BY Eric Rezsnyak
“All Stars” is back, and Great Pop Culture Debate is getting back, back, back again into the recap game! After the franchise-defining “All Stars 7,” AKA All Winners, the show has returned to giving “Drag Race” queens who fell short a second shot at the crown. By previous “All Stars” standards, the “AS8” cast is an unconventional one, a mix of expected OG contenders as well as some unexpected returns of early outs. After watching the first two episodes of the season on Paramount+ — the only way to watch the show in the United States — I have some thoughts.
First, on the cast. My impressions after E1/E2, in order of their work room entrances:
Heidi N. Closet (S12 6th Place, Miss Congeniality): Heidi was always an obvious pick for “All Stars,” an instant fan favorite in Season 12 for her delightful attitude, great talking heads, incredible lipsynching skills, and great comedic timing. Aesthetics certainly held her back last time, but based on the first two episodes, she has massively upped her game on that account.
Mrs. Kasha Davis (S7 11th Place): I have been an MKD fan for years before she ever appeared on S7, and I’m so thrilled to see her back. Discerning “Drag Race” fans know and understand that Kasha was completely railroaded her first time around, getting little credit for her scene-stealing work in S7’s early comedy/lipsyching challenges, and bounced after the tiniest of flubs at the Despy Awards. Since the show, Kasha has done truly incredible things, and I hope “AS8” will bring more attention specifically to the work she’s doing with kids via her Imagination Station, which is more relevant now than ever.
Naysha Lopez (S8 9th Place): Naysha is a somewhat surprising “All Stars” pick, although she is notable for being the first cut in Season 8, who was then brought back mere episodes later…only to be quickly cut again. Naysha is one of THE most beautiful queens to ever appear on “Drag Race,” both in and out of drag, and she is a former Miss Continental — she has the goods. She also hosts the well-watched Roscoe’s viewing parties for “Drag Race,” so she’s extremely well connected and well versed on the series.
Kahanna Montrese (S11 14th Place): Definitely an unexpected “All Stars” pick, Kahanna failed to distinguish herself in her original season, but is a cast member in the Drag Race LIVE show at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. If you watched E1 of “AS8,” you understand why Kahanna is here: I do not know if there has ever been a more dramatic glow-up between original season and “All Stars” than Kahanna. Not just in her appearance, but also in her attitude and her energy. She’s like an entirely different person this season, and I’m curious to see how she does.
Kandy Muse (S13 2nd Place): There was never a doubt that Kandy would be back for “All Stars.” She more or less defined Season 13, and the producers obviously love her. (Interpret that as you will, but seriously — they CLEARLY love her.) If you read my blogs for Season 13, you know that I did not, to put it mildly. HOWEVER! I am committed to giving Kandy a fair shake here, and based on E1 & E2, she’s much less abrasive than she was in her original run. Regardless of your thoughts on her, there is simply no denying that Kandy Muse knows how to make good television. That is an art and a skill in and of itself.
Darienne Lake (S6 4th Place): Darienne is, in my opinion, long overdue for her “All Stars” run. Coming in 4th Place in one of the most competitive seasons in the history of this show, it’s shocking it has taken this long. Darienne excelled at the comedy and acting challenges in Season 6, and based on E2 of “AS8,” she’s only gotten better in that regard. Excited to see her again.
Monica Beverly Hillz (S5 12th Place): Probably the biggest shock in this cast, Monica is notable for being the first Ru Girl to come out as a trans woman during the competition. (Yes, Kylie Sonique Love did it first, but that was at the Season 2 reunion, long after filming had completed.) Given this show’s complicated history with trans contestants, and its embracing of the trans community in recent years, it’s good to see an OG back to reclaim her space. But it’s surprising because Monica literally appeared on lists of “Drag Race alum who have quit doing drag” for years, so to see her in the cast was unexpected.
Jaymes Mansfield (S9 14th Place): Another unexpected inclusion. Jaymes was the first out in Season 9, and by her own admission, she was simply not prepared for the competition. Since then, Jaymes has continued to teach the art of drag AND gay history via her YouTube channel, and had a starring role in Ru’s VH1 Christmas movie in 2022. Jaymes is super likable and her brand of bubbly kitsch is a welcome lightness so far this season. I’m curious to see what she can do.
Alexis Michelle (S9 5th Place): Alexis was also always going to be on “All Stars.” Three out of the four S9 F4 now have crowns, so anyone who came up just short obviously deserved another shot at the title. Alexis’ Broadway energy and performance chops served her well in S9, and like Heidi, her major drawback was her looks. Thus far on “AS8” I think Alexis has looked sensational. Her runway in E2 was luxurious, honey. I’m very glad for Alexis to get her second shot.
Jessica Wild (S2 6th Place): Jessica has been a shameful “All Stars” omission up to this point. She served up some of S2’s most quotable and delightful moments (“The chicken enter fierce!” “I lub dis drink”) and as she admits to us here, she could barely speak English the first time around. I’m excited to see a Jessica who is more comfortable with the language really dive into this competition, and so far in E1/E2 she is emerging as a real threat. Her interactions with Ru underscore what a delight she is, and her runways thus far have been major.
Jimbo (CAN1 4th Place, UK vs. The World 7th Place): Jimbo is unexpected only because she’s the first non-winning international girl to ever compete in U.S. Drag Race. (Rumor has it that “AS8” offers were also extended to other UK vs. girls including Cheryl Hole, but fell through.) For viewers unfamiliar with Jimbo, buckle up. Jimbo is chaotic, kooky, and unforgettable. The comedy chops and creativity are off the charts, and the looks are absolutely mindbending (as we saw on E1/E2). And Ru CLEARLY loves Jimbo. A major wild card in this cast, that’s for sure.
LaLa Ri (S13 10th Place): LaLa is somewhat unexpected on “All Stars,” as before she went out after easily the worst design challenge in “Drag Race” history, she didn’t really provide us with many memorable moments. Still, her S13 sisters voted her to be Miss Congeniality (not that there was a lot of congenial to choose from in S13, arguably the least pleasant cast of the entire franchise), and most Miss Cs eventually return. I enjoyed LaLa in the first two episodes of “AS8,” and was particularly struck by how much better she has gotten with proportionizing. I’m intrigued to see what she can do.
My overall thoughts on E1/E2:
I thought the E1 challenge, in which the queens had to write and perform their own verses for the Rumix of the Fabulous Pop-Tarts song “Money Success Fame Glamour,” was…fine. I noticed some very creative camera work to help obscure certain queens who escaped critique. Episode winner Kahanna was clearly the standout in terms of performance energy. But the real issue in the challenge was the shockingly bad audio production in the verses. They sounded like they’d been recorded on a candybar phone from the early 00s. Still not as bad the “All Stars 5” finale Rumix where the verses were literally unintelligible due to production muddiness, but I don’t understand who is behind the scenes allowing audio that shoddy to make it to final edit. The lipsynch featuring secret assassin Aja was solid (that song is terrible though, don’t at me), and Monica was the correct first boot.
I loved the E2 challenge, a takeoff of “Saturday Night Live” called “RDR Live.” This is a challenge the show could do every season and it would probably work. I thought most of the queens did well here, but was frustrated that Kasha, Darienne, Jessica and Alexis got ignored when I thought all four of them were tremendous in the skits. I did not understand why Jaymes was pushed to a top spot based on what we saw. Jimbo won and I would argue her performance in the skit was remarkably restrained given the material, but it worked beautifully. Having Pangina Heals as the LSA was a vicious move by the producers given the “UK vs. the World” bad blood between them. I don’t understand how this is Jimbo’s third run on this show and she’s never learned how to lipsynch. I get that it’s not what Jimbo does, but it is key to winning these episodes/the entire series. How do you not have some basic tricks to turn to by now? Naysha as the second boot really bummed me out, but I don’t deny that she and Kahanna were the worst of the bunch.
Regarding the Fame Game twist, I like that the eliminated queens are given more screen time and can show off the garments some of them have paid thousands of dollars to create. But I’m concerned that it’s very quickly going to turn into a popularity contest, which doesn’t exactly strike me as fair. Some of the later-season girls automatically have much stronger social media followings than some of the early-season queens. Is it really a level playing field? I’m curious to see how it plays out in the long run.
Next up: the ball!