Reality casting is both an art and a science: It’s a bid to select compelling personalities who make great television, yet who aren’t so dramatic that they might bring negative publicity to the show. The fate of a reality show, after all, relies on its cast being engaging year after year. And in these challenging times, when audiences needed to escape more than ever before, the 2021 Emmy nominees for reality casting (who all also received series noms in their respective categories) — “Queer Eye,” “Top Chef,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Shark Tank” and “The Voice” — have delivered.
Goloka Bolte, the casting director for “Drag Race,” who with Ethan Petersen won the Emmy in the category last year, says the VH1 competition show “has a really unique casting process, in that we ask all the queens to make a videotape” that shows why they’re “quintuple threats.” Even if the producers and casting people have learned of a talented drag queen whom they want to cast, the queen still has to make a tape, Bolte says. “It’s almost like it’s the first challenge of the show. It’s not optional for anyone.”
“Drag Race” is looking for queens who are the “complete package,” Bolte says. And not only do they have all the talent needed to compete, but “the queens have to be able to express themselves, and narrate their own story while they’re on the show.”
Casting for the nominated season was completed before the COVID-19 production shutdown of March 2020, and “Drag Race” was able to film last summer. The show is always topical, but Season 13 was especially so. After a period when anti-racism uprisings swept through the country, the “Drag Race” winner was Symone, a Black queen, who, during one runway competition, wore a Black Lives Matter-inspired look with red-studded bullet holes on the back of the gown and a headpiece with “Say Their Names” on it.
The season also featured Gottmik, the first openly transgender man to appear on the show. “I was so excited to find out he was going to apply for Season 13,” Bolte says. “Gottmik is such an absolute star, and an amazing artist and drag queen whose journey to the Top 4 was just incredible to watch.”
The popularity of “Drag Race” has increased the pool of contestants from whom Bolte has to choose.
“We definitely get more applications every single year,” she says. “I think part of the incredible success of [‘Drag Race’] being such a cultural phenomenon is it’s now like a global sport.”
The 18th season of “Top Chef ” hadn’t completed its cast when COVID hit, and Samantha Hanks, who oversees casting at Magical Elves — which produces the show for Bravo — and Emmy nominee Ron Mare, had to adjust their process.
Season 18 of “Top Chef,” filmed in Portland, Ore., in the late summer and fall, also reflected the current moment by having more BIPOC chefs than ever before. The entire Top 7 lineup were chefs of color, and Gabe Erales was the show’s first Mexican American winner. (His victory was somewhat tainted when it was revealed he’d been fired from his restaurant after having an affair with a staffer. He has since apologized.)
As Hanks watched the group be whittled down and saw that the competition was unfolding to showcase chefs of color who were cooking such wide-ranging cuisines, she felt “incredible pride.” She has been with the show since Season 7, but overall, it had been a long time coming for Magical Elves, Bravo and the “Top Chef” producers.
“To see this group, and have it be so diverse — it was something we talked a lot about in casting, because we were in the middle of the social movement,” she says. “It was the culmination of a lot of time and a lot of work and a lot of care.” Additionally, because of COVID’s devastation of the restaurant business, “Top Chef” was able to cast chefs who otherwise would have been too busy to compete. “There were a lot of people who said, ‘Yes, why not — my kitchen’s closed right now,’” Hanks says. And because of COVID restrictions, “Top Chef ” couldn’t have guest judges swooping in for a single episode and instead had an “all-star judging panel” of “Top Chef ” alumni — an incredibly diverse group that Hanks also cast. Though born out of necessity, it was a hit for the production and they’re considering keeping it for next season.
The nominated season of “Queer Eye” premiered on Netflix in June 2020, having filmed in Philadelphia in summer 2019. Meaning, though its Season 5 episodes were a balm for people during the early months of the pandemic, casting director Danielle Gervais, executive vice president of casting and talent at ITV America, and her team didn’t have to cast it during COVID. (She has since then, though — the upcoming season of “Queer Eye” was filmed in Austin, Texas, and was mostly cast in the pandemic.)
Despite how it’s presented on the show, only about a quarter of the people featured on “Queer Eye” — called “heroes” in the show’s lingo — come through being nominated, Gervais estimates. And five seasons in, Gervais says, “every season gets a little harder” to find new stories to tell. “I feel like for seasons we were looking for a preacher,” she says. And then in Season 5, “Queer Eye” finally found the right candidate: Noah Hepler, a gay Philadelphian pastor. He was already pretty cute — but luckily, his church really did need the Fab 5’s help.
“His story was just so incredibly powerful,” Gervais says. “So, he might not have had a mullet, but it was such an important story.”
They go into each city, she says, with ideas about the types of heroes they want to feature, those who also tell the story of the city itself. “We wanted to feature a Black-owned business in West Philly,” Gervais says — and that led them to Nate McIntyre, a personal trainer who lived in his gym. Or, in the instance of Marco Tlacopilco, the fishmonger who was opening a restaurant, the “Queer Eye” team wanted to shoot someone in Philadelphia’s famous Italian Market, “because it was so visually compelling,” Gervais says. There, they spotted Marco: “His smile and his hat — and he was just amazing.”
The heart of the show, though, is how the Fab 5 will help the heroes’ lives in a meaningful — and entertaining — way. And it won’t work if the person isn’t in the right place, which is why the interview process for “Queer Eye” is rigorous, Gervais says. “We also are constantly checking: Is now the right time for this person? Will they lean in? Are they at a place in their life where they can make the space to make this a truly life-changing experience for themselves?”
While that is because the “Queer Eye” casting team always “want to set the Fab 5 up for success,” she continues, that philosophy truly sets all of these shows up for success.