With a mega-watt smile & lighting quick banter, Rhys Nicholson has brought their own distinct flavor to RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under. As Season 3 recently wrapped up, the newly minted author (their book Dish is out now) sat down with us to chat about their journey to the Drag Race Down Under judges panel, what makes Down Under drag stand out and what they think about some of the amazing queens who have joined the stand-up comedy world.
Michael Cook: RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under Season 3 showed you back at the judges table. Did you ever think that you would get the chance to join such a fantastic and legendary family?
Rhys Nicholson: No, and I try my absolute hardest not to take that for granted. I was a huge fan of the show, the American version, the “mothership”. I started calling it “the mothership” because people call Law and Order the mothership of that franchise. Drag Race wasn’t shown here until they put it on a streaming service, but the queens would come out here. I remember I met Jinkx Monsoon, who I am now buddies with. She came out to do a festival here and was hugely famous here, even though the show was not on anywhere.
There had been talks of a Down Under version for years, and I think when the talks first started, all of the gay comics in Australia had heard rumor of it, but I was not at a level where I would even be considered. I was an open mic-er and not that successful yet. I remember saying “maybe for Season 3, maybe I’ll get to do the comedy challenge or something”..then I got the job. Season 1 went all right, second season was like “okay I didn’t fuck it up”, this season feels like they trust me (laughs)!
MC: Drag Race Down Under launched initially during Covid, which made it become a slow burn of sorts with the fandom, but now they are catching on to how fantastic that franchise is. Season 1 for example, is legendary with truly iconic Down Under names competing on the show.
RN: Oh yeah, like Karen from Finance. I remember, and I still do watch, Trixie and Katya‘s show and they had a whole thing about the name ‘Karen from Finance’. I remember thinking “I know Karen”! It’s such an exciting thing to get to be a part of, such a big positive thing and such a big fun thing. I’m uder no delusions about my role, I am the Paula Abdul of the show (laughs). I am just happy to be there and every now and then I’ll say “I dont think that was genuine enough”. I think of myself as the conduit for the audience. I am not like Michelle (Visage) or RuPaul, I am not an authority like “that eye is not right” or “you should be more cinched”.
MC: Did you get any advice from Carson Kressley or Ross Matthews as you joined the Drag Race family a couple years ago?
RN: I’ve gotten some messages from Carson before, but I think leaned more into to the UK. I know Alan Carr pretty well, we’ve worked together before. That is the other weird thing, everyone looks at Graham Norton in the UK as a huge star. I was listening to the radio the other day and he was talking about Drag Race and said my name. It was very bizarre…I talked to Alan a little bit, and he gave me an idea of what happens. This sounds so silly and over the top, but I don’t watch Drag Race while we’re making it. I am nervous and we are a particular type of judge Down Under and I want to be a conduit for that.
MC: When did you realize that drag was something you were truly passionate about?
RN: It’s a very Australian answer, I saw a very standard thing for Australians, I saw Priscilla (Queen of the Desert) way too early, I was maybe ten or eleven (laughs)! I remember my mom fast forwarded through some of the most graphic scenes, I got the same experience with Rocky Horror (Picture Show); I mean I am giving such cliche’ answers (laughs)!
There is a story in my family where I was around nine or ten and we were at a dinner party with family and I saw a picture in a magazine and asked my mother “What’s happening here”? She told me “That’s a drag queen”. I couldn’t get my head around it and I think that in a great way, it just blew up my idea of gender very early. Someone was going around the table at a dinner party asking the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up and I said “A drag queen”; because in my head, it was like it was a job where you could be whatever you want and that seemed exciting to me. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where it was a pretty open conversation about queerness.
When I started going to gay bars when I was eighteen, my friends always say that they would lose me for an hour or so and then find me in a booth surrounded by drag queens. I think you know they are almost the most powerful people in the room when you are in a bar, and I just radiated towards that. I definitely wanted to do it for a long time, I am one of those queens that says “I could’ve done it”. I tried it recently for a friend’s film clip, a musician friend named George Mooney. I was tucked, cinched, all the business! It was an insight and I realized that it was a thing where I would have started when I was twenty and gotten used to the pain and stuff (laughs)!
MC: Drag Race Down Under had such a fantastic season and a stunning winner in Isis Avis Loren. What did you think of the season all the way around?
RN What I like about it is that we’ve had queens like Karen (From Finance) and Kween Kong who had full careers before they came on the show, but we didn’t have that this year; and I find that very exciting. As a judge, I almost find it more exciting because when they are standing there for the first time, there are ten queens standing there. You first say “I don’t know who any of you are” even though you’ve done the research. I think it makes it more about the drag of it, it means that everything is possible. People are able to watch it with little to no context and I think that makes it more interesting.
It’s like queens, like for all the franchises, using the show for a launching pad. It should be launching pad, it’s not the end of their career. In the almost twenty years of this show, I think it’s getting more and more that way. Queens are in the show that grew up watching the show; you can be a thirty year-old that is fifteen when the show came on. Knowing that this should be the beginning of things, you should not be working in life just to get on Drag Race. You should be doing Drag Race and moving on. We had a few babies on this season and even some Covid queens that started maybe two years ago., Even seeing them blossom on screen is exciting for me.
MC: Marcia Marcia Marcia told me during her elimination interview that she was a “quaran-queen” and had not performed much prior to the pandemic. It’s remarkable to see that aspect of drag coming to life now that the world has opened back up…
RN: It’s interesting, I’m a stand up comedian and have been for fifteen years. I think something similar is happening in comedy and we are adjusting ourselves to it. Comedians that started online or started on Tik Tok or Instagram and aren’t in the clubs as much. I look at comedians now that started online and it’s a different energy and they are just doing crowd work and it’s not about the material and you get angry at first; then you realize that if you stay angry about it you are left behind.
I think that is similar in drag; it is easy to get stuck in our ways, things like “this is what drag is”. I think Drag Race is a good example of the changing of the times. You look at Seasons One and Two and there are a very particular view of what drag is. Drag Race is this incredible thing where it was both part of the shift and it shifted itself to catch up with its own shift! We’re all just specks of dust floating around (laughs)!
MC: You bring up an interesting point, when you see queens like. Bianca Del Rio and Bob The Drag Queen enter the world of stand up comedy. What is it like for you, who has been working in that industry for over a decade?
RN: Like everything for a minute, comedy might be similar to releasing a track, then it becomes a genre. I think it’s similar in comedy. Last time I was in the UK, Bianca was doing one of the big halls there and it is undeniable that it is working. It would be silly for me to say its not; that is stand up comedy. I think it works better than others sometimes, for certain people. For example, Trixie Mattel is an incredible standup comedian. Bob The Drag Queen is an incredible stand up.
I just wrote a book, a book of essays and I thought of it in a very similar way. I don’t want to be a comedian who gets a book deal, that’s a very specific genre of book. I have a lot of writer friends, and I don’t want them to think that I thought ‘Well this is easy, I am going to just knock this out”. I wanted it to be really good and I spoke with a lot of friends about it. I own a comedy club in Melbourne and there is a comedian who doesn’t do drag much anymore, his name is Charlie Lewin and he started standup as a drag queen in comedy clubs under the name Charity Work, which is great name. He has transitioned and does a lot of himself on stage now.
We are getting to the point where we should see drag queens on panel shows, not just promoting things, they should be contestants on things, not just on a special “drag” thing. They have a lot to offer as performers and as personalities and I don’t think we have quite worked it out; the UK has, but I don’t think we have quite worked out how to utilize the queens on television just yet. We can’t just keep making them compete against each other! (laughs)!
MC: How do you sum up Drag Race Down Under Season 3?
RN: This season really upped the ante. I think sometimes our Drag Race is funnily received sometimes, we do a particular tye of drag here in Australia. It was an exciting season where we really got to see the queens up the ante!
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