RuPaul returns for “All Stars” 3

RuPaul’s Drag Race has been breaking rules for nearly a decade and now it’s breaking its own.

In the premiere of its third “All Stars” season, an iteration of the show in which past contestants return to compete for the crown, RuPaul announces the season’s first major twist: the arrival of season one champion BeBe Zahara Benet.

It’s the first time a previous winner is given another chance to compete on the show and the other competitors are visibly intimidated. Her appearance is immaculate. She speaks with a regal cadence, even during the “reading” challenge in which the queens are tasked with hurling impeccably constructed insults at one another. She has the unshakable confidence of someone who has nothing to lose.

As season six’s BenDeLaCreme puts it, it’s as if RuPaul herself decided to throw her hat in the ring.The decision to include BeBe in the season is a controversial one, with the other queens and viewers debating whether it’s fair for her to potentially win two seasons.

It’s a valid concern, especially for a show that sets out to find America’s Next Drag Superstar, emphasis on “next.” And as the other queens reintroduce themselves at the top of the episode, it’s clear their achievements warrant recognition from the show. Season six’s Milk was the face of a recent Marc Jacobs ad campaign while Shangela Laquifa Wadley has been stockpiling film and television credits since her elimination on both season two and three.

But 10 years of Drag Race is an achievement in itself. What initially began as a deep cable oddity has been propelled into a pop culture phenomenon, with contestants going on to tour the world, headline their own primetime TV shows and appear in the pages of Vogue. In 12 seasons, Drag Race has cultivated a queer universe that deserves to be celebrated.

BeBe’s return is a nod to the show’s history. It’s a glimmering example of the unprecedented celebrity and economic agency Drag Race has afforded to its roster of gay men, genderfluid individuals and trans women who have appeared on the show whose chosen profession has a long history of being at the forefront of queer liberation. As BeBe, a member of Drag Race royalty, breezes back into the competition, it feels like a fitting tribute to the lasting levels of queer visibility that wouldn’t be possible without the show.

Aside from this, Drag Race has simply mastered the formula for engaging reality television. This year’s cast of girls is expertly assembled, with a combination of high-energy performers, fan favorites and pot-stirring queens, though these labels are not mutually exclusive. “Drag queens encompass everything,” says season two queen Morgan McMichaels.

The season opener’s main challenge, an “All Star Variety Show,” allows the cast to display immense talent. Highlights include season nine contestant Aja jumping off an elevated platform into a back-breaking death drop and Trixie Mattel, whose aesthetic is a cross between Dolly Parton, Malibu Barbie and Angelyne, showing off her skills on the autoharp while performing an original song.

In fact, this season seems to be all about showing off, as the success of Drag Race all but guarantees a successful career to any queen that competes on the show. All Stars is a victory lap, a chance for viewers to bear witness to a group of people at the very top of their game.

Show: “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” Season 3

Network: VH1

Released: Jan. 25

Rating: 4 stars out of 5