Reality TV judging: It’s important. I can only commit to a TV talent show if I believe there are tough, fair-minded judges keeping the circus under control. Since we’re headlong into enticing seasons of The Voice and American Idol, the time is right to reflect upon the best judges in reality TV history – the ones who boast authority, smarts, sass, and fearsomeness. Oh, and some evil too!
10. Nina Garcia, Project Runway
The glamorous Marie Claire editrix has no time for fashion with a less-than-editorial edge, and she’s regularly the most intimidating part of a panel that also includes the fire-breathing Michael Kors and the perpetually aloof Heidi Klum. When she’s not dispensing displeasure at the drop of an accessory, she’s sighing with the kind of amazing contempt that warranted Meryl Streep an Oscar nom in The Devil Wears Prada.
Best Quote: While critiquing Santino Rice’s horrendous, deer-themed lingerie: “It’s aesthetically not pleasing!”
9. Merle Ginsberg, RuPaul’s Drag Race
Look, I love Michelle Visage and Santino Rice too, but Merle Ginsberg was such a cool and funny part of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Maybe she emanated so much levity and understanding because she herself was a reality show contestant on Bravo’s Launch My Line. Naturally, RuPaul’s Drag Race is the superior show, and Merle was a delightful and hilarious aunt figure on Ru’s panel.
Best Quote: “When I heard the name Ongina, I thought, ‘Oh my dear. This sounds like a cross between a heart attack and a yeast infection,’ I have to admit. When I put it together with the look, and the whole Luffa [dress], and the whole Carrie-Bradshaw-goes-to-Rio [look], it’s very, very charming.”
8. Simon Cowell, American Idol
While Cowell was often salty and hilariously dismissive on American Idol, I can’t number him among the very best of reality-competition judges. He was too often biased and unfair (Who can forget his shilling of Lee DeWyze over Crystal Bowersox in Idol’s ninth season?), and needlessly mean about contestants’ appearance. That said, the man crafted the mold for addictive reality judgment, and his influence can’t be understated.
Best Quote: “It was dreadful. No, no. Really dreadful. I’m saying that to be kind, because you will never, ever, ever have a career in singing. Remember these words: You will never be a singer.”
7. Mary Murphy, So You Think You Can Dance
Mary Murphy is one of the few judges who can be both loving and damning in a single critique. On So You Think You Can Dance (which remains the gold standard for fabulous reality TV, by the way), she’s often a whippoorwill of ecstasy and encouragement, but she always infuses her glee with comments on technical precision and adherence to style standards. Her obvious affection for the contestants is a necessary source of empowerment in the most grueling, physically demanding competition on TV.
Best Quote: “HOT. TAMALE. TRAIN.”
6. Kara DioGuardi, American Idol, Platinum Hit
Your eyes do not deceive you: The much-maligned foourth judge of American Idol’s eighth and ninth seasons was easily the most articulate panelist in the show’s history, and also – all credentials considered — the worthiest of the job. Sure, she sometimes became cloying and even condescending, but no one understood the value of sincere performance and artistic intention like DioGuardi. While Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul babbled nonsensically in praise of average chanteuses, DioGuardi authoritatively evaluated everything from pitch and song choice to ingenuity and vulnerability. For instance: No, Andrew Garcia, you shouldn’t be singing “Gimme Shelter” like it’s a happy-clappy Jason Mraz ditty; no, Adam Lambert, caterwauling “Ring of Fire” like a glitter-mouthed dragon isn’t the same thing as making sense. I don’t miss Kara’s quasi-flirtatious badinage with Simon, but I always miss her ability to point out the smart and bankable elements in a contestant’s performance.
Best Quote: On Didi Benami’s polarizing (but amazing, if you ask me) performance of “Play With Fire”: “I think sometimes when you push on your vocals, you lose your way a bit. But what I liked tonight that I saw was an intensity that you attacked the song with. And that’s what those lyrics were about. You got dark. There’s something very compelling about the sweetness of your voice with the eeriness of the song. And you did it last week. So for me, it’s two steps in the right direction towards who you’re becoming as an artist.”
5. Ben Folds, The Sing-Off
The Sing-Off has no right to be as entertaining as it is (kind of like America’s Best Dance Crew, which is also spellbinding), and the quality of the judging matches its addictive pace. Ben Folds is startlingly straightforward and commanding as a vocal critic, not to mention dedicated and encouraging. It’s surprising to see a judge so eloquent on the same network that gives us the atrocious America’s Got Talent.
Best quote: “Things came together for you in a way that they haven’t yet. As outsiders, you’re coming in and taking a different perspective on the music, really unlocking it. The may you made it all work together was really artful – and the bell tones were neat! So neat.”
4. Gail Simmons, Top Chef, Top Chef: Just Desserts
Hard to argue with a judge like Gail Simmons, who is both unpretentious and firm as Top Chef’s dependable wingwoman to Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio. She’s that rare reality judge who is as passionate about her own articulation as she is about her subject. Never a word out of place, or a flavor left undiscussed. It’s also hard to argue with the authority of a woman who once sliced a nerve in her hand while trying to cut a bagel. You’re a veteran of the culinary world when a bagel has beaten you up.
Best quote: During an animal themed challenge: “It looked like something a bear would produce, not eat.”
3. Iman, Project Runway Canada, The Fashion Show
Child, if you did not discover both jaw-droppingly addictive seasons of Project Runway Canada on YouTube, you are missing the following: Iman’s drag-alicious introduction (“Tempers will flare. Hemlines will fly… Remember, fashion isn’t always… pretty.”); Iman’s intolerance of clichéd garments; Iman’s stoic sendoff to losing contestants (“Carlie. I’m sorry. But you just don’t measure up.”); and best of all, some phenomenal evaluations of fashion. Iman understands craftsmanship and fabulousness, and she rarely skipped an opportunity to tout her own majesty, too. “Wham-bam, thank you, ma’am! Quoth Bowie!” she once hooted at a winning player. Iman is no-nonsense and a legend in her own right, so it makes sense that she’d seize the opportunity to reign over a klatch of trembling newbies with the authority and stride of a sorceress.
Best quote: To contestant Marie-Genevieve Cyr, who sent out a goth look as part of the “trashy” requirement: “I mean, that? I could’ve gotten it at any Halloween store. If you had gone the distance, it could’ve really hit the mark with the trashiness because, really, in all honesty, goth is not trashy. Goth is a legitimate look. Show me the trash! I did not see the trash. It’s like goth lite.”
2. Michael Kors, Project Runway
The pumpkin-colored dame of Project Runway is still the fiercest panel commentator on TV. Whether he’s decrying tackiness or praising a pantsuit that packs a Lauren Hutton vibe, Kors’s judgments are shrewd, succinct, and hilarious. Even if the quality of Runway (and its judging) has dwindled in recent seasons, Kors’ quipping heyday is unforgettable. The man can inspire fear with one word: “Listen.”
Best quote: Criticizing Raymundo Balthazar’s “surfer mama” Barbie costume: “It looks like barefoot Appalachian Li’l Abner Barbie.”
1. RuPaul, RuPaul’s Drag Race
First of all, there is no better rubric in reality judging than “creativity, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.” RuPaul’s already in first place before we get to his astounding work as the lead barrister on RuPaul’s Drag Race. As both the contestant’s mentor and critic, he manages to be empathetic, sympathetic, and still – sometimes — unimpressed. But it’s when RuPaul approves of a drag queen’s strut and style that he shines MOST: I swoon thinking of the (de)cadence in Ru’s voice when he called Mystique Summers Madison’s lip-sync performance, “un-fawr-GETtable.” He’s just so damn RIGHT. I suppose that’s the criterion I care about most.
Best quote: On season two runner-up Raven’s unexpected runway showing: “That’s so not Raven.”