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Making America Fabulous Again

Why Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is more important than ever in the age of fashion fluidity—and the evolution of straight and gay friendships…
 
Is Madonna helming the TV and streaming world? These days, almost every hit series is being reinvented just like the Queen of Pop has done with her venerable career. And not to be outdone, the groundbreaking reality TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—which revolutionized not only the tube but also gay and straight culture (who can forget that full-image Entertainment Weekly cover after the show exploded?)—returned last month with a new look, cast, location and attitude.
 
Replacing the original “Fab Five”—Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley and Jai Rodriguez—are newbies Antoni Porowski (food and wine aficionado), Bobby Berk (interior design guide), Karamo Brown (culture czar), Jonathan Van Ness (grooming guru) and Tan France (fashion maven).
 
And your eyes are not deceiving you: to mirror the times, the cast is much more diverse.
 
Take newcomer Tan France, for instance. He is thrilled by his casting, saying, “I am an immigrant, I am Pakistani, I am Muslim, I’m gay. If you’re Middle Eastern, boys don’t go into fashion. They go to law school or to be a doctor. I love the plan for what they want for this new show. It’s very much about the hero but also about us and our stories. I think it’s going to be formidable.”
 
It’s also lost a few inches off its original title: the series is now known as just Queer Eye (a move Bravo made halfway through the US run). Moreover, the tastemakers are on the road: New York City is out and Atlanta, Georgia, is in.
 
“It was time to leave New York,” says executive producer Rob Eric. “We realized that you can take anyone into a high-end Manhattan shop and make them look like a million bucks. We believed Queer Eye should be able to go anywhere—any city, any town, any community on any budget and make over anyone of any gender with great results.”
 
A smart move since the southern US states provide a lot more character-driven conflict and culture clashes than post-modern New York City. What has stayed the same is the focus on watching the cast forge transformative relationships with men from a wide array of backgrounds and beliefs often contrary to their own.
 
As a TV reporter and critic, when I heard of the Queer Eye reboot, my immediate thought was: “Wouldn’t it be more cutting-edge and relevant if Netflix reinvented the reality series as Straight Eye for the Queer Guy? Or Cisgender for Generation X?” After all, more than 10 years after the Emmy-winning series left the airwaves, straight men have embraced their own sense of fashion-forward style and/or merged with ours (from metrosexual to hipster) without our help—and evolved lifestyle design in many ways across the spectrum.
 
In fact, millennial straight men are also, for the most part, embracing the many layers of sexuality and gender, and are disrupting the status quo in all areas of life almost daily.
 
So why go back to the same well? In an exclusive interview with IN, executive producer and creator David Collins, who took a mini-career break to become a dad to twins, explains the genesis of the reboot.
 
“Taking some time off to be a dad, I realized there was a whole generation now that didn’t know about the original and beloved Queer Eye,” he sets up. “We’re in a time when the show can do some work and some good again. We wanted a breath of new life, and Netflix was the perfect partner and fit. They bring the modern world of streaming and platform.”
 
France points out to us, “[The gay community] has gone through a lot in the past year—especially in America. But it’s also an important show globally [Queer Eye spawned myriad international versions]. There’s so much more impact we can have in the world, just like the original show had in America.”
 
And vice versa.
 
Discussions began 14 months ago—and it was Collins who approached the streaming juggernaut. “They were exploring creating a non-scripted reality division, and we were humbled and blessed to be their first,” he says.
 
As befits a show about transformation, it transformed itself into more of a documentary. “The new Queer Eye has much more of a verité documentary feel to it,” Collins describes. “To have a relationship develop, you need time. You’ve got to hang. Get some coffee or shop together. The audience needs to see that. They need to see more of their journey. They get to know one another beyond the superficial.”
 
And straight men won’t entirely be the focus of the queer makeover in future seasons. Collins previews, “Hopefully, as we move on with new seasons, men, women, families, transgender, gay men and women—the possibilities are endless. Our idea is that the ‘queer’eye is all-encompassing and really about designing your life well.” Part of that new fluid approach is thanks to Netflix and its young audience.
 
Luckily, the streaming giant is keeping the show’s core appeal intact. Collins enthuses, “We leaned into Netflix for their insight and craved that information because we wanted it to succeed but also be true to the original format, which is ultimately about transformation through information told with comedy and heart. That hasn’t changed. We’ve never been a makeover show; we’re a be-better show.”
 
The world has changed a lot since the show debuted 15 years ago—gay civil rights becoming reality in North America, not to mention new technologies and social media—and that reality has been incorporated into the series.
 
“We definitely took advantage of the smartphones and being able to do research and references,” Collins says. “It’s been a great tool that we will definitely tie in more as people use their smartphones for everything, from purchasing services to products and communicating. It’s exciting to see how tech impacts the zeitgeist more and more.”
 
Or horrifying!
 
In an era where anyone can be a tastemaker, journalist, star, producer, insert profession here—thanks, Instagram and YouTube—it’s comforting to know there are still experts out there on the interwebs to turn to.
 
Karamo Brown nods, saying, “Nowadays we have culture at our fingertips because of technology. People are experiencing different cultures and subcultures constantly. For me, it’s helping people figure out how to navigate all those subcultures and cultures they’re experiencing. The guys have joked that in helping people to be more cultured, I’ve sort of turned myself into a life coach. Everything I’m doing is really, how do we help you navigate the life that you want to live? It’s not just the exterior—culture is the heart of all societies. It’s the heart of who we are as individuals.”
 
But at its core, Queer Eye was a groundbreaking series that detailed the beautiful friendships gay and straight men have had throughout time. “One hundred per cent,” smiles Collins. “The original inspiration for the show was based on my best friends being straight. I used to say, ‘It doesn’t matter that my straight friends love sports and I love shoes,’ but that has changed to ‘My straight best friends love shoes more than I do!’ Straight or gay, we’re all just men.”
 
Overall, the reinvented series is about all of us trying to make sense of this new and crazy world of ours with increasingly fewer labels and spiked sensitivity in our language and communication.
 
Collins says, “My favourite thing about being a gay man is enjoying all sides of being a human, quite frankly. One of the most beautiful things is experiencing my daughters and having an unbelievable newfound love for the beauty of women, which has tapped into my feminine spirit. I’m a dad but I’m also a mom as well.”
 
Co-host Bobby Berk loves seeing the world’s pendulum swinging to a more inclusive side, but reminds us that the past is always present: “There is a lot of breaking down of norms—which has led to a lot of breakthroughs—but there has also been a lot of backsliding, which makes it very important for us to have these conversations.”
 
So what does Collins think of how millennials have shaped the world? And how upcoming Generation Z might shape it?
 
“They’re very fluid,” he says. “Even my nine-year-old girls— who could not be more different from one another—are already [eschewing] gender norms. One of them is embracing their masculine side. In some ways ‘tomboy’ is a bad word for us because she is who she is—a beautiful soul. I love how open millennials are. They don’t have the hang-ups or weight that I had as a Midwestern South Baptist boy who was scared of his own shadow in Ohio.”
 
But it’s how millennials are playing with drag and gender-bending fashion that makes them a generation to take seriously.
 
“Millennials’ gender fluidity has really impacted their style and fashion—and I love how they dress,” Collins applauds. “It’s an amazing time to be a young person. I’m happy for them because they have real mentors and guides now to help them navigate life with their free attitude.”
 
But let’s get to the important question: how does Collins manage five queens on set? He laughs out loud, saying, “It’s like the OG. They’re all truly amazing; it’s a big brotherhood. We laugh until our tummies hurt every day. It’s a fun adventure because of each of them. It’s like growing in a family. We all have our ups and downs but ultimately we all have each other’s back. I couldn’t be more proud to be the daddy bear to them.”
 
But can we expect to see a ‘return from the dead’ à la Alexis Carrington in Dynasty from the original cast in future seasons? (We won’t spoil if any of the OG returns in future seasons.)
 
After all, arguably the most popular and successful post-Queer alum, Carson Kressley, wasn’t too thrilled to learn he wasn’t a part of the reboot when news broke last year. #Drama? The RuPaul’s Drag Race judge told TMZ, “The producers actually called me before the story broke and were like, ‘Hey, we wanna let you know, we’re redoing the show with a new dynamic cast’ and I was like [disappointed noise].”
 
He continued, “I think they want a young, new cast, which I totally get, and they always do this with reboot shows, but I’m like, ‘I’m not Mickey Rooney! I’m still alive and kicking, I can do it!’”
 
But Collins maintains every one of the vets is on Team Queer 2.0.
 
“They’ve been so supportive and they’re all about the big Queer Eye family, but there are no plans one way or another for guest-star cameos,” he teases. “We’re not saying they will or won’t be back. But keep watching!”
 
Or binging.
 
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NELSON BRANCO is the digital editor and producer for the Toronto Sun. As a contributing editor, he’s penned pieces for magazines like Hello Canada, People and TV Guide, and online sites like Huffington Post. He’s also worked as a TV producer for Breakfast TV and The Marilyn Denis Show. You can follow him at @nelliebranco.
 

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