RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season-Premiere Recap: The B Tier… Wins!

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars

The Fame Games / It’s RDR Live!
Season 8 Episodes 1 and 2
Editor’s Rating 5 stars

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars

The Fame Games / It’s RDR Live!
Season 8 Episodes 1 and 2
Editor’s Rating 5 stars
Photo: Paramount+/WOW

Good news: RuPaul’s Drag Race has remembered it’s a comedy. The eighth season of Drag Race All-Stars represents a pivot that began with season six but appears to have reached its full form now. Facing an ever-decreasing list of queens who meet typical All-Stars criteria (did well on the show, has a lot of fans, wants to come back), Drag Race All-Stars, with its yearly schedule, has been forced to cast queens who wouldn’t typically be considered “first choice” among a bunch of first choice queens. While that happened in seasons three and four, it came to a head in season five, when the final three (Shea, Miz Cracker, and Jujubee) were obvious from the time the cast was announced, and the entire season felt like a slog toward that inevitability and Shea’s equally inevitable crowning. With season six, they took a different approach: Cast more queens and support some wild cards, which the viewers might not expect much from. With Ra’jah and Kylie doing better than expected and the season lasting longer, the overall effect was that season six felt more like a regular season rather than an All-Stars season.

Now, they’ve taken it one step further by creating a group that feels like an actual cast. Rather than a collection of queens who are the best they could get from the second (and third, maybe fourth) tier queens, this group seems to be cast for intra-group dynamics, like a regular season of Drag Race would be. The unifying factors are an extreme hunger to do well and a (perhaps related) lack of extreme polish that would be normal in a regular season. This is a group that came back desperate to prove themselves to Ru. Even the frontrunners, based on previous performances (Heidi, Kandy, and Jimbo, approximately), have a lot to prove in this competition. As proof of this, alliances begin almost immediately and at a level we haven’t seen before, with girls not thinking twice about participating in some potentially shady dealings.

The side-effect of the competitive nature among slightly less polished girls is that I laughed more throughout these four episodes — two normal, two Untuckeds — than I have in a while on Drag Race. Not necessarily at the challenges (we’ll get to those), but at the interactions between the queens. The best example of this so far can be found in Alexis Michelle, the original Loosey LaDuca, a queen who is allergic to understanding how she comes off on camera. Almost everything she says throughout these two episodes is funny, from her extremely impassioned, whispered “Thank you” to Idina Menzel during critiques to her vibrato-heavy delivery of “Broadway’s in the houuuuse” during a Glam Rock musical performance (?). Her manner of speaking is deeply earnest in a way that screams “theater kid,” but it’s also so over-the-top that it reaches past “annoying” and into artistry. I was particularly enamored with her breakdown in Untucked over nothing while the other queens looked on disgustedly. Last season, I was a fan of Loosey as a character, but in just two episodes, Alexis blows her away in the “theater kid having a prolonged emotional breakdown” department. Alexis is probably not a queen who would be cast if the producers got all their first choices (she’s been passed over four times prior), but in the absence of queens like Gigi, Peppermint, Asia, and Crystal, this might be even better.

The first tell we get that production is reconfiguring how they conceptualize the All-Stars season comes from the very first challenge. Rather than the typical first-episode reading challenge, they pull out the double runway look challenge that appeared in seasons seven, 12, and 13. The first category is “Famous then,” and the second is “Famous now,” which is perfectly fine, but I tend to be more excited about queens who came up with something interesting, funny, or ridiculous within those categories (see: Heidi N. Closet’s looks, which are completely original) rather than the queens who just copied looks from someone who used to be famous and someone who is currently famous. Celebrity cosplay drag doesn’t do much for me. Kahanna Montrese, for example, is beloved by the judges later in the episode, but I find her drag here a bit witless. There’s no spin or commentary; it’s just well-put-together outfits that look like the best that Vegas Revue money can buy. Actually, Kahanna generally is not working for me. The judges like her for a good reason — she’s a talented performer with strong glamor bonafides — but my attention is being grabbed by the many, many queens with bigger personalities this season.

I will additionally disagree heartily with the judges on the topic of Darienne Lake’s Billie Eilish look, which is hilarious and nobody can tell me otherwise. The judges criticize her doing the look straight-ahead, but I think this is as far from “straight ahead” as you can get. Nobody would associate Darienne with Billie Eilish, and coming out in a look that, rather than screaming “Billie,” screams “Billie’s mom,” is guffaw-worthy. Polished, more expensive drag is fine but expected on an All-Stars season. I think this is memorable, stupid in a good way, and, most importantly, this is the look I want to see a number based around. If drag’s goal is to entertain, then the fact that this was the look I remembered best after the episode finished matters. The judges don’t seem to be in love with Darienne this season, which is a shame. She did incredibly well on a difficult season her first time, and watching her do the various fierce-ness heavy challenges while in mom drag provides some of the silliest moments in these episodes.

The first main challenge is the girl group challenge, with two randomly assigned groups taking on Glam Rock and Disco versions of the Pop-Tarts’ “Money, Success, Fame, Glamour,” a song I know from the version from the Party Monster soundtrack. There’s some minor drama with choreo, but it doesn’t amount to much. I assume tensions will rise as the season goes on, but everybody, even the feisty ones like Kandy or Heidi, is too excited to yell right now.

Neither group gives a universally killer performance: both groups have girls who miss more than a few steps, and both groups are filled with girls who are doing basically the same verses they would do no matter what genre they were given. In Glam Rock, I liked Kandy Muse, who is clearly the best rapper there — she switches up the flow more than anyone else, rather than just following the beat. She also gives a pure glam-metal attitude. In fact, I like Kandy in general, and her performances this season are more polished than her ones on season 13. Judging by the comments on our casting announcement post, some of you may disagree, but polarizing is better than boring.

The judges love Kahanna, but again, I’m a little less enthused. A talented queen, to be sure, but she doesn’t have the originality to be truly exciting, something that is immediately on display in the next episode when she has to do something outside her comfort zone.

Lala Ri is clearly the star of the Disco crew, though she and Jessica should perhaps take a little heat for making choreo complicated enough that multiple girls mess it up. But Lala’s exciting this season. Her performance here is, like Kandy’s, much stronger than her “Condragulations” number from her original season. I’m not sure yet if she has the comedy chops to make it all the way to the end, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she manages it.

The clear worst is Monica Beverly Hillz, who is just too small in her movements. The judges chalk it up to nerves, and maybe so, but my only thought watching her was that “She’s not ready to be here yet.” While I like Monica, and I think that queens who undergo a major life change like she did with her transition deserve a second chance to show what they can do now, the charisma factor was simply too low in this performance to warrant an extended stay for a previously early-out queen.

Monica and Darienne end up at the bottom, and I might have swapped Naysha for Darienne. I’d rather someone mess up a little choreo and have that Billie Eilish runway like Darienne than turn in a slew of forgettable performances like Naysha.

We’re back in lipsync-assassin mode this season, so Kahanna faces off against Aja Labeija. I’m happy to see Aja back and even happier that she gets to show off the ballroom training she’s gotten as a member of the House of Labeija, which she joined since her last time on the Drag Race. Her spins and dips to “Freakum Dress” are cleaner than we’re used to on this show, and she knows to infuse her lip-syncs with a little bit of comedy. Kahanna keeps up, but Aja’s the one your eyes stay on. Aja wins and sends Monica home, which is definitely sad, but probably the right decision.

Episode two is devoted to a Saturday Night Live parody called RDR Live. If episode one, with its runway and verse challenges, was for the fierce girls, this one’s for the comedy queens. On principle, I’m opposed to the comedy challenges where the girls don’t write their own material, but I was pretty entertained by RDR Live. It helped that, despite the segment being 15 minutes long, there were individual sketches that gave me something new to focus on every few minutes. Also, as someone who’s been watching SNL for a very, very long time, I appreciated the fact that it wasn’t just a collection of sketches but a full SNL pastiche, including the running order (barring a musical guest) and parodies of specific sketches (Cold OpenHost’s MonologuePornstarsWeekend Update, and Bronx Beat). Given the teleprompter and the pre-written jokes, this challenge is more about giving a polished comedic performance than it is about anything else.

Jimbo doesn’t give the showiest performance in her Pornstars-inspired “McCall Girls” sketch, and she doesn’t have the biggest part, but she impresses the judges with her sharp comedic instincts. She’s paired with Jessica Wild (one of my favorites), who really only has one level: A Lot. Jimbo smartly plays it down a bit while delivering her jokes creatively and sharply. And on the runway, she has the best look of the lot. The category is Net Gala, and she gives a sci-fi weirdo, robotic look that is legitimately stunning. Ru loves Jimbo, and with a dancing challenge out of the way, I assume it will be smooth sailing through to the finals for her, given her capacity with literally everything else Drag Race requires. Plus, she has a smart alliance with the two other front runners, Kandy and Heidi.

Heidi is the other queen who could have won this week. She’s a Weekend Update co-host, and she gives a great performance. The jokes are delivered cleanly (which is the whole point of a Weekend Update co-host), but with a little twist — I particularly loved her impression of Jiggly Caliente with a giant dildo in her mouth. And on the runway, while her look doesn’t scream “netting,” it’s fun to see Heidi in something a little more high fashion than the glamor looks she was turning in season 12. If I had to place money on one queen at this point for the win, it might be Heidi. She was always a star, but her polish issues on season 12 have really sorted themselves out.

The two worst are Naysha and Kahanna. Kahanna somehow doesn’t realize that when playing a cat named “Pussy Jones,” you should act like a cat. Naysha, on the other hand, just isn’t good at comedic acting. There’s not much else to say about it — she doesn’t have an ear for the right beats, she goes too broad, and her voice isn’t funny. It’s disappointing because you can see how hard she’s trying, but she just isn’t there.

Naysha’s arc in this season stands in stark contrast to Jaymes’s. Both queens were the first queen kicked out of their original season, but while Naysha can’t work up any momentum, Jaymes is all momentum. She gets judged in both episodes this week and gets rave reviews both times. It’s clear that she simply was not ready on season nine, but she seems extremely excited about competing this time around. She’ll need a challenge win before I consider her fully in line for the finale, but it’s clear that the Jaymes this time around is not the same Jaymes we knew then, and that was likely the point of her coming on again, so, in some way, she’s already won.

Jimbo wins and, in what is fully a gag, faces off in the lip sync against Pangina, the queen who sent her home on the U.K. vs. the World. The monkey’s paw of having Jimbo on any All-Stars season is that she will inevitably win a bunch of challenges and then give terrible lip-syncs as the audience’s reward. The subtextual tension between Pangina and Jimbo makes the lip sync to Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” stronger than it might have been, but Jimbo is still not great. Pangina wins handily, and Naysha, who has no challenge wins, is sent home over Kahanna.

And Also on Untucked

• Hi everybody! I’m Jason P. Frank, writer at Vulture, and I’ll be recapping this season. I previously recapped season 15, so if you liked those recaps, you’ll enjoy these. And if you didn’t enjoy them, I’m Rebecca Alter.

• I didn’t have space to discuss the “more ways than one to win” twist, so here are my thoughts: I think it’s a nice gift to the queens, given that the show knows what these girls spend on their garments. Cute.

• The choice to move the girls’ deliberation from in-episode to Untucked is also fine by me. Untucked in previous All-Star seasons was super inessential, and this gives it some weight.

• I watched the first episode for the first time at the premiere party with a group of queers and the queens, which might be influencing my enthusiasm. My favorite moment was watching Heidi switch her reserved seat with Alexis before Alexis showed up so that she could sit next to Jimbo. You can see me for approximately 0.1 seconds alongside Rebecca in this video that Kandy posted, which means I am fully famous.

• I didn’t have space to run down full opinions on Kasha and Jessica, but I like both. Jessica, in particular, is one of my favorite queens of all time. I watch her satellite interview in which she keeps randomly saying how much she loves her alcoholic Absolut beverage like once a week.

• Early faves: Jessica, Heidi, and Kandy.

• Too-early top four prediction: Heidi, Kandy, Jimbo, and, this is my wildcard, Lala.

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season-Premiere Recap