In just a few short months Aussie comedian Rhys Nicholson has gone from local comedy starlet to international drag race darling. Rhys sat down to talk with QNews.com.au about his time before the show, what it was like to work with Rupaul and much more.
Prior to Drag Race, Rhys had a comedy career that was serving him pretty well. With a stand-up career of well over a decade, his own Netflix special and much more, things were going well for Rhys. Until 2020 smacked him in the face.
“When something like a pandemic happens the first thing to go is light entertainment, no-one wants that anymore.”
With no work in sight Rhys was trying all avenues, like other comedians, including Zoom comedy shows. Which were not what they are cracked up to be. “They don’t work, we can keep tying, but it’s never getting better.”
The Drag Race ‘list’
But a chance call from his agent in late 2020 changed everything.
“My agent called me to say, ‘by the way drag race is kind of being floated around. I’ve been sent an email and you’re on the very long list’. I was like great, absolutely and kind of didn’t think about it again for another few weeks.”
Little did he know it just over a month and Rhys would be in New Zealand ready to film.
With so many possibilities for drag race judges on the program Rhys easily put it out of his mind for the time being. It wasn’t until the phone rang on a Sunday morning that he knew something was very right or very wrong.
“Your agent calling you before 9am on a Sunday means like, ‘Oh I’m being cancelled. They’ve found the tweets!'”
But it wasn’t bad news she was delivering.
Seemingly out of the blue, Rhys had been selected by RuPaul himself.
“She was crying and she said ‘he picked you’ and I had no context for what she was talking about. She said ‘RuPaul! He picked you, he wants you to be the other judge!”
But all the signs seemed to point to it being more than random. “My theory is he saw my standup. I have a Netflix special and he’d tweeted about it a couple of weeks before.”
‘It’s the internet, who cares’
With speculation mounting on who would be judging our first ever season of drag race it was natural that with so much expectation there would be criticism. As is typical with the internet and drag race fandom everyone had an opinion.
But the internet trolls didn’t really have any effect on Rhys. “It’s the internet, who cares,” he laughs.
However Rhys understands the attachment the public have to the program and why opinions are often so polarising and nasty.
“Drag Race as a concept is an incredible thing and because it’s so incredible people become really attached to it and so when their favourite person wasn’t picked to the be the judge they’re like, I’m angry about this.”
Overall Rhys is just happy with the experience. “I hope I’ve changed their minds. I’ve had a lot of fun doing it.”
As for those out there with nasty things to say to him, he’s not hearing them. “I’m not looking. I’ve not searched my name on Twitter. If you’re tagging me in things, good on you. I’m not looking at them. I’ve never tweeted a mean thing about someone and made sure they saw it. It just seems like a bizarre thing to me.”
Confident in his own achievements Rhys knew he’d been picked for a reason and that was good enough for him.
His response to the critics. “Did you know who Michelle Visage was before the show? Did you know who Ross Matthews was? It’s just such a boring take because nobody has heard of anybody until they’ve heard of them. I’ve got a Netflix special, I’ve been doing stand up for 12 years, I’ve been on Conan, so I’m fine, I don’t care if you’ve never heard of me. I’ve been on stuff and I’m around.”
Michelle Visage: The Saviour
Arriving in New Zealand for quarantine it was Michelle Visage who was his saviour.
“Michelle Visage is perhaps the best TV presenter in the world. We were both in quarantine at the same time in different hotels. Michelle sent me her number, we zoomed together and she basically just gave me a ‘how to’ of what’s gonna happen on the show. She just really supported me, she got me through the first couple of episodes.”
Despite his wit and confidence on screen Rhys was as scared of the process as anyone would expect, it’s drag race!
“I was so scared. Because it’s one thing to get the job, it’s another thing to be sitting beside RuPaul for a few weeks and with Michelle and to be in it, doing it. It’s one thing to be judgey at home, it’s another thing to do, to actually try and do it in real life. If you actually notice in the first few episodes I don’t say much because I’m just so wide eyed and like ‘I cannot believe I’m here.’”
Ready for the runway
When it came time for the runway what you saw was what you got for Rhys and the other judges.
Those witty one liners the judges drop as the queens strut the runway?
They are thought up quicker than you’d expect.
“All our little jokes and stuff are not prepared. We see the runway once and then they come back around again and then that’s when we do the jokes. So you’ve got about a minute and a half to think of the little puns.”
It was hard to know what to expect, with the magic of TV it was easy to think they may have been some assistance for Rhys and the team.
“I kind of thought there might be a couple of writers around and someone will be feeding us lines if we can’t think of anything.”
But Michelle set the record straight on that quick smart.
“She was like no, there’s no time for that. They go around once and we do they jokes and then they come out and we do the critiques. It’s all very fast.”
It would have been easy enough to stress over the finer details, but ultimately immersing himself in the experience was what helped.
“It was a bit of a baptism by fire. I think I just had to give myself over to having a good time.”
Looking forward, looking back
Having been in Canada since filming wrapped Rhys is only now getting to see the show with new light. Things he didn’t even know had happened back stage in the work room now start to make sense.
“I’ve been watching the show with new eyes. I’m like oh so that’s why she was grumpy at her.”
“I love the show so much and I couldn’t get over the fact that I was there so I’m sitting there watching myself back now and I’m like ‘God look at myself having a good time.’ There have been episodes where they’ve had to cut out how psyched I was about certain things. It was like, this is seeming a bit Make-A-Wish at this point.”
But the most exciting part it seemed for Rhys was the moments the queens had to lip sync for their lives.
“To be in the room during a lip sync for your life, it’s just like, I can’t explain it. It is genuinely electric and exciting and weird to be there.”
Meeting the drag race queen: RuPaul
Through all of his drag race experience, time with Michelle and the queens Rhys recalls his time with RuPaul as nothing short of funny and inspiring.
“We met like a day or two before filming started. So we met in the studio. The first thing she said to me was genuinely ‘Hi Rhys, welcome to the family.’
It was an overwhelming experience for Rhys to meet someone he had held in such high esteem for so long.
“It takes a minute to comprehend, because it’s like, she’s an icon and I’ve not met many icons. Suddenly I’m working with one and she was just so kind and funny.”
Stories of celebrities who turn out to be monsters are a dime a dozen, just in case Rhys has prepared himself for anything. But RuPaul was nothing short of delightful.
“She was just so, interested. We’d sit there between shots and I was just kind of let into this friendship group where we’d all talk. I think the one thing people don’t really think about RuPaul Is how really fucking funny he is.”
Staying impartial on the runway
When it came to filming on the show his time with the queens was as much as you saw on screen. With contestants secluded in their hotel rooms or the work room, there was little time for socialising with them. But for his role as a judge, this worked.
“Sometimes I was offered information about what happened in the work room and I preferred not know. Because my job as a judge is to judge ‘this’ and I’m not judging your personalities. You would get worried that you could show any kind of favouritism which is a thing you don’t want to do.”
This was a hard task for Rhys at times, living in Australia and going to gay bars it was easy to know or know of some of the queens. But at the end of the day he loved all of the queens competing on the show.
“I’m obsessed with all of them. That’s the interesting thing about them being on the first season. They are some of the best ones around. Even from the get go they were all pretty incredible.”
With so many talented queens and a stellar first season it’s now anyone’s game and Rhys has been relinquished of his secrets.
“I don’t have any secret’s anymore. I know who the top four is, but I don’t know who’s won. So that’s a relief.”
Now it’s anyone’s game as we await for results on Saturday.
But what’s next for Rhys?
Currently filming a new Netflix show in Canada Rhys is excited to come home and return to both his standup comedy and his fiancé.
“I haven’t done standup in six months. I just can’t wait to get home to Melbourne to start putting a new show together. I co-own a comedy club and I think I’m just going to go and perform there every night for a couple of months and get good at stand up again.”
As for performing locally, Rhys has some important parting words.
“If you love Drag Race, go please, after the finale and celebrate by hitting up the local gay bars in your area and watch some drag shows. There are so many incredible queens out there doing incredible things. Support the queens that are on the show but also support the queens that are off the show.”
You can watch our full interview with Rhys Nicholson below and don’t forget to catch his Netflix special Rhys Nicholson: Live at the Athenauem.
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