It is truly mind boggling to see what “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (2009–present) has become over the last three years. Initially regarded as a queer parody of “America’s Next Top Model” (2003–2015; 2016–present), the show began as a tongue-in-cheek reality competition series that targeted primarily gay viewers. Today, with its integration of internet culture, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has become an online hit, notably among teenagers and young adults. The rising popularity of the show explains Viacom’s decision to move the show to VH1, a network that has a broader audience than LOGO. It also explains the choices made in the premiere episode of season 9, which feels like more of a long-form “Meet the Queens” promo than an actual premiere.
The ninth season premiere starts off per usual, with the queens entering the workroom. This season, the queens come from all sorts of drag backgrounds, from Vegas show girl (Kimora Black, Farrah Moan) to camp (Jaymes Mansfield). Based on the entrances and the first workroom interactions, two contestants stand out in particular: Nina Bo’nina Brown and Eureka O’Hara.
Nina’s creates make-up focused, conceptual looks reminiscent of Kim Chi, with an added amateur, DIY aspect to them for a truly unique aesthetic. When she enters the workroom, she chants “NINA BONINA BANANA FOFANA OSAMA BIN LADEN BROWN,” which is certainly memorable. Yet underneath her loud, obnoxious drag persona, there might just be a vulnerable side of Nina. It seems obvious from the first episode that Nina will be major character in season 9.
Compared to the earlier seasons, many of the queens are visibly uncomfortable in front of cameras. Eureka, who enters the workroom first, is a good example. She talks and interrupts the other queens, attempting to be witty and shady, yet she ends up sounding mean and dumb. Viewers can sense the insecurity and anxiety in Eureka. She feels the need to act a certain character in order to get noticed the first episode.
Similarly, Jayme’s nervous energy and Farrah’s childish behavior seem to suggest that it will take time for the queens to become familiar with their new environment. The self-consciousness of the new queens could perhaps be attributed to the fact that many past contestants have blamed the program for giving them a “bad edit.”
The true surprise of the opening is the 14th contestant named Ronnie, who is revealed to be Lady Gaga. An icon for the LGBTQ community and a fashion iconoclast, Lady Gaga is the arguably the most important celebrity to join the show as a guest judge in terms of queer culture, perhaps save from John Waters. Since Lady Gaga’s presence is huge for the show, RuPaul decides to take it easy on the contestants and announces that there will be no elimination this week. While the decision is good for getting to know the contestants and introducing the format of the show to new viewers, it also takes away from the sheer joy of a lip sync battle.
The main (and only) challenge in the first episode is a two-look runway show. The challenge is mediocre at best, as season 7 contestants had to do the same thing in their respective premiere as a mini challenge. The first look was meant to represent the state the contestants are from, and the second look was supposed to pay homage to a Lady Gaga ensemble. Of the looks, the highs were Nina’s peach-inspired outfit and Sasha Velour’s artsy NYC costume. Sasha is edgy and polished at the same time and has the potential to stand out, yet her personality has little to offer in the premiere.
The winner of the challenge is Nina. Her unconventional approach to runway might be irksome to some, but it is definitely intriguing. Her win signifies that this season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” will once again define and redefine drag culture, exploring and celebrating unknown territories.