For its sixth season premiere, RuPaul’s Drag Race does something that its host constantly warns not to do: Fuck it up.
Instead of doing one chaotic season premiere with 14 drag queens, the series decides to go “bigger” this year by doing two premieres, splitting the contestants into groups of seven that are spotlighted in different episodes. Unfortunately, two premieres actually means two halves of a premiere. Revealing only seven queens makes “Ru’s Big Opening” instantly underwhelming, and while the episode gives the contestants more individual time in the spotlight, it loses the manic energy and sensory overload of past season premieres. The wit and personality is still there to make this a highly entertaining, extremely quotable hour of reality TV, but it just doesn’t hit with the same impact as its predecessors.
A season premiere should be a big deal. It’s the beginning of something new, and it has the responsibility of giving viewers a reason to come back not just next week, but all the weeks after. This applies to all TV season premieres, but it’s especially important for reality competitions, which audiences have a tendency to burn out on after a certain number of seasons. “Ru’s Big Opening” gives a very strong reason to come back next week by withholding seven queens, but it’s another case of this show fixing something that wasn’t broken in the first place. The season finales were much better before the show switched to a “live” reunion/results show, and this opening format change slows the show’s momentum when it should be moving at full force.
So much of the fun in a Drag Race season premiere comes from the rush of seeing a huge variety of drag queen looks, how those compare to the men out of drag, and the ways those men and their alter egos interact when thrown in a room together and forced to compete for money, make-up, and fame. In that crowd of caricatures, the strongest voices make themselves known while the more forgettable contestants fade into the background and the tragedies end up lip-syncing. The benefit of splitting the queens into smaller groups is that each contestant gets more screen time, but part of the competition is being clever and sassy enough to get the extra screen time on your own. There are some contestants that simply don’t merit that extra attention, and when 14 queens are all fighting for the spotlight, the worthwhile personalities make sure they are seen and heard.
This first group of contestants includes Adore Delano, 23; Ben Delacreme (Dela for short), 31; Gia Gunn, 23; Laganja Estranja, 24; April Carrión, 23; Kelly Mantle, 37; and Vivacious, 40. There’s a drastic split between the seasoned queens and the fresh fish, especially because all the younger ladyboys have been pulled straight off a sushi platter. Adore, April, Gia, and Laganja aren’t trying to make bold statements about gender identity in their drag; rather, they use the female mask to indulge a glamorously flamboyant aspect of their personalities that doesn't fit a traditionally masculine ideal. That doesn’t stop them from indulging that aspect when they’re out of drag, particularly with Gia and Laganja, but when they get back in costume, they’re able to turn the volume up to 11.
The queens’ opening looks say a lot about their style: Adore is the first to arrive, looking like Katy Perry’s little sister in a shoddy blue wig and tight red latex dress. She’s followed by the more polished, mature Dela, a ’50s-inspired Michelle Visage lookalike with a clearly defined character and sense of style, and Gia, who walks out with a giant hula hoop purse (modeled after a real Chanel product) and one incredible bitchface. Gia raises her sunglasses and drops her top to reveal a sleek black swimsuit underneath, and she’s followed by another fishy body queen when Laganja arrives and does an immediate death drop. Laganja describes herself as “ghetto, classy, glamorous,” but that doesn’t all read in her styling, so when she goes for a more ghetto personality, it reads false. Of this week’s fish, April is the most unconventional, appearing in a girl scout/parachutist outfit that is surprisingly butch and subdued for a queen that will later prove to be far more chic and feminine.
The last two queens to arrive are also the oldest, but Kelly and Vivacious take wildly different approaches to drag. Kelly has been doing this for 17 years, and while her retro style is competent, it’s also very boring. That’s definitely not the case with Vivacious, who arrives in a bizarre, attention-grabbing outfit that hides her face to draw focus to the white head resting about a foot above her. (The second head is called Ornacia.) It’s a high-impact look, but the effect diminishes considerably when Vivacious can’t unzip the panel concealing her face, leading to one of the episode’s best laughs during the extended sequence of zipper failure. Vivacious describes her look as an “abstract entity” and “living art,” and she brings a unique perspective that is very refreshing in a room of fish and comedy queens.
The first challenge of the season tends to be some sort of physical humiliation photo shoot that often ends with all the queens ruining their first looks, so it’s a disappointment when the contestants are asked to jump into some foam blocks and pose in the air for their photo challenge. Even Vivacious, with her giant headpiece, walks away without doing any sort of damage to her ensemble, and that’s just not right. (Great editing moment: Ornacia popping out from the foam blocks when RuPaul asks Vivacious if she’s O.K.) The images are supposed to look like the queens are jumping across a television set, but the challenge ultimately doesn’t have much of a connection to this episode’s theme of celebrating broadcast entertainment (#AllTVAllShade).
Laganja, Ben, and April have the strongest photos, while Vivacious, Kelly, and Gia deliver the weakest, and Laganja wins by giving body and mug, putting that dancer body to excellent use while working that face like her drag mother, Alyssa Edwards, taught her. As a reward, she’s put in charge of assignments for the main construction challenge, which forces the queens to create runway looks inspired by various TV shows that RuPaul generously refers to as “greatest hits”: Dancing With The Stars (Laganja), Duck Dynasty (April), Keeping Up With The Kardashians (Gia), Game Of Thrones (Vivacious), Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (Adore), “Downtown” Abbey (Kelly), and Golden Girls (Dela).
Because there are only seven queens, it’s easier for them to separate from each other, which ultimately means less drama in the workroom. Gia dominates the episode with her catty remarks, primarily aimed at Kelly, and without much competition in the shade department, she becomes a go-to face for cutaway interview comments. Gia is less confident with her own designs, though, and when Ru drops by to check on her garment, she doesn’t have much done because she’s trying to really zero in on a specific idea, which at this point includes some type of collar, maybe something coming up along the sides, maybe something flowy, but she’s thinking she’ll go, like, very gownish, maybe, like, a dress.
Laganja may be Alyssa’s daughter, but in this episode, Gia is the one serving up the mix of airheaded bitchiness and fierce style that made Alyssa so memorable. Gia’s head is all over the place, and while she doesn’t turn out the most spectacular runway look, she owns her outfit and compensates with sheer attitude. (Sidenote: I’ve seen Gia perform live, and she was incredible. She came out in a giant hoop skirt that had two background dancers hiding under it. Double-wig is remarkable, but double-hidden-background-dancers is amazing.)
With two exceptions, the runway ensembles are largely unimpressive, which is especially shameful considering the TV show restrictions don’t make this challenge all that difficult for a lot of the queens. It’s not clear if the contestants can use items from their own wardrobes, but there’s no way that Ben Delacreme can make that entire couture gown with just a hot glue gun, right? I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to dressmaking. Are there any comments that can enlighten me on whether or not this is work Dela created herself or simply modified? Whatever the case may be, she looks gorgeous on the runway, coming out with a plate of cheesecake to make an outstanding first impression for the judges.
April Carrión is the other highlight, using a potentially disastrous Duck Dynasty theme to create a look that is appropriate for the great outdoors while still reading as very feminine and stylish. While rocking the runway is important, a majority of the queens don’t realize that their interactions with the judges are a major component of their overall performance, and that’s where Dela and April really shine. Dela’s infectiously positive attitude has the potential to be grating if she pushes too hard, but she doesn’t go overboard with the judges and gets solid laughs with self-deprecating lines like, “I wanted the craftsmanship to go with the Golden Girls theme and look like it was made by old arthritic hands.” Lacking that kind of aggressive personality, April is notable for being so relaxed on stage, and her flirtation with guest judge Adam Lambert brings out a natural sexuality in her character. The only other contestant that makes the judges smile is Adore, and that’s why she’s able to walk out with a piece of fabric hastily wrapped around her and still end up safe.
Kelly Mantle and Vivacious both deliver bland looks that read very cheap, from the fabric to the wigs. Vivacious’ hairline may be way too low, but Kelly’s long red shake-and-go wig is a disaster no matter how she puts it on her head, and combined with her bacon-patterned top and white polyester skirt, it sends her to the bottom. Both queens fail to take advantage of their time on-stage to present their characters to the judges, and when they find themselves lip syncing against each other, they continue to play it too safe. A lip sync to “Express Yourself” should be so much more energetic and fearless than what Kelly and Vivacious perform, but RuPaul can’t get rid of both of them because there are only seven contestants. It’s clear that Kelly is going home once she lifts up her skirt to awkwardly rub the inside of her thighs, and surely enough, Vivacious is asked so shantay to safety.
Despite the added screen time, it’s hard to feel emotional about Kelly’s departure when she gives such a lackluster performance. Maybe if she had been up against 13 competitors instead of seven, there would have been more pressure to try harder to stand out. The season premieres of RuPaul’s Drag Race are usually bursting with energy, and by splitting the queens into two groups, “RuPaul’s Big Opening” can’t reach those same manic highs. Even worse, it means that we have to sit through this again next week, although at least the second group offers a more diverse assortment of queens, including Australian bombshell Courtney Act, brilliant comedian Bianca Del Rio, genderfuck oddball Milk, and the plus-sized Miss Darienne Lake.
There’s enough clever writing and editing in this episode to suggest that the series will return to its former glory once the two groups are brought together in two weeks, but fans have already been waiting for months, so why make them wait any longer? The show deserves some recognition for trying something new, but ultimately, this experiment does more damage than good, needlessly messing with the formula that has made Drag Race one of TV’s best reality competitions.
- Tonight on Untucked: The queens are forced to talk about their relationships with their mothers, and Laganja breaks down because she loves attention. It’s too early in the season for that, honey.
- The scene right before the twist feels very staged. The girls clearly haven’t gotten used to following cues.
- Hurray for two new members of the pit crew! The blonde cutie with the grin is Simon Sherry-Wood, whom you may recognize from The Real World Paris back in 2003, and the smoldering brunette with puppy dog eyes is Miles Davis Moody of “Lick It Lollipop” fame. “They’re buff, they’re tough, and brought to you by the gay social network Scruff.”
- Can we get Vivacious to do guest Game Of Thrones recaps on this site? “I think it was the queen’s daughter went to one of the other kingdoms, and she turned around and had her dragon torch the entire kingdom.”
- Most hilarious material in a TV box: the bag of cooked “Sketti” in Adore’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo crate.
- There’s no Absolut commercial this season and no mention of Absolut when the queens go to the Untucked lounge. Is Absolut not a sponsor this year? And if so, does that mean horrible marketing executive Jeffrey Moran won’t be a guest judge this season?
- Congratulations Alyssa Edwards and Jujubee for appearing in two different commercials: Alyssa in a delightful promo for Las Vegas, Jujubee in a PSA about letting go of AIDS stigma and being open about your HIV status. One of those sounds much more fun than the other.
- RuPaul dropped a new album on iTunes today. Here’s the video for the first single, “Geronimo,” and here’s a link to audio of the speech RuPaul delivers over each track of the illegally downloaded version of the album, an amazingly clever way of getting people to go spend actual money.
- “Just got off the boat. You know, little trip from Asia, just landed like fresh tilapia.”
- “The only thing better than one big opening… is two big openings.” The format change is dumb, but it does give us that line.
- “Check out the size of that sack.”
- I love Gia’s need for validation after failing the photo challenge: “Was that good?” “Was that better?”
- “There are two things I love about you: your face.”
- Vivacious highlights from out of drag reveals: “I could not clock the spook.” “Gia is still a ladyboy, in or out of geish.”
- “If it’s just not giving it, maybe it’s just not for you.”
- “I’m thinking because of your entrance look, you might be able to take Duck Dynasty and make it work.”
- “Chugalug some go-go juice, and make it happen.”
- “So… I may or may have not glued my garment to my mannequin.”
- “Is that bacon on your chest?”
- “Nothing says high fashion like white polyester.”
- “You wanna take that one last look in the mirror before you hit the runway.”
- Adam Lambert: “I kind of thought it was kind of fun.” RuPaul: “That’s because you want to fuck her.”
- RuPaul: “Bring back my squirrels.” (Michelle makes squirrel face and sound.)