Out of everyone involved in Channel Ten’s reality talent contest I Will Survive, it’s perhaps judge Stephan Elliott who has the largest personal stake. As the writer and director of the original 1994 Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, he’s arguably got even more to lose than the contestants if anything goes awry, so loved is the film among Australian audiences.

As he told the Star Observer from his London home the morning after the first episode had gone to air here in Australia, he had his reservations initially.

“It’s taken a long time to be comfortable with [Priscilla’s legacy]. The stage show I fought for a long time, I was really against it. It’s very difficult for a writer or director trying to move on with their career and every second comment is ‘It’s no Priscilla’,” he said.

What cemented Elliott’s involvement in first the stage show and now the TV series was the realisation that “there’s a whole new generation who don’t know about it”.

“I met a gay kid at a bar the other night – someone said to him ‘Come and meet the director of Priscilla’, and he said ‘What’s that?’ That’s a hit to the ego, let me tell you. It’s a thrill to introduce it to a whole new generation who weren’t even born when the movie was around.”

While the contestants vying for a cash prize and a shot at Broadway are the expected mix of musical theatre triple threats, what really surprises is the high calibre of guest judges. Rachel Griffiths, Toni Collette, Asher Keddie – these aren’t the sort of names one would usually associate with a reality TV contest.

Is their involvement a testament to the goodwill so many still feel for the film?

“Totally. For so many people it holds such a special place in time, and that still blows me out of the water. So many people came on board just simply because it was Priscilla,” Elliott said.

Early episodes showed quite a marked contrast between those contestants – gay or otherwise – who seemed confident and comfortable in drag, and the nervous straight boys who kept dropping mentions of their girlfriends every two minutes.

“We’ve ended up with a really interesting selection of gay and straight boys. At no time did we force anyone to come out, but as the series progresses, they do. That’s the beauty of the journey – as it went on, the competition got tougher and people started opening up and revealing more of themselves.”

And while Elliott wouldn’t give too much away about where the competition is headed, he did reveal that his initial gut feelings about which contestants would last until the end turned out to be wrong.

“It really didn’t evolve the way I thought it would. You guys have a long way to go, but the evolution of the show is very interesting – to watch some people open up and others close down. It makes for very challenging TV.”

INFO: I Will Survive, Tuesdays and Wednesdays @ 7.30pm on Channel Ten.

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