You know and love him as bitchy assistant Marc St. James — the gay boyfriend of receptionist Amanda (Becki Newton) and manservant of diva editrix Wilhelmina (Vanessa Williams) on Ugly Betty. But now, prepare to see Michael Urie as Michael Urie, hosting Miss America: Reality Check, a reality series launching Jan. 4 at 10 p.m. on TLC. Don’t groan! It’s not another reality show pitting prissy queens against each other. Instead, it’s a new take on the traditional Miss America pageant. Over four episodes, Urie leads the girls through challenges that teach them about runway walking, intelligent question-answering, and nurturing their personal style. The test? The revamped main event, Miss America LIVE!, which airs Jan. 26. EW checked in with Urie for his musings about the new series, working with Betty White on Ugly Betty, and what he’s doing to fill his strike-induced free time.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So the Miss America: Reality Check series you’re hosting…
MICHAEL URIE: Just thinking about it makes me laugh!
What’s funny about it? What made you want to do this?
I never really watched Miss America, I never really aspired to be a host of reality shows. I actually prefer hosting live things because it’s fun to be in front of an audience. At first I was like, ”Oh, uhhh, I don’t know.” Then I met with them, and I found out what it was all about: The girls had no idea what they were getting themselves into and everything was changing. So I thought, ”Well, they’re going to be like 52 fish out of water, why shouldn’t I be a fish out of water, too? It sounds like fun!”
Do you find it hard for people to separate you from Marc?
It’s actually a really nice compliment. It means that I’m doing something right. People often assume that I’m mean and they want me to be mean, like him. Usually women want me to be their friend. They want to be my Amanda. That’s fun. But generally, I’m not like him in those ways. I’m not mean, and I’m not at all fashionable. Everything I’ve learned about fashion, I’ve learned from Marc.
So the reality show leads up to the live Miss America pageant. What will you actually be doing in your role as host?
I’m kinda like Seacrest: I present the challenges and I announce who’s doing well and who’s not doing well. I hang out with them. I don’t stay with them. I don’t sleep in the house with them! I offered, but there’s some kind of rule. [Laughs] Fifty-two girls and one guy…
What kind of challenges will the girls face? Does this prep them for the big night?
I can’t tell you what the challenges are, but every challenge has something to do with what’s going to be expected of them at the live Miss America pageant. They learn about the new style of Miss America. This year, instead of just parading across the stage, it’s all runway. When they come out in evening gowns, they’re runway models. And in their bathing suits, they’re runway models. There’s a big less-is-more feeling this year. We kept saying ”make-under” instead of ”makeover.” The advisory board stresses bringing down the hair and doing less.
So we’re saying goodbye to sequins and feathers?
Less sequins, less hairspray, less eye shadow and rouge. There’ll be less of everything to bring out their own natural beauty and their natural style. It’s very much about the inside-out now, as opposed to the outside-in. We have a packet of their headshots from when they started. You wouldn’t recognize them now because they originally looked like 40-year-old women. They’re actually gorgeous young women! These girls looked like senators and librarians and teachers and moms, and none of them are any of those things. They’re all young, hot girls. There’s no reason for them not to look the way they want to look and still be able to compete in a pageant like this. It never really made sense, why they would age up. Who does that? Who tries to make themselves look older?
NEXT PAGE: How Urie crashed a scene with Betty White
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did the gals all know you from Ugly Betty?
MICHAEL URIE: Yeah, a lot of them did. They definitely were very curious about Vanessa Williams. They wanted to know everything about her. Every day that there was a surprise guest, they would say, ”Is it Vanessa Williams? Is it Vanessa?!” It’s not! I’m like, ”She’s not going to be on the show.” They asked me to tell her hello, so I told Vanessa hello from all the Miss America girls, and she said to give them hell. So I told them that, then they laughed and looked confused.
In terms of the competition, what got axed? What’s still there?
The talent component is still there. It’s all still pretty much there — it’s just taken in a new vein. They’re calling the swimsuit competition ”health and beauty.” For evening gown, they’re going to walk down a runway rather than just parade across the stage like dolls. They actually have to come out and show themselves and give some attitude. So they had these tutorials on runway, and they were naturals at it. The test is going to be, did they retain what they learned? Are they going to continue to do that? We’re very clear: These are the things you’re going to be judged on now, and if you just play along during the reality show and then show up and you’re back to the way you were, it’s not going to be good.
Do you think beauty pageants are still relevant these days?
Well, I would say that before this, they weren’t relevant. They were tired. Now I think the relevance is going to be more about being yourself and being who you are. We live in a world of American Idol and America’s Next Top Model. We know this format of people trying to win the title of whatever it is, and this is no different. This is sort of the original American Idol, in a lot of ways.
Betty White was a guest star on the last episode of Betty that aired. Did you get to spend much time with her?
I did, and I, in fact, crashed a scene with her!
What?! How’d you manage that?
I wasn’t originally scripted to be in that scene, but I crashed it because I wanted to work with her! It’s such a fun-loving group that the hair and makeup people will be like, ”Sure, yeah, we’ll get you done up. Whatever.” They pulled something for me to wear, and I just sort of waltzed on, and I said, ”What if I stand here?” The fashion TV correspondent is talking to Betty. ”Betty, you’re an animal activist, TV legend, friend to gays everywhere, I love you.” And I just said, ”I love you too!” or something like that. The writers were like, why don’t you just throw this in?
Was it amazing to watch her?
She said at one point, ”Can you believe how lucky I am to still be working?” And we were like, ”You mean, how lucky we are that you’re working with us?” I mean, we’ve had some cool guest stars. But for me, that one sort of takes the cake. Betty White is a national treasure and a comic genius! To watch her rehearse a bit with a mirror, how fascinating! She’s such a pro. It was an absolute treat to get to work with her. Never before in a read-through has an actor gotten applause after a scene in the middle of the read-through.
You need all the Golden Girls to be on the show! Rue, Bea…
I think that’s the plan! In one of the upcoming episodes we have Annie Potts, so I say we work through the Designing Women too. We’ve got to get Jean Smart. I love Jean Smart. Wasn’t she amazing on 24?
She was fantastic. Have you guys shot the musical episode of Betty yet?
No, the strike is messing that up. [Composer] Mark Shaiman has been working on it. It’s such a big undertaking that I hope we still have the means to make it happen when the dust settles.
Since the strike has you out of work, are you doing anything else to fill your time?
We sort of have to be ready to go back to work at any time. But I’m going to be working on a play. It’s a new play at the Blank Theater, which is this great theater in Hollywood. It’s called Dickie and Babe, and it’s a docu-play about Leopold and Loeb, a pair of murderers who were sentenced to life in prison for killing a 14-year-old boy in Chicago. I play the prosecuting attorney and a bunch of other parts. Everything I say is what Robert Crowe actually said. Literally transcript, so it’s cool.