When Brooke Burns' new truTV television series Motor City Masters premieres tonight, it will pit 10 experienced auto-designers from across the country against each other to test their limits of design expertise and creativity. Front and center is one contestant we have our eyes on: Bryan Thompson, a 39-year-old, gay auto designer who has had multiple designs manufactured by Nissan and has designed in studios around the world from France to Japan, Austria, and Brazil. The pop culture lover — who was profiled by The Advocate six years ago — has designed video sets for Katy Perry and has transformed everything from tough trucks to charming Airstream campers and from high-flying executive jet interiors to far out Hollywood set designs.
On Motor City Masters, Thompson will compete with other contestants each week creating new, fully functional (though not street legal) concept cars. If he wins? He'll take home a brand new 2014 Camaro Z28 and $100,000 cash.
We got Thompson to slow down long enough to give us the scoop on his career, competing on the series, and being gay in the auto industry.
The Advocate: I understand it was a Datsun Honey Bee that initially ignited your passion for cars. Explain yourself.
Bryan Thompson: Ha ha! Our neighbors had a B210 in 1976, with the HoneyBee graphic on the front fender, and I can distinctly remember being drawn to that happy image of the little bee, and thinking the car was alive. I always saw cars and objects as creatures. Everything from our family Tercel 4WD, to the Bang and Olufsen stereo my mom came home with on a whim in 1979, had a soul or presence in my mind because they "affected" the world they existed in. I thought that since they illicit strong reactions in people, they were somehow alive. They certainly had a sentience in my mind. I wanted to make friends with the stereo, the car, the phone, and then create more friends.
What excites you now about cars?
Cars are a promise of freedom, and they are part of the fabric of our every day lives. They’re privy to an intimate part of us because we spend so much time in them. They’re the purring witnesses to our private triumphs and defeats, they listen while we tap out percussion happy rhythms on the steering wheel, and sing out our passions to the empty cabin. They know who we love, and nudge us a little closer to our co-passengers in the ambient dashboard glow.
What's your dream?
The one that excites me the most? To bring back the bench seat with a modern twist. A bench seat lets you put your arm around your loved one and slide them closer in a way that a bucket seat cannot. It’s all about body language, and while people can’t always say “sorry” after an argument, they can usually put an arm around each other — and then everything is okay. We need more of that.
What’s changed since we profiled you in 2006?
I grew up. Just kidding. I’d say the biggest change is that I went completely freelance with my design career. When we last spoke, my career was just beginning to grow. Now freelance work is my full time job. I love it. My career is like my child: I’m nurturing and watching it grow, and hopefully it will continue to get stronger. I do a lot more entertainment design now. I’ve lived in Brazil for a while, designing executive jet interiors, and I do a lot more design research. I love getting into the field and understanding who I’m designing for. In 2006, I said that I felt design research was like being a method actor, that for a while you get to play at being another character. I took that idea and ran with it, and now do a great deal of design research for my clients. For example, I spent the better part of a year living with long haul truck drivers, in their trucks, designing solutions for their cabins. In my opinion, the only way to understand the realities of someone else’s life, and create solutions to improve it, is to live it yourself.
Are you still the only out gay car designer you know?
It’s funny that you ask that, because the answer is, finally, no. I’m a rare breed to be sure, but a couple months ago, one of my dear friends in the industry finally came out. And it brought tears of happiness, because while I’ve known for years that he’s gay, it took him a long time to feel comfortable with it publicly. The outpouring of support and love surrounding him at his design studio has been heartwarming. It shows the world is evolving. I hope more will follow in our footsteps.
You’ve also designed and built music video sets for Katy Perry. What was that like?
I helped design and build the throne for her "Roar" video. She was so focused on production that I’m not sure she'd remember me, but she was very kind and adorable when I had to redesign the throne on set, on the fly, while she waited. Talk about pressure! Motor City Masters was simple fun, by comparison. Try having Katy Perry and an entire production crew standing by while you’re running around shouting ridiculous statements like "Birds of Paradise! We need more Birds!"
You’re already such a success — why go on a reality show? What encouraged you to sign up?
Great question. At first, I had a lot of trepidation about joining a reality TV show. It seems there are two types of reality TV, the train wreck shows we all love to despise — and nuke the popcorn for — and the creative shows that showcase skill and talent, like Project Runway. Both are highly entertaining, but the second one is inspirational. When I was recruited for the show, the producers assured me this competition would be the latter. And, oh, were they ever true to their word. Just you wait and see what we create. It’s a rocky road at times, but that makes for good TV, and I get it. In the end, I joined the cast with the caveat that if I won, I was going to donate a large portion of the winnings to create a scholarship for gay and lesbian students with significant design talent. This is something I’ve wanted to do since I first “made it” in the industry, against some pretty difficult odds myself. Something like this could change someone’s life, and I want to help make that happen.
What surprised you most about doing Motor City Masters?
That we would do so much of the work ourselves. Car design is a field where we spend a great deal of time sketching, and then, cappuccino in hand, pointing and giving directions, and relying on other skilled people like engineers and modelers to bring our visions to life. In fact, there is a bit of a perceived barrier between domains, and to break through it is almost an invasion of someone else’s job. The implication is that you’d be taking work away from a colleague if you expand into the fabrication arena. This TV show breaks through all of that, and we get our hands dirty doing a great deal of the building ourselves. Plus, I love the tool that makes sparks. The sparky thing. No, I still don’t know what it’s really called.
What would be the bigger score: winning the 2014 Camaro Z28 or $100,000 cash?
The Camaro! I’d take that baby on one outrageous, balls-to-the wall fun run with my guy, and the show’s host, Brooke Burns, and then sell it to fund my scholarship. That is, after all, what cars are best for: The promise of freedom. I’d make that one deliver on every level.