Review: RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9, Episode 1—”Oh. My. Gaga!”


RuPaul’s Drag Race is back with new contestants on a new network. And there are some other changes we didn’t know about. Is it for the best?

We’re back for a ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. That’s nine seasons of men dressed as women parading down runways showing off their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. That’s nine seasons of gay men getting uninterrupted screen time on TV. That’s nine years of an alternative art form designed to fly in the face of popular culture becoming more mainstream, to the point where this year the show has jumped ship from Logo for VH1, where it’ll have even more eyeballs on it. (Although if you flipped to Logo during Friday’s broadcast, you’ll have seen a “Go watch Drag Race on VH1″ message. It was weird.) Can RuPaul’s Drag Race have it both ways? Can it remain countercultural while still being appointment viewing in living rooms across America?

Well, let’s see.

RuPaul and company have definitely implemented some changes, but we can point those out when we reach them. For the most part, this is still the same show, amped up with the kind of high-profile stunts you can only pull off after you’ve built a nine-year reputation for quality.

But the show will still live or die by the strength of the contestants. Let’s run ’em down as they enter the workroom:

  • Peppermint: An openly transgender queen (the first the show has ever had) with an approachable personality and an impeccable entrance wig. I mean those braids…they were unimpeachable. But her fashion choices this week were forgettable.
  • Valentina: The first of a several younger queens to enter the workroom, Valentina is the sole Latino contestant this year (well, depending on the outcome of that shock reveal at the end). Latinos don’t tend to do terribly well on this show — or they don’t tend to win, at any rate. But Valentina seems fresh, fun and knows her way around an accessory. Her makeup is great, too. She’s a very pretty girl, but is perfectly willing to drag it up with severe eyes and dramatic red lips reminiscent of telenovelas. She’s one to watch.
  • Eureka: Eureka is a pageant queen who downplays the pageant queen label, probably because it’s associated with cattiness and superficiality. That said, Eureka comes off as catty and superficial, but if you combine that with a sense of humor, it’s by no means a bad thing, and Eureka gets a lot of good cracks in. She’s too polished to leave early.
  • Charlie Hides: At 52, Charlie is the oldest drag queen to ever be on the show. It also means she’s developed a professional demeanor I don’t think she’ll drop unless she wants to. I see her breezing through most of the challenges, but will she have enough of an edge to stand out?
  • Farrah Moan: At 22, Farrah is the youngest queen in the mix. (Well, tied with Aja.) She’s very pretty. I’ll let Charlie take this one: “Farrah walks in. She’s a twig, and she looks about 12. I have underwear older than her.”
  • Sasha Velour: All the artsy queens come from Brooklyn, don’t they? Sasha gives off an effortless air of cool and will surely come up with some terrific designs.
  • Alexis Michelle: Alexis is professional, gives great body (her second runway look was a work of corset art) and seems game for anything. Her first runway look was a makeshift mess, though. She’ll need to be more consistent if she wants to go far.
  • Shea Couleé: The lone Chicago queen, Shea is quick-witted, willing to step outside the box (no one else walked out on the runway with a hot dog on their head) and claims to be able to dance. Being well-rounded isn’t necessarily a recipe for success on this show, but it should at least ensure that Shea sticks around for a while.
  • Trinity Taylor: Pageant girl and plastic surgery enthusiast who has a rivalry with Eureka that may or may not be manufactured for drama. Stay tuned.
  • Kimora Black: A beautiful body girl who comes off as a bit full of herself. Neither of her looks on the runway impressed the judges. It’s hard to know how long she’ll last.
  • Jaymes Mansfield: How can you not like a campy, pun-loving blonde who makes puppets? The RuPaul’s Drag Race producers can. They gives her a shaky edit immediately, with Sasha commenting that she looks “scared.” I want to like Jaymes, but this doesn’t bode well.
  • Nina Bo’nina Bananna Fo Fanna Osama Bin Laden Brown: Or just Nina Bo’nina Brown. Or Nina. Girl walked in dressed as a sexy mouse and started rhyming her padded ass off. If the point of the first episode is to make an impression, she succeeded.
  • Aja: The artsy, edgy queen who’s “rough around the edges,” to quote Trinity. Could either flame out in episode 2 or make it to the finale. It’s impossible to tell.
  • Lady Gaga: Derivative but committed. Could go places.

But seriously, it was a fun idea to have Gaga enter the workroom like a contestant. Seeing Eureka have a tearful fangirl moment was nice, too — 10 minutes into the episode and she was already threatening to become the bitch of the season.

Frankly, it’s a miracle that the show has gone on this long without an appearance from Gaga. She fits in so naturally I almost wish they’d let her just compete with the rest of them, but of course she’s here to deliver an inspirational message about believing in yourself and sit at the judge’s table with RuPaul.

That brings us to one of the little changes introduced tonight. RuPaul wasn’t in drag at the judge’s table. That was probably because he had to get up on stage and do some announcing, but I hope it doesn’t recur. The stage for the first challenge is smaller than usual, too. This is either an indication that the show has less money (not likely), or that it has so much it can afford to build new sets for single episodes.

The choice to not send anyone home this episode is odd, and undercuts the drama. “No one can afford to fuck this shit up,” Aja says of the first challenge. Only they totally can, because there are no consequences. What I wouldn’t have given to see one of the queens walk out on the runway in jeans and a t-shirt secure in the knowledge that they couldn’t be sent home…

Plus I wanted to see someone lip sync for their life! At least we got a dramatic reveal instead: there will be a 14th queen added to the roster next week. There are rumblings about who it might be, but we’ll leave it at that. RuPaul certainly knows how to get people to tune in.

But as I said before, the show lives and dies by its contestants, and tonight they were…okay.

Each contestant had to create two looks: one that represented their home town, and one inspired by Lady Gaga. Nina ended up winning the challenge, and she deserved it. Her hometown look — a Georgia peach — was striking, a flirty sundress below the neck and a bizarre fruit monster from a child’s nightmare above. It will haunt me.

She kept playing with her face in her second look, inspired by her sheer pink VMA look from 2009. She did an excellent reproduction, but padded the bust to give it a cartoony feel that expressed her individuality. She walked the line and earned the title of Miss CUNT 2017.

Eureka was a standout, too. She may be shady, but she also proved she can make fun of herself when she appeared as a trashy redneck for her home town look. Her “Telephone”-inspired Gaga look wasn’t bad, either — the girl’s got an eye for detail. As for Sasha, I agreed with Michelle that she brought out one prop too many for her home town look (all the home town outfits on the New York girls looked too DIY for my taste), but she made up for it with her Gaga look, inspired by the singer’s “Applause” video. It looked accurate, but what made it come alive was the way Sasha sold it, vamping and grimacing for the judges as she swirled her shawl around her. This particular outfit also allowed her to preserve a sense of androgyny, something I feel like we’ll get a lot of from Sasha. It was an excellent pic.

Valentina also did a great job — her looks were sleek and chic, but she didn’t crack the top 3. As stylish as her mariachi home town look was, it needed another layer to push it into the stratosphere — something to equal Eureka’s self-deprecation or Sasha’s animation. I agree with Gaga that Valentina was the best model, but she’ll have to push herself a little harder to compete with all the creativity onstage. As she’s a baby drag queen, we could be in for a terrific growth arc.

The judges were right about Farrah and Kimora: neither of the Vegas girls made much of an impression tonight. Farrah was too subdued, and Kimora’s Gaga look was bland. They’re both gorgeous, but they need to find some energy. Jeymes Mansfield was another blunder. Her first look wasn’t campy enough for a comedy queen, and her second was memorable for all the wrong reasons — she’s going to interpret Lady Gaga’s Vogue cover shoot by getting the hair wrong and making like she’s sleepy? Huh?

But I liked her line about Wisconsin being the land of “beer, cheese and serial killers.” No one really laughed, though. The show has it in for her, I’m telling you.

I worry a little about Shea — she’s got spirit (I loved her “Bitch I’m from Chicago!” callback), but neither of her looks quite worked the way they were supposed to. The hot dog look got by on ingenuity, even though everything below the neck was nothing special, but her Monster Ball Tour look needed work if people were going to look at it and know what it was. Hopefully she has some more tricks up her sleeve — I suspect she does.

Overall, the Gaga looks were stronger than the home town looks, probably because the queens had references to work from. That may not bode well for the challenges when they have to lean more on their own creativity, but it’s early enough that we can give them the benefit of the doubt.

So has RuPaul’s Drag Race changed in the jump from Logo to VH1? Not yet. Hopefully, we’re in for the same great show with more money and more attention, until its underground sensibility inevitably collides with its mainstream success and explodes the show into history.

Welcome to season 9.

Next: 15 Episodes of The West Wing We Need Now More Than Ever

Random Ruflections

  • Eureka: “[My] favorite shape is round.” Valentina: “I can see.” Eureka: “I’ll eat you.”
  • Trinity Taylor gets the Alyssa Edwards Honorary Award for hilarious malapropism: “[T]here’s such a stigmatism with pageant queens.”
  • Shea Couleé on Farrah Moan: “I call her Blonde Benét Glamsey, cause she whines like a six-year-old.” A bit of a stretch, but we’ll take it.
  • Charlie Hinds her a long history of impersonating celebrities, to the point where Lana Del Rey apparently called her an asshole. That’s gotta be one drag point for pissing off someone with authority, right?
  • “Shea Couleé, Shebrew National.”
  • “The other girls better ketchup. They mustard about her. I want you to relish this moment. Somebody stop me!” God bless Ross Matthews and his condiment puns.
  • Kimora: “If you’re feeling a little frisky, whatever you do to me stays in Vegas.” RuPaul: “This message has been brought to you by penicillin.”
  • Note to self: find a way to describe someone’s hair as “urine blonde.”
  • I wasn’t feeling Aja’s home town look, but her shapeless Commes des Garcons look fit well with her artsy sensibilities.
  • Ross Matthews on Eureka’s home town look: “Tina Turn-her away.”
  • Carson Kressley: “I wasn’t blown away by the statue of liberty moment. It’s okay.” RuPaul: “Why do you hate America, Carson?”
  • We didn’t get to see the contestants enter the workroom as boys this episode, but there’ll be time enough for that later. Gaga must be given her due.
  • Gaga was a huge get for the show, but she wasn’t a particularly incendiary judge. She was hugely knowledgable about fashion, though, at least when critiquing her own looks.