RuPaul’s Drag Race has delivered the second half of its split premiere with Season 16 Episode 2, “Queen Choice Awards.” This continues the throwback MTV theme wrapped around a standard talent show and a reveal runway retitled to “Made Ya Look.”
There’s this idea that it’s no longer enough to just be good at drag to do well on Drag Race – that the show has come too far, and demands too much.
I think that idea is a fiction. If you look at winners of Drag Race back to BeBe Zahara Benet, they have always done the most. Even when looks were closer to off-the-rack than runway-ready, every queen who has won this show has been impressive not only in charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent, but on some intrinsic conceptual level as well.
I mention that because the divide between the haves and have-nots in this cast when it comes to that conceptual x-factor seems to be a stark one. There are a number of charming, talented queens in this cast who I am already beginning to adore who don’t seem to have the pure imagination it takes to win Drag Race.
Or, maybe I’m wrong! Sometimes I’m wrong. I completely missed out on [spoiler!] Ginger Johnson being the one queen to rule them all on Drag Race UK, and on Drag Race Down Under I initially had the runner up as my pick over the winner. There are times that the core concept of a queen just doesn’t come across for me under the pressure of a first episode.
But… I also have a tremendous recent track record of picking finalists (Drag Race UK aside).
I’ll be curious to see how this race develops with all fourteen queens sharing screen time next week – especially when faced with a Ball challenge, one of the ultimate tests of a queen’s ability to manifest her conceptual vision on the stage. Have I correctly guessed the haves and have-nots when it comes to being high-concept?
Now that we have the second half of our split premiere in hand, I’m power ranking all 14 queens for the first time this week! Yes, I’ve shuffled all of the queens from my Week 1 “Rate-a-Queen” power ranking into the mix (and reshuffled one of them lower now that we know the next challenge is a Ball). Who are my picks for high-concept obvious finalists? And, who do I think will be our first outs of the season?
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 2 – Queen Choice Awards
Talent Show, & “Made Ya Look” reveal Runway Power Rankings
Before we get to the rankings, let’s appreciate Ru’s lovely runway ballgown. (Sorry, no workroom look, they never gave us a head-to-toe shot after she got down the stairs!)
This feels like a classic Ru look updated for her new slightly-matronly era. The wig is sitting FAR back on her head and the nude illusion is a little delusional, but the asymmetrical shoulder and hip are gorge and give her the perfect silhouette with her leg peeking out of the high slit.
#1 – Nymphia Wind
Nymphia Wind won this premiere episode by not winning.
From the moment she entered the workroom it was obvious that Nymphia operates on a completely different wavelength than her competitors – both a level of drag and a level of confidence. Her entire entrance bit, the giant hair with the stack of sunglasses, her talent show performance, the fucking banana hair on the runway…
…Nymphia is in her own world and we’re just lucky to get a glimpse of it.
Also, can we pause for a moment to appreciate how refreshing – and, for me RELIEVING – it was to see Ru find an Asian queen to be funny!? The main franchise has a relatively poor track record of appreciating Asian queens. It often treats their humor with crickets. Even if Nymphia’s absurd SheMV mini-challenge routine didn’t slay me, I loved that it slayed Ru hard enough to merit a win.
Nymphia’s talent show was a standout performance. I think it’s inevitable that people will compare it to Gia Gunn’s cultural dance performance from All Stars. While I agree Gia didn’t get her due that week, I think there is a clear difference between Gia’s stoic delivery (as befits the style of theatre she was doing) versus this winking, whimsical choreography from Nymphia. This talent act wasn’t necessarily deliberately humorous, but there was definitely something wry about it.
Also, let’s not lose sight of how perfect it was for Nymphia to get this reveal runway in the first week when she could double down on her banana branding right on top of her entrance look. I wasn’t totally wild over either look – they both had some odd details, especially around the waistline. Yet, they both were well-constructed and well-proportioned. And, again, the banana hair was sheer genius.
The fact that Nymphia seemingly missed out on the top spot purely due to Plane Jane’s moustach-twirling villainy just emphasizes how much Nymphia is the queen to beat. And, while Plane Jane’s strategy turned out great for herself, I think it was great for Nymphia too – it means she got away without a win, so the show can heap some more praise on her right away without needing to cool off and spread the love around.
#2 – Sapphira Cristál
Last week I said:
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.
In the same way I think it was crushingly obvious last year from Meet The Queens that Sasha Colby, Luxx, and Anetra were going to be the finalists, I think this year it seems obvious that Nymphia Wind and Sapphira Cristál were seeded in opposite premieres because production expects them to make it to the finale. It’s not just that they both won the first mini-challenge and presented spectacular classic art in their talent shows. It’s that they both exist entirely in their own box, with not a single person close to them. My only worry about Saphhira is her fashion.
#3 – Q
Last week I said:
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.
The exciting thing about Q is that she’s a designer and a stage queen who knows how to make fun of herself. Each of those qualities is powerful on Drag Race, but they’re exceeding rare in combination. It has the potential to launch her into the same stratosphere as Bianco del Rio and Trinity the Tuck – but those are two of the most supremely confident queens in the entire history of the franchise.
I want to say that Q is going to be #3 at the finale to Nymphia and Sapphira, yet… I just can’t help but foresee confidence problems in her future, and we’ve just seen that she might not win any lip syncs. However, next week is a Ball challenge – possibly her most odds-on challenge to win. I think she is going to make a very powerful early showing this season before we see any weaknesses in her armor.
#4 – Plane Jane
Plane Jane made herself the main character of this episode, from her cruel workroom comments to her inane talent show to a surprisingly high level of drag hiding beneath her trashy looks.
Dolly Parton once said “It costs me a lot of money to look this cheap,” and I think there’s a Drag Race corollary that goes something like “You’ve got to be really good at drag to look this trashy.” Plane Jane got away with all of her trashy looks in this episode because she has a terrific eye for details and a spectacular mug.
There was no double-standard of “she’s only getting away with this because she’s thin” or “they only like it because she’s funny.” All of her drag was good drag. It was just trashy good drag.
Ah, but now that we’ve talked about Plane Jane’s strength, we need to spend a moment on her weakness.
No, not burgers. Villainy.
We’ve never had a totally mean queen win a Ru-hosted season of Drag Race. In fact, I’m not even sure that the shadiest queen has ever won, either.
Yeah, Raja got involved in all that “booger” business, but she was also a charmer (and that was the tenor of reality TV, at the time). There was Bianca with her Rolodex of Hate, but she ultimately won because she repeatedly showed her heart of gold. Aquaria could both be an aloof bitch, but she had a goofy human side, too.
Violet is probably the coldest of all Ru-crowned winners, but she was always perhaps the biggest perfectionist aside from our reigning queen Sasha Colby. Is Plane Jane going to be able to come that correct while also delivering stupid, trashy drag? I’m not sure the two are compatible.
Basically, my point is: Plane Jane is getting lots of airtime with these early antics, but if she wants a realistic shot at the crown at some point she’s going to need a heel-face turn to show off a softer side or a heart of gold. Or, maybe she doesn’t want to win. Maybe she just wants to be on Drag Race and have fun.
If that’s the case, I think Plane Jane is getting her wish. Jane might not have the level of perfection of Violet (or even last year’s shade-throwing champion Mistress Isabelle Brooks), but it’s clear she has a level of polish absent from a lot of her competition – and she also has a level of stupid most of them are missing, too.
#5 – Dawn
Last week I said:
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.
I think Dawn is the wildest of wild cards in this cast. She could roll out her peculiar Brooklyn drag and watch it land with a thud, or she could wind up as the only queen in the cast who is unique enough to stand in the way of Nymphia stomping her way to the crown. I think it’s really down to if her suitcase is all clownish more-is-more fashions and if she can shine in comedy challenges. If that’s a “no” on the suitcase and a “yes” on the funny, she’s a potential finalist.
#6 – Geneva Karr
Geneva Karr has confidence and polish that seems to make the judges’ hearts race, but she’s not revving my engines at all.
If I had to put my finger on why Geneva’s drag didn’t work for me, it’s because it was all ill-fitting. And, not just the garments.
Her entrance look evoked the Mexican flag, but what was with the hideously thick belt? It made her mid-section look puffy and obscured her waist. Also: puffy arms AND long hair flowing over them? Really? That’s a one or the other thing. And what was with the entire front of the wave of hair being brown but then all of the rest of it being blonde? Was it a face-framing thing? I thought it looked so confusing.
I absolutely loved the level of sparkle on this outfit, but it looked like she was wearing a sparkly bag with dishwater hair and I cannot unsee it.
I also did not get her talent show in the slightest. I was sure she’d get negative critiques for it. It took way, way too long to get to the transformation out of her tepid and somewhat clumsy cultural dance, only for it to change over to the most generic possible drag moves in a slinky black outfit.
Again, the entire thing felt ill-fitting. It didn’t feel as though we got a full performance celebrating her heritage or more than the eight-count basics of drag dancing.
Then, on the runway, Geneva was one of several queens who revealed themselves way too soon. Her glittery mariachi costume was one of the best elements of the night, and she didn’t even walk it to the bottom of the runway! The purple dress she revealed beneath it was lovely, but it looked way more “realness” than drag to me. The look needed to get hit with the level of dragginess she brought to her entrance look … just with more taste.
And then she was in the Top Two. When I tell you I was SHOCKED…
As you can tell, I’m not clicking with Geneva Karr at all. If she hadn’t been in the top this week she was be in the cellar of my rankings, for sure. Yet, there’s clearly an x-factor here that the judges and other queens can see that I can’t if she wound up in the top of the Rate-a-Queen rankings. I think that makes her a formidable opponent for the moment, especially with the other half of this episode’s cast being on the weaker side. I’m curious to see where her aesthetic lands in the long run, because I feel like i have no idea who she is or what she likes to look like based on tonight’s outfits.
#7 – Plasma
Plasma is the rare Broadway baby queen who seems to combine stage-ready performance chops with high drag and humor. We know Ru is historically cool on theatre queens, but Plasma just might be smart enough to steer out of potential disaster.
Broadway queens aren’t always my cup of tea, although I’ve liked more of them than Ru has. I think the thing that appeals to me about them is less their weaponized BFAs and more the sort of Type-A approval-junkie that the archetype tends to attract.
I think a frequent downfall of a Type-A queen with a Broadway-style background is that they assume that doing their A-Student Broadway schtick is going to be enough to get them through many challenges… because, who can compete with the power of BROADWAY! Then, they are SHOCKED when Ru is tickled by another queen who doesn’t have the polish or stage chops they do.
(To be fair, that would be exactly how Drag Race would unfurl for me. I’d be a queen who thinks checking boxes is enough to win while completely missing the human element of what makes Ru laugh.)
I get a slightly different vibe from Plasma. She seems canny. She’s not going to get stuck in a one-note rut. She’s seen how her talent show act went down – burlesque fine, singing good, impressions just okay, but overall dinged for trying to do too much at once. Now she will be plotting how to hone that to try to get on Ru’s radar.
And, if what we’ve seen on this first episode is any indication, she’s going to frequently be on top of this cast when it comes to runway looks. In fact, I think she’s a potential dark horse in the Ball challenge next week.
Plasma seems like she could be one of the true all-around talents of the season. The problem for Plasma is that Sapphira’s opera might devour Plasma’s Broadway the way gorgeous devours cute. In a battle of stage queens, Sapphira is going to win handily … but, can Plasma out-maneuver Sapphira on the runway?
#8 – Mirage
Last week I said:
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.
After seeing this week’s crop of queens, I feel like I’m a bit higher on Mirage than I was last week. I still think a lack of detail will be her undoing, and I still think she’ll be stuck in Anetra’s shadow all season, but there’s also a bratty, youthful Yvie Oddly quality to her that isn’t matched by many queens in this season. Also, she knows how to handle herself in a lip sync. Even if her construction is a train wreck next week, I’d be surprised to see her go home
#9 – Morphine Love Dion
Last week I said:
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.
Now that we’ve seen the full cast, I cannot decide if Morphine will get the chance to slay a lip sync or two or if she will be readily sacrificed to prop up another queen. I don’t think the judges are going to vibe with her taste level in the long term, so it’s pure luck whether she has a good enough look packed to stay safe in a Ball challenge.
#10 – Xunami Muse
Last week I said:
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.
If next week’s challenge was anything other than a Ball I would have Xunami Muse in last place in this combined ranking. And, I still considered it… even if her walk is unmatched, we saw last week that her fashion is a little on the small side for Drag Race. Still, I suspect she’ll be decent enough at construction to avoid the bottom next week.
#11 – Amanda Tori Meating
Last week I said:
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.
Amanda is the one queen whose rank I lowered after last week. It’s not that I’ve reappraised her talents in the intervening week – it’s that I really think it’s possible she will turn out the worst constructed look in the Ball challenge next week! Plus, with the promo mentioning that the queens will be Rate-a-Queen-ing again, I think it’s likely that many queens will rank her low. Is A.T.M too good of a character and too precise a dancer to sacrifice on her first lip sync? I think it depends on who she is up against. Against a duller queen like Xunami or Megami, I think she gets another chance. But, against a dynamic performer like Morphine or Mhi’ya, I think she’ll simply be there to provide them with some stiff competition before she sashays away.
#12 – Hershii LiqCour-Jeté
Hershii LiqCour-Jeté might be the sweetest queen we’ve met this season and she paints a stunning mug. Yet. I think we’ve already seen enough inconsistency from her to paint her as a tragic mid-out who just isn’t sure what more she can do to make Ru fall in love with her.
First, can we just talk about the brilliance of “Her/She” as a drag name? So damn smart.
If we’re just talking about queens I want to be friends with, Hershii LiqCour-Jeté would be at the top of my list along with Nymphia – and that’s before I found out she is a parent! Drag Queen parents have been pretty rare on the show, and I loved hearing her talk about her kids.
Yet, that also felt like a kiss of death, from an editing perspective. She had a lot of plot this episode for someone who wasn’t in the top, and frontrunners don’t tend to plot-dump in the early episodes.
Also, her talent show was… baffling. She was in a jungle to… sell wig glue? And what was she wearing?!
Yet, I didn’t have the same problem the judges did with the length of her chocolate dress. It was a stunning garment, and I dug that it was capri-length to show off her ankles. If it were any shorter it wouldn’t have the same impact, if it were longer she would’ve been hobbling down the runway, and a slit would’ve changed the silhouette. I love it just the way it is, and she is styled impeccably.
Even if Hershii LiqCour-Jeté is the most likable queen in this cast for me, she also feels like a queen who has neither a standout skill nor a plot hook to make a deep run. There are enough potential lip sync assassins in this cast that I don’t know if she can survive a first lip sync. And, her Instagram doesn’t lead me to believe that she has a killer suitcase to keep out of the Bottom Two.
#13 – Mhi’ya Iman Le’Paige
Mhi’ya Iman Le’Paige is internet famous for her wild kicking and flipping routines, but to me it seemed like she was swallowed up by the share scope of the Drag Race soundstage.
Whether or not Mhi’ya falling asleep while waiting for her chance the SheMV was real or a bit, I think it speaks to something interesting about the dichotomy of her character. Here’s this queen whose dance moves are unmissable and totally explosive, but I don’t think she has that same energy for anything when the music isn’t pumping.
(Also? We can gag all we want over her flips. Flips are amazing and I could never do one. But, the actually dancing was… pretty sloppy. I don’t look down at all on people who taught themselves their art, because most of anything creative I do is self-taught. But, when she explained later on the runway that her flips are all the result of experimentation rather than gymnastics training it all made sense to me. We’re not going to be getting a Kennedy Davenport level show out of Mhi’ya, despite how similar her performance style is to Kennedy’s. Kennedy’s wild approach to dancing comes from years of strict training.)
Also, Mhi’ya may have had the weakest fashions of all of the queens in this cast. Plane Jane wasn’t wrong when she said that Mhi’ya’s entrance corset made her look larger. Her yellow fringe dance costume was a drag essential, but the tall white boots seemed to clash with it. And, the plunging neckline and shape of her reveal swimsuit was completely unflattering on her body.
I don’t think Mhi’ya was cast to be a winner. I think she was cast to put on a show in this season’s lip syncs, a la Jax. But, to fully get a show we’re probably going to see her in multiple lip syncs, which means someone else in the cast will get sacrificed to her kicking and splitting hijinks. So, she’s almost surely not the first out… but, I’m not sure what she has to keep her alive in this competition other than her lip sync skills.
#14 – Megami
Megami is a delightful queen who gives great confessionals, but her cosplay-influenced approach to the show left her in a distant last place amongst her competitors this week.
Megami was lucky her first episode was a non-elimination, because between a Drag 101 talent show that seriously lacked talent and a revealing runway with nothing to unveil she would have been in for a quick trip to the Porkchop Loading Dock on her way home.
What really surprised me about Megami is that for a cosplayer she took so little care in sweating the details she brought to the show. It feels like her eye for detail is about the intricacies of her looks, and not the big picture. It’s not only that she thought the Pan’s Labyrinth palm-eyes would be a big enough reveal, but also the way she clutched the Pride flag during her number rather than using it for show.
I think Megami would be entirely safe if the show was rolling right into an improv episode… but, we’re headed straight for a ball challenge. After she completely failed the brief on a RuVeal runway, I don’t have the highest confidence that she has a stunning ball look packed in her suitcase. However… as a cosplay queen, she might turn out to be one of the best artists in the cast when it comes to construction. I think if she can squeak through next week and the following challenge is improv, she’ll might be able to make it a bit farther than this initial showing might suggest.