Tonight’s season premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race begins with all 14 queens, so it’s already a considerable step up from last year’s split group fiasco. That was an interesting experiment, but I like to think that the creative team of this show realized that no one wants to wait two weeks to meet all the contestants. The premiere is the time to go big, and this season starts with a fashion extravaganza as the queens showcase three different outfits before getting naked on the runway. As such, “Born Naked” is an episode that puts the emphasis on looks over personality, and while the outrageous style is certainly one of the most attractive things about this show, it’s the biting wit and catty drama that makes Drag Race such a delight.
The rush of sass and glamour in the first 10 minutes of a Drag Race season gives the show a huge burst of momentum from the very start, and the queens don’t disappoint this year. Miss Fame makes a big impression as the first contestant to enter the workroom, and she delivers the most avant-garde look of the group with her Starmie realness. She also has the best bitchy moment of the opening scene, tearing a piece of Max’s magazine prop to blot her face. That’s the kind of shade I can really get behind; Miss Fame recognizes that props are a crutch, and immediately goes after Max to show that her self-indulgent magazine doesn’t mean shit compared to a flawless paint job.
The entrances aren’t especially ridiculous, with the major exception being Tempest DuJour dropping a plastic baby from between her legs because she has two kids at home. It’s Tempest’s one big moment on the show, because the series’ oldest contestant heads home at the end of this episode, returning to her husband, kids, and tenured position as a professor of costume design. Considering her day job, it’s especially disappointing that Tempest’s looks are so frumpy, but she’s also a very tall person (I’ve seen her in person and she’s huge) that has recently slimmed down dramatically, so she’s probably still getting accustomed to her current body. And while Tempest is offended when Kandy Ho’ immediately comments on her age, there’s no denying that her look is dated.
After all the queens have arrived, RuPaul enters to give them their first challenge, one that is hyped up as being more than just the usual introductory photo shoot. But instead of giving the queens a legitimately challenging task, Ru tells the queens that they’ll be modeling two of their looks on a runway that they will also be photographed on. It’s the queens doing what they’ll be doing in every single episode, and that’s not especially interesting. There are some impressive fashions, particularly from Miss Fame and Violet Chachki (the two-looks-in-one reveal is truly sickening), but surely the writers could have figured out a challenge with a higher difficulty level. “Wear two of your best outfits” is far too easy, and gives a big advantage to fashion queens who come prepared with a flashy wardrobe but don’t have much personality to back up the style.
Remember the days when the first challenged used to be a humiliating photo shoot? When the queens were sat in front of giant fans, or placed on rotating platforms and hosed down with paint? The humiliation challenge was the perfect place to begin the competition because it humbled the queens. It put them in a position where they were going to get a little messy and knocked off balance, showing how well the contestants could adapt to different situations and giving them an opportunity to reveal their personalities by interacting with models and photographers.
It wasn’t about the fashion. If anything, those humiliation challenges were about pulling focus away from the fashion and showing who these performers were beyond the women’s clothing. A comedy queen could wow the judges with the right attitude and poses, but this week’s runway photo shoot doesn’t allow the contestants’ personalities to shine as brightly as they could have in a different environment. I appreciate getting the opportunity to judge multiple looks in one episode, but I’d rather spend more time at the start getting to know who these queens are instead of what they like to wear.
After the runway photoshoot, the queens are asked to prepare a resort look for elimination day that tears away to reveal a nude illusion. It’s saying something about this show that a nude challenge feels tame, but nudity just isn’t that big a deal on this series. Body queens often hit the runway in nearly nothing, and the nude bodysuit is a staple of a lot of drag queen wardrobes. It’s not so much a challenge about showing skin—although some queens like Violet take that route—but painting a suit to create the illusion of nudity. Some queens are much better at painting than others, with the major standout being Ginger Minj, who dresses her plus-sized body in a wonderfully flattering, impeccably shaded and padded body suit that doesn’t read immediately as fabric on camera. But Violet ends up securing the win thanks to her high-fashion photoshoot and bold nudity on the runway, taking a risk that pays off despite Michelle’s protestations.
In terms of personality, Katya, Ginger, and Jaidynn Diore Fierce quickly assert themselves as major presences in the cutaway interviews: Katya delivers crass but clever commentary; Ginger is relaxed, sassy, and self-deprecating (“glamour toad,” “overweight asthmatic chain-smoking crossdresser”); and Jaidynn lives up to her last name with overwhelming confidence that comes across as much more good-natured than her other cocky competitors. Trixie also gets considerable interview spotlight, but she spends more time delving into her personal struggle and how Trixie has helped her deal with a low-income upbringing. The early development of Trixie’s narrative suggests that she’s either going home soon or will last in the competition for a while, and while her look isn’t as polished as the other queens, the spirit and enthusiasm is there. (You could say she’s “polish remover, bitch.”)
One of the other personalities that stands out this week is Max, but that’s because of her Laganja-like artifice that screams for attention. She’s playing a role, and even if this is how Max acts in real life, it still reads as disingenuous on camera. After seeing her crutch-assisted runway walk this week, I’ve realized that Max reminds me of a Snatch Game impersonation of Lady Gaga, delivering on the visual front but struggling when it comes to presenting a character that isn’t overly put-upon. She’s trying so hard to create this persona—watch her “Meet The Queens” video to get a better idea of just how performative Max is—and all that work ends up reading as very fake. It’s easy to see the judges coming after her in the future to get her to drop the mask and show the real Max underneath, and based on Michelle’s criticism of Laganja on the What’s The T? podcast, I’m going to assume that her voice will be loudest in this regard.
“Born Naked” is fairly light on drama, but storylines are beginning to develop: a pretty girl rivalry is brewing between Miss Fame and Violet, Trixie is stepping into the position of scrappy underdog, and Sasha Belle is learning that it takes more than encyclopedic knowledge of RuPaul’s Drag Race to be America’s next drag superstar. The big conflict of the episode comes from Kandy’s dismissive, ageist attitude toward Tempest, but that is resolved in the lip sync when Kandy wipes the floor with her older, more awkward competitor. “Geronimo” isn’t a great lip sync song, and Tempest clearly doesn’t know how to connect with this type of music as a competitor, traipsing around the runway waving her arms while Kandy gets down.
Personal confession time: I’ve never experienced RuPaul’s Drag Race in a bar setting. I discovered the series through reruns on VH1, and started watching live with season 3, always from the comfort of a couch (either a friend’s or my own). By the time the series become a bona fide cultural phenomenon, I had starting writing weekly reviews, and a bar environment isn’t conducive to note taking. I have a communal Drag Race experience because I watch with a small group of friends, but viewing the show in an atmosphere packed with people copiously drinking and loudly reacting is a completely different beast.
I know this because I had the pleasure of attending the season 7 premiere party in Chicago, meeting and chatting with a few of the queens before the show, which consisted of a screening of the first episode and performances from each of this season’s queens. The performances were a mixed bag, likely because, based on my conversations with the queens, they were all exhausted from the publicity tour, but the ones that really stood out were the ones that didn’t show an ounce of fatigue. While the fish floundered, the plus-sized (Jaidynn and Minj) and comedy queens (Katya and Kasha) impressed, but one contestant had all the other bitches bowing: Kennedy Davenport, who slayed with a breathtaking performance of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” that included her running and jumping into a sliding splits.
But the most entertaining part of the evening was the screening, finally giving me the opportunity to experience this series on a larger scale. With over 1000 fans in the Vic Theatre, the scale for my first viewing of the premiere was huge, and it was so fun. I can see why this show is so popular in bars, because there’s an added element of interaction when the group is bigger. It’s mob mentality. When a bunch of people are shouting at the screen and snapping their fingers and hollering, it becomes a lot easier to join in, and as much as I enjoy watching this show at home, there’s no denying that I enjoyed myself more watching this premiere at the Vic than I did on television.
The fact that this series has blown up to the point where large venues are selling out for preview parties is incredible, and it was inspiring being in a room with so many people celebrating the art form of drag. The Lady Aye’s “For Our Consideration” piece on the evolution of drag in America over the last 50-plus years details the long, hard road that drag performers have had to walk to get to the present day, and RuPaul’s work with Drag Race has been essential in establishing drag as a legitimate form of creative expression and financial means. Even though this premiere doesn’t offer the most taxing challenges for this year’s contestants, it’s still an immensely entertaining season opener, with a diverse group of contestants that reveals how this show is motivating drag queens around the country to up their game for a taste of national fame.
- Santino is gone from the judges’ panel (yay!), replaced by Ross Matthews (yay!) and Carson Kressley (ehn). Kathy Griffin also joins the panel as this week’s special guest, creating what Ru describes as “gay Mount Rushmore.” It’s a fun group, especially when they gang up on Michelle.
- Now that Kelly Osbourne is no longer on Fashion Police, I’d really like to see her as a regular judge next season.
- Is Pearl this show’s most languid drag queen? She makes me sleepy.
- Sasha Belle and Jasmine Masters are different kinds of superfans: Sasha Belle thinks that her love for this show gives her a leg up on her competitors and has a nasty attitude when she’s proven wrong, but Jasmine is just so damn excited to be on the show that she can’t be negative.
- I love that Alaska has become such a popular alum of this show that she gets to sit in on the runway photo shoot and bitch about the new queens.
- The cutting to each of the judges’ faces reacting to Jasmine’s cocoon while “Sissy That Walk” plays in the background is some truly glorious editing.
- “I’m just your average run-of-the-mill Russian bisexual transvestite hooker.”
- “Katya is at the intersection of glamour and comedy. You can find her right on the corner. Selling her ass.”
- “Drag queens always say, ‘Paint for the back row.’ I paint for the check cashing place down the street.”
- “I’m the next drag superstar, because I’ve done my homework.” Wrong.
- “You’re born naked, and the rest is…BALENCIAGA!”
- “I’ve had pelvic exams more thrilling than this.”
- Michelle: “All she needs is a casserole.” RuPaul: “Mm. But not tuna.”
- “It’s so hideous, I think I’ll put it on the cover.”
- “Is that a sequins dress?”
- “Did somebody from the crew just wander into the work room?”
- “She goes from Kathy Bates to Bob Hoskins.”
- “I think the new pit crew member may be Jewish!”
- “Ru, I brought my real smile and a lot of fake hair.”
- “When in doubt, show them your asshole.”
- “LaGuardia, Newark, Kennedy.”
- “Well to be fair, all of the girls were told the same thing.”
- “Cirque de So Gay tube.”
- “I don’t know how I faded into the background. I wore a lobster dress.” I have the feeling this quote is Sasha Belle in a nutshell (lobster shell?).
- “Listen, I had a beard once. She was a wonderful girl. But you don’t see me bringin’ her here.”