Lest you ever find yourself questioning the credentials of the Fab Five, know that designer Bobby Berk immediately noticed an issue with the furniture of the green room at the Netflix FYSee space. “Be careful on that chair; that back left leg is really loose,” he told Brown, who had just sat down in a stylish armchair.
Indeed, it seemed a little wobbly. Jonathan Van Ness, from his perch beside Berk on the opposite couch, was impressed. “How did you know that?”
“I noticed it the moment I walked in. I’m in furniture, it’s what I do,” Berk replied.
“That’s like if I notice a weirdly placed highlight or something,” Van Ness said. “That is so cute that you noticed that.”
Facing Berk (Design), Van Ness (Grooming), Karamo Brown (Culture), Tan France (Fashion), and Antoni Porowski (Food) altogether, especially as they’ve just been reunited for a press event, bears some resemblance to trying to interview a box of puppies; super-intelligent, genuinely kind and interesting puppies, to be clear, but the energy was a bit chaotic — and nearly identical to what you actually see on screen, as the guys invade a new house or apartment at the beginning of each episode.
But that’s part of the natural charm the new Fab Five has developed over the course of their first two seasons together, the first of which is eligible for Emmys consideration this year and the second of which premieres Friday on Netflix.
The unscripted reality series updates the Bravo format of five gay men, all experts in various fields, delivering “make-better” experiences (as opposed to makeovers) to a wide array of folks. Having dropped the “for the Straight Guy” element of the original title, the subjects (referred to as “heroes”) in the first 16 episodes include a woman, a gay man, and a trans man.
One quirk of the production process is that the 16 episodes shot last summer in Atlanta were shot out of order from the way they were released on Netflix, with the exception of the very first episode featuring lovable grandfather Tom Jackson. (The last episode filmed is the first episode of Season 2, featuring the show’s first female client.)
“We knew that there were going to be eight and eight,” France said.
“But we didn’t know if people would see them,” Brown added. “It was very clear with us that if it might come out, it might not.”
But come out it has. Since the show’s February premiere, it’s been a whirlwind experience for all five of the guys, whose lives have changed dramatically. “I think that it’s kind of impossible for me and a little delusional not to change because everything is changing,” Porowski said. “Our whole lives have been completely uprooted. I’ve been living at hotels for the past two months, but we can take that and we can kind of apply that to what we’re going through.”
While they’ve been surrounded by fame, Brown noted that “none of us have interacted with the people who enjoy the show or the people who support our careers in the show differently. We still show the same love and support. We are still the same people.”
That’s why Brown thinks that should “Queer Eye” continue beyond the first two seasons (Netflix has yet to officially announce plans for more episodes), their new level of fame won’t necessarily affect how they engage with the show’s “heroes.” “My hope is that they will not feel uncomfortable. I hope that they won’t look at us as celebrities coming into their home. I hope that we can still have the same type of one-on-one interaction that we were able to have with them before. And them not be scared of us.”
“I think that they would have the reassurance, maybe they didn’t know, maybe they didn’t understand what our share was. Hopefully, they’ll feel more comfortable knowing what we are and that we are truly that way,” France agreed.
Van Ness felt sure, in his own very specific way, that future heroes would continue to have a great experience with him. “I’m like, the warmest, fuzziest, babyiest, gaybiest ever, so they’re gonna feel so comfortable,” he said. “And the other great thing that they’re gonna look forward to, honey, is in Seasons 1 and 2 because no one knew, I was like, fighting tooth and nail for every single product that was in every one of those shots. Honey, we’re gonna have so much cuter hair products and so much more stuff to play with. They better be excited for that makeover, honey.”
One interruption during the interview was a welcome one, as one of Season 1’s most notable heroes entered the green room and was immediately swept up in hugs. A.J., as featured in Episode 4, “To Gay or Not Too Gay,” was the first gay man to get the “make-better” experience and shocked the Fab Five in that moment by revealing that he and his boyfriend had recently married.
“How’s the life of a celebrity in Atlanta?” France asked him.
“I’m not built for it,” A.J. said. “It’s a lot for me. Before I was able to go out and have a drink and nobody, you know, could care less. Now I get a bunch of hugs,” A.J. continued. “You know, but everybody’s been great. It’s not that bad but you guys, you know.”
“Don’t we know,” Berk said.
In general, the guys do keep up with the heroes, even after filming ends. “I’ve literally been sitting here the whole time remembering that I forgot to get back to Neil about what color to paint his bathroom and that’s why I keep gazing off,” Berk said. “We talk to them a lot.”
Social media has played a factor in this. “The fact that people love this show are able to follow up with our heroes, has meant the world to its success,” Brown said. “Because the fact is, before, you just see that we do it and it’s just like, it’s done and now people are like, ‘Oh my Gosh, not only are they continuing on our journey, they’re continuing on the journey of our heroes.'”
“I think that’s why they do feel so invested,” France said. “They only need to be invested. Once they get to be invested in these guys because even though it’s only 45 minutes, they are fully committed to finding out what is happening in their lives too.”
To be a “hero” for an episode means getting some major upgrades in many areas of your life, but also having to be brave enough to expose some of your biggest flaws to a global viewing audience.
Van Ness and Brown, as the two cast members with the most previous experience, weren’t shy about remembering their earliest days on camera, and how they could have easily stood to get the “Queer Eye” treatment themselves back then. “I had a medium shag, I wore really wide palazzo pants, my concealer didn’t match my face, I was really going through it, honey,” Van Ness said.
“Can you do me a favor and find a snapshot of my season of ‘Real World’ and his first season of ‘Gay of Thrones’ and show how we grew up?” Brown asked. “I feel like we’ve come such a far way.” (You can watch Van Ness’ first episode of “Gay of Thrones” here, and below please enjoy Brown as featured in a cast portrait of “The Real World Philadelphia” from 2004.)
Really, every guy felt they would be up for the “make-better” experience. “I think the beauty of what we do and why our heroes feel so open is because we’re open,” Berk said. “We expose ourselves. We’re not hiding. We’re saying we’re just as vulnerable, we have so much to learn. But we also have some expertise in these areas and we feel like we can help you just as much as they can help us in certain areas of our lives.”
Added France, “I think any of us could be one of the heroes because we are so willing to share every aspect of our lives on the show.”
They all were surprised by how much they did end up sharing, in fact. “I definitely went in telling myself I wasn’t going to share as much about my personal life and it ended up happening,” Berk said.
“I think we all had different comfort levels,” Brown said.
Van Ness “agreed.” “I keep things close to the vest,” he said.
It’s a show driven by the expression of emotion, though, as the Fab Five bond with their subjects and enable them to open up over the course of the episode. “I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that our show is much more about connection through our vertical as opposed to like, preaching through our vertical,” Van Ness said.
France credited producer Jennifer Lane with training them on how to work with the heroes. “She would say, ‘Don’t stop them. If there’s an amount of silence, don’t feel like you should fill it, because that’s when the beauty hits,'” he said. “It really was smart of her to say, ‘don’t fill that silence.’ I think the natural reaction when you have the awkward silence is to try and fill it. Whereas if we don’t, that’s when the majority of the great stuff that you see the heroes saying, that’s when that happens for us.”
“We got comfortable with being uncomfortable and we allow our heroes to be that same way,” Brown said. “And I think that more people need to get in that space where they’re comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because that’s why people aren’t having those hard, cultural, and relevant conversations with themselves and with others, because they don’t know how to say ‘I’m uncomfortable right now. Let me dive in. Let me check in with myself and let me check in with others.’ And we teach people how to do that well because we do it.”
The initial transcription of our half-hour conversation, which came to about 6,000 words, included 102 instances where the transcriber denoted “crosstalk,” A.K.A. a moment when the guys were interrupting each other. But the whole experience was lovely.
“Sorry we were such a nightmare,” Van Ness said as we said our goodbyes. But really, they were a dream.
Bonus: What Surprised the Fab Five Most About the Show’s Reception
Berk: “The religious community that’s reached out to me — I’ve had ministers reach out on Instagram, telling me that the moment in the Bobby Camp episode, where I talked about my whole life I begged and prayed for God not to make me gay and I’m still gay, changed their entire outlook on homosexuality. They would no longer be preaching that being gay was a choice and being homosexual was bad. They would now be preaching acceptance. I never thought I would be able to have an effect on the way kids were treated in church.”
Van Ness: “The thing I’ve been most surprised by has been for me, specifically, has been how people reacted to me. I didn’t mean to be, that’s just how I am on a Monday and a Tuesday and a Wednesday and a Thursday and a Friday in Atlanta in the summer, so I didn’t realize that a lot of people are dealing with how they identify with themselves in the world and how they feel comfortable with themselves in the world and I think there’s a lot of people that are feeling pent up still. And I’m surprised by that.”
France: “For me, it’s a reaction from people outside of the U.S., I think that we’re lucky enough to know that the majority of the U.S. is understanding enough, liberal enough to accept gay people. I’m surprised at the reaction from outside of the U.S., like Middle East, Asia, Africa. The response from those communities has been overwhelming to me — getting DMs, hundreds upon hundreds a month, saying ‘we finally see a version of us on the screen and we never thought we would see that in our lifetime’ — that blows my mind. So that feels really special. It’s so much more than a TV show for me.”
Brown: I think it’s the emotional reaction. I have people who are constantly crying on my shoulder. No matter if I’m in a grocery store, in a bar, in the mall and they’re literally telling me their life story and crying right here. And the one thing that is always consistent is that they always say, ‘I’ve never felt like someone is listening to me, and for once, I feel like someone is listening to me.’ And I think that’s really important and powerful in the fact that people don’t feel seen or heard, and we’re giving them the opportunity to be seen or heard and I didn’t think this little “make better” show would have people feeling that way.
Porowski: I think for me, it’s actually, thinking back about the Lacoste changing room scene and also interaction with Neil, it was to instances where I wasn’t trying to preach my gospel or like talk about my specialty or how I was a pro at something but it was when I was discussing my uncertainty. And how, growing is this dynamic process and sometimes I don’t have my shit figured out and I’m just trying to look and it’s this dynamic process. And I think that’s sort of like, or at least attempted humility came out, that was surprisingly what I got the most reactions for. Basically saying like, thanks for not trying to pretend you know everything and just coming in and being like you’re still trying to figure it out. Like you may be on a show but it doesn’t mean you suddenly know everything.
“Queer Eye” Season 2 premieres Friday, June 15 on Netflix.