Almost as if the show wasn’t sure what to do with all that money, RuPaul’s Drag Race has had a rocky transition to Vh1 from the admittedly lower production values and viewership it enjoyed on Logo. While the Drag Race sets and challenges, and the queens out of drag, look more sophisticated than the old days in the fancier new digs, the last few seasons have also felt too manufactured, with each queen chosen to fill a quota: quirky, pageant, comedy, fashion. The talent and even the drama had gotten so rote that by Season 11, my weekly check-ins with the Race had begun to feel similar to dutifully eating lemon cookies while watching Bold and the Beautiful with my grandma once a week in high school. I did it because I loved her, long after the storyline became a bit boring.
All that is to say that I am very, very optimistic about Season 12 after Friday’s premiere. Production made excellent use of the intro. It was split into two parts—a stunt that annoyed me in Season 6—but this year, the extra time read like a thoughtful attempt to show many sides of queens who seem much more likely to break out of their big pink boxes and deliver unexpected performances. When Jackie Cox, whose Annette Funicello schtick might have suggested she’s simply an aspiring Bianca, was asked what type of queen she was, Cox replied, “I’m an everything queen.”
Everything Queen seemed to be the category for so many in the two-look runway show that introduced us to each contestant’s drag. The challenge was to present spring and fall looks, perhaps to highlight Season 12's pivot to multifaceted queens. Widow Von’Du, who is also a rapper back in Kansas City, showed real fashion chops in her hooded neon onesie partially unzipped to reveal the first of what seems to be many peekaboo bikini tops. In contrast to her oddly dull oatmeal-colored autumnal garment, Widow’s spring look was at once a throwback to classic Missy Elliot videos and perhaps a subtle nod to Kigurumi couture that read unexpected and fresh.
Jackie also pushed past the comedy vibes to surprisingly slay in a 1960s Pucci throwback, introducing a Valley of the Dolls aesthetic that I am in love with. And god bless Gigi Goode’s costume designer mother who sent her little boy to camp Drag Race properly prepared with latex pasties and garter-belt riding boots, complete with habit, helmet, and crop for an equestrian look that announced Gigi as the Season 12 Instagram queen fully ready to be ridden hard and put away wet. French queen Nicky Doll seems like the other fashion queen frontrunner, and her feminized tux was flawless even if it wasn’t quite as fun as Gigi’s creations. Another standout was Crystal Methyd, who wore a homemade Freddy Kreuger-inspired safety-pinned oversized sweater that I need in my life right now along with a wig made of Band-Aids. She looked clever and fun, with the baldhead a callback to the premiere of Season 4 when Sharon Needles changed the runway game forever with the help of a hairless pate and a mouth full of blood packets.
The first-week rap challenge was to write a verse to a song called “I’m That Bitch,” which, again, seemed tailored for allowing queens to introduce themselves beyond their type. Rap challenges have historically felled queens well beyond the one week mark (RIP Milk), but of the six queens on stage Friday, there really weren’t any losers, unless you’re factoring in the dance component of the assignment, in which case, bless their hearts, there were many losers.
Widow, who again is a professional rapper, absolutely killed it. “I’m still serving looks when I’m eating these fries,” will be a common refrain drunk in line at my neighborhood McDonald’s for many weeks to come. Heidi N Closet’s onstage acrobatics are going to serve her well in future challenges when I worry that her relative inexperience is going to show like my beloved ChiChi before her. I always root for the unfinished “Country as a Catfish Sandwich” queen, and one of these days my fondness will bear fruit. I believe in you, Slayanna. Don’t eat kale. Gigi and Jackie both had very clever verses that very much played to their strengths, which, again, do not yet include moving their limbs rhythmically to music.
On paper, Nicki Minaj seems like a predictable guest judge, but her thoughtful line-by-line critiques of each queen’s verses, to my ears anyway, sounded more nuanced than Michelle’s takes. Though Michelle disagrees if the cutaways to her listening face were any indication. Honorable mention in the runway show goes to Ru’s hemlines, which have gotten so much shorter in recent seasons, I’ve begun daring to hope some leotard experimentation is imminent.
There was no bottom in the first week of Drag Race, though I’m assuming that next week will see the two in last place from each week battling to remain in contention. Of all the strong competitors, Brita seems to be lost in the shuffle, seemingly much to Brita’s surprise. She breezed into the workroom very critical of other queens’ drag. At first, the suitcase full of shade she seems to have unpacked in Episode 1 struck me as overconfident, but on second viewing came off as a bit insecure. Her look has become pretty standard over the past 12 seasons, and though it’s well-tailored and technically correct, a sparkly peplum probably isn’t going to cut it in a season where Gigi Goode ostensibly hauled in a steamer trunk of haute couture helmets.
The judges said they liked Brita’s “energy,” which sounds like the participation ribbon of runway critiques, as “seeming awake” is pretty much the baseline requirement for live performance. Crystal Methyd also came down the runway in full red body paint wearing a devil costume and, coupled with her spooky drag fashion show look, I have a feeling that Michelle will demand to see something different by week five at the latest, so I hope Miss Crystal brought a blonde wig and a pageant gown. Visage loves to tell the queen who is doing the most to shake it up by doing the least for at least one runway.
Widow and Gigi were the top two queens of the week, and since no losers have thus far been declared, lip-synched for their legacy (and a $5,000 tip) to Nicki Minaj’s “Starships.” As a rapper and dancer, Widow definitely went into the battle as a frontrunner, the second she ripped of that skirt to reveal a tasseled, sequined bikini, I knew she wasn’t going to give up any of her advantages. She also lip-synchs on the offensive, never letting Gigi get into a groove on any one section of the stage. Instead, Widow marched into Gigi’s spotlight every time her cute little comedy routine started to get too good (Goode? Sorry), forcing Gigi to take her act further from the judges while Widow claimed center stage for a demonstration of her double jointedness that is the stuff of confusingly erotic nightmares. For a 21-year-old who admittedly does not know how to dance, Gigi held her own, falling back on a funny yet precise lip-synch that utilized her lanky little Carol Channing body to create a shaky old lady character who collapsed to the floor in time with the song’s command.
Overall, my frontrunner for the winner after one week of Drag Race is Gigi Goode’s mother, who I imagine lovingly packing the accompanying codpiece to that long-crotched leotard that completed the Elizabethian pirate look she hand-sewed for Gigi’s big entrance. My second place is the word “Lemurian.”