With its sassy hook and back-bending choreography, it’s easy to see why the “Drag Race” performance of “I’m That Bitch” enamored RuPaul, the panel, guest judge Nicki Minaj and the Television Academy, earning a whopping six Emmy nominations.
But the jaw-dropping routine would’ve looked very different had Minaj been secured for the Season 12 opener, TheWrap can exclusively reveal.
Beginning with Lady Gaga in Season 9, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has invited pop culture icons to serve as judges for the premiere: Season 10 had Christina Aguilera and Season 11 Miley Cyrus.
“I will give you a little production tea about this first episode,” co-executive producer Mandy Salangsang teased. “Prior to securing her as our premiere judge, this was actually going to be a country song,” she revealed. “We had envisioned ‘I’m That Bitch’ as a country-rock challenge until Nicki Minaj was firmed up. The drag angels must’ve been looking down on us. So many of those queens were tremendous fans of Nicki’s. They were so inspired by her and so excited and nervous about performing in front of her they really brought their A-game.”
Those seven queens were Brita, Crystal Methyd, Gigi Goode, Heidi N Closet, Jackie Cox, Nicky Doll (who revealed her drag name was inspired by the Young Money rapper) and Widow Von’Du. (Editors note: The other six contestants were introduced in Episode 2.)
What’s most remarkable about their “I’m That Bitch” performance is that it was the very first group challenge; the contestants had only just introduced themselves to each other and the viewers, via their entrances and an initial fashion show.
“In the course of a premiere episode, you are introducing yourself to the world. You are showcasing two runway looks right off the bat in a fashion show, and then put to the test where you are writing and recording lyrics to a new track to introduce yourself, working with a group of co-competitors — strangers to you, at this point — to choreograph an amazing number to a new track in front of Nicki Minaj,” Salangsang explained. “It was absolutely an ambitious undertaking on the production standpoint and these queens. For most of the,m it was their introduction to television at all.”
In addition to the pressure of performing, there was some drama — which, of course, the cameras captured. Gigi struggled with the fact that she couldn’t dance, while seasoned queen Widow worried their routine would be too simple. Widow also clashed with Heidi over who would lead. On top of it all, Heidi suffered a terrible allergic reaction (she surmised the culprit was kale, which she had never eaten prior to the show) and had to go to the hospital between rehearsal night and performance day.
Still, Salangsang credits the queens for pulling off such an extraordinary performance: “Most of them do stage performances at home. They quickly step up to the plate and deliver.”
The contestants also delivered on looks as well, which were drawn from their own wardrobes.
“In advance of them arriving, we don’t give away the challenges, but we do ask them to pack certain items we intend for them to wear at certain times,” Salangsang explained. “We knew there would be this performance number and those were the looks they pulled together for a music video/dancing queen challenge.”
Whether it was coincidence or drag angels, their outfits coordinated astonishingly well: Gigi and Crystal both wore leopard print; Heidi, Jackie and Brita matched in metallics; and Widow and Nicki drew from the same pink and yellow palette.
Salangsang also had nothing but praise for Minaj, whom she called “incredible.” Her presence, like the costumes, elevated the performance even more. Salangsang said, “She was extraordinarily gracious and generous with her time. She came early and ready and engaged. What you see there on camera are sincere and legitimate reactions from her. These queens really wanted to turn it out and impress and they were giving their absolute best in the moment.”
Later in the episode, Minaj added her own lyrics to “I’m That Bitch,” which she read aloud at the judge’s table.
“She came prepared with a rap to be part of it as well, realizing and recognizing and feeling immersed in this moment,” Salangsang recalled. “We knew something special was coming together.”
What also made the particular premiere special was there was no elimination. Instead, Gigi and Widow were named the top 2 performers of the week. They competed in a head-to-head lip-sync to Minaj’s “Starships,” with Widow prevailing and winning a $5,000 cash tip.
“To end an episode by not losing one to elimination, but knowing I get to see more, is so fun,” Salangsang said. “With an episode like that, we just get to scratch the surface, and it sets up a season full of vibrant and compelling queens with such artistry and rich stories that we just want to continue to learn about — both as a producer who wants to showcase them and as a viewer who wants to be entertained.”
The “I’m That Bitch” episode has earned Emmy nominations in the following categories: Outstanding Costumes For A Variety, Nonfiction Or Reality Program; Outstanding Directing For A Reality Program; Outstanding Picture Editing For A Structured Reality Or Competition Program; Outstanding Contemporary Hairstyling For A Variety, Nonfiction Or Reality Program; Outstanding Contemporary Makeup For A Variety, Nonfiction Or Reality Program; Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Nonfiction Or Reality Program (Single or Multi-Camera).
Check out the full performance of “I’m That Bitch” from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” below: