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Why Nicole Byer should judge Drag Race forever

When the production company Magical Elves was developing the zany and joyful Netflix competition Nailed It!, they decided to focus on “comedy first and baking second,” and host Nicole Byer “was so key” to making that happen, Magical Elves co-CEO Jo Sharon told me recently. Nicole “made that show her own. We couldn’t have scripted her to be who she is, and the combination of her and Jacques was like lightning in a bottle.”

Coincidentally, a few hours after I interviewed Sharon and her Magical Elves co-CEO Casey Kriley, Nicole Byer was back on my TV, again as a key part of a judging panel, but on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13. It was her second time judging in just five episodes.

Drag Race doesn’t typically repeat guest judges inside a single season, but I’m glad it did. During her first episode, my husband and I were talking about how terrific she was, and that was even clearer in this past week’s episode.

What Nicole Byer’s two episodes on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13 have proven so far is that she is just an excellent judge, period, and is particularly great at judging this competition. And while she’s also great on Nailed It!, what she’s doing here is completely different.

Nicole Byer belongs at the judging table, and needs to be one of its permanent judges.

Nailed It, Nicole Byer, Jacques Torres
Nicole Byer on Nailed It! alongside judge Jacques Torres. (Photo by Netflix)

Drag Race’s panel of Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, Ross Matthews, and, of course, RuPaul, works well, so I’m not arguing for one of them to be cut. Maybe they can just rotate more frequently, or maybe they should just add another chair at the table, as they’ve done before.

Perhaps the production could just reduce the number of guest judges who add nothing. Because, let’s be honest, some do very little, whether they’re on a popular show or are pop culture icons.

Of all the show’s guest judges, there have been some great appearances (Lady Gaga, Gillian Jacobs, Kelly Osbourne) and some real duds, too (the worst I can remember was 13 Reason Why‘s Miles Heizer).

What’s clear is that celebrity doesn’t necessarily come with the ability to offer critique and commentary.

Some guest judges are essentially ignored because they just didn’t have anything of value to offer. They’re introduced, maybe they land a quip or two during the runway, and then we see them again as they watch the lip sync.

Nicole has a lot to offer—and if two episodes is enough evidence, she’s often providing more value to the queens and to us as viewers than the regular judges.

I re-watched the judging of episode five, and noticed that the judges tend to talk at the queens, whether they’re offering compliments or critiques. Nicole did the opposite: She was talking to them, asking questions (sometimes rhetorical) and offering advice.

And she delivers in a light and humorous way. “It was like you were a literal dead person cut open, walking at me,” she said about Gottmik’s body bag autopsy look. “This is frightening, and I’m entertained.”

After the queens left and they discussed, during the discussion of Joey Jay, Nicole said, “The third look, I thought it was fun. Did I think it was mind-blowing? No. But I appreciated that there was hair.”

During the judges’ discussion of Utica’s incredible sleeping bag, Nicole said, “You made this in the same time LaLa glued bags to herself? That’s incredible.”

Tangent! Two fascinating tidbits about sewing and gluing:

  • First, Denali tweeted that “Not only did [Utica] create one of the coolest design challenge garments on drag race EVER but she also helped literally every single person in the werkroom for that challenge.”
  • Joey Jay explained that “Half the machines were broken and I had 4 hours left. You gotta make it work, so glue gun here we go!”—and if you think that’s just an excuse, Shea Couleé added that the sewing machines were broken “on BOTH season 9 and AS5.” As Shea suggested, Drag Race really does need a sewing machine company to sponsor the show and provide decent equipment.

Anyway, after Carson tried to help Joey Jay understand that his costume had a second IV pun (IV bag, poison ivy), Nicole tried again. “I thought it was like two puns in one—you know, like a two-for-one?” she said, and then told Joey, “So next time someone goes, Ooh, was it a two for one? Just say yes. Just lie.”

When discussing LaLa Ri’s bag look—if you can call gluing paper bags to yourself a look—Nicole both asked LaLa a question and gave advice, “But why not cut it or do something so they’re not just literal bags glued to you? If something doesn’t work, you’ve gotta have a plan B.”

This isn’t deep insight, but it’s also more specific than the generic platitudes that the Drag Race judges can sometimes give—like when they were already complaining, in episode two, that some of the queens hadn’t shown enough range.

It can sometimes feel like the judges lecturing—perhaps just exhausted at saying the same things season after season.

Nicole was at least offering suggestions along with good humor that was warm and never cruel. For me, her judging is basically perfect, landing right in the center of the Venn diagram of attributes that make for a good panelist (entertainment and empathy, compassion and constructive criticism, a hint of shade with no actual shaming). For that, she should earn a permanent seat at Drag Race’s table, too.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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