Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for August 21 through 27 is "All Star Talent Extravaganza," the season premiere of Logo’s RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 2.
There’s no reality show more overtly ridiculous or self-aware than RuPaul’s Drag Race, a giddy free-for-all of splashy performances, whip-smart jokes, and towering talent. Drag Race contestants are performers who know how to work an audience, and so the entertainment rarely stops, even after the queens have strutted off stage.
And while drag queens are always concerned with their personas and/or the subversion of traditional gender roles, this is especially true on Drag Race, which can make or break a queen’s career based on the impression she gives rabid fans while competing.
Since 2009, RuPaul — drag queen legend and the self-appointed (/undisputed) Supermodel of the World — hasn’t only gathered, judged, and mentored a hundred drag queens at varying stages of their career but has also propelled them to busier, richer careers outside the show. Fans develop fierce loyalty to their favorite queens, following their careers online and off.
Eight seasons in, Drag Race has stoked enthusiasm both inside and outside the drag community, and getting a publicity bump from the show — not to mention the expertise of Ru and fellow queens — can be a career changer.
These are all things the contestants on the newest season of Drag Race know intimately; as Ru’s second batch of "all stars," they’ve been on the show before.
From former frontrunners like the fantastically weird Alaska Thunderfuck and Katya Zamolodchikova (who both, understandably, go by their first names only on the show), to villains like Phi Phi O’Hara and Roxxxy Andrews, these 10 all-star queens know the drill and are determined not to waste their second chance at the spotlight.
Though the first Drag Race: All Stars season in 2012 was a notorious disaster (more on that in a second), All Stars 2’s premiere proved that the show’s learned from its mistakes — and that we’re in for one hilarious and smart-as-hell season of reality TV.
The rules changes for the All Stars show that the producers know how to make good reality TV
Typically, a season of Drag Race follows the same formula. Almost every episode has a "mini challenge," which is usually just an excuse for Ru to make her queens lean into ridiculous self-parody with tasks like photo shoots with the "pit crew" — Ru’s bevy of oiled-up assistants in Speedos who double as eye candy — or the queens impersonating their fellow contestants with hand puppets.
Then there’s a main challenge, designed to draw on skills like singing, acting, sewing, or all of the above and more. (Competing on Drag Race is like being on every reality show, all at once, while wearing a wig.)
Finally, Ru and her judges evaluate the queens, pick a winner, and identify the bottom two contestants. Then Ru, with the grim air of a judge reading a sentence, tells the bottom two, "It’s time for you to lip sync … for your lives." The two then face off, fighting for the chance to redeem themselves by lip syncing to whatever song Logo got the rights to that week, and from there, Ru can make her final decision as to who should stay and who should "sashay away."
The first attempt at an All Stars season failed because the show tried to mix up the usual format in ways that didn’t allow that batch of queens to show off why they’re considered stars. Instead, it divided them into pairs, making the season about botched teamwork instead of letting the queens shine.
This second round of All Stars, though, has learned its lesson.
All Stars 2’s twist? Ru is letting the queens themselves decide whom to send home. To get that privilege, they have to be one of the top two performers in that week’s challenge, at which point they lip sync for a $10,000 cash prize, as well as the right to decide which of the bottom three queens will leave.
(A final last-minute twist in the All Stars premiere also suggests there will be some sort of grand return for one eliminated queen, which is diabolical, but also in line with Drag Race history, which has thrown previously eliminated contestants back into the ring several times before.)
At first glance, making the queens eliminate each other seems like it encourages cutthroat behavior. But as the All Stars premiere quickly revealed, many of this season’s queens have worked together and/or become close since they last strutted down the Drag Race runway — and they’re all aware of the scrutiny that awaits them outside the set.
The queens’ world outside the show complicates this season’s (fascinating) dynamics
As much as this season of All Stars is about celebrating the legacy of Drag Race in general, it’s also about the queens realizing where they stand within that legacy — and how they want to change it.
Take Phi Phi O’Hara, who competed in season four and became infamous among Drag Race fans for her intense — and often ugly — rivalry with that season’s eventual winner, Sharon Needles. Once the show was over, Phi Phi must have realized that she miscalculated, because the fan backlash was both swift and harsh. So this time around, she earnestly tells the All Stars camera that she wants to show off how much her drag (and people) skills have improved since then.
Phi Phi is the most obvious example, but every queen on All-Stars 2 knows that she’s performing for both the judges and the audience at home, who have the potential to boost or deflate a queen’s post-show career as a touring drag queen.
One conversation between season five’s Detox and season six’s Adore Delano in the premiere serves as a reminder that many of these queens have already been working together —often in Drag Race–associated tours and events — and that their relationships with each other (not to mention with Michelle Visage, Ru’s righthand judge who goes on all the tours) have changed the game.
As the 10 All Stars gather backstage and the top two queens, Roxxxy Andrews and Tatianna, deliberate on whom to send home, the discussion quickly pivots from talk of strategy (as Tatianna suggests) to the fact that sending home a beloved queen — or one who might be a threat down the line — could have reverberations outside the show, with angry fans going after them on social media and beyond.
"I know I came here to play a fair game," Roxxxy insists as she conducts interviews with the bottom three queens (insert eyeroll emoji here), clearly pushing back against the reputation she gained in season five for being petty.
"I wouldn’t want to be in your fucking shoes," Detox tells Roxxxy and Tatianna, despite the fact that they were also about to lip sync for a possible $10,000 in cash.
"We’re eliminating our sisters," season seven’s Ginger Minj says, her neon red eyelashes fluttering in concern. "Don’t you think that if you squeeze by because of a friendship, the backlash is gonna be worse?"
Alaska nods, uncharacteristically somber. "This sucks," she replies, "but a decision has to be made."
So, yes, this new format might be a little devastating, but it will definitely be a whole lot more interesting.
Drag Race contestants are the most entertaining reality show contestants on TV — and they know it
But if TV’s narrative structure doesn’t interest you — I hear not everyone thinks about TV as hard as I do, which sounds nice — you should at least know that Drag Race isn’t just a reality show. It’s one of the funniest comedies out there, period.
While most reality shows depend on their contestants being bizarre or hysterical despite themselves, all 10 of the All Stars are professional performers. You best believe they know how to put on a show, whether they’re completing challenges, shooting the shit with each other in the workroom, or venting to producers during confessionals.
The All Stars 2 premiere kicks off with a classic mini challenge, as each contestant reads her fellow queens to filth, i.e., lobs insults that — if done right — are affectionate but still sharp enough to draw a little blood. As Phi Phi says when starting her turn, staring the other queens down with a smirk: "This is so hard when it’s your friends … so this should be easy."
While every one of the All Stars squeezes wit into the mix, the standout performances are Katya and Alaska, both highlights on their seasons for their offbeat jokes and flawless timing. (Tatianna is a close third.)
Alaska’s whole persona depends on being able to throw a joke or insult back in anyone’s face, which she does here, flashing her peers and competitors a Cheshire cat grin. Her talent for the premiere’s main challenge — a variety show where the All Stars demonstrate their stage acts for a live audience — involves a winking song about how incredibly gay she is, with each line twisting and turning into unexpected jokes and feral growls.
Katya, meanwhile, is maybe the best example of a Drag Race queen who’s always on her game. When she’s not describing the other queens’ performances in the most colorful terms — like how she described an Adore Delano look as "smell my poonani Poetic Justice realness" — she’s talking to viewers through her consistently hilarious confessionals.
"Some of the girls might be more focused on rehabilitating their reputation rather than just winning the competition," she says in an early confessional, "But I’m here to show the world that I’ve turned into a total fucking monster."
Katya stares at us for a moment, her expression vacant, unblinking. Then she bursts into laughter, totally delighted with herself.
The feeling is mutual.
RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 2 airs on Logo and VH1 on Thursdays at 8 pm. The premiere is currently available to stream on Logo’s website, and seasons four through eight are currently available to watch on Hulu.
Corrected to reflect that Katya was describing an Adore Delano look as "smell my poonani Poetic Justice realness," not Tatianna's spoken word piece, "Same Parts." In any case, you should really look up "Same Parts," which is the actual best.