Queer Eye: The Fab Five who are transforming wardrobes, homes, diets – and self-esteem

It’s the big-hearted makeover show that’s become a phenomenon: Queer Eye is back for a new series and, yasss queens, we’re excited! Lina Das meets the Fab Five who are transforming wardrobes, homes, diets – and self-esteem.

Austin Hargrave

When a lonely, self-confessed redneck called Tom announced to the world that ‘You can’t fix ugly’, few could have imagined that it would herald the launch of one of the most talked-about shows of 2018. As one of the subjects on the Netflix makeover show Queer Eye, Tom was taken under the collective wing of the series’ resident experts – five insanely stylish gay men – and transformed from a slob pining for his ex-wife to a nattily attired man who eventually found the confidence to reconnect with his former love (though they have since split).

And therein lies the addictive power of Queer Eye, a revamp of the cult noughties makeover show Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. For while the previous incarnation took hopeless heterosexual men and provided them with quick external fixes, the rebooted Queer Eye goes much deeper. Featuring the show’s ‘Fab Five’, all experts in their chosen field – Tan France (fashion), Bobby Berk (design), Karamo Brown (culture), Antoni Porowski (food) and Jonathan Van Ness (grooming) – Queer Eye swoops into the lives of assorted men who are stuck in a rut or simply lost in today’s world and revitalises their wardrobes, homes and most importantly their self-esteem.

As gay men who have gone through their own personal struggles, the Fab Five, like the show’s subjects, know what it’s like to feel isolated, rejected and alone. So while the surface changes that take place are spectacular, it is the inner transformations of the subjects – or ‘heroes’ as they are called – and the Fab Five’s empathy, that give the show its undoubted power.

Here they talk to YOU about the show’s defining message of positivity, passion and the life-changing benefits of pomade.

Courtesy of Netflix

Tan France, 35, grew up in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, the son of Muslim parents. Queer Eye’s fashion expert, he met his husband, paediatric nurse Rob, at 25 and they live in Salt Lake City, Utah.

It was a genius move to set Queer Eye in the Deep South of the US because there’s a redneck town in every country. Major cities have seen people like me a thousand times, but some towns aren’t as well-versed in other cultures. Our show is really popular in India, bizarrely, and in season one we had an Indian, Neal, and me, a Pakistani man, bonding – something that was quite groundbreaking.

When I came out at 16, two of my closest Asian friends stopped talking to me. My
family didn’t exactly throw me a coming-out party when I told them I was gay, but they
were great. I’ve got two brothers and two sisters and my mum said to me: ‘I knew that you were like one of my daughters,’ which was a really cute way of putting it.

Seeing my father die when I was 14 made me stronger. He was a business owner and his passing made me push harder to start my own business [fashion brand Kingdom & State] because I wanted to make sure I could take care of my mother and siblings if the money ran out. Would he have watched Queer Eye? Probably not, because of our culture. It would have been difficult for him. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the show. In another 20 years, I don’t want a gay Pakistani boy to have to say: ‘My parents wouldn’t want to watch this.’

When I was called a terrorist by one of the heroes in season one [the scene didn’t make the final cut of the episode], I wasn’t surprised – it was the kind of insult hurled at me quite regularly in England. I’d be called ‘Paki’ every couple of weeks and after 9/11, it became ‘raghead’ or ‘terrorist’. Once a group of men started saying, ‘We f*****g pay for you to live in our country,’ and I replied, ‘Actually, I have a well-paid job and I pay a lot of tax, so you’re definitely not paying for me to live here.’ I tried to quash those prejudices there and then. It’s the same on the show – if someone says something inappropriate to me, I’ll say, ‘OK, let’s talk about this,’ as that’s the only way to move forward.

I met my husband online. I was visiting Salt Lake City and had built up a great group of gay friends who put me on this dating site – it was like a gay Facebook. Rob was one of the first people who messaged me. We went out for lunch, which turned into a trip to the cinema, then dinner. Within ten days I knew he was my person for life. The film we saw on that first date was Bride Wars starring Anne Hathaway. I had dinner with her a few weeks ago. She’s a big fan of Queer Eye – I must tell her she was part of my first date with my husband.

I cut short an interview with Vogue to have a fangirl moment with Nigella Lawson. I was in a hotel lobby on the phone when I looked up and saw her waving at me. I told Vogue I had to go, which was so rude, but I’m sorry, Nigella’s a queen! When I got back to the UK, she was the first person to say ‘welcome home’ on Twitter.

I loved Meghan’s understated wedding dress, but I wish she’d ditch the jaunty hats and berets. I’m, like, ‘Come on, love, you don’t need those! Your hair’s gorg.’ I wish she’d kept more of her own taste, but as royal style goes, I think she looks pretty great.

Courtesy of Netflix

Karamo Brown, 37, was born in Houston, Texas. Now Queer Eye’s culture expert, he became the first openly gay black man on reality TV in 2004 on the MTV show The Real World: Philadelphia. When Karamo was 26 he discovered he had fathered a child when he was 16. He now lives in Los Angeles with his two sons, Jason, 21, and Christian, 18, and his fiancé, director Ian Jordan.

The show is about love, but there have been times when I haven’t experienced it and it’s changed my entire trajectory. The main instance is with my father. He and I do not have a relationship now because he has never been able to reconcile his religion with his son [being gay]. The other week he sent me a text saying, ‘You’re a horrible person’, but I’ve come to a place now where it no longer affects me because I realise he has his own demons. I’ve forgiven him. Hopefully, by my showing only love back, he’ll change. My mum and sisters are my biggest cheerleaders, though.

I’m all for being a sexual explorer when you’re young, but I was just being a ho! In my teens and early 20s, I was a train wreck: drinking and indulging in a lot of destructive behaviour. All that stopped when I had kids and I went back to my career as a social worker and psychotherapist. My kids saved my life. They made me a better man.

When I got the official papers saying that I had a son, I felt every emotion from excitement to wanting to run away. My son’s mother and I were 15 and best friends who found solace in each other, but we lost touch and I didn’t find out I was a father until my son was ten years old. I received custody of Jason [in 2007 after Karamo and Jason’s mother decided it was a good idea for him to live with his father] and then I adopted his younger brother Christian [they have the same mother but different biological fathers] in order to keep them together.

Whenever people give my sons trouble for having a gay father, I tell them, ‘It’s not your battle – you don’t have to fight it.’ When my kids have been confronted by ignorant people, they reply, ‘Yeah, my dad’s gay. And he’s also successful, loving and respectful.’ They love the show, too, and don’t subscribe to any of those toxic masculine behaviours, which I’m really proud of.

We hear a lot about the guilt mothers feel, but fathers have guilt, too. We also feel scared or that we’re not doing enough for our kids. In the new season one of my favourite episodes features a dad called Leo who struggled with those feelings of inadequacy. It was nice to connect with another dad, especially as it was the first time I got to talk about being a father on the show.

I got tired of waiting for the love of my life to propose, so I just did it myself. Ian and I have been together for eight years and he’s my silver fox. I’d love to have another child – I want a little girl so badly – but Ian’s ten years older than me so he’s worried about being an older father. And because work is so busy, we don’t think it would be right to bring a newborn into our lives just yet.

Tan admitted that during casting for the show, he had a crush on me…and I had a crush on Jonathan. Of course, these crushes disappeared after a day of being around each other and, in any case, most of us are in relationships. Jonathan later told me he’d had a crush on me, too, and because I played football in high school and he was a cheerleader, we joke that if we’d gone to the same school, we could have dated one another. We’d have been prom king and queen.

Courtesy of Netflix

Bobby Berk, 36, grew up in Mount Vernon, Missouri. The show’s design expert, he has been with his husband Dewey, a facial surgeon, for 14 years and they live in Los Angeles.

There’s lots of crying on the show, but they are tears of hope and happiness. There’s so much negativity in the world right now that Queer Eye gives viewers hope because they can see how people from different walks of life can come together and find commonalities. I think that’s why it’s struck a chord.

People don’t realise how their living spaces can affect their mental health. When you wake up in a home that’s in disarray, your mind is in disarray, too. In season one, we helped hoarder Bobby Camp, whose house was a disaster. But when it was redone, he breathed a sigh of relief. He said, ‘Every day I’d come home and see the house in a mess and I’d feel I’m not enough.’

I initially refused to do one of the episodes in the new season. When I was cast for the show, I told the producers I’d do anything except set foot in a church and in the first episode, our hero Tammye is a church usher. I grew up very religious but when I came out as gay, my religion completely turned its back on me. Our marketing director said to me, ‘Don’t do it for the show – do it for all the little Bobbys who are sitting in their churches and being told by their pastors that they’re an abomination, so they can see that’s not the case.’ That was the moment I agreed to do the episode. It didn’t make the final cut, but I did enter the church in the end. Tammye [during the show] was such a loving person and to see her grow was a bit of a healing process for me, too.

My family and I went through a few years of not speaking, but now we’re very close. I left home at 15 before I came out because I knew that coming out in a small religious town was not an option. My dad is a 77-year-old cowboy who drives a truck and works cattle and he watched the Bobby Camp episode and said, ‘I’m going to watch it again – there’s some things I might have missed.’ To hear him say that made me realise my parents wanted to learn more about me – I’m glad that they could.

Drew Barrymore is a fan of the show, but thank God she didn’t remember the first time we met. I had furniture stores for years and one time, someone walked into the store and flung the door open so hard it almost shattered the glass. I looked up, furious, and was, like, ‘Can I help you?’ and there was Drew Barrymore with her assistant. Luckily, she’s forgotten all about it.

The original Queer Eye was definitely more slapstick, but it worked for that time. Back in 2003, Americans were fine seeing gays on TV as long as we fitted the mould of what they thought a gay should be – a hairstylist or someone who liked Broadway. But God forbid we went on air and talked about our husbands or kids. People would have flipped out. That’s why the five of us decided to let audiences into our lives, to show we’re just like everybody else.

Courtesy of Netflix

Antoni Porowski, 34, was born in Montreal, Canada, to Polish parents. The show’s food and wine expert, he has been with his boyfriend, art director Joey Krietemeyer, for seven years and lives in New York.

I was a bit of a troublemaker. Not feeling unconditionally loved at times – for instance, with regards to the relationship I had with my parents growing up – fuelled a need in me to be loved by everyone, which is probably why I became a performer. What’s nice about being in the public eye is that you quickly realise that not everyone is going to love you and it gives you the perfect opportunity – in a healthy way – to not give a s***.

I’m not crazy about labels, but I’d describe my sexuality as fluid. I never made a proclamation because I have gone back and forth between liking guys and girls, and even now I don’t like to put that pressure on myself to say that this is who I am for the rest of my life. I’ve felt deep, mad, genuine love for two women, one of whom is still one of my closest friends. If I were to describe myself as gay, it would be disrespectful to those relationships I had with women, which really changed my life.

I originally wanted to be the therapist version of the doctors on the show Nip/Tuck. I’ve always been drawn to psychology, and trying to read people and understand their needs has been really helpful on Queer Eye. I’ve also long been obsessed with food and have had specific opinions about it since about the age of five. I was a very picky eater and my parents would make me finish my food as I never wanted to eat my veggies. If I’d stayed that way, I’d never have landed the show because I’d have been making white pasta with ketchup the entire time.

I love chefs – they’re my personal Keith Richards – but I’m not one myself and have never claimed to be. I pride myself on being self-taught and I cook for fun, which is why I think it works well for Queer Eye. It hurt at first that people criticised my meals on the show for being quite simple, but I have to tailor them for the guys who are making them. If I teach them how to fillet a fish, it’s a waste because they’re just not going to be using that skill in their everyday life.

Meeting Joey was kismet. I was taking the subway when I saw this man with the most beautiful face I’d ever seen standing at the end of the carriage. I thought about him all day. That night, a new acquaintance came over to potentially rent a bedroom in my condo and asked if he could bring his roommate…and it turned out to be Joey! He knew about me two years prior to that, though. I had dated his co-worker Lizzy, who showed him my Facebook page and said, ‘I’m dating this guy and I’m not quite sure what his vibe is.’ Joey remembered my face from then.

The five of us are like brothers. I never really had that growing up, so it’s nice to have it with four guys who are so completely different. Karamo is the king of swag. Jonathan is about self-love and being the truest version of oneself you can be. Bobby is the mama captain and self-made businessman and Tan is like that, too. Tan and I are the grandmas of the group – we like our tea and we need to rest.

Jonathan Van Ness, 31, grew up in Quincy, Illinois, the youngest of three brothers, and is Queer Eye’s grooming expert. He is single and lives in Los Angeles.

As long as I have the hairline to support it, I’ll keep my hair long – but it’s not looking hopeful. There’s almost a zero per cent chance of me keeping my hair as my mum’s dad was bald in high school, but till that day comes, I want to feel like Beyoncé. The last time I had short hair was in 2012 when I cut it after a break-up. I was trying to cut him out of my hair and then I realised he was never actually in my hair.

My mum said that someone’s ability to bring joy to other people is related to the amount of pain they’ve experienced. I was mercilessly bullied at school and dealt with a lot of body-image issues, but I think I bring joy to people. I went through darkness in my life, but my spirit is such that I didn’t stay down for too long.

Violence is never the answer…unless your stepdad pops into your head and says, ‘Son, sometimes you just have to punch people in the face.’ I was [verbally abused] at school and pushed down stairs. There was one boy who called me the most derogatory names. Suddenly, I heard my stepdad’s words come into my head, so I pinned this boy halfway up the wall and said, ‘You know what? I would not touch you with a ten-foot pole, nor would any girl in this hallway. If you ever say that again, it will not end this nicely.’ Then I dropped him, turned on my heels and walked away. After that, no one said anything like that to me again. That was my Erin Brockovich moment.

Coming from a conservative town in Middle America made being gay difficult,
but it also made me witty, resilient and the man that I am today. I was so needy, I felt isolated, as though there was no one I could be myself with. But there’s a process with confidence and mine has only become stronger. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still have moments when I’m unsure. Last night I wore these heels and realised: just because the Duchess of Cambridge wears them doesn’t mean I can.

I was so depressed when my stepdad died, I gained 32kg in three months. He was the love of my mum’s life, the person who taught me how to ride a bike, and he ended up being a stay-at-home dad to three boys who weren’t his own. He went through a three-year battle with bladder cancer and after he died, I was incapacitated. I stopped doing hair and couldn’t get out of bed. Six months later, my mum was diagnosed with ovarian cancer [she’s now four years cancer-free]. I was able to fight my way out of that period by having therapy and doing yoga. There was a time when I could have imploded, but I showed up for myself and never gave up.

I flew to London in 2016 to watch The Great British Bake Off before it came out in the US because I love the show so much. I live for Candice and Nadiya, and I feel that Nancy Birtwhistle is a national treasure and you guys in the UK don’t follow her enough on Instagram because she’s just killing it. Needless to say, when Mary Berry and Mel and Sue left the show, it felt like [the final season of] Downton Abbey all over again. What do I think of Paul Hollywood? He’s probably really sweet, but I love Mel and Sue and Mary so much that to have a Bake Off resting just on his shoulders is not a world I want to live in.

Queer Eye season two is on Netflix now.