Intelligent Design

By Matthew Breen

Originally published on Advocate.com August 13 2010 5:00 AM ET

It’s no wonder Nate Berkus is a natural when it comes to his work—as a decorator and featured design expert for The Oprah Winfrey Show since 2002. He’s been preparing for these jobs—and for his new one as host of his own TV project, The Nate Berkus Show—since he was a kid.

“I was into art and design and buying things for my room at garage sales,” Berkus says of growing up in the 1980s. He was a born ringleader when it came to play with the neighborhood kids in suburban Minneapolis. “I would organize everybody, and we’d try to build forts. I held a little carnival in the backyard and invited the whole neighborhood. I was probably 8.”

Eight years ago Berkus met a producer for Oprah at an artist show in the gallery space in Berkus’s Chicago design firm. “We started talking, and the show asked me to make over a small space,” he says. It was huge exposure, but little did he or the producer know that they’d be practically inventing a new TV staple.

“There wasn’t a ton of design on TV, so there wasn’t a format for getting things done,” says Berkus, who turns 39 this month. The HGTV and DIY networks were in their infancy, and Winfrey’s producers weren’t versed in the process of interior makeovers, he says. Their shared inexperience came through in a phone call about a project that Oprah producers hoped would be Berkus’s first assignment: “They called and asked, ‘Can you get on a plane to Boston in an hour and bring every trades­person you’ve ever worked with?’ And I said, ‘Whoa! I definitely want to be a part of this show; however, my electricians and plumbers—although they like and respect me—are not going to Boston with an hour’s notice. And neither am I.’ ” He got the producers to give him one more day to prepare for his first segment—the redesign of a 319-square-foot studio apartment—which aired in September 2002.

Berkus, who was in high school theater and made some appearances on the show his mother, Nancy Golden, hosted on DIY Network, says he isn’t prone to stage fright—not even when he first walked onto Winfrey’s set. “We had 48 hours to do a gut renovation, so I was coming off of three hours of sleep over the last three days,” he says. “And when I got to the studio and stepped out on Oprah’s stage for the first time I had a moment where I consciously decided that I was not going to be nervous. This wasn’t like me going on American Idol—I’m a horrible singer. This was an opportunity for me to go out and talk about the work I had just finished. I felt really good about it and knew it backward and forward. That’s what centered me at that moment.” The studio audience responded with a standing ovation.NATE BERKUS X390 (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COMEarly 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.”NATE BERKUS SHOW X390 (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COMBerkus adds, “I didn’t realize how much goodwill there was out there in middle America. I got letters from people of all different walks of life—gay, straight, rich, poor, black, white, Asian. It was a moment where everybody just felt all the same pain—that this guy is going through something enormously painful, and we’ve gotten to know him over the years, so this is something we feel for him.”

He is doubtlessly hoping to carry some of that audience goodwill to his daytime program, set to premier September 13. “The lens of the show is multifaceted,” he says, “but it focuses on really helping people live better, and also it’s going to be a tremendous amount of fun. It’s an opportunity to bring real stories in a way that’s sensitive, compelling, and humorous when it can be, because humor has gotten me through a lot in my own life.

“I had always wanted to do a show. Doing makeovers on Oprah, I found myself really taken with the stories of the people I’d meet. It was never just about design but about understanding who these people were and what challenges they face. I was a sociology major in college and have always been fascinated with what makes people tick, what motivates them, what gives them joy. Traveling the country with the Oprah producers was a really interesting period of growth for me.”

Though he can’t yet say much about the format of the show, coproduced by Sony and Harpo Productions, Berkus promises segments on the home and design solutions. There will also be celebrities, he says, “but in a way that’s different. You’ll see different sides of people you may know very well.” He’s already taped an interview with Elizabeth Edwards.

A new show brings new scrutiny for it’s star, but Berkus is nonchalant: “I haven’t ever been a particularly private person. I’ve always been very outgoing and love meeting people. My concern hasn’t been for myself but for my boyfriend, because he’s not a particularly public person.” And to that end, Berkus won’t say who he’s dating, other than to say that he’s an architect who lives in New York City, where Berkus’s new show is produced.

And the paparazzi attention? “It depends if I’m fat or not. If I’ve been to the gym and I’m photographed on the beach, that’s great. There are some bad pictures of me in Hawaii a few years ago, and I was really mad. In fact, I went back to the same place this past year with my family and went searching for the paparazzi because I’m in much better shape, but they weren’t there unfortunately.”