It’s hard to believe that Queer Eye first premiered just a little over a year and a half ago, in February 2018. Already in its fourth season, the series has solidified its spot atop our collective Netflix queue as a sort of streaming restorative: A rare, feel-good binge-watch without excessive violence, needless drama, or worse, unsavory politics. It’s the type of show that you could cry or fall asleep to—in the best possible way.
It’s equally hard to believe that it’s only been about a year and a half since we first met the “Fab Five,” or, as The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon refers to them, “the Gay Beatles.” In that short time, Antoni, Bobby, Jonathan, Karamo, and Tan have skyrocketed to both fame and, yes, first-name terms with both viewers and critics.
“We’re kind of pumping out so many seasons at once that we can’t keep track of it sometimes,” Bobby Berk tells me with a laugh. When we speak on the phone, he is in Philadelphia working on the show’s next season, filming six days a week because of its abbreviated production timeline. This is not to mention an upcoming special shot in Japan, already wrapped and set to premiere sometime later this year.
“I thought there was going to be a huge cultural difference, and there was,” Berk explains about shooting in Japan. “But at the end of the day, we connect to people on a very emotional and very loving level. It’s not, ‘You need to change your life in this way!’ It's more like, ‘You need to love yourself, and you need to accept yourself, and that will help you be a happier and better person.’”
Berk would know. Having left home at age 15 after being outed to his parents, he has never been shy about telling his own story of acceptance. In one episode from season two, for example, he stalls outside of a church, refusing to enter. “In my experience with religion and religious people,” he explains in the episode, “I’ve just been judged.”
It’s a reminder that the Fab Five, despite seemingly materializing fully-formed on camera and at the doorsteps of their “heroes,” have their own traumas and backstories, as well. It was a pleasure, then, to chat with Berk—if only for 20 minutes!—about his life and the new season of Queer Eye.
How has the reception to the new season been?
It’s been really good! We’ve been so busy with filming our next season that we haven’t really got to be involved quite as heavily with the launch as we normally are. Normally, we’re not in production when the new season comes out. But yeah, it’s kind of business as usual over here. We’re kind of pumping out so many seasons at once that we can’t keep track of it sometimes (laughs).
Right! I was going to say, it seems like a crazy schedule. I know that the Japan season is coming out some time soon.
I think it’s sometime in the fall—we don’t know exactly when. I’m very excited about that, because it is something, of course, very different from what we’ve ever done.
Was it at all uncomfortable in Japan giving people tips on how to live or better their lives, especially when it’s an entirely different culture?
Yes and no, but more no. I thought it would be. I thought there was going to be a huge cultural difference, and there was. But at the end of the day, what we connect to people on is on a very emotional and very loving level. It’s not, “You need to change your life in this way!” It’s more like, “You need to love yourself, and you need to accept yourself, and that will help you be a happier and better person.” So yeah there wasn’t a lot of moments where it was like, “Oh, we feel uncomfortable giving them advice,” because it’s not really advice on a cultural level. It’s just advice on a human level.
What was your favorite episode or moment from season four?
I would say it would be either Wesley or Matt Moreland. Wesley was probably my favorite. My designs always change people’s lives, but they don't hardcore change people’s lives. I was able to do that for Wesley. I was able to make his home completely accessible to him in every single way that it wasn’t before. I think that was a really great moment for me. It was the only renovation in Queer Eye history that I got two weeks to do. Normally, I just have Tuesday to Friday. I got to put a lot of thought and a lot of love into it, and really plan it out and bring in a lot of people that knew a lot of things about ADA compliance that I didn’t. So it was great to work with different teams that in the past I’ve not been able to. And then, Matt Moreland. I think I really connected with that episode because I grew up on a farm in Missouri, and we were on a farm in Missouri! The cows, and the goats, and the four-wheelers. I felt at home, I love that episode.
The moment when Wesley goes into the bathroom and can see himself in the mirror for the first time was so great.
I mean, he’d never seen his own reflection in his house before. So that was a really powerful moment, not just for him, but for the rest of us as well.
It’s nice to hear you had two weeks, instead of just the normal few days. Was that because there was just a lot more to do?
Yeah, normally we don’t rip out an entire bathroom and build it from scratch. We don’t normally rip out an entire kitchen and build it from scratch. Normally, I’m sure you notice, I paint a lot of kitchen cabinets. I can’t remember ever putting in new kitchen cabinets, except Wesley’s! I think I’m always just taking out uppers and putting in open shelving, or painting the cabinets. I don’t think we’ve ever put in all new cabinets. So there were just a lot of things—putting in new plumbing, where we put the washer and dryer. Moving all the electrical [wiring] in the kitchen and bathroom. It took a lot more than just the normal, aesthetic changes that we normally do.
And then the one on the farm, which I embarrassingly haven’t seen.
I haven’t even seen them all.
Really? I’m sure they give you screeners!
Only like a week before they come out! And we’ve been filming, and honestly we spend all day everyday together when we’re filming. I don't want to come home and see us! (laughs) I’m like, “I don’t want to come home and hear myself talk, and I don’t want to hear the other boys talk.” We love each other, but we spend all day—and this season our schedule is a little busier than most. Normally we film three to four days a week; right now, we’re filming like six days a week. So it’s a little bit different than normal, because we’re here a shorter time than we normally are. We’re having to pack in things that we’d normally spread out over five months, we have to pack into ten weeks. So it’s been a little bit crazy. So two nights ago I watched Wanda. I’ve seen Matt Moreland. I’ve seen Wesley. I’ve seen Dooley. So I haven’t seen Brandonn, or John... so I’m missing one.
I just started Wanda’s episode.
So you’ve seen how good of a dancer I am?!
Oh, totally! I read in one interview that shortly after leaving home you did drag for a little bit.
... Yeah (laughs). I don’t know when I lost my rhythm. I used to actually be a pretty good dancer. I don’t know, somewhere along the line I lost my rhythm.
How old were you when you were doing drag? 16?
Yeah, probably late 15, early 16.
I’m not calling you old, but that’s time enough to lose rhythm.
It’s nice to hear there’s an episode in Missouri because those little moments where you get to see your background and the rest of the Queer Eye cast’s background is great. Like Jonathan’s episode in Quincy. How was it being, basically, back where you grew up?
Yeah, that farm that we were on was probably only about an hour and ten minutes from my parents’ home. So it was very close. We were in the Kansas City area for two seasons, except for that one where we drove across the state to Illinois for Jonathan’s episode. But yeah, it was nice being home. It was nice to see how Missouri has changed. Kansas City has definitely turned into a great little big city. When I lived in Missouri, Kansas City was definitely not for me. But there were many days where I was like “God, I could live here!” But then it got cold, and I was like, “Never mind, I’m out!”
You haven’t been shy about your background, and about how you left home when you were young. Was that at all uncomfortable? What’s that relationship like now?
No, I have a very good relationship with my parents now. I actually loved being in Missouri and being able to see them more than I normally do. They came up to Kansas City a few times; I went down to Mount Vernon a few times. It was great. I wish we could actually be filming Season 5 there. Not that I don’t love Philly—Kansas City was just great. It was easy. There was no traffic. The city really wanted us to be there. Here in Philly, it’s not that they don’t want us to be here. It's that we’re one of many shows filming here right now. Jason Segel is filming here right now, right in the same neighborhood that our loft is in. His film crew trucks are everywhere, and ours are everywhere, and it’s almost like a turf war without it actually being a turf war (laughs). The other day I walked up to the wrong camera van, like, “Here’s our film crew! Oh, who’re you guys?” So there’s just so much more going on in Philly. Traffic here is horrible.
I can’t pass up asking about you doing drag! Do photos of you doing drag exist?
I’ve never seen one. It was before smartphones. Obviously, smartphones didn’t come out until 2007. I’m sure there is somewhere. It’s in a shoebox of somebody, somewhere, and I’m sure at some point somebody will realize and it’ll come out. But no, I don’t have any. I was too poor back then to own a digital camera, or a cell phone—I don’t even think cell phones had cameras back then. That was... ’98, ’99?
No, they definitely didn’t! We didn’t even have texts then! I’m going through my mind of the history of when I was living in Springfield, Missouri doing that, sitting in a specific apartment sending my first text and thinking, “Oh, this is weird. Why would you want to send a text when you can just call?” And of course now, we’re like, “Why would you call when you can just text?” So yeah, there wasn’t even texting when I did drag. But I’m sure eventually someone will find some old film they haven’t developed and they’ll see Ms. Jessica Grant.
So you were still in Missouri at that point, and moved to NYC around 2003?
I moved to Denver for about three years, and then to New York. I moved out of Missouri in ’99.
What were you doing in Denver?
Getting out of Missouri. Denver was the only place I knew anybody. I had one friend there that I had met online years before. So I went.
In New York, I read that your first gig was at Restoration Hardware.
It was! The one that just closed, by the Flatiron building.
Is hearing that it closed a pleasant experience?
It only closed because they built a big massive mansion one in the Meatpacking District. So it only closed because they opened a bigger, better store.
I read that your experience there was not entirely enjoyable.
No, not really (laughs). But it wasn’t the worst job I ever had. Then again, I’m sure you read that I got fired while Thom Filicia was upstairs filming the original Queer Eye! So… (laughs) full-circle.
It’s nice to hear it wasn’t the worst!
Yeah, it definitely wasn’t the worst. Actually, the job I had after that, actually, at Bed Bath and Beyond was probably the worst.
Why do you say that?
Um... They just don’t treat their employees very well. It’s just not a great atmosphere to work in. Couple that with, back then, it was the only Bed Bath and Beyond in the city. The only type of store like that in the city. It was a very busy store, with a lot of angry New Yorkers who wanted to return their aerobeds, and their soiled sheets, and anything else dirty that they could possibly return, because Bed Bath and Beyond lets you return anything. Just not a happy, pleasant atmosphere to work in. Probably why they’re not doing well and they’re about to close!