Are you [adjective meaning busted]? Tired of [clumsy innuendo]? Then you need the RuPaul’s Drag Race branding challenge, in which a handful of queens throw out prototypes for the catchphrases they’ll soon be plastering all over Instagram merch!
While the late-season branding challenge isn’t as highly anticipated as the Snatch Game or (judging from the amount of shit I got after suggesting the queens are singing too much the season) the Rusical, the Drag Race branding challenge is actually one of the sneakiest indicators of which queens the judges consider front runners. Last year, eventual winner Jaida Essence Hall and runner-up Crystal Elizabeth Methyd received glowing praise for their inspired and hilarious commercial parodies, while Heidi N Closet used the challenge to launch herself as the breakout star of the season, even if she didn’t actually end up in the top four.
Besides the Drag Race writers putting kibosh on the queens shilling narcotic perfumes this year, an obvious sign they read my recaps, Season 13 was stuck to the same patterns. The only surprise was that Tina Burner, whose entire act is being a walking billboard for Tina Burner, in the end, did not actually know how to sell herself to the Drag Race judges and audience all that well.
The mini-challenge featured a Jeopardy-style round of trivia questions about the show. More than remembering which queen’s catchphrase is “Bam,” outlining scenes for a short commercial launching a branded soda showed which competitors have paid attention to the lessons of past seasons. Rosé, for example, structured her advert around the judge’s critiques—namely, that in trying to present herself too perfectly, she’s coming off a bit wooden. Her soda, RoseAid, featuring new ingredient “criticism,” was a skillful send-up of weaknesses the judges have clocked her for, right down to the bizarre, unflattering ruffles she cannot seem to stop affixing to her outfits.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Tina Burner, Rosé’s New York frenemy. All season, the pair has seemed almost redundant—one queen with a penchant for orange, yellow, and red, the other compulsively sporting a pale pink palette. Both bill themselves as singing, acting, comedians with venerable fan bases back home. Both seem to have thinly veiled contempt for one another. Like Rosé, Tina also seemed to have meticulously studied up for this challenge, constructing an ad that superficially hit every note with a clear point of view, unmistakable branding, and the kind of sexual, campy catchphrase, “Hell yeah!” that the judges normally eat up. But the difference was that Tina is selling the same Tina Burner she’s able to sell so well onstage in the East Village, while Rosé appears to have had the necessary crisis of identity that nearly always happens when an already-successful-at-home queen comes to Drag Race and realizes national television requires a different, and sometimes wholly new, bag of tricks.
The other queens’ approaches were a bit less studied, providing some of the most unintentionally hilarious gaffes of any episode in recent memory. Utica’s Utican ad was like watching a German art film from the ’70s playing on a silent screen in a dive bar—she suckled a cow teat, cried into some mud, and aggressively licked an aluminum can to pitch a product that I’m assuming sends the licker into some hallucinogenic state comparable to psychedelic toad licking?
Likewise, Gottmik’s Gott Sexx Sex Juice makes its user convinced of her own sexiness, despite the inefficacy of the product. Both of these concepts had me cackling on my sofa, but neither of the queens quite understood their own joke, rendering the branding too bizarre to be effective. Both Utica and Gottmik have their strengths and could go all the way to the end, but like Gigi Goode’s just slightly-off-the-mark “Goodnight Bitch” sedative/perfume from last season, this marginally misplaced branding from both queens is a good indicator that they’re not quite self-aware enough of their own appeals to go all the way.
Additionally, Kandy Muse’s fairly funny ad missed a huge opportunity. Her soda “The K Special” was perhaps not allowed by the show’s censors to be called the more obvious “Special K” or even some play on a “K hole.” But marketing a soda designed to transport one to their own private VIP section, without referencing her own infamous “Sitting Alone in VIP” meme, seems like a missed opportunity that should have been addressed.
Then, of course, there is Symone. Her soda, Sweet Toof, and subsequent ad hit exactly the mark Tina missed—hilariously encapsulating Symone’s dry wit and undeniable sex appeal without taking her whole schtick too seriously. Also, I bought the “Sweet Toof” necklace from Instagram as I watched the episode, so great job selling that to me, Symone.
This season, the judges seem to have decided that since no one can beat Symone, she should at least share the spotlight until its time to take the crown. She and Rosé both won, which seems fair in a competition where Symone is simply so much better than everyone else that it’s unfair.
The real surprise came when Tina Burner landed on the bottom, not for being bad, just for being kind of boring. As many of the friends and co-workers who messaged me this weekend to express their outrage noted, Gottmik’s ad was demonstrably “worse” than Tina’s. Utica’s surrealist masterpiece was obviously the worst of the bunch, but one could even argue that Kandy’s disjointed advert was worse than the technically correct but spiritually off contribution from Tina.
Thus, Tina perhaps did not “belong” on the bottom in her adorable little monster suit, and her lip-synch to “My Humps” was absolutely less confusing than Utica’s, which consisted of a lot more arm licking than one generally likes to see on the runway. But just as Carson said he’d be thrilled to never see orange, red, and yellow on the main stage again, in the end, Utica is a weirdo, one never knows what she will do, while everyone, including the judges, viewers at home, and other contestants, know exactly what to expect from Tina Burner. That sameness might be a reliable brand in New York City but on TV simply comes off stagnant. Tina Burner did not necessarily “lose” to Utica, but if the unfair culling means I never again have to sit through another variation on the firefighter/housewife theme, then just this once, I am completely okay with the transparent unfairness of the Race.