RuPaul’s Drag Race is back with the first episode of Season 16, Rate-A-Queen – complete with an MTV Spring Break Talent show and a “RuVeal Yourself” runway! When I saw the episode title I couldn’t resist making my return to do the same thing, rating and power ranking the amazing drag artists featured on the show!
Drag Race officially got out of control in 2023, with more franchises than I could even keep up with! In addition to the US flagship and its All Stars edition, in 2023 there was also UK, Canada, Down Under, España, France, Philippines, Belgique, Sverige, Germany, Mexico, & Brazil – plus Queen of the Universe. That’s over a dozen winners in a single year!
All but two of those franchises are expected to return in 2024 (sorry Sverige and Queen of the Universe), plus we have another season of UK vs. The World incoming, a new España All-Stars, the return of Drag Race Thailand, and another new Ru-hosted series.
There isn’t even enough time in my day to watch all of these incredible drag artists from around the world, let alone rank and recap them all! But, when it comes to meeting the new American queens and watching them battle to be America’s Next Drag Superstar, I can always find a little time in my schedule.
With so many drag artist finding their way onto our screens every year, it’s starting to feel like Drag Race has become a game of archetypes. As a dozen dozen queens walk through the workroom doors each year, it’s more important than every to have a defined brand without being stuck in a box.
A successful drag artist needs to know the mold they fit into best and also must understand how to shatter the weight of those expectations. Looking at this past year of winners, we’ve had beauty queens who can do it all, dancers who are funny, and experienced showgirls with a youthful attitude.
This week we had the first part of a split premiere, with seven queens showing off their entrance looks, talent show, and a “Ruveal Yourself” runway before doing their own power rankings with a special Rate-a-Queen gimmick. How did they stack up? Keep reading for my totally personal, totally subjective power rankings of this first half of the cast.
Readers, start your engines. And, may the best drag queen win!
Reminders: I consistently refer to Drag Race artists with their drag names and with she/her pronouns even when they are not in drag, which is the convention of the show. Some performers may have different personal pronouns. Drag is inherently brave, political, and artistic, and all drag is valid. It’s also hard to do. Every drag artist in the world deserves endless essays dedicated to their talents and life stories. I’m commenting on drag artistry in how it fits the established expectations of this specific television program, but the reason I’m commenting at all is because I celebrate all drag.
RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 16 Episode 1 – Rate-a-Queen
MTV Spring Break Talent Show, & “RuVeal Yourself” Runway Power Rankings
Before we get to the rankings, let’s admire Mother Ru for a moment! I’m not quite sure what was going on with her wrinkled “train conductor” workroom outfit, but I enjoy this pastel wrap gown on the runway. Ru’s styling is a little more on the matronly side than it used to be, but I think that befits a decorated host of her age and experience. And, anyway, we know mama is gonna show some leg as the season wears on.
#1 – Sapphira Cristál
PHILLY REPRESENT! Sapphira Cristál stomped this episode from front to back. She’s an absolutely ridiculous opera-singing glamour clown, which makes up for the fact that she’s got a slightly boxy fashion sense.
What I love most about Sapphira is that she seems to have complete confidence in herself at all times. I wasn’t in love with her square, Muppet-y entrance look, but she posed the hell out of it. The same was true for every time she was on screen this episode. Saphhira seems to already understand how to command the camera, which is the #1 asset a queen needs to win Drag Race.
I cannot say enough about Sapphira not only singing opera live in the talent show, but singing a piece (and a voice part) traditionally sung by a woman! We’ve heard some truly questionable falsetto from drag queens on this show, so I girded myself for the worst from this performance – only to be surprised by Sapphira’s tone and control throughout her range. It’s obvious why she was at the top of the Rate-a-Queen rankings, despite having one of the weaker runways.
I think Sapphira has the performance chops to make a deep run on this show, and it’s clear she has that je ne sais quoi that makes Ru laugh uproariously just by looking at her. I predict she sails through the early weeks as the fodder gets chopped from this cast. However, I question whether she has the fashions to keep her safe once things get tight later in the season.
#2 – Q
We have heard many queens tell us they are theatrical weirdos. I think Q is one of the few to not only SHOW that, but also to EXUDE it during every second of her screentime. She isn’t just here to weaponize her BFA – she’s here to put on a show.
Even if Sapphira dominated the competitive aspect of this episode, I think Q dominated the social aspect. She was the first queen into the workroom and one of the most visible talking heads. She was delightfully shady both with the other queens and on her own in the interview chair, reading some of her competitors but never with a whiff of delusion about her own talents.
As for her talents, she played them close to her chest with an absolutely absurd talent performance that really only showed off her ability to act like a fool. Can she design? Hell yes – with a real eye for construction and detail. Can she act? Probably. Sing? I bet. Dance? … well, maybe not so much, based on that “Break My Soul” lip sync.
Even if Sapphira took home the all-around crown this episode, I think Q might have stood out more in every category for me except for her lip sync performance.
If I have one concern about Q, it’s her constitution as a competitor. She’s cheerful now, but I feel like there’s a certain sweetness to her that might crack under pressure as things get tight later in the season. With Q, I’m looking less for proof of her talents and more for a certain amount of steeliness at her core that will let her outlast her competitors.
PS: Q looks like a perfect blend of April Carrion and Shannel!
#3 – Dawn
Dawn presents pocket-sized alternative drag with a more-is-more aesthetic. I think the early urge will be to say she’s another “Willow Pill,” but that’s just a symptom of how few confident weirdos we’ve actually seen on the flagship show.
I love Dawn’s sideways perspective on drag and her ability to make a scene. Her entrance look was high fashion enough, but it was also a unique stamp of hair and makeup we haven’t really seen from anyone else. That’s hard to do! Similarly, in the mini-challenge, Dawn didn’t mess around – she got right up in Ru’s peephole and mugged relentlessly until Ru was cackling.
In short, Dawn understands the assignment when it comes to charisma, uniqueness, and nerve. Can she back it up with talent? Her talent show offering was fine, but it’s hard to remember anything specific from it other than her gag of super-long arms. On the runway, her massive “stuffed yeti” look could’ve contained almost anything, but the outfit she revealed was slightly underwhelming.
I think Dawn has the power to go far on this season, and I think the Willow Pill comparisons will fall away soon enough. However, based on this episode I worry that she might sometimes let her freaky outfits do the talking when they actually don’t have all that much to say. If she minds the details of her looks and keeps up her nervy performance from this mini-challenge, she’ll be a tough queen to beat.
#4 – Mirage
Mirage has a delightfully tacky approach to drag that pulls in references from mallwear, strippers, and everything neon. She is flexible and seems to have a solid sense of humor, but she doesn’t have a grasp of the details that matter to the camera. I think as an aerobic Las Vegas queen she might wind up stuck in the shadow of Anetra.
The other queens had some reads for Mirage’s entrance look, but I adored it. I immediately understood her aesthetic from her long lines in her neon-on-neon look. She’s going to be about LOUD fashions with CLASHING colors. She wants to make your eyes vibrate.
What I didn’t get from Mirage’s entrance look is her aerobicism as a performer. I absolutely gasped out loud when she did her initial cartwheel-with-a-heel-clack during the talent show.
I think Mirage’s runway showed off some weak points in her aesthetic. It was a gorgeous look, but she presented it somewhat awkwardly. She didn’t seem to know how to show off her best angles or when she ought to pause. Based on that, I understood the judge’s comments – that there’s a certain messiness to her drag that she’ll need to reel in for the purposes of the show.
Right now I don’t see Mirage as a finalist – she’s a distant 4th place for me just in this initial lineup of seven queens. I think she has what it takes to make it midway through the season, but she could also be an early-out fodder if she is felled by improv or design. I could change my mind if we see her really sweating the details not only of her looks, but of her presentation.
#5 – Amanda Tori Meating
Amanda Tori Meating manages to come off as an oddball even in a room full of drag artists, but her complete lack of self-awareness is both an advantage in the competition and a detriment that will limit how far her talent can take her.
I can already tell you Amanda Tori is going to be one of my favorite queens of the season, even if she is the first one out. I love her acerbic, absurdist view on the world and how unfazed she is by her glamorous competition. If she was cowed at all by the styling of her competitors during the entrances, you’d never know it from her reaction.
At the same time… her problems were obvious. The fit of her entrance outfit, the exposed neck of her breastplate, her loose wig on the runway, and the way her makeup fought against her beautiful bone structure rather than leaning into it.
Despite all of that, Amanda Tori makes Ru laugh – and Ru’s laugh can forgive a lot of missed details. Also, I suspect she will be a comedy and improv powerhouse for the same reason she’ll be challenged on the runway: she doesn’t care how she looks if she can get the laugh. And, she showed a surprising amount of control during her energetic talent show.
I suspect A.T.M. was at the bottom of everyone’s Rate-a-Queen rankings, but they need to watch out for her – a funny, unselfconscious queen can be a dangerous competitor on Drag Race!
I think Amanda Tori Meating will be a queen whose concepts are there but who lacks the execution to make them land. She’s likely an early-to-mid-out, especially if she lands in the bottom two against someone with more potential. But, if there are other queens who are failing to light a spark with Ru, I could see Amanda being the one to give them a surprising ouster.
#6 – Morphine Love Dion
Morphine Love Dion is named appropriately, because she kinda puts me to sleep – which might be for the best, since with my eyes open I can see the details of her drag beyond her flawless mug.
If you look at the winners’ circle of US Drag Race, it’s populated entirely with queens who break the mold. Morphine isn’t that. There’s a certain smallness to her drag, and a smugness to the idea that a beat face and a plush bottom are enough to go far on the show.
I absolutely hated Morphine’s entrance look – the curved cut of her top made her look pot-bellied or pregnant. I also hated the nude delusion of her talent show look with its awkward white zipper. And her runway just didn’t work – her frayed towel wrap certainly wasn’t couture, and her swimsuit (with exposed undergarments and shapewear) was nothing special.
There’s a hint of a spark there, which we saw in her mini-challenge and her talent show performance. But, in both cases, that “spark” might just be “splits.”
Morphine is an incredible make-up artist and I have no doubt she is a dynamic performer who can capture the attention of any bar crowd. However, I question what she can bring to a television show with a set of challenges we all know very well. Unless she figures out how to translate her approach to a flawless mug to the details of her garments and her performances in challenges she is going to be a mid-season out.
#7 – Xunami Muse
Xunami Muse is a runway model with a charming personality, but everything she presented this episode is far too small to make it far on Drag Race.
I find it hard to say anything about Xunami’s drag even though I remember plenty of her talking head quips from the episode. Her entrance look was mostly ruffles (all the better to distract from her awkwardly-fitting pants). Her talent show song was strong, but all she brought to her performance was walking. And, her runway was just… three red things. I can’t remember anything about the progression from one to the next, only that the final one was far too small – both in the space it took up and the styling.
I think Xunami Muse is an interesting case in that she isn’t the typical queen with a small personality who we see struggle at the top of a season. With Xunami, it’s her drag that’s quiet, not her voice. Unfortunately, that means she’s stuck in the “runway model” archetype without any way to shatter that mold. Her story could change if she proves to be an amazing dancer, singer, or actor, but right now she feels like she has the least story potential of everyone in this first half of the cast.