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Alchemy on the Runway

Contestant Denali Foxx had landed in the bottom two on the fourth episode of Season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and now she was lip syncing for her goddamn life. From the opening seconds of the performance, it was clear we were watching the birth of a new lip sync assassin. Swirling across the runway in a feathered green outfit modeled after the quetzal bird, Denali knew every word of Crystal Waters’s “100% Pure Love,” her every kick, drop, pop, and twirl precisely on beat. By contrast, the other queen, Kahmora Hall, could barely move in her heavy golden gown. It was, in the parlance of Drag Race fans, a murder.

But Denali wasn’t content with simple assassination. Midway through the song, she turned to face the row of queens watching her performance—the contestants who had outperformed her in the episode’s main challenge—and pointed at them. Then, with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quickness, she slashed her thumb across her throat

Her message, though wordless, was unmistakable: Test me, and I will destroy you. 

I’ve spent a lot of time watching and re-watching Denali’s performance, mesmerized, trying to figure out why it’s so compelling. I’m not the only one. The video has amassed almost 4 million views since it was posted in January of 2021, making it one of the most watched Drag Race lip syncs on YouTube. “Season is over and I’m still rewatching this daily,” reads a pinned comment—now liked more than four thousand times—from the official Drag Race YouTube account. Another comment, this one from a fan, has been liked sixteen thousand times: “this was a moment in world history.” 

As even the most casual Drag Race fan can tell you, the series is packed with legendary lip syncs. So what makes this one so unforgettable?  

The answer—for me, at least—has to do with what scholar Heather Love calls “queer alchemy.” It’s her phrase for the particular trajectory that stories of queer life often follow: a trajectory in which initial suffering gets transformed into the joys of love, self-acceptance, and community. Whether we’re talking about coming out of the closet or about LGBTQ+ life before and after Stonewall, the basic narrative is always the same: the ugly lead of shame transmutes into the defiant gold of pride. 

Part of Drag Race’s power comes from how insistently it draws on this narrative pattern. Again and again, contestants tell tearful stories of suffering redeemed—how they went from bullied, outcast child to fabulous queen, dripping in rhinestones and self-esteem. In the words of the eventual winner of Denali’s season, Symone, who grew up as a lonely queer boy in small-town Arkansas: “Drag saved my life.” 

But Drag Race doesn’t just provide a platform for stories of queer alchemy; in every episode, the show stages this alchemy. Nowhere is this clearer than when contestants lip sync for their lives. Queens are placed in the bottom because they’re done poorly in the episode’s main challenge, and/or on that week’s runway. To put it bluntly, they’ve failed. But the lip sync provides an opportunity for redemption—to transform their shame into triumph. It’s queer alchemy on the runway. Few queens embody this truth better than Denali, whose dazzling lip sync has erased all memory of why she landed in the bottom in the first place.  

What would you do, if you knew you couldn’t fail? It’s a popular question in self-help circles, designed to help us see all the ways our lives are limited by the fear of failure, cramped and circumscribed by self-doubt. But in this world, there’s really only one kind of person who can take the question’s intended lesson to heart. There’s really only one type of body—straight and white and cis and male—that can move through the world undaunted by the possibility of failure. 

The rest of us don’t have that luxury. As a queer person, I move through the world followed by a faint but pervasive sense of dread. A feeling that a friend once described in a poem as “the sweetsick ache my stomach gets / warning me of the bad thing that hasn’t come but is coming one of these days.” It seems inevitable that, sooner or later, my life will spin toward disaster. Maybe it will be my own fault; maybe it won’t. But in either case, I know what everyone with a marginalized identity knows, too: that the margin for error feels vanishingly thin. One small misstep, and failure will claim you at last.   

But I think that’s also why I keep re-watching Denali’s performance. Again and again, I get to see it happen: failure transformed into success, shame transmuted into pride, and all through pure force of will. I get to imagine possessing a confidence so titanic it lets you spin around mid-performance and threaten your rivals with annihilation—all without a single missed step. 

There’s a darkness, certainly, to this kind of viewing pleasure. When fans deem particular queens to be “assassins” and refer to unmatched performances as “murders,” they acknowledge and even celebrate this darkness (as my favorite comment on the Denali vs. Kahmora lip sync observes, “Kahmora walking around while being murdered is so iconic”). And there’s a darkness, too, to the kinds of visions enabled by the lip sync. After all, fantasies of absolute, unfettered agency—of gleefully crushing your rivals, surmounting all obstacles and succeeding through sheer force of will—are the kinds of neoliberal wet dreams that Americans have been encouraged to believe in since Reagan, with disastrous results.  

But in spite—or maybe because—of this darkness, I can’t stop watching Denali the assassin. I may never lose that sweetsick feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach, but when I hit “play,” it all happens again, in a swirl of green feathers and blood red lips. A moment in world history. Alchemy on the runway. 

B. Pietras is still perfecting his duck walk.  

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