BY Matthew Breen
August 13 2010 5:00 AM ET
Early on, there were kinks to work out—like where to get the furniture. At first, Berkus says, he had to go through four or five furniture companies before one would agree to work with him on a project. But that changed—quickly—with the success of his Oprah segment. Berkus has logged 127 makeovers for the show, and his personal brand has grown to include a signature line of products for HSN, an XM radio show, and a hosting gig for Winfrey’s 2008 reality TV show, The Big Give.
“My friends tease me when I travel because I’m constantly taking pictures with my BlackBerry and sending imagery to my design team,” Berkus says. “It can be the floor of a 16th- or 17th-century cathedral in Naples or a beautiful iron gate, and we’ll take those designs and turn them into bedding patterns or patterns on dishes or details on decorative boxes. My friends say, ‘Are you ever going to just enjoy something, or does it have to turn into a hand towel?’ ”
A new retail product line is in the works, but he can’t divulge details just yet. “It’s superexciting and involves furniture, textiles, bedding, bathroom. It really crosses a ton of different categories,” he says. “I get why everybody loves [design], why someone goes away for the weekend and buys a new pillow for their sofa—it really makes them happy. It’s a nesting instinct that all of us have.”
“I came out in my sophomore year of college,” Berkus says. “My stepfather figured it out because he found a letter I wrote to a guy I was dating. I’d gone home for summer vacation. My stepfather, after the entire summer, asked if he could take me to the airport.” They arrived a bit early. Sitting in a restaurant, Berkus’s stepfather explained that he knew about the relationship. Berkus recalls what his stepfather had to say: “ ‘I’ve known about it since the beginning of the summer. I waited until [now] to tell you because I wanted you to see that it wouldn’t change the way I treated you. When you were an idiot, I treated you like an idiot. When you did something that was great, I told you that as well. But I’m not going to tell your mother until you’re ready to tell her, but you know you need to tell her.’ ”
And that he did, over the Thanksgiving break. In the long run, Berkus says, his mother took the news very well. “I believe we have to allow our parents the opportunity to grieve for the life that they wanted for us,” he says. “I don’t think it takes anything away from us to give our parents that space. My mother said to me, ‘I’m having a really hard time with this, but just know that I love you and I have to work through this.’ And that made me feel safe in that moment.”
Though he wasn’t closeted, Berkus never discussed being gay—or much of anything about his personal life—on The Oprah Winfrey Show until after he had suffered a devastating personal loss. In a very memorable appearance in January 2005, Berkus discussed the death of his partner, photographer Fernando Bengoechea, just three weeks earlier in the Indian Ocean tsunami. The two had been vacationing in Sri Lanka and were asleep in a beach cottage when the tsunami hit. Both were swept into the sea with debris, animals, and other people.
“I was open about my sexuality since I came out,” he says, “but this was the first time I came on [the show] to talk about my own life.” Berkus felt there hadn’t been an appropriate time to show up in a T-shirt that read, “I’m gay.” He says, “It would have felt like fake activism, or that moment when you cringe at an Oscar speech when a winner goes on a tangent. But it was never something that I hid.”