Queer Eye Confidential

By Michael Giltz

Originally published on Advocate.com August 17 2003 11:00 PM ET

Have you ever
wondered what it’s like to live in a whirlwind? Just
spend the afternoon in New York’s Chelsea
district with the stars of the summer’s biggest
hit show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

It debuted to
record numbers on Bravo (where it airs Tuesdays at 10
p.m.), was immediately picked up by NBC to air in a special
edition in the plum Thursday night lineup, and quickly
received an order for seven more episodes to go with
the initial 12.

E! Entertainment
Television is sending a crew to follow the show’s Fab
5 around for a special. They’re scheduled to
make over Jay Leno and The Tonight Show. And
the New York Post ran a huge Sunday feature on
the quip-ready fashion guru Carson Kressley that called him
the “Queen of Mean.” And Clinique called
interior design expert Thom Filicia to basically say
it wanted to send grooming guy Kyan Douglas every product
it has ever made or ever will make in hopes he’ll use
some of them on the air.

Their phones
never stop ringing; some of them have day jobs to attend to.
And of course, with the five of them together at the
restaurant Elmo, it’s no surprise that people
on Seventh Avenue stare and smile, sometimes walking
over to offer kudos. Three diners even recognize the
show’s cultural expert, Jai Rodriguez, from his
other identity as an actor whose starring roles
include the recently closed off-Broadway musical Zanna, Don’t!

As they all share
stories about being stopped on the street or on Fire
Island by well-wishers, food-and-wine guy Ted Allen spills a
little something on his shirt. A waiter quickly whips
off his periwinkle-blue polo so Ted—the only
coupled man among the Fab 5, marking 10 years with his
partner—can be properly attired for the photographer.
And this, by the way, is their day off. Welcome to
their world.

CASTING CONUNDRUMS

Casting the Fab
5, admits executive producer David Collins, “was a
very long event.” He and fellow executive
producer David Metzler looked at “300 to 400
guys, maybe 500,” says Collins, who is 36 and has
been in a relationship for 14 years with the man he
met on the set of Little Man Tate.

“It felt
like we’d met every gay man in New York,” adds
Metzler, who is 31, single, and straight.

“The
sensibility for it was finding credible professionals who
had amazing personalities and could work
together,” says Collins. “We were
putting together groups of five and putting them together
and pulling them apart again.”

One person who
got pulled was original cast member Blair Boone, who
appears in two early episodes as the “guest culture
expert” in place of Jai. “It was
Jai’s energy that we really needed for the culture
category in terms of being a performer,” says
Metzler. “We sort of found him in the middle of
the first episode.”

The switch was a
shock to the remaining cast members. “We had
absolutely no clue up until the moment,” says
Thom, who like everyone else speaks warmly about
Blair.

Their initial
reaction, adds Ted, was “We could be fired at any
moment!”

“It could
easily have been me,” Thom insists.

MAKEOVER SECRETS

So, truth be
told, do the Fab 5 really work all that magic on the
straight guys in one day?

“No,
that’s gay time,” Collins quips.

“It takes
four days to shoot an episode,” Metzler says.

Thom—who
has the most labor-intensive job—has a small staff
that helps him with the painting, carpeting, tiling,
or whatever else needs doing. “After
we’re done with our initial de-straightening,”
he says, “which is when we go into
someone’s home and rip everything apart, I have a big
meeting with them in the space and we pick the colors and
really fine-tune exactly what it is we’re going
to do, what it is we’re going to keep, what we
put in storage for them. We don’t really throw
anything out.”

As Carson says,
“We don’t throw it away; we tuck it
away.”

Unlike other
makeover shows, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy never
discloses its budgets. “It’s not about what
you can do with an amount of money,” says
Metzler. “It’s about giving the straight guy a
starter kit he can move on from. A really nice starter
kit.”

The Fab
5’s endorsement of particular brands is genuine: No
company can pay for placement on the show without
their approval. “We will not work with a
company or a line we don’t feel is right,”
says Kyan.

Carson cuts in:
“Remember when they wanted to use K-Y jelly as a hair
product?” he jokes.

Getting products
wasn’t easy at first. With just a concept and the
daring title Collins had selected, companies were not
clamoring to participate.

“My
wardrobe person and I really had to call in a lot of
favors,” says Carson. “Nobody knew what
the show was about, and nobody had seen anything, and
people like Marc Jacobs and Roberto Cavalli and Etro really
went out on a limb. They just opened their doors and said,
‘Take what you want. Shoot it and bring it
back. We appreciate the PR.’”

Admittedly, the
show’s title may have put off the timid. When trying
to win over an advertiser before the show debuted, Jai
says, “our product placement person would save
the title until after she had explained the whole
show.”

“There are
a lot of people in the rest of the world that aren’t
even familiar with the word queer being a
positive word for us now,” Ted says.
“And being an inclusive word. We’ve had to
explain that to so many straight reporters.”

SCARY STRAIGHT GUYS

Wondering where
Queer Eye gets its straight guys? Fliers went up
in New York City. Casting directors put out a call for
straight men who could “stand up to the
transformation,” says Scout Productions spokesman
Ron Hofmann.

“Each
[guy] is a total surprise,” says Ted. “We do
get a little bit of a dossier on what he’s
like. But they want our reaction to be real. So we
don’t get to see the inside of the apartment until
the first day of shooting. And it’s a fresh
hell each time.”

“Week
before last,” Kyan says with a shudder, “I
actually carved the guy’s name in the bottom of
his tub with a knife. That was an all-time low for
me.”

Everyone agrees
that a big key to the show’s success is that the Fab
5 don’t mock or belittle the clueless schlub.
“From the beginning, when we pitched it to
Bravo,” Metzler says, “the story of the
friendship of the Fab 5 and the straight guy was at
the heart of the pitch.”

“We
started with not being mean-spirited,” adds Collins.

As they began
shooting, “it’s something that
evolved,” says Ted, who worked on the
unbroadcast pilot with Carson—making them the two
“oldest” Queer Eyes. “But I think
it was probably important to Dave and Dave all along
that the show had a heart to it. It just sort of came
naturally. When you ask us to come into
somebody’s life and try to help them out,
we’re going to sincerely do that. I think
that’s why the show appeals to such a cross
section of people.”

“Certainly, that [casting] process was about finding
people who weren’t catty and jaded and
bitchy,” Jai says.

“Some of
my best friends are straight,” Ted offers.
“And there’s nothing wrong with
them.”

“As long
as they act gay in public,” Carson snaps,
“I’m fine with it.”

“I enjoy
my relationship with straight men,” Kyan says.
“It’s very nurturing. It’s very
validating to hang out with straight guys and be
accepted. So many of us, we were not accepted when we were
younger by straight persons in high
school.”

SELLING THE STEREOTYPES

Bravo loved the
Queer Eye concept from the get-go. “When
we threw out this idea and the straight guys were more
excited than the gay guys,” Collins says,
“you knew the timing was right.”

The cable channel
received the pilot in September 2002, and the show
tested well. Then NBC suddenly purchased the channel, which
meant winning over a whole new bevy of bosses.
“We thought for sure it was all over,”
Collins says. “We thought, OK, that was fun. We
got to make a pilot, and it’s going to stay
on the shelf.

Instead, a
gracious executive intervened, he recalls: “Frances
Berwick at Bravo really did something quite
remarkable. She laid Bravo’s baby down at
NBC’s feet and said, ‘Here’s something
that we really believe in.’ She really took a
chance. The folks at NBC completely grabbed on as well.
They ordered 12 shows right off the bat at
Christmas.”

With NBC’s
muscle behind them, a massive PR campaign began, featuring a
shot of the Fab 5 in black suits that played like a cross
between Reservoir Dogs and Charlie’s
Angels.
Huge ad spreads ran in magazines like
Rolling Stone, and billboards popped up in Times
Square and on Sunset Boulevard.

“That was
a wow,” says Thom.

And never did
anyone suggest the Fab 5 were too gay. “The
stereotype is a tricky thing, because I think we might
start with stereotypes,” says Metzler.
“But as you watch the show, it goes way past that. I
think Dave and I were equally concerned from the
beginning to make sure that what we did on the show
was true to the real people that we cast. Carson is
really Carson, and Ted is really Ted, and Jai is really
Jai.”

And how did they
achieve that level of reality? Was there coaching?
“They didn’t help us at all!”
laughs Thom.

Agrees Ted:
“No help. They threw us right into the pool and let
us freeze.”

As a result, the
show is doing swimmingly. The Fab 5 are overwhelmed and
thrilled about how many nongay people the show appeals to.

Carson tells a
favorite story: “We were shooting, and this little
12-year-old fashion plate comes up and says, ‘Carson,
I just wanted to meet you. I really enjoy your work.
You’re inspirational.’ He’s telling
me everything he has on. The designers. He had a yarmulke
on, and I said, ‘You go! Baruch Atah Adonai!
Keep stylin’.’ It was so cute.”

“The other
amazing thing is the mother and father—who
don’t mind, who are allowing them,” says
Thom. “I never thought of myself as being someone
who would be able to do that for a kid.”

Indeed, Thom says
he resisted being an interior designer because he
thought it would embarrass his parents, while Carson avoided
fashion because it seemed too gay. They’re all
excited that a new generation of kids, both gay and
straight, can grow up seeing their careers celebrated
on a hit show and making a positive difference in
someone’s life.

As for the
endless debate about whether they’re magnifying gay
stereotypes: “Hi, it’s a reality show!”
says Carson. “We’re not cartoonish, and
we’re not pretending to be supergay or superstraight
or whatever. We’re just being ourselves.
I’m not going to make any excuses for who I am,
and I don’t think any of these guys are
either.”

Such discussions
are flat-out “rude,” says Jai, “because
you’re commenting on who we are as people.
We’re not playing a role.”

“Just to
play devil’s advocate,” adds Kyan,
“even if we are embracing a stereotype that gay
guys are effeminate or whatever, so what? I’m all for
guys being butch and guys being men. I identify with that
and appreciate that. But if I’m going to stab
my gay brother in the back who isn’t butch and
who maybe acts a little bit more effeminate, what good is
that? A gay guy can be effeminate. It’s OK. If
somebody has a problem with it, they need to lighten
up, and they need to open up their mind.”

Anyway, so far
such opinions have been drowned out by the
“staggeringly positive” response to the
show, Ted says. “If a couple of people don’t
like the show, whatever. That’s fine. You’re
entitled to your opinion. As far as backlash, you know
what? Bring it on. We’re OK; we can take it.
We’re not going to be worried about negativity.
We’re going to keep doing our thing and doing
the best job.”

REMAKING THE FUTURE

So what’s
the next step for gay reality TV? A reality show about a
group of gay people who help someone come out?
Something even more political?

“This is
such an exciting time in gay America,” says Ted,
referring to June’s victories at the U.S.
Supreme Court and with marriage in Canada. “So
much has happened. Before we had any idea of what was going
to happen to this show, we get the Supremes, we get
Canada—”

Carson butts in:
“The Supremes are getting back together?”

"You know what I
mean by the Supremes,” says Ted.

“The
Supremes are gay?” asks Carson.

Kidding aside,
the Fab 5 all look forward to the day when gay people on
TV are not a novelty.

“That’s why I’m very excited for Ellen
[DeGeneres],” Kyan says. “She’s
got this talk show that’s coming out. It’s not
being marketed as a gay show by a gay person.
It’s just Ellen DeGeneres.”

Adds Carson:
“Snaps to Ellen for coming out and paving the
way.”

And the Fab 5 all
snap their fingers.