It’s been a year to the day since the premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 11. British fans were treated to the delightful first season of Drag Race UK last fall, but for those American viewers who couldn’t follow a week behind on Logo, it’s been quite a while since the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race strutted their stuff on TV. Hopefully, absence has made the heart grow fonder, but after the time off—and all those Emmys the show keeps winning—expectations will be high. Thankfully the premiere delivers, setting up season 12 well thanks to smart production choices, an excellent guest judge in Nicki Minaj, and of course, a talented group of queens.
The first of these production choices is the theme of the season. RuPaul has often stressed the importance of political engagement, so it’s no surprise to hear “American” as the soundtrack of the episode, and likely the season. The message is clear, but handled with enough playfulness to avoid feeling overly didactic. Going full red, white, and blue to promote and thematically center the season is a compelling and timely choice by the producers. The second is a big one: This season returns to the approach of season six, splitting the cast in half over two premiere episodes to spread out their introductions and ensure the audience actually gets to know them a bit before the first elimination. This massively frees the producers. They can do a more substantive mini challenge, they can really push the queens on the maxi challenge, and they can linger in the workroom dynamics. Even the judging is affected. Each of the judges give specific, meaningful critiques to every queen, and in a normal premiere episode, there just isn’t time for that. Lastly, there’s the cast itself. While we’ve only met half of the queens so far, and New York is once again over-represented, there’s a heartening range of skill sets in the room. That promises fewer irregularities as the season progresses and the ranks start to thin.
The first queen to enter the Werk Room is Brita, a New York comedy and performance queen whose leopard print look completely captures her energy. Second in is Nicky Doll, a Parisian fashion queen from New York. Next up is Widow Von’Du of Kansas City, Missouri, who comes barreling in with plenty of confidence and one of the best entrance lines of the episode—“Relax your throat bitches, ‘cause you’re gagging.” Jackie Cox, also of New York, makes an impact with her Annette Funicello-inspired look thanks to her top, which features her name in Farsi. Jackie self-describes as, “the Persian Princess of drag” and is a cabaret, comedy, and performance queen.
While the first four entrance looks are all very polished, the next queen, Heidi N Closet, is a bit rougher. She’s not as confident as the others and she gets a confused edit, throwing the other queens a bit when she ululates as part of her entrance. She’s ready with the talking heads, though, and will hopefully overcome her nerves quickly. She’s immediately contrasted with LA fashion queen Gigi Goode, who makes a splash with a fabulous pirate-inspired blue and gold look and her confident, minimalist entrance line, “Ahoy.” On the other side of the costume spectrum is Crystal Methyd from Springfield, Missouri. Her garish, but beautiful green and gold clown look is a lot, and so is she. The other queens don’t know what to make of her, but she and Widow go back, and Widow assures the audience that Crystal is a queen to be reckoned with.
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It’s time for the mini challenge. Ru greets the queens for the first time, going understated with an eggplant suit and bright red hat. For their first challenge, the queens need to work the runway in two looks, one for spring and one for fall. Brita plays to her name, with a water theme to her two contrasting gowns. Nicki goes more high fashion with a lavender floral look and a black and white suit. Widow steps up the contrasts with a neoprene neon look and a taupe dress that tears away to reveal pants. Jackie goes retro, with a Barbara Eden mini dress and a yellow and brown pant look, while Heidi sticks with two contrasting dresses, one colorful and flowy and the other more structured, with panniers. Gigi opts for pants for both, going with pastel for her spring motoring outfit and blue plaid with nipple rings and bondage gear for an entirely different kind of riding in fall. Last is Crystal, who wears a magenta jumpsuit for spring, but closes down the runway with a spectacular Freddy Krueger-inspired fall dress. Freddy Krueger, but make it fashion? No problem, says Crystal. The judges, and this viewer at least, are gagged.
With the mini challenge out of the way, the queens untuck, and it’s time for the maxi challenge. Typically, Drag Race premieres feature a design challenge, forcing the queens to create a look on the spot. However, season 12 jumps ahead to what is usually a later-season challenge, a rap battle. Each queen must introduce themselves to the audience via a verse to go with the track, “I’m That Bitch.” They must also choreograph the number as a group, working as a team to deliver a memorable performance. As if that weren’t enough pressure, Nicki Minaj will be on hand to judge their raps.
After the queens recover from this
terrifying exciting news, they get to work. Both Heidi and Widow have experience choreographing, so they’re appointed as leaders. When they get to the main stage to rehearse, though, things quickly devolve, with the queens all talking over each other. Ultimately, Widow steps back and Heidi takes over, and the queens manage to get some work done. When the queens leave for the night, they do not seem to be in a particularly good place, however the doomed rehearsal narrative is a popular one at Drag Race, so it’s not surprising when the queens reveal that they managed to lock in the routine. The tensions from the previous day linger, however. Whether they will boil over or be forgotten remains to be seen.
On the main stage, it’s time for Ru’s entrance, but the lights reveal Nicki, who saunters slowly down the runway in a sheer red dress and leotard as part of a brief, cheesy bit with Michelle and Carson. She takes her seat and Ru walks her first runway of the season, looking terrific as always in a pink mini dress. The premiere wastes no time getting to the performance and ultimately, “I’m That Bitch” is pretty good. It’s fun and energetic, and while most of the verses aren’t all that memorable, they’re solid. A couple queens seem nervous—Crystal and Nicky in particular—but overall, they pull through and while the group choreography isn’t great, it’s passable for a premiere. As in the mini challenge, the format and reduced cast allows these queens’ personalities to shine through and they each get a chance to show what they can do.
For the final runway, category is: Sparkle. Some of the queens had stronger looks earlier in the episode, but Crystal and Gigi make a particular impression. Crystal’s look is head-to-toe red; she’s dressed and painted as a glittery devil, complete with tail and horns. Gigi goes cleaner, with a light green glittery suit and a black latex top. The judges’ critiques are thoughtful and specific, and here Nicki Minaj stands out, quoting lines from several of the queens’ lyrics and giving pointed critiques of their performances and looks. She earns a particular place in this viewer’s heart when she is deadly honest with Heidi. Nicki praises her dress and performance, but doesn’t sugar-coat her feedback, “I hate hate hate your hair and makeup today.” Heidi needs to step up her game, and fast, to compete with these other queens, and she will only do that if the judges are clear and honest with her.
Already in the premiere, season-long narratives are being set up. Jackie is the cerebral queen of the set, but she’ll have to stay on top of her makeup. Brita is a pro, but needs more specificity. Crystal is talented, but she better expand beyond costumes. Nicky is beautiful, but anxious. She needs to find her confidence and get out of her way, and though Heidi is rough around the edges, she’s funny and charming. Then there’s Gigi and Widow. Gigi is stylish, and she seems to have the personality and humor under-girding that to go far. Widow is a contender, with performance skills that will serve her well. The judges’ comments are almost suspiciously kind, with no one getting a particularly harsh read. As Ru declares the queens safe one by one, the tension thickens. Before too long, it’s down to Heidi, Gigi, and Widow. When Heidi is declared safe even she can’t believe it, and the editing is incredibly effective, cutting to looks of barely contained panic from Gigi and Widow. Finally, Ru cuts the tension, revealing that no one is being eliminated, and that Gigi and Widow are the top two.
Rather than asking the bottom two queens to lip-sync, Ru wants to kick the season off with a bang, pitting the top two against each other. They’ll be competing for the season’s first win, as well as a $5,000 tip, lip-syncing to Nicki Minaj’s “Starships.” Both queens go hard, taking very different approaches. Gigi goes full comedy, having a blast with the song and getting reliable and consistent laughs out of the judges. Widow tears away the shell of her white and pink look early, revealing a second, much more movement-friendly ensemble, and dances her heart out. She drops into the first of many splits for, “I’m on the floor” and later shows off some contortion (or at least tremendous flexibility). It’s an engaging lip-sync, with both queens fighting for the viewers’ eyes throughout. Ultimately, Ru praises Gigi, but declares Widow the winner, and with that, the first RuPaul’s Drag Race of 2020 is in the books.
Next episode, the season’s other six queens will compete, and if they warrant and receive as engaging an introduction as these seven, Drag Race fans are in for a strong season. Perhaps most exciting, though, are the indications that the producers are learning from past mistakes. Welcome back, Drag Race, you’ve been missed.
- Raven! Always nice to see her show up, this time during the mini challenge runway.
- Drag Race premieres usually have a photo shoot mini challenge, but the decision to go with a double runway, as in the season seven premiere, works much better. Hopefully the remaining six queens will get a similar mini challenge next episode.
- Jackie and Nicky’s discussion about the realities of life for queer people in Iran, Morocco, and many other places in the world is compelling. As Jackie says, there is a reason she hasn’t met many Persian drag queens, and it’s not a happy one.
- Nicki’s pure bliss at Ru’s “Don’t fuck it up” is amazing; she’s clearly very excited to be there. There are several celebrity fans of the show who will be guest judging this season. Fingers crossed they’ll all be as thoughtful and specific in their critiques as she is here.
- It’s too early for favorites, but I’m already on board with a lot of these queens, and even Heidi—whom I was the most uncertain about—won me over by the end. That queen can dance! Though I’m with Michelle on the kale thing. Hopefully the producers resolve her allergy issue, and soon.