Comedian and RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under Judge Rhys Nicholson spills the beans of Season 2, sweaty suits and coming out as non-binary.
RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under has changed Rhys Nicholson’s life. Not least because they have had to spend 10 full weeks in hotel quarantine on their own.
“You lose your fucking mind,” they assure us. “And you realize that when you get excited to walk around a car park for an hour.”
Quarantine gave them time to reflect, and fresh from their stint judging the gender-bending artform of drag, Rhys tells us, “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m non-binary,” adding, “it was always on the cards!”
“It wasn’t a big undertaking,” Rhys says of coming out of quarantine and telling their friends and family about their gender identity. “They were like, ‘yeah, probably. We all saw that coming.”
Rhys who prefers the pronoun ‘they’, (but tells us, “if some calls me ‘he’ I’m not cancelling them,”) sounds liberated by their self-discovery.
“It’s exciting to realize that you’re still developing. I’m part of a different group of people, you find a new community and a new way of thinking about things. I’m very lucky, it hasn’t been a struggle.” They say.
Rhys is aware not everyone is welcoming of enlightened views on gender. “I don’t understand these straight cis men being like, ‘why would you want to?’ It’s like, ‘wouldn’t you want to be more comfortable with yourself?’”
“There is this great privilege to be able to fuck around with gender in that way, and really feel comfortable to do that. That’s what Drag Race really provides, an insight into how other people are living so that you might better understand the way that you live.”
Drag has been making an impact on Nicholson’s life for a long time.
The comedian grew up in Newcastle, New South Wales, two hours north of Sydney. The city had one gay bar (ominously titled, ‘The Gateway’) which fake ID-wielding Rhys began attending at 16. “It got taken off me because a bouncer asked me to spell my last name, and I could not,” they confess.
The Gateway gave Rhys their first taste of drag and sent them heading to Sydney Oxford Street for more.
“I used to go to a place called Disgraceland, that Courtney Act used to run. That was the first time I saw international queens. Lady Gaga even performed there once, before she was huge.”
Our conversation highlights the importance of queer safe spaces, as Rhys’s words illustrate these venues mean more than just a bar. “It was a really important time in my life. It’s a really important time in any queer person’s life, just working yourself out, and shows and bars were a really huge part of that.”
This was the era where Rhys first found their signature dapper look (“I used to stand at the back of a sweaty gay bar in a full suit. No one would have sex with me. They weren’t cotton-based fabrics”) and formed a friendship with fellow comedian, Joel Creasy (“he always says, he would leave me at a certain point in the night and find me later in a pile of drag queens!”).
Drag would leave its mark on Rhys, making their ascent to Drag Race judge feel like a full circle moment.
Only ever appearing on stage in suits became Rhys’ trademark as a comedian, an armour reminiscent of drag costumes.
“My partner says I walk and act differently when I have that stuff on,” they tell us, confirming the analogy.
“It’s a culture that’s really important to me. I’m very careful not to say that I’m a part of it. I’m not a drag queen, even though I have a lot of makeup on! But it taught me performance. Being able to command a rowdy group of people at two o’clock in the morning as their drugs kick in is an incredible thing to see and there’s so much power in it!”
With assessments like that, it’s not hard to see why Rhys was the natural choice to join RuPaul and Michelle Visage on the Drag Race Down Under judging panel.
During our interview, Rhys is very careful not to give too much away about the new season, but says a key difference with Down Under’s second season is that the queens, ‘now have a context of what the show is.’
“Whereas the first season, the girls smashed it, but they were going in being like, ‘what is this going to be like?’ The fan base had that as well. There’s a freedom now people will notice,” they tell us.
Rhys admits the cast is less ‘famous’ than Down Under’s first season but feels that brings a greater authenticity and point of difference to the product.
“Last year, we came in with a bang, with some of our pretty well-known queens. This year, there are some rough girls, and I mean that in a good way because that’s what we do here. That’s our style of drag,” they tell us.
“This season, some tasks genuinely felt like I was at a drag show at two o’clock in the morning. Sometimes putting a television show together can feel like, we’re moving away from drag culture, but not this year. This is like a nightclub drag and it was just a real fucking thrill to watch girls do what they do!”
All of the queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under Season’s 1 and 2 will be performing in a town near you this October on the RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under Tour – click here for more info and buy tickets.