Netflix's reboot of Queer Eye, a 15-year-old show whose cultural significance still resonates with communities of all sexual orientations, proved in its first season that despite the advances in LGBTQ acceptance we've made, there's still work to be done. Of the new Fab 5, Karamo Brown—with his floral-printed satin bomber jackets and flawless fade—is the Culture Expert and hype man, using his background as a social worker to tease out what makes each subject, or "hero," tick.
The easy self-assuredness Brown brings to the show spills over to those of us watching; as the heroes work through their issues with him, we see ourselves on screen and in turn gain our own shot of confidence. Indeed, when we met at the PAPER offices to talk, the warm and charismatic Brown complimented my skin and asked me about my love life, leading my coworkers to joke he was "trying to Queer Eye" me. Though he has a background in counseling, Brown made his television debut over a decade ago, becoming the first openly gay black man on reality TV when he joined the cast of MTV's The Real World: Philadelphia in 2004.
As the only black member of the Fab 5, Brown is the de facto guide on most issues relating to people of color that come up on the show. In the cold open of the first season's third episode, in which the Five makeover a police officer, Brown is driving through Georgia when the group's car gets pulled over. It turns out to be a set up—the officer is the friend and nominator of that episode's hero—but when Brown, who doesn't have his license on him, is told to step out of the car, he visibly tenses so much that it's hard to watch. While some viewers questioned the producers' decision to subject Brown to the stress of that encounter, he insists that it was good for the world to witness what it looks like when a black person is pulled over by police in America. It's cross-cultural moments like these that pulse the heart of the Queer Eye reboot, which so far has been filmed exclusively in the South and has a clear focus on bringing together different types of people in moments of connection, interior design, grooming and love.
Related | Tan France: Making America Queer Again
PAPER caught up with Brown to talk about how being a father guides him, the show's huge impact and his role in it all:
So much of the show's spirit is rooted in being filmed in the South. Were you familiar with it beforehand?
Yes, I'm originally from Texas and moved to Parkland Florida [where the Marjory Stoneman Douglass shooting occurred] for high school. That was were I got robbed, like weapon robbed. Horrible, but also look at what they're doing.
Wow. Did you attend the March For Our Lives rally?
I was there. It was one of the most inspiring things, to have kids be in control. I feel like this is what people in the 70s felt like when they saw this new generation emerge that was like, "We're going to fight for our civil rights, we're going to fight for women's rights, we're going to fight for gay rights." We haven't seen that in a while. To be 11-years-old and getting up and doing that is amazing. Those kids are amazing.
I always wonder if it's the kids or the generational time period.
It's both. I'm on the tail end of millennial, but I can't really claim it because I'm right there as it starts, but my kids are real millennials. I call them the genius generation. They get a bad rep from people, but I don't understand why. If you had to put up with everything this generation has had to put up with, of being able to interact in person but also socially having to express yourself in a short amount of characters, there's a talent to that. As a TV host we get taught how to do a sound bite, and the new generation is getting taught how to do that daily —to express yourself clearly and concisely, and how to interact with different cultures. It's just amazing to me. They're similar to the generation that launched the spacecraft.
Jacket: Beautiful Ful; Sweater: Soulstar; Trousers: Dom Bagnato; Shoes: Cole Haan
How old are your kids now?
21 and 17. My last girl that I dated in high school when I was 15 got pregnant and she never told me. She moved away, and then when my son was 8 going on 9, the state found me and subpoenaed me for back child support. I had no idea she was coming after me for money; she had actually applied for her own benefits and I was like, 'What in the hell? What am I supposed to do now?' Luckily I had parents who taught me that you step up and raise your children and show them love and support. So now I have custody with her support and blessing, and then a year later adopted her other child that's not biologically mine and ended up with two kids.
"When I did the Real World, reality TV wasn't a business like how it is now."
And you were 25 when that happened?
26 or 27. But I am so thankful for it because those kids saved my life. I has just finished college and when I did the Real World, reality TV wasn't a business like how it is now. It was like, you're young and stupid and going to drink a lot. So when I got off that show I was drinking and partying every night. I would get paid to go to clubs—think about that for a young 24-year-old, getting paid to go to clubs. Then I started dabbling in cocaine and smoking weed, and it wasn't anything I was addicted to, but it was an unhealthy lifestyle. It wasn't how I was raised. Having that happen [with my son] shocked me back into the way I was raised. I wouldn't have this career and this life if they hadn't come and saved my life. I would have continued on with the partying and drinking until I was in my 30's and then I would have been so fucking lost I wouldn't know what to do.
What about the way you were raised influenced who you are now?
I was raised in Texas and Florida and I've been openly gay since I was 15. I was born black. My parents are immigrants. So I've had to walk these different identities and see how people react to me. And my name is Karamo so imagine growing up in the South and being named Karamo, and the ignorance that goes with the name. I recall someone just being like, "KA-WHO, KA-WHAT??" and I wanted to be mad and angry and there was a small time when I was. But I was like, I'm going to fight everyone. I realized if I was compassionate that would always help a situation better.
When was that turning point?
It happened after the Real World. One of the good things about reality television, whether it's edited or not, is you get to actually see yourself. I think everyone should have someone put a camera on their ass for three or four months of their life and see how they really act. It was a blessing, because I was walking through life as a 22-year-old and approaching people a certain way. You watch it back and you're like, 'Oh, okay.' My whole season was about race. It was the first time they had two gay guys in the house, so that was a breath of freshness for gay men. But I also realized that my tone and the way I talked to people needed changing. Let's be real.
"Everyone should have someone put a camera on their ass for three or four months of their life."
After that you took a step away from entertainment?
I did. After I got the kids, I needed a real job. When I was on the Real World, I wasn't making the kind of money that you can make now off of reality TV. We got paid like, $3,000 dollar. I spent that on two car payments. I had to use my degree [in social work] to get a real job, and I worked with LGBTQ youth. My background helps me on Queer Eye to have these deep conversation with people.
When you have people who are in the foster care system trying to get adopted, you're talking to potential parents who are like 'I don't know if I can handle some of these issues, or handle a child from a different racial or cultural background.' And you're showing them that they can and that we're all the same and we just all want acceptance. I bring that now to the show.
How did you get back to TV?
When my son was eleven or twelve, he was writing this paper for school about living your dreams, and he asked me, 'Dad, are you living your dreams?' In that moment it was apparent that I could say, 'Yes, I'm living my dreams,' or I could say no, but I needed to have model behavior because I didn't want him to think you just don't live your dreams. So I said, 'I really want a real TV career,' and he said, 'So what are you going to do?'
So I literally would go to work from 8:30am to 6:30pm and come home, have dinner with kids and then when they were asleep I take a community college class that taught me broadcast journalism. Even though I didn't want to be a newscaster I needed the training. When class was about to end, they had a casting for this Oprah Winfrey Show. They said they were looking for a white guy, but I was like, 'No, they're looking for me. This is my time.' And I got the show. It was on social media and it was the first show I've ever had as a legitimate host. I had my name underneath Oprah's name and I was like, you can't beat that shit. That was three and a half years ago and it's just been up since.
"We're all the same. We all just want acceptance."
What do you know beforehand about the person, or hero, you're going to be working with for each episode?
Nothing. Literally nothing. They give us a piece of paper and say, 'Here's a little bit, but no, information' and we rip their house apart. That's actually probably four or five hours because we're searching to see what the issue is. I pull them to the side and have an hour long conversation, because in that time I really have to see what's blocking them. Then we figure it out ourselves. We don't get any information so what you see is actually us giving our critique on what's going to help.
How do you decide what you're going to talk about? Do you start with the same questions for each person?
The hero from season one, episode two, Neal, sent me the most amazing email which I can share with you. He was like, 'You would not let me joke through it, and you're the first person who ever just listened.' A lot of people like to hear themselves talk. Don't get me wrong, I love to talk, but in those instances it's more important for me to be quiet and let someone hear themselves. People will start opening up if you give them an opportunity to talk. The first question I usually ask is, 'When do you think the person you are now started?' It's a great digging point from there once you knock down that wall.
Let's talk about the episode with the police officer, Cory, and you getting pulled over. There was a lot of conversation about that moment and if it was fair to set you up like that, so to speak. What was that like for you?
That morning [that it aired], a lot of reporters were like, 'Netflix set you up.' But they didn't. What people don't see is that we fight over who gets to drive. That scene was two hours long, so I said, 'I have to drive or I'm going to fall asleep.' And the producers said no, because they knew about the trick but didn't want the black guy to be driving. We actually argued for like 45 minutes.
And they didn't tell you?
No, they were like, 'You can't drive' and I appreciate that because they want the best for me, but at the time I said, 'No, tell me why I can't drive.' The more I got stubborn the more they said, 'Okay, fine, drive.' So Netflix wasn't trying to set us up. I'm happy it happened, because I get so many messages from so many people who say, 'I never knew what it was like for a person of color until I got to see all of your faces and reactions.' Even Jonathan [Van Ness], he's more feminine and he's been harassed so that's why he takes out his camera [in that scene]. It shows you what people go through. I also realized there was a moment there where we could connect, and luckily he was open to it and it made something special and he and I are still friends till this day. Me and Cory, till this day we text all the time.
"People will start opening up if you give them an opportunity to talk."
Did you know you'd be doing episodes where Trump supporters, including Cory the police officer, were the heroes?
The majority of people we worked with were Trump supporters. It just really didn't get talked about, but they shared it with us. But for him [Cory], he was an avid supporter and it was a big part of his life. We weren't turned off by that. We thought, maybe if the other side could see us as human beings and see why this is hurting us, maybe it will help change their views, and it has.
On the show you're often tasked too with bringing together family members who may have some differences.
We have to come back to a place where people from the opposite side—we're not really opposite, we're more alike, but these labels have caused people to feel like they're different—if I can get people sitting down in a room, and help them navigate this conversation with my training, I think we can get some places.
Why do we need Queer Eye in 2018?
We're showing that when it comes to love and acceptance we're all the same. I'm going to these guys' houses and they're saying, 'You're a dad too, you know exactly what I'm going through.' And when they see Tan and Bobby they're like, 'You're husbands? So you understand what it is to be a husband.' Once we get to that cellular level we see we're so much more alike and it's amazing.
Do you ever get tired of having to speak to your identity?
Never. When I was in sixth grade or seventh grade, I would run home to see RuPaul's talk show. It was the first time I had ever see a gay black man, and he would talk about what it was to be this gay guy in New York. Thank god this show is a hit, but there are still corners of people who are going to meet me through this article, and if there are young people of color who are from the South or from anywhere and figuring out their sexual or gender identity, I want them to get a little empowerment from what I'm saying. You never know who's going to say, 'Oh my god, that's me.' As people of color, as women, as different sexual orientations and gender, we have a responsibility because there's some young girl out there who wants to know, how did you get here? What were the struggles you went through to be a successful woman? I never get tired of it, and anyone that does needs to spend some time with me so I can be like, 'C'mon, remember what's important.'
Photographer: Leo Deveney
Stylist: Sondra Choi
Main image: Jacket: Laboratoire; Shirt: Dom Bagnato