“Not really a god, but close enough.” This line from Sharon Needles is a spot-on summary of drag’s appeal as an art form, allowing performers (typically gay men) to transcend their base selves and become something greater by blurring gender lines. The contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race are trying to create iconic goddesses that will continue to gain more star power after the show, ideally building a fanbase that can sustain a long professional drag career. (Read more about that in my 100 Episodes feature that went up earlier today!) The pantheon of the top Drag Race goddesses will change depending on which fan you ask, and with the show hitting 100 queens this season, it’s remarkable to see just how expansive the mythology of this series has become.
It’s a mythology this season 8 premiere returns to repeatedly as it celebrates the series’ 100th episode, introducing the new group of queens by forcing them to drive down Drag Race memory lane. Starting with the opening montage of highlights from the first 99 episodes, this premiere is all about reinforcing the legend of the Drag Race family, amplifying the stakes for the new girls by constantly reminding them of the greatness that came before, which is the standard they’re being judged by both in and out drag. That emphasis on the past also makes this a great episode for any people that haven’t watched Drag Race but are interested in seeing more about what the show is about, providing a broad overview of the over-the-top antics that have made this show so entertaining. While a lot of the references will fly over the heads of newcomers (like RuPaul’s catchphrase-laden message to the queens after they enter the work room for the first time), the sensory overload of meeting all these new drag queens in the context of all the past drag queens makes for a thrilling introduction to the series.
There’s a whole lot of drag in this episode, and the new contestants have to work especially hard if they want to be noticed. For the mini-challenge, they have a photoshoot with seven of the eight past Drag Race winners—including All-Stars winner Chad Michaels and missing season 6’s Bianca Del Rio, who is replaced by a clown—and for the main challenge the contestants have to offer their personal take on past Drag Race challenges, which are presented by returning queens like Shannel, Raven, and Latrice Royale. These are members of the drag elite, and most of this season’s girls have a long way to go until they get anywhere near the level of the past queens.
There are two main types of positive attention on this series: the first is attention from RuPaul and the other judges, who decide whether or not a queen will stay in the competition, and the other is attention from the cameras, which determines how popular a queen becomes to the viewing audience. The best situation is gaining both, which Kim Chi, Derrick Barry, and Acid Betty all accomplish this week by showing creativity on stage and having distinct personalities out of drag. With her colorful, dramatic “anime character meets high fashion model” style, Kim Chi makes a strong visual impression the second she walks into the work room, but she also comes prepared with fun one-liners and sharp shade-throwing instincts. This gives her considerable screen time this week, especially when combined with the extra editing attention she gets as this week’s winner.
Kim Chi is assigned the “Hair Ball” challenge from season 3, and she designs some impressive Cowardly Lioness couture by taking inspiration from Givenchy’s use of fur in its Fall 2014 collection and creating a similar silhouette with wigs. The judges love Kim’s make-up, which is her claim to fame as an Instagram drag celebrity, as well as the imagination and craft that went into creating her garment, which toes the line between high fashion glamour and cartoonish drag exaggeration. She also has one of the best entrance lines, “I came to chop suey the competition!”, and follows it up with a string of funny moments out of drag, like her “doughnut come for me” pun and subtle shade-throwing later in the episode.
Kim stands out because she has a distinct personal aesthetic, whereas Derrick Barry gets attention because she’s so good at channeling Britney Spears, something she does professionally on the Las Vegas Strip. Queens should do what they do best for the first episode, and that’s exactly what Derrick does, showing up as Britney and keeping that her guiding influence for the entire challenge. She uses the entire set for her photo shoot with the former winners, and it’s clear that she’s very comfortable in front of the camera. (Her face probably lit up when she saw the chairs in the background, which feel like a test specifically put there for Derrick.)
Derrick is fighting against a prejudice within the drag community that celebrity impersonators don’t have the same level of creativity as queens that create their own characters, but she puts together a Christmas-themed runway look that manages to maintain the Britney appearance while bringing in Derrick’s personality and performance style, which has a campier sense of humor than his inspiration. Michelle tells Derrick that now she needs to show all the sides that aren’t Britney, but RuPaul is really enthusiastic about Derrick’s Britney and wants to see more, so I’m fascinated to see how much Britney seeps into Derrick’s other looks. Chad Michaels was in a similar situation with Cher, and if Derrick is wise, she’s already looked at Chad’s path to get a good idea of how she can break out of her Britney box.
Betty is the oldest and shadiest queen of the bunch (I’m sure those qualities have nothing to do with each other), and while she has a bold visual aesthetic, her sour attitude makes her less endearing. Granted, a drag queen shouldn’t have to be endearing, and having a good bitch in the mix is great for drama, especially when there’s already established history between the contestants. Acid Betty is one of three New York City queens this season, and they all know each other and make sure everybody knows that they know each other. Bob The Drag Queen and Thorgy Thor have a much more laid back approach to the competition compared to their high-strung sister, and it’s obvious that Bob and Thorgy have a better relationship with each other than they do with Betty.
Bob and Thorgy’s dynamic is one of the most delightful elements of this episode, and I’m very excited to see how they work off each other later in the season, especially in performance-heavy challenges. They’re the most engaging of this week’s safe queens, and while they do good work satisfying the needs of their respective challenges, they don’t go far enough to rise to the top. Cynthia Lee Fontaine also does some impressive work on the runway (I especially like the tear-away taffy skirt), but I can see her very aggressive “cucu”-centric characterization becoming abrasive over time. Dax ExclamationPoint and Chi Chi DeVayne both have their own gimmicks (Dax is a geek, Chi Chi is a country bumpkin), but they hit the runway in generic garments that satisfy the challenge without showing their individual personalities.
The New York queens fare better than the Chicago ones this week, and while Kim Chi lands the Windy City a win, Naysha Lopez drops the ball to become the first queen sent home this season. The episode gives her some time to defend pageants during a conversation with Chi Chi, but Naysha’s bland style, conceited personality, and lack of skills end up giving pageant girls the bad rap she’s arguing against. She has the worst runway outfit, and her excuse that she’s never sewed before is pitiful at this point in the series’ history. As RuPaul says, you do not make your first dress on this show, you make it when you find out you are on the show. It’s one of the essential steps in preparing for this show, and there’s no excuse for a queen to walk out in what Naysha wears, which is basically an ill-draped bedsheet with a wide cardboard girdle holding it in place.
Laila McQueen gets props for her well-constructed jacket that shows she has an artistic point of view and some sewing skills, but the judges don’t think she does enough with her post-apopoloptic theme and hate her picture, which makes it look like Laila is shrinking into herself in the midst of these Drag Race giants. It all comes down to the lip sync, though, and while Naysha stays in one spot dancing like soccer mom waving at her kids, Laila is taking control of the entire space, getting on her knees, rolling around on the floor, whipping her hair, kicking her legs up, and throwing out whatever else she has in her bag of tricks to show that she’s desperate to stay. There’s a hunger in Laila’s performance, and it’s the same hunger that has fueled this show’s past queens to become goddesses during the time on Drag Race. Only time will tell if Laila will rise to legendary status, but every week she survives is one step closer to becoming a new drag icon.
- The show hitting 100 queens on the 100th episode is some damn good timing.
- I love RuPaul’s “Looney Tunes pimp” look when he meets the queens out of drag. The colors! The hat!
- At the season 8 premiere event in Chicago, Bianca Del Rio revealed—in her signature shady way—that the reason she wasn’t in this episode is because she was the only queen working. I do believe that she wasn’t there because of a prior engagement, and I love her sense of humor about the whole thing.
- Tyra Sanchez looks like she’s very unhappy to be there. She’s like a silent grumpy drag ghost haunting the set.
- If Dax is going to do punk Storm for her first look, she should really go all out with the white Mohawk. (I’m assuming the Mohawk is coming out later.)
- Naysha doesn’t really understand what kind of competition Drag Race is, best exemplified by her befuddlement over what to do with a piggy bank. “Am I supposed to mount this shit on my head?” Yes, bitch! That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do!
- Laila needs to start contouring her make-up because she looks like a person you draw on your thumb at the start of the episode. No bone structure.
- Naomi Smalls: Hyper-fishy, very young fashion queen with cliffhanger toes. She’s great at taking pictures, but has minimal personality on stage or on camera and her Cheeto make-up on the runway is harsh.
- Robbie Turner: Low-rent Jinkx Monsoon with a bad attitude.
- “I came here to DESTROY EVERYONE. With my make-up!”
- “I may come across shy because I’m soft spoken, but… (picks up doughnut) doughnut come for me, because I will destroy you.”
- “She’s like, ‘Sketchers: It’s the S!’”
- “Is Beyonce scared of Britney? Then Bob ain’t scared of Derrick.”
- “Why she’s covered in black cock!”
- “Acid Betty, your pussy’s on fire! Chemical fire!”
- “Get it, trash!”
- “She’s like the Hamburglar scurrying about behind you.”
- Bob: “Do brown and green go together? Like those two?” Thorgy: ”In the challenge about wearing curtains on your body? Sure!”
- “Everything I have is a Florence Henderson shade of poop brown.”
- Bob: “This purse is hideous but I’m using it.” Kim: “I think it goes with the look, though.” Good shade, Kim!
- “Was that this Pride?” Good shade, Laila!
- RuPaul: “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Nicole: “Or a sandwich!” Nicole Ritchie is wonderful on this show.
- “This is feeling a little menstrual.”
- “Her pussy’s not on fire, but her shoulder is.”
- “Yeti That Walk.”
- “I like that she looks like she might faint at any moment.”