my one real complaint: equity in resource availability. So I’m glad that this seems to be the lip sync given the most weight in judging, at least based on the result. It’s the fairest of the set, even if it’s not the most visually appealing. The rest of the finale is a creative showcase; this is the battle.

The lip sync is to Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor,” marking the fourth Destiny’s Child song to be performed on the show, and the second to be performed in a Lip Sync for the Crown. (The first two were in the girl group challenge in Season 1, “Say My Name” and “Independent Women Part 1,” while Brooke Lynn Hytes defeated Silky Nutmeg Ganache to the tune of “Bootylicious” last season.) It’s a fitting song for this strange time, and the many roadblocks this season has hit so far. These queens are survivors, and this is their final battle.

Crystal and Gigi do okay, with the latter pulling off a Dorothy reveal that feels like a poor fit for the song, but this performance belongs to Jaida. She not only executes a flawless cape reveal, but she plain and simple lip syncs the hell out of the song. In multiple watches of the number, no matter who I tried to focus on, my eyes just kept returning to Jaida.

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 12 finale

Jaida Essence Hall in the finale of Season 12. The socially distant format was a series high point. Credit: Courtesy VH1

And so we have our winner: Jaida Essence Hall! I’ve made no secret that I’ve been rooting for her all season, but in truth, I’m not sure I believed it would happen. Gigi’s dominance in the first half of the season made her crowning feel inevitable. Even her dip in momentum mid-season felt constructed to give her an underdog arc. Then, Crystal’s rising star edit felt like it took over as what fans were most excited about.

But throughout all her competitors’ rises and falls, Jaida stayed strong and did the damn work. She won in her premiere, kept performing at a high calibre even as the judges continued to rule her safe or keep her from the win (the Ball, the Madonna Rusical), and came roaring back in the debate challenge and the makeover task. Even her biggest misstep of the competition, her one-woman show, turned into a victory after her excellent “1999” lip sync. Jaida not only survived Drag Race, but she also thrived in it. She is drag excellence, Black excellence and pageant excellence. She represents a kind of drag not seen in the regular seasons’ winners’ circle for a very long time. From my perspective, there could be no better winner of this season than her.

Season 12 ultimately turned out to be a very good season—the best of those produced for VH1—but it also exposed the last few remaining weaknesses behind the scenes. The disqualification and editing out of Sherry Pie was necessary, but it unintentionally revealed that Sherry was heavily favoured by production. Her not landing in the bottom two after going 12 minutes over her five-minute limit in the one-woman show challenge is one of the most egregious bits of judging fuckery I’ve ever seen on Drag Race, and I won’t forget it for a while.

Similarly, the favouritism towards Sherry revealed a charitable streak toward Gigi as well, one that really deflated the tension in the middle of the season and made the crown seem hers to lose.

Drag Race needs to let up the reins in production and let the competition play out as fairly as possible. The audience can be trusted to make their own decisions—they did this season, stanning Jaida despite an inconsistent edit and falling in love with Crystal before the judges even did. Only then do I think will Drag Race finally return to its glory days. But considering how last year was a low point, Season 12 (not to mention the somehow underrated Drag Race UK) has been a leaps-and-bounds improvement.

I credit that improvement partially to production, but largely to this cast. These 12 queens endured awfulness after awfulness, from a predator in their ranks to a global pandemic preventing them from touring during the season and shooting a live finale. At every turn, they greeted downturns with a smile and a desire to make it work. They were an incredibly positive and game bunch not just outside the season, but within it as well. I tend to prefer the shadier casts—and am hopeful we get that from All Stars 5—but for this moment in history, Season 12’s cast was exactly what we needed.

There is an added bit of sadness, of course, in thinking that this will probably be our last regular season of Drag Race for a while. But when the show returns, we’ll be here, ready and eager to dive into what Season 13 has to offer. In the meantime, I trust Jaida Essence Hall to guide us through a period of uncertainty and reign with class, grace and true excellence.

RuPaul's Drag Race

It cannot be overstated just how amazing every queen looks for this finale. All 12 contestants brought their A-game, which is all the more impressive considering the circumstances. I really hope this group gets the opportunities post-show that they deserve despite the pandemic, because they truly deserve.

Having a bunch of guest judges and celebrity fans pop up to offer messages of support is a really nice touch. Rachel Bloom is the standout, as she was in her episode this season. (I can’t imagine giving birth during all this!)

I think the interview segments work much better one-on-one than in front of a crowd (although I’m not sure why Ru does them as a purple eyeball). Jaida once again gets to show her vulnerable side, while Crystal is just as goofy and lovable as ever. Gigi really doesn’t come off well in the interview, though, demanding that the crown belongs to her. She tries to pass this off as “confident” instead of being “cocky,” but the way she says it reeks of privilege. I think Gigi has some real growing to do after this season. (And as it so happens, she agrees.)

If we’re going to stick with the messages to their younger selves—not my favourite segment on this show, but I get why Ru enjoys it—I like it as a part of the finale versus the final four/five-episode. It fits better.

No idea where Ru got these masks that he wore in the reunion and finale, but I don’t think they’re a blossoming new fashion trend. Though I will fondly tell my grandkids about the Drag Race finale in which Ru dressed up like Zorro.

This finale involves Michelle Visage, Ross Mathews and Carson Kressley more than the usual finales do, and I don’t mind it! I’d like to see more of their input as long as the finale remains competitive.

I’m impressed at the sheer amount of stuff the show has the queens do for this. The final three all shot their own numbers, the close-up lip sync, and the finale performance, plus their interviews with Ru, some behind-the-scenes setup footage for their own numbers and tributes to frontline workers during the pandemic. And then there’s a voting PSA! The latter two involve the other queens, too. A huge round of applause to Drag Race’s editors, who took what must’ve amounted to hours and hours of footage, and turned it into a sharp, well-paced finale.

Nothing touched me in this finale like the tribute to Jacqueline Wilson, a longtime producer on the show who died shortly after filming wrapped on Season 12. It features scores of alumni paying homage and sharing stories, and it’s clear she was a tremendous woman who really had a positive impact on the queens. What a beautiful thing to include in the finale—it really made me emotional.

This has been a truly wild season in a lot of ways—a disqualification of a contestant, a pandemic and so many other factors made it a rush to keep up with week after week. But all of your responses, both on social media and in our weekly Friday Kikis on Facebook Live, have made it all worth it. Thanks as always for being such a great group of readers, and helping me make sense of an unpredictable season. Luckily, we’re just getting started: Coverage of All Stars 5 starts next Friday!

The premiere episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 5 airs Friday, June 5, at 8 pm ET on VH1 in the US and OUTtv in Canada.

Kevin O’Keeffe is a writer, host, instructor, and RuPaul’s Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles, California. His favourite pastime is watching a perfect lip sync.

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Drag Race, TV & Film, Culture, Analysis, Drag

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