‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ debuts its 11th season

'RuPaul's Drag Race' season 11 contestants are pictured. Courtesy of VH1 press images

Hey, cysters! Less than two weeks removed from the finale of “All Stars 4” (2018) “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (2009–) is back on our TV screens for its 11th season. The clownishness of that finale and jam-packed schedule for “Drag Race” have led some to (convincingly) suggest that it’s time for the show to slow down a little bit, but that’s mainly a conversation to be had about “All Stars.” Alas, we cannot dwell on these hang-ups because it’s time to meet the 15 queens vying for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar.

The first queen to enter is one we’ve met before, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo. After sashaying away on last season’s first episode, her exit became without question the most memorable moment on season 10. Given the show’s recent penchant for bring-backs, Miss Vanjie sealed her berth in season 11 the minute she walked off the stage, and back in the Werk Room. She looks exquisite in red. Vanjie clearly did not come to play games, and she takes the opportunity to hide and size up her competition. 

The next few queens slowly filter into the Werk Room. NYC-based Shuga Cain seems remarkably polished for a relative newcomer to drag, while veteran comedy queen Nina West has an impressive list of accolades and will surely excel in performance challenges. Vietnamese-born Plastique Tiara is the first of the season’s international contingent to arrive, and she looks striking enough for Vanjie to gag over her. 

Mercedes Iman Diamond is also an international queen, born in Kenya, and she immediately catches the queens’ attention with an ululating greeting. Mercedes then finds herself at the receiving end of the season’s first shade, courtesy of Nina West. Scarlet Envy, self described as “Southern beauty and NYC grit,” enters next, though the other queens seem unconvinced by her — frankly, her look is oddly fun-sized in the wrong places, and the minimal makeup gives it an unfinished feeling.

Honey Davenport wears a black and yellow Club Hive-esque number, and Shuga describes her as a “legend” in New York. Vanjie reveals her hiding place when the queens mention her obvious return, and another Davenport — A’keria Chanel — struts into the Werk Room. A’keria unapologetically claims her identity as a pageant queen, and her Miss Black Universe title marks her as one to watch.

A remote-control car attached to the train of a green gown precedes Yvie Oddly into the Werk Room, and “Denver’s commodity of drag oddity” elicits memories of Sharon Needles, perhaps combined with a more comedic version of Sasha Velour. This is not to call her derivative — Yvie appears to be a boldly singular queen whose presence will surely turn heads.

Silky Nutmeg Ganache produces a cookie from her cleavage upon entering, and her big personality quickly bounces off the Werk Room walls. Silky and A’keria are friends, which, combined with Silky’s antics irritating the other queens later in the episode, could foreshadow a Laganja Estranja-Adore Delano storyline in which Silky is accused of crafting an affected persona for the cameras. Just a guess!

Canadian-bred Brooke Lynn Hytes arrives dressed as a gay Mountie, and her classically-trained dance skills will likely aid her in later challenges. “Insta-fish” Ariel Versace is eager to prove that she can do more than just look pretty, and her early shade casts her as a potential villain. Rajah O’Hara also knows A’keria and cannot keep her earrings from falling off, while Kahanna Montrese, drag daughter of the legendary Coco, is “Drag Race’s” latest Vegas showgirl. Last to arrive is Soju, who is “just here to fight” with nunchucks and a tae kwon do-inspired lewk.

RuPaul struts down the stairs with a “hello, hello, hello” and introduces a photoshoot mini-challenge to be directed by the queens themselves. Scarlet Envy is first up, and after a little fake-out, season 3 winner Raja appears behind her, revealing the true nature of the mini-challenge: to hold your own in a photoshoot with “Drag Race” legends like Raja, Ginger Minj, Sonique and Kimora Blac, for some reason. It’s always fun to see past competitors, and the mini-challenge allows us to see which queens know their strengths and weaknesses the best. 

That being said, we don’t get enough time for any real substance to any of the shoots, so Silky being announced as the winner of the mini-challenge feels neither here nor there. This also gives Silky the task of assignments for the main challenge, which gives the queens the task of crafting runway looks using the materials of past “Drag Race” contestants. Silky does so mostly based on whom she feels matches up best, declining the opportunity to sabotage her competitors.

In the Werk Room, Nina worries about her sewing skills, Vanjie cautions Soju that the judges will read her for lacking a silhouette and Silky gets on everybody’s nerves, particularly Honey’s and Ariel’s. Silky clearly aims to be one of the main personalities of the season, and whether this will turn everyone against her remains to be seen. Guest judge Miley Cyrus enters the Werk Room in a hilariously unconvincing disguise as a sound crew member, and the queens share a nice moment with her before hitting the mainstage.

On the mainstage, all 15 queens work the runway for the first time. Scarlet’s Violet Chachki-inspired number is characteristic, polished and very Carmen Sandiego, hopefully dismissing her weak entrance look as a blip. Ariel delivers a serviceable Laganja Estranja look embezzled with cannabis leaves, then presents a comically underwhelming reveal. Yvie echoes Alaska’s penchant for unusual materials with a plastic-wrap halo over her bald head, which is a fun look.

After the longest runway in “Drag Race” herstory, Ariel, Honey, Rajah, Scarlet, Shuga, Silky and Yvie are declared safe. Plastique (Sasha Velour) and Vanjie (Valentina) both receive positive critiques, but the top two are clearly Brooke Lynn and A’keria. Brooke Lynn crafts a stunning Detox-inspired blue latex caped pantsuit with neon accents that feel very sci-fi and avant-garde, while A’keria (Bebe Zahara Benet) serves pageant-extraordinaire realness with a five-wigged headpiece that elicits a rare gag from Ru herself.

The bottom two is also clear; Nina and Mercedes’ outfits were slightly basic (and Nina’s looked like it was spangled with pimples), but Soju (Kim Chi) and Kahanna (Katya) are both complete messes. Soju tries to recreate the traditional Korean hanbok that Kim Chi memorably wore in season 8, but her dress looks less ethereal and undulating and more like it is held together with Scotch tape. Kahanna’s bizarre half-bodysuit is better-constructed, but she misunderstands the assignment and recycles the bra from her entrance look, a major “Drag Race” no-no.

After deliberation, Ru awards Brooke Lynn the first challenge win of the season, while Kahanna and Soju must lip-sync for their lives. The producers make the fun decision to use Hannah Montana’s “Best of Both Worlds,” which surely elicited screeches from gay bars across the country. It takes about 20 seconds for Soju’s fate to be sealed. Soju is clearly not a dance performer, and Kahanna prowls around the stage like a woman possessed, committing herself determinedly to the lip-sync and wiping the floor with Soju along the way. Kahanna does not seem like early-season cannon fodder, and she survives a major scare that will hopefully be a wake-up moment for her after Soju sashays away.

The sheer number of queens made the season 11 premiere feel rushed at times, but the episode did its work in establishing a new season of “Drag Race.” It’s sad to see Soju go, as she’d likely have been a supremely entertaining personality to have along this season, but no matter. We have 14 other queens to enjoy, and the premiere places them well to deliver the inimitable magic that keeps us coming back to “Drag Race” 11 seasons later.