Entertainment » Television

'Drag Race' Star Alyssa Edwards Goes Solo in Netflix's 'Dancing Queen'

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Friday Oct 5, 2018

How do you solve a problem like a "RuPaul's Drag Queen" alum?

The mega-popular reality show, which just picked up its first Emmy for Outstanding Reality Series last month, has launched several successful careers for the drag queens who appeared on the show over the last 10 seasons. It's no secret that many of the queens have gone on to make a pretty penny from touring, club appearances and other projects — heck, even Shangela and Willam are set to appear in "A Star is Born" with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

Outside of returning for "RuPaul's Drag Race: All Star" editions, however, most queens have not had much of a presence in the zeitgeist. Many have popular songs and brilliantly produced music videos that spread among the "Drag Race" community. Some host hilarious podcast. Bianca Del Rio has starred in two (low-budget) feature films and Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova have a very niche talk show on the hip network Viceland called "The Trixie & Katya Show." But fan favorite Alyssa Edwards may be the first "Drag Race" star to parlay her fame and talent into a new, widely watched endeavor.

Alyssa Edwards in "Dancing Queen." Photo credit: Jake Giles Netter / Netflix

"Dancing Queen," a reality/docuseries coming to Netflix Friday, follows Alyssa — or the man who plays Alyssa, Justin Dwayne Lee Johnson — as he runs and trains young kids and teens at his studio in Mesquite, Texas. The show also finds Johnson dealing with his students' difficult and sometimes overbearing mothers as he balances his personal life, which includes dating and buying his first home, and prepping the kids for dance competitions.

"Dancing Queen," however, could stand to be less dancing and feature more queen. Over the first two episodes provided for review, the show is at its weakest when it focuses on Jonson's Beyond Belief dance studio and when the show tries to create narratives on which youngster will make the cut for a team Johnson is assembling to compete in dance competitions around the country. (Although it is hilarious to see Johnson sitting in a regal throne as he watches the girls dance for him.) It's hard to care about the trajectory of these students' dancing careers when you're tuning in for Alyssa Edwards.

"Dancing Queen" is at its best when it puts the spotlight on Johnson. Though he appears mostly out of drag (don't worry, Alyssa does pop up now and again and also shows up in confessions, providing commentary as another side of Johnson's personality), Johnson is as just a captivating character as himself. "Dancing Queen" finds its most compelling heartbeat when it follows his personal life; when we get to see him simply hanging out with friends or coworkers, dating, or buying his first home. The show also spends some time with Johnson has he gets to perform as Alyssa, sort of recalling the "Untucked" after show that complements "Drag Race."

From left to right: Athena, Anjie, Leigha, Kiana, Alyssa Edwards, Ainsley, Atlee, and Tina. Photo credit: Jake Giles Netter / Netflix

Johnson is a natural in front of the camera; a total star, commanding your attention. Of course, she's charismatic in drag — but Alyssa doesn't pop up on "Dancing Queen" much as you may have anticipated. Still, Johnson himself is equally interesting. Though much of the first episode focuses on the dance studio, introducing the characters and friends in Johnson's life as well as the girls Johnson is training. Things get more personal in episode two, when he takes his friend and personal assistant down memory lane. He shows her his childhood home where he lived with his parents — both of whom are dead — which triggers some compelling and raw memories about growing up as a gay boy in conservative Texas.

"Dancing Queen" is one part "Dance Moms" (yeesh) and one part "My Life on the D-List." When it's the latter, the show is great as Johnson allows himself to be venerable and emotional. Other times, however, the show feels forced and scripted. But what reality show isn't?

Netflix has done a lot to take over the world — err, the TV landscape. They've launched countless dramas and comedies, put a thumbprint on the stand up comedy special and is now planting a flag on unscripted reality TV. Their "Queer Eye" reboot just earned a bunch of Emmy wins and became a huge culture sensation. With Johnson/Alyssa's star power and natural charisma, and the streaming service's knowhow to position certain series, it would not be surprising if "Dancing Queen" and its lead became another big success. Okurrr?!


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