After a not-insignificant amount of chatter over the past few years, RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under has finally made it to screens, with ten queens from across Australia and New Zealand lined up and ready to stunt, lip-sync, and passive-aggressively snark their way to the title of Australasia’s Next Drag Superstar. If I understand COVID travel rules correctly — which, to be clear, I’m not sure that I do — Ru, Michelle, and all seven Australian queens had to quarantine for two weeks prior to filming; perhaps because of that, this episode starts out guns-blazing, setting an improbably high bar for the rest of the season.
Drag Race Down Under arrives at something of an unfortunate time in terms of the overall Drag Race extended universe: Between Drag Race and its U.K. counterpart, there’s been at least one episode of the show released every week since January 1, and for many weeks there were two, plus Untucked. Season 13 of the main series, with its format contrivances and numerous non-elimination episodes, definitely tired some fans out — I personally felt like I had aged a decade by the time the finale aired.
It turns out any worries about Drag Race Down Under, though, weren’t warranted — to paraphrase Jenna Maroney, nothing replenishes a gay man’s electrolytes like drama, and this episode has buckets of it. The level of savagery on display from the very beginning is breathtaking, and I found myself minorly gooped about 50 times during the first ten minutes. Where do I even begin? Art Simone describes Scarlet Adams’s wig as a helmet! Kita Mean refers to her performing partner Anita Wigl’it as her “coattails” mere minutes before she walks in! Etcetera Etcetera calls Maxi Shield “some old man in a dress”!
If that wasn’t enough, we also get some amazingly awkward instances of queens throwing shade while trying to pass it off as a gag by laughing maniacally. Scarlet: “There’s no rivalry hahahahahaha I mean look at us hahahaha!” Anita: “When Kita feels threatened she has to bring other people down hahahahaha!” Kita: “You ride my coattails but the world already knows that hahahahaha!” Am I really supposed to believe Kita and Anita are best friends? If one of them wins, let’s hope a good chunk of that $30,000 — $20,000 in U.S. dollars — is spent on couple’s therapy.
Shortly after the queens have finished roasting each other, Ru arrives and welcomes the queens to the show, making sure to stand six feet — nay, two meters — away from them at all times. Ru announces that this week’s mini-challenge is a Thor parody directed over Zoom by Taika Waititi, and, as with all first episode mini-challenges, it feels more about letting Ru get to know the queens than any specifically competitive event. Every queen seems to do pretty well, but Elektra Shock wins, and is justifiably thrilled. Shortly, Ru gets down to brass tacks: This week’s main challenge is a born naked runway, followed by a hometown runway. This challenge is an oldie but a goodie, and it doesn’t disappoint on Drag Race Down Under, either. There’s a lot to get through, so let’s go queen by queen, from introduction to runway.
Art Simone arrives on Drag Race Down Under with one of the most significant reputations — she’s already had a World of Wonder show, and has a large social following — and immediately lives up to her name. Her outfit is camp but reveals a certain chicness up close, with details like the metallic strands in her wig proof of the meticulousness of her drag. She’s also got some kind of zinger ready for every queen who enters the werkroom, and isn’t afraid to shit-stir.
As the queens put on their makeup, Art seems to be displaying a confidence that borders on cocky, but on the runway, it feels justified: She’s easily the most polished queen of the bunch, delivering a born naked look with a concept that hasn’t been done before, and a hometown look reflective of Melbourne’s status as both a fashion city and a corny street-art city. She’s easily a standout, and it comes as something of a surprise when she doesn’t win the main challenge.
Maxi Shield, the tradie — not trade, tradie, referring to like, builders, plumbers, and the like — of the season, is immediately charming and pretty fun. Nobody can stop making comments about her great, big stonking mommy milkers, and for good reason — those bazoombas are absolutely massive, and, I understand, her trademark. Maxi seems a little self-conscious about her age when standing next to Etcetera — she’s 46, and Etcetera is 22 — but she already feels like a standout. On the runway, Maxi shows off two remarkable fits — a Madonna-inspired nude illusion, and a giant prawn gown inspired by Ballina’s Big Prawn. Plus-size queens often lean on one or two silhouettes, but Maxi shows off three different ones in this episode, and all of them are cool as hell.
Up next is JoJo Zaho, a proud Biripi and Worimi queen and proponent of Faboriginality. She self-describes as a “hooker turned housewife … who sounds like a lesbian truck driver”; were I her editor, I’d ask her to clean up the metaphor a little, but that’s neither here nor there. Her dress, largely PVC with accents the colors of the First Nations flag, is camp and fun, the whole doll-come-to-life thing working well for her in a way that, for once, doesn’t feel ripped straight from the Trixie Mattel playbook. During makeup, JoJo reveals that she lived on a mission for a portion of her childhood, and it’s surprising to hear that many queens don’t know what that means. JoJo generously explains the history of missions to them, also giving a touching insight into the source of JoJo’s pride and inspiration as a performer. I’m not mad at her runways either, the second of which puts a genuinely fun spin on the tried-and-tested Marie Antoinette–inspired look.
Elektra is the first New Zealand queen out of the gate, and stuns in a bright-red burlesque outfit. The fit itself is done a disservice by her wig, which is fried within an inch of its life. None of the other queens seem to be able to talk about Elektra without mentioning the thirstiness of her wig, and, honestly, fair enough — it’s visibly crispy, even on my 960 x 540 pixel screener. It looks like it would be more at home on Karen’s drunk-white-girl-at-the-races runway look. Despite winning the mini-challenge, Elektra is wholly forgettable on the runway, both outfits lacking the inspiration of the other queens.
Scarlet Adams earns the distinction of being the first Drag Race Down Under queen who’s faced some kind of cancellation skirmish since the show’s announcement. Over the past few weeks, photos of the Perth queen’s past performances — which have featured both blackface and yellowface — have surfaced, leading to multiple apologies from Scarlet and subsequent suggestions that those apologies weren’t quite enough. Scarlet talks a big talk during her entrance and confessionals, but having started the show wrong-footed, it doesn’t really feel like enough to stop her from seeming a little like a write-off. The Mugler suit, harness, and lack of padding screams diet Aquaria. Scarlet’s born naked look, a full prosthetic bodysuit complete with minge, looks a little tacky when put up against the mostly ingenious displays by the other queens, but it does get Ru to say the words “human fleshlight,” so that’s something.
The ultraglamorous Coco Jumbo is up next, and I already love her. Her purple-and-gold minidress is beautiful, and I live for the way the producers line up a confessional of Elektra losing it over Coco with one of Coco reading Elektra. This kind of editing continues throughout the episode, but Coco’s far too charismatic for it to come across like a villain edit. Coco’s charisma also feels like what stops her from being in the bottom two after a runway that’s confusing and uninspired. The born naked look doesn’t translate, while dressing as King Kong to nod to her hometown’s giant banana feels tangentially relevant at best. Still, I have high hopes for Coco.
Kita Mean arrives as our second New Zealand queen, wearing an outfit so bright and so over-the-top that I’m not even sure it can be described as camp, considering camp usually requires some element of subtext beyond looking like a Happy Meal toy from the ’90s. During the pre-runway D&M time, Kita reveals that she’s struggled with her weight all her life and got gastric sleeve surgery, but still feels self-conscious. Kita’s born naked bodysuit is saggy, but otherwise forgettable, while her hometown look — a rugby uniform — is fun, but not as distinct as some others. An overall forgettable beginning for Kita.
Etcetera arrives in the werkroom looking like a cockroach, with one antenna refusing to stay up. It’s a bizarre and excellent entrance look — she describes herself as “golden-era Hollywood on crack,” but to me she’s giving 1960s Doctor Who alien on crack, which is even better. It seems like the other queens are underestimating her, which immediately marks her as one to watch. On the runway, Etcetera’s outfit, inspired by Canberra’s unique road system, mostly reads as confusing, but she looks beautiful.
I’ll level with you — I don’t really get Anita’s thing. She’s bubbly and comedic but carries a whip? She looks and sounds a little like a children’s entertainer in her confessionals? Whatever — she proves her value when she addresses the fact that she and Kita employ Elektra at their burlesque bar: “No matter what happens, at the end of day I’ll still go back to being her boss!” Delivered with a toothy smile, it’s an incredible flex. On the runway, Anita’s Garden of Eden–inspired born naked look provides some respite from the more literal interpretations of the theme.
Karen From Finance
Last into the werkroom is Melbourne legend Karen From Finance. Karen merch is ubiquitous in Melbourne, reflective of the fact that she’s become something of a crossover star, becoming a well-known performer even for those who don’t frequent drag nights. Her entrance is instantly the most memorable, seeing her failing to hit her mark and walking right up to the camera. On the runway, she makes a splash too, with a camp series of reveals for her born naked runway and perfectly acted, extremely detailed drunken racegoer cosplay for her hometown look. Although Art’s was probably a little better, Karen was very deserving of this win, and as of now it looks as if she’ll be avoiding the curse of queens with big reputations outside the show.
On the mainstage — where Ru is out of drag, perhaps for some COVID reason, with cutaway shots of Ru in drag clearly filmed after the fact — Karen and Art are praised, while Elektra, Coco, and JoJo are read for their overall lack of polish. JoJo and Elektra are left to lip-sync — to the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy,” an amazing lip-sync choice but not exactly the perfect Down Under song, despite the group’s Australian origins — and, unfortunately, Elektra totally smokes JoJo, eliciting multiple exclamations of “ouch!” from RuPaul and sending her competitor packing. It’s sad, because JoJo definitely seemed like a fierce contender; still, it’s a testament to the strength of this debutante batch of queens. In all, it’s a promising start to a show that, let’s be honest, looked a little janky in its promos. Will the quality hold? I’m looking forward to finding out.