THE EMOTIONAL AVENGERS
How the ‘Queer Eye’ Cast Found God—And Acceptance—in Trump’s America
The five hosts of ‘Queer Eye’ in a frank conversation about reaching out to Trump voters, homophobia in the South, religion, and diversity in queer visibility. Oh, and crying. Duh.
Within seconds of seeing him in the lobby, Tan is curled up on Jonathan’s lap. They haven’t seen each other for the interminable length of a night’s sleep, but the early morning cuddle happens as if the two were drawn together by magnetic force—proving that the riotous intimacy and cheerleading happening in the comments of their exploding Instagram accounts is no performance.
Such precious moments are quickly interrupted when bleary-eyed office workers walking in from their morning commutes squeal a pitchy discord of excitement and disbelief that the Gay Beatles themselves, Queer Eye’s Fab Five hosts, are in their place of work, each precariously balancing their iced coffees as they scramble through their bags for their iPhones to take selfies.
Soon enough we’re upstairs at The Daily Beast’s offices for an interview about the recent launch of Queer Eye season two on Netflix.
Jonathan is threatening to stage an impromptu photo shoot against the floor-to-ceiling glass facade of our Frank Gehry-designed building, Antoni is cracking open his green juice, and, in the grand spirit of this emotional hydrogen bomb of a reality series, I am choking back tears as we talk about Mama Tammye, the Christian mother and cancer survivor from Gay, Georgia—seriously—who so beautifully reckons with her faith in order to maintain a relationship with her gay son, Miles.
Then, before we know it, Jonathan is railing against the Electoral College. Naturally.
All told it’s an hour of pandemonium, laughter, sass, brutal truths, and reflection in a conversation that calls on Diane Keaton movies, rural queer culture, and the democratic process in one fell swoop. Such is the case when Antoni Porowski, Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France, Bobby Berk, and Karamo Brown—the Fab Five in Netflix’s Queer Eye revival—walk into a room. They explode a confetti cannon of feeling, leaving a dazzling, colorful, inspirational mess to sift through in their wake.
The second season of Queer Eye, which debuted last weekend on Netflix, featured two landmark episodes. The cast’s first female makeover was the aforementioned Tammye, in an episode that saw tears coming like a power washer out of the audience and the Fab Five alike, as Tammye’s inherent goodness and acceptance keyed directly into gay men’s complicated relationship with faith, the church and Jesus.
The season’s trans makeover has also made headlines, amidst a conversation that has already been taking place about the reboot since its premiere in February.
Here are five impossible-to-miss gay men who, in each episode, drive into red-state America, setting up shop in communities and small towns where homophobia is the prevailing attitude, #MAGA is the dominant hashtag, and the only idea more outrageous than tolerance just might be acceptance. Yet in a week of emotional and physical makeovers, the Fab Five manage to build a bridge between these communities and their own morals, values and identities.
When Queer Eye heads to Trump’s America, they’re changing minds and changing lives, but do those minds and lives belong to people who, by virtue of participating in this show, are already accepting?
As the show’s popularity skyrockets—in tandem with the needle-breaking horror and divisiveness of the daily news cycle—it’s clear that the current political climate fosters a need for this show. But what is it like for these five men, all coming to terms with being public figures and beacons of the gay community in their own rights, to be in these communities and having these conversations?
Here’s our lengthy, refreshingly frank conversation about what responsibilities the show does or doesn’t have in portraying these communities; the transgressive act of being flamboyant in rural, Trump-voting Georgia; the debate over how representative their gayness and identities are of the greater LGBTQ+ population; and, of course, your hero and mine, Mama Tammye.
There was a craven desire to cry along to Queer Eye again, even though it had only been a few months since the first season. What do you think it is about the times we’re in and what your show does that has people so desperate for its unique emotional release?
Jonathan: It’s like that movie Something’s Gotta Give, kind of. The way reality TV has been and our political climate, you can only have so much TV that makes you feel like you have to brush your teeth after—or your soul, so to speak. Something needed to get more positive. People have been looking for that. I’ve been obsessed with The Great British Bake-Off for the last two years because my nervous system needed something to feel good about and sob to.
Though I’m generalizing, I’d say that the larger gay community is mad at the people who live in the area of the country you travel to because of how they voted and what’s happened to the country. More, it’s a part of the country that LGBTQ people tend to flee from because of those very attitudes. What was your experience as gay men traveling to a part of America that is responsible for so much of our current political divide?
Tan: I don’t think gay people should be forced to just be in the coastal states. We have a right to be in every state we want to be in, every town we want to be in, and afforded the same love and respect that we are in the coastal states and larger cities. I’m hoping that our show is the first of many that encourages people to try and have tough conversations with people in their hometowns and break down barriers so that we are finally accepted everywhere.
Karamo: And I think it’s crucial for those people who identify as LGBTQ+ in these smaller towns to have visibility. I think about the Tammye episode in season two. Miles and I have this conversation alone in the car. He came from Atlanta and said that seeing us walk around his small hometown gave him a sense of hope. Sometimes we don’t realize how special it is for these people in these small communities who don’t feel seen to have someone show up and say, “We see you.” And people are going to have to see us! So listen, this is your time to feel empowered and feel good about yourself. Use some of the confidence we have to build up your own confidence.
I think it’s two-fold. There is definite value to what you’re doing in terms of people needing to feel seen in these parts of the country. But then on the other hand, these are parts of the country where many people are not accepting of our community, and you’re talking to select people who, by virtue of participating in the show, obviously embrace you guys.
Jonathan: But I think it’s a precarious brush that you paint with, saying that most people there aren’t accepting of gay people. Like, there are people who aren’t accepting but there are people who voted for Donald Trump who are accepting of gay people. Not that I’m sticking up for them, people who voted for Donald Trump. I’m just saying that they are not all bad people. And that whole deplorable thing is what got us here, kinda.
Tan: I think it would be a shame to just not talk to the people who voted for Trump because they’re “deplorable”—that’s not my word, obviously. We will achieve nothing if we don’t talk to them. We need to understand their reasons and understand why, and hopefully educate them why it wasn’t a wise choice and why they should be supporting the likes of us and the community.
Jonathan: It’s actually the nature of the Electoral College, honey. I probably do need to go to Georgia and all these places and talk to all the people and make them cuter, so that everyone doesn’t leave so that we don’t keep winning the popular vote and not having our candidate as president.
Karamo: It would be great to destroy the Electoral College.
Antoni: What you’re saying is really interesting, though. [Looking at Karamo] Because just touching on bringing it back to visibility, like with Miles, I always think it’s very precious and I have to be very careful about how I approach something that’s political. But with Miles, he was basically just telling you that just showing up and just being there and helping his mother is what we need to do for visibility. And the more that we are visible, the more that we just show up and do our job, the more that there’s the possibility for less fear and more understanding.
Bobby: This is a text from Jeremy, from season one with the firehouse: “Thank you very much for allowing me to be on Queer Eye. I’m not going to lie, I was very hesitant to be on the show. After time to reflect, I couldn’t be happier with the show and the great job each of you did. Queer Eye does something that I never thought was possible. It was able to humanize both sides of the story and each person in the makeover. This is what makes the show so unique and why I believe everyone should watch. This world does a great job of dehumanizing everyone. When you can make a decision about a group of people, no matter what that group is, without thinking of them as humans, it’s easy to hate or discriminate against them. But when you get to know them or think of them as humans, it changes everything. When I hear someone criticize me for being on the show, I think what a shame that you didn’t meet them. It’s easy to talk to hate, but when you humanize someone, it changes the game. When you Queer Eye, you realize they are amazing people who have overcome so much hatred. This world is full of hate, and I am so thankful to be a small part of a show showing love…”
Antoni: Is that a text or an email?
Bobby: It was a text.
Antoni: It’s very long.
Bobby: “...Queer Eye did not come just for acceptance. They came to make everyone humans again. They reached the heart of people, and when you can do that you can change the world.”
Bobby: That’s from a bunch of card-carrying Republican Trump voters with Bible verses on the walls of their firehouse who now love the gays.
Did the same happen on your end, where any preconceived notions about what the people in these communities might be like was challenged or changed because of your experience with them?
Bobby: I grew up in one of those small communities in the South and in the Midwest. So did Jonathan. I know I definitely had some misconceptions going in because where I grew up there was nothing but hatred towards gays. I literally ran away from home at 15 because I knew I couldn’t come out there but I couldn’t stay in the closet any longer. So I went there thinking that we weren’t going to change hearts, that people were going to think the way they think and that was going to be it. Texts like that prove you can.
I wasn’t prepared to be so moved by the Tammye episode and the conversations about the complicated relationship gay men have with the church. What were those reflections like for you?
Jonathan: She said one thing that moved me the most, where I was like, just wow. Bobby and I, we grew up in rural America and grew up really religious, around that whole narrative of “I love and accept you but I just don’t agree with your lifestyle.” So a lot of times back then I would get preached to and spoken down to as the explanation for why I shouldn’t have a right because I’m gay. So in Tammye’s episode, when she said, “I can’t antagonize and evangelize at the same time,” that was so major.
That’s the line. I’ve thought a lot about that one line since I first watched the episode.
Jonathan: I’m so used to people who are Christian saying something in support of me but then saying “but I just…” and then something hateful would come out. I’m just holding on with white knuckles wondering what they’re going to say. But all my tension just released when she said that. She was so open, and there was never that “but I just…” There was only love, period. I wasn’t expecting that.
Antoni: I know the religious stuff was a focal point of [the] episode. Religion is something that’s always for me been intimate and discussed at home with me and my higher power. I was more interested in her evolving relationship with her son, and the fact that they had been so close but there had been a time when they weren’t in touch at all. And then he came back. It gives so much hope, to have somebody shift her perspective in such an extreme way.
Why do you think that shift in her moved you so much? You cried hard in that episode.
Antoni: I come from a pretty dysfunctional household. It’s never been a constant. There are family members that I would be very close with and then wasn’t close with at all. I have a sister who I didn’t have a relationship with at all who is basically my best friend now. It was a reminder just for me to remember when times are hard or when you’re experiencing trouble with a family member, that the way things are now isn’t going to last forever. The fact that she did make a choice, and her choice was, “I’m going to remain religious and I still love my son, so what I need to change is my perspective,” it’s beautiful.
Jonathan: I think another thing we forget, speaking to your emotion there, which was so gorgeous and beautiful: It seems like that was our first episode, but really it was the last one we filmed. Also, because you want to hear us gorgeously and clear, there’s never air conditioning on, and that was for sure like August 31st in rural Georgia after a major renovation that had such highly charged emotions for everyone. That was like our last 10 minutes of being together after shooting all these episodes. We left all our blood, sweat, and tears on the dance floor, not just in that episode but after four months. It is going to make you gut-cry.
Speaking of families and changing perspectives, has seeing you on this show telling these stories affected or evolved how your own families feel about you and your relationships?
Bobby: I know I’ve had a lot of these conversations with my family, but when I had them I don’t know if they were at a time when they were necessarily receptive to them. So for me I think it’s been very healing for my parents to watch these shows and hear from my perspective how I felt and how things affected me and it not really be a conversation. It’s nothing but them listening. Even my dad, one night I was talking to him and he was recalling the Bobby Camp episode from season one and was like, “I think I might have missed some things. I think I’m going to go back and watch that episode again.”
Jonathan: That’s so nice!
Bobby: It’s nice, because, without speaking for the other boys, our families are being able to hear things about us and about our past that maybe we haven’t always been able to articulate to them in a way that they can understand it.
Jonathan: My mom’s into self-care right now. My whole life, my mom was very much Tammye. She will do everything for everyone else—especially since my stepdad passed away. She lost the love of her life to bladder cancer like five years ago, and they were like so cute and middle aged and in love, and has been so depressed. So many people in our hometown talk to her about me now, and all of a sudden she’s like, “I did a little mask, and I got a little scrub and starting putting mousse in my hair.” And I like started weeping. My mom, it just doesn’t come naturally to her to take care of herself. Women in my family don’t do this. They just work until their fingers turn into z’s from arthritis. Like my grandmother, her fingers were in the shape of z’s. Like they were z’s! Think of a z! Those are her fingers.
I’m sure you’ve found doing press and meeting people that, because of the nature of the show, people demand that you share personal stories, be it about your coming out or your relationship with your families. That’s not always the most natural thing. What’s your experience with that aspect of being on this show?
Bobby: I’ve always been a private person and never liked sharing my feelings like that, so it’s definitely been a long, hard process. Most people on TV play a character. We’re ourselves. You know so many intimate details about us. It can be a bit draining sometimes to put yourself out there like that and share like that.
There was a Bustle video that you all did, for example, about why it was important to share coming out stories. And Antoni, you mentioned that you were only talking publicly about your coming out for the second time with that video. So it does seem like this has been something that’s been a process to be comfortable with.
Antoni: A lot of things I think are personal and I won’t touch on out of respect for other people. But then you also have to take into consideration that something like coming out, you can actually be of service to somebody else by sharing that story. I’m really affected by what Karamo was saying earlier about visibility, about showing up. That just engaging in a very simple action or sharing a story, I’m learning very quickly the power of that and the reaction you get from it. I try to keep that the foundation. Why am I sharing what I’m sharing? Is it for my ego? Because I want to be understood? For atonement? Or is it really to help somebody else.
[Everyone starts snapping in approval]
Karamo: That’s poetry. Good job!
Bobby: For me, one it’s a fine line between sharing my story, protecting the privacy of other people, and protecting my relationship with my family, which may not have been good in the past. It’s trying to balance sharing that story and not bringing up that hurt, destroying my relationship with my family again by showing them in a bad light. There was a time they were awful to me, but we have a great relationship now. So it’s a consideration of how much to share without ripping my mother’s heart out of her chest.
Whenever there is a TV series where gay men are at the center of it, be it Will and Grace or Looking or Queer Eye, there is so much hand-wringing and debate in the community about how gayness is represented. Because you are on this show, which has a bit of its own think piece cottage industry on that very topic, you are thrust into that conversation. What has that been like for you?
Jonathan: I don’t think that’s our debate—at least for me. Ever since I started going on set with cameras, whether it was Gay of Thrones or Getting Curious, I think I’ve always faced that. For me, it’s that criticism of “you represent such a stereotype of the community.” Gay of Thrones was the first time I saw those comments, and it was the last time. I was like, I’m consciously putting that down. My whole life there have been closeted gay men brutally attacking me verbally and physically for me presenting the way that I did. I think a lot of the gay men who have a problem with how gay men like me represent us as a community also have a lot of issues with internalized homophobia. And it’s not only that they have internalized homophobia, they wring their hands so much trying to explain how it’s not that, and “it’s a stereotype I don’t want to be lumped in with,” or whatever. That’s just not my battle, sweetheart. This is who I am and the energy and the personality and the spirit that I’ve had for 31 years and I don’t have to explain that. It’s not my debate.
Karamo: I think it’s about celebrating the diversity in us.
Jonathan: And that’s how you spin it correctly. That’s cute.
Karamo: We do celebrate diversity and we try to encourage any outlet we speak to to understand that not at any point have we ever tried to be a representation for all members of the gay community. We never try to speak for all members of the LGBTQ+ community. We do try to be authentically proud of who we are and show up holistically with who we are. That way there is some little Antoni, some little Tan, some little Jonathan, some little Bobby, some little Karamo who can feel seen at least once in their life. If that happens, then success.
Jonathan: [Snapping in approval] Gorge!