Fans of the original Love Connection — a popular dating program that was broadcast in the late 1980s and '90s — will lovingly recall its retro cheese: the videotaped introductions of suitors, the pink- and heart-painted set, and couch confessionals with a host who defined an era of game shows, Chuck Woolery.
A revival of the show, premiering Thursday, draws much from the original format but has a few notable additions. There's a drawbridge. There are gay singles. And there's Andy Cohen.
Cohen, who was asked by Fox to host the much-anticipated summer series, told The Advocate he was "thrilled" to be in his new chair, as part of a show and a format he has long admired. A veteran of late-night television from Bravo's Watch What Happens Live, Cohen brings his signature charm and spice to Love Connection. Even without cocktails and shirtless bartenders — staples of his Bravo hosting — he is able to put his guests at ease. He can also make them laugh, such as when he declared in one episode that he had a "heart boner" in response to a sentimental remark, navigating his attention between the single in a chair by his side and a stadium-size screen of a potential match.
It was Cohen who asked Fox if gay singles — who had been absent from the original Love Connection — could be included in this latest iteration. The network's response? "Of course!"
Cohen is excited that this inclusion will not only promote visibility but also be broadcast on network television as a nonissue. He is eager to show that gay people, just like straight people, are just normal hearts looking for love.
"It’s 2017, and they should just be treated the exact same way as I’m treating everyone else," Cohen said of the show's gay and lesbian contestants. "I think it’s just kind of this post-gay world that we live in, where it’s just another part of this dating show."
"The more visibility, the better," Cohen continued. "A network show where you have gay people dating? I think it’s great."
Liz Baxter, 32, is one of the singles shattering this gay class ceiling — although breaking new ground wasn't her original intent. A friend caught wind of the call for auditions and encouraged her to try out. While she initially rejected the idea, she eventually warmed to it. "You know, why not?" she recalled saying to herself. "I should just give it a try. And it’s been super fun."
While the prospect of finding love is at the forefront — "That’s the goal!" Baxter said — she's also proud to be a part of bringing LGBT representation to network TV.
"I never thought that I would be in this position, but I’m super proud of being gay, so I’m happy to be an advocate in any way," Baxter said, noting how the current political climate — as well as attacks on queer people at home and abroad — has given her participation added significance.
"It’s a perfect time to say, 'We’re here. We’re a part of the mainstream community. We’re on TV. And we’re not going away,'" Baxter said. "I think it’s an important statement that Fox is making. It’s an important statement that we keep stepping up as gay individuals and saying, 'This is us. We’re normal. I feel more empowered now than ever.'"
Cohen's attitudes about reality television haven't changed much since the election — except for his observation that the White House has turned into a fun-house mirror of the genre. "I’m looking at Donald Trump through the prism of that he behaves like a Real Housewife, and I can’t get over it," he joked, a reference to Bravo's popular Real Housewives franchise. And since Trump rose to prominence on reality TV with NBC's The Apprentice, Cohen won't discount the possibility that Bravo stars will one day ascend to political office. "I mean, Bethenny Frankel has said she’d run for mayor of New York, so [anything's possible]," he said.
But while reality television has given the world Trump, it has also done a world of good for gay visibility. Cohen pointed to Bravo's groundbreaking programming— Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Boy Meets Boy, and Gay Weddings — as examples of entertainment that moved the needle for LGBT people. He credited Bravo executives Frances Berwick and Lauren Zalaznick for helping to bring about this change.
Queer Eye, an Emmy Award–winning makeover show that will soon have a Netflix reboot, was particularly significant in bringing queer people to the mainstream.
"The thing that was so revolutionary about [Queer Eye] in its moment was you just didn’t see gay guys making straight guys' lives better. It was so unique to see gay guys and straight guys together on TV," he reflected, before turning his attention to the Netflix reboot. "Now, 12 years later, it’s commonplace. It’s not as revolutionary. So it will be interesting to see how this show takes shape or what about it is revolutionary."
How would he adapt it for 2017? "I have no idea. Someone else’s problem!" he said.
Cohen joined Bravo in 2004 and served as its head of development for over a decade. Regarding his tenure, he is most proud of how gay people on the network were not defined by their sexual orientation or given the one-dimensional portrayals that still populate the media landscape.
"The people who were gay that were on Bravo shows were not cast because they were gay, they were cast because they were good at something," he said. "Jeff Lewis was a great house flipper; Brad Goreski was a great stylist. We had these gay realtors who were at the top of their game. We had these gay designers on Project Runway. We have chefs on Top Chef. And they weren’t gay props on reality shows. They happened to be gay."
Cohen also points to his role as host of Watch What Happens Live as significant.
"I’m the only gay guy in late night," he said. "But I don’t think that my show is a gay show. I just think I happen to be gay. I happen to objectify guys a lot on my show. And I like doing it. And I think it’s a wink to all the women in the audience who see women being objectified and maybe don’t like it or think, Oh, that’s a part of society."
Cohen sees his role as subversive to a society that often objectifies women, and he uses his male gaze to upend sexism.
"Nothing makes me happier than having a hot guy behind the bar and saying. like, 'Wow, you have great tits,'" he said. "Because in my mind, I’m turning everything over on its side. I’m treating a guy like a sexual object. I’m kind of doing it for the women in a weird way, like, 'Yeah, we can do this too.'"
Cohen also cherishes his role as "the gay best friend to a lot of women." While touring the country to promote a book or show, many conservative women will approach him with touching accounts of how he opened their hearts to acceptance.
"I have a lot of women come and say, 'My son and I watch your show together, and you helped them out a lot. I’ve seen him watching you, and I think he knows he’ll be OK, because you’re OK. You made me understand that it’s OK for my son to be this way. ... You taught me a little bit about a world that I didn’t know about.'"
"I love that. That’s very meaningful. That’s to me what’s great about being gay on TV," said Cohen, who is encouraged by the increase in visibility across the board on television.
"There are gay people all over the place, and I think it’s accepted," he said. "If you look at Anderson Cooper, I just think he’s one of the most trusted newsmen in the world, and he’s out and he’s completely unabashed about being gay. It doesn’t cloud people’s opinion of who he is as a journalist. Or whether he can be fair or tough or smart. And I just think, look at him! It’s incredible."
Of course, not all gay people are pleased with gay representation on television. Shows like Logo's Fire Island and E!'s What Happens at the Abbey have sparked controversy for some viewers, who worry that the shows might exploit stereotypes. Cohen is unphased.
"I think people need to lighten up a little bit," he said. "There are all kinds of portrayals of gay people on televison. If either one of those shows was the only place on TV where you had a window into what it was like [that would be another story]. It’s like when black people were only playing maids on television, then I could see how the black community would feel like, 'Wait, this is horrible. This is our role in the universe and society?' I think that we are blessed enough now that there are gay people in all shapes and forms on TV."
"Have you ever been to Fire Island?" he asked. "It’s a hypersexualized island off the coast of New York City where people go to let off steam. Which, by the way, is a brilliant setting for a reality show. It’s like gay beach camp."
Regarding attraction, Cohen is helping people find romance on Love Connection. But he himself has been in a relationship with a man he referred to in his last memoir, Superficial, as a "Brazilian Andy Samberg." Cohen didn't identify his partner by name in his interview with The Advocate, but tabloids have identified the man as Clifton Dassuncao, a researcher at Harvard University.
"I’m dating. It’s been good," Cohen said. "I wrote about him in my last book. I met him when I was writing my last diary, and he’s one of the reasons I stopped writing the book, because I was writing a diary about my life, and I was like, OK, I don’t want this diary to become about my relationship. So I just kinda decided to go live my life. He lives in another city, and he’s great."
Has dating changed his own perspective of hosting a dating show?
"Yes and no," Cohen said. "I think it’s pretty simple. The show’s about first dates. It’s about communication. It’s about humor. It’s about what works and what doesn’t, about chemical attraction."
When asked if his perspective on dating has changed as he has grown older as a gay man (and more famous), Cohen took a thoughtful pause.
"I don’t know that it has," he said. "It’s funny. I was on Tinder for awhile, and I didn’t really think about the famous thing. It was like, if you match on Tinder, and their first question is, 'Oh, my God, what’s Ramona like?' Then I’m probably not gonna go on a date with you. But typically, the guy, my boyfriend is not a huge Housewives fan. It doesn’t dominate our conversation."
"I live in New York City," he continued. "I take the subway. I don’t take being famous seriously. It’s fun. I can get a table wherever I want. There are definitely good things about it. There are bad things about it too. But it’s not something that’s inhibited my dating or how I act."
At this moment, the publicist signals for the interview to come to an end. It's time for Cohen to begin filming — and introduce the Love Connection's first gay contestants. And what does he hope America will see?
"The most important message we can send, that [love is] just universal, you know?" he concluded.
Love Connection debuts tonight on Fox at 9 p.m. Eastern. Watch the trailer below.