Toronto Diary
5 min

The Drag Race Rutrospective: This is the beginning of the rest of your life

The year was 2009. The US had just elected its first interracial president, Disney had just created its first black princess, and Logo quietly launched its new reality series, a shoestring-budget show called RuPaul’s Drag Race. While the show went on to become a cult hit thanks to a small but eager demographic on Twitter and tumblr, the first season was never released into reruns. (The popular theory is this was due to a music clearance issue.) But after four years, the first season has made its way back onto TV. So with 20/20 hindsight, let’s look back on the shit that werqed and the shit that shat.

As diehard fans may notice in the opening shot, things look . . . different. The werq room looks smaller, the lighting consists of a single 50-watt bulb, and the show’s one camera was secretly replaced with a potato. No one noticed. Welcome to Season 1, a time when the show had to scrape by on a budget of pocket change, buttons and lint. And with a smaller budget comes a smaller set of queens: the cast comprises only nine girls, each one representing a different facet of drag. First up is Shannel, the super polished Vegas showgirl. Then we have Nina (the edgy Latina queen), Rebecca (the fishy bitch), Ongina (the gender bender), Victoria Porkchop Parker (the plus-sized pageant queen), Akashia (the stripper), Tammie Brown (the campy queen), Jade (the dancer) and Bebe Zahara Benet (the global glamazon). Each queen that comes after them will inevitably fall under one of these classifiers, but for now, these are your original dolls.

Once all nine girls have been assembled, they get their first video message from Ru. As a testament to how cheap the first season was, they didn’t even hang the flat-screen TV. They had to wheel it in on a trolley. For reals. With that aside, in walks Ru for the first time to have the girls repeat the mantra for the show – Charisma! Uniqueness! Nerve! Talent! – and move on to their first mini-challenge: a photoshoot with Mike Ruiz that involves a carwash with two hunky black men. This might be old hat for us now, but you have to remember: these queens didn’t have the luxury of going in with a general guideline of yearly challenges. They’re going in blind, and their photoshoot with Mike separates the greats from the just okays.

While some of the upper-crust queens like Nina and Ongina take the photoshoot and inject it with fun and personality, most of the other queens fall into the valley of meh. No one does outright horribly, but Rebecca is too worried about looking pretty to do anything spectacular, Porkchop ends up overcome with lust for the pit crew, and Akashia’s over-it-ness shines like a beacon through the night.

Since this is the first episode, the next logical step is for Ru to bring in a bunch of crap and force the queens to make an outfit out of it. In this case, the queens are given items from thrift shops and dollar stores and given a day to piece together an ensemble. Taking a bunch of cheap, disparate elements and turning them into something magical and glamorous is a pretty spot-on metaphor for the first season as a whole, and since there are few restrictions on what their creations must be, it also offers the queens an opportunity to display their personal style and point of view.

It also offers the queens an opportunity to read each other to pieces. I’m a little surprised that anything even gets made, since the girls spend the better part of the challenge bitching each other out. And when they’re not bitching each other out, Ru’s walking through the room bitching them out. It’s a gleeful orgy of shade, but it’s Porkchop who bears the brunt of the loser edit, since she has no idea how to sew a dress. She may be the most experienced, but the moment the producers decide to edit together your entire life story in the first episode, you’re going home first.

We’ve had our first mini-challenge, our first bitchfest, and our first loser edit, so now we need to move on to our first mainstage showing. Out comes Ru in a vinyl ruffle dress and greets our judging panel, including Santino Rice, Merle Ginsberg, Mike Ruiz and Bob Mackie. Wait, Bob Mackie? For a pilot with this kind of a budget, that’s a hell of a get.

Allow me to start off with the safe looks: Jade kicks things off with a tribal-inspired fringe skirt, and Bebe closely emulates the vibe of the prior look with an LBD bedazzled with wood chips. It’s interesting but reminiscent of that one aunt who thinks global consciousness is shopping at Trader Joe’s and decorating with wood carvings. Shannel’s outfit is a mess of plastic orange crap and barely there strips of fabric that is simultaneously too much and too little. Tammie’s the only one who really pulls it out, thanks to a flowing wrap made of J-cloths, but it’s not enough to enter the top.

Speaking of, genderbenders Nina and Ongina rise to the top of the pack, with Nina in a beautifully draped and cinched jacket and a punk-rock Mohawk and Ongina in a dress made of loofahs. While Nina wins and Ongina is praised heavily, they’re also tasked with looking more “girly.” Ironically, the girliest queen there, Rebecca, is dropped into the bottom three, thanks to a barely worked LBD detailed with tin foil. As any entertainer will tell you, there’s nothing more monotonous than a performer obsessed with being the hottest person in the room, and that’s Rebecca to a T.

Despite a tired performance, Rebecca is given a second chance, while Porkchop and Akashia are doomed to the first-ever lip sync for your life. Porkchop’s dress is too much — a mishmash of fabrics, pool-party decorations and beach toys that never coalesces into a cogent look — while Akashia’s dress is too little. Her look is just a dress she pulled out of the pile, cut apart and sent down the runway. As Santino puts it, she looks like she’s about to give a $20 handjob. To be honest, her dress is almost identical to Rebecca’s, right down to the hair, and yet Rebecca just barely skates by, while Akashia is raked over the coals.

For the maiden LSFYL, neither one of them really kills it. They’re given RuPaul’s “Supermodel” to work with, and while you’d figure that forcing the girls to perform Ru’s own song in front of her would light a fire under their asses, the lip sync is really just okay. Unfortunately, Porkchop’s attempt to work in a spin backfires when she trips on the narrow stage, and Akashia just barely edges out Porkchop for the win.

And there you have it. The premiere episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, warts and all. It may not have the polish of later seasons, but it does encapsulate the more magical aspects of drag. You come in with drive and vision, and from that you turn nothing into something. It’ll take a few episodes for it to really reach a boil, but there’s something fun in watching a piece of art reach its full potential.