THEY’RE HERE! THEY’RE QUEER! ...AND THEY’RE OUT TO CRUSH TOXIC MAS­CULIN­ITY

GQ (Australia) - - GQ TASTE+TRAVEL - WORDS AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ADAM BAIDAWI

WE HEAD TO RU­RAL NSW WITH THE STARS OF QUEER EYE, AND UN­COVER HOW THE SE­RIES RE­TURN IS CHANG­ING NOT JUST THE WAY MEN LOOK – BUT HOW THEY THINK.

IN

an out-of-the-way hair­dresser, Ge­orge, a sun-bat­tered, big­hearted 54-year-old Aus­tralian farmer is sit­ting dewy-faced be­fore a mir­ror, at­tempt­ing the small­est of break­throughs. “My ... skin ... looks ... nice ,” he stam­mers. “OK, one more time,” says Jonathan Van Ness, sum­mon­ing what seems like his last ounce of sass. “My... skin... looks... ni-...” he tries again. “Now, take away that mur­der­ous tone.” “My skin looks nice!” And at last, it’s hap­pened: Ge­orge has com­pli­mented him­self. It’s taken the bet­ter part of the day – and lit­er­ally an hour of non-stop per­for­mance art from Van Ness, who’s re­spon­si­ble for dis­pens­ing the Fab Five’s groom­ing ex­per­tise. But by Ge­orge, he’s done it. Ge­orge is just the lat­est ‘hero’ to be madeover by the Fab Five Mark II: the stars of Net­flix’s Queer Eye re­boot. They’ve come all the way to a tiny town in ru­ral NSW sim­ply to film a one-off we­bisode of the show. Now, let’s say you’re a cynic. Let’s say you haven’t yet queued the new Queer Eye on your to-watch list and have lit­tle de­sire to ever do so. Let’s say you have vague mem­o­ries of Car­son Kress­ley and co. show­ing straight dudes ba­sic life skills in­clud­ing how to be nice to one’s girl­friend, how to ap­ply hair prod­uct, and how to shave one’s face with­out look­ing like a vic­tim of Jack the Rip­per. With their par­tic­u­lar ar­eas of ex­per­tise – food and wine; fash­ion; cul­ture; de­sign; and groom­ing – they would, to para­phrase Kress­ley, not change these straight guys, but make them bet­ter ver­sions of them­selves. But it’s also been 15 years since the show first hit screens. Why on earth is this still needed in 2018? That would be a fair thought. And it would also be to­tally miss­ing the point. Be­cause this Queer Eye bears only a dis­tant re­sem­blance to the early-’00s se­ries – that which was var­i­ously praised and crit­i­cised for its main­stream de­pic­tion of gay cul­ture ( OUT magazine dubbed the orig­i­nal Fab Five one of the “great­est gay suc­cess sto­ries” of 2003; the Wash­ing­ton Post de­scribed the show as “stereo­types on pa­rade”). Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, im­por­tant and mean­ing­ful in its own right, was still a mostly by-thenum­bers makeover show. Queer Eye is some­thing wholly dif­fer­ent – a home-run swing that mirac­u­lously came off. “The orig­i­nal show was so im­pact­ful. There was a lot of pres­sure to make sure that it was go­ing to live up to that rep­u­ta­tion,” says Tan France, the Fab Five’s style ex­pert. Net­flix’s se­cret sauce? The ad­di­tion of pre­cisely what was lack­ing in the orig­i­nal se­ries – and what many be­lieve is miss­ing from 2018 in gen­eral: a crit­i­cal, con­struc­tive re­flec­tion on mod­ern mas­culin­ity. The fact that it man­ages to do so with wit, fun, joy and – al­ways – an abun­dance of tears has won the show a cap­tive in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence, and an unim­peach­able 95 per cent rat­ing on Rot­ten Toma­toes. And so, with the sec­ond sea­son ready to roll out, the new Fab Five trav­elled to Aus­tralia to stretch the ‘Yas Queen!’ meme al­most to break­ing point, by vis­it­ing a ru­ral NSW town named Yass to trans­form one of its 6506 res­i­dents – a farmer named Ge­orge – and an iconic, if age­ing, local pub. Suf­fice to say, this was the big­gest cir­cus Yass has ever seen. As the five men stood shiv­er­ing in front of the town’s hum­ble “wel­come” sign, a pho­tog­ra­pher from the Yass Tri­bune ner­vously walked up, and click-click-clicked the shaki­est front page photos ever taken. Scoop scored. They are shuf­fled back to Ge­orge’s ex­pan­sive farm­land on the out­skirts of the town. Here, the process be­gins. We’re rapidly taken through the nar­ra­tive of Ge­orge’s life: meet­ing his dread­locked son, Levi, and hear­ing about the mem­o­ries of his youth, of rid­ing bulls, of how it was all washed away in the ef­fort to take care of his farm, his chil­dren, his mother and – too rarely – him­self. Ge­orge is a sweet, sin­gle man with a bro­ken tooth, a mess of sil­ver hair and a par­tic­u­larly Aus­tralian way of un­der­state­ment. Though his thick Aussie twang presents no small num­ber of hur­dles for the Fab Five – like when Van Ness presses him to name his favouri­teever hol­i­day. “Ayres Rock, I guess,” says Ge­orge. “Ooh!” comes the re­ply. “You’ve been to Is­rael?!” Ge­orge was wildly out of his com­fort zone from the mo­ment the Five ar­rived. To be straight: it’s clear that nei­ther he nor Levi knew ex­actly who these five queer men were, or why the six-foot-two one with a flow­ing shoul­der­length mane was so in­sis­tent on hugs and hair­tousling. The men played it to their favour. “My favourite is al­ways the mo­ment where Jonathan starts play­ing with their hair in the first five min­utes,” says Bobby Berk (De­sign), who hap­pens to be the most ex­cep­tion­ally un­der­rated mem­ber of the team – com­pletely trans­form­ing a home or business, with noth­ing but a tiny crew of helpers. “To watch them have any­body that they don’t know be that in­ti­mate… most of them prob­a­bly don’t do that with peo­ple they’ve known their whole life,” he says. “But in turn, by the end of the week, they have ab­so­lutely no prob­lem just sit­ting there, nuz­zled up with Jonathan, be­cause they’ve re­alised, it’s OK. Yeah, it’s OK! Be­ing open emo­tion­ally and

phys­i­cally with an­other man – there’s noth­ing sex­ual about it.” In a man­ner that feels only gen­tly for­mu­laic, the pro­duc­tion crew be­gins to tick-off the key mo­ments in the episode: the meet-and-greet chat, the wardrobe as­sess­ment, and, even­tu­ally, come to a shot that will clearly be the make-or-break of the mini-episode. Karamo Brown is the re­boot’s cho­sen ‘cul­ture guy’. But rather than in­tro­duc­ing the ‘heroes’ to the­atre, or bal­let, or stand-up com­edy – as the orig­i­nal se­ries did – Brown has evolved the role to in­tro­duce men to other things: to gen­tle sel­f­re­flec­tion, to grad­ual emo­tional con­fronta­tion, to the ar­tic­u­la­tion of feel­ings they may not yet have re­alised were there. The role suits him. Brown’s back­ground in so­cial work and psy­chother­apy gives his cues an un­der­pin­ning of sin­cer­ity, and an abil­ity to know when, and where to push. Sea­son one of the re­booted Queer Eye was filmed in and around Ge­or­gia – a firmly con­ser­va­tive US state, and a far cry from New York, where the orig­i­nal was based. As such, the men who would be­come the sub­jects of trans­for­ma­tions have been far more di­verse. The five men, too, feel more di­verse: Brown is an African-amer­i­can, while Tan France is a gay Mus­lim Brit with Pak­istani her­itage. In one episode, Brown’s one-on-one time with ‘hero’ Cory Wal­drop – a Trump- sup­port­ing white po­lice of­fi­cer – proved to be one of the show’s coming-of-age scenes, as the two dis­cussed African-amer­i­can re­la­tions with the po­lice force. There were no over­whelm­ing reve­la­tions, no neat bow tied on the is­sue, but the fact that the con­ver­sa­tion went there, and went there re­spect­fully, is a mark of the mat­u­ra­tion of a TV show that’s easy to dis­miss. Each of the Fab Five help the show’s sub­jects open up emo­tion­ally – but Brown is un­doubt­edly the lynch­pin. “I was fight­ing, day in and day out to have the men have these cathar­tic cries. And not in a sadis­tic way,” he says. “I would get up­set in an episode if one of our heroes did not have an

“WE TALK ABOUT WOMEN AND THEIR BODY IS­SUES... BUT WE PUT THAT SAME PRES­SURE ON MEN.

op­por­tu­nity to be vul­ner­a­ble and to ex­press emo­tion. In the sec­ond episode, some­one from the team came in and was like, ‘Karamo, enough with the cries.’ I lit­er­ally said to them, ‘If you don’t want me to do my job, then you should’ve hired an­other cul­ture guy’. “I knew in my heart that if we could all feel com­fort­able about go­ing there, and it not just be­ing sur­face, then this show would be bet­ter than any­one had imag­ined,” he adds. “The guys ral­lied around me. Now, every­one al­ways talks about the emo­tion and the cry­ing.” Within min­utes of meet­ing Ge­orge, Brown had al­ready worked his magic. There, in the drive­way ad­ja­cent to his hum­ble farm res­i­dence, tears are cours­ing down Ge­orge’s red­dened face, stick­ing to his stub­ble. It’d be easy to as­sume ei­ther Brown is so won­der­ful, so em­pa­thetic, that he has the su­per­nat­u­ral abil­ity to re­duce a 54-year-old stoic to nearin­stant tears. Or, per­haps, there are more than a few 54-year-old sto­ics who are all too ready to be re­duced to tears.

BUT

there’s an­other rea­son the show res­onates in 2018. Over the past 18 months, as a steady stream of sto­ries has emerged from pre­vi­ously un­heard women, one term has bub­bled to the sur­face over and over: toxic mas­culin­ity. We’ve made much of diagnosing it, but we’ve talked about its an­ti­dote far more rarely. More of­ten, we ex­plore the ways toxic mas­culin­ity fes­ters and spreads – in far-away cor­ners of the in­ter­net, we’ve seen how it has a grav­i­ta­tional pull, mul­ti­ply­ing and strength­en­ing it­self. We see the men whose own self-loathing has evolved into a ha­tred of oth­ers – women specif­i­cally. Un­likely as it may seem, an os­ten­si­ble makeover show star­ring five queer men who spend an in­or­di­nate amount of time scream­ing, ‘Yas, queen!’ might be as wor­thy an an­ti­dote as any. “Toxic mas­culin­ity hon­estly comes from when we were raised as lit­tle boys – we were taught, ‘Don’t be a pussy. Man up! Don’t cry! Don’t be a lit­tle sissy,’” says Berk. “Guys just get that in their head, that it’s not OK to be vul­ner­a­ble, it’s not OK to show emo­tion, it’s not OK to cry. I think it’s been detri­men­tal to our so­ci­ety. It’s not al­lowed men to re­ally find them­selves. I think it’s cre­ated a gen­er­a­tion of men who don’t know how to feel.” An aux­il­iary les­son men have learned from #Metoo is the clever and wholly nec­es­sary sys­tems women have used to strengthen their emo­tional and phys­i­cal safety – from whis­per net­works to ‘ bad date lists’ to care­ful­ly­cu­rated Google spread­sheets of ‘shitty men’ to steer clear of in var­i­ous in­dus­tries. Men haven’t needed such sys­tems be­fore – but it’s be­com­ing clearer that they may need to man­u­fac­ture their own to en­sure that they keep them­selves and oth­ers safe. “We live in this youth-ob­sessed cul­ture, and I’m tired of it,” says Brown. “It’s plagu­ing young men in a way that we don’t dis­cuss, be­cause we only talk about it with women. We talk about women and their body is­sues and how we make women feel like they have to be a cer­tain body size. But we don’t re­alise that we put that same pres­sure on men. “Ge­orge was an ath­lete, a bull rider. Ev­ery time we say, how do you feel about your­self? He looks down at his belly. That’s the first thing he looks at.” Far from be­ing in­vin­ci­ble, emo­tion­ally woke be­ings, mak­ing Queer Eye has forced many of its stars to con­front their own lin­ger­ing in­se­cu­ri­ties. An­toni Porowski, the Fab Five’s cook­ing ex­pert – and, many will tell you, res­i­dent thirst-trap – has re­ceived an in­or­di­nate amount of the show’s

“TOXIC MAS­CULIN­ITY COMES FROM WHEN WE WERE RAISED AS LIT­TLE BOYS... IT’S BEEN DETRI­MEN­TAL TO OUR SO­CI­ETY.”

at­ten­tion, good and bad. He’s been crit­i­cised for teach­ing the ‘heroes’ to pre­pare seem­ingly un­der­whelm­ing dishes – like gua­camole. (Lit­eral head­line: “Can An­toni from ‘Queer Eye’ ac­tu­ally cook? An In­sta­gram in­ves­ti­ga­tion”.) “My friends know me – they make fun of me all the time,” he says. “It’s the best thing for me. They just pin me to the ground in the most healthy way pos­si­ble, and make such a joke out of it.” For Porowski, ex­po­sure and pres­sure has led to con­se­quences that need to be man­aged. “I was in de­cent shape be­fore the show came out, but be­cause of all the com­pounded stress, and the at­ten­tion that’s come along just in terms of phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance, I’ve def­i­nitely be­come more ob­ses­sive. It’s a lit­tle messed up.” Porowski says he has found him­self eat­ing less, and that his time at the gym feels like the only part of his life he’s re­tained con­trol over. “I’d be ly­ing if I said I didn’t care. I have to limit it and cut it off and be like, ‘Just eat the block of cheese – shut up. Life is good.’” Van Ness grew up in mid­dle Amer­ica – a fifth grader wear­ing pur­ple leo­tards with baggy sweat­pants and an off-the-shoul­der sweat­shirt with Doc Martens. And in his case, a par­tic­u­lar bur­den has set in: to be the ver­sion of him­self that’s so beloved, all bub­bly, high­en­ergy and spilling over with com­pli­ments. “I’ve been in ther­apy ei­ther once or twice a week since I was like, a teenager. I’m un­com­fort­able talk­ing about my­self,” he says. “I’ve no­ticed that if the fo­cus is too much on me, I get re­ally squirmy. Mak­ing this show has shown me that maybe I can work a lit­tle more on prac­tis­ing what I preach: tak­ing a com­pli­ment, be­ing OK with giv­ing your­self some self-love.” The re­vived Queer Eye hasn’t been with­out its de­trac­tors. A vo­cal mi­nor­ity point to a so­called ‘homo-nor­ma­tive’ slant the show has, de­pict­ing queer cul­ture, they claim, as rigid and stereo­typ­i­cal. “When I get the feed­back that like, ‘This show is homo-nor­ma­tive – it only shows gays in a stereo­typ­i­cal light. What do you say to that?’ I’ve no­ticed that I fuck­ing hate that ques­tion,” says Van Ness. “I’m re­ally sick of, in my life, de­fend­ing my de­meanour. That this is a stereo­type. Like, take your stereo­type, and then… cram it so far up your ass that I never have to hear about it again.” Per­haps in part to ad­dress this, an episode in the sec­ond sea­son fea­tures the show’s first trans­for­ma­tion of a trans man. For the Five, it seems to be a process of let­ting the show evolve, and al­low­ing them­selves to keep up with it. “I started to go bald at 29. I was ashamed of it. I felt that part of be­ing a man was hav­ing a good head of hair,” says Brown. “On the show in sea­son one and two, you’ll see that I have a hair­line. That’s be­cause I lit­er­ally would grow my hair, just enough, in the ar­eas it could grow, and I would use a pen to draw it in. My hair through sea­son one and two is fake.” Brown, who’d spent two sea­sons telling men to em­brace them­selves, to love them­selves, was do­ing so with a chest tight with in­se­cu­rity, and a hair­line filled in with a Sharpie. “The run­ning joke was, we would know where Karamo sat in the car, be­cause my head would be on the ceil­ing. I was think­ing to my­self, ‘What a fraud’. It was my cross to bear. The ma­jor­ity of my life, I’m con­fi­dent in who I am, but this was some­thing that I re­alised was a deep-seated part of me. “I lit­er­ally went to the mir­ror one day, and I was like, ‘Who are you try­ing to impress? What love do you need from the world, so that you can let this go?’ It sounds like some­thing out of a movie: I lit­er­ally took wa­ter, washe­d­off the hair­line, stared at my bald­ness and was like, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. I spent an hour in front of the mir­ror telling my bald head, ‘I love you’. “My kids walked in, at first they started jok­ing. And then they were mes­merised: Dad’s sit­ting in front of the mir­ror say­ing, ‘I love my bald­ness’. It was me con­vinc­ing my­self that it was OK. “Now, I rock a bald head. I feel com­fort­able, I feel con­fi­dent. I now feel free.”

AT

the end of the day, the new Ge­orge en­tered the newly-ren­o­vated Club House Ho­tel. He was in a smart knit and crisp ging­ham shirt. He cracked a wide grin, show­ing his bad tooth, which, he says proudly, is go­ing to be re­placed in time for his daugh­ter’s wed­ding. Af­ter some prod­ding from Brown, Ge­orge told his son what he had men­tioned ear­lier, in an off-hand com­ment. “Levi, you in­spire me.” The two men share a teary hug, the mo­ment is had, and Ge­orge’s jour­ney is com­plete. The Fab Five look ex­hausted. But they still gid­dily ac­cept ev­ery request for a selfie, ev­ery good­bye hug – more than a few of those ask­ing ap­pear to have trav­elled an hour from Can­berra for the hon­our. By the end of the night, they would meet the town’s mayor, who crowns them the lit­eral queens of Yass – maybe the fur­thest a bit has ever been taken. A few hours be­fore that, Van Ness is at the hair sa­lon, eas­ing Ge­orge into the idea of char­coal masks. This is an­other sig­na­ture of the show. Not un­like Porowski’s punchy gua­camole, the five men seek to keep the take­aways bite-sized, in the hope that they’ll stick. Van Ness’ pitch for the char­coal mask was sim­ple: it’s a mo­ment to your­self – and mo­ments to your­self make you bet­ter. “It’s like a flight, honey,” he tells Ge­orge. “You have to put your own mask on first, be­fore you can help every­one else.”

An­toni food & wine Bobby de­sign Tan fash­ion Karamo cul­ture

Jonathan groom­ing Ge­orge brave Aussie farmer

CLOCK­WISE FROM FAR LEFT Ge­orge and his son Levi on their farm; Tan, the ‘style guy’ serv­ing his best cow­boy chic; the town of Yass had never seen so many self­ies; An­toni out­side Yass‘ Club House Ho­tel.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT The full episode of Ge­orge’s makeover aired on Net­flix on June 22 with sea­son two cur­rently air­ing; Berk get­ting used to ru­ral Aussie life.

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