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RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE S14E1 “Big Opening No. 1”: It’s A Happy Ru Year With Another Split Premiere

RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE S14E1 “Big Opening No. 1”: It’s A Happy Ru Year With Another Split Premiere

RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE S14E1 "Big Opening No. 1": It's A Happy Ru Year With Another Split Premiere

It’s a shiny new year, and with it comes a shiny new season of VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race. Not too long ago, the hiatus between Drag Race seasons was long and agonizing but in 2021, that was no longer the case. Since season 13, the franchise has gone into Maximum Overdrive with its spin-offs, such as the premiere seasons of Drag Race España, Drag Race Down Under, Drag Race Holland, Drag Race Italia, the second season of Canada’s Drag Race, All Stars 6, Drag Race UK season 2 AND season 3 – it’s so much drag television!

The original series is really the standard though, and for the third time in the show’s her-story, we have a split premiere. In my season 12 premiere review, I was thankful for the fact that a split premiere – where we’re only introduced to half of the contestants in the first episode – allows the audience and the judges to get to know the queens’ personalities. Season 13’s first episode is no exception but, unfortunately, the personalities are the only thing keeping this premiere afloat.

Meet (Half Of) The Queens

The show kicks off with its regular entrance looks and catchphrases, where the contestants get to meet their competition. In entrance order, we have:

  • Alyssa Hunter, from Cataño, Puerto Rico
  • Bosco, from Seattle, Washington
  • Kornbread “The Snack” Jeté, from Los Angeles, California
  • Willow Pill, from Denver, Colorado
  • Kerri Colby, from Los Angeles, California
  • June Jambalaya, from Los Angeles, California
  • Orion Story, from Grand Rapids, Michigan

This first batch of queens are extremely exciting! Orion is the first queen based out of Michigan, Alyssa is the first Puerto Rican queen since season 9, Bosco is repping my hometown (I will try and keep my biases in check but I can’t NOT acknowledge a queen from my beloved Pacific Northwest!!), and we are blessed with two trans women this season with Kornbread and Kerri. It’s 100 percent correct that a smaller batch of queens means we get a chance to know their personalities and see their relationships blossom, and for that, I’m grateful.

Everyone makes their entrances and seems to be gelling well with each other and bringing a lot of humor, especially Kornbread whose charisma shines throughout the entire premiere. Even when she’s coming for Willow’s 2003 throwback platform flip-flops, her shadiness is fun and loose – a fluttering reminder of how unbridled queens were in earlier seasons.

The Mini Challenge is a photoshoot, where everyone gets strapped to a spin-the-wheel board with the faces of the last three crowned winners (Symone, Jaida Essense Hall, and Yvie Oddly) on it. As the wheel spins, the queens must do their best modeling. It’s a fun little challenge that harkens back to older premiere Mini Challenges photoshoots where queens had to jump on a snowy trampoline, dive into a tank of water, or leap into a foam pit – all while giving face, face, face. To the surprise of nobody, Kerri wins (in and out of drag, she is one of the most beautiful queens to ever grace the television screen) and she gets a cash prize of $2,500. RuPaul wastes no time after awarding Kerri by announcing the Maxi Challenge: the queens will perform in the “prestigious” CNTs, which stands for the “Charisma, Nerve & Talent show”; it is at this moment when the episode begins to dip.

“I’ve Had It, Officially”

Here’s the thing about talent shows and Drag Race: they are wonderful and vivacious premiere Maxi Challenges during RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars but they do not belong in the first episode of a regular season of Drag Race! Precisely because All Stars is a show made up of returning queens who we already know and love, queens who either need a chance to re-introduce themselves to the fandom or showcase a part of their brand that they’ve developed outside of the show, a talent show challenge is perfect for the premiere. But this is a regular season of Drag Race, where queens often are still developing their craft and almost always learn new things about themselves as the cameras roll and the season unfolds.

A premiere episode where these queens are just being introduced to the world isn’t the right place for the audience to be immediately bombarded with some curated branding strategy; it’s best for the queens’ talents to be shown in a way that organically lets us know who they are and how they are evolving, as they are given challenges that are on an even playing field with each other. For example, Alyssa’s talent is a lip sync of the song “Mayhem” by the rock band Halestorm. In the workroom, Alyssa talks briefly about how much she loves rock music but her drag persona and aesthetic give no indication to this, and when she does her fairly-average performance of the song while (horribly) dressed as a metal goddess, her runway look is a complete departure from the persona that she had initially brought forward. This is brought up as a negative in her critiques later on in the episode, so wouldn’t it have been better for Alyssa to give us her drag persona and THEN surprise everyone later on with this side of herself?

RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE S14E1 "Big Opening No. 1": It's A Happy Ru Year With Another Split Premiere
source: VH1

I’m sure production thought that this would have upped the ante for the queens since each season has become more and more difficult but, judging by the fact that less than half of the queens excelled in their talent performance, it seems clear to me that it’s a challenge that is way too premature – I don’t want to see June make costuming mistakes that hinder her otherwise wonderful African dance performance, I’d rather see those mistakes being made during a group challenge or just on the runway. It’s a shame.

The absolute worst casualty of this unfortunate Maxi Challenge is Orion’s comedy skit. Once Orion entered the workroom, she had beautiful makeup and hair, but she presented herself as a bit off-kilter and someone who comes from a dysfunctional upbringing – she comes off a little rough-around-the-edges which is a detriment to someone performing a solo comedy skit, especially when it’s for their television debut! Orion’s skit as a trailer park fitness instructor is awkward, aimless, and sparse on comedy and it ultimately puts her in the Bottom Two. Even if she had an extensive background in comedy sketches, there was very little room for her performance to be a success. Imagine if she had actually gotten to do a few skit challenges where she could have really honed her skills and learned what the judges actually like? It’s a damn shame.

Another talent performance that could have benefitted from a little more television experience was Kerri’s lip-sync to Nicki Minaj‘s “Anaconda”, which she incorporated jump rope into, a talent that is extremely unique and fun for Drag Race. During her sit-down with RuPaul earlier in the episode, Kerri talked about how she was actually a jump rope champion in her youth and her relationship to her mother, who is evangelical. This was a good setup for learning more about where Kerri came from and who she is now but, unfortunately, her routine isn’t as great as it could be since she took too long to get to actual jump roping.

As for Bosco, who decided to go with a burlesque number, we get to see the lone talent that only works in this exact context; performing burlesque isn’t likely to be a Maxi Challenge on this season of Drag Race (or maybe it is? I hope it is in the future because that would make for a very fun episode) so Bosco wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to show off this talent. However, if Bosco were to return to an All Stars season, any burlesque number she does would be compared to talent/variety shows of All Stars past. So for Bosco, sensually undressing and removing enormous rose petals from her dress is the perfect way for her to show her talents and advance in the competition, though her talent wasn’t innovative enough to get her beyond safe.

The Charisma, Nerve & Talent Show

For this talent show, however, there are two very, very clear standouts: Kornbread and Willow. Kornbread, as mentioned earlier, completely charms everyone with her presence throughout the episode and gives us exactly what we want with her talent, which is a performance of her own original song. The last few seasons have had queens perform their own verses amongst an ensemble song and Kornbread took this and made it even better as she mixed humor, musical talent, and a real handle on her how she presents herself.

While Kornbread has given us something familiar and taken it to the nth degree, Willow gives us something completely different. Different, lush, hilarious, and twisted as hell. The CNTs close with her talent, which is titled “Self-Care In Quarantine” and I tell you, as soon as I heard that unmistakable intro to Enya‘s “Only Time” (one of my favorite songs to sing at karaoke), I knew that we were in for a treat.

RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE S14E1 "Big Opening No. 1": It's A Happy Ru Year With Another Split Premiere
source: VH1

Willow’s performance can really only be described as performance art: she’s decked out like the most precious CottageCore girl on TikTok who tiptoes her way to a bubbly bath while lip syncing to Enya. She puts some bubble soap in the bath, takes a sip of her red wine, and then also pours that into the bath. She then floats over to a side table and suddenly chows down a handful of spaghetti (which made the special guest judge Lizzo exclaim, “what the fuck am I looking at?” before laughing) before also dumping the food into the bath. By the end of the number, Willow has shed her white nightgown for a tiny purple leotard, she’s dropped a toaster into the bath, and RuPaul is laughing her ass off. It’s honestly a perfect performance.

From the moment Willow and her “beach flip-flops” walked into the workroom, the queens were roasting her left and right; if it weren’t her super casual (yet iconic) entrance look or her sunglasses constantly falling off of her head, it was something else that made the other queens underestimate her, which became the episode’s throughline. What the queens take as nervousness and low-quality drag, is actually a strategic move by miss Pillow: it’s subtle, but the comments by the other queens on Willow’s personality and aesthetic hint that she will either be the first to go home or maybe even win the first episode.

During Willow’s sit-down with RuPaul, she spoke about how, despite her aesthetic being a bit cutesy and chaotic, her humor and her drag often comes from a place of darkness, as the 26-year-old queen has lived with a chronic illness her entire life. In this sit-down, Willow gives Ru everything she craves when interacting with one of the queens: good banter, a taste of vulnerability, and the ability to “shake the tree” as Ru puts it, i.e. using drag to bring levity to a world that’s often too serious. Judging by Ru‘s immediate taking to Willow (similar to how she so clearly loved Gottmik during season 13) and her reaction to her talent, there was a real chance that Willow could win.

That is until she hit the runway.

The runway category is “Signature Show-Stopping Drag” and if it weren’t for her godawful look, Willow would have undoubtedly won this episode, and what a shame too because her talent was by far my favorite. Many of the queen’s looks aren’t really show-stopping besides Kerri and Bosco’s, who receive no negative critiques. June and Kornbread get critiqued for not considering every detail of their looks but it’s Orion and Willow who are told their looks are not good. It’s these considerations, and the fact that special guest Lizzo made her adoration for Kornbread so apparent, that persuades RuPaul to declare Kornbread the winner of episode 1 and I completely agree! Though I am completely in love with Willow’s performance, Kornbread was undoubtedly the best of the night and deserves her cash prize of $5,000.

RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE S14E1 "Big Opening No. 1": It's A Happy Ru Year With Another Split Premiere
source: VH1

Willow, Bosco, and then Kerri are proclaimed safe, which means that June Jambalaya and Orion Story are the Bottom Two queens who must Lip Sync For Their Lives. The song is Lizzo‘s “Water Me” and, while Orion puts up a good fight, it was undoubtedly June’s lip sync to win as she further showcases her dance skills. It’s sad to see Orion leave before we really got to know her but she’s a part of the Drag Race sisterhood now and that can never be taken away from her.

Conclusion: “Big Opening No. 1”

Despite my many reservations with the talent show aspect of this episode, I had an enormously good time getting to know this first batch of queens and there are so many small things I really enjoyed, like the return of Lizzo as a special guest judge (especially in her Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Aunty Entity-inspired ensemble) and Kerri’s gorgeous confessional look. Judging by how much I’ve fallen in love with the queens in this episode, I am more than looking forward to next week, even though I’m going to have to endure some more talent show shenanigans.

What did you think of the season premiere? Whose talent was your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!

A new episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 14 can be seen every Friday at 8/7c on VH1.

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