Queer Eye's Karamo Brown wants to make you cry
The star of Netflix’s feel-good hit of the year looks back on the first season's most deeply felt moments, and explains how he drew inspiration from Oprah Winfrey
It's a Monday evening in February, and there are warm tears sliding down my cheek. I have just become one of thousands and thousands of viewers to weep over Netflix’s Queer Eye, a reality makeover series that packs such an emotional punch that it's Twitter mentions on any given day are invariably full of crying face emojis.
It's the closing scene of the fourth episode of the series – a reboot of the mid '00s reality show which saw gay men makeover stylistically challenged heterosexuals – that does the job for me, and, as it turns out, many others.
At the crescendo of an emotional hour, makeover recipient AJ comes out to his stepmother after years of attempting to hide his sexuality. The impetus? A nudge in the right direction from Karamo Brown, the show's resident "culture" expert.
Naturally, it’s the first thing I mention when I meet the 37-year-old former social worker during his visit to London a few days later.
“Any of the cast-mates can tell you: on the first day, [making people cry] was my goal,” he says. Later on, he assures me, with a chuckle, "I could get you crying [again] in about an hour if you gave me a try."
He has learned his trade from the very best: “My first job ever was, I got hired by Oprah Winfrey. I’ve gone to that school: 'touch people’s hearts, make them feel something, and it’s going to be good.'”
Winfrey’s ability to create emotional connections with her guests helped her to become a giant of the entertainment industry in the USA. And Karamo's right: you can see the same techniques in the new Queer Eye, which deals in far more than marvellous makeovers.
Each episode of the new series focuses on an spiritual journey as well as a stylistic one. Many of the guests are lost souls who’ve stopped taking care of themselves in one way or another and are in need of a push in the right direction. There's socially awkward tech worker Neal, who has shut himself off from his friends and family. There's three-time divorcee, Tom, who yearns for a reunion with his ex-wife.
Here’s where Karamo comes in. In reality, his role has little, if anything, to do with culture in the traditional sense (his predecessor, Jai Rodriguez, would often buy people tickets to Broadway shows). Over the course of each episode he becomes the guest’s unofficial therapist or life coach, helping them to talk through their inner turmoil. He’s an infectiously warm presence with an arsenal of psychotherapeutic techniques. More often than not, he gets to the heart of their emotional problems – at least to the extent that anyone can over the course of a week.
“I think that’s one of the greatest gifts that I have: that I can get someone to open up, and all you have to do is ask a question and not feel like you need a response. Most of the time people are afraid of silence and I’m not. I think you see some moments on the show where someone is saying something and I don’t speak. I don’t need to fill the silence. And I think that helps someone to feel like they can keep talking. And the more you talk, the more you get to a place where you understand yourself.”
While he admits that the show's producers were initially skeptical of his methods, they ultimately gave him free rein, and the results speak for themselves.
“The producers went along with this aspect of me fixing the inside while everyone else fixed the outside. And it worked. The first episode, [with] Tom Jackson, you don’t see it as much because they were a little apprehensive of it.”
“What does culture mean?” he adds, “it’s not a physical thing. I love a museum, but that, for me, doesn’t make you a better person.”
The new Queer Eye shifts the setting from New York to Atlanta, a predominantly black city in the south, surrounded by white working class territories. In one episode, the gang do their best to make light of the Make America Great Again hat they discover in one of their guests’ houses. On this occasion, the hosts have the foresight to avoid the rabbit hole of political dialogue.
Still, the show is unafraid to explore thorny, complex issues. In one episode, the Fab Five minivan gets pulled over while Karamo is driving. The police officer, a white man, asks him to step out of the car, at which point Queer Eye's glossy, sanguine bubble bursts, as everyone’s minds turn to the violent altercations that colour the relationship between the black community and law enforcement officials in the United States.
After a few awkward seconds, the cop reveals himself to be a friend of the man they’re set to makeover. The whole thing has been set up by the show’s producers – but the tension doesn't fade easily.
Karamo says that the producers had not deliberately intended for him to be behind the wheel on that day, and that they had tried to convince him to hand the keys over to one of his co-hosts. None of the other presenters had been in on the set-up.
“Most people don’t know this: the guys and I, we fight for the keys every morning,” he says. “The producers didn’t put me in that seat.”
Later on Karamo and Cory, the middle-aged, white police officer getting the makeover, address it head on, putting the situation into perspective for one another."I thought that this was going to be that incident where I got dragged out of the car,” he tells his companion. Cory expresses his support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but bemoans the brush with which he is often tarred as a cop.
"After [the incident in the car] happened I was so happy it did because as you’ve seen it’s given people a glimpse into what its like for people of colour in the States, or people in the UK, to get stopped by the police and feel scared for their lives," he says. "And also it allowed me – because I'm an open person – to have a conversation with someone who I'd never normally have a conversation with."
He assures me that he and Cory have remained in contact, calling him as a "lifelong friend".
In the weeks since the show launched, Karamo's inbox has been flooded with messages from fans. Many thank him for his work, or tell him how the show has helped them to change something in their own lives. Others, however, come to him for life advice.
"If someone has an issue and I can help, I'm going to give all of my time towards that," he says. "I think there’s a lack of connection with each other that we don’t get to say to someone, 'I see you, and I hear you, and I want to understand you'. And its OK. You can put it on me; you can tell me. "
"Oh," he says suddenly, "I can show you this". He takes out his phone and pulls up his private messages on Instagram.
"I met a guy last night at this event I went to. Basically, I gave him advice on what to do about a fear that he’s having and going through. So this [message] is from last night. He said: 'Karamo, it was such a privilege to meet you. Thank you so much for the kind words and for being so approachable. Going to take your advice to write a letter to my abusive ex. Hope you enjoyed the rest of the night.'"
I ask him if strangers putting this kind of emotional weight on him has any negative bearing.
"No, I don’t feel the weight. Because the thing is, if I can't help, I say it. So, he asked the question, for example, this one. And I can help him. I’ve been in abusive relationships and I have friends who have been in abusive relationships - not physical but emotional. I was in one with my parents for years. My father was emotionally abusive. So I can relate to how to get over that.
"I understand what [humiliation] is like - I know that I would walk on to the football field knowing that I was openly gay, and I was scared that people would say to me, 'You’re an imposter, you’re not supposed to be here'. The gay dude is not supposed to be on the football field."
Karamo can't serve as an agony aunt for everyone, so thankfully many of the show's fans are just here for the uplifting vibes. If the sheer volume of memes are anything to go by, there's enough of them around to convince Netflix to green-light season two.
The Fab Five are keeping their hopes in check, but if it does happen, they have a few ideas for spicing things up on their sophomore outing.
"For season two, if we do get one, for me the big thing is that I want to make over a woman. I also want to make over someone in the trans community. Those are things that I really want."
He adds, "I'm a dad, I have two sons that I have full custody of, so I'd love to make over someone younger. I think sometimes the things that we’re helping a 40-year-old guy with, an 18 year old would have the same issues, and we could probably cut them of at the pass before it gets worse. Why not help them now before it gets even worse?"
If Netflix has been listening, we could be bawling our eyes out all over again in a year's time.
Queer Eye season 1 is out on Netflix now