The cast of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 12. Courtesy of VH1.

If you are watching this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, just consider yourself a casual fan, or are even tangentially interested in the drag zeitgeist, chances are you are up to date with the situation surrounding contestant Sherry Pie. For the sake of covering the bases however, the story so far is as follows.

On March 5, the day before the second premiere of season 12 of smash hit reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race, news broke that one of the contestants set to debut, Sherry Pie, had been accused by multiple men of catfishing and sexual misconduct over the course of over a year and a half. Specifically, Sherry Pie, legal name Joey Gugliemelli, was accused by former classmates at SUNY Cortland of posing as a casting director named Allison Mossey in order to solicit “casting videos” of these men, many of which involved them saying and doing degrading things on camera, including stripping naked. Gugliemelli also targeted fellow actors at a Nebraska theater company he worked at, including one who claimed he was convinced to masturbate in front of his as part of his casting in a fake HBO series called “Bulk.” More than 5 men came forward with similar stories over the course of about 3 days, with 9 total presently, and even more potentially not speaking out. Ben Shimkus, one of these actors, detailed his account with Sherry Pie in a lengthy Facebook post on March 4, and as early as the day prior had to break the news to two others who were enveloped in Gugliemelli’s manipulative scheme.

The queen admitted to the accusations, stating: “I want to start by saying how sorry I am that I caused such trauma and pain and how horribly embarrassed and disgusted I am with myself. I know that the pain and hurt that I have caused will never go away and I know that what I did was wrong and truly cruel.” The next day, a title card preceded Sherry Pie’s debut episode: “In light of recent developments and Sherry Pie’s statement, Sherry Pie has been disqualified from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Out of respect for the hard work of the other queens, VH1 will air the season as planned. Sherry will not appear in the grand finale scheduled to be filmed later this spring.”

World of Wonder, the production comapny that produces “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Courtesy of World of Wonder.

Separating art from artist is a uniquely 21st century burden, and one that many in today’s climate feel isn’t even right to take on. Mainstream “cancel culture” of the last half decade has dictated that those with skeletons in their closet are unworthy of public spotlight, but often it is not as black and white as we would like. Some celebrities with sexual misconduct allegations or other past irreparable actions against them are crucified while others walk free with a simple tick on their report card. Take Michael Jackson for example; the King of Pop’s stature was so gargantuan and cemented in modern music history that when years and years of accusations finally came to a head after his death and the internet deemed him that dreaded label, “cancelled,” many seemed to look the other way because they simply could not let go, and Jackson’s songs remain popular (albeit not as ubiquitous). Meanwhile, nobody claims to have not let go of their love of The Cosby Show. Sherry Pie is in a similar category: the bizarreness and disturbing nature of her story cemented her fall, and gratifyingly VH1/World of Wonder (Drag Race’s production company) have taken the right steps in the aftermath.

While some believed the season should be cancelled, VH1 made the right call to air it. COVID-19 has already stripped the other contestants of the post-show opportunities and money that typically follow a season of Drag Race (live bookings and interviews, Drag Race-themed tours, RuPaul’s DragCon, etc.), so to erase their presence entirely, especially during a time of crisis when the world needs some semblance of escapism, would be entirely unjust. As a means of compromise, following Sherry Pie’s debut episode (the second episode of the season), production quickly went back to the footage and threw most of Sherry Pie’s appearances to the cutting room floor. She has been given no confessional or “talking head” segments (save a single voiceover for her weekly runway presentation). These interview moments are one of the chief ways reality show producers are able to push story and characters, so to drop her from these, as well as the majority of her interactions with other contestants on set, has effectively edited her out completely. It is a testament to the editors and their storytelling abilities that now that Sherry Pie is in absentia, the times she has snatched challenge wins (at time of writing there have been 2) feel completely left field.

A screenshot of season 12 from inside the “Werk Room.” Courtesy of VH1/World of Wonder.

So even in the midst of a global pandemic, the show has worked hard to take the right steps. But this unfortunate controversy should not come as a shock, but a warning to VH1 and World of Wonder. Let this be a wake-up call to revamp the system; an opportunity for production to address the other issues that plague their casting process.

For one, take rumors of this nature seriously when casting. This is not to say VH1 has not addressed the current situation with care, but that it potentially could have been avoided in the first place. Contrary to what some may think, this situation did not come up out of nowhere. Prior to Sherry Pie’s casting, the rumor mill was turning through the drag scene in several major cities and amongst queens rooted in the industry, Drag Race alumna included. While there were not necessarily concrete public allegations made at this point (although that is still unclear), there was talk and hearsay which unfortunately turned out to be true. Casting agents working on the show certainly know who’s who in the drag world, and while they certainly prioritize marketable reality show archetypes over pre-existing popularity, these rumors should be taken into account. If casting is invested in a contestant shrouded in conjecture, they must either be willing to put in the work to investigate the situation, or let go of their darling. Understandably an investigation may prove fruitless in situations like these, but bases need to be covered to avoid potential putting the wrong people on the pedestal.

More deep-seated: for a show by LGTBQ people for LGBTQ people, RuPaul’s Drag Race has developed a diversity problem. Throughout earlier seasons, the cast was dominated by contestants of color. More so, trans contestants, while not typically out or public during filming, were far more frequently featured. That being said, it is heavily rumored that even in the early days trans contestants were stifled by casting, and only those who would not be trans-presenting on the show would be cast. As seasons went on less and less trans women were featured, Latina contestants became the butt of the joke more frequently for their struggles with English (leading to an uncomfortable “confused Latina” trope, every season had at least one), and winners were for lack of a better word, whiter. Many tensions came to a head when RuPaul declared in an interview with The Guardian that he “probably wouldn’t” allow contestants like Peppermint, an openly trans contestant from season 9 to compete had they already started body-transitioning prior to auditioning. Essentially overnight the backlash spread, with contestants both trans and cisgendered alike denouncing the comments. Despite a quick statement from the show stating that gender is not taken into account when casting, since the interview not a single openly trans contestant has been featured on the show. The sole exception was trans woman Gia Gunn competing on spin-off All Stars 4, likely for damage control.

A tweet from season 11 winner Yvie Oddly regarding the “Drag Race” casting process.

The connection may seem nonsensical, but opening up the casting process to more contestants of color, and specifically more trans, non-gender conforming and AFAB (assigned female at birth) artists will help shift away from the current power paradigm. Giving voices and thus, more power to these underrepresented voices who still face discrimination is a start on the path to less abuse of power. As current reigning Drag Race winner Yvie Oddly tweeted: “We cannot STOP [these situations] from happening. What we can do is realize we’re creating a system where only gay men have power, a monopoly if you will. And the more power goes unchecked/undistributed the easier it is to abuse it ABD [sic.] justify that abuse.”

So yes, while we cannot stop abuses of power illustrated by the Sherry Pie story, we can stifle the platform by which those abuses of power manifest. The spoken goal of RuPaul’s Drag Race is love within the LGBTQ+ community, so stop focusing on the G and start giving other performers a chance to show the world what it means to be a queer artist.

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