Four months ago, the stars of Netflix’s Queer Eye – Tan France, Bobby Berk, Jonathan Van Ness, Antoni Porowski and Karamo Brown – were, by pop cultural standards, nobodies.
Only one of them had appeared on television before – Karamo featured on a season of MTV’s Big Brother-like reality show The Real World and has appeared on Oprah’s network – and few of them could have predicted that their latest venture, a reboot of an early 2000s makeover show which saw a group of gay men providing style tips for a straight guy, would turn them into streaming superstars.
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But the show was a runaway hit, a cultural “moment” that feels like it has already moved beyond the legacy of its predecessor. The 2018 edition of Queer Eye places a much greater amount of importance upon mental wellbeing, with personal style and grooming serving as a gateway to an inner problem. And, perhaps unsurprisingly given the pre-apocalyptic dread which often floods our feeds these days, the appetite for a positive reality series was strong.
In season one, the “heroes”, as they are referred by the Fab Five, were carefully selected because they had something more to gain from the experience than a wardrobe full of new shirts. They were plucked from small towns in Georgia in southern USA, communities that are not synonymous with gay culture. In one episode, the show helped tech entrepreneur Neal to come out of his shell after his friends had reported that he had shut himself off emotionally. In another, they advise AJ, a gay man who had been keeping his sexuality from his family and wanted to show them his true self.
Within weeks of the show’s release, the chorus of voices – and crying-face emojis – told us more than reviews could. Thousands flocked to Twitter to share that the show had brought them to tears. Each member of the Fab Five had a meme of their own: people thirsted after Antoni, questioned Karamo’s “culture expert” title, and bemoaned the lack of screen-time Bobby’s interior upheavals received.
Life update: I’m crying watching queer eye on netflix
The response was so strong that Netflix has rushed out the second season – which was filmed immediately after the first – for a mid-June release. Production is also just getting underway on season three.
Ahead of the release of season two, we sat down with four of the Queer Eye cast – Karamo, Bobby, Tan and Antoni – during their recent trip to London to discuss the overwhelming response to season one, the new season, and how they continue to face up to homophobia in small town USA.
On how their lives have changed since Queer Eye was released
Bobby Berk: It’s been insane; we went from being able to run around Atlanta for almost a year and nobody knew who we were to now not really being able to go to Starbucks without taking a few selfies.
Karamo Brown: It’s fun though! No one is going to complain. We are in London on a free vacation having fun with our friends – life is good.
Antoni Porowski: When people come up to us too, it’s not like with a traditional actor where they give you praise and they leave. [With us] everyone has a personal story, and sometimes it’s a lot of personal stories. People really connect on a personal level, they kind of open their heart up with you, so you can’t not be touched or affected by that. Its a nice feeling.
Tan France: I’m more open than I’ve ever been about my private life. I was an incredibly private person, and now I’m a lot more open because I know that we need it – I know that the world needs it. They need representation, and that’s how we quash the issues that we have. So it’s made me a lot more comfortable with telling people who I am and what I represent.
It’s also made me a lot more comfortable being interviewed and on camera. Up until a year ago this was not meant to be my life, so for me it’s changed my life massively. I now get to come to London, and when I get back to London I feel very very much welcomed and I feel more proud to be a Brit than I ever have.
On their favourite fan interactions
Tan: My favourite interaction that made me actually cry on the street was: there was a kid who came up to me with their parents, and the parents started to walk towards me, and I could tell that they knew what I did for work.
They said, ‘Do you mind taking a picture with our child?’ Of course I don’t. And they said, ‘During watching episode four, AJ’s episode, our child turned to us and said they’ve never identified as a girl, they feel like they are a boy and they would now like to be referred to as they’. This was like a kid of 9 or 10 years old. The parents started to cry, I started to cry – it was beautiful.
Antoni: I would have been snotting all over the place!
Tan: Oh yeah, I was. When they tagged me in the picture I was like, ‘Yeah that’s what I look like when I cry.’ But it was a beautiful moment and it reminded me of the power of the show – and reminded me that it’s not just a TV show.
On drawing a line between their private and public lives
Bobby: My line was like here [he spreads his left hand out] before we started filming and then now my line is like here [much closer to him]. You kind of draw a line in your mind in the beginning, and then it’s so real, and we really are in the moment with these people, that you forget the cameras are there and your lines go away. You just want to be in the moment with that person.
Antoni: We also have a very excellent showrunner – her name is Jen Lane, and she has this power to extract what it is that you’re feeling and not accept any bulls**t. What I learned early on in the show was, when I tried to be cool or tried to be a certain way, those made for the least effective scenes; the ones that really worked were when either the person was really open and I could ask questions and they would answer them in a really honest way, and when they weren’t it was me sharing my story. The more that I shared about myself, the safer it made it a space for them to share their part of it.
The more you give of yourself, the more you get in return, and I think that became a habit for all of us. The scenes that I think reflect the best part of my brothers – my cast mates – are the ones where I learned the most about them.
On why Queer Eye season one worked so well
Karamo: Most [reality TV shows] have a negative undertone. And I love reality television, I engage with that negativity when I’m watching that like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re catfighting!’. But I think we’re at a point where people were desiring [positivity], you know?
To have five men come in with just loving, supportive attitudes, who were able to hit culturally relevant conversations in a way that were going to be digestible for people in middle America and for people round the world who haven’t been exposed to a lot of this. But it’s testament to us as five men, to the crew, the editors, everyone who had their hand in this, to the openness of our heroes, because it allowed the world to see a glimmer of hope. We’re more alike than we are different.
On wanting to start a family
Tan: I think that what we do well on the show, or what Netflix did well, was cast five people who are incredibly outspoken and opinionated. I’m one of those people and I feel privileged to be in a position where I get to talk about what I want to do, and if I want to have children I want to talk about it. People can give their opinions but nobody can say it’s wrong and get away with it.
I love that Tom Daley is talking about surrogacy – it should be a legal option that is available to us. And I will use that.
Karamo: I will give you a little tidbit: I asked Tan yesterday if we could both have babies at the same time. I was like, ‘We should have our children at the same time,’ and then I was like, ‘Who are we? That we’re talking about having kids!’
Tan: I’ve always been that guy!
Antoni: Are you going have six like him though?
Karamo: No, I already have two, I just want one more.
Tan: I truly do want six. I will settle for minimum of four, but yes, I will have six.
Karamo: Six is a lot! This is coming from a man who doesn’t have any. As a father on this, once you get one you realise one’s more than enough.
Bobby: Yes! I moved to LA two years ago to be closer to my godson, and when we moved to LA we had planned on having two children. Once we were close to our godson we realised our godson is enough! Now he lives in Italy and that’s fine.
Antoni: Some of us are meant to be ‘gunkles’.
On making over a trans person in season two
Tan: I think that I was the only one who didn’t have exposure to the trans community. I’d never met a trans person before, so for me it was so eye opening. It’s the episode I’m most proud of, because it gives me a chance to speak for more than just myself. I did a lot of research for that episode and I spoke to friends and family asking, ‘What would you want to know?’ I have misconceptions about the trans community – who they are, what they represent – and so it felt really powerful to have that sit-down conversation and ask those questions that I know so many people have.
Antoni: Even before filming that episode I remember there was a lot of discomfort, at least for me, when we were talking to Jonathan. We joke around and some of us refer to each other even as she – it’s things that we’re very comfortable with in our own circle – but that’s something that could be deeply offensive to somebody who is trans.
So I went in with this reticence and this tightness but, just by the humility of asking questions and being really polite and prefacing it with, ‘Look, I don’t know anything and I’m here to learn’. Sometimes it’s about imparting knowledge and sometimes it’s about shutting up and listening and asking really honest questions.
Bobby: I actually have a cousin who’s trans. Nobody in my family really knew, you know: he’s had his top surgery, he’s dated women for years, but nobody in my family ever knew what that meant because he’s never had that conversation. They just thought he was a really masculine lesbian.
It wasn’t until we started filming this episode that I started talking to my aunt and my uncle about it, and I referred to KP – his birth name was Jennifer, my family still calls him Jennifer – and I said, Jennifer is trans.
I think it’s really going to open up peoples’ minds to things that they never even thought about, and hopefully we’re able to make it just a little bit easier on the trans community to have these conversations with their friends and loved ones and the public.
On the Queer Eye audition process
Karamo: The reason we don’t argue is because we’re not competing with each other. I think that helped in us getting the show. When we went to the audition process, I wasn’t trying to compete with these guys.
Bobby: I think that was one of the beautiful things about our group of people in a group of, what, 60-100 guys that were there: a lot of them were treating it kind of like The Hunger Games. But we’d come out of [auditions] and be like, ‘Well this happened and this happened and you should do this’. I think casting really saw that we were already working as a team and we had just met each other.
On facing homophobia in small town USA
Karamo: Any negativity we experience, we always combat it with love. Especially when we’re working with youth, we try to help them to understand how to deal with bullying. And with bullying, arguing back or focusing on the negativity is not going to make the bullying go away. Its only going to allow them to feel as if they have more power over you and its going to egg them on.
The experience of LGBT youth, especially in these smaller rural towns, they don’t have the access that people in bigger cities have. A lot of these smaller cities are usually faith-based that have views, as we’ve seen with Bobby in several episodes, that can be very hurtful and detrimental to the experience of letting people into their lives regarding their sexuality.
But I think what the beauty of this show is doing, it’s giving them an outlet to see the beauty of what’s possible for their life. And thats the importance of visibility, it allows somebody to know, you’re not invisible, you can be seen, you are seen.
I can’t remember who gave this advice, but connect with people – even if you’re in a small town – on social media, communities and groups.
Tan: That was me.
Karamo: That was you? I’ll let you finish it.
Tan: We’ve never had such access to other people, and all you need to do is find a hashtag that connects with you and hopefully that will give you an outlet to people who are able to give you some guidance, who have been through this before, who at some point can give you the help that you need.
Antoni: And look at Skyler, to finish on that note: this is someone who houses all these LGBT youth who are completely homeless. It’s possible and that gives me hope, just to see one quality example of an individual who dedicates their life to helping other people. All that we need is that seed.
Queer Eye season 2 arrives on Netflix on Friday 15th June 2018