‘Queen of the Universe’ Judges on What They’re Looking for in Drag Singing Competition

TV Shows

Paramount+‘s Queen of the Universe has everything you expect from a singing competition show: live singing, elaborately produced numbers, live voting, a star-studded judges panel, and a host of equal star power. But it ups the ante when the cast performs everything in drag.

“The difference between, let’s say Drag Race and Queen of the Universe is, these are singers first,” says judge/Drag Race All Stars winner Trixie Mattel. “They’re primarily vocal artists, and they do drag. I’m gonna be honest, I’m speaking for them: The drag only complicates things up there.”

Evaluating those complicated numbers are Mattel, her fellow Drag Race star Michelle Visage, and Vanessa Williams as returning judges, with Graham Norton as host and Spice Girl Mel B. joining the judges’ panel for Season 2 (the first two episodes are streaming on Paramount+ as of June 2). Visage has been adjudicating RuPaul’s Drag Race for years. For her, the Queen of the Universe competition begins with the opening number.

“The competition starts when you hit that stage. It’s just the way it is when you’re a performer,” she says. “If you’re on, you’re on. There is no time, because you only get one chance at a first impression. So if these kids come out and they’re trying to let it go, that’s what they should be doing. Just let it go, leave it all out there on the stage, and then we take it from there. The minute you hit that stage, that’s when I start to judge.”

Trevor Ashley, Miss Sistrata and Viola perform in season 2, episode 1 of 'Queen of the Universe'

Nick Strasburg/World of Wonder/Paramount+

Queen of the Universe is like Eurovision, in that contestants are there to represent their home countries. The first two episodes of the season feature tributes to their cultures with the addition of each queen’s unique drag and vocal flare.

Williams was “blown away by the spectacular head-to-toe vision of what they want to do” outside of their song choices. Like a drag lip sync, the singers share their interpretations of a song’s essence through their performances, and that’s done through costuming, vocal choices, dancing, the whole kit and caboodle.

While impressed by the numbers, “seeing how they work the audience” is also on the judges’ minds, according to Williams. “We judge, but the audience is really the ones that are voting for their favorite queens … Are they really being genuine? And does the audience really know who’s genuine, who’s skating by, and who really has the star quality?”

Mattel gives an excited squeal whenever a new queen walks on stage in the premiere. A singer herself, the Trixie Motel star says, “I love good singers, and I love good drag. My friends have asked me like, ‘are you faking it on Queen of the Universe when you’re all excited?’ Not a bit, no. I just feel what I feel, and my God, do I get excited when they all come out for the first time. Oh, it’s thrilling. It’s more exciting than when you’re on a long flight and they go by with the bar cart.”

Queens Maxie, Taiga Brava, Miss Sistrata, Love Masisi and Aura Eternal in 'Queen of the Universe' Season 2

Nick Strasburg/World of Wonder/Paramount+

Seeing these drag queens get such a large platform for their art is “beyond words” for Mattel, the only drag queen on the judge’s panel. “We don’t even know them yet,” when the opening number starts, she says, “and we want them to do so well. We are like spamming them with positive energy.”

So, what’s their judging rubric? For Visage, it’s “Vocals, that’s first. Performance, stage presence, and the way you embody the song. And third for me is how they look. Is their drag going to live up to their performance and their vocal performance?”

Williams looks for individuality. “We saw some drag that was really not your average drag, but kind of costume-based reflecting their country, which was really cool,” she explains. “So creativity, of course, power with the vocals, which is all part of being dynamic and demanding attention. And ease with who they are and their abilities. Because you can have it all and be tightly wound, but when you let it flow and you affect everyone, that’s really important for me.”

Mattel wants the queens to fully sell the story they’ve created. “I think believing it is a big one,” she explains. “Like if you believe you sound good, you look good, the song is right for you, it really comes across when you believe it. We really believe it. I would say the other thing is, the drag really matters. I mean, it’s Queen of the Universe. What you’re wearing, how you did your hair, your makeup, how you know your body and your shapes, and the way that you present the best really matters. And then honestly, song choice. Because part of song choice is knowing your sound and how it fits or doesn’t fit other songs. I mean, not to give away too much, but people live and die by the song choice this season. For sure.”

Tune into the first two episodes of Queen of the Universe Season 2 to see how the queens have to, ahem, spice up their lives.

Queen of the Universe, Fridays, Paramount+

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