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Fresh off of All Stars 4’s double crowning, it would be easy for even the most ardent Drag Race fan to be ready for a break. The series is higher-profile than ever and with two years of All Stars feeding directly into Drag Race, the risk of burn-out is real. Fortunately, season 11 makes a strong case for itself right off the bat, reminding viewers of the specific charms of original recipe Drag Race over its more polished sister program. All Stars may feature bigger budget runways, more interpersonal drama and baggage, and more established personalities, but Drag Race has crafting, creativity under pressure, and the thrill of discovery.

The premiere begins with the much-anticipated return of season 10 one-and-done phenom Vanessa Vanjie Mateo (Miss Vaaaanjie!), who is the first to enter the workroom. Vanjie—who looks fabulous and clearly came back prepared—hides in a corner, setting up the first and most successful bit of the episode, and the entrances continue. The premiere wastes no time introducing the rest of its large cast and most of them make a good first impression, including Vanjie, who pops out Rumpelstiltskin-like upon the mention of her name. The contestants this season run the gamut, from comparative newbies to seasoned pros. There are pageant queens, comedy queens, musicians, entertainers, hosts, and more. There’s even some international flair, with several queens who grew up in other countries before moving to the United States. The cast this season comes in all shapes and sizes and they seem ready and raring to go.

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Once the queens have all made their entrances, RuPaul enters the workroom and announces the first mini challenge. The queens will be shot by photographer Albert Sanchez, but they will be responsible for directing the shoot themselves. Do they know composition and how to command a camera? The queen with the best shot will win. Once the shoots begin, however, Ru reveals the actual challenge, bringing out a different Drag Race alum for each queen to incorporate. They must rise to their partner’s level, lest the other queen steal focus. It’s fun to see so many familiar faces, and the difficulty of the task is made abundantly clear when the first queen, Scarlet Envy, tries and fails to keep up with season three winner Raja. There are some interesting and very deliberate pairings, tipping the producers’ cards a bit, and at the end of the mini challenge, Silky Nutmeg Ganache is declared the winner. This is an entertaining and telling challenge, but unfortunately, with 15 queens, there isn’t enough time to savor it.

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More successful is the alumni twist to the premiere’s maxi challenge. Each of the queens is paired with a trunk filled with garments and materials from one of the previous Drag Race contestants and they must use the contents of the trunk to create a new look that matches their aesthetic. It’s a sewing, design, and branding challenge, and one that requires the queens to work quickly. Can they distill their persona and energy down to a few essentials and execute that in a limited time? Or will they be weighed down by the limitations of their trunk and wind up presenting a look that’s overly reminiscent of their designated alumnus?

She’s baaaack!
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

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As the winner of the mini challenge, Silky gets to assign the trunks and for the most part, she does so generously. A few queens wind up with bizarre pairings (Mercedes and Bianca? Really? And Yvie does well with Alaska, but Sharon Needles was right there), but in general, they’re set up for success. Once again, the size of the cast this season weighs down the proceedings. There’s a lot to sink one’s teeth into with this challenge. How do the queens see themselves? How can they make an impression and assert their individuality even when working with materials the judges and audience will immediately connect to someone else? Alas, the premiere isn’t interested in examining these questions, instead setting up Nina’s nerves and difficulty sewing, Silky’s misjudged social game, and a painfully long bit with guest judge Miley Cyrus.

The season nine premiere featured Lady Gaga, who entered the workroom with the other queens, posing as a contestant until she was recognized and had a wonderful meet-and-greet with the queens. Season 10’s premiere brought in Christina Aguilera, playing on Farrah Moan’s Christina drag and giving her some time with the queens as well. Both were entertaining and thoughtful ways to incorporate their particular celebrity into the episode beyond the typically minor role the judges play. With season 11, the producers feel the need to keep escalating, so they put Miley Cyrus in boy drag and send her in with the crew. The trouble is, the queens are busy working and the magic of TV requires that they pretend they aren’t surrounded by crew all the time. Any footage of them interacting with the crew won’t make the final cut, so they queens actively try to ignore them. No one clocks Miley, and eventually the producers push things, putting her face-to-face with two of the queens as she adjusts a mic.

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Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

Silky finally connects the dots and her moment of realization is admittedly very entertaining. If she’d had any smaller of a reaction, the bit would have failed utterly. Props to Miley for being so game—it’s hard to imagine either Gaga or Christina reacting well to Silky’s antics. There’s a release of tension and burst of excitement when Miley is discovered, but the energy in the room shifts as she stands around and talks with the queens. Both Lady Gaga and Christina interacted with the cast before and after their challenges. The producers send Miley in mid-challenge, interrupting their preparation. Her advice for the queens is good, but the exchange becomes awkward and stiff as the queens start to get nervous again and feel their prep time slipping away. Their conversation would have gone over better if it had been saved for after the runway, or at least after they were done getting ready. Indeed, Vanjie gets points in this viewer’s book for listening, but continuing to paint. She was not going to go home because she spent her prep time meeting a celebrity.

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When it comes, the runway is overall pretty standard. A few of the queens deliver surprisingly polished looks, given the time frame, a few whiff the challenge, and most do alright. Those who wind up in the top create striking garments that (at least based on their entrance looks) match their aesthetic well: Plastique, Brooke Lynn, A’Keria, and Vanjie. Those in the bottom struggle to create finished, interesting garments at all: Soju, Nina, Kahanna, and Mercedes. That leaves Ariel, Yvie, Ra’Jah, Silky, Shuga, Scarlet, and Honey safe. Their looks range from well-executed but uninspiring to presentable, but more retread than refreshed. Ariel and Honey in particular look like they’re in Laganja Estranja and BenDeLaCreme drag, and it’s a surprise when Silky avoids the bottom, given the edit.

Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

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The queens in the top, however, really turn it out and it’s exciting to see this level of execution in the very first challenge. Vanjie in particular works her garment and Plastique and A’Keria’s looks are striking. It’s Brooke Lynn, however, who takes the win with her dark blue and neon yellow catsuit. It can’t have been easy to make that look so quickly; that’s a queen who knows her sewing and crafting. While Nina and Mercedes don’t show themselves particularly well with their runway looks, the bottom two are clear. Kahanna only creates half a look, repurposing part of her entrance look for the runway, and Soju’s look, while interesting, is a mess. If she was a more confident sewer and had been able to finish the garment, she may have pulled it off, but what she presents is significantly below the execution level of the rest of the queens.

Soju and Kahanna go into the lip-sync fairly even, but Kahanna immediately pulls ahead, dancing her butt off to Hannah Montana’s “Best Of Both Worlds” and leaving Soju in the dust. Perhaps they weren’t allowed to change, and if so, please disregard the following, but Soju was not going to be able to lip-sync well in that garment, and she should have known that. The fact that she doesn’t throw on a different skirt or find some other way around the limitations her look presents is disqualifying. She does her best to serve face, but she trips on her skirt and can’t possibly keep up with Kahanna, who fights from beat one to stay in the competition. In the end, Kahanna earns her spot there and Soju is sent packing. She was incredibly charming in this first episode and it would have been great to see more of her. Perhaps after a few more years, Soju will be ready to come back for a second bite at the Drag Race apple.

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Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

While the premiere boasts two strong challenges, some fun moments, and an interesting new cast, it fails to live up to its potential. There are too many queens for the runtime, or more accurately, not enough runtime for the number of queens. If the producers were dead set on spotlighting Miley Cyrus, they should have paired up queens for the mini-challenge or cut the returning queens. Or perhaps a super-sized premiere was in order, though of course that’s ultimately up to VH1. Having an extra five to 10 minutes to let the alumni discuss their impressions of the new queens, let the audience compare the mini challenge photos, and let the queens and judges discuss their interpretation of the maxi challenge would have gone a long way toward helping viewers connect to the new cast. However, with the entrances taken care of and no tradition of guest star hijinks to live up to, the next episode should have much less on its plate. Here’s hoping the producers and the queens make the most of their extra time and get this season off to an even stronger start.

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Stray observations

  • Favorite entrance line: Several queens make a strong impression, but I have to go with Vanjie. Her backwards entrance and matter-of-fact delivery was great.
  • Favorite entrance look: I love Silky’s entrance look, and Nina’s is a close second.
  • Miley’s no Gaga, who’s one of the best guest judges they’ve had, but she does a good job and I really like her look.
  • It’s hard to pick an early favorite without defaulting to Vanjie, but there are several queens that I’m excited for, particularly those who bring a different energy to the workroom. This episode, that’s Vanjie, Yvie, and the unfortunately eliminated Soju.
  • So far, both Vanjie and Silky are playing the social game hard. I suspect Vanjie benefits from some kind editing this episode. Her talking heads are great, but she interrupts several of the queens’ entrance moments and that could easily have been played as irritating and rude. Instead, it’s Silky who overplays her hand, trying to make “Attitude check!” a thing. The other queens meeting her third attempt with crickets is delicious. She seems to have some extra nervous energy to deal with. Hopefully she’ll find a way to channel that energy that won’t prompt as many irritated remarks from the other queens.

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