RuPaul’s Drag Race, now in its ninth season, premiered recently with a new bevy of gender-bending beauties competing for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. Drag Race is equally edgy and effervescent, and consistently awes and entertains, even after almost a decade of the now-familiar format. Once a flagship on Logo TV, a network geared specifically toward a young, gay demographic, this festive juggernaut, helmed by legendary drag performer and TV personality RuPaul, has breached the mainstream current and is now produced by VH1.
Season 9 competitors include Peppermint (the sassy yet classy N.Y.C. club performer), Valentina (the Latina, neo-beatnik fashionista), Eureka O’Hara (the Southern-fried, Wal-Mart queen named after a vacuum cleaner), Charlie Hides (the ambiguously European celebrity impersonator), Sasha Velour (the high-concept performance artist), Alexis Michelle (the theatrically trained Broadway hopeful), Shea Couleé (self-described as a “champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget”), Trinity Taylor (the plastic-surgery, pageant girl), Aja (the Brooklyn up-and-comer), Jaymes Mansfield (the ditzy bobble-head doll with, for some reason, puppets), Nina Bo’nina Brown (the paper-and-clay cosplay queen), Farrah Moan (the slinky Vegas showgirl), and Kimora Blac (the vamp-tramp Vegas “showgirl”).
The excitement of first impressions as each of the queens makes their Drag Race debut is overshadowed by the entry of an ethereal diamond duchess in fetish boots and a bejeweled body suit: mega-pop star (and female drag artist) Lady Gaga. Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta, is a woman — but drag is about subverting traditional gender lines, and with its ever-more-steady footing in pop culture, “drag” is evolving in its meaning to include artistic alter-egos along the entirety of the gender spectrum, from bearded lumberjack queens to I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter female impersonators. In recent decades, the perception of drag has evolved, as well, from underground, gay cabaret act to high art. This premiere gives the audience a taste of each queen’s drag persona with an exhibition of runway fashion: one ensemble inspired by their hometown, and one inspired by the guest judge, Gaga. In an exciting twist, a new contestant, a previous-season runner-up returning to compete, is teased in the last few seconds of the episode.
RuPaul serves as host, head of the judges’ panel, and sage creative and career adviser to the competitors. With each episode, the queens are challenged to display those qualities that every great performer — especially those artists who convey the experience of a fringe subculture — needs to succeed: their charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. Amid the glamour of the runway, the impressive craftsmanship of the costuming, and the absurdist dramatics of a dozen lavish personalities competing for a title (and $100,000), Drag Race knows the importance of genuine vulnerability from the queens — and always delivers. Drag Race pushes the boundaries of drag while simultaneously making the art form more accessible and relatable, thus normalizing that subset of the transgender experience on a wider scale. RuPaul’s Drag Race airs Friday nights at 5 p.m. on VH1.