The Queer Eye revival is changing hearts and minds with a loving focus on self-care. Laurence Barber caught up with the new Fab Five to talk ‘heroes’, diversity, and Nicole Kidman.
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It’s an understatement to call Netflix’s Queer Eye revival an overnight sensation.
The initial announcement of the reboot was met with scepticism; what could this format have to offer in 2018, both on a broader cultural level and in terms of gay men’s representation on screen?
While the series was rightly critiqued for this, it was still a global phenomenon at the time.
Watching as a closeted teenager, it was a significant if problematic milestone in terms of seeing gay men on TV as, if nothing else, men whose being out had been part of their success, rather than an impediment to it.
The new Queer Eye takes a much more holistic approach, taking on a variety of subjects – “heroes” in the show’s terms – with a goal of giving them ‘make-betters’, rather than makeovers, and ultimately opening their eyes, hearts, and minds.
In a time when we talk a lot about the importance of self-care, Queer Eye is an outsourcing of that need, and while it remains an imperfect show, it is also a rare piece of entertainment that at the very least strives to be a force for good.
When we caught up with three members of the new Fab Five, they were a few days into a whirlwind press tour of Australia – where they made a mini-episode in Yass featuring cattle farmer and former rodeo cowboy George.
In a country whose screen culture frequently ignores ways of life beyond the bounds of major cities, the Fab Five’s efforts are appreciably heart-warming.
“I feel the only difference was the accent,” says Bobby Berk, the show’s design expert, of bringing the show’s philosophy down under.
“At the end of the day, everyone has the same type of feelings, you know. Everyone needs that helping hand and that pick-me-up, and I think that’s what we found with George.
“Just a guy who was a little bit down on his luck and down on himself and just needed that pick-me-up and those positive remarks to see himself the way we saw him.”
Jonathan van Ness, Queer Eye’s goddess of grooming, has spoken on and outside the show about his struggle growing up gay in rural America.
But Jonathan says visiting Yass was an overwhelmingly positive experience, and somewhat a familiar one – in name, at least.
“No, there was like, an Aldi in my hometown. We had an Aldi where we would buy paint and stuff, so that felt familiar. And the coffee shops [in Yass] were great, the people were great,” he says.
“Aldi’s a grocery store,” Bobby interjects, laughing.
“Oh yeah, I meant, yeah… no, it was a paint shop!” Jonathan insists, in full flight on one of his trademark tangents heard frequently on his podcast, Getting Curious.
“It’s definitely a German grocery store chain,” reiterates Bobby.
“Well the Aldi we have in America is like, a paint goods store – I feel like it’s that same logo. Whatever – I have my truth, you have yours,” Jonathan says, as Bobby laughs again.
For the show’s food and wine connoisseur Antoni, who’s talked about the show being a process of discovery for him having had less exposure to gay culture than his compatriots, things have come a long way.
“I’m an expert now,” he jokes. “No, I think it’s a dynamic process. I’m learning more about myself – with season two opening up to different people, the fact that we helped a woman, the fact that we helped a trans person, it expands my perspective.
“It’s continually changing, I’m constantly questioning and adapting and figuring it out.”
The second season’s fifth episode centres on Skyler, a trans man who has recently had his top surgery, having fundraised the money from the local queer community to do so.
“I think one thing that’s really gorg[eous] about the way that we’ve approached the series so far is that everything has been a very natural progression of growth, based off the experience we have with each one of those heroes,” Jonathan says.
Jonathan notes that the heroes aren’t cast very long before the Five meet them to film, meaning the show’s approach to the diversity of its subjects isn’t particularly premeditated.
“I don’t feel that we have boxes we’re checking off as we’re going along,” Bobby says.
“We’re just going into a community and when our amazing casting team finds someone who needs help, no matter who they are, no matter what their gender – that’s who we help.
“I don’t think we’re really going into it, ‘Oh, we want to be as progressive as possible.’ We’re just going into it as five guys who really want to help people.”
“That said, it is a pretty incredible opportunity to explore those things,” says Antoni.
One of the show’s major virtues, however, is that it’s an escape; it’s telling human stories against the backdrop of a world that is built on the back of dehumanisation.
“It’s not a show that’s about checking out, or forgetting about everything, it’s actually about getting connected to something that’s pure and simple – just the very act of helping somebody,” Antoni says.
“It’s about connecting with people,” says Bobby.
Queer Eye has catapulted the new Fab Five to fame, with the requisite criticism that comes along with it, but Bobby says they choose to live oblivious of that aspect.
“We purposefully try not to read any of those things,” he says.
And for all their own newfound fame, do they take any inspiration from Australian icons?
“I mean, I love Nicole Kidman,” Jonathan says. “I’m like, obsessed with her. I also love me some Naomi Watts!”
“I was gonna say Naomi Watts,” Antoni agrees.
Bobby adds Betty Who, who re-recorded the show’s theme song for the new season.
“Oh, I like that Australian speed skater that got a medal that one time,” Jonathan says. “He was like, in last place but all those people fell. He was fierce.”
Antoni blanks, momentarily, on Cate Blanchett’s name, before making a pronouncement: “Actresses! All actresses.”