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Queer Eye (formerly for the Straight Guy) might not have seemed like the most logical choice for a TV reboot in 2018 — but that’s what Netflix chose as one of its first big plays in the reality space, a move that is paying off incredibly well for the streamer and the new fivesome of stars it’s minted.
Moving beyond the premise of the original Bravo series, a 2004 Emmy winner back in reality’s early days of accolades, the new spin finds the central group of gay men (Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski and Jonathan Van Ness) moving beyond assisting just hapless straight men, mostly in and around New York City. They are now guiding men and women, straight and gay, in the admittedly less progressive metropolitan center of Atlanta. Instead of creating the bitter drama that so often arises in the genre, the cultural gap has fostered tender moments between the cast and the people they’re helping. (Watching with a box of Kleenex nearby is not a bad idea.)
Since the series’ February launch, the new “Fab Five” have become just as popular as their predecessors — see France’s Saturday Night Live skit and Porowski’s flirtatious Hanes campaign — but they seem much more concerned with using their new sway to make a difference. Next up for Queer Eye, which returns with new episodes June 15, are makeovers for a transgender person and others who the men say “don’t feel seen.”
I don’t think many viewers expected the new version of the show to be as emotional as it is. Were you all prepared to cry this much when you signed on?
ANTONI POROWSKI I’m the crybaby of the bunch, but it’s hard not to get emotional. We spend a lot of time with these people. They separate from their families for an entire week and decide to be vulnerable. It’s camp syndrome.
KARAMO BROWN People always look at reality shows and think, “How do they fall in love so quickly?” When you are quarantined with the same people, the emotions you normally feel after a year come within a week. People don’t believe people fall in love on The Bachelor, but as someone who’s done two reality shows [Queer Eye and The Real World], I can tell you that they do.
JONATHAN VAN NESS Please don’t compare the nature and authenticity of Queer Eye to The Bachelor. (Laughter.)
How much of the tweak on the original premise — taking this out of New York and into the South — were you aware of when you auditioned?
POROWSKI The original concept was that they wanted to “turn the red states pink,” which I thought was attractive and exciting — and also that they wanted to be more inclusive in the casting.
TAN FRANCE That part is what struck me when I was at the audition. It was very clear that they weren’t doing exactly what they were doing before. They were making a lot of statements without saying a word.
BROWN We did have to make a bit of a stand to make it our own, though. The very first episode, I felt the pressure to be a little bit like the old show. We all fought against it. We wanted to be ourselves and 2018.
BOBBY BERK In 2003, it was hard enough for gays to be on television at all. The only reason it worked is because they kind of had to stay in their lane. There was the stylist, the designer and the cook. The world was ready for that, but they weren’t ready for our Muslim friend [France] to talk about his Mormon husband in Utah and for Karamo to talk about his kids. What they were doing back then was exactly what they needed to be doing at the time to get our community where we are. We’re taking that baton, and we’re taking it further.
You filmed the first two seasons in and around Atlanta for more than four months. Was it culture shock for any of you?
POROWSKI Not in Atlanta, but definitely when we went out into the smaller towns — there’s quite a big disparity.
BERK I grew up in the sticks, so I didn’t even notice.
FRANCE Most of us don’t come from Los Angeles or New York, we’re from much smaller towns, so we’re really used to it. I live in Salt Lake City. And if anyone said something shocking, or we were ever taken aback, we always had Jonathan, who’s always ready to lighten things up and make things easier to navigate.
What did take you aback? A “Make America Great Again” hat makes a very early appearance.
BERK It’s hard. There’s the far left and the far right, and you think there’s no commonality anymore. But then you go into Southern white cop’s house, see that they have that hat and still find out that you have a lot in common with them. They can’t be defined by a vote.
With the success that the show has found, and the creative influence you’ve gotten, have any of your goals for Queer Eye shifted?
BROWN In season two, we deal with a more diverse group — from women to the trans community. For me, if we’re able to get a third, fourth, fifth season, I really want to keep pushing the boundary of people we are helping because there are so many people who don’t feel seen. We quietly tapped on the senior citizen community, and that got such a big response. I want to dive in with people with disabilities.
FRANCE It’s not so much episodic stuff, for me, it’s about telling people every aspect of our lives to make it all feel as normal as possible. I don’t want it to be taboo to talk about anything that I want to talk about.
Any surreal moments or interactions since the show hit?
VAN NESS Every once in a while, someone will put us on their Insta story, like Kate Hudson or Dua Lipa, and I will be inundated with texts.
BROWN I was invited to the White House recently. It was amazing. I met with [second lady] Karen Pence’s office and her chief of staff.
VAN NESS She prefers to be called “Mother.”
BROWN These are places LGBT people don’t normally feel comfortable, least of all LGBT people of color. I used it as an opportunity to say, “This is how I’m feeling. Can you please acknowledge me?” I was pleasantly surprised by how open and receptive they were. Now, that’s not going to turn me into a Republican, but it does give me hope.
“Now It All Makes Sense How It Fit Together”
The new cast has surprising connections to the original series, which debuted in 2003.
By Laela Zadeh
“I worked at multiple furniture stores in New York years ago that Queer Eye filmed in. And so Thom Filicia would be in there filming. I just remember standing there, watching him, never in a million years thinking that, fast-forward 15 years, I would be taking his place.”
“I was on MTV’s Real World at the time when Queer Eye came out. I remember the first time I won an award, I got the award and they were like, ‘It’s a tie! With Queer Eye!’ I never thought that I would one day follow in their footsteps.”
“My sisters would watch it and I would pass by and watch secretly because I still felt this weird shame in engaging in it. And then I worked for Ted Allen for a couple of years. But when I look back now, I think, ‘Did I never have that thought?’ But I never did, and now it all makes sense how it fit together.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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