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The Toronto drag performer is back on the judging panel having survived the "absolute blissful chaos" of season one
Brooke Lynn Hytes is becoming a regular presence on the small screen in Canada.
The Los Angeles-based Toronto drag performer who broke out as the season 11 runner-up on RuPaul’s Drag Race will soon make a return to the judging panel on the second season of Crave reality show Canada’s Drag Race. After that, Hytes – the drag persona of Brock Hayhoe – will appear in a rebooted version of the MTV Canada chat show 1 Girl 5 Gays. Retitled 1 Queen 5 Queers to be more inclusive, it will also air on Crave during the upcoming TV season.
“I always just say yes to everything and see where it leads me,” Hytes says over the phone in Toronto, where she just bought a house that she plans to reno and rent out. “So far that has led me to a great path.”
Hytes’s drag career began about a decade ago in Toronto’s Church-Wellesley Village. A dancer who trained at the National Ballet School of Canada and toured with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, she was scouted by the drag club Play Nashville and moved to Tennessee. Securing a work visa in the U.S. made her eligible to audition for Drag Race and she would become the first Canadian contestant to appear on the star-making franchise in 2018.
Her strong performance on the season made her a natural candidate to judge the first Canadian edition of the format. But despite becoming the highest rated original show in Crave’s history, according to owner Bell Media, season one was rocky. Online harassment of judge Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman came to dominate the social media narrative around the run, and the issue resurfaced recently after the Edmonton-born actor criticized production practices in a Hollywood Reporter interview, saying he was stereotyped by producers and fed negative lines to read in post-production.
There have been changes behind the scenes since, including a new showrunner and, according to Bowyer-Chapman, a dedicated producer for judging portion of the series. Crave has also added a social media consultant to ensure fan backlash doesn’t flare up again this year.
Bowyer-Chapman declined to return this year and model Stacey McKenzie had to bow out before production began in Toronto earlier this year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Hytes is now being joined by The Handmaid’s Tale actor Amanda Brugel, celebrity stylist Brad Goreski and ETalk host Traci Melchor.
Hytes says the foursome were “thrown together” last minute when McKenzie was unable to return, but that everything gelled. While some in the fandom have criticized the lack of queer diversity on the panel, Hytes says the combination makes sense because it encompasses experts on style, acting and TV hosting – all career paths that are opening up to contestants whether they claim a crown or not.
Ahead of Canada’s Drag Race’s premiere on October 14, we chatted with Hytes about what’s new on season two, Bowyer-Chapman’s recent comments, the financial costs of going on Drag Race and the lip-sync dance moves she says are getting old.
You’ve said you didn’t get to spend enough time in the Werk Room with the contestants in season one. Did that change in season two?
I did get to spend a little bit more time in the Werk Room, which was great because I’m the only person on the panel that has actually done this before. I can give them a lot of advice on what to do, and certainly on what not to do. I know first-hand what a stressful situation this can be. And I know how much you can get in your head and second-guess yourself.
Did you know a lot of the season two queens before they were cast on the show?
I knew almost nothing about almost all of these people. I loved that so much because I had no preconceived notions. It was fresh eyes on pretty much everybody. I knew some of them, but I haven’t been friends with any of them. Last season, it was hard because if you knew someone personally and they weren’t doing a great job, what were you supposed to do? You’re there to judge and critique, but it’s also your friend and you don’t want to hurt their feelings. You have to put that aside, which is what I did.
How would you characterize season one? On the one hand, former judge Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman has come out and criticized several aspects of how producers handled the judging, but the show also won five Canadian Screen Awards.
I would characterize season one as absolute blissful chaos. It was a chaotic, weird, fabulous season. At the end of the day we’re making entertainment and were you entertained? Absolutely. But yeah, we have made changes for season two. There’s a lot more communication with the judges to make sure we’re in the loop and everything just makes a lot more sense. We can give better critiques and make better judgments. The thing is, with season one of any TV show, everyone who worked on that show pretty much had never worked on the show before. It was a learning experience. It wasn’t a perfect season and then things did go wrong. But we learned and we are getting better.
What did you think of Jeffrey’s interview in the Hollywood Reporter? Specifically, he made comments about how he was told he was the sassy one and the show’s “man candy.” He felt the show had a diversity problem and that the judges were being fed negative lines. What is your reaction to his comments?
I love Jeffrey, and we talked a lot through season one and helped each other through a lot of stuff. He is a great guy. I can’t really speak to his comments because his experience wasn’t necessarily my experience. I’m glad he was able to talk about his experience and say what he had to say. I can say that I was never fed negative lines to say to the contestants. That’s not something that happened with me. But if that’s something that happened with him, I can’t speak on that. I don’t want to talk too much about that because he’s a friend of mine and I wish him the best. I’m sad he’s not back for season 2.
Do you feel like season 2 has to hit hard out of the gate to put all of that drama behind it?
No, I don’t think we have to do anything. We have an amazing season ahead of us. We have an incredibly diverse cast. We have so many different nationalities and so many different queens – trans, non-binary. The diversity speaks for itself. We have an incredible panel of people who are very well rounded and knowledgeable in their fields. Brad is an incredible stylist that has an incredible eye for fashion. Amanda is a bona fide amazing actor. Tracey has 20 years of experience in broadcasting under her belt. And I’m a fucking drag queen. We’re hitting all the bases. I don’t think we have to make up for anything.
One of your own critiques of the first season was the lighting. Was that rectified in season two?
Trust and believe I’ve had multiple meetings about lighting. Working with drag queens is just its own beast. People have to learn how to light a drag queen. It’s not the same as lighting a regular person walking down the street. We need a lot more because we’re wearing a lot more and there’s a lot more going on.
What’s optimal? Totally blown-out Old Hollywood, Joan Crawford style?
That’s one way to go. We can go season one RuPaul where you have 18 spotlights on you. I’m personally not mad at that either. Honestly, it’s just a lot of front-facing lights and soft light. And just making sure the right colours are used – pinks are always better than blues or colder colours. I just know what I like and don’t like. I’m not an actual professional. Joey, who did our lighting, just knocked it out of the park.
There’s been a lot of focus on the amount of money, designer outfits and advantages contestants are now coming in with. What’s it like judging knowing someone doesn’t have the same financial advantage as someone else? There’s a TV standard that drag queens now have to get used to.
There’s definitely a TV standard. As the seasons go on, the looks get more extravagant, more mature and high fashion. That’s a really hard thing to keep up with. I think there’s something to be said for a person’s creativity. A perfect example of that is my season 11 sister Ra’Jah O’Hara. On this past season of All Stars, she made everything she wore on the show and she spent $600 doing it. And she looked absolutely phenomenal. Money is not everything. You can do stuff yourself and you can be creative. You know what I want? I want to see a season of Drag Race where they’re not allowed to bring any drag with them. They literally just show up with their pads and their makeup and they have to make everything the entire season. Can you imagine?
An entire season of design challenges?
I would give them extra time so we can still do other challenges, but I think that would be a real interesting season. But it’s hard because some people just have more financial advantages and some people take out loans to go on Drag Race and spend $30,000, $40,000 on clothes. At the same time, Drag Race is your shot. There’s nothing else out there for drag queens like Drag Race in terms of a platform that’s really going to help springboard you into something amazing. Yes, we love a look and that’s wonderful but there’s so much else that goes into being a drag queen. I said to the girls this season, you can look perfect but it means nothing if we don’t fall in love with you, the person.
You lip sync’ed against Ra’Jah to Janet Jackson’s Miss You Much in the recent season of All Stars. Is there a pop star who’s choreography you really have down?
I’m really bad at learning choreography from videos. I’m much better in a studio with somebody to teach me. When you learn choreography on a video, it’s backwards. You’re looking at a screen and that always messes me up.
What kind of dancing interests you right now?
I love contemporary dancing – like neoclassical but not full-on ballet. But I also love ballet. Honestly, when it comes to drag queens, I’m over the stunts. I still do them too, because everyone still loves them. But how many more times can we be impressed by a split or even a dip? It’s getting harder and harder. All the new queens coming up can do all these tricks and it’s becoming less special. The mark of a true queen is someone who can stand still, not move and deliver an incredible, powerful lip sync. That’s starting to interest me a lot more than dancing. Even in my drag, I’m turning more toward songs that are emotional than just sha-blam and splits.
Why are the ballads harder for queens to do well with on Drag Race?
Drag Race gets a lot of newer, younger, fresh-face ones who aren’t really experienced performers. What they know is being in the bar and doing all the tricks and everyone going crazy. But they haven’t really discovered the art of just standing still, lip syncing and having nothing else going on but you.
Toronto drag queen Michelle Ross passed away earlier this year. What impressed you about her style of performing?
Michelle Ross was absolutely everything. She really was the diva of Toronto. When you did a show with Michelle, you understood that you were there so she could change. You literally were the smoke break, the intermission. You were not making any money except for your show fee. People would literally come, watch her show, the bar would be packed, her show would end, there would be another show right after and the bar would clear. They were there specifically for her because she was a powerhouse. She could sit on a stool with a microphone – that was turned off – and deliver the most captivating magical performances. She had innate gift to connect with people and make them feel what she was feeling. It’s something that you can’t really teach. It comes from inside of you.
You’re rebooting the MTV show 1 Girl 5 Gays as 1 Queen 5 Queers. What can we expect from that?
I didn’t watch it when it aired because I wasn’t living in Canada at the time but I found it on YouTube and loved it. It was gay guys sitting around talking about what it was like to be gay. That didn’t really exist at the time. I wanted to revamp it because at this point that concept feels very dated. We needed something more inclusive – non-binary people, trans people, 2-Spirit people, everyone from the queer community coming together. I shot it right after we did Drag Race, which is amazing to shoot but you’re sending somebody home every week. This show was just fun. We got to sit, talk, laugh and sometimes cry. We left not feeling like “I just crushed that person’s dreams.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.