As the judges deliberated who stayed and who sashayed away during Episode 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Ru asked the question that has been hanging over Tamisha Iman, a recent cancer survivor and established drag veteran competing despite still having an ostomy bag as her body heals, since she first revealed part of her struggle on the main stage: “Do we judge her like anyone else who enters this competition?”
During the main challenge, an almost relentlessly delightful ode to disco complete with some fairly complicated choreography, the judges pointed out that while Tamisha went through the motions, she was literally a step behind, her terror evident in her wide-eyed expression. But Ru, Tamisha, and even the other queens simultaneously acknowledged that the fear went beyond the challenge, which a fully healed Tamisha could likely perform while asleep. It was a different terror, one that I fully recognize from my own post-cancer treatment life: Am I ever going to be as good as I was?
All season, Tamisha’s main competition has been Tamisha, whether it was debating with herself about whether or not to take the lead during a group challenge in which she obviously had the most experience or her knee-jerk reaction to Kandy’s identifying Symone as the main Race contestant to beat. In the very first episode of the season, when the Pork Chop queens awaited their fate on the loading dock, of all the queens, Tamisha was most strongly convinced that fate was already sealed. And that feeling of dreaded certainty makes perfect sense to someone who has also experienced the complete uncertainty of terrible goddamn news.
Cancer treatment fucking sucks—it’s expensive, it’s excruciating, and it’s humiliating. Tamisha’s fear—not that she would underperform in the challenge but that a roomful of queens decades younger than she is would find out she was competing with an ostomy bag—is absolutely heartbreaking and completely understandable. But Tamisha didn’t perform well in the competition “for someone who was recently ill”; she outshone weeks of people younger than she is, who have not recently had to fight for their actual lives on an operating table.
“Every competition, you don’t have to win,” Tamisha said in the workroom on her way out, after an admirable lip-sync that honestly could have gone either way. “Sometimes you just gotta show up.” And Tamisha did more than show up; she showed up and fucking slayed. On her way out, she promised that she was going home to heal up for All-Stars which was not only a smart strategy to get fans (like me) preemptively outraged about the possibility of Tamisha being excluded, but also a promise of great things to come—both to herself, who knows what she’s capable of, and to an audience that likely barely knows the half of it.