“Heroes.” That’s what executive producer David Collins calls the men being made over in each episode of “Queer Eye.” But it’s hard not to think of Collins himself, along with his new Fab Five, in a heroic context.
The Netflix-fueled return of the series, originally produced by Collins for Bravo in 2003, spotlights the talents of five experts who also happen to be gay — Bobby Berk (Design), Karamo Brown (Culture), Tan France (Fashion), Antoni Porowski (Food), and Jonathan Van Ness (Grooming). Like the original show’s stars, this new group is sent into the homes of strangers to change their lives.
In the Bravo incarnation of the show 15 years ago, the subjects were exclusively straight men living in New York. But now, the revival’s “heroes” are all based in the Atlanta area (and one episode spotlights a gay man who gets help not just with his home and wardrobe, but with his ongoing coming out story).
“Our partners at Netflix are amazing now, because we get to tell a complete story,” Collins told IndieWire during a recent press event. “We don’t have commercial breaks, we don’t have recaps. We get to have a beginning, a middle, and an end of each hero. Each hero’s story, each hero’s little town he came from or his family came from. His background, his politics, his religion all come to the table. The Bravo version was perhaps a little glossier. A little less deep.”
Updating the original 2003 series to reflect the current social and political climate of today’s America was important for Collins, given how much things have changed. For starters, it feels possible to be more open about the Fab Five’s personal lives: “We’ve evolved in a big way,” Collins said. “If you think about the fact that our original Fab Five [didn’t use] word ‘my husband’ or ‘my boyfriend’ or ‘my kids’ — America was not ready to handle that. [Now], we get to see that Karamo is a father of two, Tan’s a Muslim man married to a Mormon cowboy. And Bobby’s been married for almost fifteen years now.”
Collins described the search for his new Fab Five as a quest for finding a similar chemistry to his original cast from the 2003 series. “They were best buds right off the bat, and I knew that was what we had to look for,” he said. After months of what Collins called a “global search,” the production team brought the top 40 candidates to Los Angeles and “had a three day hysterical, and I mean hysterical, cast-a-thon with meet and greets and fishbowl questions and roundtable speed dating happening. With all these various guys and various expertise.”
The five guys, who spoke to IndieWire as a group, quickly coalesced as a unit during the casting process: Brown said that he connected immediately with the men who would wind up making the rest of the group, something that Porowski echoed. “I don’t know if it was some kind of a blind delusion, but there was a certain moment, and I keep on touching back on that. But there was an electricity when the five of us ended up being in the room together,” he said. “And it just felt right. I’d never really had gay friends before this experience, and so it was very new.”
France chimed in: “Me either,” he said to laughter. “No joke, I told my husband, I want to make a gay friend, so I’m going to go to this audition.”
“The casting process, like this whole experience — being gay and food are two things that have been very sacred to me; that I never wanted to explore at a public level,” Porowski said. “And the amount of fear there, I knew there was an opportunity to lean in, and I couldn’t be happier than I did.”
Collins said, “They had a weird bond instantaneously, these guys, and they all kind of locked hands, from what they’ve told me. I stood up in front of the big group and gave my rah-rah speech to the forty finalists, and the five of them held hands during that and said ‘Boys, let’s do this.'”
When asked about that moment, Van Ness laughed. “Now we sit in each other’s laps.”
Collins sees that more open attitude as a reason why this new Fab Five find themselves able to connect with the “heroes” they’re helping to transform.
“They’re getting to come to the table and create a dialogue,” he said. “Before I think it was more of a monologue where ‘I’m gonna tell you and you’re gonna tell me’ as opposed to a true dialogue. That’s what’s happening I think in these shows right now is that the episodic heroes are guys, are having conversations that are a little about politics and religion, are about marriage and divorce and kids, and we get to see this more authentic side of the Fab Five, and it definitely breaks down the walls to allow the dialogue to be more interesting, and quite frankly more heartfelt and powerful.”
This proved to be pretty important, given that some of the episodes do feature less-than-likely bedfellows, such as Episode 3’s Cory, a white Trump supporter who [mild spoiler follows] is revealed to be a police officer.
This was a pretty big deal for Brown and France, the show’s two men of color, especially when they found out Cory’s occupation — after getting pulled over by another cop while driving. It turns out the moment was staged on purpose by producers in order to depict what police profiling looks like. But for the Fab Five, their immediate reactions are very real.
“We didn’t know what was happening,” Berk said. “It wasn’t something we’d been briefed on before. We were actually truly worried.”
“As soon as we got pulled over, I had my phone out. I was filming in the mirror to see if anything crazy happened,” Van Ness said.
Brown said he appreciated how instructional the depiction of that moment will be for viewers who haven’t been pulled over because of their skin color.
“Look how beautiful that is, a moment that myself and Tan may experience on a day to day basis, we face these fears of when a cop pulls us over,” Brown said. “Are they gonna immediately just harass us, just because of who we are? People at home, who’ve never got to see that, are gonna get a small glimpse of what that is, but we don’t fester in that.”
Later in the episode, Brown and Cory end up having a real conversation about the fear of that moment, which led to a deeper connection between the two.
“That episode was so important for me, because I was closed off to police officers 1000 percent,” Brown said. “Being a father of two black boys, I just was scared for my own life and my children’s lives. And I brought that piece of me into the room, in the conversation.
“Other shows might’ve been, ‘It’s a make-better show, you’re gay, just talk about that,'” he added. “But this show allowed us to have that conversation. Now I’ve made a lifelong friend, and respect police officers in a way I did not before, and also know that not all police officers are bad. I know that sounds really lame, but those moments, that conversation allowed me to be open and allowed him to open up as well… It’s sort of like the seed that was planted in this manure of a situation that grew to this beautiful flower of a friendship.”
As for another season, Collins and the team are still waiting for renewal news. But if Netflix does order more, Collins said he hopes to find a new location — and he’s thinking specifically of returning to his roots. “I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, born and raised. I would like to go the tristate region, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, because you can base in Cincinnati and go across the bridge to Kentucky and go up the interstate to Indiana. The corn-fed midwestern folk are where I’m from — and I love actually being from Ohio, it’s a great place to be from.”
The one thing the Fab Five hope for with a new round of episodes would be, in Porowski’s words, “a slightly colder climate” — otherwise known as not Atlanta in the summer.
“I really love the South and the cuisine was amazing and we met some awesome people…” Porowski said.
“But in the winter,” Berk said, as they laughed. “I’d just like to see us continuing to expand on the diversity of it. Helping different types of people from every walks of life, from every ethnicity, from every gender. Just keep expanding on showing the world, and the differences in people that actually make them the same.”
“Queer Eye” is currently streaming on Netflix.