The comedian tells Sam Brooks what it was like going from superfan to sitting behind the judges’ desk, and what the queens have in store for season two.
Only a decade into their career, Australian comedian Rhys Nicholson has checked off a long list of achievements. They’re an award-winning comedian and mainstay of several panel shows. They’ve toured internationally. They’ve got a (great) Netflix special, Live at the Athenaeum.
They’re also a permanent judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under, the second season of which premieres on TVNZ+ this weekend.
Nicholson doesn’t claim to have been a fan of the show since the start – statistically, very few of its current audience are. Until about season 10, around four years ago, there wasn’t even a way to legally stream it in Australia or New Zealand. It wasn’t until Nicholson met current All Star Jinkx Monsoon during her Australian tour that they were convinced to give it a go, starting with season five. Like many of us, they were immediately hooked. (If you haven’t gotten into the show yet, season five is a great place to start.)
To go from being a fan to being a judge on the show is a turn of events Nicholson still can’t quite believe. The Australasian series, which is filmed in New Zealand, had been rumoured for years and while Nicholson thought there was a good chance of a guest judge invite or opportunity to direct a challenge in the future, the idea of being a permanent judge from the jump seemed like a far-flung fantasy.
“Even when I found out I had the job, it was Covid times,” they say. “So I was still worried if it was definitely going to happen. It wasn’t until I was sitting in quarantine [in Auckland] that it began to sink in.”
Filming that first season, before it had been publicly announced, was an exercise in secrecy for Nicholson. They remember friends asking with raised eyebrows and squinted eyes why exactly they were in New Zealand. This was the start of 2021, so it wasn’t as though they were doing any stand-up gigs here.
When people started to see RuPaul’s best friend Michelle Visage cavorting around Auckland, the jig was up. Everybody knew RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under was a go. Nicholson was announced as a judge a few months later, rounding out the panel alongside Visage and Ru herself.
This time around there’s no need for subterfuge. Even better, Nicholson says, they now feel like a proper part of the Drag Race family. “Last year, there was more of a dating feel, a “nice to meet you” vibe. I had very little understanding of what I was meant to do and I didn’t really know what my role in the show was. Now we actually hang out.”
Right from the start, Nicholson was a natural fit for the show. They weren’t copying Alan Carr or Graham Norton, comedians who fill a similar role on the UK version of the show, but their authentic self. “It forced me to be exactly me. I had nowhere else to go,” they say. “I couldn’t create a character. Who I am in the show is me, that’s one hundred percent how I react to things.”
Like many others who fill the third seat on the panel – the aforementioned Carr and Norton in the UK, Ross Mathews and Carson Kressley on the original US version, Brad Goreski in Canada – Nicholson is not a drag expert, but a passionate fan. “I try and stay away from technical critiques like ‘that eye isn’t right’ or things like that,” they say. “But also as a performer myself, I think my job is also to make Ru laugh, and try to lighten everything a little bit.”
But at the end of the day, they remain a judge. “There are still days where you have to say to someone, ‘You know the hardest you’ve ever worked in your life? That wasn’t enough for today.’”
It’s a full-on job, but Nicholson says that compared to the contestants, they have it easy. Nicholson isn’t present in the workroom or for the challenges, and only films on runway days, which are every other day. That means they’re often left in the dark about reasons for the drama unfolding on the runway. ”A producer might tell me what happened for context [but] I usually have to figure out if something’s going on, like why someone didn’t hug someone else after being eliminated.”
Having missed out on so many key moments, Nicholson says they still had questions long after the cameras stopped rolling. “I usually don’t watch things that I’m in, but last year I watched the show because I was like, ‘What the hell happened?!’”
So what can we expect from season two? Nicholson can’t give much away, but says the contestants are “fucking bonkers good”, which could be because this year’s slate have less to prove than those last year. The first season of Down Under had a mixed reception from audiences worldwide, who held it to the same standard as other Drag Race franchises, despite it being produced at the height of a pandemic with at least two of the cast being mired in controversy before it even aired.
Nicholson compares this season to the second year of any of the international franchises; the show is finding its personality so the queens can be comfortable showcasing their own. “There’s a roughness to it, which I say with love,” they say of Down Under. “My favourite type of drag is a bit rough around the edges, and that doesn’t always get showcased within the franchise, but I think it’s something we do very well in our countries.
The contestants they think we specialise in are, they say, “the kind of queen you see at a show at 1am when you really should go home, but you can’t help but stay and watch.”
While RuPaul’s Drag Race is a cultural phenomenon these days, it was never intended to be. As RuPaul has repeatedly said since it debuted back in 2009; they’re making a silly show by queer people, for queer people. “It’s fun that can help a lot of people’s careers and up a lot of people’s drag,” Nicholson says. “But [RuPaul] accidentally made this quite culture-shifting show.”
“Honestly, at the moment in culture, I feel like we’re all just dust floating around RuPaul.”
Dust indeed. RuPaul’s Drag Race has grown exponentially in the past decade. It’s been called the Olympics of drag, but a closer comparisons is probably the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Drag Race has gone from being a reality competition show on a minor cable channel to a global juggernaut with 17 iterations around the world, seven spin-offs in the US alone, turning out nearly 400 contestants across the gender spectrum. The Avengers just have to save the universe; Drag Race contestants have to save the universe, sew their costumes, do their own makeup and learn choreography as well.
It’s no longer just a show for queer people either; Drag Race is mainstream. It still belongs to queer people – there has only been one heterosexual contestant out of those 378 – but the audience includes basically every demographic. “Backstage at home we’d be hearing straight guys talk about the show, and be like, ‘Well, Trinity’s got to step her pussy up this week.’ Like, what?,” Nicholson says. “People talk about it like sports now!”
In some ways, Drag Race is just another gig for Nicholson, but in terms of international reach it’s potentially life-changing. Due to Covid, it may be a while before they get to make the most of it, however. “I’ve been told I’m a little bit more famous but I’ve no idea because I’ve been in lockdown the whole time!”
“I don’t know if my ticket sales have changed, I just know that I’ve got a bunch more followers on Instagram who got on the bandwagon when Drag Race Down Under came out and then very quickly were like, ‘Sorry, what are you doing? Why do you do that?’” (Nicholson has an excellent, undeniably camp Instagram presence, and is worth a follow.)
They’re aware there might not be a huge crossover between fans of Drag Race and fans of their stand-up day job, but Nicholson hopes the authenticity that they brought to the panel bridges the gap. “I was trying my hardest just to be myself,” they say. “Hopefully, people come see me and realise that I’m just exactly the same as I was on the show.”
Another life-changing impact? Getting to know the legendary RuPaul. “One time I saw him walking down the street after shooting and we caught up, and [it was like]… that’s my work friend, RuPaul.”
“That’s very strange.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under airs on TVNZ+ on Saturdays, dropping at 6pm, and on TVNZ2, Fridays at 9:30pm.