‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Episode 1616: RuPaul Tries to Meet the Moment

The stakes have never felt higher for the RuPaul’s Drag Race season 16 finale. With an increase in anti-trans and anti-drag legislation, a rise in anti-trans violence, and the possibility of a second Trump presidential term, there is an added weight on RuPaul’s now-worldwide phenomenon. For many people, especially heterosexuals, Drag Race is drag. RuPaul must feel the pressure to win more people over and light a fire underneath the allies already here.

Maybe that’s why this year’s finale was a break from tradition. Rather than a top four lip sync smackdown for the crown, Ru and his team opted for a big celebration of drag. At least, a big celebration of drag that fits within a liberal politic.

The episode begins with a number from Ru herself, a reminder that at 63 years old, she’s still a star. She then directly addresses the state of the world, “With everything that’s going on in this crazy ass world, leave it to the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race to fill our hearts with life, love, and laughter.”

As they pull back to reveal the judging panel of Michelle, Carson, Ts, and Ross, I realized this finale was shot on the same stage as the reunion LaLaPaRuza. Even when the Drag Race finales used to follow this format, they still took place on a bigger stage. A finale hasn’t happened “in house” since season three and my very dark thought is they made this switch to avoid a mass shooting. The official statement is it was due to the strikes, but… I wonder.

Anyway, we are back to the old format of each queen doing a solo number and then the top two queens doing a final lip sync. To begin, all the season 16 queens come out in their elevated looks. Because, like the reunion, this finale was shot last summer, there isn’t the big jumps in appearance we’re used to seeing. It is clear they were at least given some money to go all out though, because they might lack in new plastic surgery, but they still look better than usual. In a big beautiful blue gown, Q reminded me why she was known as a fashion girl and I realize her dwindling looks throughout the season were likely due to a lack of resources.

Our top three then comes out looking very themselves: Nymphia in a banana dress, Sapphira in a regal gown, and Plane looking beautiful but… plain.

Nymphia’s number is first with an ice queen aesthetic and some great dancing. These finale numbers have often felt just a tad over-polished and lacking ever so slightly in personality. But Nymphia is beautiful and does a good job. After the numbers, Ru has each queen talk to their child selves. We then go to Nymphia’s mom who talks about the importance of trusting your child and Nymphia cries.

Next up is Plane singing about body suits. It’s a fun, tongue-in-cheek song that is appropriately lacking in any specificity or vulnerability. But it does have a cool body suit to another body suit reveal — even if I agree with Michelle it would’ve been better had there been more. I’m not trying to be harsh on Plane. I agree with Ru that she just needs time to get in touch with her vulnerability. But this finale was crafted to pull at the heart strings and she simply could not rise to that challenge.

Finally, Sapphira, with probably the best all-around song. It starts with opera, then goes to pop, and just really captures Sapphira. And, of course, she is perfectly suited for Ru’s intentions with this season 16 finale. She says, “If you’re afraid of drag, you’re afraid of freedom.” And when talking to her younger self, expresses the love of her parents as the camera cuts to her mom in the audience smiling with tears down her face. Sapphira is so polished, so good at giving the producers what they need.

One of my two favorite parts of the episode happens next with this year’s Giving Us Lifetime Achievement Award. The recipient this year is Cassandra Peterson aka Elvira Mistress of the Dark and I love when the show does these sorts of “teach some queer history” tribute montages. I also love the acknowledgement of Elvira as a drag persona. This is Ru’s smartest maneuver — bringing a famous cis woman into the conversation around drag to remove it from its connection to gender-nonconformity.

I don’t even say that in a harsh way. I think it’s pointless to chase approval with assimilation, but I can also see the possible value of this approach. And Elvira is an icon worthy of celebration. Plus soon enough she’ll be joined in the episode by another icon worthy of celebration who is trans.

But first Ru announces what becomes very obvious throughout the episode: The final two are Sapphira and Nymphia.

Then there’s a montage of parents — biological parents and drag parents — talking about the importance of supporting queer kids. It’s touching and I understand it’s possible importance, even if I was more inspired by the next montage all about Sasha Colby.

That’s right! Last year’s winner has returned and she’s doing a full number. She performs to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Her” and it is INCREDIBLE. She’s really on another level.

Afterward, she comes back in a gorgeous mermaid gown with gem encrusted titty covers connected to her gem encrusted headpiece. Ru then talks to her about meeting Kamala Harris, something she probably feels more complicated about now as the Biden administration continues to support the genocide of Palestinians.

But Ru doesn’t have time for any pesky complications like mass murder caused by the American empire. She didn’t last summer and I’m sure she still wouldn’t were this to have been filmed last week. She is a proud “just vote” liberal and so, of course, the season’s cast comes out in red, white, and blue for a number all about the importance of making your voice heard. I wonder if any of the queens would’ve refused had this been shot more recently. Not that America’s violence — directly and via support of Israel — wasn’t also occurring in August…

Anyway, with that out of the way, Malaysia Babydoll Foxx comes out to name Miss Congeniality. She says for the first time there was a tie. The first winner is Xunami. The second? Sapphira! I love this! It’s always bothered me that the top queens can’t be eligible for Miss Congeniality. Like sure spread the love but when there’s an obvious winner, there’s an obvious winner.

The final lip sync is announced as “Padam Padam” by Kylie Minogue which caused me to shriek. Song of the summer 2023! It’s still great!

Going into this lip sync, I thought Sapphira had the win locked. But then Nymphia opened her coat on the lyric “shivers and butterflies” and balloons flew out. (This is a reference to Asia O’Hara’s ill-fated butterfly reveal for fans who don’t know.) And it wasn’t just the gimmick! Nymphia dances her ass off. And that’s not to say Sapphira isn’t good! She’s great! In fact, I think removing the semi-final lip sync from the finale allowed them to preserve their energy and make this one of the best ever finale lip syncs.

After some proper reality TV suspense, the winner is finally announced…

IT’S NYMPHIA WIND !!!!!!

I love Sapphira, but in an episode all about polish, there’s something refreshing about the less consistent, emotionally messier queen pulling off the win. Sapphira isn’t Nina West, so I don’t want to frame Nymphia and Sapphira as a clear dichotomy. But, to just focus on Nymphia, I feel excited a queen won who really felt like she was doing something different.

Nymphia will continue to grow, continue to build confidence, continue to be weird. And now she’ll do that with a crown on her head.

Teleport Us to Mars!! Here Are Some Random Thoughts:

+ I interviewed two-time winner Jinkx Monsoon about playing Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and you should read it.

+ My love, Morphine, looked incredible in her tight silvery entrance look.

+ Amanda looked sooo unamused during Plane’s segment.

+ Performing to “Her” is a fun pronoun joke from Sasha Colby.

+ And that’s the season! Who are you all hoping to see on All Stars??

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 534 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. I want to mention the following: Nymphia Wind is the first Asian to win Drag Race US since season 3’s Raja 13 years ago. She is the first East Asian queen to win in the US version, which is arguably the most popular. Her last lipsync look is her wearing a big boba on her head and her coat. Boba originated in Taiwan.

    I love Sapphira but after last season where we knew from the start that Sasha Colby would win (I mean, of course!), it’s also nice to have an unsuspected winner. I actually didn’t think Nymphia was going to win, and I’m not mad at it because she’s my fave, but I also saw her coming back for All Stars.

    PS – there are rumours that Nymphia and Plane Jane are dating. Cuuuute!

    • Two points:
      “Because, like the reunion, this finale was shot last summer.” What reunion? There was no reunion episode this season! Last week’s episode was a lipsync smackdown.

      Secondly, “But then Nymphia opened her coat on the lyric “shivers and butterflies” and balloons flew out. (This is a reference to Asia O’Hara’s ill-fated butterfly reveal for fans who don’t know.)” This was actually a reference to Nymphia’s Taiwanese culture as she was dressed as a cup of boba tea which is extremely popular in Taiwan. The balloons were the boba balls rising to the surface as you drink it, hence them being black.

      Maybe more research before writing the article.

      • Yikes. Why you so pressed?

        We all know what episode she’s referencing when she says the reunion episode?? They lipsynced instead of sitting around talking but it was still all the queens from the season coming back so… a reunion perhaps?

        And I think it’s safe to say the majority of people know what boba tea is. We get that reference. The fact she did it on the BUTTERFLIES lyric? Come on. Nymphia is very intelligent she knew what she was doing. It was perfect.

        More research beyond watching the episode? For a trashy reality tv show recap? Lol

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