‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ Season 2 premiere recap: British invasion

For the first time in Drag Race herstory, two RuPaul-hosted seasons are airing simultaneously

I’m not exaggerating when I say the first season—or series, as they say across the pond—of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK may have saved the franchise. It came at a crucial time: Right after the largely disappointing All Stars 4 and the extremely messy Season 11. The previous year hadn’t been much better, with All Stars 3’s unsatisfying blend of twists and Season 10’s regrettable boot order spoiling what could otherwise have been strong seasons. Overall, there was a general feeling of malaise across the fandom. Was this show even much fun anymore?

Enter RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. A firework of a short season at just eight episodes, UK Season 1 gave us one of the franchise’s best casts ever (Divina de Campo! Baga Chipz! Blu Hydrangea! Cheryl Hole!), tons of laughs and some absolutely terrific performances. The girl group episode, in which the world met the Frock Destroyers, is one of the best-ever episodes of Drag Race. It may have been a quick season, but those eight episodes, including a very strong premiere, brought fun back to the franchise.

Taking a lot of the lessons from that season, Drag Race in North America had a major resurgence in 2020, in spite of forces both internal and external that threatened to derail it. One such force was COVID-19, which paused filming of Drag Race UK Season 2 and forced it to abandon its original late-2020 premiere plan. It will now air alongside Season 13 of the main series, and battle for attention against its American sister. With the pressure to live up to Season 1 and the extra competition, stakes are high for Drag Race UK Season 2.

Luckily, this premiere is a terrific first step, and shows the British variant of the series hasn’t missed a note. With a boisterous, multi-talented cast, RuPaul and head judge Michelle Visage having the time of their lives and some familiar challenges, returning to Drag Race UK feels like a vacation across the Atlantic—all the more welcome at a time when such a vacation is impossible.

The cast gets a Royal RuMail delivery. Credit: Courtesy of World of Wonder

Right out the box, we get some terrific entrances from the dolls. Cherry Valentine’s headpiece accidentally hits the top of the workroom doorway, cracking both her and first-in queen Lawrence Chaney up. (Lawrence quickly proves herself the wit of the season upon chatting with Cherry and learning she’s from Darlington: “Do they have good teeth in Darlington? No.”) Cherry has a delightful laugh and a killer fashion sense, but can’t help looking slightly reserved next to Lawrence’s exuberant, highly Scottish personality.

 

Tia Kofi gets my vote for best explanation of her own name in her confessional. “I named myself after Tia Mowry, from the iconic Sister Sister, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan!” she deadpans. “I was nearly called Tamera Boutros Boutros-Ghali, but it didn’t have the same ring to it.” She’s followed by self-described vegan queen Bimini Bon Boulash, who Lawrence immediately takes to. “I think Bimini’s one of my girls. And me and my girls? We eat chicken nuggets together,” she says. (She utters an “oh, fuck!” when one of the producers reminds her Bimini is a vegan.)

Other entrance highlights include the ultra-quirky Ginny Lemon, who busts out an All Stars 5 reference by calling herself a “pig in a wig,” and cabaret queen Joe Black, who busts out full Norma Desmond drag for her entrance. “I know what you’re thinking: Glenn Close looks rough!” she jokes. My immediate favourites beyond those mentioned are adorable superfan and theatre queen Veronica Green, the very gorgeous and very Welsh Tayce and a queen whose reputation apparently precedes her, East London’s Asttina Mandella. (There’s a lot of that this season, as one queen, A’Whora, draws a comment about hearing stories about her from Tia.)

Not long after their entrances, the queens are thrust into their first mini-challenge: A Wimbledon-inspired tennis photo shoot. They’re allowed to change into tennis gear, although I personally prefer when they have to work with what they’ve got. Remember how the various entrance looks tripped the girls up in the water tank in Season 5’s premiere photo shoot? This challenge feels a bit separated from the entrances as a result, but first-in queen Lawrence takes the win nonetheless.

Asttina Mandella, challenge winner, modeling a Naomi Campbell-inspired look. Credit: Courtesy World of Wonder

As the queens de-drag for the first time, Lawrence opens up about her insecurities out of drag. It’s a lovely moment in an episode filled with Lawrence bits; she also does well in the maxi-challenge. She’s getting the most complete edit of any queen so far, which speaks well of her longevity in this competition. And that matters when there’s fairly little time to make an impression! The U.S. premiere this is not. There’s no three weeks of non-eliminations to give you a chance to know all these girls. Someone goes home in this episode. (Which is hilarious to consider: Season 13 premiered two weeks before Drag Race UK Season 2, and yet the latter has eliminated a queen first!)

The maxi-challenge should be familiar to anyone who watched UK Season 1: Two looks, one representing your hometown and one inspired by a British icon. In the first season, that was Queen Elizabeth II; in this season, the queens can choose any British gay icon they’d like, be they queer or an ally. Asttina and Tayce both choose to interpret Naomi Campbell, which immediately feels like a Season 7-esque “I’m doing Donatella Versace!” moment. But instead of feuding over picking the same inspiration, the two bond over not having many Black gay icons in the U.K. growing up. They both stick with Naomi, and vow to be new gay icons for young queer people of the future.

While Tayce does a nice job as Naomi, it’s very difficult to compare to what Asttina does. Asttina goes for a very elegant, restrained take on supermodel Naomi, in a gorgeous black gown paired with very subtle makeup. It’s incredibly striking work. Wisely, she goes an entirely different direction for her East London look, leaning into a streetwear moment. Some of the other girls in Mini-Untucked—yes, it’s back!—knock her for wearing a cheap jacket, but they miss the point: The expense of the jacket doesn’t matter. It’s about the character she creates with it. Ginny, an Asttina defender, chides them for being intimidated by their competition. And Ginny is right to call her competition: Asttina wins the week, becoming this season’s first challenge champion.

I really like both of Ginny’s looks as well, including a hilarious take on Kate Bush and a literally saucy one on Worcester. But Ru puts Lawrence’s Diana Rigg and Glasgow looks on the top, alongside the deceptively impressive Ellie Diamond. The latter interprets Dundee’s Dennis the Menace—not the Dennis the Menace we know in North America—as her hometown look, to praise from the judges’ panel. Her makeup skills draw particular admiration.

Meanwhile, Joe lands in the bottom for her takes on David Bowie and Brighton Pavilion, and I can’t say I agree with the judges. Yes, her takes aren’t the most accurate, but the critiques read into her decision-making (Graham Norton assumes the Brighton look is her “15th idea”) a bit too much for my liking. Joe’s a pro, and it feels like the panel makes up reasons to dismiss her. More understandably in the bottom are Bimini for a messy soccer-inspired look (okay, football-inspired), while Liverpool queen Sister Sister barely avoids lip-syncing for her life.

Bimini Bon Boulash lip-syncing for her life. Credit: Courtesy of World of Wonder

If I had one major quibble with UK Season 1, it was with the lip syncs. Living up to the warning about British lip-syncing that Charlie Hides gave us in Season 9, the cast of the inaugural season failed to perform their best when their backs were against the wall. And at first, it looks like the problem might recur. Joe and Bimini stick to a lot of pointing at the top of the song (“Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and it fails to impress.

But then, Bimini fights hard to stay, pulling out all kinds of acrobatic tricks. Her style recalls Season 11’s flexible lip-syncers Yvie Oddly and Brooke Lynn Hytes, with a bit more of a rebellious spirit in her actual syncing. She handily wins, although Joe gives her a major assist by just not lip-syncing for a whole segment of the song.

Next week gives us a CATS parody musical challenge, which is exactly what I want to see. UK was defiant in its Britishness in its first season, and I’m glad that hasn’t changed. There’s a long way to go this season, and a COVID-19-forced filming break to consider a few episodes in. But for now, I’m all-in on Drag Race UK once again. 

Untucking our final thoughts

✨ Up and Down: Owing to just how much Drag Race is airing currently, we won’t be doing power rankings for this season of Drag Race UK—just the recaps. But to keep tabs on how the queens are doing, I’ll note who’s on the rise and who should be worried in the final thoughts section every week. This episode bodes well for Lawrence, who both wins the mini-challenge and scores high in the maxi-challenge. Ru seems delighted by her and Asttina most of all. Of those remaining, I’m most worried for Sister Sister; Bimini at least gets to show off her lip-syncing skills. Sister just doesn’t make a great first impression, but I hardly think she’s doomed.

The legendary Elizabeth Hurley makes for a terrific guest judge, openly disagreeing with the judges repeatedly and questioning their criteria. Sometimes, a guest judge can come across as unknowledgeable when they disagree, even contrarian. But Elizabeth has specific, smart critiques, and she seems to be having a blast. A high bar for the other guests to clear!

Lawrence describing herself during her entrance: “I am the Susan Boyle of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. Because I dreamed a dream. I don’t know the other lyrics. But I’m sure as fuck SuBo didn’t either.”

Tia grabbing at her own entrance look and yelling “REVEAL!” only to admit it’s not a reveal is a delightful meta-joke about the prevalence of reveals on Drag Race. Already very into Tia.

The prizes remain the same this season: A WOW Presents Plus series for the winner, and a RuPeter badge for winning a challenge. Cute! Still bound by British prize regulations!

Ru really gives us a fashion moment with a technicolor dreamcoat look. She’s worn a few caftans over the years, but I think this one is the best of the lot.

Matching the U.S. series, Ru now says: “Racers, start your engines, and may the best drag queen win!” This is a great sign that the change is permanent across the franchise now.

Speaking of catchphrases: If you’ve been following Xtra’s Drag Race coverage over the years, you already know which was my favourite moment of the whole episode. Upon reaching the lip sync, Ru says, “In a moment, I’ll ask one of you to shantay, which still means stay.” Bless.

The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK will be available to stream Thursday, Jan. 21, at 2 p.m. EST on WOW Presents Plus in the U.S. and OUTtv in Canada, as well as on BBC Three and the BBC’s iPlayer in the United Kingdom. Additionally, episodes are available the same day on Crave in Canada, and Fridays the week following at 8 p.m. EST on Logo in the U.S. For other countries, check World of Wonder’s streaming guide.

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.

Read More About:
Drag Race, TV & Film, Culture, Opinion

Keep Reading

Ayden Mayeri, Meg Stalter and Jojo T. Gibbs side by side on a yellow background with hearts and dotted lines. Stalter holds a small dog.

‘Cora Bora’ is a coming-of-age movie for people in their thirties

Meg Stalter, Jojo T. Gibbs and Ayden Mayeri talk about creating a endearing, messy, realistic Sapphic love triangle
Side by side images of author Lauren Cook and his book Sex Goblin. The book is on a yellow background.

Lauren Cook on naive narrators, ‘just chilling’ and loving love

The author’s new book, “Sex Goblin,” is a collection of short prose about violence, sexuality and trying to process life 

Can anyone dethrone Chappell Roan for queer song of the summer?

Is “Good Luck, Babe!” destined to be this year’s Pride anthem?

Zoe Whittall on writing sex scenes, capturing trauma and what people get wrong about queer femmes

In “Wild Failure,” the poet and novelist challenges queer femme erasure in fiction