Here’s Looking at You | an Interview with Karamo Brown
By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
Karamo Brown’s TV career launched suddenly and in full force in 2004 on The Real World as the first African-American out gay man on the show. Or on TV in general. Now, he is back on TV as the charismatic leader of a super-powered pack of gays on the reboot of Queer Eye which launched early February on Netflix. Goliath got a chance to talk to Karamo about his journey to become the man he is today – and how QE is shaping up to be a voice of reason in our time.
When Karamo Brown participated in The Real World in 2004, he didn’t expect the rollercoaster ride that was set off by him being the first out gay African-American on the show. Although he experienced immense support, he also let the sudden rise to celebrity get the best of him, so when the show stopped airing, he started partying like the best of them, and pretty soon his phone stopped ringing – because who would want to work with talent that had clearly lost his way? Now, Karamo is back on TV with the reboot of Queer Eye and is part of the new Fab Five; and after over a decade away from television, perspectives have indeed changed for Karamo. “This time, I have a clear purpose, and a vision of what I want to do,” he explains,”and I know that show business has two components – show and business. Last time, I forgot about the business and was all about the show. That’s certainly different now.”
After auditioning alongside more than 10,000 candidates across the world, and after making it to the final top 100, Karamo was locked down with the other candidates for the equivalent of speed dating, so producers could determine what cast would work best together off and on screen. Karamo instantly became friends with Tan (fashion) and Bobby (design), and later they were introduced to Jonathan (grooming) and Antoni (food), and the group instinctively stayed together until they were all finally cast as the new Fab Five.
The show, which aired on Netflix early February, has already made plenty of waves and has received acclaim for their new take on the original concept of making over clueless straight guys (and even a gay one) in their own environment. But although the QE reboot, which has let the ‘for the straight guy’ go to be even more inclusive, follows the original’s premise, it is also wildly different. While the first version would focus almost entirely on the makeover, the new QE introduces a surprising and very honest emotional depth, not only for the ‘victims’ but also for the hosts. “I have participated in reality TV before, so I really wanted to put that emotional depth forward in the show”, Karamo explains, “I had conversations with myself, with the guys, and with the producers to make sure that when we approach our heroes we not only fix the outside, but we also give them the tools to fix the inside. We all wanted it to be as authentic and emotional as possible, not only for the heroes but also for us. It was important to all of us to build that deeper connection.”
The result is a reality TV show that boldly and quite surprisingly takes on issues like homophobia, religion, politics, racial tensions, and even police brutality; and does so in an honest and deeply emotional way that not only displays the feelings of the makeover victims but also lays bare the experiences of the hosts whose personal stories of religious upbringing, rigid family structures, and racial disparities serve not only as moments of personal growth but as learning lessons of perspective to the people that receive the makeover – and to the world.
One episode particularly displays the innate strength and transformative power of the show: The fab five are pulled over by a police officer as a prank on their way to see their next makeover guy. For Karamo, the incident takes on a highly personal and intimidating aspect that happens to spark a much broader conversation about race and police brutality in today’s America. The outcome is an incredibly touching moment between the two where mutual understanding and respect is suddenly the standard and not the exception for their interaction, and it even seems to create a possible pathway to a common ground. Who would have thought that of a makeover reality TV show? “Every week, we receive a piece of paper with an overview of the person’s background, and that’s it,” Karamo tells us, “so, we have to figure it out organically, and luckily, we were able to connect with all of them, so it happened very organically, and we could get to what was really going on.”
That connection and the ability to get to the root cause of things is also what will undoubtedly determine the legacy of the new QE. Tan (fashion) mentions in the first episode that the first version was about tolerance, about getting gays on TV, and now it’s about acceptance and tolerance. Karamo hopes that the show’s legacy will be about respect: “At the end of the day, you must respect your fellow man and woman. I get messages from people that are very right-wing telling me how impressed they are, and how they feel that the show is helping them have a better conversation.”
Karamo is also hoping that the same respectful conversation can be transferred to the current debate on gun control measures. As a former student of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Karamo was devastated to see the school where he attended 10-12 grade and graduated from was the scene of another horrific mass shooting. “I had my high school reunion there, and to see the hallways and school grounds where I used to roam now being a place where kids were in harm’s way is heartbreaking,” Karamo says and continues, “As a father of two boys, I can’t accept a world where schools have become war zones and need metal detectors. But I also think the conversation starts somewhere else.” Much like his own experience of being able to bridge a seemingly abysmal gap between people, Karamo thinks the solution is starting a sensible conversation that focuses on understanding both sides instead of just yelling your standpoints. As he says: “We need to wake our asses up. This is the point where we ask to see the manager and bring them in the room to have a face-to-face, and we hear both sides of the table. We’re the adults here.”
There is no doubt, with the overwhelmingly positive reception of Queer Eye, that the show is well on its way to garnering the same lasting impact as the original. And it is also clear that the impact could have a far wider reach than the original. Karamo hopes that there are at least three to four more seasons of QE in the future – and then he has his eyes set on getting a daytime talk show! “I think there is a spot for a gay black man in daytime TV right now – and I’d like to be the one to fill that,” he muses – and we would definitely be here for Karamo putting his makeover superpowers to work on daytime television as well!
Karamo’s 6in10.org nonprofit organization
Karamo is the founder of 6in10.org, an HIV awareness organization with a dedicated mission to eradicate the 6 in 10 HIV statistic plaguing gay and bisexual black men; a statistic that has sadly only worsened over the past years which now means that 1 in 2 gay or bisexual black men will be affected by HIV before 40. The organization provides tailored mental health support through viral campaigns and community engagement. Learn more at 6in10.org.