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Queen of the Universe: a retrospective

The Drag Race multiverse is seemingly ever-expanding, and it’s almost inevitable that some stars will burn out sooner than others. That fate has befallen Queen of the Universe, a Paramount+ series which was cancelled one day after the finale of its second season aired. It is – or was – the first ever televised singing competition for drag queens.

Effectively acting as Drag Race’s answer to Eurovision, the series saw queens from all over the world coming to London to compete for the (presumptuous) title Queen of the Universe and a cash prize of $250,000. Across the two seasons, a total of 24 drag queens from all corners of the globe put their voice in the ring.

Despite not being directly affiliated to Drag Race in a nominal sense, as many other RuPaul-produced shows have been, Queen of the Universe was clearly banking on the pre-existing appeal for drag queens competing against each other as a concept. RuPaul’s Drag Race is currently being produced in basically any country where it is legal to do so. Unless more countries become friendly to queer television (which is unlikely in the current climate), World of Wonder, the production company behind Drag Race, will be hard-pressed to continue their global expansion.

This was part of the original appeal of a show bringing together contestants from all over the world. Woowu, a contestant on the first season of Queen of the Universe from Guangzhou, China, would likely be unable to participate in a regional iteration of Drag Race given China’s censorship of queer media. Through this international format, queens like her could have a chance to showcase their talent to the world.

Queen of the Universe is intimately connected with Drag Race beyond the producers behind it. The show is hosted by Graham Norton, a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, and the judges (the ‘pop diva panel’) includes Michelle Visage, a judge on the American, British, and New Zealand-Australian versions of Drag Race, and Trixie Mattel, winner of the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars in 2018. Vanessa Williams and Mel B, the other two judges on the second season, have also both guest judged on Drag Race multiple times. Williams even competed on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race in 2020, crafting a winning drag persona named Vanquisha Da House.

The show has also featured several notable Drag Race alumni among its contestants. Boston native Jujubee, who competed on four seasons of Drag Race between 2010 and 2022 and miraculously came in third place every time, was one of the fourteen queens competing in season 1. Unfortunately she did not repeat her past success as she was eliminated in the first round. Among season 2’s cast are Love Masisi of Drag Race Holland and Aura Eternal of Drag Race Italia. Appearing on QOTU was also a springboard for season 1’s Regina Voce, who is now a competitor on the first season of Drag Race México.

A show with all this promise, which had attracted so many famous faces of Drag Race’s past, must have fallen flat somewhere to be cancelled after two seasons. The main problem was that it was hosted on Paramount+.

Paramount+ is a fairly popular streaming service, having hosted the last three seasons of Drag Race All Stars and containing programming from CBS, Paramount Pictures, MTV, and Comedy Central among other networks. However, any sort of streaming service is not the ideal place to watch weekly competition television.

Queen of the Universe, in lacking a scheduled television slot for fans to tune into, misses out on the vital energy that a communal viewing experience provides. When fans watch RuPaul’s Drag Race together on MTV and VH1, they can react to twists and dramatic moments in unison; they can share who they’re rooting for and rooting against during ad breaks on social media; and they can discuss what happened immediately after the episode finishes. When a show is available to watch at any time via a streaming service, all that excitement is gone.

Despite being filmed in London, the show was aimed at an American audience, made clear by the currency of the grand prize. Paramount+ seem to have disregarded this in deciding to release new episodes at midnight in the United States, preventing any notion of communal viewing. Only the most dedicated fans would bother to stay up late to watch Queen of the Universe as soon as it came out, and even that option went out of the window recently.

Fans of the show were shocked to see that, after just four episodes, Paramount+ released the entire remainder of the second season in one go on 22 June. Many took this as evidence that they had given up on the show and, sure enough, a day later the news of its cancellation came. It is difficult, however, to blame the show’s cancellation on lack of viewership when its host network was making it so hard to watch the show at regular intervals. How were fans supposed to engage with each other about the competition on social media when some would be halfway through the fifth episode and others would have finished watching the finale? Streaming is not a conducive environment to the fan spirit that competition television survives on. There is a reason the flagship American series has never left cable channels.

The premise of Queen of the Universe was an exciting one. As a viewer, it was delightful to see talented drag artists sing their hearts out. Season 1 winner Grag Queen from Brazil cemented her spot as a front-runner in the first episode when she scatted over an energetic rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and brought the crown home with a moving cover of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” in the finale. Second season champion Taiga Brava from Mexico was more of an underdog, being in danger of elimination in the first episode before saving herself in a Spice Girls showdown to the tune of “Wannabe”. Her turning point in the competition was a rousing version of Kesha’s “Praying” where she put her amazing falsetto front and centre, making her one to watch among a cast of superstars. 

The potential that a show like Queen of the Universe possessed was squandered by poor marketing and a poor release strategy. Viewership was already fairly low because the show, particularly in its second season, had to compete with numerous other Drag Race productions airing at the same time. Paramount+ putting the show out at inopportune times and dumping the second half of the season on fans at once spelled the end for any hope of tangible streaming success. Alarm bells were already ringing when the premiere of the second season was delayed from April to June. Now it’s clear why: amidst the myriad of content being pushed to Drag Race fans every year, a fringe singing competition like Queen of the Universe was never a priority.