VH1 wasn’t lying when they called it RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race. At least, not about the “Secret” part: No screeners, no clue, nothing. I wasn’t able to watch the premiere live, so for the first time since I started regularly covering RuPaul’s Drag Race in Season 9, I walked into the premiere of the franchise’s new celebrity edition blind, keeping in mind what others’ told me: The show wasn’t very good and the “Celebrity” part of the title was dubious.
Upon finally sitting down to watch the episode, and after quite a bit of wine, I found myself…enjoying it? Not in a “this is great television” way, but in a “hey, I’m tipsy, and these straight boys are putting pads on!” kind of way. Give me hilarious Drag Race alumni like Bob the Drag Queen, Monét X Change and Trixie Mattel all riffing with each other while making over their celebrities—only one of whom I knew before the show, Nico Tortorella—and I’m here for it.
Of course, that momentary high couldn’t last. Secret Celebrity Drag Race is absurdly overlong, stretching what’s maybe 30 minutes of content into a 90-minute episode. Like a lot of VH1-era Drag Race, there’s an overreliance on sob stories, plus some dubious judging.
While the focus seems to be about the drag world and how the contestants adjust themselves at the start of the episode, it switches near the end and highlights the contestants’ experiences instead.
If this were a real episode of Drag Race, I would show no mercy. (It made Friday night’s bad episode of real Drag Race look sterling by comparison.) The pacing is an absolute mess, with about half-an-hour of dead time in the middle of the episode that kills any momentum coming off the fun opening. I appreciate that the show is making the celebrities do actual difficult Drag Race tasks like Snatch Game; however, it doesn’t do this signature Drag Race challenge any favours, even by having a live audience.
Speaking of the challenge: Riverdale’s Jordan Connor seems very sweet and is cute as a button, but the idea that his Chrissy Teigen was a better performance than either Tortorella’s Lucille Ball or comedian Jordan Fowler’s low-key impressive drag take on Kevin Hart is lunacy.
And yet, I can’t seem to summon the strength to go HAM on Secret Celebrity Drag Race. It’s just so unnecessary that critiquing it feels like a waste of your time and mine. It is exactly what it’s been designed to be: A post-Drag Race dessert that wouldn’t taste great if you were diving straight into it, but works well as bonus content. (Again, I realize this argument would work better if it weren’t 90 goddamn minutes.)
Plus, some of the show is actually pretty entertaining. As I said, Fowler’s Kevina Hart was hilarious and would’ve won a real Snatch Game. He didn’t just gender-swap a character to cheat in Snatch Game as we’ve seen before (remember Kim Chi’s Kimmy Jong-Un?). Instead, he made the character Kevin Hart in drag as a form of misguided apology for his homophobic tweets. It was pretty high-concept, and Fowler nailed every joke.
On the runway, Tortorella’s look was pretty gorgeous, and their choice to keep their chest hair gave me very Crystal from Drag Race UK vibes. And as much as the show sought to include Drag Race alumni and winners Bob, Monét and Trixie, they seem like an afterthought, as if only to crack jokes and invest in their makeover subjects’ journeys.
But it’s the latter point that I think actually sets a dangerous precedent for Drag Race. Fun as the three veteran queens are, by the end, they are fully not the point of the episode. If the celebrities were bigger names, I’d get this, but for Drag Race fans, the star wattage of three winners is much higher than the folks being made over. On a show supposedly about and for queer people, the queer people themselves (save Tortorella, who is sexually fluid) get short shrift.
And frankly, I could see that bleeding over into the main Drag Race shows. Look at the preview for the next episode of Season 12: The superfans chosen for the makeover challenge are apparently all women. I won’t presume anything about their sexualities before the episode, but if they are straight, they would be a reflection of the show’s increasingly straight female audience. I don’t mind most of the makeover subjects being straight people, but I don’t want their experiences centred on Drag Race, even on a silly celebrity spin-off. Drag Race has to remain about drag queens, else it will feel like a betrayal of the queer fans who were with the show from the very beginning, on Logo with Vaseline filter and all.
Here are my hopes for the upcoming three episodes of this spin-off: I hope that they better use the 90 minutes, with less filter. (For any potential future seasons, I hope they shorten the episodes.) I want to see more of the Drag Race alumni and less of the minor celebrities. I hope the show is better about crediting the alumni who actually did the makeup for the celebrities in the future. I would love to see more queer people being made over, but I recognize that like its predecessor series, RuPaul’s Drag U, that may not be the show’s purpose. Mostly, I want a fun distraction, not anything that takes itself too seriously.
I’d also love some sensical and fair judging! Perhaps that’s too much to ask of Secret Celebrity Drag Race, but hey, a boy can dream.