Everything old is new again in RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12’s premiere. Just like Season 6, the cast is split into two premieres over two weeks, with seven of the queens competing this week. Just like Season 7, there’s a Fashion Week mini-challenge in which the queens must walk in spring and fall runways. And like what was introduced in All Stars 2, the top two queens are the ones to lip sync instead of the bottom two, and though it’s not specifically called a “Lip Sync for Your Legacy,” the winner still gets a cash tip for their victory.
That last bit is the real gag of this premiere, which is otherwise fairly standard, and borders on the unoriginal. I think the problem with the episode is one of branding, which acts like these twists are new and fresh when they aren’t. (The mini-challenge even uses the same font as the Season 7 version.) If RuPaul and his cohort branded this premiere as a blending of previous premiere elements—call it a “RuMixed” premiere, or something—it would have been fine. But as it stands, the episode is just a little stale.
The queens are less so, although some of their entrance lines as they first come into the workroom reek of overproduction. I’m speaking in particular of Brita Not Filter, who is first in and brings a prop martini glass to drink from. Brita is someone who’s been speculated about appearing on Drag Race for years, though she claims this is her first time applying (although I’ve heard that’s not the case). It’s fair to assume she’s thought a lot about how to present herself on this platform, and that likely is the cause for her overthinking. French transplant Nicky Doll and Persian princess Jackie Cox bring in awkward taglines (“Well, that was a long flight!” Nicky mumbles) that don’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Other queens either nail the assignment, like Kansas City’s own Widow Von’Du getting a full shriek out of me with “Relax your throat, bitches, ‘cause you’re gagging.” Others keep it simple, like Los Angeles drag prodigy Gigi Goode, who walks into the workroom full pirate regalia and drops a mere “Ahoy.” It’s almost an anti-tagline. This one delights small-town queen Heidi N. Closet, who loves the Pirates of the Caribbean aesthetic and instantly charms us with her personality and ad-libs. (She accidentally calls her pink leopard print entrance look “leprosy print.”) Throw in Crystal Methyd, a gonzo clown queen who draws skepticism from all but Missouri sister Widow (who warns she’s got the goods), and we’ve got our first seven queens.
The mini-challenge is mostly just a chance for the queens to show off two other looks, although we get two big takeaways from it: One, Gigi is a polished fashion girl. Her looks fit her beautifully, and the way she stomps the runway recalls Raja all the way back in Season 3. The other is that Heidi is set to be this season’s ultra-charismatic mess, in the vein of Shangela, Chi Chi DeVayne, and Vanessa Vanjie Mateo before her. Her headpiece falls off as she walks the runway the first time, but to her credit, she plays it off well. Then, the second time, she throws in a death drop mid-runway, just because. Love her already.
And then…*sigh* It’s time for the first de-dragging segment. Listen, I know it’s part of the show and has been for years, but I have to take issue with the amount of time we spend on the queens changing into boy drag. Not only is it deeply un-novel at this point—we get the boys are cute—it also reinforces the idea that this transformation from women to men is a cornerstone part of the show.
The Season 12 cast announcement was widely criticized by fans and alumni alike for its lack of gender representation. Segments like this feel dated, and wouldn’t be appropriate if the show made room for trans queens, bio queens, drag kings and so on. Dropping them is at least a small step toward greater and broader representation.
But I digress. The main challenge is to perform individual rap verses as a group on the main stage, as well as choreograph the full performance. I personally don’t love when queens have to handle their own choreography—mostly because it just never looks great. Choreography is a very specific skill, and even the best dancers can be bad at it. (Remember how much Kennedy Davenport, the Dancing Diva of Texas, struggled in All Stars 3?) RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’s Frock Destroyers were one of the only examples of a good self-choreographed routine, thanks to series fan favourite Divina de Campo. And there were only three queens in that group, not seven.
I would much rather have seen more of the writing and recording process for this challenge than the choreography, particularly since the drama we get out of it, a minor disagreement between Widow, Jackie and Brita, is a non-starter. It mostly just involves the queens spinning their wheels and venting their frustrations in confessionals. Meanwhile, the queens’ verses seemingly come out of nowhere, as we only get a couple of minutes of them writing. And as we saw with MNEK in the Drag Race UK performance challenge, the process of recording can be thrilling!
Nevertheless, by the time the girls hit the stage in front of extra special guest judge Nicki Minaj, their choreography is set and the verses are ready to go. Gigi and Widow impress most, the former coming up with a clever verse, and the latter throwing herself into her performance 150 percent. They also both turn out multiple impressive looks throughout the premiere, with Widow’s neoprene spring runway and Gigi’s entrance look being among my favourites of the episode. They are the top two of the week, and get to lip sync for the win.
Heidi and Nicky seem to be the obvious picks for the bottom two. Heidi’s poor runways weigh down her average despite her technically spectacular performance on the main stage. The judges also uniformly hate Heidi’s name, although I maintain that if she were allowed to use her full name — Heidi Nina Closet — the pun would work better. Meanwhile, Nicky thrives on the catwalk but fades in the performance when the spotlight isn’t on her.
But the gag is, no one’s going home! That’s right, this premiere is elimination-free—presumably, both parts of it, else that would be exceedingly unfair—and is instead just a long-form exhibition so we get to know the queens better. This is my favourite element of the premiere, and why I’ll forgive the less dynamic bits. Drag Race really overstuffed its cast last season with filler, giving us weeks upon weeks of boring eliminations and no real narrative momentum until the top seven.
By doing this, Drag Race gets to keep its cast smaller (13 queens) while keeping the same number of episodes. It’s a smart trick and shows the production team is working hard to respond to the criticisms of Season 11. If anything, I think they’ve perhaps overcorrected; the narrative is very much at the forefront of this episode, even when there’s not really a story to tell. And queens seem far more interested in selling themselves as one thing—Brita’s from New York! Jackie is Persian! Heidi is from a small town!—than letting us meet them organically.
It’s all worth it for the final lip sync, though, which Widow and Gigi both nail in their own ways. Gigi’s not a dancer, so a song like Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” gives her a chance to flex comedic muscle the way “Anaconda” did for BenDeLaCreme in All Stars 3. Meanwhile, Widow absolutely tears the stage apart, pulling out every trick in her bag to impress both Ru and Nicki. (Judging by how many times Nicki calls Widow’s performance “epic,” I’d say mission accomplished.) Widow takes home the first win, and $5,000 to boot.
I remain excited about Season 12 after this premiere, even if it does ultimately remind us that Drag Race UK was a special kind of season to be as immediately great as it was. Most seasons take time to warm up; we likely won’t know if Season 12 is superior or not until several weeks in. This cast has a ton of potential, and we’ve only met half of it! I can’t wait to get to know the rest next week, when Thandie Newton and Robyn come to guest judge and get into the meat of the competition after that. We’ve only just begun, folks.
✨ It’s a cute nod to the superb RuPaul’s Drag Race UK to have winner The Vivienne appear as Trump in the intro. A shame for those who didn’t watch UK, who likely won’t know who she is—but all the more reason to stream UK!
✨ Love seeing Raven and company on the sidelines during the fashion challenge, but the Season 2 queen-turned-Ru’s makeup artist can’t hold a candle to what Alaska did on the commentary front in Season 7. Alaska was a riotous faux-Anna Wintour. Raven’s just… Raven. Could’ve even had her do a Toot or Boot segment to cross-promote Fashion Photo Ruview!
✨ Another legs-baring look from Ru, after a couple seasons in which they’ve gotten more prominent. Ru loves her legs now!
✨ There were a whole lot of looks in this episode—five per queen, so 35 total—but if I had to pick a singular favourite, it would be Crystal Methyd’s Freddy Kruger runway for the mini-challenge. That, more than anything else Crystal does in the premiere, shows me who she is as a queen.
✨ “American” is not my favourite Ru song, so this season might be a struggle for me, what with its political themes (the red, white, and blue promo, the discussion of the 2020 election in the premiere’s opening, and so on). On the other hand, I love the remix of “Superstar” that they’re using for the runway.
✨ Nicki Minaj is genuinely great as a judge, both bringing a fun spirit (love the fake “Covergirl” entrance, cheesy as the setup is) and sharp, specific critiques. She gets into specific lines of the raps that she likes, which is new and appreciated. The one critique of hers I don’t like—her hating on Heidi N. Closet’s makeup without offering specific advice in return—she more than makes up for in her Untucked appearance. (Good on Heidi for asking for clarification.) And there’s so much Nicki, too! Another argument for only one guest judge!
✨ Still cackling at Heidi calling her hat falling off a reveal of her “civil rights hair.”
✨ Pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if Ru didn’t actually say “Lip Sync for Your Legacy” when she announced the top two lip sync, and it was changed to “life” in editing. The shot suspiciously changes right as she’s about to say “life,” and it doesn’t make sense to call this lip sync such when it’s very clearly imitating the All Stars format. My educated guess, based on All Stars’ recent move to Showtime: The powers that be would like Drag Race and All Stars to become increasingly separate properties, and thus want as little shared verbiage as possible. Again, just speculation, but it does track with Ru suddenly explaining that shantay means stay in that one episode of All Stars 4.
✨ “Widow! I’m so sorry.” Jackie isn’t my favourite of this group, but I’ll admit, she got jokes.