Nearly 15 years after the debut of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the groundbreaking competition that rigorously tests drag queens to determine America’s Next Drag Superstar, the show has given rise to 15 international spinoffs, a flourishing “All Stars” franchise, a “Secret Celebrity” offshoot, and the claim of reshaping the drag landscape and, indeed, pop culture.
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Originally housed on Logo TV, the World of Wonder-produced series migrated to VH1 in 2017, marking the beginning of an extraordinary cultural ascent. Fueled by social media and a broader audience, the vibrant show secured the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Series the subsequent year, a triumph it repeated for four consecutive years. RuPaul, the iconic host, maintains his status as a seven-time reigning winner for host of a reality or competition program.
Beyond the phenomenon and accolades, the question arises: What defines a stellar season of “Drag Race”? Is it the dynamic challenges, which have undergone significant evolution? Does it hinge on the runway presentations that now epitomize Fashion with a capital F? Or does it rest in the interplay among the queens, encompassing both heartfelt moments and fiery confrontations?
For diverse reasons, some seasons soar higher in stilettos than others, prompting us to embark on the seemingly impossible, even unthinkable task — ranking them from worst to best, or in the show’s own vernacular, from sashay to shantay.
However, this ranking is accompanied by a few disclaimers.
This ranking encompasses the initial 14 seasons of the flagship series, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The ongoing 15th season, now airing on MTV after transitioning from VH1, is excluded as it is still establishing its position in the drag legacy. Additionally, “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” while drawing contestants from the same pool of queens, operates as a distinct entity, now airing separately on Paramount+. Therefore, it is not considered in this ranking.
The international variations, each contributing to RuPaul’s global dominion, are also not included.
It’s crucial to note that the criteria for evaluating a season’s quality is inherently subjective. This list is grounded in the merits of each season, independent of the remarkable success many queens have achieved post-show.
Despite the significant impact “Drag Race” has had on its participants and the drag industry at large, this compilation focuses on the TV competition aspect, spotlighting the seasons that truly earned the crown.
Season 1 (2009)
The inaugural season, the one that ignited the phenomenon, finds itself at a disadvantage within the show’s own legacy. Filmed with an inexplicable haze over the lens and originally broadcast on Logo TV, this season laid the groundwork for what would evolve into the “Drag Race” phenomenon. It introduced elements such as the Werk Room entrances, resourceful challenges, the central runway, and showcased talented queens like Bebe Zahara Bonet and Ongina. The Interior Illusions Lounge, although now retired, was a memorable fixture. However, the blueprint for seamlessly integrating these elements was still a work in progress. Notably, there is no Snatch Game, and the limitations of a low budget are evident on screen, lacking the endearing charm that later seasons would embrace, despite the first challenge being titled “Drag on a Dime.” A unique aspect of the “Drag Race” of its early days is that Season 1 featured only nine queens, in contrast to the 16 competing in Season 15.
Season 11 (2019)
Evaluating a season based on a single challenge may appear unjust, but to comprehend Season 11, one need only look at “Trump: The Rusical.” “Drag Race” has historically been a sanctuary from the hostility directed at the LGBTQ+ community, but this particular challenge felt infiltrated by the worst offenders, and it failed to deliver a memorable musical. However, a saving grace emerges from the season: the legendary midseason lip sync showdown between Yvie Oddly and Brooke Lynn Hytes. After stumbling in the Snatch Game, these queens had to battle for their survival, and battle they did. Brooke Lynn made a striking runway entrance with an instantly iconic wardrobe change, joining Yvie in a bottom-two lip sync that can only be likened to a Cirque du Soleil routine set to Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry.” While the show’s widespread popularity has inevitably prompted its evolution, and some nuances have faded with time, this episode and the season at large affirm that RuPaul still understands the impact of a redemptive arc, resonating as powerfully as it did on the day they first split, flipped, and death-dropped on the runway.
Season 7 (2015)
Following two seasons with consecutive comedy queen winners, Season 7 set its queens up for a challenging journey from the very start. The season’s challenges aimed to replicate the comedic brilliance of past victors Jinkx Monsoon and Bianca Del Rio through repeated acting and comedy assignments. However, most of the queens either lacked interest in vying for the comedy crown or weren’t quite prepared for it. This mismatch between the queens’ strengths and the challenges led to awkward and contentious moments, with the Shakespearean acting episode standing out as an unwatchable hour of TV. Since its airing, Season 7 has faced considerable criticism as a subpar installment with lackluster queens (only the first part of that critique holds true). Ironically, many of those queens have gone on to become some of the show’s biggest stars, including Trixie Mattel, Katya, Violet Chachki, Miss Fame, Ginger Minj, and Jasmine Masters. Their true potential shone after they escaped the confines of this off-kilter season.
Season 10 (2018)
Vanessa Vanjie Mateo’s instantly viral exit in the Season 10 premiere delivered a social media moment that penetrated mainstream culture. While it’s not the sole reason Season 10 secured the Emmy for reality competition series, Miss Vanjie’s pervasive presence on Twitter that year certainly contributed to the buzz. However, as the season progressed, the initial excitement waned, leaving behind an identity crisis and some stifled butterflies. A significant conversation about race and “Drag Race” emerged, particularly centered around the toxic fan reactions to confrontations involving The Vixen. Yet, the show seemed unprepared to fully engage in that dialogue. Couple that with the ill-advised decision to replicate Season 9’s highly successful Lip Sync for the Crown finale format in the finale, and the season fell flat, akin to Asia O’Hara’s butterflies-in-the-bra reveal. Despite its shortcomings, Season 10 left us with enduring memories like “Miss Vanjie, Miss Vanjie, Miss…Vanjie” and the amusing moment when the queens mistook premiere guest judge Christina Aguilera for her Season 9 doppelgänger, Farrah Moan.
Season 14 (2022)
Season 14 introduced a simple yet somewhat foolish gimmick. In the premiere, each queen randomly selected a chocolate bar, and if eliminated, they unwrapped it on stage. If a gold bar was revealed, they were safe to continue competing; if it was regular chocolate, they were sent packing. Although the ploy was initially ridiculous, by the third or fourth crinkling of a timidly torn open candy bar, it served as a reminder that the series can still generate tension from even the most mundane moments. Beyond this cavity-inducing twist, the season is notably remembered for its abundance of 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. However, Season 14 also featured a memorable Snatch Game, albeit for the wrong reasons, prompting a livid Ru to initiate an episode-long lip sync smackdown involving all but one queen.
Season 2 (2010)
Consider it the sophomore stride, as, much like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race” began to hit its stride in its second season. This season marked the debut of the Snatch Game, introduced a new reliance on design-based challenges, and showcased the knock-down, drag-out fights that define reality TV. The rivalry between Tatianna and Tyra Sanchez played out in wedding dress couture, while the memorable “Bitch, I am from Chicago!” fight between Mystique Summers Madison and Morgan McMichaels could have easily inspired Chicago’s new tourism slogan. Despite being a scrappy outsider on a network that many didn’t know existed, the second season of the show demonstrated a clear vision and the fiery determination that would carry it the distance.
Season 13 (2021)
Season 13 boasts an incredible lineup of queens, maintaining its energy even as it underscores the series’ recent tendency to overstay its welcome. Airing from January 1 to April 23, 2021, these 16 episodes took up more than a third of the year, coinciding with the 2021 COVID resurgence when many viewers had limited alternatives. The first elimination didn’t occur until Episode 4, and by the time the show concluded, even the most devoted fans found the televised marathon wearing thin. Fortunately, for those who persevered, the rise of Symone provided an undeniably satisfying narrative, and the finale’s fashion choices were nothing short of jaw-dropping. Despite the extended duration, the season’s accomplishments were undeniable, featuring a strong final four, Gottmik’s spot-on Paris Hilton impression, Utica’s bone-chilling roast performance, and Denali’s “100% Pure Love” lip sync, which was 100% pure perfection. Yet, as the season concluded, these moments felt like distant memories from a bygone era.
Season 12 (2020)
Premiering in late February 2020, just days before the world was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, Season 12 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” deserves commendation on multiple fronts. It had to navigate and adapt to a rapidly changing world in real time, transforming a show that thrives on interpersonal relationships within the Werk Room into a socially distant affair. The finale, performed in the final three queens’ homes over Zoom with silver foil fringe backdrops, is a testament to this adaptation. Additionally, the season faced the challenging task of editing around one of its frontrunners, Sherry Pie, who was disqualified the week of the premiere due to misconduct allegations. Sherry Pie’s presence hangs over the season, especially since each episode begins with a disclaimer reminding audiences of the disqualification. However, the final queens—Jaida Essence Hall, Gigi Goode, and Crystal Methyd—formed a well-rounded trio, showcasing their talent that ultimately overshadowed the hurdles faced by the season.
Season 8 (2016)
Season 8 boasts astounding highs, including Kim Chi’s revelatory runway looks, Naomi’s emerging comedy prowess, and the late Chi Chi Devayne’s legendary lip sync to “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” However, regardless of the incredible talent within the Werk Room, an undeniable frontrunner emerging from the premiere can shape the entire narrative of a season. In this instance, Bob the Drag Queen had Season 8 sewn up from day one. A comedy queen with the ability to still deliver a stunning look most of the time, Bob embodies the complete package that “Drag Race” seeks to champion. Maintaining a firm grip on the crown throughout the season only intensified the competition, compelling his fellow competitors to fight harder to dethrone him, creating compelling television.
Season 3 (2011)
It’s no coincidence that Raja, the show’s most fashionable winner, ascended to the top in the season that fully embraced design challenges. Tasking queens with creating stunning garments using unconventional materials stands out as the show’s most undeniable reminder of why drag is considered an art form. Not every dress and outfit crafted from money, hair, cake, and discarded holiday decorations (just a few of Season 3’s prompts) may meet the standards of Paris Fashion Week, but these challenges showcase a drag queen’s creativity in full force—provided they can sew or sweet-talk someone into doing it for them. It remains puzzling why more recent seasons have omitted design challenges altogether when Raja’s keen eye for fashion demonstrated how much it can communicate about the vitality and versatility of drag. Season 3 also imparted another valuable lesson, delivered straight from RuPaul’s lips to Mimi Imfurst after an incident 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 marked the beginning of a new, more confident era that truly propelled the show into the pop cultural stratosphere. It had everything: a juicy and eventually explosive rivalry between the eventual winner Sharon Needles and Phi Phi O’Hara that gave Party City the kind of enduring publicity you can’t buy. The season brought controversy with the disqualification of fan-favorite Willam, the first queen ever removed from the competition on stage. And, of course, there were lip syncs to die for, most notably 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+.