Original 'Queer Eye' Stars on Show's Legacy, Gay Stereotypes and Netflix's Reboot

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy Promo - Photofest - H 2018

Queer Eye was never supposed to be a hit. When the reality TV show about five gay New Yorkers (the "Fab Five") who revamp the fashion, homes and wine cabinets of heterosexual men debuted July 15, 2003, many people tagged it as a niche production.

At the time, queer people were virtually absent from mainstream television. Only five lead characters on primetime television identified as LGBT, according to GLAAD. Ellen DeGeneres’ landmark coming-out occurred only six years earlier, and Will & Grace, which brought one of the first prominent gay characters into mainstream American television, had not yet wrapped up its historic run.

But Queer Eye (originally Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) ratings surged against the odds, giving cable network Bravo one of its biggest hits and catapulting the five fabulous men at the center — Carson Kressley, Jai Rodriguez, Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas and Thom Filicia — to celebrity status. They appeared on Ellen and Oprah, earned a spot on Barbara Walters' "The Most Fascinating People of 2003" list, and won an Emmy for best reality program in 2004. Donald Trump briefly appeared in an episode. Even President George W. Bush referenced them, joking at the 2004 White House Correspondents' Dinner: "I'm sorry Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld is not here either. The guy constantly surprises me. Do you know what Rummy's favorite TV show is? Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

With the Queer Eye reboot hitting Netflix on Wednesday, old critiques of the show are resurfacing. Most go something like this: In featuring gay men whose primary goal is to "improve" their straight peers, Queer Eye leans on the stereotype of queer men as overly concerned with appearance.

Of this, star Carson Kressley is skeptical. First of all, he tells The Hollywood Reporter, "if someone says it's stereotypical to have great taste, I say bring it on." To call him a stereotype is to dismiss his authentic personality: "No, I'm actually just being myself." Kressley is also careful to distinguish between gay characters on TV and actual gay people appearing as themselves. Unlike on, say, Will & Grace, Queer Eye's Fab Five were not acting as anyone else. Viewers didn't boil down their roles on the show to their sexualities. "They knew us as real people, not as characters who were written by someone," Kressley says.

The reason the Fab Five appeared on the show in the first place was their individual talent. Each had his own specialty: Fashion Savant (Kressley), Food and Wine Connoisseur (Ted Allen), Grooming Guru (Kyan Douglas), Design Doctor (Thom Filicia) and Culture Vulture (Jai Rodriguez). In each episode, they pooled these skills to help their subject accomplish his goal, whether that meant getting the girl, preparing to ask for a raise or throwing a barbecue for friends.

Yet Kressley understands that it's impossible to disentangle his sexuality from Queer Eye. 2003 America was not kind to the LGBTQ community. At the time, "Don't ask, don't tell" banned openly queer people from serving in the military, and only a few months earlier, 13 U.S. states had anti-sodomy laws on the books. 

Kressley relates his own experiences in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where as a teenager he would often hear some variant of "Oh my god, there's that queer guy." His sexuality ostracized him. But after the release of Queer Eye, whenever he returned home, people would run up to him shouting, "Oh my god, you're the queer guy!" — "the tone was very celebratory," he says.

To Kressley, this shift is the show's ultimate power. By introducing America to real queer people, it allowed them to get to know members of a demographic long shut out of most other media. Suddenly, he was being recognized in airports from Korea to Brazil. His sexuality was no longer a reason to be shunned, but rather one aspect of his complex personal identity.

Jai Rodriguez, the show's culture expert, agrees. The No. 1 thing people have told him about Queer Eye is that the show helped them come out to their families. "The houses and the fashion, that has never been a takeaway," he says. Though Queer Eye didn't have a political message, that didn't matter: "In 2003, being out was political."

To Rodriguez, Queer Eye also made space for friendships between straight and queer men, a bond that at the time "wasn't OK to be formed" because of homophobic fears of romantic attraction. On the show, queer and straight men could exist, work and laugh together without strings attached. 

Certainly, the queerness the show introduced was a singular one. Four of the five stars were white, and all were cisgender. But it opened the doors to wider and more diverse queer representation, bringing the Fab Five into millions of homes around the world. That counts for something. Rodriguez, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, notes that his successor in the reboot, Karamo Brown, told him, "One of the biggest things for me watching the show was finally seeing a queer person of color."

The show's reboot, helmed by David Collins (who also executive produced the original), follows a brand-new Fab Five as they take their makeover skills outside of New York City. As the press release announced, "The Emmy Award-winning Queer Eye is back and ready to Make America Fabulous Again. With a new Fab 5 and the show's toughest missions to date, Queer Eye moves from the Big Apple to turn the Red States pink — one makeover at a time."

Starting Wednesday, viewers can decide for themselves if they succeed.