‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 9’ Episode 4 recap: Main pop girls

A makeover challenge throws in a girl group twist—but is it an effective one?

Makeover challenges have a terrible reputation among the RuPaul’s Drag Race fandom. Though it can be fun to see queens connect with their subjects—connections that have given us all-time classic episodes like Season 9’s “Makeovers: Crew Better Work” and Canada’s Drag Race Season 2’s “Prom”—there’s one element of each episode that routinely comes in for criticism. That element: the judging.

The perception among fans is that the judging for these challenges is arbitrary, at least more so than usual. The fluid criteria for the makeover (drag transformation! family resemblance! some kind of performance aspect!) mean that the judges can pick and choose what to emphasize in judging based on who they want to win a challenge, and who they want to face the danger of elimination. The fact that this challenge usually comes near the end of the season only ups the ante: a slip-up in the final five, for instance, could really derail a queen’s campaign for the crown. (Sapphira Cristál experienced just that in Season 16.)

This has led, even in the best makeover episodes, to unsatisfying outcomes. In that aforementioned prom episode, eventual season winner Icesis Couture turned out a beautiful makeover for her new drag daughter, Makayla Couture. But because their looks were too disparate, she landed in the bottom two, having to lip sync to send Adriana home. Sometimes the judges don’t even bother justifying their decision: one of the All Stars 9 queens, Vanessa Vanjie, was robbed blind on her makeover challenge despite making fellow queen Ariel Versace into a damn near copy of herself. (Interestingly, that makeover featured all of AS9’s Season 11 reps in major roles: Plastique Tiara was challenge winner Brooke Lynn Hytes’ partner, while NiIna West was sent home.)

I’ve always understood the frustration … to an extent. Looking back through the makeover challenges, I can’t see many instances where someone sent home had a real shot at winning it all. Ongina in Season 1, maybe, but the show was so new that we really didn’t know what Ru was looking for yet. Ironically, Nina probably had a shot at winning it all in Season 11, considering how fan-beloved she was at the time, but she was the clear loser in her season’s makeover and was always going home after her disastrous “No Scrubs” lip sync. So yes, it can be a bummer to see a beloved queen eliminated despite a great makeover—Alyssa Edwards in All Stars 2, Cheryl Hole in UK Season 1, Dakota Schiffer in UK Season 4—but I can’t make an argument that an unjustified win has ever radically changed how a season I’ve watched would turn out.

Four firefighters from across the country come together to participate in this pop star-style makeover challenge. Credit: Courtesy Paramount+

But All Stars 9 presents a new kind of dilemma. We didn’t get a makeover challenge in All Stars 7, which means we’ve never seen it in the non-elimination format. Unlike in other seasons, in which wins are strong résumé items but not tangible points, this season’s finalists will be decided by how many badges they win all season long. While no one may be eliminated unfairly on the makeover, there’s a way in which an unfair or arbitrary decision could genuinely impact the endgame by skewing someone’s final number of badges.

So, naturally, at a time when fair judging matters more than ever for the makeover, Ru and the production team throw another twist in: like in All Stars 1, the queens must work in pairs to make over someone into the third member of their girl group trio. (In an additional twist, the queens pair up before they know what the challenge is—and all the talk of alliances in the werk room makes them all pair up with unexpected partners.) Unlike in All Stars 1, when the queens made over famous daughters, this time around the partners are firefighters from across the country.

This makes the second part of the challenge a bit harder: the queens and their partners must write and perform their own verses to the (sorry, terrible) song “Pussy on Fire.” Unlike the famous daughters who were used to either performing or generally being in the spotlight, these guys are buff men not used to even walking in stilettos, much less dancing in them. You see this in the challenge, as while a couple of the guys manage well, others struggle to stay upright.

But how much does the performance come into play versus the makeover itself? Again, these are just more criteria for the judges to pick and choose from when making their decision, just like “family resemblance.” While the winning team does a great job with their looks, their partner’s stiff movements stick out like a sore thumb in the performance. But those are ignored, while another team’s supposed lack of resemblance is what keeps them from victory. And the result is one of the more frustrating bits of judging I can remember seeing—validating, in many ways, the critiques of makeover challenges that fans have held for eons.

Roxxxy Andrews and Vanessa Vanjie’s makeover of the newly dubbed “Valerie Valentine” ultimately snatched the win. Credit: Courtesy Paramount+

A note before we get to the makeovers themselves: I’m not talking much about what actually happens in this episode because, to be blunt, basically nothing happens. The alliance talk at the start of the episode is made up of everyone denying that there are any alliances. The badge giveaway (which I’ll detail in the final thoughts) comes and goes without any major drama. And while it’s cute to see the queens interact with the firefighters, it’s the same mix of seeing them learn to walk in heels, struggle with choreography and earnestly intone how important drag is that we see in every modern makeover episode. Increasingly, the makeovers feel like production slamming the brakes on any kind of story development, and it’s especially bad in a season that is begging for story beats amid all-positive critiques and no eliminations.

Anyway, when we get to the runway, we see Roxxxy Andrews’ gambit has paid off. Early in her partnership with Vanjie and their makeover partner (Adam, aka Valerie Valentine), Roxxxy says the key to winning this challenge is to render looks in the same colours, but different shapes. She creates all-new looks for all three of them, doing exactly that, and pairs them with some really fierce hair choices. They look fantastic, cohesive and like pop stars. Unfortunately, Valerie’s stunted movement makes their performance look awkward, meaning their chances at the win rely on the makeover.

Meow Meow Mixxx, made up of Plastique, Jorgeous and the newly-dubbed Angelique, conversely kill their performance. Angelique is a feisty performer, and she keeps up with Plastique and Jorgeous’ pop girl energy. Their Powerpuff Girls concept is clear, and even recognized by one of the guest judges, making it all the more frustrating that Michelle Visage says their outfits don’t relate to each other beyond having their names written on them. This is obviously silly for a bunch of reasons, but it’s a sign of how the judging will be bent in this episode.

The other two teams really aren’t in contention on this one: Angeria Paris VanMicheals and Shannel make Brad Lee—now Natasha Brad Lee—look solid, but their looks have no relation to each other. The judges correctly clock that they all look like they’re from completely different eras. Conversely, Nina and Gottmik look from the same era as their partner, “Anitta Blaze,” and they actually perform quite well! But their actual makeover is the worst, with a chunky wig that doesn’t flatter Anitta. While the criteria for winning this challenge can be selective, it’s rare that an outright unflattering makeover is judged favourably.

Credit: Courtesy Paramount+

In the end, Vanjie and Roxxxy win out, and I’m frustrated by this decision. If this were just a case of the judges choosing family resemblance over all else, I would understand it. While I do think Plastique and Jorgeous’ concept is more unique, Roxxxy and Vanjie really did make their partner into their girl group sister. What annoys me is that the show introduces this entire extra element to the challenge—then ignores it to give the win to who they want to. It’s not how I want to see Roxxxy win her first challenge of the season, and it’s certainly not how I want to see Vanjie win her first Drag Race maxi-challenge ever. The whole thing is just more unfulfilling than it should be.

Another unfulfilling thing about Jorgeous not winning is that, once again, the Ruby Snippers have had no effect. We’re four episodes and three snips in, and the season’s primary twist has not successfully paid off once. It took just two episodes of All Stars 7 for Trinity the Tuck to be successfully blocked from winning a badge for Snatch Game. Is the charity-focused nature of this season making production nervous about any kind of negative consequence for the queens? If so, why even introduce the cut-off twist at all? It’s just a bizarre choice if your goal is to make the best possible television.

Anyway, Roxxxy and Vanjie lip sync to Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat,” and because we’re apparently not in the business of making any hard choices this episode, Ru declares them both winners. They’re both solid in the lip sync, but this one is clearly Roxxxy’s on my scorecard. Each gets $5,000 for their charity (Miracle of Love and the ASPCA, to remind you), and then they both get to cut off a queen. Sorry, in case you’re misreading that: they both get to come together to decide which one queen to cut off. Again, despite letting them cut off two queens being much more dramatically interesting, Drag Race defaults to the dullest decision.

As, unfortunately, do Roxxxy and Vanjie; they snip Angeria again, with Roxxxy taking her revenge for being cut off in Episode 1. Vanjie basically just lets Roxxxy take care of her unfinished business—and I’m sure there’s plenty of incentive to go along with it to keep bestie and fellow two-badge-holder Gottmik safe—and the episode ends with a Season 14 queen blocked again. It’s a silly end to what is overall a silly episode. Here’s hoping that next week’s might change the tide; what was looking like a promising season has descended into dullness at an alarming pace.

Untucking our final thoughts

Notice that I called Gottmik one of Roxxxy and Vanjie’s “fellow” two-badge-holders. That’s because, yes, after much hemming and hawing about supposed alliances (or “cliques,” as Shannel calls them), Gottmik does give her bestie Vanjie a badge. Nina, however, pivots away from her would-be alliance partner Shannel, wanting to shake off the perception that they’re working together, and instead gives hers to Roxxxy. Thanks to the two teaming up and winning this challenge, they have suddenly vaulted to the front of the pack, tied with Gottmik with two badges apiece. (Shannel is now the only queen without one.) 

Speaking of alliances: Gottmik’s just making shit up when she accuses Angeria and Shannel of having one, right? She claims she’s hearing things from others—which would be off-screen shenanigans, and after All Stars 8, I can’t tell you how much I don’t want that to be the case. But Angeria and Shannel say they’ve not so much as heard a conversation. I’m inclined to believe Gottmik was just pissed about them cheering for Nina in last week’s lip sync (a fair irritation), and decided to be messy.

I do like the decision to have the queens pair up without knowing what the challenge is. I actually think this should be the standard for team challenges moving forward. Keeps things fresh!

I may roll my eyes a bit at all the talk about how important drag is—not because it isn’t true, but because it’s an oft-repeated trope on this show that always has a twinge of This Is How Drag Race Wins Emmys to it—but I think Vanjie’s confessional on the subject during the werk room conversations is actually quite touching.

The Brothers Osborne, John and TJ, are our guest judges this week, and I’m surprised at how into them I am! I wasn’t familiar before the show, but they’re enthusiastic, are plugged into what the queens are doing (they argue for Meow Meow Mixxx’s win and immediately recognize the Powerpuff Girls aesthetic) and demonstrate the ideal of what judges on a non-elimination season should do. I’m impressed!

The makeover subjects get $1,000 to donate to the charity of their choice, which is nice! I do wish we could’ve heard which charities they chose, though.

“They told me that … no soul can clock,” Angelique and her team should’ve won for this alone.

The fifth episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 9 will stream Friday, June 7, at 3 a.m. EST on Paramount+ in the U.S. and on Crave in Canada. We’ll be publishing recaps all season long, and you can also subscribe to our drag newsletter Wig! for exclusive Drag Race content delivered straight to your inbox every month.

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