Pride, patriotism, and Queer Eye

The nation has changed quite a bit since Queer Eye for the Straight Guy debuted last summer. The Fab 5 talk about their role in the gay rights revolution—and how the show has affected their love lives

BY Advocate.com Editors

June 08 2004 12:00 AM ET

It’s not
that he was wearing stuff that was, you know, overtly
tragic. It’s just, like most guys, he wasn’t
putting any thought into it. He just wore lumpy,
oversize, baggy sweatshirts and stuff. He
didn’t like shopping; his apartment was
filthy.” To hear Ted Allen tell it, Queer
Eye for the Straight Guy
’s latest
makeover subject sounds much like the 23 straight guys who
came before him in the show’s blockbuster first
season. Save for one particular detail. “I kept
grabbing him by the shoulders,” Ted says with a
laugh, “and saying, ‘Wayne, for the love of
God, you’re supposed to be gay!’ ”
That’s right—get ready for
Queer Eye for the Gay Guy. For one week in
May, the cast descended on the life of Wayne, a gay man
living in New York City who was stuck in a rut from a
breakup and quite keen for Ted, Carson, Jai, Kyan, and
Thom to help him break out of it. “One of our
own was in trouble, so we had to come to the
rescue,” explains Carson.
“It was so fun,” beams Kyan.
“A lot of the times with straight guys, you
have to sort of talk them into it, explain why
it’s good for them. With Wayne, he was so willing and
open and ready and eager. That made it really fun for us.”
As the show begins its second full season (new
episodes started airing June 1), Queer Eye
really has come full circle. Since its July 2003
debut, using an arsenal of “sofa pillows and shaving
cream and boot-cut jeans” (as Thom puts it),
this hour-long makeover show has “living rooms
across America—including Middle America and the
Bible Belt—laughing along with five people they
consider friends who just happen to be gay” (to
quote Jai), and the now-famous Fab 5 have done so by
simply helping two dozen straight men help themselves.
And that’s only in front of the cameras.
Who knows how many hetero guys from among Queer
Eye
’s 1.8 million weekly viewers are
suddenly rolling their own pasta or springing for salsa lessons?
It’s easy to forget, but when
Bravo—at the time, a largely overlooked
basic-cable channel that had just been acquired by
NBC—premiered its entry into the vast universe of
reality TV with a show bearing the eyebrow-raising
title of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,
“it arrived during what was already the gayest summer
on record,” as Joan Garry, executive director
of the media watchdog group Gay and Lesbian Alliance
Against Defamation, wryly reminds us.
That “gayest summer” started,
really, on June 7, 2003, with the election by the New
Hampshire Episcopal diocese of an openly gay man, the
Reverend V. Gene Robinson, as its bishop, a decision that
still threatens to split the Episcopal Church USA from
many of its Anglican brethren around the world. Then
the John Waters–inspired Broadway musical
Hairspray twisted its way through the Tony Awards,
with an openly gay songwriting team, Marc Shaiman and
Scott Wittman, sharing a smooch on live TV as they
accepted their trophy. At the end of the month, the
U.S. Supreme Court struck down all remaining same-sex sodomy
laws in Lawrence v. Texas, using language so
sweeping and forceful that activists on both the Left
and the Right suddenly saw the legalization of
same-sex marriage as an attainable reality. A scant four
days later, Canada’s prime minister seemed to
affirm that conclusion, announcing the country would
make gay marriage—already under way in its
province of Ontario—legal nationwide. (So far
it’s limited to three provinces, but the
promise stands.)
Then Queer Eye debuted on July 24 to
record-breaking ratings for Bravo (3.34 million
viewers at its peak in September, a bonanza for basic
cable) and widespread critical acclaim. The first season
gave us not only 24 episodes of the show but also a
best-selling book, a soundtrack, a music video,
endorsement deals, magazine covers, TV talk-show
appearances—including the quintet’s invasion
of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno—and
immeasurable cultural impact. After all, who
hasn’t referred to a fifth-wheel friend as the
“Jai” of the clique or talked about
“Queer Eye–ing” a straight friend?
In the past 12 months Queer Eye and its
seemingly ubiquitous stars have come to represent an
extraordinary nexus of countless pop-culture
portrayals and landmark social advances gays and lesbians
have enjoyed over the past several years. And they
have accomplished this without making an overt
political “statement.” Just as Ellen
DeGeneres has reinvigorated her middle- American fan base by
simply being Ellen, the Fab 5 don’t need to
address cultural flash points such as San
Francisco’s defiant jump-start of same-sex marriages
or gays in the military. Simply by being
themselves—openly gay men who are commanding,
funny, whip-smart, and disarmingly personable—they
are shedding light on the subject of gayness for the
nation to see. (And what flattering light it is too!)
Just knowing them makes it that much more difficult to
dismiss gay people as threatening the American way of life.
After all, their entire mission is to make straight America
feel better about itself when it looks in the mirror.
The Fab 5 emphatically state that they never set
out to be the poster boys for gay equality. Far from
it. To a man, Ted Allen (the food guy), Kyan Douglas
(the grooming guy), Thom Filicia (the design guy), Carson
Kressley (the fashion guy), and Jai Rodriguez (the culture
guy) as well as the show’s out creator, David
Collins, all insist that Queer Eye does not
have any agenda, nor has it ever, beyond entertaining
its viewers every Tuesday at 10 p.m.
“I certainly don’t wake up
thinking that I’m going to be
political,” Thom says. “The forum that we work
in is not a political forum; it’s an
entertainment forum. I think that we have to make sure
that we keep that focus.”
“No one talked to us about the political
stuff that was going to come out of this,” Jai
stresses. “No one prepared us for, you know,
‘What do you think of gay marriage?’ ”
Which isn’t to say they don’t
appreciate the impact the show has had. Ted talks
about the teenage girl who told him her little brother
was “terrified” to tell their conservative
parents he was gay, but then “he started
watching the show with [his] parents and it made it OK
for him to tell them.” And Carson recalls an old
friend asking him for an autograph at a horse show.
“I’m like, ‘Peg, I’ve
known you for 25 years. That’s
ridiculous.’ ” The friend explained that
it was for a family friend’s son who had just
come out.
Collins—who executive-produces Queer
Eye
with business partner David Metzler for the
New York–based Scout Productions—gets
choked up when he talks about the many people who tell
him things like “Do you know my dad never had called
me, my dad and I didn’t speak, and now my dad
calls me every Wednesday morning to talk about the
show with me?”
They all have stories like that.
So why Queer Eye? What is it about this
show that makes it both so popular and so powerful?
“The show is well-received because
it’s good,” offers GLAAD’s Garry,
who often watches the show with her 14-year-old
daughter. “There is this really delicious little
irony in that these men are more open and honest and
comfortable with who they are than the [straight] men
they meet. It’s those kinds of refreshing and
interesting angles that can make a show very successful and,
in the context of what I do for a living, have a
really enormous impact.”
“The calculus of this is so
simple,” asserts Ted, who is quick to
acknowledge trailblazers like DeGeneres, his hero.
“It’s not that we’ve achieved anything
heroic at all. We’re just five out gay people.
It comes back to this again and again and again.
That’s what it’s all about. Being out.
Period. I mean, if we have 12-year-old boys coming up to us
and thinking we’re cool, that means that maybe
the effeminate kid sitting next to them in school is
not going to get his ass kicked.”
Ted may not know just how dead-on he is. It
almost goes without saying that Carson, more than
anyone on the show, understands the power of the
well-timed quip to defuse just about any situation. When
this is pointed out, his oh-so-affable voice abruptly
takes on an unexpected edge. “Yes, I’m
always the one who’s cutting it up,” he
says, “but I’ll tell you, this is very serious
subject matter for me. When I was growing up in
Allentown, Pa., I was obviously gay, and I got heckled
every day of my life. On the school bus people made fun of
me and really, you know, tortured me. The only way I knew
how to survive was to make people laugh. If I could
make them laugh and I could disarm them that way, I
wouldn’t get hung in a locker for two hours, OK?
So that’s a great thing. That’s a blessing.
That’s a gift. Making it into a positive,
making people comfortable, making them laugh, seeing
that life is short and we need to enjoy it, is so
important. I’m so grateful for that.”
As if to prove his point, when asked how the
show has changed his life, Carson immediately
responds, “Well, the obvious answer is that
instead of me writing letters to prison inmates, they write
letters to me, which is wonderful. Number J799QX1, if
you’re reading this, I’ll be there when
you get out!”
Of course, the real (and obvious) answer
is that they’ve all had to adjust their lives
to the particular pressures and prominence that only
television can provide. “It’s very
demanding,” says Ted, a former writer for
Esquire magazine, of the show’s arduous
schedule, which has them shooting 40 episodes in 52
weeks. (Most TV shows do about 26 episodes a year.)
“I was used to a very relaxed lifestyle. I have
not read a lot of books in the last year.” He
pauses to laugh before quickly adding, “Please
don’t ever get the idea that I’m complaining,
because who could? It’s a time in my life where
I just have to work a little harder than I want to.
But that’s a good problem to have.”
They all seem bemused by their newfound
fame—and only a little disoriented, even if
occasionally that fame results in adulation
that’s a wee bit misdirected. “When we do
signings for the book and the soundtrack and stuff,
it’s like the gay Beatles,” Jai reports.
He means that quite literally. “It’s
like, girls don’t care. I have a lot a women come
to me [and say], ‘I know you’re gay, but
still, I would, you know. One
time?’
” Doesn’t he get that
from any men? “Unfortunately, no,” Jai
sighs. “I’m the only single cast member,
I think. Me and Carson. But Carson doesn’t seem
to have a problem dating.”
In fact, the Fab 5’s love lives have
almost universally improved—in spite of the
show. When production first began last year, Ted says
he and Barry, his partner of what was then 10 years, were
“separated by 750 miles, him in Chicago, me in New
York. It was incredibly hard, and that really
magnified the feelings of stress that I had just from
the schedule. But now I’ve got him here [in New
York]. This was a decision we made together, to do this
[show]. I asked him again and again, ‘Are we
nuts? Do we really want to do this?’ And
he’s like, ‘You’re crazy. You have to.
I mean, you have to.’ ”
Kyan, meanwhile, practically gushes over his new
relationship with a friend he knew before Queer
Eye
began. His excitement makes sense, considering
the match almost didn’t happen. “Once I got on
the show,” Kyan says, “he thought I must be
getting laid right and left, that I’m somehow
out of his league in some way, which for me is just
the most ridiculous thing ever.” What has the
relationship taught him? “At the end of the day, the
most important thing really is being in a loving,
committed relationship and having the opportunity to
share myself with another human being. I think often, as
gay men, we sometimes think that’s not meaningful.”
Good luck, however, trying to get Thom to talk
about his new boyfriend. “We have a very equal
relationship” is about all he’ll
reveal—that, and the guy hadn’t seen Queer
Eye
when they first met. “I mean,
we’ve only been dating for three
months,” he says with a nervous chuckle. “If
it were a year, I would give you a lot more information.”
(Speaking of sharing information, Jai wants
everyone to know the truth about those Fab 5 profiles
on Friendster: “Those aren’t us! I
didn’t even know what the hell Friendster is!”)
Of all the ways Queer Eye has forever
transformed the lives of its cast, however, the most
fascinating seems to be that the show’s very
premise has allowed them to live, in effect, like straight
guys—that is, without having to constantly explain
their sexuality. Allow Thom to elaborate.
“When you’re young,” Thom
says, “or, in my situation, a youngish gay
professional living in New York, you find yourself in
situations with relatives or neighbors or people that
you’ve grown up with [when] your sexuality never is
discussed. It’s very different than when
you’re straight, where people just assume,
Oh, my God, who are you dating? You find yourself
33 years old and nobody’s asking you if
you’re in a relationship. But all of a sudden,
I find myself in a situation where now it’s
like being straight again, in a way. I have that luxury of
walking into a family wedding and everybody knows my
situation; it doesn’t need to be discussed.
It’s just easy and comfortable. It’s
probably the best and most unusual gift that came from the show.”
“When you’re on TV as a real-life
gay person,” Carson echoes, “it’s
easier and more effective [a way to come out] than an
e-mail to all your relatives. ‘Hey, tune in Tuesday
at 10. Big surprise!’ Or not so big.”
Not every gay person has their own TV show, of
course, and the million-dollar question is the one the
five have the hardest time answering: What does
Queer Eye’s success say about the
position of your average gay person in the United States today?
“Well, I hope that what it means is that
society as a whole is embracing the gay community and
just sort of relaxing a little bit,” Kyan says.
The show’s success, he argues, has as much to
do with its positive, “make better” ethic as
anything else, without tribal councils or corporate boardrooms.
Both Thom and Carson, meanwhile, assert that the
show’s wide popularity means the country was
more ready for the gays than anyone, including the
media, ever anticipated. Then Thom reiterates for the
umpteenth time that “we’re not trying to
change the world into the ‘gay’ world.”
But are they turning back time on the gay world?
Some of the show’s detractors have argued that
straight America likes the Fab 5 because they conform
to long-standing stereotypes of the urban, effeminate,
style-conscious, and superficial gay man—and that the
show is telling gay America, “This is how you
should be if you want to be embraced.”
It’s an assertion they all vigorously reject.
“We’re proud of who we
are,” argues Carson. “As you see us on
the show, you’re seeing us as we really are in our
everyday lives.”
Some people simply project their own baggage and
fantasies onto the show, Thom suggests:
“I’ve had gay people come up to me and say,
‘I think you’re perpetuating
stereotypes.’ I’ve had straight people
come up to me and say, ‘Oh, my God, I think my
husband has a crush on you!’ I think people who look
at [the show] for more than it is and have
expectations beyond what it’s really about are
going to be disappointed whether you’re gay or
you’re straight.”
Which, ultimately, makes one wonder, Are we all
just placing too much meaning on the show’s
well-tailored shoulders? “Yeah, I don’t
think that’s realistic,” Kyan says when
it’s suggested that Queer Eye might be
changing hearts and minds. “First of all, our
culture…it has changed, but there’s a
long way for it to come. We have a president [who] wants
to pass an amendment that keeps us from getting married.
[The show is] not all that, you know what I mean?”
“I think you always have to remember:
It’s a TV show,” Garry points out.
“It is imperative that the [GLBT] community help
America to connect the dots between the representations they
see [on television] and the realities of our community
as second-class citizens.”
For his part, creator David Collins just refers
to the mounds of positive letters and e-mails
he’s received about the show. “[They]
simply boil down to just people having a comfortable place
to talk and realize that Hey, Thom, he’s
like my college roommate; Ted is like the guy
across the street,
” he says. “They
start to make those realizations just because [the
show] gives them the opportunity to go places I think
they normally wouldn’t have. For that, I have
to say I am very proud.”

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