13 seasons in, RuPaul’s Drag Race has established a firm formula. RuPaul and the producers have worked to keep things interesting, but the overall beats of the show have been more or less set for years. The last significant shakeup was the change to a lip-sync battle finale, back in season nine. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the biggest format change since is also lip-sync related. Instead of the traditional premiere structure of entrances, photo mini challenge, and design maxi challenge, season 13 throws the audience and the queens for a loop by surprising them with introductory lip-syncs for their lives.

What is lost in group dynamics and momentum is more than made up for by the delight of seeing the queens thrown completely off their game. At this point, everyone comes into Drag Race with certain expectations and some level of strategy. That preparation goes out the window when Ru and the rest of the judges ask for impromptu performances. Can this cast deliver at the drop of a hat? The queens are forced to hit the ground running, making for an undoubtedly stressful, but exciting start to the season.

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Kandy Muse vs. Joey Jay: “Call Me Maybe” by Carley Rae Jepsen

The first pair to enter the workroom are New York queen Kandy Muse, of the Former Haus Of Aja, and Phoenix “filler queen” Joey Jay. Kandy’s in a denim body suit and gauntlets with sparkling pumps and jewelry and carrying a denim boom box. Joey’s in a red and black body suit and boots with shades and a red chicken feather coat. There’s some immediate tension as Kandy drills Joey on her background—Joey’s a part-time queen, with a day job at a software company, while Kandy is full-time—but that is quickly forgotten when the RuMail siren goes off. Both queens are thrown as they head over to watch Ru’s video. Gooped, they follow Ru’s summons and head to the main stage.

Ru looks great for her first entrance of the season, wearing a blonde wig and a pink and white gown to welcome the judges to season 13. It’s a far cry from Ru’s season 12 pandemic facekinis. The judges acknowledge the pandemic, commenting on their new plexiglass dividers, but quickly move on. Kandy and Joey come in and after a few getting to know you questions, Ru drops the hammer. Kandy and Joey will be lip-syncing for their lives. Visibly shaken, both queens try to center themselves. As Ru says, this is their first chance to impress her and avoid getting “The Pork Chop.” Both queens are immediately comfortable lip-syncing. They know the song and bring personality and humor to their performances. Ultimately, Kandy takes the lip-sync, making a bookending bit out of her boom box and completely undermining Joey’s big dip by doing her own fake-out at the same moment. It’s a solid start to the episode. If the rest of the lip-syncs match this one, it’ll be a fun premiere. Kandy breathes a sigh of relief and Joey plasters on a brave face and waves goodbye, heading backstage.

Denali vs. LaLa Ri: “When I Grow Up” by The Pussycat Dolls

Next into the workroom is Chicago queen Denali, who is a professional ice skater. She stomps in wearing ice skates, a white strapless feathered dress, and a long blonde braid. Denali’s quickly joined by Atlanta queen LaLa Ri, who’s also in white. She nods to the pandemic with a mesh face covering, which she quickly pulls down, a white sparkling body suit, blazer, and booties. Denali is not impressed, expecting more for season 13. She’s not wrong, but LaLa isn’t the first queen to stretch their wardrobe by going conservative with their entrance look. Like Kandy and Joey before them, they’re gagged by the RuMail reveal, but LaLa gets her game face on quickly and is ready to go. Denali apologizes to the floor she’s chipping with her skates and they head over to the main stage.

The queens introduce themselves—Denali’s a Tonya, not a Nancy, and LaLa is confident she can beat Denali in a lip-sync—and are immediately thrown into their battle. Denali may have been skeptical of LaLa’s choice of entrance look, but it’s Denali who’s in trouble. She insists she’s a lip-sync assassin. Just not in ice skates. There’s no time to unlace though, so she dives in. Again, both queens deliver. They serve face, they connect to the lyrics, and Denali gets points from this viewer for doing a cartwheel in skates. Ultimately, Denali spends a bit too much time struggling with her outfit while LaLa’s charisma shines through, giving her the win. Denali half-heartedly delivers her exit line and just as your heart tugs for her, she gets backstage and meets Joey. There’s a whole area set up for the eliminated queens, the Porkchop Loading Dock, complete with portraits of every first-eliminated queen, starting with season one’s Victoria “Porkchop” Parker. The plot thickens.

Symone vs. Tamisha Iman: “The Pleasure Principle” by Janet Jackson

L.A. queen Symone struts into the workroom in a fabulous dress made of Polaroids of herself, à la Gisele Bündchen’s October 2004 Esquire magazine look. It’s a confident, memorable choice. Atlanta queen Tamisha’s look is also striking, a red pantsuit with massive, pointed shoulders and plenty of décolletage. Like LaLa, she nods to the pandemic with a mask before dropping it for her entrance line. The suit is fun, an ’80s-inspired look that draws a clear distinction between Symone and herself. Par for the course, both queens are shocked at the RuMail siren, looking around before heading to the main stage.

The judges’ questions this round are more telling. Symone is from Arkansas originally and she banters well with Ru when prompted. Tamisha has been doing drag for 30 years and she acknowledges she’s not currently at her peak as a performer. Initially, this seems like a nod to her age, but then she reveals she’s recently recovered from cancer. Ru shares that Tamisha was cast for season 12 but had to pull out. Two days after her casting, Tamisha was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer and she had to immediately begin radiation and chemotherapy. After an incredibly difficult year, she’s back and able to compete. It’s remarkable.

For their song, Ru puts a thumb on the scale. They’re given Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” and Tamisha is immediately in her element, serving up Janet. She bursts out ahead of Symone but as the song continues, Tamisha stays locked into the same motions and energy. It gets repetitive. Symone, in contrast, keeps her body mostly still and uses subtler movements, finding points of humor and fun. This helps her pull ahead of Tamisha by the end of the song and she takes the battle. Backstage, Denali is increasingly confident they’re still in the mix, but Tamisha is resolute that they’re headed home.

Gottmik vs. Utica Queen: “Rumors” by Lindsay Lohan

L.A. queen and makeup artist to the stars Gottmik is the next contestant in. The first trans man to compete on the show, Gottmik’s drag is hyper feminine and fashionable, inspired by designers like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. She’s sporting stark makeup—a white face with neon eye accents and black lips—and a jet black wig, quite a contrast with her colorful bodysuit, which uses tulle to create shape. She’s an icy and removed fashion queen, and the next contestant couldn’t be more different. Minnesotan Utica Queen is a tall and lanky comedy queen who comes in with an explosion of color and pattern. She’s in plaid pants, a flowery blazer, a blue and gold vest, and a green curly wig with a giant crafty strawberry in it. It’s a lot of look, but Utica pulls it off, with beautiful paint as well. One would think that by the fourth iteration, the RuMail surprise and summons would get old, but it really doesn’t. Gottmik shouts out the lighting and the pair excitedly head to the main stage.

Despite their aesthetic differences, it turns out Gottmik and Utica have something in common. Gottmik references Pierrot as a big inspiration, a pantomime and commedia dell’arte clown. She hedges about her lip-sync skills when asked by the judges, though, and Utica is a bundle of charming, but nervous energy. Their lip-sync should be interesting. As the start, the queens are neck-and-neck. Both handle the lyrics well, with Utica’s bright red lips and Gottmik’s black on white drawing the eye right to their mouths. Towards the end, however, Utica pivots to goofy with some of her movement and this doesn’t quite work with the song. Gottmik plays it safer and ultimately squeaks past Utica to take the win. This is the least interesting lip-sync of the episode, but both performers still come off well and if it weren’t apparent by now that the Porkchopped queens aren’t actually all being eliminated, it would be a real shame to see Utica eliminated so early.

Rosé vs. Olivia Lux: “Ex’s & Oh’s” by Elle King

New York queen Rosé struts into the workroom in a bubblegum pink motorcycle jacket and body suit, a tall pink wig, and carrying her own jeweled wine glass. She’s drag sisters with season 12’s Jan—they’re groupmates in Stephanie’s Child—and she’s clearly been waiting and planning for her chance to tackle Drag Race. She’s surprised when fellow New York queen and relative newbie Olivia Lux is the next to enter, wearing a side-by-side ruched yellow and pink gown, statement jewelry, and carrying her own tiny purse. Olivia and Rosé know each other from the New York scene and Rosé is skeptical that Olivia is ready for Drag Race, as it wasn’t too long ago that Rosé was hosting pageants Olivia was competing in. They’re surprised, like everyone else, at the RuMail, but they gather themselves and head to see Ru.

After a little banter, they jump into the lip-sync. While Rosé is clearly an experienced, confident lip-syncer, her performance is very presentational. She goes into a series of fast twirls and a dip to show the judges what she can do, rather than because it’s the best fit with the song. Olivia, on the other hand, stays much more in the personality of the song. She’s playing to the judges while Rosé is playing to the back of the room and because of this, or maybe just to keep Rosé on her toes, Ru gives the win to Olivia. Like some of the other more experienced queens, Rosé is dazed by her seeming elimination, but plasters on a smile, says her exit line, and heads backstage.

Tina Burner vs. Kahmora Hall vs. Elliott with 2 Ts: “Lady Marmalade” by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya & P!nk

Rounding out the entrances is a group of three. New York queen Tina Burner is the first in, wearing a campy yellow firefighter look, yellow and red boots, and bright red hair. Chicago queen Kahmora—not Kimora—Hall stirs the pot shortly after she enters, feigning confusion at Tina’s look. Kahmora, who is the drag sister of season 12 champion Jaida Essence Hall, looks fabulous in her sherbet orange Bob Mackie gown, but while Kahmora’s look is elegant, Tina’s has more personality. Last in is Las Vegas queen Elliott with 2 Ts, whose ’80s-inspired look is dinged by both Kahmora and Tina. She’s in bright red high-waisted pants, a red bandeau top, and a colorful jacket with shoulders that may not match Tamisha’s, but have padding to spare. Kahmora and Tina start throwing shade, but they’re interrupted by the final RuMail and the queens quickly hurry to the main stage.

Tina makes the strongest impression of the premiere, aside from Tamisha, as she interacts with the judges. She keeps right up with Ross as they trade puns, a fantastic sign for upcoming comedy challenges. Elliott introduces herself as a dancer, citing her ballet background, and Kahmora gets quite a reaction from Carson upon realizing her dress is a Mackie original. All three queens raise their hands when Ru asks who likes surprises, but their expressions change as they realize they’re headed into a lip-sync. They all have the song down and they go for it from the jump. Elliott pulls out some solid moves and Kahmora serves up attitude and face, but Tina runs away with this lip-sync. She gets the judges laughing early and keeps them in the palm of her very flexible hand. It’s not a surprise when Ru tells her to shantay.

Porkchop Loading Dock

After Tina’s win, the camera follows Kahmora and Elliott as they head back to the Porkchop Loading Dock. The “eliminated” queens commiserate, wondering what the winners are up to—cut to them cheerfully kiki-ing in the workroom—and what will happen next, when Ru comes in over the loudspeaker to tell them they’ll be headed back to the airport soon. Michelle gently reminds Ru that she’s just eliminated half of the queens and they do need to fill a season after all, so Ru changes her mind. Instead, Ru says over the intercom, only one queen will be eliminated, but the Porkchopped queens need to vote on who that will be. They immediately push back on this idea. They’ve just met each other. They haven’t seen any of the queens’ work and have nothing to base a vote on. As they struggle with this latest twist, the episode ends, leaving the drama to be resolved in the next episode.

Starting the season with this kind of structural twist is an entertaining and fun shakeup. Ru shirking the responsibility of the first elimination and forcing half of the queens into a blind elimination is not. Hopefully the next episode will reveal this as a fake-out, a different play on the non-elimination premiere Drag Race has opted for in the past. Fans will have to wait and see. Until then, there’s plenty to enjoy revisiting the queens’ introductory lip-syncs and pondering what other tricks Ru and the producers have planned for this season. It will be interesting to see just how much filming during the pandemic impacts the season, but for now, “The Pork Chop” gets things off to a promising start. Here’s hoping they can keep it up.

Stray observations

  • Drag Race has contestants refer to each other by their drag names and personas regardless of whether they’re in or out of drag. In previous seasons, I’ve matched this, using she/her pronouns for everyone whether they’re in or out of drag. This season, I plan to use each queen’s preferred pronouns to the best of my knowledge, both their pronouns for their drag personas (when they’re in drag), and their pronouns for themselves (when they’re out of drag).

  • I’m curious how this season will handle guest judges and coaches, due to filming during the pandemic. The queens all had to quarantine before filming began. Maybe there are guests who were willing to do the same in order to come on the show. I certainly expect more judge and coach overlaps this season. We’ll have to wait to see.

  • I’m legitimately impressed with the song choices for these lip-syncs. Hopefully there’s more where that came from and they didn’t blow their entire song budget on the premiere.

  • Rosé’s blackened tooth didn’t work for me, but I liked her decision to wipe it off when she thought she was the first in. The producers are already building the Tina and Rosé storyline, so she’s not going anywhere soon.

  • Favorite entrance line: Utica’s sneeze and, “She’s sickening.”

  • I don’t have any rooting interests quite yet, but this seems like a talented and rather polished set of queens. Sound off with your favorites in the comments below.