RuPaul’s Drag Race UK vs The World, Episode 1: “Global Glamazons” — Review
For the first time ever, Drag Race artists from around the world gather to compete for a single crown in RuPaul’s Drag Race UK vs The World! And if you find yourself struggling to keep up—there’s a lot of Drag Race, we get it—stop by each week for the essentials.
The Olympics of Drag
Drag Race has been called ‘The Olympics of Drag’ for years now, but as fun as the nickname is, it’s never truly been accurate. Until pretty recently, Drag Race was an American show featuring near-exclusively American drag artists. So what would you call a televised drag competition that actually invites drag performers from around the world to compete in various challenges and pageantry?
“Dragula!” the crowd shouts. Okay… well, you’re not wrong, but no. Different show.
You’d call it Drag Race UK vs The World, of course!
That is a fantastic question, and here’s an underwhelming answer: Drag Race UK vs The World is just a fancy name for the UK series’ equivalent of the All-Stars spin-off that the US series has been doing since 2016. The structure of the episodes is the same, and the method of elimination is the same. It’s not really a different show from what we’ve seen before. They just invited queens from other international Drag Race franchises to compete.
“So it’s not a Drag Race UK spin-off?”
No, it definitely is. Or at least this season is. It’s filmed on the UK set, it airs on BBC Three, and it generally follows the streaming distribution strategy of Drag Race UK. It also uses a similar prize structure and all its limitations, and it features the exact judging panel the UK cast is already familiar with. This is 100% a Drag Race UK spin-off, even if it only features three Drag Race UK queens.
That it’s a Drag Race UK spin-off doesn’t really matter to me, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that this season is using the familiar All-Stars format where the queens eliminate each other. This isn’t the article for my All-Stars gripes (we’d be here a long time), but I do think they’re missing an opportunity to introduce a new, better format for featuring a cast full of established performers and elevated drag artistry.
A Small But Mighty Cast
I’m not going to do a cast assessment, but here are some observations:
- It cannot be overstated how iconic it is that Pangina Heals, one of the judges of Drag Race Thailand, is competing on this season. Though I still haven’t properly watched all of Drag Race Thailand, I’m familiar with its reputation and a bit of Thai drag culture, and I can’t wait to see what she brings.
- The fact that there are zero artists from Drag Race UK Series 2 is baffling, because that cast is incredible. I don’t know what the casting timeline looked like for this season, but I assume it was similar to Drag Race UK Series 3. Hopefully the Series 2 cast were just too booked and busy.
- Drag Race UK vs The World isn’t exactly the most racially diverse season of reality TV, which is a bummer. Because the cast is so small, and because casting for the UK, Canadian, and Dutch seasons hasn’t exactly produced a ton of racial diversity, the final nine-person cast features only one Black artist (something American casts have never seen) and two Asian artists.
- Unrepresented in this cast are drag artists from Drag Race Down Under, Drag Race España, Drag Race Italia, and Chile’s The Switch. Only time (and future iterations of vs The World) will tell if we see cast members from these or any future international versions (series in France and the Philippines have been confirmed).
An International Talent Extravaganza (Kinda)
As we’d expect any modern All-Stars season to open with a Variety Show, UK vs The World opened with the “first annual” Royal Command Performance. And as we’d expect any Variety Show to feature plenty of drag artists performing to their own original songs, so did the Royal Command Performance feature exactly the same.
Of the nine queens on UK vs The World, a whopping seven performed to an original song of theirs, and honestly? Go off. Show the product, sell the product. Here’s my gripe: if you’re lip-syncing to your own song, you better be doing something spectacular on top of it, and if you’re actually singing it, you better be damned good at it. Cheryl Hole and Jujubee, I’m looking at you two. Honest-to-god, I had to go back to see what Cheryl’s act was. And I adore Jujubee, but we need more than what she’s given on three separate reality competitions now: solid but unspectacular live vocals.
As for the other queens performing their own songs, they all stood out for something:
- The good? Pangina and Blu Hydrangea used their original songs to showcase other talents. I especially appreciate that Pangina incorporated waacking into her routine, having explained its origins and given it a proper spotlight. And while I’ve seen Blu’s act done before, it hasn’t been done on Drag Race, and she did it very well.
- The bad? Baga Chipz is rightfully beloved, but why was she singing over a track that still had lead vocals on it? I get that she’s funny, and the ultimate skill for succeeding on Drag Race is making RuPaul laugh, but… I was struggling with this one, Ms. Baga.
- And the safe? Mo Heart’s live singing was strong from start to finish, but the performance as a whole felt small. On the other hand, Lemon’s dance performance lacked a bit of punch, but it ended spectacularly. Given the height of her platform and the fact that she jumped, Lemon slammed her cooch into that stage from at least six feet up with all the force of an extinction-level meteor, and somehow people walked away unimpressed, because Aja also used a platform once. Okay…
That leaves two performances that didn’t primarily feature original music: Janey Jacké’s quick-change performance and Jimbo’s clowning. I’m personally not a fan of quick-change acts, but I can appreciate them when they’re done well. I don’t think Janey’s was done especially well, and the show highlighted a few of the reasons: the reveals weren’t as clean as they should have been, it lacked a through-line, and the outfits themselves weren’t remarkable. As for Jimbo? There’s simply no way to truly convey why Jimbo giving birth to a stack of bologna and throwing slices at herself in order to make them stick worked… It just did. And you just need to watch it.
All-Stars Rules Apply
Ultimately, after the Royal Command Performance and a mostly impressive “I’m A Winner, Baby” runway category (highlights: Pangina, Jimbo, Lemon, Mo), Janey and Lemon were proclaimed the bottom two. Janey’s critiques centered largely on the flaws of her performance and what the judges considered an underwhelming runway compared to her competition. The rationale for Lemon landing in the bottom? The judges claimed her talent lacked originality.
Now, this isn’t a conversation that hasn’t happened a hundred thousand times over this past week, but there were a few things they could have criticized about Lemon’s performance. But lack of originality? …in a challenge that’s known for its predictability? …when nearly every artist on this cast performed to their own song and a number of them walked the stage at most? Sure. Using that as a primary reason for placing Lemon in the bottom two was genuinely stunning, and not of the brown-cow variety.
Drag Race is a television show, yeah, but it’s a television show that’s centered primarily on an elimination-based talent competition. There’s always going to be a degree of subjectivity, but if something truly doesn’t add up, it shows. When Sanjaya placed 7th on American Idol, we all knew what was up. The voting public didn’t think he was a Top 10 vocalist. They just liked him more, and no one could pretend it wasn’t the case.
That’s something that’s always a factor on Drag Race. It’s Ru’s show, and Ru chooses the winners and the losers. But it’s always felt more egregious and more produced on all-stars seasons, and with hindsight it almost seems like a foregone conclusion we should’ve seen coming: the UK queens weren’t likely to be eliminated first, the American queens weren’t likely to be eliminated first, and a judge on a Drag Race franchise wasn’t likely to be eliminated first.
That leaves Jimbo, Lemon, and Janey as the “safest” early targets, and the panel loved Jimbo.
And this isn’t to take away anything from the winners of this week, Pangina and Jimbo. I completely agree with their top placements. But at least two of the queens ultimately deemed safe could have reasonably been in the bottom two in place of Lemon, and that’s if I’m being conservative. Baga’s runway was bad. It wasn’t mediocre or simply subpar. It was bad. The judges straight-up laughed it. And if we’re judging on originality: Jujubee. From talent to runway, we’ve seen it. Many times.
But in any case, Pangina and Jimbo were given the undesirable task of deciding whether to eliminate Janey or Lemon. Here’s where the All-Stars format gets messy. Remember when I said Drag Race is a television show centered primarily on a talent competition? Well, for reasons I cannot fathom, RuPaul decided to introduce an element of social strategy into the equation. This incentivizes the parties responsible for weekly eliminations (competitors active in the competition) to consider eliminating strong artists (hey, Manila) and keeping perceived weaker ones (hi, Roxxxy). It’s basic stuff on shows like Survivor or The Challenge, but when the original premise of your competition was to award the best (or at least consistently better) of the bunch, social strategy fundamentally changes that premise.
For example, in this episode Jimbo is left to consider whether it more behooves her to keep her fellow Canada’s Drag Race alum in Lemon or eliminate her as competition. And Pangina is forced to consider whether keeping Janey is a more optimal game move, because Janey’s a sole franchise representative, like her, meaning she’s less likely to prioritize another competitor out of personal loyalty. Which queen did better in the talent competition? It wasn’t a huge part of the conversation. And from how it looked, it wasn’t a huge part of the ultimate deliberation.
Finally, Jimbo and Pangina faced off in a lip-sync battle to the Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There”—in front of Mel C!—and it wasn’t especially close. In fact, Jimbo summed it up rather succinctly to Baga after the fact: “I did not do good.”
And when Pangina earned the power to eliminate and revealed who she’d chosen, Lemon’s name appeared on the infamous black lipstick tube, and she sashayed away.
Start your Singers, seamstresses, because the construction challenge is coming! Surely a cast composed of entirely returning drag artists won’t be intimidated by a sewing challenge, right? Surely anyone planning to compete again will have the foresight to come with a strategy, right? And surely anyone who struggled to create a garment their first time around would schedule a few lessons with a drag family member who knows how to whip up a quick and fabulous garment, right?
You would certainly think. But we all saw what happened to Jiggly.
‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK vs The World’ airs on BBC Three in the UK and Crave in Canada, and it streams on WOW Presents Plus in the US and everywhere else.