Before even embarking on Friday night’s premiere of RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race, I could’ve told you that the definition of celebrity would likely be stretched, and I could be pretty certain Nico Tortorella would show up at some point and do the most.
Both were very true.
However, what I couldn’t predict was being fairly charmed by the latest addition to the RuPaul oeuvre. If your expectations are appropriately set, it’s a sweet little, low-stakes good time.
Much more closely related to the dearly departed Drag U than the flagship brand, the series takes three “celebrities” (let’s all just agree they aren’t A-list, so I don’t have to keep putting it in quotes, and you can save yourself the sassy comment), pairs them with a Drag Race alum and let’s the transformation unfold.
It’s not dissimilar to the makeover challenge we see every season, but on steroids. The three aspiring queens are put through a mini-challenge, a main challenge, a runway show and a triple lip sync. And these aren’t your sort of egg-on-a-spoon race challenges; they are putting the celebs through their paces in some of the more challenging gauntlets the show has thrown down.
Each episode is a self-contained, mini-pageant, so there’s a satisfying, snackable story in each installment. That, coupled with the feel-good charity element and fishy-out-of-water moments of comedy, make the series a cheery addition to what’s become a marathon 3.5-hour Drag Race block of content.
Of course, the show has a fine line to walk. Tonally, there isn’t a lot of dumb, straight, bug-eyed reactions to like “tucking” or blocking a brow. (In fact, not all competitors are necessarily straight or male, at all.) It could get exhausting watching a bunch of gawking and squawking in befuddlement at queer culture, but these competitors all came in with a solid foundation of knowledge that felt like we skipped right to at least Drag 201 (or in Nico’s case, an overly-ambitious Master’s thesis).
The series also mostly avoids fawning too much over their “bravery.” There are some moments that hew a little too close to back-patting for getting in drag, but, overall, the show doesn’t take itself too, too seriously.
The most perplexing thing is exactly what’s so “Secret” about it? We’re introduced to the contestants after the briefest, mostly jokey guesses from the mentor queens. If you were expecting a drag version of The Masked Singer, sorry to disappoint you. (But also happy to give that idea to anyone who can make it happen!)
It was wise to start the series with three of the most beloved, charismatic stars the show has produced: Trixie Mattel, Bob the Drag Queen and Monet X Change. It falls on the three of them to keep the episode moving, especially from our less comedic contestants, and they did a great job leading, narrating and volleying with each other and the queens-in-training.
These wannabe Shangelas were forced to navigate a drag obstacle course, play Snatch Game, walk a RuPaul-themed runway and do battle in a triple lip sync “for your charity.” (I wonder how much of the budget went to the rights for Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”)
Who wobbled in high-heels to snatch the scepter? Let’s dig in, in no particular order.
Jermaine Fowler (Miss Mimi Teapot): Taking inspiration from his recently departed mother, this stand-up comedian came into the competition with the least polish. Seemingly outmatched by his competitors’ knowledge and experience, Fowler compensated with a sharp sense of humor and an undeniable charm. For the first mini-challenge, Fowler flopped through the obstacle course, dragging sagging pads and dangling a chest plate out of a mini-dress. If the comedian’s inelegant obstacle course was a stumble, Fowler’s Snatch Game was one for the ages. Obviously, a comedian has an edge, but Fowler was smart to choose “Kevina Hart” (a drag variation on Kevin Hart). It was a great example of how to play a multi-dimensional Snatch. The voice and mannerisms were spot on, and the content ranged from Snatch-specific absurdity to a (necessary) joke about Hart’s history of homophobia. A lesser queen would have made nothing but short jokes until the entire bit was run into the ground.
Snatch was only Fowler’s second brightest shining moment. He really endeared himself to audiences when he was put in full makeup and the similarity to his mother really hit him. Even his girlfriend was rocked by the resemblance. Jermaine was inspired to do the show partially by his mother, who was a lesbian. Giving each of these celebs a connection to the community helped spare the series too much of the “queer cultural tourism” tropes without feeling too “some of my best friends are LGBTQ+!”
Unfortunately, Fowler fumbled on the runway. As Miss Mimi Teapot, Fowler was gorgeous, but unsteady. When it came time to lip sync, Jermaine outperformed, say, Aidan Zhane, but couldn’t measure up to the other two queens. While Miss Teapot didn’t take the title, she gets to go home with $10,000 for RAINN.
Nico Tortorella (Olivette Isyou): Look, mileage will vary when it comes to your tolerance for Nico Tortorella. Personally, I find their enthusiasm for queer culture genuine, sincere and deployed to achieve the most good. Now, that doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes come off as Frankie Grande with a SAG card. They’re a lot, but they also are an incredibly rare sex symbol that happens to be non-binary. I’m not signing on to their Fire Island share any time soon, but I’m not gonna hate on someone for not only deeply caring about the community, but also actively trying to contribute and advance it.
Nico’s familiarity with these spaces and touchstones gave them an advantage, of course. They slayed the mini-challenge with a funny, confident quick-drag performance of Ru’s “Jealous of My Boogie.” It wasn’t enough for the win, but a message was sent to the other queens.
As for Olivette, Nico is, obviously, gorgeous. (All the competitors looked actually really, really amazing.) Bringing Lucille Ball to the Snatch is a tall order (there’s a reason no one else has), but Nico did surprisingly well. The actual joke content was just OK, but the entire time Nico kept in character, fully committed, and nailed the facials/little vocal tics.
By far the best lewk and makeup, Olivette stormed the runway dolled up in Ru’s “Supermodel” red gown. Nico wanted to make a statement by incorporating a bit more of a non-binary touch to the performance, highlight their body hair and forgoing the tuck. Unfortunately, I think it lacked the intended impact, but I appreciated the thought. Nico came close to the title by giving the lip sync their all, but walked away with only the consolation $10,000 donation for the Transgender Law Center.
Jordan Connor (Babykins La Roux): Riverdale‘s “Sweet Pea” got real spicy as a new queen on the block and the first RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race winner. Inspired by his queer siblings, Jordan clearly had enough exposure to queer culture to navigate this with style. From voguing in the mini-challenge (which earned the first win of the night) to the patented point-and-walk maneuver on the runway, Jordan is clearly a student of the art.
Probably my least favorite Snatch of the night, Connor picked Chrissy Teigen, someone who is beloved and very funny, but perhaps best known for her unapologetic authenticity. Dialing-up the Chrissy-ness sort of ruins what makes her so relatable. Fortunately, Connor also had a few planned bits, including a basic (but aces for this show) cookbook bit with a dirty punchline that honestly isn’t even worth risking spooking the Google censors by outlining here.
On the runway, La Roux truly came alive. Wearing an ensemble inspired by Ru’s winged 1995 VH1 Fashion and Music Awards gown, Connor soared down the runway, fully feeling the fantasy.
At that point, was the winner ever in doubt?
Connor tearily accepted the $30,000 prize for Cystic Fibrosis Canada and, sure, a little bit of pride. (He can have a little, as a treat.)
What did you think of the first episode of RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race?