Each contestant was pre-taped frowning while holding the check she didn’t win (Willam was disqualified).

Willam’s timely video parody “Chow Down (at Chick-fil-A).”

A meme: Willam’s witty term from the reunion special.

Fans were instructed “Just tweet who you want to see win #TeamChad, #TeamPhiPhi or #TeamSharon and use those hashtags too along with #DragRace.” [Shirts from http://shop.logotv.com/ ]

“All Stars” is now an inevitable phase in talent competition reality shows.


Coda: the script of season 4

The recently concluded Season Four of RuPaul’s Drag Race turned out to be some of the most tightly “scripted” reality television, with a stronger emphasis placed on “the rules” of the show in a way that further heightens the show’s metareferentiality and its intertextual relation to Project Runway and competitions like American Idol.

Specifically, in the episode “Frenemies” (S4:E8) the tendency of reality television scripts/editing to create intense rivalries between contestants and thus to encourage fans to “take sides” became an explicit device, in this case making established “enemies” Sharon Needles and Phi Phi O’Hara team up to work together on a musical number (the “team challenge” often reveals rivalries and personality clashes, especially in Project Runway). But there was a further demonstration of television “drama,” after they had to lip-sync for their lives, and the audience eagerly anticipated RuPaul’s decision to send home either fan-favorite or hated rival. RuPaul announced that in fact Willam, who had won the team challenge with Latrice Royale, had broken “the rules” of the show and therefore was disqualified and must go home (but would not specify what rule had been broken, and Willam’s onstage nervous vomiting before the announcement only made the guessing game more intense). This season, in keeping with the conventions established in Project Runway (and ANTM), the show’s producers have foregrounded “the rules” (“contract”): the contestants are isolated from the outside world, and contact with loved ones (through video phone) is a coveted prize to be won. Thus, the rumor spread that Willam broke the rules by making contact with the outside/online world during filming. But RuPaul, the producers, and Willam carefully kept this information a secret in order to prolong the fans’ curiosity, promising “all will be revealed” in the show’s reunion special (which it was, confirming the rumor as true). In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the seasoned television actor Willam was asked “Why do you have to be cryptic about what happened on last night’s episode?” and responded,

“Oh, no, no — not at all. We don’t have to be cryptic. It’s my choice. I want people to keep tuning in. Maybe watch me at the reunion.”

When asked if this was a stunt to garner publicity (perhaps timed with the release of Willam’s iTunes single and timely video parody “Chow Down (at Chick-fil-A)”), Willam responded:

“I’m going to leave all these answers up to wiser men than I at the network. I do like the fact that they didn’t make it seem like I got caught doing something, like my hand was in the cookie jar. Everything that I did on that show was pretty much in character, except for when I cried.”

In an LAWeekly Blog article about the West Hollywood season premier screening of Season Four, Willam noted that while she was “in character” she struggled a bit with the “scripted” aspect of reality television:

Drag Race was just a gig for me, albeit a huge one. Being on TV definitely gave me an edge but the whole reality thing was difficult,” he told us. “A judge told me I was ‘going off script’ once and I’m, like, ‘Wha-huh? Wait. Ain’t this reality?’ I only gave the cameras what I wanted to give them so you'll get a great, concentrated version of Willam.” (Lecaro)

The reporter suggests that “Though most reality shows are for the most part anything but, we’ve always found Drag Race more authentic than most.” As a counterpoint, a blogger Fierce Black Queen felt the overt manipulation of the “Frenemies” episode was the tipping-point for him as a fan:

“Here is the self-induced schizophrenia that I am looking to avoid in the future: I want to watch this show either as a study in Reality TV editing, or a Reality TV Show–not both. When RuPaul announced that their team was on the bottom, I thought of it as a study: which one would the producers pick? Sharon is an important favorite, Phi Phi is an important antagonist…which would they sacrifice? Then, when they started performing, I watched it as a Reality TV Fan. The Queen starting rooting for Sharon, and praying that Ru would not reward one more damn Drag Queen for Dancing For Your Life, instead of lip syncing for it. And then Ru comes out with a twist worthy of Citizen Kane. So it’s Sashay Away to Willam. The Queen will go into detail about his thoughts on the ‘break the rules’ convention, and why I think it was the straw that broke the gay camel’s back. Suffice it to say, that as a dramatic device it had more holes than Gruyère Cheese. I will miss Willam. He was one of the most interesting characters on Reality TV that the Queen has seen in a long time. He is the evolved product of the genre: a self-aware performer, who had an intricate game-plan that he executed brilliantly. He was a strange combination of someone you love to hate…and love to love. If you ask the Queen, it was a PERFECT way for him to go out: dramatic, with much intrigue.” (FBQ)

A good example of this self-awareness and humor from Willam can be seen in the Entertainment Weekly interview upon his exit:

“Outside of this incident, did you think you had a good chance of winning?”

“I think I won. Didn’t I? Phi Phi O’Hara says that ‘everyone is a winner just by being on the show.’ So I think I’m a winner, right? Yeah. No, I thought the front runner this year was RuPaul because she’s won every other year. She’s the only one that gets residuals, so good on her.” (Lacaro)

In fact, this became the explicit theme of the final RuPaul video for “Glamazon” which, in atypical fashion, was deliberately leaked before the final episode, during which we saw the filming of the “prequel” narrative to the video, in which RuPaul refuses to give up her crown, and further deconstructs her “Supermodel of the World” persona (and its inverse image: her “RudePaul” reputation). In another twist on her own show’s established formula, RuPaul asks all of the three contestants (Chad, Sharon, and PhiPhi) to lip-sync for their lives, but, just as the audience expected RuPaul’s final decision, she added a final coup that appears to undermine her previous insistence that the final decision was hers alone to make (despite the advice of Michelle Visage and Santino Rice). She opened the final decision to a fan vote (thus aligning the show with audience-vote driven contests like American Idol), something usually reserved for the reunion special “Miss Congeniality” vote, or the anticipated RuPaul’s All Stars Drag Race. Thus, RuPaul’s Drag Race has, in its fourth season, begun to turn its own rules “upside down.” The question remains whether savvy fans[3] [open endnotes in new window] and contestants can keep up with this level of overtly scripted manipulation, “schizophrenia,” and metareferentiality.

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