‘Queer Eye’ Changed More Than Lifestyles

Ten years after the show debuted, its influence on reality TV still strong

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When “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” premiered in July 2003, most of the attention was focused on what was then a daring hook: Each week, five gay men — Carson Kressley, Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia and Jai Rodriguez (aka the Fab Five) — would invade a straight man’s world and completely makeover his fashion style, his home and his lifestyle.

“We didn’t expect it to be a big hit,” Kressley says. “We weren’t trying to cure juvenile diabetes or something. We realized it was about getting rid of pleated khakis and making it fun. But it was also about empowering people, saying ‘You can take control. You can look great, you can feel great, you can get the job, the girl — whatever it is you’re trying to achieve we can help you do it.’ ”

“Queer Eye” proved far more enduring than most moments in the pop culture zeitgeist.

“ ‘Queer Eye’ has an incredible legacy. It just bounded right out of the closet, so to speak, when it came along,” says Fenton Bailey, co-founder of World of Wonder Prods., which produces “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” “It was an irresistible format — you knew it was going to be a hit before it even went on the air.”

The cheeky title cut through clutter and drew viewers, but its innovative twist on the makeover genre kept people coming back.

“Makeover shows have been around forever — ‘Queen for a Day’ and whatnot — but ‘Queer Eye’ reinvigorated the genre by looking at it in a different way,” says Chris Coelen, CEO of Kinetic Content (“The Taste,” “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers”).

Lisa Sherman, exec VP and GM of Logo-MTV Networks agrees. “It turned the ‘My Fair Lady’ story on its head,” she says. “But at the end of the day there were these straight men who appreciated the counsel of these five gay guys, and the women loved the results. It was a total win-win.”

Instead of focusing on one area for improvement, “Queer Eye” hit fashion, grooming, home decor, food and entertaining, and pop culture.

“It was the first time you saw an ensemble of those different transformational areas come together. It really brought on the transformational explosion,” says Jenny Daly, president of T Group and executive producer of “Storage Hunters” and “Mystery Diners.”

Casting proved crucial.

“They were so likeable, so genuine, authentic and fun — and real — that I think it allowed the mainstream to embrace gay characters in a way they hadn’t before,” Sherman says.

The fact that Allen, Kressley, Douglas, Rodriguez and Filicia were experts in their fields and not polished TV presenters was also revolutionary.

“Before ‘Queer Eye,’ a lot of hosts were hired because they were good speakers but they didn’t necessarily have the qualifications in that arena,” Daly says “These guys spoke to each of their specialties in a way that changed the landscape for how we as producers, and networks, look to fill host positions. You no longer needed just a good speaker, you needed someone who could walk the walk and talk the talk. The audience believed them 100% because they had credibility.”

Bailey says the show’s matter-of-fact approach toward the Fab Five’s sexuality was culturally significant.

“Rather than it being a stunt — oh, there’s a gay person on TV! — it was business as usual. It was a format,” Bailey says. “That format normalized what at the time was still a novel experience of gay people being on TV. It was a brilliant strategy.”

World of Wonder co-founder Randy Barbato adds, “Homophobia comes from a place of fear, a place of ignorance. The brilliance of the format was to put the queers and the straight guy in the same room, giving them no choice but to work together. It exploded the archetype in front of our eyes.”

Kressley says there was never a political or social agenda. “It wasn’t meant to be subversive,” he says. “But in a way it kind of was because we were there to do something pretty innocuous — give somebody a makeover — and the end result was opening people’s eyes to what being gay is all about, that it’s not scary or threatening. We’re just people like the rest of their families and friends.”

Perhaps the show’s greatest legacy is Bravo itself.

“Bravo was a very different network before ‘Queer Eye’ came along,” Coelen says, noting it was best known for “Inside the Actors Studio” and art films. “It certainly transformed the network, which has been and continues to be a model for a very loud but upscale network.”

Frances Berwick was president of Bravo and Style Media, and Bravo’s head of programming, when “Queer Eye” was developed. “ ‘Queer Eye’ became the basis around which we organized, developed and marketed the network,” she says. “Those areas of expertise — fashion, grooming, home design, food and entertaining and pop culture — became our passion points and the affinity groups we still program to. We’ve added a sixth one, digital, which wasn’t as prevalent at the time.”

The success of “Queer Eye” helped Bravo launch hits including “Project Runway,” and demonstrate the value of creative risk.

“It only takes one show to change things,” Bailey says. “Frances Berwick had the vision to know ‘Queer Eye’ would not be ratings suicide — it was as close to a sure thing as you can get.”

Barbato adds, “After seeing how successful ‘Queer Eye’ was it was hard to say, ‘I don’t know if people will watch gays on TV.’”

In retrospect, Berwick realizes “Queer Eye” was part of a cultural shift, especially with the acceptance of gay people on TV, but she says the show’s influence is still being felt.

“The legacy has traveled very well overseas, both the U.S. version and versions made in about 10 other countries,” Berwick says. “It’s really helped broaden minds in many countries.”

Even today Kressley says young gay people tell him how “Queer Eye” made coming out to their families a little bit easier by providing a point of context and being a catalyst for discussions. “We may not have eradicated pleated khakis, but I think we’ve done some good in the world, and that feels pretty fantastic.”