Tonight’s season 9 premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race is extra. The show has some intense momentum behind it after two great seasons last year, and the steady growth of the series’ popularity has motivated Viacom to move new Drag Race episodes from Logo to VH1, a network with a much larger viewer base. It’s also moving to Friday night, which is a major blow to gay bars that relied on Drag Race to bring in patrons on off-nights, but a good thing for people that like to watch Drag Race in big, thoroughly intoxicated groups. This premiere is doing a lot before the episode even begins, and it gets more excessive once the new queens enter the workroom.
The introductions are the usual mixed bag of contestants trying to quickly make a mark before they get thrown into a group of queens all vying for the spotlight, but then Ronnie from New Jersey shows up. Anyone that has been exposed to Drag Race publicity for this season knows this isn’t a Lady Gaga impersonator, but the real thing, and the show gives her an introduction that highlights what a major event this is. Drag Race and Lady Gaga have risen together in pop culture, and given Gaga’s well documented appreciation for RuPaul and this series, having her on the show as a guest judge is something fans have been waiting years for.
The queens start to get suspicious when Gaga takes an especially long stroll down the runway (she also looks amazing), and when she lifts off her mask, everyone flips the fuck out. For the younger queens, Gaga has been the queer icon in pop culture for a major chunk of their lives—most likely when they were coming out and discovering drag—so this is an especially big deal, but let’s be real. It’s Lady Gaga in a room full of drag queens. Everyone is going to go ballistic. I’m sure there’s a ton of footage of the queens gagging as they realized what was going on, and it’s even more exciting because of how she is revealed, sending the contestants on an emotional journey as they realize someone that might be competition is actually an idol.
This premiere is one big salute to Gaga, and the queens’ first challenge is a pageant in which they wear one look that represents their home city and another replicating a Gaga ensemble. And no one is getting eliminated. I told you this episode was extra. Ru is taking these queens on a wild ride at the very beginning, starting by giving them a pop superstar, then telling them that they get an exhibition episode to show what they can do without risk of elimination, and ending with another bombshell that adds a new wrinkle to the season. 13 queens entered the workroom, but at the end of The Miss Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, And Talent pageant, RuPaul announces that the competition is officially beginning by adding a 14th queen whose identity is withheld until next episode.
The 14th queen is someone who is coming back to the series, and based on the quick glimpse of the back of her neck, she looks black. The wig screams Coco Montrese to me, but it would be strange to have someone who has had two shots at Drag Race come back for a third round. (By that logic, it’s probably not Shangela either.) My initial guess was Todrick Hall, who was a judge for All Stars 2, played the lead drag queen in Kinky Boots: The Musical on Broadway last year, and just released an updated version of his Straight Outta Oz visual album with a new song featuring RuPaul. But Todrick is currently slated to be a guest judge later in the season, so that guess is probably wrong. We’ll find out who the 14th queen is next week, and it’s another way RuPaul is making sure this show still surprises us in its ninth season.
Getting back to the queens whose identities we do know: New York City’s Peppermint is the first queen to enter the workroom, and while she’s not one of the standout queens of this episode, she clearly has the style, polish, and personality to make it far in the competition. So much of this competition is about poise and owning the space immediately when you walk into it, and that’s what those first moments in the workroom evaluate. Can you walk into a new environment and look completely confident and ready to slay? The opening catchphrases this season are nothing special, but it’s interesting to see who commands attention from the instant they walk in front of the camera. The first three queens are a strong start in this regard, and Peppermint, Valentina, and Eureka all walk in with a spark that establishes them as serious competitors.
If I had to guess which of the season 9 queens has only been doing drag for 10 months, I would have never guessed Valentina, who looks incredibly polished and has the confidence of someone that has been doing this for far longer. She’s very fishy, but the ’60s-inspired aesthetic makes her more visually compelling than some of the other fishy queens this season. Her hair and makeup game is on point, and when she hits the runway during the Miss CUNT pageant, she situates herself as this season’s top model. Her mariachi-inspired ensemble manages to be both kitschy and sexy, and she nails Gaga’s look from the CFDA Awards, exuding glamour as she struts down the runway. Valentina is a rookie but she has a natural talent for drag, and this show gives her a massive opportunity to grow as an artist and quickly gain a higher profile in a drag community.
Peppermint and Brooklyn-based youngster Aja both wear outfits inspired by the Statue of Liberty for their home city looks, and the fact that two queens chose the same idea indicates that it’s not an especially original concept. Neither executes it very well, but they both improve with their Gaga looks. Peppermint channeling Gaga channeling Bowie at the 2016 Grammys is generally solid, but there are still some problem areas: makeup doesn’t go far enough, the hoop earrings don’t make sense, and the shoes are just wrong. Gaga was wearing huge platforms with that original look, and Peppermint needs an equally dramatic shoe for herself. In the workroom, Aja flaunts a rainbow kimono she owns that was previously worn by Gaga, but she makes a wise choice in wearing Gaga’s bulky Commes De Garçons look on the runway, which makes a strong visual impression while also being a statement about body image, something that drag queens are constantly toying with. Makeup is Aja’s major issue right now, and she needs to refine her paint skills because right now her face is a big ol’ mess.
We’re going to be seeing a lot of Eureka this season, and while she’s definitely an impressive queen, I’m already worried that she’s going to become insufferable very fast. She feels the need to get a comment in about every queen that shantays into the workroom, and you get the impression that she just does not shut up. (Of course, others might be saying just as much, but the editing really highlights Eureka’s zingers.) Eureka is the queen to start crying as she tells Gaga about what an inspiration she is and how she pulled Eureka out of her darkest moments, and while the emotions might be genuine, Eureka comes off as someone especially desperate for attention. This is a show about drag queens, so that’s not a bad quality to have, but it can become obnoxious if the contestant’s need gets out of control.
I predict that Eureka will be a nightmare during team and partner challenges, but maybe she’s more aware of herself than I’m giving her credit for. It’s smart to pull focus at the start because you need to stand out, and Eureka also has the added benefit of an established rivalry with Orlando-based Trinity Taylor, who has beaten Eureka on the pageant circuit. There are at least three pageant queens this season—Eureka, Trinity, and Alexis Michelle—and we’re guaranteed some pageant drama from the first two, which I don’t find all that compelling but the producers love. I understand why; having a past relationship to capitalize on immediately builds tension, and that helps Eureka and Trinity stand out in this episode. Eureka’s main goal is to beat Trinity in the Miss CUNT pageant, and she succeeds. Eureka’s home city look is a generic redneck stereotype, but her Gaga look is a bold, spot-on recreation of the black-and-white dress Gaga wore in the “Telephone” video.
Trinity’s theme park-inspired Orlando outfit is one of two looks that involves a skirt reveal—Alexis has the other—but unfortunately hers comes second so it doesn’t have the same surprise factor. It also droops up top and looks like a “kinda anal sun” from the back, which significantly diminishes the impact of the garment. Alexis Michelle’s city look is the funniest thing in this entire episode, but it’s not intentional. Her bodice has various social issues hastily written in what looks like Sharpie—Blacklivesmatter, Equal Pay 4 Women, Fair Rent, Immigrant, Elder Care—and while Alexis’ intentions are good, the execution is laughably bad. All of the pageant queens fare better with the Gaga looks. Trinity has the perfect wig and attitude as she brings Gaga’s American Horror Story: Hotel character the runway, and Alexis nails the tricky silhouette of the gown Gaga wore when she won a Golden Globe for that AHS character.
At 52 years old, Charlie Hides has the distinction of being the oldest drag queen to ever compete on Drag Race, and this London-residing Boston native has a pretty formidable resume. Her YouTube channel has over 82,000 subscribers with the most popular videos getting over a million views, and she had a cameo as a drag performer in last summer’s Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, which is basically a gay dream gig. Charlie’s introductory look is actually a version of something Bubble wore in the Ab Fab movie, and this episode reveals that Charlie’s strength is in mimicry. She’s not that all impressive when she’s Charlie—her pilgrim look looks like a cheap Halloween costume and the tearaway reveal is clumsy—but she wows the judges with her Gaga look, doing phenomenal work with the intricate lace wig Gaga wore at the 2010 Brit Awards. Charlie awakens when she’s playing a celebrity character, and I predict a lot of her story will involve showing the audience who the real Charlie is and making that person compelling.
Jaymes Mansfield is one of the hottest messes I’ve ever seen walk into the workroom. She’s trying way too hard but is in completely over her head, and she fares so poorly that I actually feel bad for her. It’s almost cruel that RuPaul picked a queen that is so clearly not ready for primetime, but it’s possible that Jaymes sent in a really great audition tape. Like Charlie, Jaymes also has a YouTube channel, but her work is a lot rougher in nearly every respect. Jaymes is half Charlie’s age though, so there’s still plenty of time for her to improve. Unfortunately, Drag Race demands a higher caliber of drag, and Jaymes’ performance in this episode shows that she’s far from the level of the other queens in terms of her drag concept and its execution.
Jaymes’ home city look is extremely tame and the performance is similarly tepid, and her interpretation of Gaga’s Marc Jacobs dress for the cover of Vogue is cheap, ugly, and wildly off the mark. She tries to play a drowsy, disoriented character, perhaps as an attempt to distract from how shoddy every aspect of her look is, and while it’s interesting to see a queen take a less flattering approach to her Gaga drag, it’s a bad decision that presents Jaymes in a very unflattering light at the very beginning.
A Gaga challenge is tough because so much of what she wears is very intricate and tailored to her personality, and Shea Couleé stumbles by giving herself a look that is extremely hard to replicate. The level of difficulty in recreating Gaga’s Jim Henson gown from her Monster Ball tour is astronomical, and Shea’s version doesn’t have the structure or the detail that make that original look so stunning. Shea is one of the best queens in the first runway category, and her hot dog look is fun, theatrical, and visually rich. (It also has no ketchup because Shea knows her hometown.)
Most of the Gaga looks are replications, but there are a few that do a slightly different take on what Gaga wore. Shea is one, and Kimora Blac is another, taking the general idea of Gaga’s on the go airport look and making alterations that turn it into a more basic drag ensemble. There’s not a lot of variation in Kimora’s looks, and everything about her feels very one-note, from her fashion to her personality. Both Kimora and her Vegas sister, Farrah Moan, are very boring in this episode. Farrah sheepishly walks into the workroom, which could be a character choice, but projects an image of insecurity and shyness that isn’t good for this series. Both of their Vegas looks disappoint by not really screaming Vegas, and while Farrah does a much better job with her Gaga “Judas” robe, the bulky outfit swallows her petite frame. The judges wish there was a reveal of another outfit under the robe, and that’s exactly what I was hoping to see.
Eureka, Sasha Velour and Nina Bonina (Banana Fofana Osama Bin Laden) Brown are the top three queens in the Miss CUNT pageant, and while they all have a defined point of view, Sasha and Nina are two of the more ambitious conceptual thinkers in this group. The judges are mixed on Sasha’s New York City ensemble, mostly because of her use of props, but of the NYC queens, Sasha definitely does the best job showing the city and her relationship to it. I completely agree with Gaga that it would have been perfect without the portrait, which would have kept the eye on the living Sasha instead of the painted one, but it’s still a striking look, and she creates a strong image that reinforces her passion for visual storytelling.
Artpop-era Gaga is the one that aligns best with Sasha’s drag philosophy, and going with the “Applause” look is great because it maintains the Sasha constant of the bald head while doing something completely different with the face, which is the main area of focus in this look. The smeared makeup can look really sloppy if it’s not done with the specificity of Gaga’s makeup team, and Sasha’s artistic eye makes her especially fit to handle a paint job that needs attention to detail paired with a willingness to embrace a certain chaos in the application. The thing that really wows the judges about Sasha is how her personality explodes when she’s in her Gaga look, revealing an exuberant personality that is contagiously joyful. Sasha is having so much fun wearing this look for Gaga, and you can sense the excitement in her performance.
Nina Bonina Brown is crowned Miss CUNT, and I have the feeling that decision is going to ruffle some feathers, both in the group of queens and in viewers. Nina’s drag is heavily inspired by cosplay, but it’s not solely cosplay like Dax’s drag. She walks into the workroom looking like the offspring of Klaus Nomi and Minnie Mouse, and it’s definitely unlike any of this season’s other queens. Nina Bonina is a bit of a Monet in that her makeup looks really great from far away but gets rougher as you look closer, but the intensity of that makeup is a lot of fun to see. Her Georgia peach look has a Burton-esque quality that makes it instantly memorable, and she does really impressive work rocking a paper peach that could look so much worse in the wrong hands. The blending of the paper into the skin is very tricky, and there’s something unsettling about it in close-up, but not in a bad way. From the neck down, Nina’s look is very safe and light and flirty. But from the neck up it’s cartoony, loud, and slightly disturbing, creating a visual dynamic that I really love.
Nina’s first look is all about the face, and she makes a risky choice by going with a Gaga look that completely obscures her face by wearing a modified version of the red lace Alexander McQueen dress Gaga wore at the 2009 VMAs. Nina has to own the runway with her body, and she delivers, drawing attention to her exaggerated padding to put this Gaga look in a very different context. It works because Nina maintains the thing that makes it a distinct Gaga outfit, but she finds a way to also show more of who she is as a drag queen through this look. Nina’s aesthetic is probably going to anger people that prefer less costumey drag, but I like that RuPaul is beginning the season by crowning an oddball as Miss CUNT. Nina was willing to take risks to show the judges who she really is, and that’s the kind of commitment that will get her far in the competition.
- Is “bomb.com” a Chicago thing because I’ve been saying it for years, but I’m from Chicago. Is that not a thing people say in other cities?
- Was Gaga sick during filming? She’s sounding especially raspy in this episode.
- Gaga channeling Streisand for her introduction on the judging panel is like a tease of her upcoming starring role in next year’s A Star Is Born remake with Bradley Cooper, who also co-writes and directs the movie. That’s going to be…interesting.
- I expected a “Bitch I’m from Chicago!” from Shea and I got it! Yay!
- Charlie Hides has so many options for Snatch Game. I hope she makes it there because I think she’d do a very good job.
- How long will it take for the judges to tell Trinity Taylor to stop relying on that body?
- Farrah is one of the youngest of the queens (she and Aja are both 22), and she immediately makes her age known by being really immature about not getting her own work station.
- Eureka: “My favorite shape is round.” Valentina: “I can see.” Eureka: “I’ll eat you.”
- “I love the Muppets.”
- “Champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget.”
- “I don’t use the word ‘pageant queen’ because there’s such astigmatism with drag queens.”
- Eureka: “Is this all fake or…” Jaymes: “I’d say the foot upward, it’s all fake.” E: “I meant your personality.”
- “Does she know what she looks like? ‘Cause if not, I need to tell her.”
- Gaga: “And I would also remember something that you taught me a very long time ago.” Ru: “Get the money up front?” Gaga: “Yes. And on the back.”
- “She gonna be just like the candy. She gonna dissolve.”
- “I have Vaseline on my teeth.”
- “Burger Queen! She’s got a Whopper we just can’t see it.”
- “Shebrew National”
- “Don’t be fooled by the brats that she got.”
- “The other girls better ketchup. They mustard about her. I want you to relish this moment. Somebody stop me!” Ross is so much better than Carson.
- “I wonder how many immigrants have been through her.”
- “It looks like she’s got a touch of the Zika.”
- Carson: “Urineblonde is my screenname on Scruff.” Gaga: “It’s my password on Netflix.”