Opulence! O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E! You’d think season nine of Rupaul’s Drag Race would have it rough matching up to the show’s still-ballooning legacy. Season eight maybe didn’t mark itself as distinctive in many respects, but it at least afforded itself the chance to dance like Beyoncé in the end zone about reaching 100 episodes/100 queens. But the recent All Stars season truly elevated the entire Drag Race universe to new levels of sickening. Even fresh off the heels of Mama Ru’s Emmy win, though, apparently World of Wonder still has something to prove on the runway. Why else would the franchise shantay its slot all the way from Mondays on Logo (the perfect time to commemorate the total evaporation of a weekend’s worth of hangover) to Friday nights on VH1? (Cue the shade rattlesnake sound cue.)
Impenetrable as the series may still be, it’s going to be murder on the dance floor. Maybe I’m being overdramatic, but I’m hardly the only one. In any case, the ninth season opens without fanfare. Because every opening episode is, at the root, an orgy of first impressions, here’s the rundown on this season’s entrances:
Peppermint. “Sweet and sassy,” and a borderline bad girl sauntering in wearing yet another kimono after season eight’s Madonna “Nothing Really Matters” fourgy. Okay, maybe it’s not quite a kimono in the sleeves, but damned if it’s not a statement to make first out of the gate. She looks and acts like a good time waiting to happen.
Valentina. A snatched Latina starlet with not much else in her eyes on the outset, apart from sheer blue contact lenses. The series moves on pretty quickly from her introduction. Well, because…
Eureka O’Hara. Big-gurl realness makes her predictably big-gurl entrance into the workroom, slinging big shade and boasting Big Boy gurl coifs to the interview segment gods. Yeah, in other words, too too much, and likely another supervillain from the House of O’Hara. “I’ll eat you,” she threatens, and knows you know she means it. But for the time being, she can find sustenance from her chandelier earrings.
Charlie Hides. Among the reasons fans will never, but never, get sick of RPDR: that Crypt-Keeper sound the editors accord Charlie’s mumbled revelation of her age. Fifty…two. And we already know Raja’s into it for supplanting her (false) reputation as the oldest queen in the history of the show. And, ironically, she comes in wearing a full-gown, bifocals distillation of the Cyclops cap Raja entered in way back in season three. One to watch? The specs have it.
Farrah Moan. Farrah enters naked, beaten, contoured, and you just know someone else gave her that nom de plume. Like Naomi Smalls, no one’s ready to take her flat chest seriously, but she comes in wearing the Glinda the Good Witch version of that dress Rose McGowan wore to the 1998 VMAs despite being about 15 years too young to know about that dress, so you know she’s not going home for a little while.
Sasha Velour. After a buffet that’s so far served up nothing but fish and quips, Sasha’s primal-scream entrance at least clears the air, even if her boy-self interview footage suggests nothing so much as The Princess 2.0. Eureka clocks her painted unibrow, but you know it’s only because she has the rug-sized equivalent on her back.
Alexis Michelle. “How do you like them egg rolls, Mr. Charles?” Not as much as I like Arrested Development and Gypsy, Alexis. Which is to say, not much. At this point, though, the theatrical East Coast brigade is very well represented. And Valentina, bless her limited heart, tries to mark the West Coast as the center of the drag universe, though there hasn’t been a Pacific coast winner representing since Seattle’s own Jinkx Monsoon a half decade ago. And yet…
Shea Couleé. “Bitch, I’m from Chicago!” Chic on a shoestring is the name of Shea’s game. And her themotherfuckingbomb-dot-com confidence momentarily defuses the battle of the coasts through sheer force of will…
Trinity Taylor. Until Orlando waltzes in. Trinity boasts of going from “a pancake” to becoming “a Kardashian.” Embracing Madeline Ashton’s “makeup is pointless” creed, Trinity has gotten intimate with the knife. Maybe a little too close, as when she talks about the “astigmatism” attached to pageant queens. Given her Orlando locale, she may be a gateway to waterworks in some future episode. And we’ll all be living for it right there by her side. Or else, the producers will reduce her and Eureka into a rehash of the Coco-versus-Alyssa rivalry. Only a sewing challenge will tell.
Kimora Blac. You know what…who cares. I mean, you’ve seen the boy version of this queen? Not the clean-shaven one that’s displayed in this episode’s workroom interview cutaways, but the bearded, bed-headed (and yes, pumped) Instagram version? Pearl, Lineysha Sparx, Milk, and Raven have some serious competition in the thirst department. Unfortunately, cheek divots aside, she knows it. “Kimora Blac is everyone’s sexual preference.”
Jaymes Mansfield. Making the Midwest look the damn fool right out of the gate, Jaymes Mansfield can’t even bring herself to make an entrance without the assistance of a sock puppet. The entire room clocks her nervous anxiety instantly, but even someone with Trinity’s “astigmatism” could see it from a mile away. She’s a frayed nerve in a platinum blond wig, and were it not revealed by Ru upon entering that there would be no eliminations this week, she would already be working on the lip sync before even unpacking.
Nina Bo’nina Brown. If you’re a Drag Race fan who’s been waiting for a queen to interpolate Osama bin Laden into their extended stage name, (a) your wait is over, and (b) how are we not married yet? Nina’s cosplaying as Minnie Mouse and clearly stepping into Kim Chi’s shoes for the season.
Aja. Season nine’s other Naomi Smalls, only with harsher lines. She seems to be gunning for Miss Congeniality already, or maybe it’s just because the hormones in the room were starting to run high by the time she strutted in.
And then there’s Ronnie from New Jersey. Oh wait, no. It’s clearly Lady Gaga and not a soul was fooled even for a second by her perfect illusion. Yes, getting Gaga represents a coup for the show, and vice versa. But from the moment Gaga arrives, she swallows whole everything that makes the first episode of any Drag Race season so enjoyable: that rush of new talent, the confusion of feeling everyone out, the Fellini-esque muchness of everything. This episode, in contrast to the expected free-for-all, is so gaga for Gaga that it even squeezes out the usual photo challenge (a highlight every single season) and, because no one is getting eliminated, the Lip Sync for Your Life.
That we barely know these queens at all becomes a major liability when the show almost immediately moves from the introduction to the final runway, and we’re expected to judge them both on a look that showcases their hometown spirit and a look that, paradoxically, forces them to imitate Gaga. Nothing introduces queens like (a) removing screen time and giving it to a superstar, and (b) making them imitate said superstar. (Similarly, Gaga’s stone-faced observations during the second half of the challenge also sideline Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, and Ross Mathews from spitting out the writers’ usual puns.)
Somehow, some queens manage to exceed expectations and turn out memorable looks. Sasha smartly follows a pop art-inspired New York look with an uncanny recreation of Gaga’s Artpop makeup, courtesy of Yadim. Shea serves up a gigantic weenie (a “Bitch I’m from Chicago” dog fascinator), and Nina Bo’nina somehow stuns in a crafty, nightmarish oversized Georgia peach head. Aja also manages to make something of a “statement” for her style of drag by wearing a confrontational Comme de Garçons garment, “to show that beauty has no shape.”
And, of course, some statements are made on the other side of the coin, first and foremost Jaymes Mansfield’s Holstein cow-spotted tribute to Wisconsin (and unintentional tribute to the dress that got Magnolia Crawford booted on day one back in season six). But lucky for her, RuPaul doesn’t even bother to isolate this week’s bottom queens, instead directly crowning Nina Bo’Nina this week’s winner over Sasha and Eureka. But can there really be any winners if there are no losers? The emotional stakes seem low enough that when, just before the credits roll, Ru delivers what she intends to be the new “face crack of the century” (that a previous queen is returning to the race), it carries little impact. Even lesser episodes of Drag Race go down like cotton candy, but this premiere lip-synced not for its life, nor the show’s legacy.
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