Snatches on Lockdown
On Drag Race UK's Snatch Game and Queens on Lockdown
Mel B is growling, somewhat tamely. Psychic Sally is relaying a message from the other side. “I’m seeing a very big role in your future, Ru. Very big role. It’s got cheese and ‘am on it.” Katie Price is tiara-ed and pouting, tits bursting out of her pink velour tracksuit. “You know what they say, Ru. The nipples are the eyes of the face. And you’ve got gorgeous nipples.” It’s Episode 6 of Drag Race UK Season 2, which means that, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the Snatch Game – with a very British twist.
A note on spoilers: this review describes who plays who the queens play and how they fare, but not which queen gets eliminated
The jewel in the Drag Race crown, Snatch Game is often seen by fans as the peak of the series. We’re far enough along to know all the queens and become invested in their narratives. But unlike the finale episodes (which to be honest, can get a bit bland – a foot is rarely put wrong, giving us no fat to chew as critics), we’re still at a point in the season where fuck ups happen and critiques get spicy. Snatch Game has the power to bring out both the best and worst performances from the queens, sometimes unexpectedly. Comedy queens have bombed while look queens have delivered surprise knockouts. The joy of watching a drag queen, already a fictitious persona, embody the fictitious persona of a celebrity creates a joyous layering of farce and fantasy.
This episode of Snatch Game is only the second for Drag Race UK, but already it’s haunted by references to its prior edition. Gemma Collins, who Cheryl Hole portrayed last year, appears as one of the celebrity guests. With her persona of “the GC”, Gemma is almost a drag personality herself, and she cracks some of the funniest jokes of all the queens (even if they’re scripted). The Vivienne and Baga Chipz, whose phenomenal portrayals of Donald Trump and Margaret Thatcher made Drag Race herstory last year, make a return appearance via video link. It’s as if they’re taunting the queens: this is what you’re aiming for. Though Bimini Bon-Boulash’s performance as Katie Price is definitely the standout from this year (and I stan her), I’m not sure any of the Snatch Game characters were quite on that level. But then 2020 was a very different year to 2019. Everything seemed simpler back then, didn’t it?
This week also saw BBC Three air a special one-off episode, Queens on Lockdown, a diaristic collection of home videos made by the queens during Lockdown 1.0, which revealed the economic and emotional fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Cherry Valentine, previously a mental health nurse, is on the front line of NHS workers and is clearly exhausted and emotional. Veronica Green is in a depressive state and can seldom make it out of bed for the duration of the lockdown (her boyfriend touchingly tries to wake her every morning with a cup of tea). A number of the queens address their drastic loss of income – Tayce reluctantly borrowing money from family, Lawrence Chaney arguing there should be no shame in signing on to benefits, Ellie Diamond returning to work in a fast-food drive-thru, while diligently making her own outfits in her spare time. In one of the most shocking moments, Ellie reveals she had to register as homeless after her family was unable to make the payments on their home.
The show sees the queens navigate their bleak financial situations and mourn the loss of the nightlife and bar culture that helped them find themselves. As we watch them wade through messy piles of matted wigs, PVC boots and drag paraphernalia spilling out of plastic storage boxes, it occurs to me that this is almost an inverted image of the camp-luxe Drag Race workroom. Behind the fantasy creations we see on the runway every week, where judges demand more ‘polish’ and assert that dresses absolutely must not be bought off-the-rack, this is the thus-far undocumented reality that lies behind.
In her Dazed round-up of last week’s girl group episode (the first after filming resumed post-lockdown), Shon Faye wrote on the economies of drag in the age of coronavirus and how the episode cast this in sharp relief. As Faye points out, RuPaul’s infamous H&M outburst in that episode made for cracking TV but has been criticised by members of the British drag community. “Expectations of queens to fund expensive looks during a pandemic are onerous, even unsympathetic,” Faye argues. “The entire industry has been wiped out with the overnight disappearance of nightlife and socialising, and there’s very little indication of when it may return. Where it has existed – in summer’s socially-distanced drag brunches, Instagram lives, virtual office Christmas parties or, indeed, on pre-recorded Drag Race UK – drag is a spectre of its former self. It is an artform that belongs in noisy pubs, bars, and clubs. It thrives on spontaneity and inebriation.”
This spontaneity is precisely what makes Snatch Game so special. To do Snatch Game well, you need a talent for mimicry, a dash of physical comedy, unscripted witty comebacks and natural confidence. The best Snatch Gamers appear perfectly at ease within their characters, volleying back and forth with Ru and the other contestants. You can’t see the cogs turning (how would this celebrity respond to this question?) and they don’t give laboured answers trying to squeeze in biographical details of their celebrity’s life (see: Tia Kofi’s clinging to Mel B’s relationship with Eddie Murphy). The best portrayals don’t stay true to the script, making them wackier, weirder and off-the-wall – this is drag, after all.
Back to the set. All of the queens’ opening statements make Ru chuckle. Bimini’s dazzling “the nipples are the eyes of the face” gets the biggest laugh, but each has a witty line prepped, saving them face in that crucial first interaction (hit that wrong and you’re doomed). After this, it starts to unravel. Following her not-unfunny “thespian lesbian” intro as Miriam Margoyles, Lawrence Cheney crumbles – a joke about creaming her knickers feels forced and doesn’t land. I’ve watched Miriam Margoyles on talk shows on YouTube. She’s funny!! But this version of her isn’t. Not much better, Tia Kofi’s Mel B is one-note, repetitive and lacks any of the charm of the real-life Mel B (again: she’s funny!!), instead giving us a diluted version of the Bo’ Selecta! character. Tayce’s take on Jan Turner is good, but not side-splittingly funny. That she manages to snag second place speaks volumes on the quality of this year’s Snatch (though her runway look is fierce).
With not one but three of the queens having an emotional outpour in this episode, though, is it any surprise this year’s Snatch Game (with the exception of Bimini) fell a little flat? Ellie Diamond and A’Whora both break down in the workroom, followed by Lawrence Chaney on the main stage. Yes, this is a mid-way point in the series – pressure is starting to build and queens often get emotional around now. But having watched the toll taken by the pandemic on Queens on Lockdown it feels unsurprising that many of the girls are sapped of confidence. Are the pressures of their off-camera misfortunes getting in the way of free-flowing comedy? Would Ellie Diamond have performed better if she hadn’t had to couch-surf to avoid homelessness and work night shifts in a drive-thru? Or do the girls just need to step their pussies up?
In Queens on Lockdown, Bimini seems to be holding it together best. She actually uses her time to advance her performance skills – we see her practising splits and headstands on a chair in her back garden, which clearly paid off in the girl group challenge. Even in lockdown, she seems to have a genuine glow of inner peace (on many people I would find this alienating, but Bimini seems genuinely kind and humble). Aside from her evident talent, it explains why she’s so at-ease in Snatch Game. Her self-acceptance oozes charisma. (Can you tell she’s my favourite?)
The glittering image we get to see on Drag Race obscures the hardships that many queens go through off-camera. This has always been true. In the Drag Race franchise, we’ve had queens who’ve done jail time, been in gangs, battled drug problems, suffered eating disorders, survived cancer and been estranged from their families. One of Drag Race’s core narratives is that queens should triumph in the face of adversity, turn their weaknesses into their strengths, and embrace their vulnerability. All this is commendable but in Drag Race, as in life, the playing field is never even.
- Rosa xo
Drag Race UK and Queens on Lockdown are both on BBC iPlayer.
Aside from her Dazed columns, Shon Faye is the author of The Transgender Issue, which you can pre-order here.