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Queer Eye Confidential

Queer Eye Confidential

The firings! The budgets! The filthy bathtub! Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Fab 5 and their two equally fab producers spill the beans on how reality TV's queerest twist turned into the hottest show of the summer

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 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.


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."


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."


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."


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.

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Michael Giltz