Rhys Nicolson had an excellent lockdown.
Just before the pandemic the acerbic Australian comic, who goes by ‘they’ recorded a Netflix special.
Then RuPaul saw the Netflix special, loved it and invited Nicholson to become a judge on the Australian version of Drag Race.
Finally the world came out of lockdown – just in time for the Melbourne Comedy Festival to go ahead as planned – and Nicholson won the prize for best overall show.
“I think I’m suffering from survivors’ guilt”, Nicholson says sheepishly.
“A lot of the show is me trying not to talk about the pandemic. In fact I keep saying: ‘Let’s not talk about it.”
Edinburgh Fringe will be the first time they have performed ‘Rhys! Rhys! Rhys!’ outside of Australia.
“It’s my most personal show. I think it’s my funniest show and it means a lot to me.
“But it is not an ‘and then I realised’ show.”
It was a thrill and a delight when ‘Rhys! Rhys! Rhys!’ won the Melbourne prize – and whatever you might expect from someone whose show title is their name with three exclamation marks, it’s not something they take lightly.
“It means a lot to me to win in Melbourne.
“I grew up in that festival. I’m a child of that festival. It’s like a big warm hug.”
In person, or at least on Zoom, Nicholson is softly spoken, warm and thoughtful. It’s a surprising contrast to the hyper caffeinated stage persona, with its fierce styling, rat a tat tat delivery, quickfire punchlines and razor sharp wit.
“On stage I’m the equivalent of jangling keys and shouting.
During lockdown they bought into a comedy club in Melbourne. “I describe myself as the loud silent partner.”
Although it’s not their style, Nicholson loves watching performers who can play with silence. “I watch a comic like that as if they are a magician.
“I don’t do that. I tend to squeeze in as much as I can.”
Nicholson famously married lesbian comic Zoe Coombs Marr as a protest during the gay marriage debate in Australia. It was a big news story at the time.
“I’d describe myself as not political, but ‘socially political.’
“Things are moving so quickly. I’m thirty-two and I am already going: ‘What are we saying now?’”
On RuPaul’s Drag Race they play the role of the ‘nice’ judge – which means they don’t have to upset people for the sake of entertainment.
“I have a pretty easy job. I just have to go on and be nice. I’m the Paula Abdul.
“I love drag. It’s a really important artform. The hardest bit is being negative sometimes.
“I’m a bit of a pleaser – so when someone has put their heart and soul into something and you have to tell them, it isn’t good.”
Nicholson particularly loves the costume challenges, where drag queens are asked to create a fabulous look from a random collection of fabrics, trimmings and accessories. Often on Drag Race the last minute creations are glued, taped and stapled into place.
“It’s about how creative you can be and I love that. It is very Fringe.
“It reminds me of one of my favourite parts of Edinburgh – when it’s Tuesday and you see everyone in Poundland buying their props.”
Nicholson’s own DIY ethic comes in the form of badges – which they make before every festival and sells to the audience.
“I make my own merch – often animal badges. A lot of people wear them at the show and it is like scout badges. I can see them and I know when they’ve seen me before and when they’ve missed a year.”
Nicholson first came to the Fringe in 2013.
“It’s been a part of my life since I first came. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends that I haven’t seen for three years now – and going to their shows.
“Some of my best friends in the world – now when I turn on the English TV they are on Graham Norton.
“One of the things I really love about the Fringe is the feeling we are all going through this together.
“You go to the Abbatoir bar and everyone there has had a bad show or a good show and you feel this festival is like a single celled amoeba.
“So I’m looking forward to the camaraderie. We have all had so much time being separate and now we are going to go through something together that’s positive.”
Rhys! Rhys! Rhys! 20.35pm Underbelly Bristo Square, August 3 – 28