‘Drag Race UK’ gets off to a smashing start

A promotional poster for 'Drag Race UK' (2019) is pictured. via IMDb

Oi, kitty girls! Following Yvie Oddly’s well-deserved victory in the season 11 finale, the world received a welcome four-month break from the ongoing onslaught of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (2009) content. On Oct. 3, however, the reality TV behemoth finally hopped the pond. With its first two episodes, “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK” (2019) has served up a crop of ten sickeningly talented queens along with the BBC’s uniquely British take on the endless well of challenges and drama.

The ten pioneering British queens come from around the UK and beyond, representing a host of drag styles and aesthetic hallmarks (though some have expressed disappointment at the cast’s lack of diversity).

There are the grand dames, the old-school campy slags (their words): London’s Baga Chipz and Vinegar Strokes, as well as Divina de Campo out of Yorkshire and Liverpool’s The Vivienne, with an impeccable Scouse accent to boot. Canadian-born Crystal holds the banner for East London’s punk queens, while Belfast’s Blu Hydrangea and her inventive eye comprise the “Drag Race UKIrish delegation. Birmingham’s Sum Ting Wong has already established herself as a strong contender for the crown, while “Dancing Diva of Essex” Cheryl Hole has figured prominently in the season’s early storylines and drama. Rounding out the pack are the young guns: 21-year-old Gothy Kendoll from Leicester and 19-year-old Scaredy Kat from somewhere in Wiltshire.

Episode one, as has become tradition on “Drag Race,” brought a runway challenge. In a structure reminiscent of the U.S. season 9 premiere, the queens were tasked with crafting two looks for the main stage: one repping their hometown and one inspired by Her Majesty herself — Elizabeth II (though this recapper does feel the challenge would have been more fun if the queen had been left unspecified).

As is often the case with season premieres, episode one was light on drama and heavy on introductions. After whipping around the workroom to discuss Divina’s long and arduous drag career, Scaredy’s inexperience with performing, Crystal’s republican sentiments and The Vivienne and Baga’s kiki, we head quickly to the main stage.

The Vivienne and Sum Ting Wong emerge as the two to beat in episode one, with The Vivienne taking the challenge win (and, in lieu of the lavish prizes of “Drag Race” US, a RuPeter Badge) for her Pete Burns-inspired Liverpool look and her Queen-hunting-at-Balmoral homage. Sum Ting wows the judges with two creative ensembles: the biggest septum piercing in “Drag Race” herstory completes her hometown look inspired by Birmingham’s Bullring, while she hits the catwalk as Royal Mail stamp Queen Elizabeth, exhorting the judges to take a lick. Blu Hydrangea takes a similar approach as the pound coin Queen Elizabeth.

Landing in the bottom two are Vinegar Strokes, whose looks are simply a bit underwhelming, and Gothy Kendoll, whose Leicester Tigers-inspired makeup is hilariously torn to shreds by judge Alan Carr. The first ever Lip Sync For Your Life (LSFYL) UK will not go down in the history books, however, even with Dua Lipa’sNew Rules” (2017). Vinegar wipes the floor with the timid Gothy without having to be particularly memorable. And, as Gothy proudly claims the title of the UK’s Porkchop in her workroom message, then there were nine.

Episode two’s mini challenge forces The Vivienne to rank her competitors based on her assessment of the threat they pose, which is a fun wrinkle. This results in her and Scaredy, whom she ranks last, being named team captains for the “Downton Draggy” acting challenge. The teams break along what feels like drag philosophical lines: The Vivienne joins Baga, Vinegar and Sum Ting, while Scaredy picks Divina, Cheryl, Blu and Crystal.

The dreaded rehearsals with Michelle Visage are a hot mess nearly across the board, though Baga and Divina do earn laughs. Sum Ting worries about her Mariah Carey-inspired character, Scaredy looks dangerously one-note and Blu strains to make an impression.

Preparation in the workroom for the Bond girl runway sees some of the season’s first drama bubble up. The Vivienne and Crystal share their growing annoyance with Cheryl and what they perceive to be her affected personality. Meanwhile, Sum Ting opens up about her complicated relationship with her family, and Vinegar and Scaredy have a nice moment discussing their experiences with drag and queerness.

The mainstage sees Ru greet Michelle, series judge Graham Norton and guest judge Maisie Williams, and the runway introduces a new pantheon of Bond femme fatales. The Vivienne sets the bar up in the sky, channeling Grace Jones in a stunning, shimmering gold look. Baga earns a great reaction from the judges as Lazer Minnelli, while Crystal scares Maisie Williams under her desk with a cracking whip and a black latex bondage-inspired bodysuit.

On Downton Draggy, Team Scaredy gives an up-and-down performance, with Crystal’s Lady Kylie and Divina’s old maid impressing the judges. Less impressive are Scaredy and Blu, who fail to garner the judges’ sympathy with weak, one-note performances. Team The Vivienne is more consistent; everyone does well enough, but the sketch as a whole comes off as a tad underwhelming. The judges, however, disagree, awarding Team The Vivienne the win and safety from elimination, and Baga Chipz the challenge.

Team Scaredy must face the judges’ critiques, and Cheryl is first in the line of fire. In the process of being read for a lame tearaway and an unmemorable performance, Cheryl also calls out Sum Ting’s performance as subpar. Crystal receives positive critiques, while Scaredy has her flyer girl runway praised as Wes Anderson does Bond by Maisie Williams, but her whiny performance and makeup are trashed by Michelle. Blu, the judges agree, is simply fading into the background. Divina’s acting and runway look are lauded, but she becomes upset onstage, believing her performance to be beneath her capabilities.

In the lounge, Cheryl becomes the chief topic of conversation among the safe queens, who accuse her of putting on an Alyssa Edwards-meets-Gemma Collins facade. This boils over into full-fledged drama when Cheryl tries to clear the air with Sum Ting immediately upon arrival. Several queens come for Cheryl on camera and in confessionals, and a tense moment afterward results in Cheryl becoming emotional in her confessional. For now, a truce appears to have been brokered between Cheryl and chief detractors The Vivienne, Vinegar and Crystal, but this doesn’t look like the last we’ll see of this storyline.   

Blu and Divina are both visibly upset in the workroom, and Blu earns a litany of hugs when she reveals her insecurity and loneliness in the competition. Divina speaks of her frustration with her efforts thus far.

With the queens’ return to the mainstage, Cheryl is saved from the bottom two once again, leaving Blu and Scaredy to Lip Sync for Their Lives to Bananarama’sVenus” (1986) in the latter’s first-ever live drag performance.

Drag Race UK” has two very strong opening episodes to its credit, but it still has yet to register a good LSFYL: Blu mostly just repeats a series of power moves as she stomps around the runway, while Scaredy, while not as much of a disaster as Gothy, just doesn’t have the experience to keep up. Scaredy sashays away, meaning that the first two queens to go have also been the two youngest.

If the first two episodes are a test, “Drag Race UK” so far has passed with flying colors. Its cast, challenges, looks and storylines all show great promise. Notably, however, Ru seems to have awarded the campier, old-school queens more generously than queens who step outside the box. This reviewer hopes this is only an early aberration, not a tiresome pattern in which Ru favors those who fit his visions of an irreverent queen prancing in a mahogany pub somewhere in Clapham (in other words, stop robbing Crystal FFS!). “Drag Race UK” has built a rock-solid foundation in first two episodes. Let’s all hope they don’t mess it up.