Girl group challenges are a familiar “Drag Race” convention. While they don’t appear every season (they were noticeably gone in the US franchise’s ninth to eleventh seasons), they’re a common enough staple in the series as a whole. It makes sense: girl groups are gay culture, and drag queens often release their own music anyways, so capitalizing on that is just par for the show.
Despite that, the girl group challenges themselves often produce middling results, if that. (Season 14’s ’60s girl groups were not it.) They almost never reach their highest potential.
This week’s episode did just that.
I’m not entirely joking when I say that I truly believe that “Pop Off Ate” is the platonic ideal of the girl group challenge. The queens took this challenge to its highest absolute form. To quote one Marina Summers, “Never the same, unique, amazing, talented, period.” It’s proof of Philippine drag perfection.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Post-Corazon elimination (I’m gonna miss Cheche), the werk room is a little quieter. Not quiet—less than five minutes into the episode and they’ve screamed multiple times already—just less loud. More lutang, though. “Another day is another… day,” Eva Le Queen says as she enters the werk room and poses for the camera. “Binagoongan,” Lady Morgana screams as her entrance line. (Maybe they were always this lutang and I’m just noticing it now?) When Paolo Ballesteros comes in, the queens get her to model her shoes on the stairs. It’s all very chaotic.
I mentioned last week that Mamwa Pao is a bit of a pot stirrer (which is not a drag, btw. It’s why she’s a fun host). She takes it up the ante by introducing this week’s mini challenge: a Ru-lection. It’s less of an actual election, though, and more of a ranking: the queens rank each other from highest to lowest. This invites us to see what they really think about the other queens, and some queens use it as an opportunity for shade. Brigiding, who’s been safe for the past two episodes, is the lowest on the pecking order. The queens explain that it’s because she has no brand, a point first raised in last week’s “Untucked.” She’s “a good performer, pero brandless,” Turing says.
Unsurprisingly, Precious Paula Nicole is the cast favorite. “Siya ’yung sobrang mabait, humble, and yet magaling. Tapos, wala kang makita [na faults]. Bow ako don, Mamwa Pao. Saludo,” Xilhouete explains ranking her first.
I liked the nods to PH elections, like how our voting stations are called precincts (“Drag Race PH” is precinct 69) and often end up voting on school chairs (here, it’s a sparkly pink one) since our voting centers are schools. I don’t know exactly when they started filming the episodes, but it was certainly before our actual elections concluded.
“2022 is a very special and important year for us Filipinos because, finally, we’re having our national elections,” Mamwa Pao says. “Mananaig nanaman ang power of the people na iboto ang ating leaders na magpapatakbo at magpapaganda ng ating bansa.” It’s the kind of optimistic statement that could’ve only come pre-elections. Post-May 9, it’s a little painful.
Though the queens may not have known it then, it’s also a good reminder of how instrumental many of them were during the campaign period. Minty Fresh, after all, was the one who got Ariana Grande to post about the pink rally, a fact I will never stop sharing.
Anyways, Mamwa Pao announces the week’s maxi challenge: the girl group challenge. (You read the first part of the recap, you already know that.) Marina and Gigi Era are very excited about it. “Eto na talaga ’yung challenge ko,” says Gigi.
The girls split into two teams, one headed by El Presidente Precious, while the other is headed by the lowest-voted queen Brigiding. Precious’s team, who call themselves the Pink Pussy Energy, or PPE, consists of Minty Fresh, Xilhouete, Gigi Era, and Viñas Deluxe. Brigiding’s team, the Flexbomb Girls, is made of Marina Summers, Eva Le Queen, Turing, and Lady Morgana.
Eva is the last to be picked. She’s not surprised. “In the drag world, people think that when Eva Le Queen dances, it’s a joke.” Her insecurity about her dancing ability becomes her storyline this episode, with it metastasizing into her insecurity about people thinking she can’t perform.
Paolo introduces this week’s guest judge and musical mentor, Nadine Lustre, to which the queens lose their minds, understandably. Mamwa Pao mentions that she herself was also in a pop group called Pop Girls, which I am also pointing out because, incidentally, I talked to Nadine about Pop Girls and her love of dance before. (I had to get that out there, sorry.)
The girls start prepping their lyrics. Precious, after writing an insubstantial first draft, decides to use her verse to talk about being an orphan. She’s not the only one who uses her lyrics to share their story: Gigi Era talks about being an OFW and feeling homesick (and being sickening still) in hers, while Turing talks about her body never being a hindrance.
Brigiding is still smarting from her low ranking. “My confidence was canceled,” she says, and her nervousness and lack of brand-ness is reflected in the first draft of her verse. “Hindi ko nakikita ’yung puso mo,” says Turing. (I saw a tweet that said something along the lines of “Drag Race PH is the systematic gaslighting of Brigiding into thinking she’s untalented” and like, yeah.)
Meanwhile, Eva gets emotional. “The things you can’t do are not the things that define you,” her lyrics say, a reference to her insecurity about her dancing skills. In her talking head, she shares that she actually does love dancing and used to dance when she was performing in Thailand. However, because the bar in the Philippines is just that high, she’s formed this insecurity. “I was made to feel like I was bad at it.”
“It’s just been years of consistently being told na hindi ka magaling. There was even this one time na I was told, ‘You know what, Eva? You’re not as creative as you think,’” she shares with the other queens.
She also brings up a good point: other people tell her to just accept that it’s one of her flaws. “But what if it’s not a flaw? What if it’s just a lack of experience or something? What if it’s just a label that was given to me?”
Turing, who is mother, reminds her that talent isn’t just about being able to dance or sing or act, though Eva rebuts, saying, “But that is the Philippine standard.” “We’re going to show them that that is not just the standard,” Turing answers. She gives Eva an affirmation: “I am valid, I am enough, I am drag.”
Later, Marina explains the name behind their group. Aside from being a reference to the Sexbomb Girls, it’s a nod to how they’re using their verses to flex their insecurities and their brands. “It’s very catchy. It’s marketable. It’s iconic. It’s on brand. It’s brainy. It’s witty. It’s conceptual,” she says, which is pretty much going to be a viral meme soon, I’m sure.
The girls go to the recording booth and meet Nadine and music producer and Tarsier Records founder Moophs, who the queens quickly drool over. Nadine looks stunning, I have no notes. Most of the queens choose to rap, with only Viñas choosing to sing. She does so in one take, which impresses Nadine. “I was really blown away, to be honest,” she says.
Gigi Era gives her context about being an OFW before recording her verse, which touches Nadine. “We have a lot of kababayans who aren’t here, missing their families, not really celebrating holidays or birthdays. She wanted everyone else who’s an OFW to kind of relate,” she says. Similarly, Nadine thinks that Lady Morgana choosing to rap in Bisaya was a strong choice, and many Bisaya kids would look up to her and be proud.
Because of how nervous Eva was about her skills, I also started feeling nervous when she walked up to the mic. I didn’t have to. Though she had a bit of a timing issue, “Everything else was great,” Nadine tells her. “You’re doing well.”
The only one who seems to have a problem was Brigiding, who has a hard time nailing the rap. Her lyrics are a bit too wordy to fit the beat, and she struggles to make it work. “Pumapasok na sa utak ko ang competition,” she says in her confessional. “Gumising ka, girl,” Marina says in hers.
Next comes the choreography rehearsal. The Pink Pussy Energy are first up, and they are intimidating, mama. “Diva silang lahat,” says Marina. She later adds, “The more that we watch them, the more napanghihinaan kami ng loob.” (Minty, though, is a little scared that the other team will copy their steps and so doesn’t want to go all out, which is just so Pinoy.)
Meanwhile, Flexbomb’s choreo rehearsal is a bit of a struggle bus. Lady Morgana doesn’t fully get the blockings and forgets some of the lines, and Lady Morgana not getting it right makes Eva confused. Gigi says that if just one person messes up, the rest will follow. “Mapu-pull off ba nila ’to? I’m scared for them,” Minty says.
Not much happens while the queens prep for their performance, save for Viñas and Turing opening up about their body image issues. “Hanggang ngayon, meron pa rin akong body dysmorphia,” says Turing. “I love my body, yes, pero I still have that tiny little bit of evil in my head na whenever I look in the mirror, parang, ‘Ay, hindi tama.’”
Next comes their performances, and let me go back to my points at the start of this recap. It’s so good, y’all. The pink team performs first, followed by the purple team, and they cap it off with all the queens doing a dance battle together on stage.
I’m not sure how else to describe how good the performances are, other than to say that I watched the episode at the Bekenemen viewing party and the audience was howling, me included. Pink Pussy Energy had synchronized wig reveals, splits, and confetti. Flexbomb Girls legitimately looked like an actual girl group. The energy was intense and kept rising and rising until its crescendo in the big group battle.
“Pop Off Ate” ate. I hope all the queens are proud of themselves for their performance. They did that. Turing says it shows how world-class Philippine drag is, but I beg to differ. It’s better. It’s legitimately the best girl group challenge I’ve seen.
BTW, at the viewing party, the queens also mentioned that the song is going to be on Spotify as well. We love official recording artists!
This week’s theme for the runway is “Shake, Rattle, and Romp,” and the queens pay homage to the creatures of Philippine mythology. A number of them go for the tiyanak. Precious’s version has her giving birth to mechanical babies, one of which she leaves to crawl on the stage. It’s so camp. Gigi’s is scary—Rajo Laurel is terrified—but not elevated. Viñas shows off her butt in her manananggal outfit, while Marina Summers goes for syokoy realness. Xilhouete is a gothic queen so this runway should be hers to win, but she bizarrely went for a less-spooky look
The Flexbomb Girls win the challenge, with Turing deservingly winning the episode, which means Pink Pussy Energy is the team that’ll get the chop. (As the Flexbomb Girls leave, Mamwa Pao calls out Brigiding’s name, and I thought the show was going to pull a shady move of pulling the rug under her by making her be the sole person from her team up for elimination after she already thought she was safe. That doesn’t happen though, and instead Mamwa Pao commends her on finally finding her brand.)
The judges get into the critiques, but it’s mostly splitting hairs, really. The queens get emotional, though, and both Precious and Xilhouete share their experiences with family. Precious’s biggest regret was that she wasn’t able to visit her mom before she died, while Xilhouete never had a relationship with her mother, and that it really was just her grandmother raising her. “Never ko na-experience ’yung love ng nanay,” she says. “I tried reaching out, but ayaw po ako for some reasons.” It’s what influenced her to be a drag mother herself. It’s hard not to feel for her, and it’s even clearer now why she has such a regard for the community and our drag elders’ legacy.
This show is so dramatic, so of course Mamwa Pao asks the queens who were just performing with each other who among them should go. Most of them vote for Gigi, while Gigi herself votes for Xilhouete. In the end, both of them are in the bottom two.
Their Lip Sync for Your Life song is RuPaul’s “Glamazon,” which is such a good lip-sync song. (I may be a bit biased because I watched some of the “Drag Race” queens performing it before the show premiered and it made me so emotional, so my feelings will always be entangled with my pride for them.) They both do really well, and I was a little bit hoping that Mamwa Pao would say, “Shantay, you both stay,” which I’m starting to feel I’m going to say every week. In the end, Gigi leaves.
What an episode. I mentioned that this is the best girl group challenge I’ve seen by far. I think the episode itself is just one of the franchise’s best. It wrapped up and pushed along so many story beats. There’s the self-contained storyline of Eva finding her worth in her talent. For Turing, it’s redemption. She was just in the bottom two the previous week, and she shares in this episode that she felt she had let down Mamwa Pao. When she wins, it’s proof that her drag is good. There’s Brigiding’s brand-less storyline, also a holdover from the previous week. Paolo commending her for finding her brand seems like it’ll close it, but I’m not so sure. The girls had literally just voted her dead last for not having her own brand; I don’t think that’s resolving itself in one episode. At this point, though, she should just own it. (Literally. How camp would it be if she becomes the new face of the Korean grocery line No Brand? I’m very funny and that was a good joke and not at all forced.) Xilhouete’s storyline is very much about her being a mother, whether it’s her relationship with Minty (good) or Marina (bad), and the show breaks down why that’s so important to her.
“I’m just fucking, fucking proud of this episode,” Eva Le Queen said at the Bekenemen viewing party. “Filipino drag fucking excellence. Beat that, world. This is Filipino drag. We were born entertainers, we were born for the stage. We are putting the Philippines on the map, bitch.”