I’ve had a running list of potential drag names, which has been living within the notes app on my phone since 2016, just in case I were ever called to arms and needed to pick up a makeup sponge. I’ll save some for myself, should that day ever come. But you can have a few of the rejects: There’s Kay Y, a twist on the popular lubricant brand; NailMe Watts, a suggestive play on one of David Lynch’s muses; and, of course, Dame Dooti Stench, an absolutely vile degradation of a beloved, knighted actress.
There are a few on that list that aren’t puns, thought up during the most low-level riffing with friends. But I have such a deep affinity for a really good, clever pun that most of mine are joke-based. So imagine my shock, awe, delight, and seething jealousy when I met Militia Scunt, a queen in the batch of contestants in Queen of the Universe Season 2, premiering on Paramount+ June 2.
Militia Scunt. It’s so good that it took me a second to fully process the punchline, even after I digested the obvious curse word in her surname. (If you’re still not getting it, just say it faster. I’ll give you a hint, it starts with “malicious…”) Militia showed up to Queen of the Universe, an all-live-singing drag competition, with not just a killer name, but a sweet set of pipes to boot. But it’s not just a contestant’s stage name and singing ability being judged in Queen of the Universe, it’s a performer’s entire package: their stage presence, audience connection, dancing ability (if any), makeup skills, and outfits.
That’s a tall order. But these queens, called from around the world to do what they do best on an international scale, make it look astonishingly easy—even with a prize of $250,000 on the line. Their performances are sweeping events that look better than some pop stars’ concerts, with impressive production value. All of this is in service of our entertainment, and Queen of the Universe’s second season is a spectacular showcase of talent that revives the dusty singing competition genre. It’s a season of summer television that goes down as easily as a cool glass of lemonade.
Returning this season are judges Vanessa Williams, Michelle Visage, Trixie Mattel, and host Graham Norton, who emcees the show from inside a massive venue in the U.K. Season 2 also welcomes Scary Spice herself, Mel B, who brings a delicious amount of raucous energy to the show—and has no qualms about telling it like it is. Yes, everyone on the judging panel is a singer in some capacity. But more than that, they’re all performers, who understand what it’s like to put on a show for audiences who are expecting a show.
These queens are prepared to supply just that. Well, mostly. This is a competition, and some contestants blow others out of the water. This season, Queen of the Universe welcomes Mexico’s Taiga Brava; Brazil’s Chloe V; America’s Militia Scunt and Jazell Royale; the Philippines’ Maxie; Italy’s Aura Eternal; the Netherlands’ Love Masisi; Australia’s Trevor Ashley; and the United Kingdom’s Viola. Each performer comes with their own set of skills, and their own brave stories to help charm the judges.
Because this is a drag competition, there are bound to be a few emotional moments. Drag is still a controversial art, and legitimately taboo in many parts of the world. But Queen of the Universe allows most of that emotion to come from the performances, instead of slotting those junctures into too many confessionals or backstage heart-to-hearts, where a sentimental revelation can often turn into sappy melodrama in the eyes of a reality television camera lens.
The theme for the season’s pair of premiere episodes is “No Place Like Home,” which requires the queens to choose a song that somehow reflects them, their upbringing, and their drag persona. It’s interesting to see how the queens balance their own backstories with the task of capturing the judges’ attention. Some nail this assignment, like Trevor Ashley’s singing Shirley Bassey’s arrangement of P!nk’s “Get This Party Started, to celebrate the wild glamour of her Aussie drag. Others, like Miss Sistrata, falter a bit when trying to do too much. Though Miss Sistrata has a lovely, operatic warble, choosing a semi-obscure Eurovision song from the ’90s, because of its political messaging, clouded the queen singing the song itself.
A few queens aced their first week, and even moved me, someone who hasn’t been swayed by a singing competition since Susan Boyle blew Simon Cowell’s hairline back another inch. Jazell Royale made the bold choice of performing Adele’s “Easy on Me,” a song that could have easily worked against her, had she not sung it with care, precision, and a whopping amount of talent. I’m sure I’m in the minority, but Adele’s version of that song never did anything for me, no matter how many weeks it spent at the top of the charts. But Jazell Royale, a trans queen hailing from Florida—where things are awful for trans and queer people, almost all the time—brought a whole new layer of depth to the song.
Though her performance is undeniably wonderful, it’s not always enough to influence the judges. Queen of the Universe demonstrates its staying power by how calculated and unpredictable its judging panel is. Mel B lauds Jazell, but criticizes her song choice, telling her that if anyone chooses Adele, it’s got to either be perfect, or be a different arrangement. And she’s got a point! Little mistakes are all the more noticeable when the song is as enormous as “Easy on Me.” And these discerning judges are, blessedly, not afraid to call those errors out, lest this whole competition loses its edge.
For a show with so many moving parts and copious amounts of spectacle, it manages not to become overly theatrical, which would verge on cloying in a second. The pluckiness of musical theater is kept at bay here, so viewers with an aversion to Broadway, like myself, can temper their distaste and enjoy the show. And whether you’re completely invested, or just casually watching while you wait for your friends to drop by to watch Drag Race All Stars 8, there’s something in Queen of the Universe for everyone.
The same can’t be said for recent seasons of American Idol or The Voice. How often do we see true stars emerge from the endless running cycles of those shows? On Queen of the Universe, every contestant is already a bonafide supernova; they’re just waiting to show the rest of the world what they’ve got.
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