RuPaul’s Drag Race’s first celebrity edition was a hit—but it could’ve been an even bigger one.
The ratings story of RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race is a strange one. The show, which premiered right after Episode 9 of the main series (RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12), held on to over 99 percent of Drag Race’s audience. The first episode hit big and as ratings for Drag Race Season 12 have been strong all year, it looked to be yet another success story for VH1. So strong were the first episode’s ratings, that I even noted on Twitter at the time that we’d certainly be getting more seasons in the future.
But then the very next week, for what I thought was an extraordinary episode of not just Secret Celebrity Drag Race, but the franchise as a whole, ratings dropped significantly. (This, despite ratings for the Drag Race episode preceding it actually gone up.) The next week, ratings dropped even further. What made Secret Celebrity Drag Race lose viewers, even as Season 12 continued to thrive?
The answer lies in the reception to that first episode, which was just short of outright rejection. I wrote a very lukewarm review of the series based on that premiere, and I offered arguably one of the more positive takes on it! Apologies to Jordan Connor, Jermaine Fowler and Nico Tortorella, the celebrities who took part in that first episode, but their installment was the weakest of the miniseries by far. And so, Celeb lost a giant chunk of its potential viewership from the word go and wasn’t able to win it back.
It’s honestly a shame, because the two episodes that followed, particularly Episode 2, were quite good! They had a spirit of fun and a focus on the power of drag that didn’t sideline the queens or the show itself the way the premiere did. All six celebrities on those episodes—Matt Iseman, Loni Love, Dustin Milligan, Alex Newell, Tami Roman and especially the most A-list celebrity of the set, Vanessa Williams—were incredibly game, brought their best efforts to their challenges, and proved wildly entertaining. I’m not exaggerating when I say the Loni/Tami/Vanessa episode, in particular, is among my top 10 Drag Race episodes of all time.
But it says something that even some wildly positive word-of-mouth comments about that episode only led to a further ratings drop for the third installment. The audience just didn’t embrace Celeb the way it seemed they might after that first episode. And based on the finale, featuring Madison Beer, Hayley Kiyoko and Phoebe Robinson, I can’t blame them. It was a fine episode, but underwhelming after the last two. If this is what an “average” episode of Secret Celebrity Drag Race looks like, I probably wouldn’t tune in for a second season.
So, it’s clear that some changes need to be made. The good news: Drag Race has two excellent episodes of Celeb to go off of when planning for a potential second season, and a chance to get people excited in the format again. Here are the three big things I would advise World of Wonder to do when making the next installment.
The celebrities don’t all have to be A-list, but they should all be recognizable.
Vanessa Williams was a true gag of a casting choice in the second episode, but Loni Love and Tami Roman weren’t exactly slouched picks, either. Loni has been a comedian for nearly two decades and has appeared all over television (including hosting The Real, but also as a commentator on E! and VH1 specials in the past). Tami is reality TV royalty, having starred in The Real World: L.A., but she’s also recognizable for the many memes she’s spawned on Basketball Wives. You may not have known either of their IMDb pages in and out, but chances are you’ve got some familiarity with them.
The same goes for the third episode, which featured Dustin Milligan, a star from LGBTQ2 audience-beloved comedy Schitt’s Creek, and The Glee Project breakout singer, Alex Newell. Matt Iseman may not have been the most recognizable, but as host of American Ninja Warrior, he’s got a clear credit that anyone who is passingly familiar with the show would recognize as notable. Moreover, he and his castmates were all incredibly game, which let any potential skepticism about the host of such a hyper-athletic program melt away.
These celebrities’ fame levels are very different from those of Jordan Conner, for example, who will likely only be notable to Riverdale fans. No knock on him, though, since plenty of the celebrities featured in the premiere and finale were less notable. It’s tough for viewers to get invested if they have no idea who they’re investing in.
Casting for a potential second season has to go for, if not the buzziest names, then at least those who will appeal to the widest audience. Starting with those who have appeared on Drag Race is a good idea; even those who aren’t familiar with Vanessa Williams’ work otherwise at a minimum knew her from her two guest judge stints on this show.
Make the episodes shorter, and don’t air them after Drag Race.
Even the two very good episodes of Celeb didn’t earn their 90-minute running times. It’s just too damn long for what is effectively a silly, fun spinoff of the main show. Thirty-minute episodes would be ideal; hour-long would be understandable and acceptable. But no way does a light, breezy show with only three competitors need a full Drag Race episode’s worth of time to tell its story.
On top of that, while I get that VH1 wanted Drag Race to serve as Celeb’s lead-in, and thus had to wedge it between the show and Untucked, the 3.5 hours of Drag Race for four Friday nights in a row clearly exhausted the fandom. It’s just too much all at once and would remain so even if the episodes were only 60 minutes long. Celeb should function as its own mini-season. Imagine if we got it between Season 12 and All Stars 5, or even later than that? I’d have loved another dose of drag when it’s likely we won’t get much with COVID-19 stopping production on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Season 2 and pre-production on Season 13.
Now that Celeb is an established brand, albeit not the highest-rated one, it should be able to manage on its own—as long as the other improvements are made. Which brings me to my final suggestion…
Remove the competitive element of the series.
I know this is bold coming from me, who loves the competition of Drag Race more than anything else. But let’s be honest: Celeb is not a real competition. The judging is wonky as hell, with queens who outright flop challenges or look a mess on the runway getting the win. (You’ll never convince me that Jordan Connor winning over Jermaine Fowler for Snatch Game made even one lick of sense.) One episode even featured a three-way tie, which is the equivalent of taking the competitive element out anyway.
Honestly, just give $20,000 to the charity of the celebrity’s choice as a reward for making it through the challenge, runway and lip sync. Everyone wins, because doing drag is the win! Everybody say love! All that good shit.
Celeb doesn’t need to be a competition to thrive. It can just be a showcase of celebrities trying out this art form, guided by some of the best alumni in series herstory.
I really do think there’s something of value in Secret Celebrity Drag Race. I don’t think the ratings are a reflection of the show itself, but of the choice to start on a rough first episode. And I know there’s a way to make the format work. A few tweaks in casting, structure, and timing, and I do believe VH1 could really have a hit on its hands.