When PEOPLE Deputy West Coast Editor Jason Sheeler joined the set of e.l.f. Cosmetics Super Bowl commercial—alongside Meghan Trainor and the cast of 'Suits' — he learned that filming a high-stakes, 30-second spot can be just as unpredictable as the big game
“You’re going to be in a Super Bowl commercial. That’s a lot of people watching.”
Victor Del Castillo is gently coating my face with a layer of e.l.f. Cosmetics Power Grip Primer. The makeup artist’s words hang in the air.
It’s an early December morning and I’m looking at myself in a marquee light mirror, deep within an expansive soundstage outside Los Angeles—right across the street from the cemetery where Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Clark Gable are buried, actually. I’m still getting my bearings 13 minutes after arrival, as I was originally invited here just to document the making of e.l.f’s new commercial. Now, it seems, I won’t just be watching. I’ll be in it. (“Good news!” I was told at check-in. “We’ve moved your seat. Now, get over to hair and makeup.”)
This is, as you might recall, e.l.f. Cosmetics’ second trip to the big game. In last year’s commercial, Jennifer Coolidge fulfilled her lifelong dream of playing a dolphin. This year’s 30-second spot summons a much larger cast to… court. This includes Meghan Trainor, the cast of Suits and, presiding over it all, Judge Judy.
As Del Castillo applies Halo Glow and Reviver Lip Oil with his Emmy-winning hands (he won for his work on 2022’s Pam & Tommy miniseries and told me working on Welcome to Chippendales was “something else”), I think over the legacy of Super Bowl commercials.
Budweiser’s frogs and the Wassup! one. eTrade’s talking baby. (He's back this year, playing pickleball.) Betty White for Snickers and Cardi B for Amazon’s Alexa. My personal fave, Cindy Crawford chugging a Pepsi in 1992. Then there are ads that created the entire concept of watching the Super Bowl (as much) for the ads: The 1977 spot where monks used the then-revolutionary Xerox 9200 Duplicating Machine. The 1980 “Hey Kid, catch!” from Coca Cola. And perhaps, the most iconic, if not most cinematic, the 1984 Apple Macintosh ad from Alien director Ridley Scott.
It's expensive to peddle your computer/candy bar/$14 foundation to an audience of 115 million people. (Perhaps this year even more: In what marketers have termed “The Taylor Swift Effect,” Americans' interest in the game is up 169 percent over last year.) The reported cost of one 30-second spot during CBS’s telecast of Super Bowl LVIII from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas: $7 million.
The finished e.l.f. ad, which dropped earlier this week, is titled “Judge Beauty” and stars Judge Judy, in her first-ever commercial appearance. Joining the Emmy-winning legal icon are the stars from Suits: Gina Torres and Rick Hoffman (who play adversaries) and Sarah Rafferty as the court reporter. This reunion comes, of course, on the heels of news that the former USA Network series was the most-streamed show last year after dropping on Netflix.
Joining the courtroom in the jury box are comedian Benito Skinner (also known as Benny Drama), Jury Duty's Ronald Gladden, with Heidi N Closet from RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Grammy-winning singer Meghan Trainor. Rounding out the cast is bestselling author and former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho, who stands beside Judge Beauty as the courtroom bailiff.
Del Castillo sprays my face with Stay All Night Micro-setting Mist. “What do you think?” he asks, holding his hands up in sort of a “tah-dah!”
I look in the mirror. I am kind of myself, albeit in a soap opera or episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race; a seen-through-an-iPhone-lens-smeared-with-Vaseline kind of effect. “I was kind of hoping for Pam Anderson circa MTV Movie Awards in the pink fuzzy hat,” I confess.
“I think the tone today is more Pam Anderson circa Barb Wire,” he says flatly without looking at me. I don’t know if he’s kidding. Del Castillo says to someone else who is taking notes: “He has very shiny skin.”
I hear scribbling.
After some time in a room labeled “media holding,” where I filled out Screen Actors Guild paperwork (I was paid scale; “Two more commercials and you’ll be eligible for a SAG card!” I was told) and my outfit was approved, I am led past the craft services table and into a very realistic courtroom. “This is where that audition scene with Emma Stone at the end of La La Land was filmed,” I overhear someone whispering as I enter.
I see a very full courtroom gallery (filled with other extras, one in what was my original seat). There are two lecterns, for the opposing counsels. There was the jury box, with my new seat. I took it, sitting between Judge Judy’s granddaughter, Sarah Rose, who appears on Judge Judy's new show, Judy Justice, as a law clerk and Sara Tan, who is the beauty director of Refinery 29. Her co-host of the beauty podcast Gloss Angeles, Kirbie Johnson, joins us in the back row. Everyone looks very tan, very pore-less, and very unlined.
“I hear we are going to have to smize on camera,” Tan tells me, just as someone yells, “CLEAR IT OUT AND LOCK IT UP!”
The cast walks in. There are the two lawyers, Torres and Hoffman. Rafferty takes her seat at a stenotype machine to the right of the judge’s gavel. Acho stands to the left, in a Hollywood-tailored sheriff’s deputy uniform. The (more famous) jurors file in and sit in the front row. Skinner, wears head-to-toe Thom Browne, carrying a leather Dachshund impersonating a purse. Heidi N Closet is in a tight, lace-up Tiffany-blue leather suit and a wig the width of a china cabinet, sits down next to Gladden from Jury Duty, now bearded. Trainor is in search of a script. They are about to begin a quick rehearsal.
“Psssst! Pssst!” she stage whispers. She waves over to Zach Woods, known for his acting on Silicon Valley, Veep, and The Office, who is the director. “I need a script!”
Judge Judy Scheindlin walks on to set, in a very purple robe. Thunderous applause erupts. Trainor turns to Gladden and says, “I started that!”
This is the second day on set for the cast, who spent the previous day blocking and rehearsing. Today will be spent filming 15, 30 and 60-second versions of the commercial. After a quick rehearsal — Hoffman’s character brought his coworker to court over her use of overpriced makeup — it’s time to start filming.
“Let’s make this first take horrible!” Woods says to the cast.
“I should have worn a bob,” HeidiNCloset says to herself.
The commercial was creatively conceptualized, cast, and scripted by Shadow, e.l.f.'s creative marketing and communications agency. The firm's co-founder and chief visionary officer Lisette Sand-Freedman tells me that Judge Judy tried out the e.l.f. products before signing on to the shoot.
“It’s true that she doesn’t have a huge appetite for these types of opportunities,” Sand-Freedman says, “but she loved our initial pitch. We were looking for the most beloved personalities in the legal drama space — like our Suits trio of talent, and Ronald Gladden from Jury Duty — and mixed them up with viral creators like Benito, Heidi, Emmanuel, and, of course, Meghan Trainor.”
Judith Sheindlin first became a judge in 1982, appointed to the bench by former New York City mayor Ed Koch. A profile on 60 Minutes caught the attention of TV producers, and in 1996 she hit small-screen fame in her own show. Her personality, her granddaughter confirms as she sits next to me in the jury box, is the same on-camera and off. “She does not play a character named Judge Judy,” Rose tells me. “That’s part of the reason she has never endorsed a product.”
But, Rose says, she wanted to be in a certain kind of ad. “Being in a Super Bowl commercial was actually on my grandmother’s bucket list this year,” she says, as we rehearse gasping on cue.
“That stuff isn’t even cruelty-free!” Meghan Trainor exclaims after Gina Torres reveals she has spent $96 on foundation.
“That’s interesting that this whole thing came to her," I tell Rose.
“Well, maybe,” she says. “We have some witchy manifestation powers in our family.”
There are some lines Judge Judy will not read. She is, as her granddaughter attests, at all times the Judge Judy you think she is. “I’d never say, ‘It’s hard being this beautiful this early in the day,’” Judge Judy tells Woods. She suggests an edit that sounds more like her.
Hoffman — doing his finest, cantankerous, Louis Litt best — and Judge Judy begin a series of improvisations. At one point, her only response to his bon mots was to look down at his footwear. “Shoelaces,” she says with a pfft. Everyone roars.
“She cleared him,” Heidi says.
Like every commercial at the Super Bowl, e.l.f. has something to sell and wants to capture an increasingly elusive and — divided between a dizzying array of streaming options — fractured audience. To say nothing of the depreciating numbers of humans on the planet who own televisions, there are not many opportunities left on television where pretty much every demographic is in one place at one time watching.
The “Judge Beauty” spot focuses on the brand's top-selling product of 2023 (e.l.f. claims one was sold every four seconds last year) Halo Glow Liquid Filter, a complexion booster which promises to give the wearer a “social media filter effect,” that very iPhone-smeared-with-Vaseline-Instagram-filter thing.
The product’s hashtag itself was social media sensation, with more than 435 million views on Tiktok. The creative team sought to pair the product with the pop culture zeitgeist.
There was last year’s record-shattering resurgence of Suits, which became the most streamed program of 2023 with a total of 57.7 billion minutes viewed. There was the much-talked-about, much-memed Jury Duty. And with all the courtroom drama in the air, there was only one person to lead it: the longest-serving television arbitrator in history, Judge Judy. (Who is back on television in Amazon Freevee’s Judy Justice.)
Woods come over to check on the jury box. He asks Gladden about his work on Jury Duty. “Did you feel betrayed?” he asks Gladden, referring to the TV show, where Gladden was unknowingly surrounded by actors and he found out at the end of the fake docuseries.
“Oh sure,” Gladden says, “but now this sh-t is easy!”
Heidi, while looking in her suit pocket for a mint, finds a random hot pink acrylic fingernail.
“Whose is this?” She asks the jury box earnestly, holding up the nail. She hands it to Gladden. He shows her photos of his corgi.
After lunch (sushi for stars, spaghetti squash for this extra) we are back in our seats. A different makeup artist is touching me up with blotting papers. “You are shiny,” she says.
Woods comes over to talk to the jury. “Okay, it’s time to smize,” he tells us. Woods confesses to being a fan of America’s Next Top Model and Tyra Banks, who, of course, gave us the smize. “I’ve been watching the show from the beginning,” he says. “That show, the stuff she made them do, was…wild.”
Skinner advises the jury on how to smize. “You smile," he says, "then keep everything but relax your lips.”
“Does anyone have any questions?” Woods asks.
“I did not get this far by asking questions,” Heidi says.
“Let’s do this take for Tyra!” Skinner says.
“ALL SMIZE!” Acho commands. The jury stands and we do as instructed.
A brief cake break, to celebrate Trainor’s upcoming birthday. Her son Riley, 2, makes an appearance.
“I made him!” she says.
“Can we get seven Hollywood waters?” a production assistant in a headset whispers into his microphone. Instantly, plastic water bottles with holes cut into the cap, straws inserted and taped down to prevent leaks appear.
The shoot is over. Judge Judy leaves the way she came, with a standing ovation. Skinner is now filming additional content for social media. Woods is spent, it's been a long two days. He knows that two months from now, this thing will be seen by more than 100 million people.
“I feel like the kid at the end of that movie where he sets the whale free,” he says. “Free Willy. From the 90s. I feel like the kid from Free Willy. I now have to release this majestic and powerful beast out into the wild.” He later tells me that he left set with a huge bag of e.l.f. cosmetics and was stopped by security.
I walk out to the craft services table and run into Kory Marchisotto, who is e.l.f. Beauty's chief marketing officer and president of Keys Soulcare, a new brand with Alicia Keys. She's been wearing a headset in the control room the entire day, watching multiple monitors and offering real time feedback and notes on everything from camera angles to "alts" — variations on line reads and takes. I tell her about Judge Judy’s Super Bowl commercial bucket list addition.
"I love hearing that, because that's what we do at e.l.f.,” she says. “We make dreams come true." She pauses, realizing she has pretty good evidence. "Look," she says with a grin, "we are the ones who found a way to let Jennifer Coolidge play a dolphin.”
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