Jonathan Van Ness screams – and then starts crying. The Queer Eye star is sitting in a car on a cattle farm in the rural Australian town of Yass, New South Wales. As the tears stream down his face, he begins filming himself on his phone.
“I just found out Michelle Kwan followed me on Instagram and lost my mind,” he tells his followers – close to a million of them on the social network, the latest of whom is the retired Olympian figure skater.
His co-star Karamo Brown pops his head into frame: “Oh, Michelle,” he cooes, tenderly rubbing his friend’s arm. “You made our baby’s dream come true!”
The resulting post, which has had almost 1m views at the time of writing, is solid Queer Eye content, encapsulating not only what fans of the reality show love about Van Ness (his inexhaustible extravagance), but also the whole cast’s feelgood earnestness, the joy they take in each other and their eagerness to play up every charming moment and send it straight to social media.
Van Ness (31, the grooming expert), Brown (37, culture), Antoni Porowski (34, food), Bobby Berk (36, design) and Tan France (35, fashion) are in Yass to film a mini webisode to promote the second series of Queer Eye, in which they make over a local farmer, George, and a pub. The location was selected thanks to the pun: as Van Ness explains to the taciturn George: “‘Yas queen’ is a major slogan for the gays and the brunch-going ladies of the world.”
As the 12-hour shoot unfolds, it becomes clear that the delight they take in each other’s company – expressed through constant touching, laughing fits and compliments – is very real. After they met at auditions, the legend goes, they started a group chat titled “Fab Five” before they even knew they had made it through.
Berk and Brown are the dads of the group, loading everyone’s luggage into the van, negotiating with producers, checking on belongings and ironing out the sequencing of scenes throughout the day. France, Porowski and Van Ness seem to have the most fun, slathering each other in innuendo and capturing everything on their phones. (A few days later, they run through the lavish hallways of a cruise ship at Sydney harbour in dressing gowns, giggling like children.)
The original version of the show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, ran from 2003 to 2007. In it, five gay men with varied expertise applied their talents to make over (or “make better”) a straight man in need. It was something of a sensation in the heteronormative TV landscape of its day, but it barely skimmed the surface of its five presenters – which led some critics to ask whether it was subverting stereotypes or perpetuating them. Netflix’s reboot was received with healthy scepticism, too: how would this dated idea fit in the woke new world of 2018?
But Queer Eye had undergone its own makeover, dropping the “Straight Guy” from the title and becoming less catty and more personable; the first series was responsible for some of the most heartwarming scenes of the year. Crucially, it brought in the new cast’s own relationships, upbringings and coming-out stories and did not shy away from politics. Shot in the conservative US state of Georgia (“turning the red states pink” was the initial concept), it featured a Trump supporter and several committed Christians, with the cast touching on the issues this presented for the gay community.
Queer Eye is still a feelgood makeover show, but its ambitions are far greater. In one episode of the first series, the team applied their talents to help a young black gay man come out; in the second series, which will be released on Netflix on 15 June, they help a trans man in one episode and a black mother – the show’s first woman – and her gay son in another.
In the webisode shot in Yass, though, the subject is a classic of the genre: George is a farmer and former bull rider, rough around the edges, who speaks his few words through a nearly unintelligible ocker accent. The cast refer to the makeover subjects as “heroes”, Brown tells him. George laughs gruffly: “You lot must be hard up for heroes.”
The arc of the webisode involves the Fab Five injecting a little colour into the sleepy town: Berk and Porowski do up the local pub; France and Van Ness give George a new look; and Karamo gets him to open up about what is missing from his life.
Van Ness is the biggest personality of the series – he had a podcast and a show on the website Funny or Die before he was cast – and needs to turn it up only a few notches for the camera. He comes with his own linguistic flourishes: “maje” means “major”, his castmates are “booby” and “boobers” and most inanimate objects, places and even sometimes beards are referred to as “she” and “her”. (Van Ness is also a “she” sometimes, depending on her mood.) George, says Van Ness, has not got a spot of sunburn – he has “a baby bit of skin dam”.
Van Ness’s challenge in Yass is to get the Aussie bloke to talk during a makeshift day spa. Mostly, George grunts noncommittally, so Van Ness ends up riffing wildly from thought to thought. “Have you ever seen the movie Crossroads with Britney Spears?”; “Valentine’s Day 2012 was a bleak day for all of us … I’m still beside myself over Whitney.”
But then he cuts to the chase: “Do you know what toxic masculinity is? That is what has your ass working seven days a week with no fucking sunscreen on your face, not giving yourself any love, because society told you that you didn’t need it … You’ve got to take care of yourself!”
This idea is at the crux of Queer Eye and most episodes end in happy tears – but it is hard to see it working on George. So, when Brown takes him for a walk-and-talk around his property, it surprises all of us – including the production team – when, within minutes, George starts crying. “What are you thinking about?” Brown asks him, before going in for a hug. George answers quietly: “I’m thinking about Mum.”
Brown’s ability to open up each hero is the lifeblood of the show. Berk, who has to renovate and fill entire homes in a week, thinks Brown has the hardest job: “It definitely takes a toll on him emotionally – and mentally and physically as well.”
Brown says: “I have a background in psychotherapy and social work. When I came in to auditions, I was like: ‘I have to fix the insides.’ They said: ‘If you can show us you can get to the core of somebody within a minute, then you can do it.’ And I was like: ‘You think that’s a challenge?’” So they “brought someone in”, Brown says, and he proved it.
Brown speaks with a gravitas that could lend emotional weight to even the emptiest cliche. A lot of his answers begin with: “I have to be honest with you.”
“Most people have never been listened to and they’ve never been asked questions that they want to be asked,” he says. “I just don’t shy away from asking those questions quickly. When I saw George had a reaction to my question, I didn’t speak. A lot of people feel like they need to fill that silence and I don’t. I hold him and I say: ‘What’s going on?’” (Later, George tells me that conversation was “a mind-changing deal”.)
When Brown was cast on MTV’s The Real World in 2004, he became the first openly gay black man on reality TV. Three years later, he was notified by an ex that he was the father of a 10-year-old, Jason. He adopted Jason that year and, later, Jason’s half-brother.
A friend of one of the teachers killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, he has used his platform to speak publicly about gun violence. In one of series one’s most talked-about scenes, a police officer pulls over the cast and asks Brown, who is driving, to step out of the car.
He looks panicked: a black man pulled over by a white cop in a red state knows exactly how quickly things can escalate. Eventually, the cop reveals it was a prank and the two embrace for the cameras, but the scene has been criticised for being a tone-deaf stunt. (In fact, the cast draw straws to decide who gets to drive each day; the racial dynamic to the scene was unplanned.) But Brown says the conversation it raised – cut down to a few minutes on screen – was worth it.
Yass’s Tripadvisor page lists its information centre as the No 1 thing to do in the town; no wonder the Queer Eye visit is a big moment for many locals. Nicole Godding, the owner of a clothes store in the town, has been a fan since the show’s first iteration. The day the crew arrived, she tried to lure them into her shop by “pumping” Kylie Minogue at full volume. She debated tempting Porowski with a basket full of avocados, or getting her “hot younger husband” to pose out front. When I tell Porowski this, he clutches his chest and moans in glee. “Oh my Goooood! We must MEET HER!”
Porowski comes into our interview room wearing a cocked grin and a letter jacket. His mouth curls playfully as he talks about why he is drawn to taste and smell everything he sees, from licking rotting food to sniffing his feet after a workout. (“I’m a sensory person!” he laughs.) As the New Yorker’s food writer Helen Rosner wrote of his appeal: “He is never shown holding a puppy, but he seems at any time like he might be.”
Porowski has had more relationships with women than men, but he has been with his boyfriend for seven years. He describes his sexuality as “fluid”; he says it took him a while to feel comfortable saying the “queer” in “Queer Eye”.
“I’ve definitely had my share of internalised homophobia and I’ve read a lot of gay lit to try to access that and understand it better,” he says. His reading list includes Oscar Wylde’s De Profundus and Allan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair. Meeting his castmates – particularly Van Ness – has helped him grow more comfortable with who he is. “There’s something very freeing and childlike and innocent in the way he is, because he’s so much himself – and he’s only ever known how to be himself,” he says of Van Ness.
Porowski lives with “a lot of imposter syndrome”, he says. While he has a passion for cooking, he is the only member of the cast whose expertise is not professional: a former actor and model, he was introduced to the Queer Eye producers by Ted Allen, a neighbour of Porowski who was one of the original show’s cast members.
“I’ve never once referred to myself as a chef,” he says, admitting to a fear of “not being good enough to be able to cook for people and teach them how to cook”. It did not help when, after series one launched, people began noticing the apparent simplicity of his meals: a cheese toastie, here; guacamole there; a sliced grapefruit served with avocado. “The guacamole was just a side!” Porowski shouts in mock frustration. Series two showcases a lot more of his cooking; his new motto is not to read anything unless his agent or manager sends him it. “It’s a curated life now.”
The cast get a few moments to break loose from the set and explore. The Yass locals who recognise them are given selfies and hugs. People call into the community radio station throughout the day, speculating where the cast may be – at one point, Berk calls the host, unprompted, to tell them all they are wrong. The show’s publicist, who has spent the day denying access to all media, throws up his arms in defeat.
Berk, who runs his own interior design company, puts in the most hours, spending a couple of weeks planning a renovation that will be carried out over five days. “I may work quiiiite a few more days a week than the rest of them,” he admits, “but at least I know what I’m stepping into.”
Berk’s difficult childhood was introduced in series one: he was raised in an extremely religious family and “spent every Sunday crying and begging God to not make me gay”. When he was outed at 16, his parents, who had adopted him, rejected him; he left the family home. “There were many years that we didn’t speak, but it’s been a long time now that we’ve been close again,” he says. When he was cast, he bought them a smart TV. “They’re really cute – they love the show!” But he has not reconciled with his former church.
In the second series, the cast make over Tammye, whose life revolves around her church. At one point, the cast are invited inside, but Berk refuses to set foot through the door. He looks genuinely shaken.
“One of the things I told [the production company] when I got cast was: ‘I’ll do anything, but just don’t ask me to go into a church,’” he says. The Tammye episode was last-minute, after the hero they had planned to feature became ill. “At one point I was like: ‘I’m not going to do the episode.’” In the end, he decided to do it for “all the little Bobbys” still sitting in those churches “hearing the hate a lot of them preach”.
Brown, who is religious, helped Berk through that moment with a series of conversations that Brown describes as more difficult than any he has had on the show. “I was trying to say: ‘You’ve gotta let go of the hurt and forgive. Because the fact that you haven’t forgiven yet is holding you back and it’s hurting you,” he says. “The show is not about us, so you don’t see all that.”
Another of series two’s episodes focuses on Skylar, a trans man recovering after top surgery – the procedure to create a male-contoured chest – who has not yet worked out how to present himself to the world.
Berk says “Skylar was emotional for all of us” – but it was especially so for France. In the episode, the fashion expert – known for favouring French tucks, cropped pants and rolled sleeves – says he is “intimidated” by the prospect of dressing a trans man.
“I hate to admit it, but I’m not immersed in the gay community and therefore I’m ignorant – I don’t know the correct pronouns,” he says to Skylar in the episode. “How would you feel if I were to get that wrong?” Both of them end up in tears.
As an Englishman of Pakistani Muslim heritage who lives in Utah and is married to a Mormon cowboy from Wyoming, France has not been around many people from the trans community. It was important for him to be honest about that, he says. “Some people were saying that I’m out of my mind, that the community is going to chastise me for not being woke enough. Nope!” he says, with a definitive clap. “I think the rest of the world is going to watch, saying: ‘Finally, somebody’s asked the questions we wanted to.’”
Skylar ends up smiling at the mirror while appraising himself, his body finally taking the shape he has always wanted. “That was my proudest moment,” France says.
As the day winds down in Yass, the cameras record some of George’s final thoughts as the Fab Five pack up their stuff. Brown runs back in, apologising to the cameraman for interrupting the shot as he leans in for one last hug with George. It is a sweet, genuine moment between them – and a smart piece of content, too.
Series two of Queer Eye is on Netflix from 15 June. The Yass webisode will be released on social media on 22 June