RuPaul’s Drag Race UK is not the first regional spinoff of Drag Race. That honour, depending on how much you care about the Drag Race label, either goes to Chile’s The Switch (which later adopted Drag Race as a subtitle) or Drag Race Thailand. Those shows will be joined soon by Germany’s Queen of Drags, Drag Race Australia, and, perhaps most excitingly for Xtra readers, Drag Race Canada.
Drag Race UK is, however, the first to carry the “RuPaul” branding, and Ru and Michelle Visage as host and main judge along with it. That makes it fit more in line with the American seasons—no major format changes, a consistent judging formula and so on. We can almost consider this an unofficial “Season 11.5” before Season 12 airs next year. However, Drag Race UK wisely distinguishes itself from the American mothership by being proudly and unabashedly British as hell. And I’m not referring to the Brit Crew, as opposed to the Pit Crew, in Buckingham Palace guard hats, or a challenge that asks the queens to emulate Queen Elizabeth II. All of that comes from Ru and production, and feels somewhat hacky (if ultimately in good humour).
The most British parts of this series premiere are in the regional accents, the pop culture references (my Big Brother-loving heart most loved the Kim Woodburn impression) and queens speaking a vernacular while never stopping to explain themselves to American audiences. In fact, the few times Ru asks the queens to explain some bit of slang, their explanations only confuse the host more. It’s great to see the spin-off embracing what makes it different, damn any misunderstandings from other parts of the world.
Speaking of the queens, let’s talk about this cast. There are some real gems in this lot, including West End broad Vinegar Strokes and Irish primrose Blu Hydrangea. Former Drag Race UK Ambassador The Vivienne and controversial queen Baga Chipz make for viable villains, the former more than the latter in my opinion. While Baga is a lot, she’s too aware of being extra, while The Vivienne has a strong sense of self that will make her a bigger-they-are, harder-they-fall–type target throughout the season. Divina de Campo, Sum Ting Wong and Cheryl Hole all make strong first impressions, while Canadian-English queen Crystal stands out if only for being lower-key than her competition.
Much of the premiere is about the young girls, though, as 23-year-old Blu, then 21-year-old Gothy Kendoll and finally 19-year-old Scaredy Kat each one-up the last as the most youthful. Scaredy Kat is actually the youngest queen ever in an English-language Drag Race series (Morrigan from Thailand Season 1 has her beat, at 18 years old when she competed), and has the inexperience to back up her age.
It’s pretty easy to dislike Scaredy from the jump, as she too-precariously says she’s only been doing drag for 11 months, has never performed live and has never actually been to a drag show. That’s a shame, because I do think Scaredy has something to offer: she’s bisexual, and has a bio queen girlfriend. That’s something we’ve never seen on Drag Race, and something I’d love to explore further. Alas, I worry most will dismiss the bedroom queen out of hand right away.
Scaredy does win the mini-challenge—a photo shoot task that asks the queens to pose for digital postcards in which their bodies will be removed from their heads. But her win is almost immediately called out as dubious by Divina, and I can’t disagree. Scaredy goes with a bit of scatalogical humour that’s designed to appeal to Ru (“I’m shitting myself!” her decapitated head says as it appears to exit her rear), while several of the other girls go with smarter jokes. They’re almost all filthy in some way, though, and Ru clearly revels the freedom that comes with the U.K.’s lesser constraints on TV. It’s refreshing to see Ru’s darker sense of humor come back out; it stands in stark contrast with his rainbows-and-self-help mood on recent U.S. seasons.
For the main challenge, queens must present two looks on the runway (akin to the Lady Gaga challenge from the Season 9 premiere): a look that represents their hometown, and a recreation of one of Elizabeth II’s looks. The cast mostly turns it on the runway, but some dubious judgment calls—Blu just safe? Baga in the top?—lead us to a strange set of critiques.
The clear loser of the week is Gothy Kendoll, and I say that not as any offence to her. Rather, I say Drag Race UK never should have cast someone so thoroughly out of their depth. Gothy claims to be a looks queen, but produces two of the barest, most uninteresting looks. She matches a vivid face of tiger makeup (for the Leicester Tigers) with a boring black suit, while her young Queen Elizabeth II look is an absolute miss. As Michelle notes, anyone who’s watched The Crown would have a better sense of Elizabeth than that.
Additionally, Gothy seems ill-suited to being on TV. She’s not witty or personable, and her big crisis of the episode—insecurity about her teeth—feels shallow. (Not to judge anyone’s insecurities, but as the other queens note, they’ve handled their teeth in other ways—Gothy could absolutely do the same in time.) She’s just a dud on the show—there’s no other way to put it. And considering her young-and-pretty archetype was well-covered by Blu, I feel as though casting Gothy was ultimately a waste of a spot.
Joining Gothy and Baga among the critiqued are eventual winner The Vivienne, who survives knocks about wearing flats in both her looks to take the top prize, as well as Sum Ting Wong (whose two looks are high-impact and impressive) and Cheryl Hole (whose Essex-inspired look soars, but her incomplete Elizabeth look costs her). I’d differ with Ru on the winner—I think Sum Ting is the clear top choice—but the bottom two of Gothy and Vinegar Strokes is exactly correct.
Both of Vinegar’s looks are disastrous, with a strange River Thames appliqué on her hometown garment, and a ’70s Elizabeth dress that is both malproportioned and rendered in a particularly cheap-looking fabric. Are they worse than Gothy’s? Ask me on any given day, and I might have a different answer for you. What I will say is that I could see Vinegar thriving in other types of challenges, while Gothy failed at a look prompt—what’s supposed to be her primary selling point.
The other thing that bothers me about Gothy is that one of her first lines is a dismissal of seasoned queens as “old battle axes.” Judging by her claim that they’re mean for no reason, it seems Gothy has had bad experiences with some. But that prejudgment leaves her in a bad spot: She could learn something from queens like Vinegar, Divina, and Baga—they could help her round out her skill set. Instead, she came in claiming she would be good at one thing (looks) and couldn’t even do that. Given time to mature and recognize veteran queens as more than just “battle axes,” I think she could’ve been a force.
The lip sync is to Dua Lipa’s “New Rules —an oft-requested track for the American series—and Vinegar just wipes the floor with Gothy. It’s somewhat painful to watch Gothy stumble around the stage, pointing awkwardly and move without rhythm, while Vinegar nails her lip sync, does wig reveals and makes the judges laugh. It’s a TKO from the word go, and Gothy walks out the door first.
💋 Wondering about that pitiful grand prize (a WOW Presents series!) in comparison to the US variant’s $100,000? Apparently, the U.K. is remarkably frugal when it comes to big game show prizes. Even raising the highest-possible prize on their run of The Weakest Link to just £20,000—a pittance compared to the American $1 million—was a major move at the time. It’s a shame that the prize is a few episodes of a web series, one that in America will likely require a subscription to the very service you’re using to watch Drag Race UK in the first place. Not exactly a chance for wider exposure!
💋 Untucked is incorporated into the show here! It’s something of a mixture between the U.S.’ typical format and All Stars’ deliberation segments. I’m a fan of this combination.
💋 While I do generally like this premiere, it’s at its weakest when the queens and the show itself try to replicate U.S. Drag Race. Cheryl Hole’s Alyssa Edwardian tongue pop elicits an eye-roll from me, while “Her Majesty already done had herses” gets a full groan.
💋 Though she’s one of my early favourites, I’ll admit Blu Hydrangea saying she’s a part of “Generation Ru… the era of queens who watched Drag Race as kids and wanted to try it out” makes me feel approximately two billion years old.
💋 Instantly in love with Alan Carr, who has exactly the right sensibility for this show. I assumed he’d be the Carson Kressley to Graham Norton’s Ross Mathews, but I actually think it’ll be the other way around. Describing Gothy’s hometown look as “an estate agent that’s gone to Regent’s Park Zoo and said, ‘Can you face-paint my face for 50p?’” is tears-down-the-cheek hilarious.
💋 Andrew Garfield is the ideal cisgender, straight male guest judge: into it and game to be teased, but not making it about himself. (The “gay heaven” line is a lot, but I’ll allow it as a bit of overeager enthusiasm.) Considering Maisie Williams is pulling guest judge duty alone next week, I wonder if it’s just a four-judge panel all season long.
💋 And one more judge note for good measure: I appreciate how the show acknowledges Michelle Visage’s healthy career in the U.K., including her appearance with Vinegar Strokes in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie in the West End. I’ve been through enough seasons with Michelle to trust that she won’t let relationships get in the way of her job. This is a woman who once reduced her tour best buddy Adore Delano to tears. Vinegar winding up in the bottom two immediately underlines that.
💋 Despite some quibbles, I’m really excited for this season! I think this has the potential to be one of the best in years. We’ll be covering it every week on Fridays with recaps and Saturdays with power rankings here at Xtra, so make sure to keep an eye on our social media and keep up with us all season!