RuPaul’s Drag Race’s first premiere kicked off season 12 with a bang, putting the first half of the season’s queens under an intense spotlight. It was a lot, yet the first seven queens more than lived up to the scrutiny, distinguishing themselves and establishing at least their half of the season 12 cast as one to be reckoned with. They’re a tough act to follow, and while the talented final six queens of the season put on a strong second premiere, “You Don’t Know Me” lacks the energy and suspense of “I’m That Bitch.”
It’s only fair for the rest of the season 12 cast to tackle challenges just as demanding as the ones their counterparts faced, but the producers are a bit too literal here. The second premiere copies and pastes the format of the first, with the exact same mini challenge and only a tweak to the maxi, swapping out the first group’s rap performance for a Fosse-inspired musical number. Since there was no elimination in the first premiere, it’s clear right away that there won’t be one here either, and that lowers the stakes for the audience, if not the queens. Shaking up the challenges a bit could have helped freshen things up, or centering the two premieres on different stumbling points—two episodes in, the disastrous choreo rehearsal to surprisingly polished performance narrative is already tired—but with such a similar structure and pacing, the second premiere can’t help but fade in comparison to the first.
The episode begins with a quick reminder of the first set of queens, who are fresh from their non-elimination. After a moment to decompress, Ru pops up on the screen, prompting the first group to leave a message for the others on the mirror and head out, so they can start that premiere magic all over again. The first into the Werk Room this episode is Rock M. Sakura, an anime-inspired comedy queen from San Francisco. She enters with a manic burst of energy, running around the room, hopping up on tables, and making herself at home. Her look is pretty straightforward but her paint is distinctive, with giant eyes and lashes that tie in directly with her anime aesthetic. Next in is Dahlia Sin, an L.A. look queen from the House of Aja who makes an impression with a cool denim look. Rock M. and Dahlia’s energies couldn’t be more different, and that holds with the next queen as well, Sherry Pie of New York City. She’s a camp and Broadway queen, which is reflected in her sequined red top and cherry pie lattice bodice and skirt.
Fourth is Jan (“just Jan”), also of N.Y.C., who comes in sporting cheerleader chic, a black and purple dress with an oversize athletic jacket. She may bungle her entrance line—if you have to explain the reference, you’re in trouble—but as she makes abundantly clear, Jan can sing and based on the other queens’ reactions, that’s not the only card up her sleeve. The Posh to her Sporty, next in is Jaida Essence Hall, a glamour and look queen from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She looks gorgeous in her cold shoulder turquoise gown and describes herself as more of a female impersonator than a drag queen. Last in is Aiden Zhane of Acworth, Georgia, who has a distinct and artsy look, wearing black latex with a red and gold jacket and usual paint featuring high, arched eyebrows. Particularly after the uber-confident Jaida, Aiden comes off a bit insecure and her unique look and energy throws the other queens a bit, who quiz her, trying to pin down her style.
Once the interrogation is over, the queens start to snoop around the workroom, looking for hints about the other queens whose message, “We done already done had oursus,” piques their curiosity. Before they can fully rifle through the first group’s belongings, RuMail pops up and the episode is off. Ru comes in to greet the queens and introduces the mini challenge. Like their predecessors, these queens will need to present a spring and fall runway look, and after the quality the first group brought, expectations will be high.
For the most part, they deliver. Rock M. wears a bright, Comme des Garçons-inspired look for spring that features her own art on its cape sleeves. For fall, she’s more subdued, with a baby blue mermaid-style dress. Dahlia’s spring look is fantastic, a neon green bodycon mini dress that she pairs with a bright orange wig. For fall, she bundles up with a black fur dress that Ross Matthews later delightfully describes as “sissy that sasquatch”. Sherry Pie’s spring look is solid, but forgettable, a blue stretch dress with tassels on the side, but her fall look is more interesting, a dramatic, Zorro-inspired black dress complete with wide-brimmed hat.
Jan surprises a bit with her first look, a gauzy bodice with a floral mini skirt and choker, and her fall look is an intentional contrast, a crocodile dress and coat with black accents. Jaida’s spring look is nice, a floral print dress with a plunging neckline, but her fall look is great, a lavender pant with a patterned top, fur sleeves, and a lavender beret. Rounding up the group is Aiden, whose spring look is cute, a yellow dress with blue opera gloves, white boots, and a green and yellow sunflower hat. Her fall look is the roughest of the lot, though, mustard tights and hat with an olive leotard and an autumnal cape.
Once the queens finish their mini challenge and clean up, it’s time for the maxi challenge. They each need to write a verse introducing themselves as part of a Fosse-style musical theatre number—think Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango.” They’ll also need to choreograph their group performance, presenting the finished number to Ru and the judges, including guest judges Thandie Newton and Robyn. While several of the queens are excited, and Fosse is far from niche, there’s a specificity to this challenge that makes it a bigger stretch for these queens than “I’m That Bitch” was in the first premiere. Jaida in particular is concerned, as choreography is not her strong suit. After some discussion, Rock M. agrees to choreograph the number, with assistance from the more Fosse-knowledgeable queens, and the group heads to rehearsal.
They seem to start out strong, with Rock M. presenting clear ideas, but things quickly devolve. Bigger personalities start to crowd in on Rock M.’s direction, so she pulls back and Sherry and Jan take over. Jaida is resistant to the choreography she’s getting, worried that it’s too challenging to master in a day, and she starts complaining that they’ve wasted too much time. Jaida may have a point, but with tensions rising, communication breaks down and the queens run out of time. They’re in trouble. (Or they would be, if that were actually their final rehearsal.)
The next day, some of the tension has dissipated, but Rock M. is clearly stressed. As the queens paint, she opens up about her background. Growing up, her mom was a meth addict and she often blamed her children for her addiction. As the designated choreographer, Rock felt responsible for the rehearsal, and when it broke down, it triggered powerful feelings of shame and guilt. This is clearly something Rock is still working through, and to their credit the other queens are immediately supportive, listening and helping buck her up with advice and understanding. Before long, it’s time for the runway.
The episode wisely doesn’t attempt to top Nicki Minaj’s entrance from the first premiere, and Ru struts down the runway in a fun, seemingly dandelion-inspired look. Both Thandie Newton and Robyn are ready and raring to go, and the episode heads right into the performance. Considering the disaster that was their rehearsal, it goes well. They’ve simplified the choreography and the editors keep the audience focused on the verses. As with the previous group’s raps, the “You Don’t Know Me” lyrics are mostly solid, with Dahlia’s introduction the weakest and Jaida’s the clear standout. Aiden’s verse is fun and well performed, Rock M.’s is silly and memorable, though a bit much, and Sherry’s does a good job of transitioning back into the rest of the song, matching its tone. As for Jan, her cheerleading moves work as an introduction to her, but they detract from the Fosse styling of the rest of the song. Fortunately, she crushes her vocals, including her high note.
For the final runway, category is: Tulle. Most of the queens go the expected route, with beautiful, flowy dresses. They may be similar, but each of the queens does a good job of fitting the category to their aesthetic, and the outfits are lovely in motion. Jan distinguishes herself by going a completely different route, playing on “tool” with a tulle jumpsuit and construction theme. As in the first premiere, the judges are on the whole effusive with the queens. There are only a few critical notes. Aiden is gently read by Michelle and Ru for her winter look, with Ru critiquing her meaty tuck. Dahlia is pushed by Michelle on her lyrics and her nerves, and is encouraged by Ross to go bigger with her makeup. Jan is warned by Ross to tone down her performance just a bit and not try to do too much at once, while Rock M. might need to consider editing a bit, either in her look (according to Ross) or her writing (Michelle doesn’t love her fart humor, at least as an introduction). Both Jaida and Sherry get nothing but praise, and it’s clear pretty quickly that they’ll be in the top.
After the judges deliberate, the queens return and the episode takes the same patient approach to the results as the first premiere. The difference is, this time the audience knows no one is getting eliminated. While the queens’ reactions are still compelling, this saps the moment of much of its energy. Unsurprisingly, Jaida and Sherry are the top two, and they prepare to lip-sync for the win, and $5000, to Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend.” Both Jaida and Sherry serve face, keeping the opening simple. Pretty quickly, though, Jaida starts dancing and connects with the beat, dropping half of her dress to the ground to transition her tulle look into an almost tutu-like mini skirt. Sherry has some fun with the beat, going comedic and silly, and Jaida pulls out a well-timed split, among other moves. While Sherry’s performance highlights how effective stillness can be in a lip-sync, Jaida’s more dance-heavy approach fits this version of the song better, and she pulls out the win.
At the end of the episode, rather than the traditional dance-out, Ru sends the queens back to the Werk Room to meet their competitors. The two groups size each other up, before the first half lets out a communal, “Meh.” Yes, it’s highly produced and performative and it’ll likely be undercut immediately next episode. It’s still an entertaining way to end the double premiere, plus a little friendly rivalry won’t hurt, at least until the numbers get down a bit. With these premiere episodes out of the way, the competition can begin in earnest. Spending two full episodes getting to know the queens and showing just what they’re capable of is a first for Drag Race. Based on the strength of this cast and these episodes, however, it’s a worthy investment. Drag Race fans are in for a strong season.
- For the second time in Drag Race herstory, a queen has been disqualified. Buzzfeed News reported this week that five actors have accused Joey Gugliemelli (Sherry Pie) of catfishing them, posing as a casting director to get them to record and send him embarrassing and degrading videos as part of a phony casting process. Since the initial reporting, two more men have come forward. VH1 and World of Wonder have announced that Sherry Pie has been disqualified from Drag Race, and will not participate or appear in the finale, which will be filmed in the spring. However, as it was filmed last year, the rest of the season will air as originally recorded.
- Robyn and Thandie Newton are fun as guest judges, and clearly thrilled to be there. I was hoping for more specific critiques, though, particularly around ways the queens can improve.
- I was surprised the tweak to Jan
Sport’s name got such heavy play this episode, after Brita Filter’s was barely alluded to in the premiere.
- Both halves of the season 12 cast have strong chemistry. It will be interesting to see how they mesh as a whole. It’s also going to be tough to go back to rushing through 10+ person runways and challenges, after getting to luxuriate with smaller groups these first two episodes.