Nearly 15 years after the premiere of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the competition show that puts drag queens through the wringer to crown America’s Next Drag Superstar, the show has spawned 15 international spinoffs, a thriving “All Stars” brand, a “Secret Celebrity” offshoot and the clout to say it has changed the landscape of drag — not to mention pop culture as a whole.
Once tucked away on Logo TV, the World of Wonder-produced series switched to VH1 in 2017, and began a cultural ascension for the ages. Buoyed by social media and a larger platform, the campy confection won the Emmy for reality competition series the following year, a prize it claimed for four straight years. RuPaul is still the reigning seven-time winner for host for a reality or competition program.
But when you strip away the phenomenon and accolades, what makes a good season of “Drag Race?” Is it in the challenges, which have drastically evolved over time? Is it in the runway presentations that now offer Fashion with a capital F? Is it in the interactions among the queens, be they heartfelt or heated?
For myriad reasons, some seasons stand stilettos higher than others and we are here to do the impossible, perhaps even the unthinkable — rank them from worst to best. Or in the show’s words, from sashay to shantay.
But this ranking comes with a few disclaimers.
It includes the first 14 seasons of the original mothership series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The currently-airing 15th season, which made the jump from VH1 to MTV, is not included because it’s still finding its place in the pantheon. Even though “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” pulls from the same stable of queens, it tends to be its own (to quote Alyssa Edwards) beast and airs separately on Paramount+ these days, so it is not included here.
Nor are the international iterations that are, one by one, advancing RuPaul’s agenda for global domination.
The criteria for a good season of “Drag Race” is also, of course, subjective. This list is based on the quality of the season itself. The incredible success many queens have found after the series was not a factor.
For all that “Drag Race” has done for its competitors and the drag industrial complex, it is still a TV competition series, and this list reflects which seasons truly snatched the crown.
Season 1 (2009)
The one that started it all is at a disadvantage in the canon of the show it created. Infamously filmed with an inexplicable haze over the lens, the inaugural season on Logo TV has the ingredients of what would become the phenomenon. The Werk Room entrances. The thrifty challenges. The centerpiece runway. The talented queens, like Bebe Zahara Bonet and Ongina. The Interior Illusions Lounge (RIP). But the blueprint for how to pull it all together was still a work in progress. There is no Snatch Game, and the low budget is visible on screen, and not in the endearing way the later seasons would embrace (even though the first challenge was called Drag on a Dime). The best part about the “Drag Race” of yesteryear? Season 1 only had nine queens versus the 16 competing in Season 15.
Season 11 (2019)
It may seem unfair to judge a season by a single challenge, but to understand Season 11, look no further than “Trump: The Rusical.” “Drag Race” has long served as a refuge from the country’s hatred toward the LGBTQ+ community, but suddenly it felt invaded by the worst offenders — and we didn’t even get a memorable musical out of it. Thankfully, one great moment does transcend the season’s curious: the legendary midseason lip sync between Yvie Oddly and Brooke Lynn Hytes. Having faltered during the Snatch Game, the queens had to fight for their lives and did they ever. Brooke Lynn hit the runway with an instantly iconic wardrobe change, before joining Yvie in a bottom-two lip sync that can only be described as a Cirque du Soleil routine set to Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry.” The show’s popularity has inevitably forced its evolution and its nuances have faded with time. But this episode and this season proves RuPaul still knows the power of a redemptive arc and it still slaps as hard as it did the day they first split, flipped and death dropped on the runway.
Season 7 (2015)
Coming off two seasons with back-to-back comedy queen winners, Season 7 set up its queens to stumble from day one. The season’s challenges tried to replicate the comedic genius of previous victors Jinkx Monsoon and Bianca Del Rio with repeated acting and comedy assignments. Most of the queens weren’t interested in seizing the comedy crown, and the ones who could weren’t quite ready. This mismatch of queens’ strengths and challenges just made for awkward and contentious moments — the Shakespeare acting episode remains an unwatchable hour of TV. Since it aired, Season 7 has received so much hate as a subpar season installment with lackluster queens (only the first part of that criticism is true). And in a twist of fate, many of those queens would become some of the show’s biggest stars — Trixie Mattel, Katya, Violet Chachki, Miss Fame, Ginger Minj and Jasmine Masters. They just did their best work after they’d escaped the clutches of this off-kilter season.
Season 10 (2018)
Vanessa Vanjie Mateo’s instantly viral exit in the Season 10 premiere gave the show a social media moment that permeated the mainstream. We’re not saying that’s the only reason Season 10 finally clinched the Emmy for reality competition series, but Miss Vanjie’s ubiquity on Twitter that year certainly didn’t hurt. But by the end of the season, the season’s buzz had worn off, and all it had to show for it was an identity crisis and some suffocated butterflies. There is still a conversation to be had about race and “Drag Race,” primarily centered about the toxic fan reaction to confrontations involving The Vixen. But ultimately, the show wasn’t ready for that conversation. Couple that with the finale’s ill-advised insistence that it copy and paste Season 9’s hugely successful Lip Sync for the Crown finale format, and the season fell as flat as Asia O’Hara’s butterflies-in-the-bra reveal. At least we’ll always have “Miss Vanjie, Miss Vanjie, Miss…Vanjie” and the fleetingly hilarious moment when the queens mistook premiere guest judge Christina Aguilera for her Season 9 doppelgänger, Farrah Moan.
Season 14 (2022)
Season 14’s gimmick was simple, and simply stupid. Each queen randomly selected a chocolate bar in the premiere and if they were eliminated, they unwrapped the bar on stage. If they revealed a gold bar, they were safe to slay another day. If it was just regular old chocolate, they were sent packing. The ploy was ridiculous, but by the third or fourth crinkling of a timidly torn open candy bar, it reminded us all the series can still create tension from even the most mundane moments. Beyond that cavity-inducing twist, the season is best remembered for being stacked with transgender talent, with five queens entering the competition as trans or coming out during it (including winner Willow Pill, Jasmine Kennedie, Kornbread “The Snack” Jeté, Bosco and Kerri Colby). But let’s not forget, Season 14 also featured a Snatch Game so bad that a livid Ru made all but one queen lip sync in an episode-long smackdown.
Season 2 (2010)
Call it sophomore stride, because much like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race” began to find its rhythm in its second season. The debut of the Snatch Game. A new reliance on design-based challenges. And the knock-down, drag-out fights that define reality TV. Tatianna and Tyra Sanchez’s rivalry played out in wedding dress couture. Mystique Summers Madison and Morgan McMichaels’ “Bitch, I am from Chicago!” fight that should have inspired Chicago’s new tourism slogan. The show may still have been a scrappy outsider on a network most people didn’t know existed, but its second season proves it had a vision and the fire that would go the distance.
Season 13 (2021)
An incredible crop of queens keeps Season 13 buoyant, even as it highlights the series’ recent impulse to overstay its welcome. Most viewers had nothing better to do during the 2021 COVID resurgence, but these 16 episodes aired from Jan. 1 to April 23, 2021 — more than a third of the year! The first elimination didn’t even happen until Episode 4. By the time the show waved the checkered flag, the televised marathon had worn down even its most ardent fans. Luckily, the ascension of Symone was an undeniably satisfying arc if you stuck around, and the finale fashion was jaw dropping. On the whole, the accomplishments of the season were undeniable – a solid final four, Gottmik’s spot-on Paris Hilton impression, Utica’s bone-chilling roast performance and Denali’s “100% Pure Love” lip sync that was 100% pure perfection. Those moments just felt like memories from a past life by the end of it all.
Season 12 (2020)
Premiering in late February of 2020, mere days before COVID-19 shut down the world, Season 12 deserves credit on a few fronts. First, it had to adapt to a changing world in real time, transforming a show that thrives on the interpersonal relationships built and broken in the Werk Room into a socially distant affair. Just look at the finale, which was performed in the final three queens’ homes over Zoom with silver foil fringe backdrops. But the season also had the unenviable task of having to edit around one of its frontrunners in Sherry Pie, who was disqualified the week of the premiere following misconduct allegations. She is dressed as a storm cloud in Episode 2, and her presence hangs over the season as such (especially since every episode begins with a disclaimer reminding audiences of the disqualification). But the final queens — Jaida Essence Hall, Gigi Goode and Crystal Methyd — were a well-rounded trio, and that talent eclipsed the hurdles.
Season 8 (2016)
Season 8’s highs are astounding: Kim Chi’s revelatory runway looks, Naomi’s burgeoning comedy chops and the late Chi Chi Devayne’s legendary lip sync to “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” But no matter how talented the queens who walk in the Werk Room are, an undeniable frontrunner from the premiere can dictate the entire story of a season. In this case, Bob the Drag Queen had Season 8 sewn up from day one. A comedy queen that could still turn a look (most of the time), Bob is the kind of whole-package performer that “Drag Race” wants to champion. Having one hand on the crown the entire season only made his competitors fight harder to unseat him, which just made for good TV.
Season 3 (2011)
It’s no coincidence the show’s most-fashionable winner, Raja, rose to the top in the season that went all in on design challenges. Asking queens to make stunning garments with unconventional materials remains the show’s most undeniable reminder for why drag is an artform. Not every dress and outfit created from money, hair, cake and discarded holiday decorations (just a few of Season 3’s prompts) would cut it during Paris Fashion Week, but the challenge puts a drag queen’s creativity on full display — as long as they can sew or sweet talk someone into doing it for them. It is baffling why more recent seasons have skipped the design challenges altogether, when Raja’s eye for fashion proved it could say so much about the vitality and versatility of drag. Season 3 also taught us another valuable lesson, straight from the lips of RuPaul to Mimi Imfurst after she picked up India Farrah during a lip sync: “Drag is not a contact sport.”
Season 4 (2012)
“Drag Race” exists in eras (take that, Taylor Swift!), and Season 4 ushered in a new, more confident one that really began the show’s rise to the pop cultural stratosphere. It had it all. A juicy and eventually explosive rivalry between eventual winner Sharon Needles and Phi Phi O’Hara that gave Party City the kind of enduring publicity you can’t buy. It has controversy with the disqualification of fan-favorite Willam, the first queen ever removed from the competition on stage. And, of course, lip syncs to die for, specifically Dida Ritz leaving it all on the runway during “(This Will Be) An Everlasting Love” in front of Natalie Cole herself. It was easily the most enthralling use of the song this side of every ‘90s rom com.
Season 9 (2017)
The first season to air on the show’s second home, VH1, came ready to justify its suddenly larger audience. From its Lady Gaga-inspired (and starring) premiere to a reinvigorated final lip sync smackdown for the crown, Season 9 is legitimately great television. Sasha Velour, Trinity the Tuck, Peppermint and Shea Couleé stand among the show’s best, and their reveal-happy elimination showdown in the finale forever changed how queens approach the lip syncs — for better or worse. But praise extends beyond the finalists. Whereas some seasons rest on the talents of a few queens, Season 9 was entertaining top to bottom: Valentina’s refusal to lipsync without a mask (a pre-COVID masking pioneer), Aja’s contempt for Valentina, the debut of Wintergreen (the dragged-up persona of camera operator Sarge), a chaotic Reunited special and the final four’s “Category Is” performance. It all worked, minus a forgettable Snatch Game. But even some things can be forgiven.
Season 6 (2014)
The strength of Season 6 can be seen in its final three — winner Bianca Del Rio, Courtney Act and Adore Delano. Three very different queens: Bianca, the self-described Don Rickles of drag; Courtney, the polished singer; and Adore, the grungy performer. There may be no better final trio in the show’s history, and that doesn’t even take into account their competition like lip sync assassin Trinity K. Bonet, future “All Stars” showstopper BenDeLaCreme and one-liner factories Gia Gunn and Lajanga Estranga. Season 6 rests squarely in the final days of “Drag Race’s” bygone era before the Emmys and mainstream success, and it serves as a great example of how it was better when it lived just outside the spotlight.
Season 5 (2013)
In recent seasons, “Drag Race” has become reliant on a thinly veiled formula it created for itself long ago. Early on in a given season, producers identify the narratives at play among the queens, and then pull at those threads to create drama. The challenge may flush out the weak from the strong, but the narrative built by producers drives the season. This formula has become more blatant and overwrought as the show has continued, but it never worked better than it did in Season 5. There’s a reason “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 2” – the best season RuPaul has ever produced – includes five queens from Season 5. It was an embarrassment of riches on all levels. In one corner, you had eventual winner Jinkx Monsoon, the kooky, narcoleptic outsider whose eccentricities were both celebrated and weaponized by their competitors. In the other corner, you have Rolaskatox, the three-headed, immensely talented drag Godzilla that was Alaska, Roxxxy Andrews and Detox. The trio commanded the season’s second half, as Jinkx fought to stay alive. It was an underdog story for the ages, and a masterclass in reality TV tears, tension and triumphs. Throw in the bad blood between Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montresse and a killer Snatch Game that gifted us Jinkx’s Little Edie and Alaska’s Lady Bunny — and you’ve got everything that makes “Drag Race” compelling TV.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” Seasons 1-13 are now streaming on Paramount+.