When an episode features guest judge Khloe Kardashian talking about how hard it is to dress in a way that conceals her labia and it’s still not the best thing that happens, you know you’re on to a winner.
I probably look forward to the return of RuPaul’s Drag Race each year more than I do any other show: it’s one of the most perfectly-cast, faultlessly-produced reality shows out there. And yet *record scratch* one bit of information that leaked in advance of the season six premiere had me very concerned: the show would be splitting the contestants into two smaller groups to compete against each other in the first two episodes and holding eliminations as usual before uniting everyone in the third episode.
As a rule, I’m not a fan of competition shows doing that, because I’d rather see everyone competing against everyone right from the outset. Having a couple of half-hearted “heats” before the main competition starts always strikes me as slightly unfair, because of the potential for a strong competitor to get eliminated in week one purely because they got drawn in the tougher group while their less impressive rivals skate through in the other group against far weaker competition.
I can understand the case for splitting the contestants up at first, editorially-speaking: I believe the show’s official line was that this gives us a chance to get to know all of the queens, without one or two of them inevitably getting lost in the shuffle as the editors try to cram 14 contestants into 43 minutes of television. However, looking back at the show’s history: does anyone really feel that they didn’t see everything that Penny Tration or Alisa Summers had to offer before they went home? Some people are kicked out first for a reason, you know. The only first boot I can think of who genuinely felt like they left before we’d seen the best of them was Shangela, and Ru promptly remedied that by bringing her back to compete in season three.
In the end, there was a slight balance problem here in that the queens in the first show were probably weaker overall than those in episode two, but I’m inclined to think that the splitting approach actually ended up paying off here: both of the contenders who were ultimately eliminated felt like they were never long for this world, and might well have gone out first and second even if the show had stuck to its normal format. Not only that, but it genuinely seemed to light a fire under most of the contestants as they realised that they were competing against a much smaller pool at first and couldn’t afford to coast in the first challenge, so they came out fighting. I’m still not sure I want the show to adopt this approach permanently (much like the team twist on All-Stars, it’s something that was interesting to try out once but I don’t think I’d want it repeated), but I’m pleased that my fears that it was going to wreck everything proved unfounded.
My plan is to write regular recaps for the rest of the season, but since this is the opening show, this time I’m just going to go through the queens individually and sum up the first impression that they left me with.
Adore Delano: I have to confess that I came in to the season already rooting for Adore before I’d even seen her do anything, because she’s Danny Noriega from American Idol, dammit. I mean, it makes perfect sense that the guy responsible for this joyous moment would take up drag eventually. She turned out to be pretty much exactly the sort of queen I expected: sharp-tongued, fast-talking, chaotic and a little on the green side. Naturally, as possibly the biggest Shangela stan in Drag Race herstory, this just made me love Adore even more. Despite being surrounded by disaster in her first appearance (admitting to not bringing enough gowns and not having the skills to make her own), she managed to spin all of this into “charmingly accident-prone”, and also carved out a decent position for herself as one of the episode’s designated narrators, which is generally a good thing for a person’s chances. Her delivery of lines like “I may or may not have glued my dress to my mannequin” suggests to me that she’s likely to fare well in the comedy challenges if she makes it that far, though it remains to be seen if she’ll do as well on the high-fashion stakes – she’s really lucky that she got Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as her theme for the first challenge because her homemade, luminous pink, falling-apart-around-the-edges aesthetic made perfect sense for that show, but she can’t rely on “but it’s supposed to look shit!” again.
April Carrión: I’m worried that out of all the queens in episode one, April is the only one I couldn’t remember without resorting to Google. And even then I was like “oh yeah, her”. I vaguely remember that she did a good job of turning around Duck Dynasty for her runway outfit, and that she was kind of cute as a boy (she’s in that very exclusive club of people who can ironically wear a sailor hat and make it look as cute as they intend it to), and that as far as queens repping for Puerto Rico go, she seems encouragingly more in the vein of Jessica Wild than, say, Kenya Michaels, but she’s still a bit hazy for me right now.
Ben Delacreme: Last year seemed to open the floodgates for queens with a tie to a previous contestant (Alaska was Sharon’s boyfriend, Detox is friends with Willam etc), so Ben Delacreme – friend of Jinkx Monsoon – is filling that role for us this year. Out of all the contestants in the first episode, Ben was probably my favourite – I enjoyed her retro housewife aesthetic, she made me laugh, and she’s got a persona that seems agreeable enough – but my primary concern at this point is that most of her schtick is close enough to Jinkx’s that I think she’s got her work cut out if she wants to win. I’m not trying to say that one is a clone of the other or anything, but so far the show’s had reasonably different winners every year so I’m inclined to say that Ben’s going to have to do some pretty spectacular stuff if he wants to be the second kitschy, slightly retro queen to take the crown.
Gia Gunn: In the tradition of the very best reality TV contestants, Gia Gunn is not here to make friends – so much so that she didn’t even need to say the words, she just showed us that she wasn’t. Right from the beginning when she marched in looking like a Victoria Beckham-esque frow-er, she wasted no time in reading the rest of the queens for filth. Most of this was, admittedy, done in the confessionals, but Gia’s quite willing to talk trash to people’s faces as well. This is both the best and worst thing about Gia: she’s sharp-tongued and quick-witted so a lot of the missiles landed, but I think she hasn’t quite realised that the best insult queens are the ones who also know when to shut up. She feels a bit like a better turned-out Phi Phi O’Hara, in that all of the attempts to tear the other queens down feel like they’re mostly to stop us noticing how unimpressive Gia herself is, but at least for now she’s giving fierce runway as well so I’m happy for her to stick around for a bit. And I’m looking forward to her meeting Bianca, who feels like the only one of these queens who’s really on her level as far as the shade-throwing goes.
Kelly Mantle: I’m a little bit disappointed that Kelly turned out so flat on the show itself because I seem to recall her being one of my pre-season favourites based on her introduction video. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with Kelly, she was just one of those queens who struggles to translate the things that she’s good at into the Drag Race environment, with the result that her confessionals were few and dull, her jokes were hit-and-miss and her runway was tired. She seemed fun enough, and I suspect that had all 14 queens competed together, Darienne and Magnolia performed poorly enough that Kelly might just have scraped through, but at the same time I don’t feel particularly bereft by her loss. Still, I appreciate that she accepted her loss graciously and managed to turn the judges’ feedback on her allegedly Downton Abbey-themed runway outfit into a memorable exit line. “Don’t wear bacon”, indeed.
Laganja Estranja: I know, who would have thought that the drag daughter of Alyssa Edwards might be lacking in social skills? Laganja is possibly the most fascinating of all the queens to me right now, because for all that she has going for her – an idiosyncratic look, a great body and some killer dance moves that will probably help her to survive a lip-sync or two – she’s also the most terrifyingly off-putting person. Her peculiar tendency to shout the show’s catchphrases at full volume all the time rather gave her the aura of a Faking It contestant who was desperately trying to blend in but hadn’t ever seen a real drag queen until two days ago. It’s entirely possible that this was the result of first day nerves/adrenaline, but…I don’t think so. I think she’s just like that. So it’ll be interesting to see if she can rein it in a bit in future episodes, or if all the other queens are going to want to kill her by week four.
Vivacious (and Ornacia): Vivacious’s exit was memorable for all the wrong reasons: walking in Raja-style with her face entirely covered and an alien head (the aforementioned Ornacia) protruding two feet above the point where her costume should have finished, Vivacious sure made an impact – and then made even more of one when she couldn’t operate the zipper that was meant to reveal her face. The fumbling went on for so long that I began to feel convinced that this was all deliberate, and that it was actually going to be Ru in the costume explaining the twist – but no, it was just Vivacious going for club-kid style over practicality. Things didn’t get much better for Vivacious as she whomp-whomped her way through the initial photoshoot (with Ornacia’s face somehow proving far more expressive and pertinent to the situation than Vivacious’s own) and failed to deliver true Game Of Thrones realness for her runway walk. Even her lip-sync was only so-so, but it was enough to keep her around and send Kelly home. I feel like Vivacious’s pretension is such that she has huge potential, but I think she needs to learn to manage the gulf between what she wants to do and what she is capable of delivering a little better.
Bianca Del Rio: Without wishing to prematurely curse her with my support, on the basis of the first two episodes, I think Bianca’s my favourite of this year’s queens. There are several fighting it out for top dog this year as far as the quips go, but Bianca seems to be the quickest and the most observant of them all – and crucially, unlike Gia, I think most of it is just her saying mean things to be funny, rather than making any deliberate attempt to unsettle her rivals. It’s the difference between a Willam and a PhiPhi, I suppose. The fact that she is clearly capable of knocking up an amazing outfit out of not-very-much is clearly going to serve her well, as is her apparent willingness to take on board the judges’ criticism and learn from it, considering how good-humoured she was about being told she had too much eyeshadow on. I realise there’s still a long way to go, but she seems well-equipped for the challenges that lie ahead, so I think she looks like a reasonable bet to make the final, and possibly take the whole thing.
Courtney Act: Like Adore Delano, I had some degree of knowledge of Courtney before the show, thanks to being an avid reader of CFB Goes Pop back in my Livejournal days and reading all of their Australian Idol coverage. Courtney feels like the queen with the most to lose this year – she comes in with a healthy recognition factor and a good reputation, but that means she’s got more chance than everyone else of under-delivering. In some ways it did feel a little bit like the first episode was trying to set Courtney up for a fall, in that she kept referring to her fame in the real world and having been a “finalist” on Australian Idol (she actually got eliminated in the semi-finals. Twice) – and then there was that slightly uncomfortable moment on Untucked when she talked about having sex with straight men who refused to acknowledge that she was really a man, and there seemed to be a bit of a grey area as to whether Courtney was upfront about her true gender with them or not. I don’t put it past the show in the slightest to cast a Name Queen with the intention of knocking her off her pedestal, but I rather hope that’s not what they’re going, because it seems slightly at odds with the show’s stated aim of inclusivity. Besides, I like that Courtney cheerfully admitted that she knew she wouldn’t be very good at the first challenge, but that she was just trying to brazen her way through it and she was sure she’d be good at everything else. That remains to be seen, of course, but right now I at least like her enough to root for her not to embarrass herself by talking a big game and not living up to it, so fingers crossed she’s got some fierce comic and/or glamour chops that we’ll see in later episodes.
Darienne Lake: I did worry quite a bit about Darienne in her first episode simply because so much of her humour was based on self-deprecating jokes about her size, and it always feels like a very short trip from there to Delta Work-style outright martyrdom. That said, I think she’s taking the competition seriously and I think she wants to win, so I hope that’ll translate into enough self-belief to stop her from leaning on the fat jokes as a crutch. The less said about her runway outfit the better, but her lip-sync was tight, so if she can bring that level of performance to the rest of the competition, then I’m sold.
Joslyn Fox: The “ascended fan” trope is a fun one to play out in reality TV – Survivor in particular deploys it well because there’s so much metagame to play that anyone who’s a dedicated scholar of the show in real life turns up with their strategy all mapped out in their head as well as several back-up plans should the first approach fail. Obviously RuPaul’s Drag Race is less about strategy than it is about the ability to adapt and turn it out whatever the challenge might be, but it’s still enjoyable when you get a contestant who just seems so giddily thrilled to be here, and that’s exactly how Joslyn Fox comes across. That she managed to get herself on the same season as her idol (it says here) Courtney Act is the cherry on top for Joslyn, and she wasted no time in telling Courtney what a big fan she was during Untucked. This was handy, because not only did it generate the awkward atmosphere that is frequently a cornerstone of the companion series, but it also gave Courtney some fuel for her “I’m extremely famous already” routine. So I love Joslyn the fangirl, but I’m not sure about Joslyn the queen yet. Some of her jokes were fun (screw everyone else, I thought the “IHOP” gag was funny) and I actually thought that she saved her Quinceañera outfit by over-accessorising it, because it sort of worked for me in the sense of “girl who is too young to have any taste yet”, but I still get the sense that she’s not going to last much longer.
Magnolia Crawford: Although Magnolia’s exit was so obvious that it might as well have been painted all over the workroom ceiling, I did find myself briefly hoping she would stick around because she’s pretty cute as a boy. Then I realised that there are actually a lot of contestants this year who are hot when they’re de-dragged, and that if that was really all that Magnolia was bringing to the proceedings, then she was surplus to requirements. It wasn’t the only thing she was bringing, of course: there was also that stank attitude as she whined endlessly about getting “hoedown” for her runway theme and how tacky all of the fabrics she’d been given were. I found this slightly baffling considering that before the challenge started she was describing herself as a “glamorous trash queen”, and it didn’t strike me as terribly difficult to string a bit of denim and cheesecloth together and make a look that worked for that aesthetic. But clearly Magnolia wasn’t interested in trying, as evidenced by her wig (the last time I saw that much wig underlining on display, Roxxxy Andrews was about to whip it off to reveal another one underneath) and her bizarre lip synch, in which she didn’t even attempt to dance or indeed to mime along to the actual lyrics. And then she had a meltdown on Untucked claiming that she didn’t care if she stayed or not because she was only here for the exposure. Well, girl, you’ve been exposed, so…well done, I guess?
Milk: Well, if the competition this year was “who is the hottest boy?”, then Milk would run away with the whole thing because DAYUM. In fact I think Milk might be the handsomest queen out of drag that this show has ever had. Milk is this season’s obligatory “I do weird shit” queen, as demonstrated by her painting a gap onto her teeth and deciding to strut out on the runway with a big goaty beard (and yes, I do mean “goaty” and not “goatee”) because reasons. I liked the outfit that she came up with for her toga theme, and I think she’s got a lot of potential, but I don’t know if I quite “get” Milk yet. At least with some of the other high-concept queens like Raja and Sharon Needles, I felt like I understood what they were going for right from minute one, even if I didn’t always like it. With Milk, I get the feeling that the identity is still a bit of a work-in-progress. Still, WOOF WOOF eh lads?
Trinity K. Bonet: Trinity was another one of my pre-show favourites, and she at least seems to be showing signs of being worth the investment so far. Out of all the queens, I think she gives the best “frank” confessionals (in terms of actually saying what she’s thinking rather than just doling out quips or shade), and I like her butch-but-beautiful aesthetic – and the outfit that she turned out for her Princess Party runway showed plenty of skill and imagination, even if she needs to remember to always take off the last thing she put on, or whatever it was that Coco Chanel said that time. Hopefully she’ll turn out to have some comedic skill – she seems funny, but I worry that there are so many capital-f-funny queens this year that she might get lost in the shuffle in the comedy challenges – because otherwise I think she’ll struggle with challenges that don’t revolve around pulling off a strong look, but I’m hoping she can prove adaptable.
Next week: guest judges Lena Headey and Linda Blair. Do you really need to know anything else?