‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 14 premiere recap: Let the games begin

We’re back to split premieres, with Lizzo on hand to guide us through the first

Well, it’s been three whole weeks since Canada’s Drag Race ended, but we’re back! We’re in the United States once again for what RuPaul calls an “original recipe” season. It’s hard to feel like this is much of a grand return for the show, considering just how much Drag Race there is year-round these days. But the OG series is still the biggest hit of the lot, and thus the hype cycle always feels a bit different. 

However, as we saw with Season 13, which had the misfortune of airing against the brilliant Drag Race UK Season 2, “original” does not always mean “best.” Season 14’s challenge will be to deliver such a quality instalment that we remember it even after we watch several other seasons in 2022. (UK Versus the World, coming soon to BBC Three!) We’re starting with a split premiere, which means it’s a little early to make any sweeping judgments; there’s still half a cast to meet.

As an individual episode, though, I think “Big Opening No. 1” is a solid instalment! It feels like a slightly smarter Drag Race, or at least one that is more self-aware. The dolls don’t pretend they’re confused when the RuMail alarm goes off with just seven queens in the workroom—they know this is a split premiere. The All Stars talent show challenge migrates over to the flagship series, acknowledging that queens without established fanbases are likely to give us something more than an original song and a lip sync as their talent. (Don’t worry, there still is one of those performances.)

If I have any critique, it would be about the pace of the episode; 90 minutes with commercials (and not including Untucked) is a lot of air to fill with just seven queens. We get a lot of time with them, which is nice—but we’re also about to spend 15 weeks with these queens. All we have is time! Considering this week’s Untucked is a largely dull affair, one wonders if, as suggested by a friend the morning after, airing two 60-minute premieres back-to-back instead of one 90-minute premiere and Untucked might’ve been a better use of VH1’s airtime. Alas! This is the premiere we got, and it was fine enough as-is.

Ru addresses the first premiere queens in the season premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Credit: Courtesy of VH1

We start off, as always, with the entrances, beginning with Puerto Rico’s own Alyssa Hunter. She’s the first Puerto Rican queen we’ve seen in several (non-All Stars) seasons, and brings a well-decorated pageant background to the competition. Considering how dominant Puerto Rican queens were in the early seasons of this show, it’s fair to wonder why one has never actually won a season. Could Alyssa be the first?

 

“Skanky alternative girl” Bosco, as she calls herself, is from another high-performing region represented on Drag Race: Seattle! Her drag is very different from theatre-focused Seattle sisters like Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme, but as she’ll reveal during the talent show, she’s still very much a performer at heart. The same could be said for Los Angeles queen Kornbread “The Snack” Jeté, who turns the party from the word go. Not since Mayhem Miller has a queen given so much entertainment value by simply bulging her eyeballs. Kornbread is an early favourite, being so naturally funny in both the workroom and in interviews.

Willow Pill (whose name is not a pun on “Little Pill” no matter how much Ru would like to think so) comes in looking like a young Angelyne and spouts an instantly iconic entrance line: “Where am I?” Some jokes are made at her platform flip-flops’ expense by Kornbread and Alyssa, but there’s immediately a sense that there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to Willow. Kerri Colby, on the other hand, is meeting the eye with pure glamour. She is stunningly gorgeous, so much so that Willow admits in confessional it’s actually hard to look at her. Kerri, the drag daughter of the legendary Sasha Colby, is also dressed in the colours of the trans flag, taking pride in being a trans queen. (Kornbread is also trans, making this season, like All Stars 6 before it, one of the few RuPaul’s Drag Race seasons to feature multiple transgender women in its cast.)

Two more to go—and in a bit of foreshadowing, they’re the ones who will make up our eventual bottom two. June Jambalaya is up first, and before we even learn her name, Kornbread informs us, “Bitch, that’s June.” (I look forward to using that reaction image plentifully this summer.) Another L.A. queen like Kornbread and Kerri, she’s a dancing diva, but according to Kornbread, she’s also a bit of a “label whore.” She comes in proudly wearing an Emilio Pucci jumpsuit, but the way she styles it— with a beige undergarment—makes for a puzzling first impression. Also puzzling is Orion Story, who comes in making a whistle tone, then does a whole bit about calling Ru about her car warranty (on a burger phone), then ends it with, “Are you ready, boots?” It is a lot! Is any of it good? Who can say! Not me, because I’m still trying to process it.

Willow Pill wears her signature drag—in Michelle Visage’s least favourite colour—on the runway.

Credit: Courtesy of VH1

When he first meets the queens to introduce their first challenge, Ru pledges that someone will be sashaying away at episode’s end, which feels like a direct response to criticisms that it took too long to get to an elimination last season. If that isn’t enough of a loop to throw the queens, Ru keeps them spinning by harnessing them to the Lip Sync for the Crown wheel and letting her rip. That’s right: it’s a return to the America’s Next Top Model-style photo shoot mini-challenge, making its first appearance on the flagship series since Season 11 (and before that, Season 6!). The queens all acquit themselves well but—shocking no one—the most gorgeous doll of the lot, Kerri, pulls out the modeling challenge win.

From a looks-based challenge to a talent-based one, the queens’ first maxi-challenge is the Charisma, Nerve and Talent Show. (“The CNTs,” for short—and just missing you!) It’s interesting to give the dolls an All Stars-caliber challenge right out of the gate—it shows how the series is evolving. Impressively, most of the queens choose unique talents, including jump-roping, sketch comedy and African dance. Do they all work? Not necessarily! But these are bigger swings than we’ve seen from the All Stars crews lately, and it’s a testament to the Season 14 queens that they really go for it.

Before the show, we actually get check-ins with Ru, which is pretty unprecedented for a premiere. Already, you can see who Ru is most interested in: Kerri gets a whole segment about being raised by a strict Pentecostal mother, while Willow opens up about her lifelong battle with cystinosis (“It’s very glamorous,” she deadpans). I’m a bit ambivalent about these meetings, just because it feels like Ru putting his thumb on the scale too early. But between these chats and the (thankfully very fun) mirror moments, we’re really getting a full sketch of these queens right out of the gate. Kornbread and Kerri’s friendship is so naturally charming that it’s hard to complain about the episode’s pace when we get a lot of them together.

The talent show itself is a pretty strong affair; Bosco and Willow score high for their burlesque and “quarantine self-care” routines, respectively. Willow’s is a highly unusual bit of performance art involving wine, spaghetti and a toaster in a bathtub, but Ru is utterly charmed by it. During deliberations, he says of Willow, “She breaks the fourth wall of what humans are doing on this planet.” Never mind misunderstanding what the fourth wall actually is—Ru’s already giving Symone- or Krystal Versace-levels of praise to his favourite queen. Pencil Willow in for the finals, I’d say.

Kornbread listens excitedly as Ru declares her the winner of the season’s first maxi-challenge.

Credit: Courtesy of VH1

In the end, it’s actually Kornbread who takes the win for her performance of her original song. I’m split on this: it’s kind of irritating that the most All Stars-style performance is the one that wins the day, and I’m worried it’ll send a signal to the Season 15 cast to all come ready with their own songs. But it really is a killer track, and Kornbread dances the hell out of it in her performance. (She also has a milk carton prop with a “Have You Seen Me?” ad for Merle Ginsberg on the side, and I can’t help but love that.) The critiques make it sound like Willow’s going to take it, but kudos to Drag Race for pulling off a surprise win in the very first episode.

Kerri skates to safety for her jump rope routine, which is set to Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”! That’s right, years after Coco Montrese was unable to perform a Janet Jackson number in the All Stars 2 talent show, Drag Race is finally clearing songs for queens to use in their own performances. (Perfectly, Willow uses Enya’s “Only Time” in hers.) Alyssa just barely scrapes to safety after an ill-advised rock performance in which she doesn’t actually play her guitar, while June and Orion land in the bottom two. June gets a lot of flak for her sloppy presentation in her African dance performance: her headband keeps falling off, and she’s wearing bike shorts under her dress. She expresses frustration about this in Untucked, and I can’t blame her. In a talent show, you’d think being good at your talent would be enough. Alas, she winds up lip-syncing against Orion, whose sketch comedy act flatlines.

The lip sync is to guest judge Lizzo’s “Water Me,” and this is an instance of one queen just knowing what to do with the song. Orion tries to keep up, but June is a force. She wins the battle, and Orion is our first queen of the season to sashay away. No game-within-a-game or anything of the sort promised—at least from what we see, this elimination seems to stick. That said, I can do math, and know we have 14 more episodes to fill, so there’s going to be some chicanery this season.

Next week, we meet the other seven queens, and do it all again! Of note, the next group includes my early favourite, Angeria Paris VanMicheals, as well as controversial casting choice Maddy Morphosis. She’s the first cisgender straight male to be cast on the show, which has engendered a great deal of discourse. (I personally think that anyone who comes to drag with a respect for the form and an understanding of its queer roots is welcome.) We’ll have to see how she, as well as her fellow second premiere sisters, do with their time in the spotlight.

Untucking our final thoughts

We mentioned this in our final Canada’s Drag Race recap and ranking (which, if you didn’t watch CDR Season 2, I cannot recommend it enough), but for this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, we’ll be publishing recaps the Monday after, and rankings on the following Tuesday. If you want to make sure you never miss a write-up, I’d highly recommend subscribing to Wig!, Xtra’s weekly drag newsletter. (I even write an extra Herstory Lesson for every newsletter!)

Owing to our Monday publish dates this season, I now have the opportunity to watch this season’s episodes with a group of friends before I write these recaps. To give y’all something extra this season, I’ll aim to share a bit of insight from them every episode (with their permission, of course). This week, they were all in on Willow, and were very surprised at her not winning the challenge. (One friend laughed harder at Willow’s toaster bit than I’ve ever heard him laugh at anything.) I ultimately agree: while Kornbread’s song was great, the performance I came out of this episode thinking about the most was Willow’s “self-care” routine.

The runway theme this season is “Catwalk,” off of Ru’s new (and pretty great!) album Mamaru. To ring in the premiere, he does a brief performance of the song with backup dancers, which is a cute treat. Overall, Ru seems really invested in the show this season, which is all the more impressive considering we’re 14 regular seasons (and, if you include all the other Ru-hosted seasons, 24 total) into this franchise.

As mentioned in the recap, Orion punctuates her “opening paragraph,” as another queen calls it, with the line “Are you ready, boots?” She then calls back to it in her exit line: “Well, boots, it’s time to start walking.” A satisfying arc, all in one episode.

Lizzo makes for a fun premiere guest judge, having leveled up significantly in her career since her previous appearance in Season 10. She remains as game and as invested in the queens as ever, doling out some words of comfort to a crying June and hyping up Kornbread despite Michelle Visage’s skepticism. Perhaps my favourite moment is when she’s evaluating Kerri’s dress made of the letter K: “I’m glad you got a lot of Ks, because baby, if it was just three…”

Poor Symone gets her face covered by the queens’ garments on the wheel, since she’s placed directly below them. Good for Orion for bending her legs such that we could at least see part of our reigning champion.

The line of the episode has to go to Kornbread, describing the fact that she has some butterflies in her stomach ahead of the talent show: “No T, no Asia O’Hara.”

I know it’s a midterm election year in the U.S., but the sight of the “vote.gov” sign at the end truly took me by surprise. Post-2020 trauma!

The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race will air Friday, Jan. 14, at 8 p.m. EST on VH1 in the U.S. and on Crave in Canada. Check back every Monday and Tuesday after new episodes for our recaps and power rankings, and subscribe to our drag newsletter Wig! for exclusive Drag Race content delivered straight to your inbox every Tuesday afternoon.

Kevin O’Keeffe is a writer, host, instructor, and RuPaul’s Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles, California. His favourite pastime is watching a perfect lip sync.

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