It’s been 15 years since Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s groundbreaking premiere, and on Feb. 7, a new Fab Five is bringing the feel-good makeover series -- now simply called Queer Eye -- to Netflix. While the TV landscape has certainly changed since 2003, the show’s bent toward bridging cultural divides could hardly be more timely, especially as the series revival finds the gang outside New York in the red state capitol of Atlanta, Georgia.
Created by David Collins, the Emmy-winning original ushered in the first big wave of reality makeover franchises, arriving the same year as ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and TLC’s What Not to Wear. It also exposed millions of viewers to something they’d never seen before.
“It was the first time for me to see somebody to look up to who was actually a real person,” says Bobby Berk, the new Fab Five’s interior designer, whom viewers may recognize from his namesake home line. “We’d never seen anything that was so relatable for us. I had never watched TV before thinking, That person represents me,” echoes Tan France, the British-born fashion expert of the group who has created two womenswear labels, in ET’s conversations with the creator and the new hosts -- Karamo Brown (culture), Jonathan Van Ness (grooming), Antoni Porowski (food and wine), France and Berk -- at New York City’s JW Marriott Essex House overlooking Central Park.
While the original series was a milestone of gay visibility, both for those seeking role models and viewers who may not have encountered queer people in their everyday lives, the new episodes find the guys bringing much more of themselves to the table. “The biggest difference is people are ready to have a dialogue,” Collins says. “Fifteen years ago, the Fab Five were kind of these superheroes, they swooped in for one day... America wasn’t ready, quite frankly, to hear one of them say, ‘Oh, my husband’ or ‘Oh, my boyfriend’ or, heaven forbid, ‘My kids.’”
Having that dialogue in the South -- which Collins thinks makes the show more accessible to the lives of “everyday people” -- can be one of the show’s great challenges. It can also be its most rewarding. In one particularly poignant episode, the group makes over a white policeman with a “Make America Great Again” hat in his closet and “Trump/Pence” lawn signs in his garage. “For me, the minute I met him I was triggered,” says Karamo Brown, an African-American alum of The Real World: Philadelphia. “I felt like, ‘I can’t talk to you and help you be your best self until we address the elephant in the room.’” Their resulting heart-to-heart is arguably like nothing else we’ve seen on TV.
“Things have backslid a little bit” in recent years, says Brown, whose role is focused on building confidence in the show’s makeover subjects. He notes that the Fab Five’s overall approach is to say, “‘Let’s pause for a second and try to figure out what’s more alike about us than what’s different so that we can grow together.’”
Van Ness, the group’s frequent comic relief, whom viewers may know from the Funny or Die series Gay of Thrones, notes that the show’s uplifting nature makes it easier to address differences in an open and honest way. “We’ve become so polarized; a lot of times when you get on Facebook or read the news, your first instinct is to just turn it off, so we don’t even have a conversation… Because [Queer Eye] does it in this fun-loving way, it’s kind of like [The Great] British Bake-Off in the sense that it just makes you feel good.”
Ultimately, Queer Eye remains committed to its individual “heroes,” as the series calls them, spending a week getting to know each one. “Focusing on the political is a missed opportunity,” says Porowski, who previously worked for his Fab Five predecessor, Ted Allen. “At the end of the day, we’re here to figure out how to make them better versions of themselves.”
As for those who may accuse the series of playing into stereotypes, a critique Collins recalls facing on the original series, the men see themselves as professionals first and foremost. “I think a lot of people are like, ‘We don’t need five gays coming in to tell straight guys how to live their lives anymore.’ We don’t approach it that way,” says Berk.
“Our guys are experts in their fields,” Collins says. “Just because Jonathan is a gay man and happens to be a hairdresser, is that a cliché or a stereotype? It might be. But guess what? He’s a really damn good hairdresser and that’s his profession.” In fact, Collins sees the new series combating such limited perceptions of gay men. “The show is breaking down barriers through the stereotypes; we get to see [the Fab Five] as more than just the little gay boxes that everyone wants to put them in.”
While Netflix has not yet announced the future of the series beyond this season, Collins sees its reach expanding. “I’d love to come into the Midwest and continue to explore [the rest of the country]. It is Queer Eye now, so women, men, maybe transgender people, gay men -- it’s not just straight guys.”
And with its home on Netflix, the new Queer Eye will spread to a global audience. “This gives us an opportunity to help educate the world about who we are, that we are very much multiracial and multifaceted,” says France. “We represent every community, we are every man.”
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