There have already been some jaw-dropping transformations on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race this season, including Riverdale actor Jordan Connor as glamazon “Babykins La Roux” and pageant queen-turned-drag queen Vanessa Williams as “Vanquisha Da House.” But on this week’s episode, the celebrity makeovers were so impressive, the competition culminated in a herstoric three-way tie.
Of course, it was to be expected that gender-non-conforming Glee/Once on this Island/Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist actor Alex Newell would slay the runway as “Madam That Bitch.” (“I’m in drag every single day of my life,” he admitted, while his mentor, Drag Race Season 8 winner Bob the Drag Queen, declared him a “natural.”) Schitt’s Creek star and avowed Drag Race superfan Dustin Milligan’s metamorphosis into bottle-blond stunner “Rachel McAdamsapple” was more of a surprise. But macho American Ninja Warrior host Matt Iseman was unrecognizable, and he actually seemed to be more of a “natural” than anyone else, or at least the contestant having the most fun.
One would think that the 6-foot-3, 194-pound, 49-year-old Iseman would already feel quite fierce out of drag. But when he revealed his surprising reason for going on Celebrity Drag Race — and the charity he was competing for, the Arthritis Foundation — he told a very different story.
“For me, it’s personal, because I have rheumatoid arthritis,” the comedian and sportscaster confessed to RuPaul. “I was diagnosed when I was in my early thirties and it changed my life, because I was young and in the best shape of my life — and in about 18 months, I became a shell of myself. This disease ravaged me. I have permanent destruction in my feet. I’ve had inflammation throughout my body. I was depressed. I lost who I was. And then I got treatment and I got better, but I never got back to who I was. I’ve kind of felt like an old man since then. And I would love to find like a fluidity and a confidence out there. … I’m hoping I come out like some starlet diva.”
And that he did. As a seasoned comic, of course Iseman aced the celebrity-roast maxi-challenge. All three contestants actually had the judges howling with laughter — “That was the funniest roast we have ever had on this stage… and you’ll each be hearing from my lawyers,” RuPaul told them — and I would even say that their lip-sync of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” showcased more charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent than any lip-sync from this year’s regular Drag Race season. Iseman in particular was a revelation — pounding his titanic chest like Celine Dion, flashing some garter-wrapped thigh like a Chicago showgirl, sissying that walk, giving good face, and just completely feeling the fantasy. It was a thrill to watch him so free and in the moment. (His girlfriend was feeling the fantasy too: She actually motorboated his foam breasts in the backstage lounge!)
“I’m feeling better, stronger, and more confident with every step. Bette is a baaaad bitch!” Iseman said. “I came into this hoping to become a better performer and to feel a little bit better about my ravaged, arthritic body. And it’s amazing how much you learn when you try to walk in someone else’s really tall high heels. I’m just totally overwhelmed.”
Judge Ross Mathews, a longtime friend of Iseman’s, was overwhelmed as well. “I can say with quite certainty that I never thought this moment would happen, and I’m so glad it did,” Mathews gushed. “You have such a beautiful heart, Matt. You are such a kind, loving man. You also look and sound like every bully who was mean to me growing up. And to see somebody like you do this, I think, is going to give a lot of people like that maybe a little freedom to loosen up, to open their heart and open their mind.”
Iseman sashayed away with $20,000 for the Arthritis Foundation, but Milligan, who earned the same amount of prize money for Project HEAL, had his own emotional Drag Race journey. “I love this show, because it’s something that I think is very, very special, especially right now when we’re in a time when we are breaking down the barriers of what it means to be a man,” he explained. “I grew up in a pretty small town in northern Canada. For me, as a little boy, it’s like you had these ideas of what it means to be a man, and through my entire life, I’ve always felt like that doesn’t fit for me. …When I finally found Drag Race, it was like this ‘a-ha!’ moment where I could just be like, ‘Oh my God, these people are defining their identity for themselves and just being themselves.
Later on the main stage, a very “fishy” Milligan proudly proclaimed, “I feel so beautiful and powerful. Something happens when you do the full drag. You look in the mirror, and all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Wow, there is more to me than I ever imagined, and I love who that person is.’ It’s transformative, it really is. This is something I’m never going to forget.”
“It’s really empowering to see heterosexual/straight/cisgender/white Dustin Milligan be so open about how the gender roles that were thrust upon him that he never felt comfortable with. It’s brave of him,” added his mentor, Nina.
While it may have seemed like glamming up on TV would be no big deal for Newell, he too experienced an epiphany on Celebrity Drag Race. “We’re all winners, which is phenomenal,” said the actor who once placed fourth on The Glee Project. (This week, Newell won $20,000 for his chosen charity, the Hetrick-Martin Institute.) “I did this for the little chocolate boy that is a little chunkier, that’s a little effeminate, that will see me and see that no matter what, they can do anything they put their mind to.”