“RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 16, Episode 1 Recap

January 6, 2024

BY Eric Rezsnyak

New year, new Ru! Season 16 kicked off with the split premiere format, in which 7 of this season’s 14 queens were introduced, engaged in a (relatively pointless) photo shoot mini-challenge, and then showed their stuff in a talent show. Overall I loved the premiere. I connected with most of the queens. The ones I was excited by lived up to expectations, and the ones I was cool on pre-season impressed me more than I thought they would. Charlize Theron was an awesome guest judge and a huge get. The Rate-a-Queen twist — lifted wholesale from Netflix’s “The Circle” — was a fun throwback to this show’s roots as a reality-competition parody. And the re-introduction of immunity, which apparently now can be banked for future challenges, has the potential to be a real game changer.

Let’s go over each queen from Episode 1, ranked from my least favorite to the one who impressed me the most. If you disagree with my takes, by all means, let me have it in the comments. To help, here are the introduction of all the Episode 1 dolls:

Morphine Love Dion: I suspect Morphine is going to get a lot of flack online for some of the things she said this episode. She came on strong, had some nasty things to say, and in my opinion didn’t really back the attitude up with a particularly impressive performance or runway package. All that said, I actually like Morphine. First, if the viewers continue to attack queens who bring the drama, this show is going to get real boring real fast, as contestants self-produce to the point of banality. We’ve already seen some of that in the past. So I found Morphine’s candor and attitude refreshing, even if I didn’t agree, or particularly like, a lot of what she said. Morphine seems very sure of herself, and I think that’s great. I admire the confidence. I will show my age by being totally confused over her repeated crowing about her “natural” booty, which she admits was the result of a BBL (Brazilian Butt Lift in case you don’t know — the surgeons siphon fat from your belly, thighs, etc. and relocate it to your ass). If something requires a cosmetic surgical procedure, it is by definition not “all natural.” It’s the weirdest fucking flex. Anyway, Morphine is absolutely correct that she is a mug queen — that face is gorgeous. I thought her talent show — a mix of lipsynch and cultural dancing — was interesting, but compared to the rest of the girls, not super memorable. I was not a fan of either her entrance look, which was overly fussy, or her reveal runway, which I thought was both basic and poorly executed. But I love her confidence, and I genuinely mean it when I say this show NEEDS queens with sharp edges, or it’s going to be a snooze fest. Nobody wants that, and Morphine absolutely showed up in that department.

Xunami Muse: Xunami — pronounced “tsunami” — is the sister of S13’s Kandy Muse, one of my all-time least-favorite Ru Girls. So I was already on edge here, and her Meet the Queen did not endear her to me. But I actually resonated with Xunami quite a bit this episode. She seems like a total sweetheart. She has a lightness about her I was not expecting, given her drag haus. As the episode went on, I found myself liking her more and more and more. So why is she rated so low? Because from a performance standpoint, I’m just not seeing it yet. I actually liked the original song she performed for her Talent Show, but I agreed with the judges that there was a delta in energy between the intro and the track, which stayed mid-tempo as Xunami remained fairly restrained. It was all acceptably delivered, but light in content. The same was true for her ruveal runway, which was actually three looks, all red, all chic, but not particularly interesting. I did not like Xunami’s entrance look, and I’m not sure how the community-theater Cinderella look reflects what we’ve seen of her drag style. But I liked Xunami more than I expected, and I’m excited she’s on this season. Another reminder to not judge a queen before they show up!

Mirage: Based on the promo looks and Meet the Queens, Mirage was the queen I thought was DOA. There just didn’t seem to be much “there” there. I was wrong. After a truly cheap-looking entrance, Mirage’s stock rose steadily through the episode, crescendoing with her Talent Show number. Was it another lipsynch to an original song? You bet! As has become the norm, that describes the majority of the numbers of the night. But Mirage gave us some A+ stripper moves, clacking her heels on the floor like a pro. And by that I mean “professional” as in “world’s oldest profession.” Absolutely a compliment! It was a dynamic number and showed that Mirage has very real performance chops. I didn’t necessarily care for her reveal look, the glamour burrito, as Michelle Visage called it, but it was VERY Vegas. And ultimately I feel that Mirage is Vegas distilled into a drag queen. I enjoyed her personality quite a bit in “Untucked,” and for someone I had initially completely written off pre-season, it’s a testament to Mirage that she’s placing this high in my rankings after E1.

Amanda Tori Meating: Could easily be swapped with Mirage in these rankings, but I gave her the edge because Amanda got the brunt of this premiere, and I don’t think it was justified. Amanda’s drag is deliberately campy and trashy. It’s part of her aesthetic, she’s in on the joke. My read based on what we saw was that the other girls very quickly decided that Amanda was the beta, and several of them took turns dunking on her throughout this episode to make themselves feel/look better. That felt gross to me. Amanda seemed to pick up on it too, and she kind of receded in the group interactions shortly after she arrived. I thought Amanda’s talent show was largely successful. It was a LOT — she’s a ball of energy — but I thought it was well executed. The entrance look told you who she was: tacky, stupid, something related to business. The reveal runway was an absolute mess, and there’s no denying it. But this show loves an underdog, and I have a suspicion viewers will rush to lovable, kooky Amanda’s side after she was getting repeatedly derided and dismissed by several of the other girls. I certainly found myself rooting for her.

Sapphira Cristal: Sapphira had me fully in her grip for most of this episode. Memorable entrance — even if I didn’t get the haunted house reference (what am I missing?) — a good job in the mini-challenge (not sure if I would have given her the win, but none of those shots were exactly groundbreaking), a terrific comedy/opera talent performance. That reveal runway was a real boner killer for me. The initial look was lovely, the second transitional look was an unresolved mess, the old-school body suit was an improvement, and then she ripped off the top to reveal the chest of a 12-year-old girl on the body of a 30-something man. It was so distracting, and such a jarring styling miss given the level of excellence she had been delivering all episode up to that point. She redeemed herself in the Top 2 lipsynch, where she had the confidence to start “Break My Soul” by Beyonce slow, easing into the song before throwing out the tricks when the song really hit its stride. The teeny tiny titty bib smacking the floor in beat with the song was high fucking camp. Sapphira won the lipsynch, the episode, and immunity — she swept this premiere, and she’s definitely one to watch. I just hope that titty bib was an exception to her taste level. That said, Sapphira: that is now your brand. Get too-small breast plates to sell at Drag Con, or t-shirts with comically undersized breasts. Itty bitty titties. Milk it! They have nipples after all…

Q: Q had a great premiere episode. There’s something enigmatic about Q that I am drawn to, and she is absolutely serving us capital-L looks thus far — and apparently made everything she sewed. Spectacular. Her talent show, in which she did a puppet dance that I’m doing a wretched job of describing, was one of the wackiest, stupidest, but SMARTEST talents of the night, and prompted a minutes-long sustained RuPaul cackle. I just loved the whole thing. And then her reveal runway, an elaborate black gothic look that exploded into a moth/butterfly — sublime. She joined Sapphira in the Top 2 for the lipsynch, and she held her own. She’s clearly competent as a performer, but I agree that Sapphira did a better job bodying the song. But Q is such an exciting component of this cast and I’m excited to see where they go. My concern is that the energy level is a bit lower compared to many of these other queens, and if she was getting lost in the crowd at 7, she’s going to really struggle among 14.

Dawn: Dawn was my big surprise of the night. I knew she could turn looks based on the promo shoot. Obviously she can paint, and she’s super creative. But I wasn’t getting much personality out of her Meet the Queen — a lot of talking without actually saying much. I was totally off, because Dawn was a goddamned delight this episode. A great entrance look, an endearing entrance line, a memorable and well executed talent show number, and a bold reveal runway. She was so much fun this episode, and very much in the mix with the other girlies. I suspect Dawn is going to get compared to Willow Pill a lot — it’s unavoidable. The core of her paint seems highly referential of both Willow and Crystal Methyd, and her talent absolutely gave me Willow vibes. And yet, I ate it up. I wanted more. She may have been inspired by other “Drag Race” queens, but Dawn is giving us her own spin on things, and it was consistently lovable this episode. I was interested in Dawn pre-premiere, but I’m obsessed with her now.

So, what did you think of the episode? Did you agree with the Top 2 and the winner? Do you disagree with my rankings? Drop your thoughts in the comments, and come back next week for my take on the other half of the split premiere. Make sure to check back late Thursday night for my review of the “Canada’s Drag Race” Season 4 finale!

And don’t forget: you can use your Season 16 Premiere Bingo Cards for next week’s second half of the split premiere! Did anyone get a bingo this episode?

Did you miss our other “Drag Race” Recaps? You can click right here!

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