Anyone will tell you that it’s best not to get too ambitious for your first time. Start small, ease into it, and gradually expand your capacity with each subsequent attempt. More than nine for your maiden voyage would be overambitious.
I’m speaking, of course, about the number of contestants in the first season of this now-iconic drag competition series (which Logo continually refers to as “lost,” as if someone stumbled upon these episodes while mopping under Ru’s sling). Revisiting the show’s infancy illustrates how much it has grown: we forget that once upon a time the prizes were small, the sets were smaller, and Ru’s competence as a hostess was still in question. These reruns also return us to a naïve era when we hadn’t heard catchphrases like “don’t f*** it up” more times than we can count. Brace yourself for the significant firsts; there are a lot of them.
For instance, the first girl ever to enter the workroom: Shannel. In she saunters, with limitless hopes and backless pants. The producers picked the right person to throw at an empty space; you get the feeling that she could utter mindless observations about her surroundings all day. They probably had hours of footage to choose from. As the other contestants appear, they greet each other cordially between snippets of interviews about their drag personae. We meet the characters that will become seasonal archetypes: Nina Flowers (the Puerto Rican one), Rebecca Glasscock (the fishy one), Ongina (the androgynous one), Victoria “Porkchop” Parker (the experienced one and the big girl), Akashia (the naked one), Tammie Brown (who defies categorization in any known human language), Jade (the one who can dance), and Bebe Zahara Benet (the one whose name causes Ru to use a weird voice and/or catchphrase).
The first video message to the girls isn’t overtly referred to as SheMail. In fact, it’s not even overtly stated that it’s Ru. Given that the clip we’re shown is a soft-focus video of a soft-focus video, it might as well be Ruth Bader Ginsburg giggling at the queens.
Though his majesty’s entrance (including the first “hello hello hello!”) is met with fanfare and deference from the contestants, it’s tough not to be thrown by the unfamiliar background music and disorienting camera work. Just when I’m worried that I might be watching the wrong show, Ru announces that the first mini-challenge will be a photo shoot with Mike Ruiz, and all is well in the world. I mean, not even America’s Next Top Model hires Mike Ruiz anymore.
The ladies are tasked with wriggling on a car while the pit crew (also different from later seasons) drenches them. (In water, perv.) Tammie, as with everything in life, makes the shoot her own. Sexy isn’t really her gig, so she serves… again, human language isn’t really quipped with an adequate descriptor. Others, like Akashia and Jade, are much more comfortable writhing among the suds and studs like they’re in an ‘80s music video. Nina in particular knows how to make love to the camera, while Porkchop gets lost trying to make love to the two scantily clad dudes flanking her.
Post-hosedown, the make-up and wigs and stick-on boobs come off, and there’s a whole lot of clocking going on. Why is Akashia so loud? How does Tammie cover those eyebrows? Has Rebecca had plastic surgery? Who will try to have sex with Jade? Won’t anyone think of the up-and-coming, legendary children?!
Before we can reach any definitive conclusions, Ru returns to explain the week’s runway challenge. To test everyone’s Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent (which they have to say multiple times in succession because once, long ago, that joke hadn’t worn itself threadbare), she’ll be asking the contestants to create outfits out of dollar store junk and costume shop castoffs. This is upsetting to Porkchop, who has never sewn before. She becomes the first contestant to get the loser’s edit, spilling sob stories about the horrors she’s endured as a small-town female impersonator without knowing that each tale of hardship is a brick in the path to the bottom two.
Also floundering in a sea of cheap fabric is Rebecca, whose unflattering critique from Ru earns her the first “oh shit” noise. You know the one: that sound effect like a gay sword being pulled from its fabulous sheath so it can carve off your fake (allegedly) nose? Well, it scares her enough that she scraps her whole look to start from scratch.
The following morning finds the workspace in a state of shocking disarray. Are today’s queens tidier, or does the show now have the budget for a cleaning staff? The tight time frame set for their preparation only increases the chaos. Giving a drag queen 90 minutes to get dressed is like asking Julia Child to prepare Thanksgiving dinner with a microwave. It’s OK, you can’t tell what they actually look like through the impressive layer of haze anyway. To act as our eyes, we rely on regulars Santino and Merle (keeping Michelle’s seat warm), as well as guest judges Mike Ruiz and OHMYEFFINGGOD legend and icon Bob Mackie. Actual Bob Mackie. Looks like this little show just might make something of itself after all!
The fashion show is backed by the same 16-beat loop from “Cover Girl” that I use as my ringtone. I got pretty twitchy listening to it repeat for five minutes. Anyhow, Nina’s punk fantasia dusts the competition, earning her a trip to Vegas and immunity for the following week. Ongina’s boyishness causes concern, as does Rebecca’s inability to walk like a woman. And those heels were, like, three inches max, so there’s no excuse. But the panel ultimately throws Porkchop and Akashia into the bottom two. Miss Parker, they feel, is “too regional,” plus her outfit still strongly resembles the junk from which it was constructed. Her opponent looks cheap and has a stank attitude (watch for both of those traits to continue, by the by).
Since overt product placement is as intrinsic to this competition as fake tits, the ladies will face off to RuPaul’s hit single “Supermodel.” (Side note: remember what it was like to hear Ru say “lip sync… for your life” for the first time? It sent tingles down my nibbly bits.) Sadly, the debut of this tradition isn’t much of a spectacle. Victoria may have cereal in her bucket, but she’s out of Trix. She’s handily upstaged by the Queen of the Damned, who won’t have to sashay back to Hell quite yet.
For better or worse, Porkchop earns the distinction of “First Contestant Eliminated.” (OK, from her perspective, clearly worse.) I hope it comforts her to know that rewatching this segment made me realize how skillfully her make-up was applied. Speaking of comfort, I can’t tell you how glad I was that the exit interview music remained the same. All this change has exhausted me. And by the time I get used to it, season 6 will start and everything will be different again. Quit playing games with my tuck, RuPaul.