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RuPaul Drag Race UK Season 2 Episode 1
courtesy of BBC3

Drag Race UK’s brutal first episode sets up a stunning, shocking series

In what was one of the brightest debuts of the franchise ever, there were exceptional queen entrances, bubbling rivalries, considerate LGBTQ+ conversation, and a gag first knock-out

Warning: this column contains spoilers for Drag Race UK Season Two, Episode One

Hello, hello, hello! Welcome back to RuPaul’s Drag Race UK: since its triumphant first series in winter 2019 the world has, quite emphatically, gone to shit. But much like capitalism or Kylie Minogue, the RuPaul industrial complex shows itself able to weather the storm. RuPaul himself is as cool, calm, and undeterred by global disaster as he ever was; which is unsurprising, given the news last spring that he allows fracking (a practice somewhat akin to choking Mother Nature until she faints) on his 60,000-acre ranch in Wyoming, all while we hurtle towards unmitigated climate catastrophe. But enough about that: what about the gowns?

Drag Race UK remains the grubby little runt compared to its older and glossier American sister show, but is all the more charming for it. The British cultural references are littered throughout in an off-handed, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way. The ‘Wimbled’Hun’ mini-challenge saw the queens pose for celebrity photographer Kevin McDaid who, it was explained, has photographed Cheryl, Rita Ora, and Jessie J (poor man! Who’s next? Jess Glynne?).  

Last night’s premiere was the best first episode of any Drag Race season I’ve seen in years. The first series, if we are being honest, struggled to get all the best queens – many working the current circuit were nervous about how the show would be received and decided to wait for the second series to audition. It definitely shows.

While there were some exceptional queens on series one, it was clear last night that the general talent level this year is higher from the very beginning. Darlington gothic queen Cherry Valentine cheerily informed us she was a drag queen, a Botox aesthetician, and a mental health nurse, which means that even if she doesn’t win this show I want to hire her on retainer. The truth, is you just don’t get queens like Joe Black, Lawrence Chaney, or Ginny Lemon in the US: Ginny and Lawrence, for example, are evidently meticulous and highly controlled performers, who can masquerade as erratic fiascos. Joe Black was weird, retro, and grandiose: even kooky American queens like Sharon Needles have to explain to us that they’re weird and different. Joe Black just shows us, it’s the kind of personality you only get in the UK cabaret circuit. 

“Joe Black just shows us the kind of personality you only get in the UK cabaret circuit”

The Drag Race franchise continues to attract criticism from drag artists themselves for its unwillingness to embrace the full richness and diversity of real life drag scenes with its preference for cis men (occasionally allowing nonbinary people and, in America, the odd trans woman to slip through the net, typically by implying they’re men anyway). If you were worried about more marginalised groups being left behind this series then fear not: Tia Kofi is a Clapham Gay (an identity which I suppose is less about being materially downtrodden and more about being spiritually impoverished). In all seriousness, Ginny Lemon and Bimini Bon Boulash are out as nonbinary. It is a little disappointing though to see that no female or trans masculine queens made the cut this time. 

Positively, there are three queens of colour this year. Newport queen Tayce, for whom the term Bad Bitch was invented, is my get-go personal favourite of all the contestants. There was an early moment when Tayce, billed as accomplished dancer, and Asttina, also primarily a dancer, were asked if there was going to be a rivalry between the “dancing queens” – it seemed to be serving as an uncomfortable euphemism for “Black”. Blessedly, the show retreated from pitting two black queens against each other, especially when they both chose Naomi Campbell as their British gay icon for the maxi challenge.

Instead, the show brought the two queens together to talk about why they had both chosen Campbell, and what ensued was a poignant discussion about the dearth of role models and icons for Black British gay people. It’s true: racking my brains for any other examples of Black British gay icons that could reasonably be impersonated by a drag queen. I could just about manage to recall Sinitta’s high camp palm leaf outfit on X Factor, and remember my quiet resentment at how the British music industry did not maximise the career of LGBTQ+ ally Beverly Knight, arguably the best vocalist this country has produced in my lifetime. It was an example of what this show can do for representing LGBTQ+ issues when it’s operating at its most considerate and thoughtful levels. In any event, if you want rivalry this season, it may be better to look to the brewing competition between Scottish queens Lawrence Chaney and her former protégé Ellie Diamond: it’s like All About Eve, if Eve were a conniving twink. 

It’s time to talk about the runway and the frankly wild judging comments, which, as one friend said to me after the episode aired, seemed to be informed by smoking the finest crack. Extra special guest judge Elizabeth Hurley, AKA the only reason I’m still on Instagram, was born to do this. If you’re a reality TV nerd like me, you’ll remember that circa 2006 Hurley presented Project Catwalk, the short-lived UK version of Project Runway, which, with America’s Next Top Model, was the show Drag Race was initially created to parody – and now has eclipsed. Project Catwalk was somewhat po faced, and Hurley seemed much more at home in the poppers o’clock version of a runway contest, ad libbing and crude punning her way into our hearts. 

“Tia’s homage to Turing involved her wearing a rainbow-coloured pant suit and bouncy wig that made her look less like a genius tortured by British state violence and more like the chief exec of an unethical multi-level marketing company that sells overpriced mascara”

The queens were asked to prepare two looks – a tribute to a British gay icon and a look based on their hometown. East London queen Bimini Bon Boulash took a risk and served queen of London Underground nightlife Princess Julia, followed by a Norwich football outfit that left little to the imagination, tucked to high heaven and sans underwear. Highlights for me were Liverpool queen Sister Sister’s scouse look, Tayce’s hometown Welsh dragon couture, and Ellie serving as a PVC Dennis the Menace. Some of the critiques, however, were bizarre. Joe Black’s David Bowie and Brighton Pavilion looks were smartly executed and elegant, yet they were unfairly savaged by the judges. 

In the strangest turn, Tia chose codebreaker Alan Turing as her gay icon. Turing’s mathematical brilliance contributed to defeat of the Nazis in World War Two, yet his heroism could not save him from a prosecution for homosexual acts in 1952, for which he was punished by barbaric chemical castration. Turing took his own life in 1954 in one of the most shameful episodes of British queer history. It seemed odd, then, that Tia’s homage to Turing involved her wearing a rainbow-coloured pant suit and bouncy wig that made her look less like a genius tortured by British state violence and more like the chief exec of an unethical multi-level marketing company that sells overpriced mascara. Stranger still was that this all passed without comment by the judges. 

In the end, Bimini and Joe lip synced for their lives to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”, and Joe Black, who had so much more to give, was gone, leaving Twitter reeling. As unjust as it may seem, I hope this brutality is a hallmark of a series which will stun and shock us in equal measure. Let’s face it: we all need a bit of drama in our lives this winter. 

Drag Race UK is available to watch on iPlayer every Thursday from 8PM