Once upon a time, there was a flailing television network in need of a Cinderella makeover. As if arriving in their own magical carriage, a cabal of gay men swooped in to save it ― fairy godfathers savvy enough to envision a morality tale for an America that was finally ready to listen. Unbeknownst to them, they were about to change TV and popular culture as we knew it.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” the Bravo phenomenon now known simply as “Queer Eye.” From conception to Netflix revival, the series’ success resembles something of a fairy tale. The concept was a gamble, the format sometimes trafficked in stereotypes and the title risked alienating both queer eyes and straight guys. But when the show premiered in July 2003, it defied all expectations, becoming the highest-rated program in Bravo’s then 23-year history.
The ball was just getting started.
Few pop culture phenomena have enjoyed success as immediately as “Queer Eye.” The aforementioned cabal, de facto life coaches known as the Fab Five, were instant celebrities; top brands pined for a spot on what the creators called their “make-better” pageant. Before long, Bravo was saturating its lineup with all things “Queer Eye,” including a derided spin-off. By the time ratings for the five-season series had dwindled, the show was already the reality TV model upon which its network’s future was built. Essentially, we can thank the OG Fab Five ― Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley and Jai Rodriguez ― for inadvertently birthing the “Real Housewives” masterstroke.
When Netflix added the series to its vast slate of revivals in 2017, however, the “Queer Eye” premise felt outdated. Gay men arriving on hapless heterosexuals’ doorsteps, asking to be heard? Surely our queer-friendlier landscape had progressed beyond that. But instead of fighting for mere visibility like the original “Queer Eye,” the streaming rendition emphasizes a deeper human connection, one that more thoroughly challenges conventional notions of masculinity and self-care without renouncing the flagrant consumerism that’s part of its DNA. The warm fuzzies evoked by the two seasons released in 2018 ― starring Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski and Jonathan Van Ness ― prove America was hungry for bygone comfort food.
That the fairy-godfather blueprint could be retrofitted to appeal to today’s sensibilities now seems obvious. Sure, we’ve achieved LGBTQ milestones since “Queer Eye” first aired ― marriage equality, more gender-neutral bathrooms, the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the rise in transgender awareness ― but that does not mean America standardizes equality. The new Fab Five know this: They approach their missions, currently set in the Deep South, like a vocation. Similar to their original counterparts, they demolish walls with humor and grace, confirming that the open-heartedness of “Queer Eye” is timeless.
But back to that “once upon a time.” We spoke to 20 people involved with both iterations of “Queer Eye,” tracing its humble beginnings in Boston all the way to its streaming dominion in Atlanta. Along the way, stars were born, a new reality television scheme was popularized and culture was made just a little gayer. In other words, everyone lived happily ever after. But a lot happened in between.
In The Beginning
To understand how “Queer Eye” came to be, we’ll need to take you back to the early days of a company called Scout Productions, born in 1994. What began as an indie-film outpost in Boston, producing the thriller “Dead Dog” and the Debbie Harry crime dramedy “Six Ways to Sunday,” partnered with documentarian Errol Morris in the early 2000s to create the acclaimed interview series “First Person.” The deal led Scout’s founders, David Collins and Michael Williams, to land an exclusive distributor in Rainbow Media (now known as AMC), which owned IFC, Fuse, Trio and a little network called Bravo, then home to a hodgepodge of arts programming. In September 2001, Scout Productions found itself in need of a new project.
Michael Williams, co-founder of Scout Productions: The turning point of all of this was 9/11. All that business of people coming to Boston stopped. Every movie that was scheduled was canceled. Nobody wanted to fly into Boston. It stopped our business dead.
David Collins, co-founder of Scout Productions: I said, “This reality TV stuff is really taking off. Let’s come up with a reality show.”
Williams: In September of 2001, David and I were down in the South End of Boston [at an art party]. We were going into a loft, and there was a commotion going on. It was this woman who was there, and her husband came to meet her. He was dressed kind of geeky and disheveled. She just started to pick on him: “What were you thinking when you left the place? Look at those socks.” She was really being loud, and it stopped everyone, like, “Wow, this woman is really berating her husband in front of everyone.” She pointed over to this group of three guys and said, “Look at them. Why don’t you dress like them?” And the guy, innocently, is like, “Well, they’re gay ― they know how to dress.”
Because they were having this conversation so loudly, the three guys heard it as well. They came over to them, surrounded the two and said, “Listen, ease up. He’s not that bad. This is what you have to do. You can do this here and that there.” We’re observing the whole thing, openmouthed. And David turns to me and says, “Well, there it is. There’s our show.”
I said, “What show?” And he goes — and I swear on everyone’s grave ― “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
David Metzler, Scout Productions executive producer (and token heterosexual): They came running back to the office and told me about it. I said, “That’s a terrific idea.”
Williams: At the time, I was obsessed with Esquire. The magazine was broken up into fashion, grooming, design, culture, and food and wine. Those verticals were playing in my mind when we saw the poor straight guy getting supported and loved by the gay guys.
Collins: Frances Berwick and Ed Carroll bought our very first TV series with Errol Morris. So that’s what began our entrée into television.
Williams: We took the train from Boston to New York and went in and sat down with Frances and Ed in the old Rainbow Media offices.
Vivi Zigler, former vice president of marketing at NBC: Bravo had been very much an arts and entertainment network: Cirque du Soleil, “Inside the Actors Studio,” indie films.
Williams: I knew I had a really cool pitch book that explained the show, and I knew I had a really cool idea. I pitched it to them, and I remember Ed Carroll laughed so hard, thinking I was joking.
Ed Carroll, former Rainbow Media executive: We immediately liked it.
Williams: They said, “Yeah, this is so crazy it just might work.” Basically, they sent us away and said, “Let us think about it for a minute or two.” I think it was the next day when they called and said, “You know what? We want to do a pilot.”
Carroll: We got back to Scout within 24 or 48 hours. The pitch was really well-thought-out. We had a reality show on the air called “Fire Island,” which was “MTV Beach House” but set with an older, mostly male cast. It was fun. It was only about eight episodes, but every time we put this thing on the air, the ratings spiked. We weren’t able to get advertisers to come along in that early day, but you could see the audience was ahead of sponsorship.
So when the folks from Scout came in and said we have this concept and it’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Frances and I were looking at each other, because we had been talking about what the success of “Fire Island” meant and what we could do next.
Collins: We sent the pitch book out [to other networks], but it was unsolicited. We got calls months later from MTV. “Oh, I just opened this thing on my desk. I love it.” We were like, “You’re two months late and we’re already doing it with Bravo.”
Making The Show Fabulous
Scout Productions had found its linchpin: “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Now it needed a cast. Williams and Collins turned to the Esquire verticals, which became the show’s five columns of expertise. It was just a matter of finding people with the right pizzazz ― a hefty task, as the show never wanted to hire celebrities.
Williams: The Fab Five was a spin on the Fab Four, and I think we picked the Fab Five because in the early days, when we were shooting the pilot, the conceit was a slow burn of the guys becoming superheroes. One has a blow-dryer, one has a frying pan, one has champagne. They all have their tools of the trade. They swooped in, fixed the straight guy up, left the sparkle powder on the floor and went to the next guy.
Collins: The [test pilot, a sort of rough draft of the series] got green-lit in early 2002. We filmed in June 2002. So we had four or five months to figure this out. For that pilot, we had a mishmash of folks in there. Then we had to cast the actual show.
Williams: There was a call for gay men in these five categories. It was radio ads and newspaper ads. We had a three-day massive casting call at the Bravo offices.
Metzler: We saw a lot of guys, like, hundreds of guys.
Williams: We also went to all of the magazine editors and said, “Hey, all of your top guys who happen to be gay in those five categories, we would love to meet.” We would have [people] come in and make over Dave Metzler and a couple other guys who work at Scout, like, “What would you do with this guy?”
Metzler: We just tried to build chemistry ― see who hit it off, or who made sense together. Carson [Kressley] was one of the first people to audition, and instantly, it was clear that we needed him.
Carson Kressley, fashion expert from the original Fab Five: I was working at Ralph Lauren and I had a wonderful job as a stylist and a creative director there. [One day] one of my coworkers said, “Hey, I was on the way to work today in a cab, and I heard about this show on the radio called ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.’ And they’re looking for real-life gay men who have expertise in areas of fashion and food and design,” and I was like, “Oh my god, I would be perfect for that, I should try out.”
So I called Bravo, which I thought was a nonstick cooking spray. At that time, I had never really seen much on the network. [...] I didn’t even really know how television shows worked and that production companies made them and then sold them to networks.
[Bravo] gave me the name of the production company, which was Scout Productions in Boston. I think this was even pre-Google. It was like in the Ask Jeeves era. I think I did 411. I called in, and they said that two producers, creators of the show, were in New York and they’re casting it this week. They said, “If you have a headshot and a résumé, send it down to us.” And I’m like, “I don’t really have a headshot, but I have a picture of me with some Ralph Lauren models, and we’re all wearing snowflake sweaters. Will that do?” And they’re like, “Just send whatever.” Then finally, about a month later, they said, “We want you to do the pilot.”
Williams: Carson dragged in a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk. No, not a suitcase ― a steamer trunk filled with stuff that he presented during his audition. He had been working for Ralph Lauren, and it was filled with every preppy outfit you could put together. He knew exactly what it was that we were looking for.
Metzler: Right there, in the beginning, he became an anchor. We probably tortured him with being part of weeks of auditions. We were trying to build the next set of people who worked with him.
I was like, "Oh my god, I would be perfect for that, I should try out." So I called Bravo, which I thought was a nonstick cooking spray. Carson Kressley, fashion expert from the original Fab Five
Jai Rodriguez, culture expert from the original Fab Five: When they were looking to recap a culture category, they wanted someone who was a fixture in New York nightlife. My agents were mulling it over and someone in the office was like, “What about Jai? He’s an actor, but he has that ‘downtown thing’ on the pulse.”
[At my audition, there] was a board room of, I would say, 12 people, and Carson and Ted were there. There was an empty chair between them. I basically sat down between them –– I was there to check chemistry. Their job was to fuck with me, to try to throw me off-course and see if I could bounce back immediately. However, no one told me that. When the board would ask me a question and these guys wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise, I started being funny back because I thought, “Well, I’m not going to get this job, but I’ll be memorable and there will be something in the future.” An hour later, they were like, “You start Monday.”
[Editor’s note: When Jai Rodriguez was cast, he replaced original culture vulture Blair Boone-Migura, who appeared in two episodes of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” Season 1 as a “guest” expert. Boone-Migura later sued producers for breach of contract, but the case was settled before it went to court. Williams declined to comment on the matter.]
Thom Filicia, design expert from the original Fab Five: I met a woman [who worked for a talent manager] who was having, literally, a panic attack in the elevator. My dog was in the office until 5:00 [and] had to go to the bathroom. I finally got in the elevator in my office building in SoHo, and the elevator gets stuck between the floors. And she’s like, “Oh my god, I have bad news. I’m like a total claustrophobic,” and I said, “If you bad news, I have real, real bad news. My dog’s going to drop a bomb in about two seconds.” We were in there for like two hours [...] we were making calls on the phone and I said, “Oh, the firemen sound really good-looking.” There was a lot of bonding.
The next thing I know, she’s calling me up to see if I wanted to be on television. She had things come across her desk that were [...] like, “We’re looking for a gay guy who’s an interior designer who has television experience.” She called me and said, “Do you have any television experience?” I said to her, “If you consider me turning the elevator into my stage that day, that would be it.”
Williams: Months later, when we delivered the pilot [that would go to air], Bravo loved it. But then everything was put on hold because there were talks about NBC coming and buying Bravo. We were basically frozen. I remember in January of 2003 calling the original Fab Five and saying, “I don’t think this is going to happen.”
Kressley: In my heart of hearts, I thought this was probably gonna go nowhere. And it was fine because I had a great job.
Rodriguez: No one watched Bravo. It was not like being cast on Bravo now. [It] had one major hit and it was “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” so no one told us what [the show] would look like. I thought it was something that people would never even see.
Zigler: Jeff Gaspin and I worked on the NBC acquisition team for Bravo together, working on buying the network from Rainbow Media. Jeff was opening the cupboard doors, if you will, looking at what was in development.
Jeff Gaspin, former chairman of NBC Entertainment: At the time, makeover shows were really in vogue. “What Not to Wear” on TLC was a pretty successful show, but you had never seen one that was focused on men, and then on top of that, one that was hosted by five gay men, which was truly different and groundbreaking. Our timing probably couldn’t have been better, because that same year, the term “metrosexual” was starting to enter the lexicon. It was one of those great examples where the moons aligned on all fronts. I’ve never seen a show explode as fast as that show did in my career.
Filicia: We were a part of reality television, I think, when reality television was still a bit green, and it was a little bit more pure.
About The Word ‘Queer’...
When “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” premiered, “Will & Grace” had just ended its fifth season, “Queer as Folk” was a cult hit on Showtime and “The L Word” was about to debut. Gay programming was seeing a steady upswing, but the word “queer” still carried a stigma. As it turns out, that wasn’t the only controversial part of the title.
Zigler: So many networks and so many executives are defined by the first show they go out with. So it made this an interesting, brave, different and defining choice. I can remember sitting in senior leadership meetings talking about the title, and there was so much conversation about the word “queer.”
Rodriguez: I was nervous about being associated with a show at that time with the title “queer” in it. There really wasn’t much LGBT programming.
Filicia: I think the strategy was [...] “let’s rock the boat a little bit.” I think the plan was always to present [the word] in a very positive way.
Collins: We always knew [the show] was never mean. It was make-better. This really was about lifting people up.
Gaspin: The ad sales team at NBC was afraid that the title was going to be difficult to sell to advertisers, which it actually was at first. And then my affiliate sales team was afraid that the title would make it inappropriate to sell the channel to cable operators. Both the ad sales team and the affiliate sales team asked me to change the title of the series. And I said no.
Filicia: There was a major furniture company that we ended up doing a lot of work with over the course of the four years that we shot the show. In the beginning, when I reached out to them to talk to them about participating, they were really offended by the name of the show.
For a while, people would have trouble saying the title of the show. They’re like, “Oh, you’re from ‘Gay Eye,’” because “gay” was a softer word that they felt comfortable saying out loud. Jai Rodriguez, culture expert from the original Fab Five
Zigler: The word “queer” at the time had not been used widely, and certainly not in a positive way. No one wanted to use a word that would make anyone who was gay or lesbian feel that we were exploiting.
Rodriguez: The funny thing is, for a while, people would have trouble saying the title of the show. They’re like, “Oh, you’re from ‘Gay Eye,’” because “gay” was a softer word that they felt comfortable saying out loud.
Gaspin: My department reached out to GLAAD to make sure it wasn’t going to be offensive, and the response we got was that actually they were trying to take the stigma off the word “queer” and get it back into the lexicon in a more positive way. Once I got their support, I wasn’t going to budge on the title.
[Editor’s note: Representatives of GLAAD declined to comment for this story.]
Collins: While indeed we were taking back the power of the word “queer,” we also knew “queer” just meant difference. It’s just a unique perspective.
Williams: In the original pitch book, the show was called “The Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” But then when NBC came over with Bravo, we got a call: “We have to talk about the title.” We thought, “Oh, here it comes, they want to get rid of ‘queer.’” But it was fully about the word “the.” They didn’t feel it needed the word “the.”
Metzler: We got caught up in the idea that “the” makes it definitive. There’s only one queer eye, you know? All of a sudden we were grammar teachers.
Collins: It was the queer eye, not just any queer eye.
Zigler: As a marketer, I’m going to [think about] how people are going to talk about it. David and I had a whole conversation about “everyone’s just going to call this ‘Queer Eye.’” [...] Eventually, David agreed with me.
Collins: I think it was around the 30th episode or so that we actually dropped “for the Straight Guy.” So many people keep adding “for the Straight Guy,” even on the Netflix incarnation of it. But we dropped “for the Straight Guy” way back with Bravo.
The Big Debut
With a cast in place, an eye-popping title and the reported $1.25 billion NBC acquisition intact, the marketing team at Bravo and NBC launched a massive “Queer Eye” promotional blitz. It paid off in spades when more than 1.6 million people watched the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” premiere on July 15, 2003.
Frances Berwick, head of programming at Bravo: When we decided to pick up the show, it was by far the strongest thing that Bravo had in our development slate, and Jeff Gaspin, to his credit, made the decision that we were basically going to put pretty much the entire marketing budget for the year against the show.
Gaspin: I used what I called the single-bullet theory, which was, “We’ve got one bullet in the gun, and we’re going to fire it all at ‘Queer Eye.’”
Zigler: We had developed what, at the time, was quoted as one of the most expensive cable campaigns to date: $10 million. [Editor’s note: Gaspin estimated that Bravo’s marketing budget was closer to $7 or $8 million for the year, versus $200 million for NBC.]
Berwick: [NBC] gave us promotion that we would never have been able to afford to buy on an NBC network. That was the real game-changer.
Gaspin: The idea was, look, if you go small with this, no one’s going to notice. We flew planes over beaches with “Queer Eye Coming.” The whole title was definitely a lightning rod, so being able to market that is sometimes a marketer’s dream.
Zigler: We began with a teaser campaign, meaning something that would provoke and entice some interest without giving away all the information. I wanted to choose a distinctive color palette for a show that had its own distinctive color palette, if you will. I remember sitting with the design team from NBC. We sat in a room and they brought me many color combinations. We were doing bus shelters and billboards and transit and all of that.
Carson styled the shoot for us. The [Fab Five] were super talented in their own right, so they brought a lot to the creation of the show. I used them during the marketing a ton.
Williams: For a good six months, there was a fight about a lily. It was a flower that was a shadow in the background of the original “Queer Eye” poster, which was a Casablanca lily that’s usually associated with funerals. It became the death-lily controversy, through which hundreds of emails went back and forth about why we were using a death lily in a “Queer Eye” poster. No show in the history of television has ever had a gayer fight.
Rodriguez: I think we were the first people that were allowed to close down the Brooklyn Bridge, where we shot the “Queer Eye” music video. That was pretty epic and groundbreaking.
Collins: The original video that was shot was a humongous deal. We closed down the Brooklyn Bridge with a call time at 3 in the morning. We shot this video all over New York City. We had to shoot the entire video in 18 hours because the guys were going to go onto Barbara Walters’ most fascinating people of the year interview. They were so upset with us because they all looked so tired. They had been awake for 24 hours shooting the video. It was Wayne Isham shooting the video, who had shot for Madonna.
Zigler: The show premieres, and it’s the best ratings in Bravo’s history. It puts Bravo on the map. We started getting requests for our guys to be on “Oprah” and the cover of Entertainment Weekly. It became this cultural phenomenon.
Lauren Zalaznick, former NBC executive: Something like 20 times — 20 times! — the ratings that Bravo had ever gotten for anything.
Zigler: We premiered on a Tuesday night at 10 p.m. One week later, FX premiered a show called “Nip/Tuck” in the same time period. “Nip/Tuck,” in its way, was also remarkable and groundbreaking. I remember jokingly calling Chris Carlisle, who was the head of marketing at FX at the time, to say, “Did you have to go Tuesday at 10? We should compare notes here, my friend.”
Gaspin: I had decided at the time that to have one show featuring five gay men was an island on the network, so I commissioned a [dating show] called “Boy Meets Boy” to pair with it. So we had a block of gay programming, and that was also pretty novel. I actually thought that was going to be the show that broke out, not “Queer Eye.”
Kressley: I didn’t know if it would have any kind of longevity, and fortunately it did. And by like August that year, we were, like, on “The Tonight Show” and doing “Ellen” ― and it was a real whirlwind, going to the Emmys. Because, you know, six months before, we weren’t on TV ever.
How It Became More Than A Show
Whatever doubts existed about “Queer Eye”’s premise or title were quickly ameliorated by the loving response from viewers. Soon enough, brands were clawing to integrate their luxury goods into the makeovers ― a pivotal departure for anyone who feared the LGBT-oriented format would be a handicap.
Zigler: I walked into my office the morning after, turned on the lights, and of course, my message light was blinking. The switchboard didn’t know what to do with all the calls. I remember just sitting there playing one message after the next on speakerphone. Some were hateful and threatening, which did not surprise us. We’d been getting a lot of grief as we talked about the show in the press.
But what was amazing was I remember there was one call in particular from a woman who identified herself as a schoolteacher in Florida and said she watched the show with her mother, who was an older retired schoolteacher, and that the two of them wanted to applaud us for what was a lesson to the world.
Rob Eric, chief creative officer at Scout Productions: What made a big difference to all of us was meeting real people. One of the letters I always recite is from a guy living in Boston, originally from Georgia. Massachusetts was the only state where you could have gay marriage, and he was going to get married. With his family in Georgia, he always had to keep his relationship quiet. He wanted all of them to come and said, “I’ll invite them anyway, but I know they’re not going to come.”
And out of the blue, he sent the invite to his family in Georgia, and he got a response from his sister, “Oh my god, that’s great, of course we’ll come.” He was so taken aback by it. He goes, “Great. Thrilled! Surprised! What made you change your minds?” She goes, “Well, ever since we started watching that ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,’ we understand a little more now and we would love to come to your wedding.” Every time I read that letter, I thought, this is what we set out to do.
Kressley: One of the [reasons] I think people responded so positively to the show was that we never really were making fun of these straight guys. Yes, we had a laugh, but we were in on the joke and they were, too.
Filicia: We were five very different gay guys who were having a lot of fun together and helping this one straight guy. And I think that that really struck a chord at that time.
Kressley: I think growing up gay and maybe being the subject of bullying or teasing or ridicule or whatever our individual circumstances –– I think maybe subconsciously we were just like, “We’re never gonna do that. We’re gonna have a hearty laugh and have fun with these guys, but we’re never going to belittle them.” Growing up gay made us maybe a little more sensitive. Sure, we had fun with it, but it was never us against them and it was never making fun of them.
I think growing up gay and maybe being the subject of bullying or teasing or ridicule or whatever our individual circumstances –– I think maybe subconsciously we were just like, “We’re never gonna do that." Carson Kressley
Zigler: Fast-forward a year later, and GLAAD was giving us Outstanding Reality Show. I remember being at that dinner with the GLAAD folks, who were so incredibly complimentary and supportive of what had happened.
Collins: We became the largest-selling international format at NBC Universal for a long period of time. Every territory. We were in over 180 countries that were buying the finished product of the show. There was a massive department that started selling the show. Original formats of the show started popping up all over the world: the UK Fab Five, the Australian Fab Five, the Netherlands Fab Five.
Kitty Boots, original “Queer Eye” stylist: We got very lucky in being able to secure some good designers to help dress the boys, which was great. The first episode was done by Etro, and the second episode was done by Marc Jacobs, who I adore ― he’s a friend of mine. I would spend a lot of time on the phone, saying, “Hi, I’m calling from a TV show called ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.’” People were like, “Hang on a minute. What’s the show called?”
Berwick: At first everything was much harder, and then lots and lots of brands wanted to be in it.
Boots: Once the show got rave reviews and a huge audience, it made it a lot easier.
Filicia: [My vertical] was very product-driven, and I had to really establish relationships with all of the retailers. We really tried to work on building relationships with people so that we could get them to sponsor an episode.
Rodriguez: Originally, in Season 1, I remember that we had to go to IKEA a lot because they were totally gung-ho and on board. I do remember early on that we could not get Whole Foods to commit until after the show was successful. I mean, I shop there. I don’t have a problem with Whole Foods. But I remember them as a brand that stuck out that did not want to play ball with us Season 1.
[Editor’s note: Representatives of Whole Foods declined to comment for this story. In a statement to HuffPost, representatives of IKEA said, “Queer Eye aligned with the core IKEA value of inclusiveness, presented great ideas for a better life at home, and seemed a natural partner for KEA from the very beginning.”]
What About Stereotypes?
“Queer Eye” is among a handful of programs to advance LGBTQ representation in popular media, but it wasn’t without its detractors. From the beginning, critics of the show questioned whether its image-conscious stars were merely manifesting queeny stereotypes. Furthermore, beyond the one-season spin-off “Queer Eye for the Straight Girl,” which featured three male hosts and one female host known collectively as the Gal Pals, the series’ casting hasn’t done much to push past a male, cisgender point of view. But while there’s always room for more inclusivity, the original Fab Five don’t see the show as tokenizing.
Kressley: [If] we were playing people and not ourselves, maybe that would be a valid argument. But we were five gay men on TV ― on reality TV ― just being ourselves, just being exactly what we do in our normal lives. And we were quite good at it. So I think that puts a kibosh on any of those “reinforcing stereotypes.”
Rodriguez: What do you do when you’re assembling five guys who happen to be good at their fields and those fields happen to fall into stereotypical things?
If we’re talking about stereotypes, I guess you could say me and Carson were the more fabulous camp because I’m a performer and Carson just, like, sneezes glitter. What are you going to do? Jai Rodriguez
Berwick: Before [anyone had] actually seen the show, there was a lot of very negative press because they thought that we were stereotyping gay men. [...] So what we saw when the show hit the air was a complete reversal of that, with the press saying, “This has so much heart and this is doing so much, and it’s just a great show and really fresh.”
Filicia: We got a little bit of bad press in the early days. There was a well-known fashion designer who does a lot of work on QVC, and he made a comment saying he thought that we were perpetuating stereotypes. I won’t say his name, but he did say that he thought that we were perpetuating stereotypes.
Rodriguez: Prior to “Queer Eye,” there was no all-gay, out cast on television. Kyan was the hair guy, but he was also the “butch guy.” You also had Ted, [who] talked about being married on the show. You had people like Thom ― people always thought he was the “straight one.” If we’re talking about stereotypes, I guess you could say me and Carson were the more fabulous camp because I’m a performer and Carson just, like, sneezes glitter. What are you going to do? Those are all the kinds of people I hang out with anyway. I have my Kyans. I have Thoms, and my Carsons.
Kressley: I remember we did the TCA, which is the Television Critics Association, and there was some sassy reporter in the audience who said, “I’ve watched the show, and isn’t it like you’re now picking on straight guys, and does this seem fair, and has this ever happened to you?” And I said, “Yes, it has. It was called high school,” and the room erupted, and they thought it was so funny, and it just kind of set the sassy tone of us being unapologetic.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
It’s hard to think of another show whose overnight success matched that of “Queer Eye” in the days before social media. The Fab Five were at the center of the zeitgeist when their show won the Emmy for Outstanding Structured Reality Program in 2004, but subsequent seasons’ ratings steadily dipped. In early 2007, after five years on the air, Bravo pulled the plug, now able to coast on the popularity of other gay-friendly programming like “Project Runway,” “Top Chef,” “Million Dollar Listing” and the nascent “Real Housewives” franchise. But without “Queer Eye,” none of those other shows would have been possible.
Collins: Suddenly the guys were celebrities, and we were along with them. We were going to the Grammy Awards, the Emmy Awards. The stars, who we were like, “Oh my god, there’s Sarah Jessica Parker,” were coming up to the guys, being super-fans to them. Sarah Jessica Parker was like, “I love your show. You’re so nice to people. It’s so refreshing to see on TV.”
Rodriguez: I remember Ashton Kutcher pulling me aside. [...] Ashton was [at a party] with his girlfriend, Demi. He was like, “Hey, oh my god! I love your show. Look, look, I know your move.” I taught this couple a dance move [on the show] and he did it with Demi, and I was like, “I’m dead. I’m officially dead. I’m dying right now.”
Collins: I remember Demi Moore and J. Lo gushing about the show. Demi Moore knew every straight guy’s name on the show.
Rodriguez: President [George W.] Bush referenced us a couple times. We were the punch line of a bunch of late-night shows. [...] We were the presenters at the VMAs when Beyoncé won for “Crazy in Love.” We saw Britney and Madonna kiss live and in-person that year.
Gaspin: [The show] was hugely popular, and what tends to happen when something shines so brightly is, it starts to dim. So the show started to dim much faster than I expected, or that I’d really ever seen for a show that shone so brightly.
Zalaznick: Unlike a traditional cable hit where you premiere and then want to grow, “Queer Eye” had a broadcast-network pattern, where it premiered at its peak and never achieved that rating again. It was still huge.
Linda Lea, producer: There was just a lot of pressure to deliver a lot in a short period of time.
Collins: We had episode orders happen very quickly upon the success of the show. I think we went from 12 to 15, and then our next order was 40. It was insane.
Lea: We just kept finding new guys with fresh stories. […] There was probably one where we thought we were jumping the shark, wondering if we should or shouldn’t do it. We’re like, OK, we’ve met every guy, we’ve told every story. What’s next? We’re like, let’s go find a guy who was a nudist.
Zigler: Because it was such a phenomenon, it felt like grabbing a tiger by the tail. We were all thrilled but pleasantly surprised by how big, how fast. You’re not staffed up for a team to handle what we had.
Gaspin: For some reason, and I still don’t understand why, the ratings dropped precipitously. It just didn’t hold on to the hotness and the success. I’m still dumbfounded by it. Even when we brought it back several years later, it didn’t really rate. I don’t have a great answer for why. That’s one that still baffles me.
Lea: We were all aware that everything has its timeline, and we were all smart enough to forecast it and see it in advance and make sure that we had a beautiful 100 episodes. We were smart enough, and the network was smart enough, to end it at that time.
Gaspin: The show was fairly expensive for Bravo at the time. […] We ran it too many times, which is what you do on cable when you find a hit. But fortunately, we were able to have additional hits after that, “Project Runway” and “Top Chef” being two. So we weren’t as dependent on the series. When you looked at the ratings and the financial equation, you realized it was time to move on.
Zalaznick: Even though it fell into decline sooner than you would want, it actually led to the retransformation of Bravo as you know it today in a very particular way.
Williams: Bravo smartly took the five verticals and built out other products. It became the five areas of focus for Bravo. “Top Chef,” “Project Runway,” all of those shows were born out of “Queer Eye,” because those categories ― or buckets, if you will ― became of interest to their audience.
Lea: We had all been a really tight-knit group of people, so no one really wanted to disband. But there wasn’t a feeling of loss. There was a feeling of, wow. We really accomplished something that we’re all really proud of that’s going to stay available to viewers when we’re long gone. The show was such a game-changer that it might end up on Mars someday in a capsule.
Bringing It All Back
In October 2007, “Queer Eye” aired what was then considered its final episode. But these days, it seems no show is dead forever. The streaming era has given us an endless treasury of revivals and reboots. After pitching a “Queer Eye” reboot to traditional networks, Collins and Williams found an unsurprising home in Netflix, the epicenter of the streaming boom.
Williams: [The idea for the revival] came from [talent agency] WME. There was a big internal meeting over there where someone said, “Hey, I think ‘Queer Eye’ and other formats were starting to bubble up again.” […] So many times we’re pitching with networks and they go, “Bring us your ‘Queer Eye.’” We kept saying, “Well, we can bring ‘Queer Eye’ back.” Everyone passed on it, and the reason why was because it was so identifiable with Bravo. We came close with a couple [networks].
Bela Bajaria, vice president of content acquisition at Netflix: Scout Productions had actually shopped the series around before it came to Netflix.
Williams: The difficulty in the process of this casting was, day in and day out, Rob and David and I had to look at all these tapes of handsome gay men. It was so hard.
Bobby Berk, design expert from the new Fab Five cast: I got a call from my publicist one day, telling me that they were recasting the show. [She] got me a Skype audition about two weeks before the final audition. I think it was scheduled for [...] 1:30 in the afternoon, and at 1:15, the power went out in my building. I was like, “Oh my god. I have no Wi-Fi. I have no way to do the Skype interview!” So I jumped in my car and frantically drove as fast as I could to my office, which is about a mile and a half away. I ran up to my office. I’m all hot and sweaty and disheveled. I do this Skype interview with ITV and I’m like, “Oh my god. That was a nightmare. That was so bad. There’s no way I’m going to get this. I’m never going to hear from these people again.”
They just kept pulling up pictures of really ugly rooms on Google to show me, “Hey, what would you do with this really ugly room?” Bobby Berk, design expert from the new Fab Five cast
Karamo Brown, culture expert from the new Fab Five cast: I was in bed watching “Watch What Happens Live” with Andy Cohen, and Carson Kressley was on. I saw him talking about the fact that they were bringing back the show, but it would have five new guys. So I called my agent and was like, “Hey, can I get in on this?” And it was three weeks before they were gonna be done casting, and they told my agent it was too late. My agent was like, “You got to see him.” And this very sweet woman was like, “Fine. As a favor to you, we will.” And three weeks later, I was cast.
Collins: The chemistry tests are everything, both in the original and in the new casting. We were at the hotels here in Glendale with the top 40 finalists for this round of “Queer Eye,” and we were there probably for six, seven, eight hours. Almost instantly, the magic started to reveal itself. You can see the guys coming together.
You can see that Tan was rising to the top, and Jonathan. They found each other, and they say, to this day, that four of them started a text chain with each other that said, “Let’s do this together. Let’s be a team.”
Berk: [One day] was like a speed-dating segment. They set up three little tables, and each person from each category got five minutes at each table. Interior design was the last category, so I think I sat around for about 12 hours that day to do 15 minutes of interviews. At that point, I was [sick with the flu]. My dad was having open-heart surgery that day. [Days later], they started putting us just in a room of five, like one guy from each category. They started rotating other people around. Then Karamo and Tan ended up not ever leaving again, and then Jonathan and then Antoni. We all just lost track of time. Probably it was 8:00 or 9:00 at night. We were all like, “We need a break.” We walk out and there’s literally nobody left. We are the only five guys.
Nobody was left but us, and we all just looked at each other and were like, “Oh my god, I think we got this.”
Tan France, fashion expert from the new Fab Five cast: I’ve never seen anybody like me represented on the show, so I went for the audition. I agreed to a Skype interview. During that call, I thought, “Oh, this could be for me.” Then a week later, I went for the in-person audition –– they called it chemistry testing. I never thought in a million years that I was going to get it. I just thought “I’m going to go and make some friends.”
Berk: They just kept pulling up pictures of really ugly rooms on Google to show me, “Hey, what would you do with this really ugly room?”
France: When they showed me pictures, I wasn’t just willing to rag on these people. I said, “I don’t know what their circumstances are. They may need those overalls for their job. I want to know more about them.” I’m not willing to just butcher these people in a room full of people who are going to laugh and point. That’s not what I’m all about. They’re like, “No, that’s exactly what we wanted to hear.”
Bajaria: In the end, this new Fab Five picked each other just as much as the producers did. Bobby, Tan, Karamo, Antoni and Jonathan all locked arms before any final decision had been made. Their bond is a huge part of why this show is successful.
Williams: We went out to find the best people in those five categories, and once we narrowed it down, we played mix-and-match in chemistry tests to see how they work together. [But] we’re not going out and saying, “Let’s look for the Carson” and “Let’s look for the Thom.”
Bajaria: We saw the vision and the opportunity to continue the dialogue that began with the original show, breaking down stereotypes on both sides of the aisle. This show is so much more than a makeover show.
In the end, this new Fab Five picked each other just as much as the producers did. Bela Bajaria, vice president of content acquisition at Netflix
France: I knew “Queer Eye,” but I didn’t know it was going to be different from the last version. And I didn’t want to do the last version. I love what they did in the previous show, but I wanted to be able to talk about the ins and outs of gay life [...] at least that I’m married to a man and that I want kids and I have hopes in my future in the way that my straight counterparts do. I don’t think America was ready for that 15 years ago.
Berk: I think the original “Queer Eye” definitely started us on the journey to normalize the LGBT community and make people realize that we are just people just like everyone else. It started the road to acceptance. And I think that what the new “Queer Eye” is doing is it really is driving home the fact that we are just like everyone else.
France: For me, going into the South was the main perk of this. It was the thing that really got me excited, because I was going to meet people who had never met somebody that looked like me, spoke like me, behaved like me.
Jonathan Van Ness, grooming expert from the new Fab Five cast: I’m from rural Illinois, so going to rural Georgia didn’t feel out of place for me. It didn’t feel awkward for me. I mean, I can put on a kilt and, you know, no-shoulder hoodie and go into a Rotary club and not bat an eyelash. That doesn’t feel out of character for me.
Brown: For us to be able to go down [South], and for us to have an open ear and open heart, to be able to learn from these guys, as much as they learned from us, was the most special thing. I was so glad, because I get messages from people on social media who say, “Now I’m not afraid to reach out to someone that’s different than me.”
Van Ness: I really wanted to tear down that idea that gay men all wax and that we like really trimmed eyebrows and no body hair [...] and that’s what you need to do to be well-groomed. I really wanted to tear down a lot of that. The idea that there is one way to be beautiful [...] is so old and so archaic. [...] I wanted to empower people to find their own truths, instead of having me ― instead of an “expert” ― tell you what your truth is.
Antoni Porowski, food expert from the new Fab Five cast: The format of the show [...] screams for intimacy and just real conversations and just really beautiful, quality one-on-one moments.
Williams: Like a good suit, the foundation stays the same, but the accessories change.
Its Legacy, Old And New
While most of the “Queer Eye” format mirrors that of the Bravo edition, straight guys are no longer the only subjects. The revival’s first season included a semi-closeted gay man; the latest season features a religious woman and a transgender man. And in the age of social media, the Fab Five are even more public than their original counterparts, traveling the globe to promote the show and liaising with fans across platforms.
Kressley: [“Queer Eye”] was such a blessing for me in many ways. The show helped me come out to my family. The show helped me be more comfortable in my own skin with a wide variety of people.
Rodriguez: The thing I walked away most glad of is that I have had probably thousands of people in the past 14 years pull me aside in quiet moments and say, “Because of you, it was safe to come out to my parents.” That, to me, is the best takeaway ever.
Filicia: [The straight guys] were genuinely and sincerely –– I would say, if we did 101 episodes –– I would say without a doubt, 100 of them were really on board and excited to meet us, to be a part of it, and to actually take our advice, and they felt sincerely excited about the process.
Berk: Religion used to be my life, and when I came out, it turned its back on me and it’s not something I can forgive it for. Of course, here comes this episode [Season 2, Episode 1], smack dab in the middle of a church, and I almost didn’t do it. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations happening where I was like, “No.” It wasn’t until I had a conversation with a guy named Joel from Scout [Productions]. He was like, “You know, you’ve got to do it for the little Bobbys. The little Bobbys and the little Joels that are still sitting in those churches around the world...”
That conversation is what finally made me okay with doing that episode. The episode turned into a life-changing experience for me. We went in to help [Tammye], and she helped me. That’s one of probably my most favorite experiences, not just in filming the show, but my whole life.
Porowski: My sexuality has always been sort of intimate [...] and now it no longer is, and I’m actually really thankful for it.
I have had probably thousands of people in the past 14 years pull me aside in quiet moments and say, “Because of you, it was safe to come out to my parents.” Jai Rodriguez
Kressley: I was on a flight, and the flight attendant gave me a little napkin. It was folded over, and it had my initials on the outside. And on the inside [...] it said, “I watched your show when I was a teenager with my family and I’m gay and I was afraid to come out to them and your show allowed me to have a dialogue and I literally am a happy, successful, well-adjusted guy because of you and your show.” And I get that a lot, and it always gives me goosebumps.
Brown: The more people see us and they get to learn and meet queer people, and get to understand that we have the same desires, fears and hopes, is when people start to shift and change their mindset.
When A.J. came out [Season 1, Episode 4], what a lot of people don’t get to see is the letter that he wrote. He and I actually had an hour-and-a-half conversation where I inspired him to write that letter. During that conversation, he had some of the most amazing laughs and cries that just were so inspiring [...]
The thing that I would say that I wanted to bring to the show [...] was to make the guys cry [...] to make them have a cathartic moment.
Porowski: I would love to see us explore different communities.
Van Ness: I’d love to like, go to Puerto Rico. Let’s help Puerto Rico rebuild, like let’s really get our hands dirty. I’ll help Bobby. Let’s do it.
France: I want to get to the point where we are representing as many demographics as possible. I think that we got off to a great start, but there’s so much more to be done. So, I would like to continue on in the U.S., but then this is a global show ― will be a global show. I would love to continue on in other parts of the world, too, and see what we can achieve there.
Rodriguez: “Queer Eye” is epic, and I’m happy to pass the baton to this new fraternity of boys.
France: What you see on the show is only a fraction of what we actually film. There’s so much more that we do with the show, that you just don’t get to see.
Filicia: I think that we were humble, and we were friends, and we were close, and we were fun, and we were kind to each other and other people.
Kressley: Honestly, I just wanted to get guys out of pleated khakis.