To open the series premiere of RuPaul’s Drag U, RuPaul described the little drag university she’d lovingly created. “Deep in the Titty-Caca Valley,” said the diva, “a school was formed to help biological women unleash their inner diva, and let the world have it!” The ladies, she continued, were “ready to change their lives through the miracle of drag.” Yes, girls and other girls, RuPaul has taken her glamorous lady-eye and turned it toward frumpy gals who need a little help from the other side. The other side, of course, being their lady-boy friends and former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, including Jujubee, Ongina, Raven, Nina Flowers, Tammie Brown, and so on. (Yes! So happy to see them all again on TV!)
In this premiere episode, Jujubee, Ongina, and Raven were on call as professors and were charged with one tomboy each. (Subsequent episodes are themed, too — look forward to “dateless diva” and “super sisters” weeks coming up!) The three ladies were as follows: Shaya, a bug-eyed, 27-year-old bus driver who wanted to become more sexy in an attempt to mend her crumbling marriage; Reyna, a 26-year-old who claimed she loses her power when she wears dresses; and Linda, a 47-year-old biker chick who said she hadn’t worn a dress or heels for 25 years. All, truly, they were all gals who could use a little TLC.
Before I go any further, I do have to point out my one little issue, if you can even call it that, with this show. It’s the fact that these ladies are even judged at all. Now don’t get me wrong — I already love this show, mostly because it’s got this gooey, inspiring element to it, where the rode-hard ladies who are getting makeovers are given a chance to feel beautiful and feminine and experience the power that lies within dressing fabulously.
But there’s an element to it that’s bitchy and judgy, too. (From the judges’ panel and the drag professors mostly.) In case you didn’t watch, each tomboy was paired with a Drag Race queen—Ongina took Shaya, Jujubee took Reyna, and Raven took Linda—for a complete makeover, after going through RuPaul’s patented (and wonderfully tragic) “Dragulator.” And then, after some wardrobe consulting and a lip-sync lesson from “Single Ladies” choreographer Frank Gatson Jr., the women were sent to the main stage for a runway walk and performance. After that, three judges—Gatson, drag superstar Lady Bunny, and Mia Tyler—judged them with letter grades.
I don’t know why, but it felt almost cruel to grade these particular ladies—mostly because, and if you watched you’ll understand, these gals were truly down on their luck, when it comes to even beginning to understand ladylike ways. So my question: Is it okay to judge these women, who are so far from knowing the ways of feminine wilds? Honestly, more than anything, they looked simply scared throughout lots of the show—I couldn’t help but feel a little terrified for them!
With Drag Race, for instance, ranking the queens and picking a winner and a loser each week always seemed totally fair—those lady-boys were asking for it, full of attitude and glamour and a knowledge of what they were doing. But these ladies? I felt a bit bad for them. At the same time, though, I just reasoned with myself—these women had chosen to put themselves in this particular situation, so I guess they knew what they were getting into, subjecting themselves to scrutiny from bitchy judges and queens. I suppose giving them grades isn’t the worst thing. I just couldn’t help but feel a little bit terrible when they were given a low-ish grade (but truly, none were given a grade below a C), after it’d already been such a giant leap for them to even put on a dress in the first place. Maybe it’s just me wanting to only celebrate these women for putting their best, albeit horrifically shoed, foot forward.
I realize that I just made this show sound kind of harsh—again, Drag U is truly an inspirational show. I loved that as the ladies were getting ready to hit the stage (where their friends and family would be in the audience watching), they said things like: “I am a beautiful woman.” Probably for the first time ever. And they believed it! How special. And afterward, they were saying things like, “When I walked out on that stage, I felt all diva.”
The winner, Shaya—who screwed up her performance of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” but rocked out the beauty portion to garner a 3.05 DPA or Drag Point Average—was adorable and tear-inducing when she said: “I didn’t want it to stop. I just wanted it to keep on going. I can’t remember the last time I felt this good.” All because she felt fab on the runway. Awwww!! This is a woman who needed a confidence boost! Kudos to RuPaul—and her professor, Ongina—for giving her that. And kudos to her family, and particularly her husband, for being there to support her as she took this giant leap.
A few other things I loved from last night’s premiere:
++ The drag names that the “Dragulator” spewed—Saline Dijon, Candy Graham, and Paya La Renta. Genius! Just genius. I mentioned quickly before, but the flat-out jankiness of the “Dragulator” machine, too, was much too much—in the best way. It fabulously looked like some computing device or a microwave from the ’80s.
++ When RuPaul insisted that Ongina and Shaya call her “Mangina.” Yes!
++ Raven and Jujubee’s totally concocted battle. “We’re professors, and we should be setting an example,” Raven sniped at Jujubee, as the pair fought over a blonde wig. “So don’t get crazy!” Raven pretty much stole the show, with all her antics, from hiding Reyna’s wig to bobbing hilariously during the practice session for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
++ The fact that every time RuPaul walked through a door, she’d just scream “Door!” and the doors would magically fly open. Whaaaa? Why? Huh? But: Loves the ridiculousness of it.
++ The moments that Ru would get personal with the contestants before they hit the main stage. She’d say things like: “Just remember: A diva a day keeps the tomboy away.” And actually be really sincere and help the tomboys work through their issues. It reminded me of the touching, heart-to-heart chats she always has with the final three on the finale of Drag Race.
++ Lady Bunny, a doyenne of NYC drag nightlife, appearing as a judge. “The higher the hair, the closer to God,” she said, when she was introduced. “You know I’m a Christian.” Talk about a funny queen.
PopWatchers and Drag U fans, what’d you love about this series premiere? Will you tune in for episode two next week? Where do you sit in the debate over whether these dumpy ladies should actually be judged? Do you think the right contestant—that’d be Shaya—won?
Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky
More on RuPaul on EW.com:
‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ premiere recap: Should Mystique Summers Madison have sashayed away instead?