Graham Norton is one of the U.K.’s best-loved hosts. As well as interviewing guests from Tom Cruise to Adele on his weekly chat show, “The Graham Norton Show,” he is infamous for his biting commentary of the Eurovision Song Contest on BBC One, where he doesn’t hesitate to poke (gentle) fun at both the institution and the acts.
And, as Variety revealed last year, now Norton is the host of “Queen of the Universe,” a new drag queen singing competition from World of Wonder, the producers behind “Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” which also features Leona Lewis, Trixie Mattel, Michelle Visage and Vanessa Williams on the judging panel.
Ahead of Paramount+ launching in the U.K. on June 22, Norton sat down with Variety to discuss drag queens, Eurovision and whether he would ever work in late night TV.
You no doubt get asked to host a lot of projects. What was it about “Queen of the Universe” that made you say ‘yes’?
Well, for me, you know, I do get asked to do things. And most it’s, 1) I don’t want to watch that, 2) I can’t be bothered to leave my house. So this – it was a very easy yes. It’s drag queens and it’s international drag queens and they’re singing live. So I just thought, yeah, there’s a lot there that I’m going to enjoy.
When you commentate the Eurovision Song Contest you have this slightly acerbic tone. Have you taken a different approach to this?
Yeah, I think this is much more of a kind of pure celebration of these queens. Because in Eurovision, you know, some things are just terrible. They’re just bad. I think I’m not as harsh as I was 12 years ago when I started [commentating Eurovision]. But on this, it’s a huge ask for these queens, because if they perform in public at all, it’ll be in the backroom of a bar, it will be in some small, little theatre. So to ask them to do this show, where they come around a corner, and suddenly there is an enormous lighting rig, a massive audience, global superstars judging them. It’s a lot. The fact that they manage it at all is amazing. And then the fact that they manage it at the level they do I find mind blowing. So the idea of trying to, you know, chip away at them or undermine them in any way, just wouldn’t cross my mind, because I’m just so in awe of what they’re managing to do.
Do you ever find yourself disagreeing with the judges?
Yes. Because, you know, let’s face it, often your favourite performance there might be a flat note in it somewhere, or there might be a dropped lyric somewhere. But if the staging and the emotion and the charisma is all there then I can forgive lots of that stuff – which is specifically why I’m not on the panel.
What was your favourite part of making the show?
To be honest, the thing that I enjoyed the most was the thing I wasn’t expecting, and that was how emotional the whole thing was. Because you kind of think, oh, it’s an international singing competition… What I stupidly hadn’t taken on board was that international means that a lot of these drag queens are coming from countries where they’re not accepted. They’re not celebrated. It’s not easy to do this and so to see their little hearts swell with the sound of the applause, and a crowd loving them, and a crowd telling them you’re not just good enough, you are exceptional. It moved them and then that moved me. And that was kind of – afterwards of course you feel like an idiot, like, of course that was going to happen. But it just hadn’t crossed my mind, you know, because we’re so used to all of these things in this country. So that really warmed my heart. I loved that.
I didn’t know you’re such a softie Graham!
[Slightly sarcastically] I’m such a softie.
There were probably a lot of surreal moments, hosting a drag queen singing competition, but what was the most surreal?
There were lots of very odd props. There was a big rainbow unicorn backstage that somebody had to sit on at some point. There were big, big, crazy props. And then in the finale, myself and the judges do get involved in a production number. I think we did it in two takes, which kind of amazed me.
Do you sing?
No. I don’t think – or did I? Maybe I do lip-synch to my own voice. I can’t remember. But, but we’re in it. I’ll tell you that.
With Ukraine sadly unable to host Eurovision next year due to Russia’s war, there’s talk of the competition coming to the U.K. Will you host Eurovision if it’s in the UK, rather than commentating?
We’ve no idea. I mean, I think it’s so – I feel so bad for the EBU [European Broadcasting Corporation, who run Eurovision] that they had to make that decision, which nobody wanted them to make, and they didn’t want to make. So I know the BBC are looking at it really seriously. But it’s too early to say.
“The Graham Norton Show” is such a hit, and CBS are looking for a new “The Late Late Show” host after James Corden leaves – has doing something in the U.S. ever crossed your mind?
No. I mean, in that, I did [early 2000s show “V Graham Norton”] five nights a week here it must be 20 years ago. And that is such a hard gig. It’s like joining the priesthood. So I don’t know how James has done it for as long as he has. Hats off to him. But no, that does not appeal. That’s a proper job.