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