When Queer Eye for the Straight Guy premiered in 2003, it was an instant hit. With the premise of five openly gay style experts hijacking a schlubby straight dude to give his lifestyle a reboot, the show was as entertaining as it was helpful. What wasn’t there to like about Ted, Carson, Thom, Kyan, and Jai? They were funny, they had chemistry, and they gave straight women everywhere the hope that their cavemen could be transformed using a few “hip tips.”
But Queer Eye was more than just a fun show — it was also ground-breaking. So, when the Fab Five sit down with Bravo’s Andy Cohen for the show’s 10-year reunion tonight, in addition to celebrating the fabulousness of Queer Eye, it’s also a chance to examine how this little makeover show ended up making over the mainstream media’s representation of gay men.
For the Fab Five, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (the titled was shortened to Queer Eye after season 3), was just another gig, not a vehicle for social change. “That was sort of the least, the last thing on my mind,” said grooming guru Kyan Douglas. “I think I was nervous about being on TV because I had never done that before. I think I was nervous about how this show would be received because we had five openly gay cast members that were not playing characters — that were being themselves. We were just real-life dudes that were on TV.”
“I don’t think any of us involved in the show realized the impact it would have when we were doing it,” said fashion savant Carson Kressley. “All I wanted to do was get rid of mullets and pleated khakis.” He added, “We never had a political agenda.”
EW interviewed a number of media experts and LBGT educators to find out whether they think the Bravo series had a social impact beyond the sartorial advice and fun catchphrases.
“Queer Eye impacted LGBT representation on TV in that it was the strongest, if not the first, representation of LGBT people bringing their special talents to the table and making a positive impact in straight people’s lives,” said Marc Leonard, SVP Programming and Platform Strategy at Logo TV (home of RuPaul’s Drag Race), which launched in 2005, two years after Queer Eye premiered. “We saw these strong, colorful personalities embraced for their unique abilities. This is a markedly different take compared to most prior representations of gays on TV that featured LGBT people living solely in isolated gay worlds.”
In many ways, Queer Eye was the next step in a natural evolution that started with Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out on a 1997 episode of Ellen and the 1998 debut of Will and Grace. “Queer Eye did for reality television what Will and Grace did for scripted television,” said Troy DeVolld, reality veteran producer/editor (Flipping Out, Basketball Wives, Dancing With the Stars) and author of Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market. “It was definitely a landmark moment within the last 10 to 15 years.”
“[Queer Eye] definitely had a very strong impact in terms of visibility of queer people on the TV screen,” said Jim Wilson, executive director of CUNY’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS). “I think that it showed gay people as smart and funny and silly and that’s not going to necessarily be a bad thing. My sense [was] that was riding the wave of Will and Grace.”
In the 2002-03 TV season, there were only five lead primetime LGBT characters — not including cable shows — on the airwaves according to a 2003 GLAAD press release. “It was still a little bit taboo to be gay,” said Douglas. “If you don’t know gay people, if you’re not around them. If you don’t have gay people as friends, it’s so easy, especially 10 years ago, to [say] ‘Oh, gay people are this way or that.'”
“Television is such an intimate medium, you’re in peoples’ living rooms, in their bedrooms,” said Kressley. “For many people that watched the show, we may have been the first gay people that they actually got to know.”
Queer Eye catapulted its five gay stars to the forefront of the pop culture conversation in 2003, riding the wave of zeitgeist juggernauts: It won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004, the guys made the rounds on the late-night circuit, appearing on Ellen, Leno, Oprah, and booked major magazine covers (including ours). It coined buzzwords like “zhoosh,” and the guys were included in Barbara Walters list of “The Most Fascinating People of 2003.” They were spoofed on South Park in an episode called “South Park is Gay” ; even President Bush gave them a White House shout out with his joke about having the Fab Five make over his cabinet. “Do you know what Rummy’s favorite TV show is? Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” W. quipped at the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner.
“It sparked the dialogue, we had the President of the United States mentioning the word ‘queer’,” remembered Douglas.
Not every aspect of the show was universally loved, however. There was criticism that the cast’s respective areas of expertise perpetuated the worst of gay stereotypes. Though the show’s tagline — Five gay men. Out to make over the world. One straight guy at a time. — explained the plot, it also proclaimed two truisms: “First of all, that gay men are of course infinitely more fabulous and better dressed and… that straight men are totally hopeless and clueless,” said Sarah Chinn, a Professor at the English Department at Hunter College in New York. “Without the help of either straight women or gay men, they would never be able to work any of this stuff out on their own… that they are inevitably and constitutionally flawed. So that whole narrative was already just in place in order to kind of buy into the program, you had to accept that story.”
“It offered a very particular view specifically of queer people, specifically gay white men, usually of privilege,” CUNY’s Wilson said. “They tended to be very interested in fashion, very interested in the aesthetic aspects of life, so just trading in gay stereotypes.”
But the cast points out that the show’s style categories were also their actual jobs. “You could make the argument that we were in character because we were five guys that all made our profession, for the most part in, style and fashion and décor,” said Douglas. “[But] it just so happens that that’s what we did. Obviously, there are gay bankers, everything else…. [Queer Eye] was a fun play on a stereotype on gay men being well dressed and straight men being slobs, and you know, that was definitely a sort of focal point of the show. But at the same time, it was also taken lightly. It was understood that we were playing up the stereotype.”
Kressley noted that Queer Eye never set out to define the queer population. “We weren’t representing every person in the gay community, we were just representing ourselves. And it was a makeover show. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, if people say you have great taste, that’s a compliment.”
“On the one hand it was really nice to see openly gay people on television… but it just made me wonder, ‘What if you were a gay man and you yourself were a slob? What is your purpose in the world then?'” said Professor Chinn.
If the stylish gay man was a stereotype in 2003 — a slight move away from the gay best friend trope of the late ’90s — what is a gay stereotype of 2013? Did Queer Eye help mitigate gay stereotyping in pop culture, or just change it into something else? And would the show still have an impact if it were on television today?
“Since then, there have been more diverse [gay characters] — I mean we still have Modern Family, and The New Normal [which was canceled this year] presenting gay white men – but I think we’ve had some more diverse characters on-screen,” Wilson said. “And I’m thinking, in particular, my favorite is Glee, which has a black trans character.”
“Ten years ago, the concept of the show was groundbreaking,” said Thom Filicia, the Queer Eye‘s interior design expert. “Today, it’s not so groundbreaking…. First of all, gay rights are just a different thing. Today, I think with television and media, there are so many characters. It’s just so different. At the time, it was not nearly as advanced as it is now in terms of people understanding it, and being connected with it. Certainly we brought that to the forefront on television, and I think that today if we were doing that, it’d feel a little passé.”
“It helped everyone to understand that gay folks are just like everybody else,” said Douglas. “And, even now, it almost sounds weird to say that. It’s become such a non-issue that to even say something like that sounds weird. That’s how much the times have changed.”
And yet, complex representations of LGBT characters are still lacking. Currently, 3.3 percent of primetime scripted series regulars on broadcast television are LGBT, according to GLAAD‘s “Where We Are on TV Report” for 2013. That’s down from 4.4 percent last year. “As the world changes, TV only changes incrementally,” said Professor Chinn, who praised current characters like Modern Family‘s Cam Tucker — played by straight actor Eric Stonestreet — and transgender hairdresser Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.
For the cast members, the show’s legacy is best exemplified through the encounters they still have with people on the street. ”Young people will come up to me and say, ‘I was gay and I watched this with our family and it allowed us to have a dialogue, and it allowed us to come out in a healthy way. I didn’t have to hide or live in fear and anguish,'” said Kressley. “A lot of them that are out there are in the work force, and you know living great lives. [They] are 25 or 30 now and they were 15 or 20 back then [when it] had an impact.”
“I think I judge that mostly on what I hear from straight people and what I hear from gay people,” added Douglas. “The show gave them permission to be themselves, it gave them permission to come out to their families. From straight people I hear that the show just sort of opened their hearts and opened their minds. There are people that I’ve heard from that have gay siblings, a nephew or a niece or a brother or sister, it just sort helped them to understand their loved ones a little bit more.”
“I remember when I was growing up there were no gay people on TV — except for maybe the skipper and Gilligan — and to have a positive role model…. I literally just last week got a note from a young guy who was like, ‘By watching your show, even though in my little town I didn’t think it was possible to be successful and happy, I saw you guys living your lives and doing great work and I knew there was a place for me,'” said Kressley. “That was really touching and that happens more than you would imagine.”
The Queer Eye reunion premieres tonight at 9 p.m. EST on Bravo.
(Stephan Lee contributed reporting to this article)