The grand appeal of watching RuPaul’s Drag Race has always been to watch LGBTQIA+ people succeed. Albeit, the show does not come close to representing all types of LGBTQIA+ people, let alone the vast and ever-changing world of drag. Since 2009 RuPaul’s Drag Race has graced our screens, having various drag performers present their Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent, in a bid to win a crown, title, and (for most seasons) cold, hard cash. The show has had hundreds of queens strut into the werkroom, nearly 200 in the original American version alone, and is yet to cast a single Drag King. It would be blissfully ignorant to praise a show for the visibility and representation it has given to so many of its performers, without criticizing it for very similar reasons.
We live in an age where Drag Race is blossoming across an international stage, with versions including Drag Race Philippines, Drag Race France, Drag Race Sverige, and Drag Race Belgique set to join the countless other iterations. These have also sprawled into All Stars, and even international All Stars editions. It is a rare week now wherein there are not two concurrent seasons of Drag Race streaming for all the world to watch, with another cast RuVeal just around the corner. But after over a decade on our screens, what can this behemoth of a television franchise give to its viewers to sharpen their interest and fight off Drag Race Fatigue (other than casting Kings alongside its many Queens)? Well, a season of previous winners, of course!
All Stars Seven is a season of seven previous American winners, and one sole UK winner, battling head to head to become the Queen of Queens. It has been highly rumoured and highly desired among the fandom for years, and in 2022 RuPaul has declared we shall receive such excellence. The first two episodes aired on Friday 20 March, spanning nearly two and a half hours of viewing. Was it overwhelming? Yes. Did I wish there was more? Absolutely.
Joining me in my review of the first two episodes is Wellington Drag Icon, Selina Simone.
Selina Simone is Wellington’s very own Retro Renegade! When she’s not touring nationally, or nursing a large Sauv, you can find this seducing siren hosting and toasting at events throughout the windy capital. She’s a campy, vampy, banter’n broad. Sit back and let this vintage vixen take you places you’ve never been before.
The cast features mostly more recent winners, but harkens back to the earlier seasons with Season 3 winner, Raja, and Season 5 winner, Jinkx Monsoon. While I wish there were more winners of earlier seasons, I’m glad these two are here to represent. They are joined by Season 11 winner Yvie Oddly, Season 12 winner Jaida Essence Hall, joint winners of All Stars 4 Monét X Change and Trinity the Tuck, winner of All Stars 5 Shea Couleé, and UK Season 1 winner The Vivienne. All eight performers are masters at what they do, and even from the entrances alone, it is obvious they will all shine in this season of the best of the best.
Selina agrees with me on this. “The casting is really fun. I think it’s really good to see how diverse the cast is.” But she agrees the show is not without its criticisms. “It’s a bit of a shame not to see any of the big girls, which might be an issue unto itself. Although, if we were really striving for diversity then we might have a Drag King featured on RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
I asked Selina who her favourites of the cast are. “I’m really excited to see Raja, a lot of people won’t be familiar with her season or her journey; she’s such a great visual artist. The Vivienne for the visual fashiony aspect. Jinkx for that warm cabaret mum vibe, really fun and flirty. And Shea, the moment with Naomi was so cool.” But more on that later.
Even the editing allows for all the queens to shine, as if the creators of the show decided to cater to every queen’s ego. Aside from the fundamental reading challenge, there is little shade present in the episodes. The performers all clearly get along and have a lot of love for each other. The Vivienne in particular voices several times in the beginning of the first episode how gobsmacked she is to be there with the rest of them. Jaida similarly breaks down, saying how validating it is to be there with the other winners, after winning her season at the first peak of the global pandemic in her living room. “Jaida’s crying is something we can all really relate to, performer or not,” Selina says. “COVID has been so destructive. Imagine being at the high point of your career … It’s like winning the lotto and then being told you can’t have it. Especially with how many winners there are a year now. The opportunity to show yourself to the world is so short.” The queens all quickly comfort her and affirm her presence in the cast, telling her she deserves to be there with the rest of them. It’s really touching to see. “What I like most about the show so far is that everyone’s having a great time and they’re all friends. There’s no drama.”
And we quickly find out that none of the queens will be eliminated this season, instead competing for Legendary Legend Stars, with a cash tip of $10,000 available each episode. The four queens with the most stars will make it to the finale Lipsync Smackdown for the Crown of Crowns, the winner of which will win $200,000. With high stakes and high prizes on the line, I doubt there will be a dull moment this season.
A queen’s entrance on the show is the most important first impression. Both look and line will be remembered long into their career after the show, and especially for the regular seasons, can really set the tone of how the audience will view the performer. This season did not disappoint. Shea Couleé’s orange catsuit glowed brilliantly against her skin, and Jinkx’s simple “… Line?” has instantly become a fandom-wide all-time favourite. The best overall in my eyes was Raja, with her fashion-forward look that elevated the quirk of her original entrance look, paired with the brilliantly delivered, “Did someone order an EYE-con?”
The show then gave us a self-referential fake-out, by introducing a ninth queen to the workroom. Her face was covered by a wide-brimmed bedazzled hat, but she was quickly revealed to be Season 2 and All Stars 1 alum, Raven, also well known as RuPaul’s make-up artist. For all of three seconds, the cast and viewers were led to believe she would be competing in place of Season 2 winner James, who has a controversial history with, and has since distanced himself from, the show, but RuPaul quickly corrected that thought. I asked Selina what she thought of this, and she said, “I could have done without it. Raven’s definitely a powerhouse and successful in her own right. The politics surrounding her … She didn’t really need to be here. It would have been funnier to have Juju.”
It wouldn’t be the first episode of an All Stars season without the fundamental reading challenge. Selina and I both agreed that Jinkx’s Gemini read of Raja was the standout, quickly followed by Raja calling the rest of the cast Boogers (watch Season 3 if you don’t understand). We discuss how effortlessly Raja has referred to her previous season and how it hasn’t been thrust down our throats. “There’s a danger to overbranding,” Selina says, and I have to agree. We’ve seen it many times before.
And of course, it wouldn’t be an All Winners season without a stellar list of guest judges. Before the competition begins properly RuPaul brings in Naomi Motherfucking Campbell to critique the queens on their runway walks. She fits right in and you can tell she really cares about making the performers feel good. The highlight of this scene is seeing Shea freak out over meeting one of her biggest idols. Throughout her runs on the show her movements have always been so calculated and well put-together, and to see her nearly collapse with raw emotion was really touching. Selina agrees, “You could tell the emotion there was really genuine. It felt special, and part of what we want from drag and good reality TV is vulnerability.”
The eight queens’ first challenge is to write and record verses to a new RuPaul song, and then choreograph a dance number to match. They are to perform in front of the usual judges, and the extra-special guest judge Cameron Diaz. After having too many cooks in the kitchen, Shea takes the helm with input from the others, and they quickly put together an incredible show. “There wasn’t a booger, they were all really strong,” Selina says. “Shea’s win was well deserved. Shea has such great music, she can really write.” Check out “Rewind”, her collaboration with GESS, below.
Everyone gets good critiques, although Yvie is told her wig is ugly, which leads Selina and I to a conversation about how her art reflects a side of drag we don’t see often on the show anymore. “I think Yvie has a vision. Maybe it is supposed to be inflammatory, maybe that’s the point, and if you don’t get that or you’re against it you’re probably not enjoying her style of drag. What she offers especially in this gallery of drag is integral, it’s more likely what you’ll see at your local, someone chucking a bunch of stuff together to make you feel uncomfortable. Drag is always crafting, adding rhinestones to your corset from the dollar store. The money and the pageantry that the girls put on now is so intense. It’s so far removed from the day-to-day of drag.”
The first runway theme of the season is Crowned Queen. We see many different interpretations, but the clear stand-out is Shea Couleé’s look for “the details, the vision, the references; it all feels really rich and authentic.” Judge Carson Kressley calls it one of his favourite runway looks of all time from the show, which is high praise considering how many looks we see in a single season alone.
The top two queens of the week are Monét X Change and Shea Couleé, both of which are well deserved. Monét displayed her brilliant singing and rapping skills during the performance, and she simply exudes confidence at every moment, and Shea is nothing short of a show stopper. Other stand-outs to me were Yvie Oddly, a talented rapper who can do things with her body so few others can, and Jinkx Monsoon, who met the challenge with her usual humour and charm.
The top two queens perform a lip-sync to “Old MacDonald” by Ella Fitzgerald to decide who will win the $10,000 cash prize and the ability to block another queen from winning a Legendary Legends Star next week. I asked Selina what she thought of the song choice, and she replied, “Are they running out of songs? I don’t know if this is the way to challenge this group of performers by giving them a goofy song. Pick better songs, pick fun songs. Just give us a banger.” Nevertheless, the queens both put on an amazing performance, and Shea was declared the ultimate winner of the episode.
The episode ends with Shea choosing who to block from potentially receiving a Legendary Legends Star next week with the
Platinum Gold Plunger, and she chooses her Season 9 sister Trinity the Tuck. About this new addition to the format Selina says, Well it’s not platinum. I like the format, it’s quite nice to see it shaken up. It’s quite nice to see the performers live with a narrative where they block the best person, not being catty or sad about it. It’s a competition, isn’t that what you really want to happen?.”
If this first premiere episode is anything to go by, the season will aim to cast all eight queens in a glowing light. Selina and I agree it seems very celebratory so far, and there are no clear underdogs. Everyone is a heavy hitter, and everyone has a real shot at winning this season. If only there were more episodes for us to sink our teeth into before next Friday! Oh wait, there is.
The second premiere episode picks up right where the first left off, with the queens exiting the main stage and heading to untuck in the werkroom. They congratulate Shea on her win, and there’s a dramatic commiseration of Trinity’s newly found plunger accessory. With these two episodes coming out at the same time, they stack up to nearly two and a half hours of viewing time. I watched them back to back, but when I asked Selina about it she said, “I had to wait ‘til the next day to watch the second one,” but that she’s “a binge watcher so would rather the whole season at once. More is more with drag.”
The main challenge in this episode is what some would argue is the main attraction of Drag Race, and easily the hardest challenge, Snatch Game! This season the queens will have to impersonate two characters/celebrities with the aim of making RuPaul and the judges laugh. “Weird,” Selina says when I ask her what she thought of the double impersonation challenge. “I don’t know if we needed that. That’s a full day of filming. Probably one of the best Snatch Games ever right, so it worked. Something that shocks me about Snatch Game, especially with All Stars, is seeing people do Drag Kings and winning consistently. It’s such a funny juxtaposition to have your drag competition not include kings, and then have one of the more difficult or celebrated challenges be won by people doing Drag King-like characters.”
Despite being a show that excludes Drag Kings, several competitors across the franchise have gone on to win Snatch Game by impersonating men, including Kennedy Davenport as Little Richard in Season 7, and The Vivienne as D*n*ld Tr*mp on UK Season 1. This season at least six of the contestants portrayed characters who are men, one of whom made it to the top two with their portrayals. It is wonderful to see such hilarious performances succeed, but it does feel hollow in a way to not include performers who do impersonations of men, such as Drag Kings, and yet celebrate their art without them.
Now, onto the impersonations. With a total of sixteen characters to watch throughout the whole of the challenge, I felt overwhelmed as a viewer. Those who were bad have faded from my mind, and those who were good pale in comparison to the highlights of the episode. Although one performance, Jaida as Prince, was so bad it flipped around and became amazing. Yvie as Rico Nasty was one-note and forgettable, but her foray as the enigmatic Boogeyman redeemed her original Snatch Game in Season 11 as Whoopi Goldberg, and turned on the judges. The Vivienne’s performances were good, but her British references got lost amongst the onslaught of American performers. And Monét’s performance as Mike Tyson was perfectly ridiculous but gets lost behind the stronger performances of the night.
I think we can all agree there was a clear winner of the night, but beforehand we must praise the others who excelled. I personally adored Shea’s performances as Elsa Majimbo and Miss J., but I agree that those who won did better. Raja reached a top spot with her performances as Madame, complete with oversized prosthetics and sticks to hold up the puppet’s arms, and her impression of Diana Vreeland was spot on. And after Trinity’s win playing Caitlyn Jenner in All Stars 4, I think we all knew she’d do well this season. Her Luci(FER) was perfectly ridiculous. Selina says, “Lui(FER) was a really cool character. The epitome of that very anti-Christian behaviour. When you think about what we were told from Christianity, it was a summary character, and quite powerful.” And Trinity’s Leslie Jordan commanded attention, even against the strongest performance of the night. Her top two spot was well deserved.
But of course, the winner of not only the challenge but the episode is Jinkx Monsoon, with her amazing impersonation of Natasha Lyonne, and her incredible rendition of Judy Garland, which was referred to in the episode as the blueprint of how to do Snatch Game. Judy Garland is so revered within the queer community that I think there has been a fear of someone attempting her on the show, for risk of failing and failing hard. It seems fitting that her character was saved for Jinkx to deliver perfectly in this moment. Selina gives Jinkx props for referencing queer history. “For a lot of younger queer people, it brings characters back to current times, something really powerful about queer history. Even mentioning But I’m A Cheerleader was so smart. People are gonna look that up now.” Jinkx as Judy saw out the Snatch Game by singing the theme song of the show, only to have her lyrics corrected by Trinity’s Leslie Jordan at the last second. Perfection.
The runway theme this week was pleather, which all of the queens excelled at. Both Selina and my favourite was Raja’s. Selina described it as, “Fashion-forward, we understood the references, you got it and you know who she was.” And the rest of the cast found a way to make such a broad theme reflect their own styles of drag so perfectly, it was a great runway in a great episode.
The top two – Trinity and Jinkx – perform a lip-sync to Adele’s “Rumour Has It.” Both performers nailed it, and Selina agrees. “The lip-sync could have gone either way. Very tough song, two different approaches, but If you’re giving us Adele, I want a soulful, heartful ballad. Give me a park and bark.” Jinkx Monsoon is declared the winner of the Lip-sync, the $10,000 cash tip, and the ability to block a queen next week from earning a Legendary Legends Star. Trinity, having been blocked from earning a Legendary Legends Star in the previous episode by Shea, wins nothing. Jinkx blocks last episode’s winner, Shea Couleé, from earning another Legendary Legends Star next week, but also singles her out as tough competition. And thus ends two and a half hours of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I asked Selina for her final thoughts on the double premiere and the season as a whole. “I’m excited that no one goes home, it means we get to see the full plethora every time. Everyone’s really unique. It’s always going to be very visually stunning. What’s nice about the rules this time is there’s some interest. They could plunger Jinkx each week and she could not make it to the finale.”
When asked what challenge she is looking forward to the most she said, “The variety show. When you give drag artists, especially that seasoned, space to be themselves with no criteria you’re going to have great television.”
I also asked her what she thought of the briefly mentioned alliance between Twinners Monét and Trinity, and she said, “I didn’t get the impression it was fully cemented, it seemed quite casual. Get your screen time!”
And with a quick mention of pushing through the Drag Race Fatigue I think everyone is feeling, I asked her who her front runners are. “Jinkx, Shea, Raja, and Trinity. They’re strong, well-rounded, and unique.”
Join me next week when we review the third episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 7 with another special guest!
You can follow Selina on Instagram, instagram.com/theselinasimone, or on Twitter, twitter.com/theselinasimone.
If you are a Drag Performer from, or living, in New Zealand and would like to be interviewed as a part of this review series please get in touch by sending an email to email@example.com.
Cover image by Tim Wilde, for more of their work you can visit tim-wilde.com.
Featured photos courtesy of Selina Simone.
RuPaul’s Drag Race screencaps courtesy of torrents and screen capture technology.