Acclaimed memoirist Binyavanga Wainaina talks about his writing, Africa today and his new life as an openly gay man.
Ten years ago this week, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” debuted on the Bravo cable channel.
The reality show featured the “fab five” — five gay men who would make over a person, usually a straight man, giving him tips on grooming, conduct, fashion, food and design.
“Queer Eye” was an instant hit, and its self-proclaimed experts — Ted Allen on food and wine, Carson Kressley on fashion, Kyan Douglas on grooming, Thom Felicia on home design and Jai Rodriguez on culture — became stars.
But the show also brought friendly, approachable gay men into living rooms across America on a weekly basis, and made its way into the cultural conversation.
In 2004 President George W. Bush even joked about the show at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner.
“We participated in a moment in time in American history when television was finally opening up to seeing gay and lesbian people on TV,” Allen told Here & Now.
For some Americans, it was like meeting an openly gay person for the first time.
“For a lot of people, the power of being out and being visible is that somebody knows a gay person. And for a lot of people who watched our show — it was innocuous it was a makeover show — but TV is very intimate, and we might have been the first gay people that they felt like they knew,” Kressley said.
On criticism that the show perpetuated stereotypes
Ted Allen: “We did hear that, and you know Carson is an expert in fashion, Tom does interior design — there is a stereotype. I don’t know why we didn’t have a flight attendant … but what you always used to say, Carson, is that you can call into question whether or not we are perpetuating the stereotype — you know those are stereotypically gay occupations of things that are amenable, hospitable or friendly to gay and lesbian people — but that fact is we were being ourselves. That’s who we were and I think that’s partly what made the show provocative.”
Carson Kressley: “But I think there’s some homophobia within our community that you can’t be, you know, flamboyant. And we’ve been told by society ‘you know, you need to be a bit more mainstream and more normal.’ And there was something very liberating about being on the show and being exactly who you were.”
Allen: “I found you very offensive myself.”
Kressley: “Right, and I found you so boring. But we were being ourselves!”
On where we are now with gay rights
Allen: “I think we did participate. People who oppose gay rights are always saying ‘we don’t want this shoved in our face. You can do what you want privately but we don’t need to know that you’re gay.’ Well unfortunately actually you do need to know it. Because when we’re invisible you don’t realize it’s your son, it’s your brother, it’s your uncle, it’s your coworker … your waiter, your gymnast, your high-wire trapeze person who is being denied the same full citizenship that you get to have.”
Kressley: “Our little part was being visible and being ourselves and letting people get to know us and the biggest way to disarm prejudice is to actually get to know someone that’s different form you. And realize that, you know, its not scary and it takes the phobia away and hopefully we did that because we approached things with heart and with humor and with kindness, and people got to see us for who we are. And being gay was even maybe secondary, and people got see ‘hey there’s nothing wrong with these gays, and they got rid of that guys mohawk! I love them!”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Same-sex marriage will soon be legal in England and Wales. The announcement came yesterday that the queen of England approved a bill that was passed by lawmakers, drawing cheers in the House of Commons. It was a very different reaction from the one in France, where heated protests greeted the legalization of gay marriage in May.
Here in this country, it has been nine years since Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, and it has been 10 years exactly since this program debuted on Bravo.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" featured five gay men who were called in to make over some hapless person, usually a straight man. Each of the five had their own area of expertise. Carson Kressley focused on fashion, and Ted Allen was the food and wine guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY")
TED ALLEN: All right guys, we've got Jeff Loobie(ph), a 33-year-old bartender from Nebraska.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He sounds corn-fed and delicious.
ALLEN: So he's really in love with a girl named Faith.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And now he says that Faith is the love of his life.
HOBSON: Well, joining us now from New York to talk about the show and the impact that it had on attitudes in this country are Carson Kressley and Ted Allen. Guys, welcome.
CARSON KRESSLEY: Thank you, it's good to be here.
ALLEN: It certainly is. You guys have air conditioning.
KRESSLEY: I know, we love it. We're never leaving.
ALLEN: That's right.
HOBSON: Well, let me first just ask you, 10 years later, what kind of an impact do you think that this show, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," had on the national conversation about gay rights in this country?
ALLEN: I saw online a reference to that, and they - I think they put it rather well, that we participated in a moment in time in American history when television was finally opening up to seeing gay and lesbian people on TV. I think we were the first show, we were probably the only show, that ever had a completely out gay cast.
KRESSLEY: What about "Gilligan's Island"?
ALLEN: Oh right, right, right.
KRESSLEY: Just kidding. I also think that, you know, for a lot of people, the power of being out and being visible is that somebody knows a gay person. And for a lot of people who maybe watched our show, it was innocuous, it was a makeover show, but TV's very intimate and we may have been the first gay people that they felt like they knew.
And we were doing some good things, and we were experts in our field, and we had a great time and were funny, and we didn't take ourselves seriously. And we didn't have a political agenda. We were just being ourselves, and I think that's the power of being out and being who you are, is that it disarms prejudice because people actually get to know you.
ALLEN: Yeah, in that sense "Queer Eye" did have a subversive kind of political meaning, but I hasten to say, as Carson said, we weren't taking ourselves seriously or thinking of ourselves as activists. But we were there present at the same time as Ellen DeGeneres, who kind of blazed a trail for us, "Will and Grace." This was long before "Modern Family." But if you..
KRESSLEY: The gay bishop. Exactly, it was the same time period.
ALLEN: And I have to say, I think now that it is very true that pop culture plays a huge impact in people's perceptions of us. And look at "Modern Family." How can you not love Cameron and Mitchell and that obnoxious little daughter of theirs? And, you know, people are now talking about Cameron and Mitchell should get married. And fortunately for them, they live in a state where that is now possible, as do Carson and I, and which is what brings me to a very special announcement that Carson and I need to make.
KRESSLEY: Ted, will you marry me?
ALLEN: Not a chance.
HOBSON: But you know, "Modern Family" and "Will and Grace" and Ellen DeGeneres in her show, not "Ellen" but the show that she had back then, these were fictional characters. Your show was very different. These were real people, you were real people. You were out there. So don't you think that made a difference?
KRESSLEY: I think that makes a little bit of a difference, and just, you know, personally, when you're out in airports or malls and you meet people, people really do have a personal connection to you when you're on a reality show because they don't know you as your character. They do know you for who you are.
So yeah, I think it's maybe a little bit more direct and maybe a little more authentic in that way.
HOBSON: Now, you guys did swoop in with your help to make over a lot of people, but the show did get some criticism that it perpetrated stereotypes about gay men. Did you hear that criticism when it was happening, and what do you make of it? How do you respond to it?
ALLEN: We did hear that, and you know, Carson is an expert in fashion, and Tom does interior design. There is, of course, a stereotype. I don't know why we didn't have a flight attendant.
KRESSLEY: Or a florist.
ALLEN: Or a florist.
KRESSLEY: What the hell?
ALLEN: We really dropped the ball on that.
But what Carson - I remember what you always used to say, Carson, is that you can call into question whether we're perpetuating the stereotype that those are, you know, stereotypically gay occupations or things that are amenable or hospitable or friendly to gay and lesbian people, but the fact is, we were being ourselves. That's who we were.
And I think that's what - that was partly what made the show a little provocative. We were playing with those stereotypes in an affectionate way, and the tension between your schlubby - your average, you know, obviously it's a stereotype that all gay men are stylish and that all straight men are schlubs. I know plenty - you would - I have not, for example, showered in three days, and I haven't shaved, and, you know...
KRESSLEY: He's a disaster.
ALLEN: I'm a mess. I'm wearing one of those Cosby sweaters. It's not pretty.
KRESSLEY: And I have my New York Rangers jersey on.
KRESSLEY: That's actually a lie.
ALLEN: But we did hear that, and you know what, actually I heard that Barney Frank didn't like the show, which really kind of hurt my feelings because I've always admired him very much for what he did.
But you know, that - I mean I will never forget the first time we were on "The Today Show" watching Matt Lauer wrap his - wrap his mouth around the word queer and saying that word. And I actually didn't used to like the title of the show.
KRESSLEY: That was a really crazy metaphor you just used, wrap his mouth around the word queer.
KRESSLEY: Take a break for a minute.
ALLEN: You could see me backpedaling before I even said it because I knew you were - no...
I remember some other things that were said on that broadcast of "The Today Show" that you won't repeat.
KRESSLEY: I won't. But yeah, you know, we were very much ourselves. I was very, like, out and loud and proud and bawdy and sassy. But I think, you know, there's some homophobia too within our own community that you can't be, you know, flamboyant. And we've been told society, you know, you need to be a little bit more mainstream and more normal.
And there was something very liberating about being on the show and being exactly who you were.
ALLEN: I found you very offensive myself.
KRESSLEY: Right, and I found you so boring.
KRESSLEY: But we were being ourselves.
HOBSON: Carson Kressley and Ted Allen of Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." We're going to have more with them after a break.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I cannot wait. Meanwhile, here's what we're keeping an eye on. Police in Boston are investigating the death of Stephen Rakes. He was expected to testify against reputed mobster Whitey Bulger in the ongoing trial. His name was removed from the witness list this week, his body found in a Boston suburb yesterday.
Also remember that anti-corruption campaigner who got a harsh sentence in Russia? That story later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Right back, HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's continue our conversation now with Ted Allen and Carson Kresley, two of the stars of the makeover show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," which debuted on Bravo 10 years ago this week. And within a year of that debut, it had reached the top of the national conversation.
President George W. Bush joked about it at the 2004 Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner. He was making digs at both Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld. Let's take a listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Do you know what Rummie's favorite TV show is? "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
My Cabinet could take some pointers from watching that show. In fact I'm going to have the Fab Five do a makeover on Ashcroft.
HOBSON: So what was that like, guys, having the president of the United States reference your show?
ALLEN: Well, it was the one time I liked him, I think.
KRESSLEY: He had a moment of clarity. That even made me - gave me a little bit of a goose bump moment right now because it's the president of the United States no matter what you think about his policies or his politics. That's pretty awesome just pop culture recognition, I guess.
ALLEN: We had New Yorker cartoons. We were on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. You know, at the time Bravo was really not a well-known network. They had nothing but "Inside the Actor's Studio."
KRESSLEY: Right, I thought they were a nonstick cooking spray for years.
ALLEN: And because of that - and remember, Carson, how the major advertiser, I think maybe initially the one big national advertiser that we had was Amaretto Disaronno.
KRESSLEY: Disaronno, and we love you, Amaretto. We're drinking it right now, still.
ALLEN: It's all I drink.
KRESSLEY: On the rocks.
ALLEN: I think it while I drive my Yukon Denali from GMC. And Bravo was so successful with us. And, you know, by the way, we've got to give a tip of the hat both to Bravo and to NBC Universal, at the time, for taking a chance like that on a show like ours.
KRESSLEY: Right, the producers of the show, from Scout Productions in Boston, I think it shopped the show around to many different networks, and there was a lot of no, we don't think so. You know, Bravo did really stick its neck out and, you know, embraced the name of the show. That was a big controversy when we were in our initial stages of production. Were we going to keep the name? And those were all really important things to - you know, there's nothing wrong with being, you know, queer.
HOBSON: But, you know, the interesting thing here is that the president is out there saying that in a lighthearted way at just around the same time that he comes out and says he's in favor of a Constitutional amendment making marriage between a man and a woman. And I wonder what you make of that disparity.
And remember also at the time Ken Mehlman was a closeted gay man, engineering Bush's second campaign, which contained a lot of that kind of anti-gay rhetoric. Of course it made us - we weren't happy about that at all. It just shows how incredibly far we've come.
KRESSLEY: And, you know, maybe without shows like ours or "Ellen" or - they wouldn't become part of the pop culture discussion, and at least talking about it and having him - he said the word queer. I mean, how many presidents have actually uttered those words before? At least it's something positive.
ALLEN: It also shows a generational shift. George Bush is a part of a generation and a demographic that was not comfortable with us. And you look at the youth vote now, and this is why you're seen American approval of gay marriage is now past 50 percent. And I think the battle is getting close to being won. And it's not won yet, but it's - we've made some huge strides.
HOBSON: Well, lest we get too serious, I just want to play a clip of the show to show that a lot of it was about humor. Here's Carson giving a tip about moving.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY")
KRESSLEY: For a move, consider downsizing your wardrobe. Give unwanted clothes to charity and send others to a consignment store. When they sell your clothes, they'll send you a check. It's like pennies from heaven. I said pennies, not penne.
HOBSON: So what was it like making that show? How did you come up with that right on the spot?
KRESSLEY: We had just a great chemistry, I think, between the five of us, and we were - had so much more fun and more funny times with each other than probably even was ever captured on the show because we just, we had a great time making the show. It was an exciting time in our lives, and we enjoyed the guys that we were helping makeover.
ALLEN: Let me tell you a moment that nobody knows about. So when Carson and I, it turned out we later found out Carson and I were the first two people that they chose for the show, perhaps because we sort of book-ended one another in some certain ways.
ALLEN: I was from the Midwest. I've got this incredible masculine quality.
KRESSLEY: Right, and I have those rich Latin undertones to my voice, and hail from Miami.
HOBSON: And yet perfectly blonde hair.
ALLEN: Exactly. So the day Carson and I arrived to audition for the show, the very first day, a steamy, hot day in New York City, Carson walks in wearing Gucci slides, he's wearing these Ralph Lauren blousy pants with a big hibiscus pattern on them. He's wearing like a pirate shirt, remember the Jerry Seinfeld pirate shirt, that gauzy thing?
KRESSLEY: Actually, it was a Ralph Lauren purple label linen crisscross warp shirt.
ALLEN: I didn't say it was cheap, Carson, I said - I'm just giving people a visual.
ALLEN: And you're wearing Gucci sunglasses, and you're carrying a Louis Vuitton duffle bag, and...
KRESSLEY: Stephen Sprouse.
ALLEN: Oh, whatever. And we're in this stuffy conference room with all these guys waiting to audition. Carson strides in, hurls his duffle bag onto the conference room table and says, I think it's really adorable that any of you queens thinks you have a shot at my part.
KRESSLEY: And then I went in, and then I came back out, and they said how did it go. I said you can all leave, goodbye.
ALLEN: It turns out you were right.
KRESSLEY: I was. Who knew?
HOBSON: Well, so here we are in 2013, 10 years later. We've just had these landmark Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage. Is it too much to say, do you think, that "Queer Eye" helped pave the way for where we are now?
ALLEN: I think it's a bit too much, but I think we did participate. People who oppose gay rights are always saying, like, we don't want this shoved in our face. You can do what you want privately, but we don't need to know that you're gay. Well, unfortunately, actually you do need to know it because when we're invisible, you don't realize that it's your son, it's your brother, it's your uncle, it's your co-worker.
KRESSLEY: Your flight attendant, your florist - kidding.
ALLEN: Exactly, your waiter, your gymnast, your high-wire trapeze act person who is being denied the same full citizenship that you get to have. And just by way of example, even my mother didn't understand. I'm going to get married to my partner of 20 years. We're not going to bother with a big - you know, I've got all the housewares I need, thank you.
ALLEN: But the reason for this is if I die tomorrow, the home that we own, Barry would be entitled to stay there and own it, but he would have to pay taxes on half of its value. If I die tomorrow, Barry gets no Social Security.
KRESSLEY: But if he were Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, and you'd still been married for 28 hours, none of that would have happened.
ALLEN: It's true, it's true, it's true. So - you know, so we never talked about political stuff, really, when we were making "Queer Eye," but we are people, you know, and we're Americans, and we vote, and we pay taxes, and we deserve the same rights everyone does.
KRESSLEY: Well, and I just, you know, our little part was being visible and being ourselves and letting people get to know us. And I think the biggest way to disarm prejudice is to actually get to know someone that's different from you and realize that, you know, it's not scary, and it takes the phobia away. And hopefully we did that because we approached things with heart, and with humor and with kindness.
And people got to see us for who we are, and being gay was even maybe secondary. And they thought hey, there's nothing wrong with these gays, and they got rid of that guy's mullet. We love them.
ALLEN: Exactly. Now that's not to say I didn't call Justice Kennedy before the decision was written and put in my two cents.
HOBSON: Or give him a makeover.
ALLEN: You know what? If I were going to do a makeover, I'd start with Scalia.
KRESSLEY: We're still waiting on Ashcroft. I don't know why - been going to that same salon every Thursday for the last six years.
ALLEN: Do you remember when Ashcroft ordered that a nude statue in the Justice Department be covered with a cloth?
KRESSLEY: And I liked that statue of me. I thought it was really wonderful.
ALLEN: It was great. You looked pretty hunky there.
KRESSLEY: Yeah, me and Sandra Day O'Connor were quite a pair.
HOBSON: Carson Kressley and Ted Allen, talking to us about the 10th anniversary of the debut of the Bravo TV show "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy." Guys, thank you so much.
KRESSLEY: Thank you.
ALLEN: Thank you.
HOBSON: And we'd love to hear what you think about all this. Did "Queer Eye" have an effect on attitudes about gay rights in the U.S.? Let us know at hereandnow.org. You can also tweet us @hereandnow. I'm @jeremyhobson, as well.
YOUNG: And I'm @hereandnowrobin. And did it have an effect maybe on someone you knew, who, like George W. Bush, ended up talking about it? Did it have an effect on your wardrobe?
YOUNG: Either way, let us know. Later today, we're going to be talking about kids and books, and also the Emmy nominations are out. Netflix really cleaned up, Jeremy, staying with television for a second.
HOBSON: Yeah, "House of Cards," great show.
YOUNG: And "Arrested Development." An historic moment, online shows winning some of the top nods. What will this mean for television? We'll have that later today. Latest news, though, is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.