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Television

To Watch a Predator: The Difficult Handling of 'RuPaul's Drag Race: Season 12'

Photo Courtesy of VH1

While RuPaul's Drag Race remains a celebration of campy queer culture, Season 12 premiered as serious allegations against a contestant were quickly confirmed, forcing the producers to recut the episodes to diminish the influence of a now-known predator. Did the gambit work?

RuPaul's Drag Race

VH1

2020-02-28

For all that's entertaining about the perpetual camp celebration that is the Emmy-winning reality competition show RuPaul's Drag Race, it hasn't come without its share of controversial contestants. From small-scale issues like the Season 4 disqualification of Willam for "breaking the rules" to more serious affairs like Season 2 winner Tyra Sanchez making terroristic threats against the 2018 RuPaul's DragCon event in Los Angeles, the producers have managed controversy. History hasn't always been kind to the program, and thankfully problematic segments, like a Season 6 challenge where the queens had to guess whether photos indicated a "female" or a "she-male", have been cut from rebroadcasts and digital episode purchases.

Yet following the premiere of Season 12 in February 2020, a most heinous allegation was revealed: competitor Sherry Pie (real name Joey Gugliemelli) had spent years posing as a fake casting agent over email and enticing men with promises of working on HBO shows and prestigious New York venues. They read from a fake script wherein they kept getting larger and more muscular, with one victim even masturbating on camera while Gugliemelli filmed it -- at Gugliemelli's suggestion. Many of the men who sent in these video auditions felt duped once the fake casting agent stopped responding. They had unintentionally created private porn for an unknown source, sometimes forgoing other professional opportunities to work at such big-name outlets.

The BuzzFeed article that helped break the story appeared on 5 March 2020 -- one day before Season 12's second episode would air and the first episode to feature Gugliemelli. Later that day, a Facebook post from Gugliemelli copped to the accusations. "I know that the pain and hurt that I have caused will never go away and I know that what I did was wrong and truly cruel" the post read. Shortly thereafter, VH1 and production company World of Wonder indicated that Sherry Pie was disqualified from the season and would not appear in the live finalé. The season was filmed in 2019 and so were a lot of promotional videos at other media outlets with Sherry in tow. While Drag Race had its share of problematic competitors before, it had never dealt with anything as shocking as this.

So what is the morally right thing for an award-winning, consistently popular show of this nature to do?

Some people said the show needed to just re-film the entire thing without Sherry Pie, although the contracts, guest stars, and music licensing for the already-edited season would've been tricky for VH1 to pull off despite it effectively solving the problem and depriving the known predator of a platform of which to grow their brand. So instead, VH1 said that "out of respect for the hard work of the other queens," it would air the season as planned.

Rainbow Lips by Kurious (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Except that's not what happened.

The first episode with Sherry Pie features Gugliemelli just as any other contestant: making their entrances and catchphrases, chatting with the other queens in the Werk Room, and participating in the challenges. Sherry Pie ends up in the top two on her debut week, lip-syncing for the first maxi-challenge win against the powerhouse that is Jaida Essence Hall (it was Hall who ultimately claimed victory for that week). In between, she wrote and performed a verse for the "Cell Block Tango"-inspired musical number "You Don't Know Me", and had her edited-in interview room segments where she made musical theater references and cracked jokes about the other performers. Just like all the other contestants. Just like all the seasons and all the contestants prior.

Yet despite the time crunch, airing this episode as is was the worst thing to do: it furthered Sherry Pie's brand, casting her as a whimsical student of old drag. Hearing her sing a verse in "You Don't Know Me" and concluding with the line of how she's "ready to feed you 'til you blow!" is the height of cringe -- and it wouldn't even be the only time this season she makes that type of allusion. While the show could have edited her verse on the song out, it's still what ultimately ended up on digital streaming platforms, and therefore poisons the work of the other queens who appeared on the song, making them unwitting participants in a PR nightmare.

In the weeks that followed, it's clear that the show was re-edited, and any interview room segments or narratives carved out with Sherry Pie were abandoned. With such a quick turnaround, it's no surprise that the first episode to premiere following Sherry's debut had some awkward hanging pauses, but that was nothing compared to the unfortunate circumstance of Sherry winning the maxi-challenge and netting a cash tip of $5k. After the episode, a title card was again inserted, noting that the episode was filmed back in 2019 and, in light of recent events, VH1 and World of Wonder would donate $5k to The Trevor Project. Sherry would go on to win another challenge and cash prize two weeks later, and the same donation was again made. These ended up being Sherry's only wins for the season.

The issue, however, is that RuPaul's Drag Race isn't the kind of show where winning challenges instantly endears you to fans (although it does help). Rather, it's a platform upon which careers can be launched, as even queens with short stints and early eliminations are still thrust into the national consciousness. Trixie Mattel, Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen, Alaska Thunderfuck, Willam, Nina West, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, Sasha Velour, and Monét X. Change have been able to secure bookings and build genuine fanbases since appearing on the show. Change has been flirting with mainstream success in recent years, and that's largely in thanks to the clips, memes, and moments they generated during their stint on Drag Race. (Mateo, notably, went home first in her Season 10 premiere and gained more notoriety from her exit than most queens who ended up in the coveted Top Four).

Had Sherry Pie been eliminated earlier in the season, there would've been an easier chance to diminish her on-screen legacy, but because she initially made it to the Top Four of the season, she managed to still build up her brand, even if she remained dormant on social media during its entire run.

While the show was edited in the episodes following Sherry's debut, the "original edits" featuring more footage and interview snips of her managed to leak out via some iTunes international editions. Yet as the show progressed, her presence was diminished. The narrative instead focused on which queen should ultimately win (the answer is Jaida Essence Hall), how utterly sweet the young North Carolina queen Heidi N is. Meanwhile, it was upsetting watching the self-proclaimed "queen of New York" Brita bully the small-town goth queen Aiden Zhane on the between-scenes aftershow Untucked.

Following its rough start, RuPaul's Drag Race managed to diminish Sherry Pie's presence perceptibly, even going so far as to completely edit out her runway outfit on the sixth episode -- but it didn't dilute her entirely. There are still shots of RuPaul and the other judges heaping praise upon her performances, perhaps no worse than in her debut episode where guest Thandie Newton claims to Sherry that "if Meryl Streep could be a drag queen, she would be you." It's difficult to hear and to watch, as Gugliemelli's predatory behavior wasn't revealed during or after the season: it all happened right before it aired, thereby coloring every glimpse we have of her. So that leads to the question: why are we still seeing her on the show?

By showing how easily it managed to cut her runway in the sixth episode, the question soon becomes why wasn't the show able to do it with all of her episodes? Why isn't she excised from the mini-challenges? In an episode or challenge where she wins, it makes sense to show the events that lead to that outcome. But since she's bringing "three looks" to the notorious design-focused "Ball" episode that appears every season, what would be the harm in leaving them all on the cutting room floor if they didn't change the outcome of an episode where she didn't win?

The show did its beset to diminish Sherry Pie's presence, and on the official YouTube offshoot programs like the recap show "The Pit Stop" and the long-running runway critique of "Fashion Photo Ruview", she's not mentioned. While unofficial programs like the "Race Chasers" and "Sibling Rivalry" podcasts made note of the allegations as they were breaking, these and other YouTube shows like Miz Cracker's "Review with a Jew" and "Shot with Soju" also managed to critique the episodes without mentioning her once. The show did do a lot to make sure the known sexual predator didn't get to build her brand up too much -- but the issue is that Drag Race could've easily done better.

What's perhaps most disheartening about the Sherry Pie controversy is that it not only damaged the lives of unwilling victims, but it also diminished what RuPaul's Drag Race is designed to do: give the world a platform to celebrate queer excellence. While the show is still problematic in its own right for other reasons, its existence is a fundamental good, and seeing the clownish charm of this season's Crystal Methyd take her from an easily-dismissed joke to a top competitor was inspiring. Watching the young fashion starlet Gigi Goode go from strong competitor to unbeatable machine to someone in quick need of an ego check made for good television, as did watching Jackie Cox showing off her wits and her Persian heritage with pride. Her lip sync against the showstopping Widow Von'Du against Katy Perry's "Fireworks" was a sight so moving it even brought guest judge Jeff Goldblum to tears.

RuPaul's Drag Race Season 12 is one of its best seasons due in part due to the strengths of all the queens involved, many of whom have now grown up on the show. (In any other season, the overexcited and deeply vulnerable Rock M. Sakura would've made it further than finishing 12th.) The messy, bitter fights of Season 11 have been forgotten, thanks to this cast of performers and the inspired challenges. This is the season that gave us one of the best-ever cast numbers -- the opening rap collaboration "I'm That Bitch". It gave us one of the best ever-Rusicals (centered around the life and career of Madonna). It also helped break the Alex Newell/DJ Cassidy/Nile Rodgers number, "Kill the Lights" to a global audience.

Yet facts are facts, and RuPaul's Drag Race will forever be tainted with the unfortunate inclusion of Sherry Pie. While more could have been done to reduce her presence, with any luck, her time on the show will be viewed as an unfortunate footnote. Queer communities are known for being very effective at rejecting poisonous actors, so let's wrap up Season 12 in good faith and continue to cast out those who prey upon our LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters. Ru Paul's Drag Race deserves better, we deserve better.

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