Up until recent years, “The Fab Five” was a phrase used to describe a group of exceptional basketball students from the University of Michigan. On February 7, 2018, the name was given new life and new subjects. Namely, Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Bobby Berk, Jonathan Van Ness, and Karamo Brown, the bold, fabulous, and inspiring cast of Netflix’s “Queer Eye.”
The plot of “Queer Eye,” Netflix’s remounted version of the original “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” which ran from 2003 to 2007, is simple enough. There is a 99999999% chance that you have already seen an episode or two (or twenty), but I am still more than happy to give you the basic rundown.
For all intents and purposes, “Queer Eye” is a makeover show. Each one of the five men has a specialty (cuisine, fashion, design, etc.), but they work together to transform the life of a deserving person or family. They are also all infuriatingly fabulous. The folks receiving makeovers who are featured on the show have ranged from a burly love-struck man in his 60s to a 49-year-old female hunter to a pair of sisters trying to keep their father’s legacy alive by way of a family-owned barbecue restaurant. They are all nominated for the show by friends, family members, or other loved ones.
“Queer Eye” is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed reality shows to come along in the past few years and it is no shock to me that Netflix is the platform leading this charge. The colossal streaming service is known for producing bold, diverse and potentially risky work. They make it a mission to amplify voices that often reside in the margins, whether that be people of color, women leaders, or members of the LGBTQ community.
One of the most recently released and well-received episodes of the hit show centered around a young black woman who was kicked out of her adopted home at the age of 16, after coming out as a lesbian to her parents. Jess, the beautiful girl in question, is the first queer female to be featured on the show and her compelling story, infectious smile, and inspiring transformation instantly launched this episode to a viral strata.
I have a deep-seated love for every single member of the “Queer Eye” clique, but similarly to Jess in this episode, I am naturally drawn to one Karamo Brown. Okay, he’s black. I’m black. That helps, but Karamo’s role in the show speaks to me even more than his skin color does. Karamo serves as the designated life coach of the group; his entire life purpose is rooted in inspiring others. In order to do this, he opens up about his own challenges. He expresses vulnerability in a way that I do not imagine it is easy for a tall, openly gay, black, Southern father of two sons to do. He takes all of the challenges he has faced in life and applies it back to every person’s individual situation. He is strong, bold, fearless, and demands the same thing from everyone else.
“Being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. It shows that you are in tune with yourself, which is the sexiest thing to men or women.” - Karamo Brown
"You are a strong, black, lesbian woman," Karamo proclaims while wiping away Jess’ tears. Throughout the episode, this becomes her affirmation and as she recites it, we see so many of her emotional walls melt away. Jess lets loose in a way she simply has not been able to do before. Karamo ends up bringing her to an Alvin Ailey dance class, home of the legendary performance style that is specifically rooted in African-American and African-diaspora movements. Here, Jess is able to commune with other young black women who are proud of who they are and where they come from.
Like many of the featured makeover recipients, Jess’ life has radically changed post-“Queer Eye.” Her room was revamped, hair cut down to an edgy crew cut, and her normal clothes swapped out for a stylish new wardrobe. As thrilling as it was to watch her reactions to the new space, the biggest transformations that occurred during the episode were intimate. The “Queer Eye” makeovers seem to work best inside out; the same amount of work that goes into re-molding living rooms and tweezing unruly eyebrows goes into nurturing a healthy diet, fostering a happy home, and cherishing joy.
For Jess, all of this joy was exacerbated further when the “Queer Eye” crew surprised her by connecting with her estranged older sister, Jenise. Even after a multi-year long separation, the two were moved to tears at the sight of one another. Just like a reunion with your dearest friend, it was like no time had passed at all.
In a recently released article with them, Jess writes “connecting with my sister has honestly been one of the most impactful things for me from the whole experience, because I just naturally fell into bringing her into my life. We talk every single day. It’s special for me to be able to rely on someone who is literal family because all my life, I’ve been leaning on people who were my friends. To be able to connect with her in a way that’s so natural and not so heavy and emotional, not hard or uncomfortable—I love that. And it has felt like that ever since.”
Jess’ redemption story does not end here. Shortly after the episode’s release, a GoFundMe was launched in order for her to re-attend college. The account, which you can support by clicking here, has already grossed more than $100,000. All of the funds that are not used for her education will be allocated to GLAAD, an organization devoted to advancing LGBTQ rights. **Cue the never-ending stream of ugly tears!**
Jess has been able to keep up with her “Queer Eye” family, as well as her tens of thousands of new fans and followers, by exchanging videos, pictures, and tweets with the guys online:
#Throwback to one of my favorite episodes/ heros of @queereye season 3. With the young Kansas City @alvinailey dancers & my girl @jesslayica who is A Strong, Black, Lesbian Woman! 💪🏾✊🏾🌈👸🏾 pic.twitter.com/x57psj8liN— Karamo Brown (@Karamo) April 16, 2019
She even affectionately refers to Karamo as “dad.”
“Queer Eye” is not Mr. Brown’s first stint in the television world. According to an article in Bustle, “Brown was the first openly gay African-American person on reality TV when he appeared on MTV’s “Real World: Philadelphia” in 2004.” But of course, there are some problems raised by the fact that Karamo is the only black man on the show. “Queer Eye” is not the first series centered around a group of people, that includes only one black person, nor will it be the last. Whenever I watch a show with only one black character or host, I become instinctively wary of tokenism or the use of a black or other-identifying person of color to represent that entire race.
In the rare moments of life that I am not freelancing or drooling over Rihanna’s Instagram page, I work in marketing and can attest to how often this tokenism is used by advertising agencies to check off their diversity quota. With “Queer Eye” however, it never feels like Karamo is a pawn. He talks about race and the specific challenges of openly identifying as homosexual in the black community but does not use all of his airtime explaining or defending his identity. Instead, he leads (and lives) by example.
Karamo and I are different in an infinite number of ways. He is engaged to his partner of eight years. He is a father. He owns more than two pairs of shoes. Aside from our skin color and adoration of Beyonce, we do not have a ton in common. Part of this stems from our differences in age and sexual orientation, but a lot more stems from his background.
Karamo was born in Houston, Texas and similar to Jess, he came out to his family at 16 years old and was met with pretty immediate ostracization. By no stretch of the imagination were my middle and high school years easy (I had glasses, braces AND an incomprehensible lisp), but having to maneuver through adolescence with the added weight of being openly queer is a burden I never beared. For this, and so many other reasons, Karamo is one of my personal heroes. His ability to translate messages of self-love, self-assurance, and self-acceptance is something that stretches far across any man-made barriers.
Karamo has his own special swag. His bright clothes and wickedly smooth skin do not make him come off as pretentious, but rather as the cool and confident rich uncle you want to spend all of your summers with. Looking at him, you can tell this is a man who feels assured of his self-worth and aligned with his purpose, both of which I am actively working towards every day.
The family dynamic these five men have created on the show resonates with audiences all over the world and I firmly believe that Karamo’s presence is a large reason why. Whether counseling a client through a bad breakup, a difficult coming out or a first date, he is the biggest cheerleader, most earnest listener, and very best friend.