‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16 premiere recap: Spring breakers

“Drag Race” fully embraces that it wants its MTV

Do you like twists in your drag reality television? RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 16 sure hopes you do! Remember the Golden Beaver on Canada’s Drag Race? You loved the Golden Beaver! Won’t you also love Rate-a-Queen? That also features the queens getting more power! And immunity—beloved immunity is back! But does it work the same way? Who knows! You’ll have to tune in to find out! And who knows what other twists and turns Ru has in store! Twists galore, queen!

The season premiere really busts out the bells and whistles for Drag Race’s 16th iteration of the original recipe franchise. While other twists are now greeted with a bit of a yawn (these first seven queens clock the split premiere from a mile away), the promise of even more shenanigans—which Ru introduces like a salesman shouting “That’s not all!” after every new addition to the deal—is meant to keep you hanging on for more.

In some ways, this is what is to be expected of a show not just entering its 16th regular season, but one that also features scores of international spin-off series. Changes must be made to keep things fresh amid all the show’s references to itself and familiar kinds of drag that walk into the werk room. Though … do changes need to be made? Drag Race UK Season 5, the most straightforward season of Drag Race I’ve seen lately, was an utter delight largely thanks to the show not producing its queens with too heavy a hand. Maybe there’s an argument that simpler is better as the show reaches older age.

That said, that is not the argument Drag Race Season 16 is making. And with twists inspired by other reality shows (hello, The Circle) and the show’s history (immunity back for the first time since Season 5!), there’s at least a good mix of references going into this season. While I might wish for a calmer Drag Race, I’m happy enough to take on the twists and turns this season.

Half the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 16 assembles ahead of their premiere challenge Credit: Courtesy MTV

Split premiere means just seven queens to meet this week! Q’s up first, a Kansas City queen who’s clearly one hell of a designer. She, like many of the queens this season, is quite confident: in a room alone, she says, “I feel the presence of the Season 16 winner in this room!” Will she be right? We’ll find out in no more than 15 weeks! She’s followed in by Xunami Muse—Kandy Muse’s drag daughter and the self-proclaimed “graceful Muse”—and the punnily named Amanda Tori Meating.

 

The vibes take on a decidedly shadier mood when Miami queen Morphine Love Dion walks in. She’s a body girl with a drop dead gorgeous mug, and—like your resident recapper—spent most of the 2023 holidays obsessed with Eureka!’s gorgeous, lyric-optional lip sync of Sia’s “Snowman.” She’s clearly a woman of taste, and a woman quick with a read! Amanda comes in for the most confessional quips throughout the hour-plus runtime (without commercials) of this premiere. It will be interesting to see if any of that spills out beyond the talking head booth as the season progresses.

More queens! Sapphira Cristál is a stunning trained opera singer from Philadelphia and, spoiler alert, she’s clearly the one to watch. Mirage is next, calling herself “the legs of Las Vegas” and the other queens “trash bags.” They clearly don’t take well to that (“Let’s hate her!”), but Morphine revealing she follows all of them on Instagram already likely takes some of the edge off. And finally, we have Dawn, the “ethereal elf goddess of Brooklyn.” Dawn has real presence in the competition, and a magnetism on camera. If Sapphira is the one to watch, Dawn is the one to keep your eye on in your peripheral vision.

Once Ru comes in and greets the girls (with a “running a train” joke—Ru, my goodness!), he sends them on a photo shoot mini-challenge. Unlike previous opening shoots, however, a photographer is nowhere to be found. Instead, the queens must pose for the Ring camera on RuPaul’s fake porch, as he watches his Ring cam from afar. It’s an odd choice, but it rewards the queens who can really pop despite the circumstances. Dawn does so through her banter (“I actually think we should let animals vote!”), while Sapphira does it by modeling like mad. She ultimately takes the win, but both make an early good impression.

Charlize Theron, our first guest judge of the season, drops by the werk room with some tasty treats Credit: Courtesy MTV

The maxi-challenge is, of course, the talent show. This time, it’s themed after MTV’s Spring Break, which is a very fun bit of theming. (It also results in Derrick Barry coming to host, ostensibly in character as Britney Spears, but really that’s just Derrick.) Be honest: you knew the talent show was coming. It’s the standard season opener at this point, having long since left its former permanent home on All Stars.

Like in previous seasons, we see a lot of lip sync numbers: Morphine does an all-Spanish Rosalia number while executing a burlesque-inspired performance, while Amanda does a comedy number about her “kitty,” complete with a stuffed kitten. (I must agree with Morphine’s increasingly honest take on the number: I, too, am not living for it.) Dawn does a quirky narrative number that is enjoyable enough, but it doesn’t flow as well as you’d hope. She looks stellar, though, as does Mirage in a heel-clacking-heavy lip sync performance. It’s a fine number, if a bit too familiar right after Anetra’s last season. (She even directly draws the comparison, making a reference to her fellow Las Vegas girl in her lip sync.)

Most disappointing, unfortunately, is Xunami, who spends her lip syncing performance simply walking back and forth on the stage. Dawn notes how underwhelming it is in her confessional after, and I gotta agree with her. Faring much better are two queens who choose not to do lip sync numbers: Q does a puppet ballet that is every bit as weird as it sounds, but really works comedically. Meanwhile, Sapphira sings opera live—but does so in a very funny fashion. She also continues to sing while doing the splits, which is simply incredible.

In the end, after an underwhelming RuVeal Yourself runway (where were the reveals? only Q really nailed the category in my book), the queens are charged with deciding their own fate. Using a Rate-a-Queen system that is, quite literally, the exact same as The Circle’s ratings format, they must rank each of their competitors from one to six. We see some of the ratings, and they’re largely what you’d expect: lots of first- and second-place ratings for Q and Sapphira, with Amanda and Xunami ranked in the back half consistently.

“Rise and shine, motherfuckers: It’s Dawn.” The elven queen from Brooklyn makes a big impression in her first episode Credit: Courtesy MTV

We ultimately don’t see the final ratings, but we do see who the queens have chosen as the top two: Sapphira and Q! Absolutely correct decision; well done, queens. I must say, I would never want Rate-a-Queen to stick around for a whole season, but as a premiere twist, it’s fun and different! It also helps that the top two will just be lip syncing for the win, and that there’s no elimination. (With only 14 queens cast and still 16 episodes to fill, you can expect a few non-elimination episodes back after Season 15.)

The lip sync is to Beyoncé’s debut Renaissance single “Break My Soul,” and thank Miss Tina that we’re finally getting Renaissance tracks on Drag Race. Talk about an album meant for lip syncs. Q and Sapphira quickly prove just how good these lip syncs can be. Q really puts up a good fight, but at some point in the song, Sapphira flips a switch and it’s over. The bit with her breastplate bouncing on and off of her body during one particular move is instantly iconic.

Sapphira takes the win (and the immunity!), and everyone is safe to slay another day. Next week, we’ll meet a whole other group of queens! They’ll rate each other, we’ll see another Lip Sync for the Win, and then we’ll finally get to the business of this season. I don’t mind the more languid start to the season, but I do wonder why they didn’t just keep the incredibly successful premiere format from Season 15.

See, that’s the thing about all these twists: even if they promise high-drama now, there’s no real sense that they’ll stick around. The Rate-a-Queen twist won’t even make it past two episodes. Drag Race loves to try a lot of flashy things, but they’re ultimately just a flash in the pan. The core of the show is what’s still holding strong—and it’s what’s going to keep it going long beyond Season 16.

Untucking our final thoughts

Listen, I rib Drag Race for its dated references sometimes, but seriously: a The Circle parody twist? In the Year of Our Lord 2024? Someone get Ru a Peacock login so he can get caught up on The Traitors!

Xunami comes out against TikTok queens in her entrance chatter with Q, and it’s funny to me to remember that the discourse about Sugar and Spice was such a huge part of early Season 15. Considering they were both out relatively early, and a veteran queen the likes of Sasha Colby ultimately won the crown, it seems the show largely agreed with Xunami’s take—at least, for now. Don’t be surprised if things turn around in a couple years’ time.

Bless Morphine for clocking Amanda Tori Meating’s visible breastplate neckline. This was such an issue throughout All Stars 8 (looking at you, Alexis Michelle, Jaymes Mansfield and Jimbo), and even the otherwise pretty immaculate UK Season 5 saw DeDeLicious facing the same issue. We must continue to combat this epidemic at every turn!

My pick for best entrance line goes to Dawn’s “Rise and shine, motherfuckers! It’s Dawn.” Memorable, thematic, profane—what more could you want?

The prize stays at $200,000 this season (still “served by CashApp”), which is both expected and a little underwhelming. Prices are up, Ru! We gotta keep boosting the prize!

Love seeing the footage of Ru at MTV’s Spring Break back in the day. The more the show leans into the mythos of MTV, the better—it’s got such a rich cultural history to draw from!

Michelle Visage calling Sapphira’s undersized breastplate “Fisher-Price My First Boobs” is the funniest critique to come from this panel in years. Incredible.

Pay close attention to the phraseology when it comes to the immunity prize: “You can use immunity to save yourself from a future elimination.” Ru repeats himself later: immunity is from “a future elimination.” If the queens can pocket immunity and use it at a more crucial juncture, it’s a far more interesting twist to me than it used to be.

Charlize Theron (cue Mirage: “It’s Aeon Flux!”) is our guest judge this week, and she pays the queens a visit in the werk room for the occasion. Her presence is nice, if a bit stilted—she’s a bit of an odd choice for a premiere guest judge, no?—but unfortunately falls into the all-positive, all-the-time trap as a judge. That said, I could hear her talk about her experience as the face of Dior all day long.

Carson Kressley is our first rotating guest judge of the season, and he’s as fine as ever. Mostly I just can’t believe we’re doing another season of the same panel. Santino Rice got seven seasons before he left; Carson and Ross Mathews have gotten over double that number! My hope is that we see a lot more of Ts Madison this season—her “rotating judge” title has felt a bit perfunctory in her last two seasons.

If anything, what I’ll be taking away most from this episode is that RuPaul’s “Click Clack” was written about a stripper at Jumbo’s Clown Room. Gorgeous.

The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race will air Friday, Jan. 12, at 8 p.m. EST on MTV in the U.S. and on Crave in Canada. Check back every Monday 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.

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Culture, Drag Race, Analysis, Drag

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