Start your engines! RuPaul’s Drag Race UK is back for a second season. Lee Williscroft-Ferris gives his view on the first episode.
It’s fair to say expectations were mixed when RuPaul announced his foray into the British drag scene last year. Would the highly popular show ‘translate’ across the Atlantic? Would the judges ‘get’ UK drag? In the end, season 1 of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK was a triumph with just the right blend of runway glamour and trademark British brashness to create TV gold.
So, it was with excitement that we learned that the show had been commissioned for a second season. If ever we needed some light-hearted relief, it’s now, in the midst of a global pandemic that sees us largely confined to our homes. Indeed, the show itself was affected by COVID-19 with production grinding to a halt last year as restrictions kicked in. Nevertheless, the first episode of season 2 premiered last night. Social media was abuzz in the aftermath, with many viewers gagged at the line-up, the runway looks and the outcome.
A queen’s entrance into the Werk Room can set the tone for their whole Drag Race story. We had some truly amazing opening gambits last year, including “I didn’t become just a little bit of a slag – I became a total slag” (take a bow, Vinegar Strokes). This year’s entrances were a glorious mix of the polished, the kooky and the downright hilarious. Let’s be honest, would the US version have kept Cherry Valentine’s elaborate headpiece falling off in the final cut? I doubt it. But this is what the producers do so well with the UK edition, giving us the things we expect from RDPR with the rough edges of British drag that we all love so much. Props have to go to Asttina Mandella, however, for looking cold-faced into the lens and announcing her arrival with “Rude”. I’ve been waiting years for that. In terms of looks, we had the standard combination of glamour (Tayce), cabaret (Joe Black), camp (Ginny Lemon) and the ones who spend an awful lot of time perfecting their make-up skills (Ellie Diamond).
The scene was set for the queens to face their first mini-challenge – the (in)famous photoshoot; this year, the theme was ‘Wimbled’Hun’ (I live); cue ball-related gags aplenty alongside queens squealing as they’re pelted with tennis balls while trying to strike a winning pose. As ever, there were those who served comedy (Lawrence Chaney), those who brought poise (Tayce) and some who just didn’t cope all that well (Sister Sister). In the end, Lawrence Chaney was selected as the winner, which was a ‘choice’. The victorious queen swiftly introduced us to her self-deprecating sense of humour, reacting to her win with “I know the girls are jealous of how beautiful I look ’cause none of them could do it – look that bad in a winning picture”. Amazing.
For the main challenge, the contestants were asked to serve two looks: UK Gay Icons and Queen of Your Home Town. As you would expect, both categories included hits and misses to varying degrees. Ginny Lemon’s Kate Bush was pretty iconic and while Bimini Bon-Boulash chose a more obscure ‘icon’ in Princess Julia, the motivation behind it was admirable. Many queens remained firmly in their comfort zone, choosing a carbon-copy approach to their presentation, nailing the look but not necessarily adding anything to make it pop (Cherry Valentine as Freddie Mercury, Ellie Diamond as Lily Savage, Veronica Green’s Boy George, for example). In the case of Joe Black, her Bowie illusion was perhaps too far removed from the man himself for the audience to make a link. It’s a difficult balancing act – not all queens excel at it.
The home town category is a tricky one. The simple truth is that queens from smaller towns are at a disadvantage here. After all, what *does* one wear to reflect the uniqueness of Darlington? Overall, however, they queens did a good job of it. Highlights came from Asttina Mandella, whose East London look combined authentic realness with a soupçon of comedy (fried chicken, anyone?) and Lawrence Chaney’s take on Charles Rennie Mackintosh/Glasgow, which was stunning. Fellow Scott, Ellie Diamond, also struck gold with her take on Dennis the Mance. Meanwhile, A’Whora’s confidence was disproportionate to her Robin Hood-inspired presentation while Sister Sister also struggled to make an impression. Graham Norton’s bemused expression spoke for us all as Tayce emerged in a hideous Wales flag-themed feathered concoction.
Ginny Lemon, Tia Kofi, Cherry Valentine, Veronica Green, A’Whora and Tayce were all declared ‘safe’. The latter two queens had a lucky escape in my opinion although admittedly, perceptions are often subjective when it comes to drag. We were then treated to the judges’ critiques of the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ queens. Joe Black was criticised for his David Bowie tribute, which the judges felt was too far removed from the man himself, while his take on Brighton Pavilion faltered because the reference was lost in translation. The judges felt that Bimini Bon-Boulash had struggled to make her personality shine on the runway, while Sister Sister was advised by Michelle Visage to ‘go big or go home’.
The top three queens were Asttina Mandella, Lawrence Chaney and Ellie Diamond, not without merit. All three succeeded in showcasing what makes them special and why they were cast. Any of them would have been worthy winners but in the end, Asttina Mandella clinched it for her Naomi Campbell/East London girl looks. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Joe Black and Bimini Bon-Boulash were selected to lip sync for their lives. All things considered, Sister Sister should have replaced Bimini in the bottom two based on her failure to make an impression with either of her runways nor in the mini-challenge. Ultimately, what should have been a fight to the finish with Franke Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ as the lip sync song fizzled out as Joe Black appeared to run out of steam in the final 30 seconds. Her fate was sealed and she became the first queen to be eliminated from the show.
It feels like this was a timely reminder that your reputation as a ‘minor celebrity’ on your local drag scene does not always translate to success on the RPDR stage (see Vinegar Strokes last year for Exhibit B). Would I have liked to see more of what Black had to offer? Yes, definitely. Do I think she was the worst queen of episode 1? Arguably not but her fatal flaw was failing to pack a punch with either of her runway looks. Let’s be honest – if the audience is forced to use Wikipedia to understand your references, it’s probably not going to work out for you.
As Joe Black sashayed away, we were left with our first ‘story arcs’ for the season. Lawrence Chaney opened up about her struggles with how she looks out of drag – something sure to be explored further over the series – while A’Whora is clearly *that* queen whose confidence appears to exceed her impact. Veronica Green also appears to have emerged as the ‘underestimated queen’ and a sure contender for Miss Congeniality were RuPaul to award it.
Overall, the first episode was full of the features that set the British version of RuPaul’s Drag Race apart from its US counterpart; bawdy humour, self-deprecation, camp-as-fuck drag and jokes that we can actually laugh out loud at. We were left thirsty for more. This is exactly what we need to see us through the next god-knows-how-long and with a line-up being lauded by everyone on both sides of the Atlantic, it looks like we’re in for quite the ride.
Queens to watch: Asttina Mandella, Ginny Lemon, Lawrence Chaney, Ellie Diamond, Veronica Green
You in danger, gurl: Sister Sister, A’Whora, Tayce
Follow Lee on Twitter (@MXOFO)
Click here for the TQ review of Episode 2.