This is usally the part of the recap where I bemoan yet another season of Drag Race coming hot on the heels of the latest iteration, before we barely get a chance to miss Mama Ru and crew. But, you know what? #NewYear, #NewMe, and I’m glad to be starting 2021 with all our squirrel friends. (Shout out to Traci Melchor, wherever she may be.)
It helps that Ru gave us an actual real twist to kick things off, and the result was a thrilling, thoroughly entertaining super-sized lip sync extravaganza. The series has been long overdue for a refresh, but the pandemic is forcing their hands to some extent.
The new set-up extends beyond the show format. Judges are now spaced further apart on the mainstage with plexiglass dividers between them. (It’s been revealed in interviews that the entire production has been an exemplar of COVID safety practices on set, including distancing, mandated masks, frequent testing and more.) Leave it to the queens to do it best … and to have fun while they’re at it.
Surely, there are more changes to come. (Will there be guest judges?) However, what we saw in Friday’s premiere episode has my hopes high.
Eschewing the usual photoshoot and bloated main stage presentation, we get to meet this season’s queens only two at a time. It’s great to spend a little more time with queens in a smaller setting, giving their personalities (and egos) a little room to breathe. After a brief how do you do, a message from Ru beckons the queens to the main stage for a sudden death lip sync for your life. No challenge, no photoshoot, no runway.
Lip syncs are already many fans’ favorite portion of the episode, and these six dance-offs do not disappoint. It really gives audiences an opportunity to see what each queen is about. The judges also do a quick little Q&A with the gals on stage, but there’s not much substance to the answers, more of a personality check.
(Petty Aside: Can we all stop calling everything a “moment?” Gurl, you’re not having a “structured moment,” you’re just wearing a blazer!)
Of course, the twists keep coming with each of the losing queens getting “The Pork Chop,” which could mean first-episode elimination OR maybe something else entirely? Each of the “cut” queens get sequestered in the Pork Chop Loading Dock, surrounded by portraits of all the first-eliminated queens from seasons past. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN??
Enough blabbering, let’s get into these syncs!
Round 1: Kandy Muse v. Joey Jay, “Call Me Maybe”
Our true first queen to enter the Werk Room is Bronx’s own Kandy Muse, formerly of the Haus of Aja. Decked out in denim and carrying an oversized retro boombox purse, she’s got a big personality, both in drag and in confessional.
She’s joined by Joey Jay, rocking a fire engine red chicken feather coat, which Kandy plucks bald in confessional for being cheap and falling apart. Joey, for her part, doesn’t take much seriously, branding herself a “filler queen” and saying she’s basic. If you can’t love yourself …
On the runway, Kandy describes her look New York, denim, sexy, which, yes, it is all of those things. Joey clearly is nervous and babbles about clucking and bucking and keeps digging that hole deeper and deeper.
The Carly Rae Jepsen lip sync is a good one. Joey is fine, but basic, so at least on-brand. Kandy, however, gives you everything you could ask for. She plays up the humor, uses her boombox purse perfectly to bookend the performance with a little wink. She does one of those Monet X Change jumping-split fake outs that get me every time. It’s impossible to take your eye off her.
The judges agree.
Winner: Kandy Muse
Round 2: Denali v. Lala Ri, “When I Grow Up”
An ice skating drag queen is sort of like the turducken of homosexuality, but Denali manages to pull it off. Entering on actual ice skates with a Bianca Belair-esque extra long braid, the figure skating queen certainly is memorable strutting around the Werk Room (and ruining the floors, no doubt).
She’s met by Lala Ri, a queen whose flat wig and off-the-rack outfit gives me Dida Ritz vibes.
On the main stage, Denali does the obligatory bit about Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan, but even a cartwheel performed while wear ice skates isn’t enough to overcome LaLa Ri’s charm. Though she’s dressed simply, she performs like a star.
Winner: Lala Ri
Round 3: Symone v. Tamisha Iman, “Pleasure Principle”
It’s not that I don’t like Symone’s mini-polaroid dress, but for an entrance lewk? It left me wanting. What it lacked in razzle dazzle, Symone more than compensated with a sparkling personality and quick wit. (Not to mention that body-ody-ody.)
Her dance partner for this round is the veteran performer Tamisha Iman. Looking fierce, but seeming a bit timid, something is clearly up with the experienced queen. On the main stage it’s revealed that she was originally cast for season 12, but days later learned she had colon cancer and needed immediate treatment. The experience had serious effects on her body, and now she’s first to admit she is not the performer she once was.
You can’t help but root for her, and the desire to see her persevere is powerful. However, when the music starts, Symone’s star power is just undeniable. She’s sexy, she’s funny, she gives us probably the best sync of the entire evening. Moving backstory or not, the judges have to give it to Symone.
At this point, the eliminated queens waiting in the Pork Chop Loading Dock are starting to wonder if this is really, truly the end. Most of their time together is a pretty boring, repetitive conversation restarted with the addition of each recently eliminated queen. The exception is Tamisha, who’s convinced there is no twist, it’s just over for them.
“The lady said ‘Go home!’” she hilariously tells the camera in confessional. For all our sakes, I hope she does have another chance coming up.
Round 4: Gottmik v. Utica Queen, “Rumors”
Makeup artist Gottmik is in next, marking the first ever entrance of a FTM trans contestant on the U.S. iteration of Drag Race.
(Quick point of order, I’ll be using she/her pronouns for Gottmik — as I do all the contestants — in and out of drag. Although Gottmik uses he/them pronouns out of drag, the drag persona uses she/her. However, if anyone has any other insight or correction, let me know in the comments! My only intent is to honor each one of these performers.) Edit: After some discussion in the comments, I’m changing course here to avoid any potential disrespect.
What I really want to talk about is Gottmik’s MUG. My goodness! Of course it’s precise and polished and professional, but it’s also a little Pierrot and a little Picasso.
Gottmik’s up against Utica Queen, who describes herself as a “wacky wavy inflatable arms tube queen.” It somehow makes perfect sense.
On the runway, Michelle asks Utica about her large strawberry headpiece, only to get a reply about rising above a strawberry allergy or something that is so cockamamie even Michelle has to laugh.
In probably one of the least dynamic lip syncs, Gottmik commands attention with a seductive, engaging performance, though it lacks any big, memorable moments to really set it apart. Utica seems out of her depth on the main stage. I’m sure she’s got a lot to offer, but fresh out of the box, lip syncing might not be her strong suit.
Round 5: Rosé v. Olivia Lux, “Ex’s and Oh’s”
If anyone looks poised for a villain edit this season, it’s New York’s own Rosé. Part of the same girl group as season 12’s manic overachiever Jan Sport, Rosé comes in with some reality TV experience already under her belt (America’s Got Talent, The Voice).
When she sees she’s paired with fellow NYC queen Olivia Lux, to say she’s confident would be an understatement. Granted, she’s got the bona fides to back up her claim, and Olivia is relatively inexperienced by comparison.
But, once they get out on that stage, it’s almost no contest. It’s like watching the Tortoise and the Hare of drag. Maybe Rosé was just so convinced she’d beat Olivia that she held back, or maybe she doesn’t have the chops she claimed. Either way, she promises she has some tricks up her sleeves, but … meh?
From this point on, Rosé stews in the Loading Dock.
Round 6: Tina Burner v. Kahmora Hall v. Elliott, “Lady Marmalade”
Behold Kahmora Hall, a striking beauty and sister of last season’s winner, Jaida Essence Hall. Serving face and clavicles in a literal Bob Mackie original, how could you not gag a little bit?
She’s competing in a final three-way lip sync against Elliott (with two Ts) and comedy queen Tina Burner. It’s a little unfair, since a triple lip sync has unique challenges. Tina stands out, while the others just keep doing backbends for every moment someone is belting. None are outright bad, but only Tina manages to shine.
Winner: Tina Burner
With the last of the eliminated queens joining the Loading Dock, Ru comes over the PA to announce the van is coming to take them all to the airport. Michelle reminds her that she can’t just eliminate half the cast on episode one.
Fair enough. Ru hops back on the mic to tell the chopped queens it may not be the end just yet, but first they need to pick one of their own to send home.
Tamisha again has the perfect response: “I’m the only black girl, don’t vote me off.” Classic.
In truth, I’d hate to see any of these queens go. Maybe this season’s real twist turns out to be RuPaul’s Best Friend Race after all?
We’ll have to wait until next week to see whom they eliminate after the premiere ends on a cliffhanger.
That leaves just one more small order of business: Rankings. Most of you have been around long enough to know the drill, but for any newcomers, these are totally, utterly subjective rankings based on nothing more than my personal taste and years of experience as a couch critic. Take them with a grain of body glitter, ok? If you disagree, you can always leave your picks in the comments!
This week’s rundown will be a bit shorter since we really covered the bulk above. Here are some first impressions.
- Symone gave us the lip sync of the night. Tina may be gunning for the top comedy queen spot, but Symone gave us comedy and sex and creativity all in one. She’s got a confidence you can’t fake, and it’s magnetic.
- Kandy definitely is a big presence, but her “Call Me Maybe” performance illustrated how she can adapt, serving demure, cutesy bubblegum pop. The attention to detail is a good sign that Kandy didn’t come to play.
- You can’t discount Tina‘s professionalism (and her background in a boy band likely gave her lots of showbiz tips and tricks). A best-in-class camp queen, she’s going to stick out, for sure, but the confessionals are sounding fresh out of the Laganja school of Draglish. I could see her rubbing some of the queens (and maybe viewers) the wrong way. We knew she can go big, but can she also be vulnerable and real?
- It may be ambitious to put Gottmik this high up. Yes, the makeup is amazing, but … is that all Gottmik can do? How does this high-concept, artistic drag translate to some dumb Drag Race sketch about Tiger King called Tiger Queens, or whatever?
- Even though Rosé seems set up for a similar journey to Brita, there’s no denying her talent. The presentation is iconic, the talent is abundant, but she’s got to bring that hunger (and a little humility).
- Olivia may have won her lip sync, but it’s hard to discount Rosé’s experience, giving her still the slight edge. I hope to see Olivia transcend her experience level with her bright personality and gorgeous looks.
- How Denali did a cartwheel in ice skates and didn’t move forward, I don’t quite understand. The skates may have ultimately been the hindrance to her performance, so let’s see what she can do in heels.
- Already a frontrunner for Miss Congeniality, Tamisha isn’t off to the strongest start. Here’s hoping she can reclaim her confidence post-cancer and come back to the competition strong.
- My lowest ranked winner queen, Lala Ri, needs to step up the style, but boy do I love her energy.
- Kahmora Hall seems to overestimate her lip syncing ability. If she thought she was killing that the whole time, we need to adjust her Ru-bric. She looked stunning though, and I can’t imagine Jaida didn’t pass on a lesson or two.
- Elliott is one of the queens who tried to have a “moment,” but ended up underwhelming. The 26-year-old queen might just need a little bit more seasoning.
- Joey Jay may jokingly refer to herself as a “filler queen,” but I hate to say that sounds about right. Sharp and sexy, I just don’t think she’ll be able to keep up with some of the better queens here. Joking or not, the one thing no queens should strive for is being BASIC.
- Look, I want to like Utica. She’s so weird. (HOW WEIRD IS SHE?) She’s so weird, she makes Crystal Methyd seem as basic as, well, Joey Jay. The oddball weirdo schtick can clearly work on this show, but Utica’s first impression was a little too scrappy thrift store for me.
How would you rank the queens?