With 13 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, seven seasons of All-Stars, and several international editions, it’s easy to think of the franchise as formulaic. However, each new season is really an experiment. Yes, there is a tried and tested formula: There’s always an acting challenge, a ball challenge, etc. But each year, the show introduces a new cast of variables, the queens themselves, that make everything seem new and fresh again.
It is fitting that the opening of season 14 places the cast front and center. The premiere is designed on all levels to get to know the queens and their unique perspective on drag. Gone is the season 13 Stanford Prison experiment that divided queens in dramatic and arbitrary winner and loser groups after lip-sync face-offs. This year, the show has returned to the format of split premieres, providing more time for each queen to show their art. From the ever-important entrance in which they must figure out how to make a concise and impactful first impression to a All-Stars inspired talent show main challenge, and a Signature Drag Runway category, this episode has been engineered and calibrated to showcase the franchise’s most valuable variables: the cast members.
Branding off her last name, Puerto Rican pageant queen Alyssa Hunter enters the workroom first in a huntress-inspired look complete with bow and arrow. She proclaims it “hunting season,” which will surely be plastered all over her merch in the future. Up close, her look is detailed and textured, but in the long view her look and wig choice morph into a haze of beige. As a graphic contrast, Bosco from Seattle is tightly wrapped in black and white polka dots. Her delivery line, “Let’s make a difference,” in a kindergarten teacher cadence falls flat.
The energy is instantly amped up when Kornbread “The Snack” Jetee enters in a black leather trench coat dress and interesting wig that already resembles a crown. She has a delightful level of self-confidence, -awareness, and -deprecation. One of the episode’s best moments involves the three queens getting to know each other. Kornbread asks what Alyssa does well, to which Alyssa answers with confidence, “Everything.” In a moment acknowledging the machinations of Drag Race, Kornbread slyly remarks that this is when the show cuts to the person not doing anything well. It is early in the episode, but it is clear that Kornbread will be the narrator of the season.
After the ball of energy that is Kornbread, Willow Pill arrives baffling her fellow contestants. The confusion is palpable, making her entrance line a piece of genius, “Where am I?” Her look is straight out of 2002, complete with a misspelled T-shirt, miniskirt, and platform flip-flops. The other contestants, Alyssa in particular, seem to underestimate her, but there appears to be a lot of care and thought behind her looks. When she reveals she hasn’t done drag in over a year, it cements her as the underdog in her fellow contestants’ eyes. In contrast, Kerri Colby stirs envy when she enters: An unmistakably gorgeous queen, she personifies trans pride in her look from her hair to her eyes to her dress. The most surprising part of Kerri is that someone so beautiful would also be as personable and charming as she is with her fellow competitors.
June Jambalaya, the third L.A. queen after Kornbread and Kerri, enters proclaiming “Grab a fork ladies, jambalaya is served,” with a lack of energy. Her look consists of a shoulder-length wig, skintight Pucci-inspired jumpsuit, and a bewildering beige turtleneck. She calls herself a cross between Megan Thee Stallion and Phaedra Parks, but what that means isn’t exactly clear. She seems to lack a strong point of view. I would be concerned for her, if she had not come so alive with the others, offering hilarious quips. Orion Story makes an impression even before she enters the room with a high-pitched sound that Kerri identifies as a “whistle tone.”
In a sort of sleepy glamor look, Orion enters with a burger phone prop. She calls RuPaul about a vehicle extended warranty—Drag Race doesn’t have enough car jokes—before hanging up asking “Are you ready, boots?” It must have sounded better in her head but it doesn’t in the room and is mocked as a monologue. The failure of the entrance is punctuated as she walks by and someone says “In and Out,” referencing both the fast-food burger chain and the suggestion that Orion may be the last one in and the first one out of the competition.
With seven girls in the room, the alarm signaling the start of the race rings out. This cast spares us the faux confusion and identifies that they are part of a split premiere season. They know, as the audience does, that it is a better way for people to get to know their drag. Bosco remarks that it gives her more time to “grab the spotlight.” Of course, the dark side of that sentiment is that they will all be under an even more intense microscope.
RuPaul enters the workroom acknowledging the ubiquity and oversaturation of Drag Race in recent years. She also points out there is something special about this “original recipe.” A welcome return to earlier seasons, the mini-competition is a photoshoot. Like the season-eight photoshoot with all past winners, the season 14 cast must see how they look as a winner. This time, they’re strapped to the rotating wheel that is used for the final lip sync each season.
The wheel is decorated with the faces of the past three winners: Yvie, Jaida, and Symone. The challenge allows for a litany of new camera angles and many funny moments. I personally finally understood Willow Pill’s name. Unlike Heidi N. Closet, RuPaul is in love with Willow’s drag name and gives her one of the greatest possible compliments by comparing her to a young Angelyne. Likewise, Bosco’s firm grasp of wordplay and Kornbread’s physicality charm RuPaul. In a classic Drag Race misdirect, Kerri Colby wins the challenge. Not that Kerri isn’t beautiful, but on the wheel, she seemed to be having a battle with both her hair and her dress. The true loser (or maybe winner) of the mini-challenge is Symone, whose placement on the wheel ended upside down between each contestant’s legs.
The main challenge is revealed to be a talent show in which, like the first episode of an All-Stars season, each queen shows off what they do best. While de-dragging, the contestants are shocked by each transformation. Luckily, this season has retired the “trade-of-the-season,” although many seemed to be thirsty for Alyssa out of drag. RuPaul then joins the contestants to get some one-on-one time.
As the queens get ready on elimination day, they are interrupted by an alarm. Instead of RuPaul, the monitor reveals Lizzo. Just as I was about to get myself ready for an awkward Zoom conversation à la season 13, Lizzo bursts through the door bringing humor and inspiration to the workroom. The queens are completely recharged and amped up by Lizzo’s visit as they get ready for the show. Meanwhile RuPaul enters the mainstage flanked by dancers to give the debut performance of her latest single. We also get introduced to the other judges—perennials Michelle Visage and a newly married Ross Matthews, and returning guest judge Lizzo. RuPaul remarks on Lizzo’s “Tina Turner in the Thunderdome”-inspired look, which is really the best look of the entire episode.
In the talent show, June delivers a committed and energetic African dance performance that is sabotaged by an unruly headband. Bosco puts on a rather banal burlesque striptease that ends with crystals and a well-placed rose on her rear. Alyssa ups the energy with a rock inspired lip-sync but under-delivers when she pantomimes guitar after implying she knew how to play. Kerri offers another lip-sync, this time to Nicki Minaj, but impressively adds jump roping. Orion’s comedic skit consisting of a white trash exercise instructor lacks focus and laughs. Luckily, it is followed by an original song from Kornbread that’s delivered with bravado.
The entire performance is terrific, but it’s really the Merle Ginsberg missing picture on a milk carton that elevates it to art. The producers end the show with Willow. It’s hard to put it into words what her self-care lip-sync performance art was—just go watch it again and then again. What it really shows is how to structure a one-minute performance and hold the attention of an audience with absurdity. It feels like something Salvador Dali would have loved.
The runway category, Signature Drag, continues the theme of getting to know each queen. June came down in a dramatic bejeweled beige jumpsuit that, to be honest, was a little ill-fitting and anonymous. Horns return in Bosco’s look (clearly a signature) and she made the color black, which can sometimes not photograph well for television, sparkle on screen. Alyssa comes out in a feathered Eliza Doolittle gown that, while beautifully made, lacks personality. It’s also a little worrisome that she has appeared twice in beige in a single episode.
Kerri’s look, in typical Leo-fashion, was about her, which is the category. Beneath her Zodiac-inspired fur coat is a net of Ks for her first initial. Still, it felt disjointed. Orion’s look is a pastiche of Barbarella, Mars Attacks!, and Total Recall: adorned with three breasts and a polka dot jumpsuit decorated with cotton balls. It’s bizarre but intriguing. Kornbread wears a Versace-inspired chain mail look, not unlike Lizzo herself. Willow Pill rounds out the group in a purple and green latex ’80s look. It’s difficult to compare and contrast these looks as the category is wide open, but I think my favorite, and I think this may be controversial, is Orion Story.
During judging, both June and Kornbread become a little emotional for different reasons. While both are told to pay attention to details, June faltered in both runway and performance. The judges commend her for bringing culture to the stage, but can’t get past some of the fit issues. Kornbread, on the other hand, despite a hole in her fishnets and a lack of hair, is celebrated for her charismatic performance. RuPaul even calls her “a star,” similar to her feelings about Symone last season. Willow, whose look underwhelmed the judges, is moved to tears as they loved her performance. She is overcome by the fact that she was able to translate both her trauma and humor to the judges.
I disagree with the judges concerning Bosco’s performance, which was lackluster in comparison to other burlesque performances of the past like BenDeLaCreme and Roxxxy Andrews. Orion is chastised for presenting what felt like an unfinished work on stage. In the end, Kornbread is crowned the winner, with June and Orion relegated to the bottom two.
With special guest Lizzo, the lip-sync song is “Water Me.” It is clear from the beginning that June is winning this as she quickly takes control of the stage and doesn’t let go. Orion gives her best, complete with a wig reveal and jump split, but the performance seems to show a lack of confidence moving on stage. June is correctly declared the winner and Orion is forced to leave the competition. Her exit line perfectly recalls her entrance, while also paying homage to Nancy Sinatra: “Well, boots, it’s time to start walking.” And just like that, Orion is in and out.