The new season kicks off with our first gaggle of queens, who do their best to stand out (mostly by flattering Ru’s brand).
Since the closing ceremonies of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s thirteenth season in April 2021, RuPaul Charles has been busy expanding her media empire all over the world. In a calendar year, His Majesty’s Government of Gays and Allies have released an onslaught of programming that should make Marvel Studios shake in its supersuit. We’ve had our sixth US All-Stars, a lackluster second season in Canada, a notably improved second season from Holland, an enjoyable third UK series, and premiered a curious outpost Down Under, as well as vibrant ports in Spain and Italy. With motors just barely settled, it’s time to start our engines once again for Season 14 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The search for America’s Next Drag Superstar always begins with a search for just how to watch the search for America’s Next Drag Superstar. Episodes from The Rupire are split across Hulu, Paramount+, VH1, and its home platform WOW Presents+, none of which are hosting the current episodes for subscribers. Those who can’t catch it live at home or a bar during a pandemic must pay to play. Hauntingly, the cost of access will be conjured up once in the episode as a shadowy reminder of what makes the show possible.
Amidst the desperate clawing for catchphrasery, light one candle for every time a queen says ‘bitches’ in their entrance bit. “[The show] is a billboard” the (hilarious??) Ross Matthews will tell the queens later as if they aren’t keenly aware that branding has become a central objective in the self-titled “Olympics of Drag.” Each queen enters with their preliminary label that will or won’t develop as the competition grinds on.
They serve us labels like “proud Puerto Rican pageant queen” (Alyssa Hunter), “skanky alt” girl (Bosco), or “big, baked, and Black” (Kornbread). Others will sell the product like being a “twisted doll” (Willow Pill), a “bodacious transwoman” (Kerri Colby), “southern savage” (June Jambalaya), or speculative “premiere fembot” (Orion Story). But wait, that’s only seven queens.
As done in seasons past, this will be a split premiere with half the queens participating in challenges and an elimination one week with a fresh batch of queens doing similar next week. The groups then meet in the third week. Overall, this is an effective strategy for getting to know the queens a bit deeper and forms group alliances that are good for television. It does, however, make it feel like it takes a while for the competition to get going.
For the first mini-challenge, the queens have to take emFerrising photos while spinning on last season’s finale wheel. It’s a test of how well one can keep a glamorous composure and sure enough the queen whose whole vibe is statuesque beauty twirls away with the best photo.
The win doesn’t come with any extra privileges in this week’s maxi-challenge as the queens are tasked to perform in the Charisma and Nerve Talent Show (All That’s Missing Is ‘U’). I adore the talent show as a season opener maxi challenge. A well-done talent performance lets us know about the life and mind of a queen and many queens have used this to their advantage to come out of their shells a bit. This is still the case this season.
We get quite an array of talents from these queens. RuPaul, 62, even performs the most elaborate two-step-n-strut we’ve seen from her in an age. The queens treat us to jump roping, African dance, burlesque, an original song, a standup sketch, lip/guitar Syncing, and an absurd performance piece. The challenge does its job and clearly separates the queens with a sense of concept from those that don’t. To win in RuPaul’s Drag Race, message, medium, and marketability must meet.
To win in RuPaul’s Drag Race, message, medium, and marketability must meet.
And there’s nothing RuPaul finds more marketable than RuPaul. True to form, Kornbread walks away the winner of this episode because she pays due reverence/reference to Ru and the show’s legacy. “There’s something about that Original Recipe,” she says beaming over her fresh batch of American queens. After a long time abroad, Mother seems glad to be back on her home throne where it all began.
Trouble is, she has exported an “original recipe” that is more than show structure, it’s a whole aesthetic we can get almost anywhere. It’s like Coca-Cola claiming American Coke is original when their business model depends on a can tasting the same everywhere.
All stock Ru puts in the “originality” of American queens has been diluted by the expansion of American drag abroad. Though international iterations have shown regional variance in theatrical genderplay that are exciting to see, there’s been a pervasive cloud crawling over the globe that is standardizing what is considered “high” drag and it’s entirely based on the taught, glittery, sharply contoured white girl with the Texas longhorn eyebrows that has been acclaimed on the show.
The cost of this aesthetic shimmers as the specter of debt during Untucked. As the queens reflect on the surrealism of this experience, their preconceptions of each other, the pressure of a national audience, and the judges’ critiques of the Signature-Showstopping-Drag Runway, Kerri Colby off-handedly says something very illuminating.
As an Untucked exclusive, we’re shown a moment during critiques in which Ru rightfully covets Kerri’s gorgeous mahogany thigh-high boots. As the queens joke about Kerri selling them to Ru and the other judges loving her outfit as well, Kerri mentions that she might have to sell her Leo statement coak to special guest judge Lizzo just to finally pay off the coat.
We all pay to play in Ru’s empire it seems. I paid so I could watch the show not-quite-live. Kerri doesn’t own the coat on her back. She and most likely all the girls, went into debt to participate. As Orion Story’s elimination after a soggy performance of Lizzo’s “Water Me” reminds everyone, only one queen can win the $100,000.
As we embark on our fourteenth season, we have to wonder if the show is still the “investment” for performers that it once was. In earlier seasons, the queens were part of a nascent market and were still novelties in niche demand. There were jobs. Now, Ru Girls have to compete with ever-expanding local and international markets helmed by a production company that is proudly demonstrating its intent to (over?) saturate if not outright monopolize the drag entertainment market.
Sisterhood becomes of the utmost importance for these queens going forward if they are to survive, let alone thrive after their series has ended. If the inner saboteur movement from series final boss to main recurring cast member is any indication, these queens feel a growing pressure in the face of the deep talent pool they’re entering into. As they’re asked to continually face down their antagonist for the cameras, there’s an unsettling feeling that this season might reveal that the biggest cost of citizenship in the Rupire is an emotional one.
RuPaul’s Drag Race season 14 airs on VH1 Fridays.