Janelle Monae Is an All Time Great Judge

How it took 15 whole seasons to get musician, actress, and Men’s Wearhouse platinum rewards member Janelle Monáe as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race is far beyond me. (Well, unless you count Vanity Milan’s ill-fitting runway look from Season 4 that helped land her in the bottom, which I do not.) Monáe has been such a visible icon in the queer community for so long that looking back to realize she had never judged on a panel before seems like a case of the Mandela Effect.

But tonight, Monáe finally graced us with her presence, and what a light she brought to the entire affair. There have only been four weeks and five episodes of Drag Race Season 15 thus far, and it seems like each week, the queens’ performances flip a parabola. Sometimes, they soar to blissfully wacky heights in the Snatch Game; and others, they roll their ankle in a biscuit heel during a painful acting challenge.

This week, Drag Race maintained a welcome steadiness throughout, thanks in part to the calming aura of Monáe leveling out a shaky design challenge. But first, like Snatch Game, the Reading Challenge has come early this season.

The queens’ reads were so surprisingly consistent that they actually managed to fill a mini-challenge with an entire episode’s worth of legendary digs. I nearly burned a hole in my throat choking on coffee when Luxx Noir London told Marcia Marcia Marcia—through her own laughter—that it looks like Marcia got her wardrobe at Marshall’s Marshall’s Marshall’s. I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t point out that I made a version of Loosey LaDuca’s Malaysia 370 joke last week. Put me in the game, Ru, I’m ready!

The maxi challenge plants the queens smack dab in the “houses” of Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, and Ross Matthews, where they must raid home decor designs inspired by each judge’s personal style and transform them into couture runway looks. Michelle’s style is, of course, Jersey girl trashy; Carson gives the girls some plaid with town and country chic; and the House of Ross Matthews is bloody, derelict chic like the House from Barbarian. Kidding, it’s sunny Palm Springs.

For some goddamn reason, several queens have walked into the Season 15 workroom without the ability to sew. We’ve been through it so many times at this point that it almost feels pointless to say it, but if you get the call from the RuPaul’s Drag Race casting team, you need to haul ass down to the Learning Annex and enroll in as many sewing classes as your fingers can take.

Every queen in the workroom is just like us. They’ve seen countless contestants who entered the competition with no sewing experience get the chop after a design challenge. Why didn’t Amethyst at least make time for one class? Because I know without a shadow of a doubt that she wasn’t spending her time perfecting that talent show performance from week one.

Still, the queens do a great job of selling their couture creations on the runway, even if their detailing is a bit shoddy. Faltering in front of Maren Morris is one thing, I could live with that. But Amethyst wearing a gold lamé, ruffled granny panty in front of Janelle Monaé? I would simply quit drag and work my way up to franchise manager at the most bustling Applebee’s in Arkansas.

To her credit, though, Amethyst’s blunt bang wig gave Monáe the opportunity to say “the bayang” on a television broadcast that will reach hundreds of millions of people. For that, I am endlessly thankful. Though, I’m sure Beyoncé will not enjoy her Courteney-Cox-in-Scream3 baby bangs reentering the cultural conversation.

Most of the looks are lovely (if a bit messy), but no one shines quite like Luxx Noir London, whose gorgeous, flowing zebra-patterned pants captivated the judges. This is where it helps to have an innate knowledge of the week’s guest judge. If you know Janelle Monáe is going to be critiquing your outfit, it would be wise to wear something black-and-white, if you can swing it. “I felt the ancestors, I felt a little Erykah Badu,” Monáe said. “It’s giving me House of Monáe!”

Offset with royal purples, gold accessories, and a walk that exuded sheer poise and beauty, Luxx slayed both the design and execution of this challenge—and she knew it, too! When asked by the judges if she’d like to say anything else about her garments, Luxx laughs and says, “Not really, I think I did a really good job!” eliciting a cackle from Ru. The great thing about Luxx’s run so far this season is that her talent shines without coming off as arrogance; she has what it takes to back up all of that brimming self-confidence. And that’s precisely why she won this week.

Amethyst, however, has floated back down to the bottom two queens for the third time in just four maxi challenges. Matched against Salina EsTitties—whose slumber party couture made the judges…sleepy (thank you)—Amethyst has just about everything stacked against her.

As if our spirits hadn’t been heartened enough by Monáe’s presence on the panel already, the queens have the honor of lip-syncing to her song, “Q.U.E.E.N.” How deliciously fitting to hear a song that features Erykah Badu after Luxx’s sublime runway look! Amethyst and Salina both start out with the genius move of removing their shoulder wraps, pointing to them, and mouthing along with Monáe on the track saying, “This is craziness!” They’re both right, and things are about to get even crazier.

“Q.U.E.E.N.” is the perfect lip-sync song. Like Monáe herself, it’s a shock it didn’t arrive on this franchise earlier. Lyrics about serving face and throwing shade are ideal for any drag queen to perform—those are literally part of their job description! This should be easy, and Salina and Amethyst look less like they’re fighting for their lives and more like they’re having a blast at the club. Monáe whips out a fan and shakes her hands in the air, having just as much fun as the rest of us.

Salina wisely drops her skirt as Monaé sings about being a sinner with her skirt on the ground. Amethyst drops into a twerk to the beat while Monáe ponders if it’s peculiar that she twerks in the mirror. And both queens do a jump-split at the same time! The performance is thoughtful and invigorating like any Drag Race lip-sync should be. If this wasn’t Amethyst’s third time in the bottom, I think it could’ve even led to a double shantay.

Unfortunately, that’s not how things work around here. Three times in the bottom and you’re (almost always) out. We’ve bid adieu to Amethyst, who will surely be heading for a lucrative homecoming after proving herself a great lip-syncer—though, I wouldn’t call her an assassin quite yet. But that just means that she has plenty of room for growth ahead of her. And with the wisdom of the great Janelle Monáe in her backpack alongside that baby doll from her talent show performance, she’s surely in for a bright future.

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