Carson Kressley on Bullying, Coming Out, Botox, the LGBT Legacy of ‘Queer Eye,’ and Knowing Donald Trump
Carson Kressley, one of the breakout stars of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, talks candidly about LGBT equality, aging, dating, fighting gay disapproval, and dressing Cher.
Before the bracing torrent of anecdotes and stories issues forth—from an early love of paisley to getting bullied to meeting Cher; from coming out to heady fame to Botox and plastic surgery; all of this delivered lightning-fast and filled with gossipy charm and witty one-liners—Carson Kressley observed some mints and a bottle of still water in front of him.
“Life Savers and water! I’ll have fresh breath and be hydrated,” he said brightly.
Kressley, most famous as the most flamboyant and “sassy”—as he calls it—member of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s “Fab Five,” is sitting in the ninth-floor canteen of IAC, the company that owns The Daily Beast, the Hudson River sparkling in the sun below us to one side, and the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan looming out of other windows.
Kressley’s new, breezy advice book, Does This Book Make My Butt Look Big?, sat on the table between us, a style guide for “the normal American woman,” with his camp, chatty advice distilled down into handy lists and punchy slices of text such as “What Matches My Margarita?” and “Why Buy When You Can Rent?” (clothes), how to clear out your closet, and other “quick fixes to make women feel fabulous.”
The 47-year-old Kressley wrote the book after being approached in airports by women asking his counsel about what they should do about their own style crises. He doesn’t offer “highfalutin’” or expensive solutions, but reassuringly everyday, manageable ones.
“It doesn’t take a lot to feel better about yourself and the way you present yourself to the world,” he said. Periodic “confessions” on the pages include the times he did too much Botox, or used fluorescent eye cream.
His skin does look very smooth from the Botox and filler injections he says he has twice a year—to look “fresh for summer and Christmas”—and, as you might expect from a style advice giver, he is wearing a gorgeous, slim-fitted midnight blue suit by Moods of Norway, sky-blue Vince Camuto shirt, and sockless, is sporting golden-colored Jimmy Choo loafers. These are a size 9 and he a size 10, “but I had to have them, and so I put my feet in them, they were too small, but they stretched, and now they fit perfectly.”
Observing the New York panorama around us, he noted that living in Midtown East was “super-boring and lame,” but that the area was newly in possession of an outpost of the Gansevoort Hotel. “If my neighborhood is cool, New York City is definitely upgrading,” he said.
He pointed out a picture of himself in the book, as a little boy wearing a floral pink silk shirt and corduroy vest and matching pants. A picture caption notes he is wearing silk paisley “underoos” too.
“That was school picture day in second grade. There I am, a ’70s recipe for ‘fabulosity’ or disaster, however you want to look at it. I even painted my nails that day, I think a magenta color. I just thought you should always get dressed for an occasion.
“It comes from having a stylish mother. My mom wasn’t some Paris fashion model. She was a local beauty queen from Pennsylvania. She was Miss Milk Maid, 1955, or something. That sounds like a line from a musical or Hedwig. Tom Ford, who I have a huge crush on, also had a stylish mother. A lot of stylish people do.”
His parents were “not not fine” about their son’s love of sartorial experimentation. “It was never like, ‘Take that nail polish off, you’re going to get a spanking.’ I just did what I did and nobody seemed to care.”
He was particularly close to his maternal grandmother, whose six grandchildren ranged wildly in age from 70 to him. “She had all these weird leftover dollhouses and Barbie Dreamhouses. I was like, ‘Grandma, can I please get a tea set to play with the dolls.’
“I lived in my own world in their living room. I didn’t know it was weird until I went to school, and I was like, ‘Tommy, do you wasn’t to come over and play with my tea set?’ And I’d get, ‘Do you want a bloody nose?’ as a response. I didn’t know until I was with my peers that maybe being this fabulous wasn’t really what I was supposed to be.”
I asked Kressley if he was bullied at school. “Yes, but it got progressively easier as I got older.” He paused. “I loved wearing Calvin Klein jeans, and Nancy Kalb was my fashion rival in school. And she was the chicest girl. She had Calvin Klein jeans and I was like, ‘Oh no, bitch. I’m going to get some as well.’ So I did. But I really got made fun of for how I looked.
“It’s one of the great ironies in life. When I did Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it was an empowering moment where gay guys were telling straight guys it was OK to care about how they looked and groomed. It would help you get the girl or the job or the look that maybe you always wanted.
“I remember being a teenager walking through the mall, and it would be like (mean voice), ‘Ugh, there’s that queer dude.’ After Queer Eye, it was like (welcoming voice), ‘Oh my god, there’s that queer dude.’ It’s amazing: the power of TV, progress, and time, and hopefully we are still moving in that direction of equality and acceptance.”
Kressley’s ambitions growing up were derived from drinking in hours of ’70s television. He was on his own a lot (his brother and sister were a lot older than him), and so his first ambition had been to be an architect, “because of [Mike Brady in] The Brady Bunch,” and a window dresser “because of Rhoda.” When the family built their house, the young Kressley sketched its floor plans. “When the teachers in elementary school came to take away my doodling, they’d say, ‘Wait, a French Normandy chateau… this is really good!’”
Kressley knew strongly that “I didn’t want to be what my family did.” His father was a car dealer, his mother a homemaker and part-time local politician. He recalled being dragged to township meetings and auto auctions as achingly dull.
“One time, we were being followed by a police car while cruising to see what the other car dealers had for inventory, and I was in the back going ‘Help me, help me.’ We were pulled over by the police, and I thought I’d be in huge trouble for pretending to be kidnapped. I always loved drama and attention.”
When I first asked how coming out was for Kressley, he said he had been 7 years old and sat his parents down, told them he was gay, his mother bristling and his dad shaking his head. “Let’s see how second grade goes,” his mother advised.
“That wasn’t the case at all,” Kressley added hurriedly: He was joking. “In that era it wasn’t a time where I could come out. Today, teenagers are coming out as lesbian, gay, bi, and trans. It’s amazing that people are living their authentic life so early.”
His grandparents, who lived next door, had a pony farm, and the young Kressley would sit in the animals’ feeding trough as they munched hay around him.
“Being in nature, being with animals, being alone became my escape, and the ponies became my confidants. It sounds like an after-school movie, but that’s what happened. I was a very good horseperson and a nationally ranked equestrian attending events, so I saw the world at a young age.”
He knew he was gay “since I was like 5 years old. In first grade, people would say, ‘Don’t you love the Million Dollar Man, and I was like, ‘Yes, very much.’ I had a crush on Lee Majors.” (Many years later, Kressley’s friend Oprah Winfrey, on whose show he did “many a makeover and make-under,” asked him on air about this crush, only for the camera to cut to Majors off-stage, holding a red rose, which he delivered to Kressley.)
From 5 to 12, Kressley would catch glimpses of 20/20 specials “about sex changes and gay people, watching from behind the sofa. I thought, ‘I’ve got to find out more about this. What is this affliction? What do I have? How do I get rid of it?’ I would literally try to pray it away, and try and think how I could have a girlfriend and be ‘normal.’ Then I started to get it. I had crushes on certain people in high school English class, and wish we were going to the football game. I never acted on it.”
His liberal arts college had “a very fraternity culture, it wasn’t a place I felt comfortable being who I really was. I was never a”—he smiles impishly and puts on a mock-posh accent—“practicing homosexual until after I got out of college and came to New York at 21.
“I went through junior high, high school, college, I didn’t come out to my family, but I came out myself when I moved here in 1991. This was the playground where I could finally be who I wanted to be, who I really was, and find a group of people who became family and a support network.”
In the big city, Kressley found a much-desired sense of anonymity, and “the whole world at your feet. I thought, ‘Here I might actually meet a guy, and it will be OK to be boyfriends with them.’ Being out in New York was so easy. I felt like I was starting a new life, literally in the witness relocation program. I felt, ‘I’m 90 miles away from home. I can be whoever I want. You can do the same in L.A., but in New York you’d better be authentic about it, ’cause you’ll get found out. You can fake it a bit more in L.A.”
He recalled sneaking into the popular Chelsea club Splash to meet his first-ever date, a guy who worked at Emporio Armani who sold ties. “I bought a tie for $125. I couldn’t afford it, but he was so cute. Splash was such a wonderland. Growing up, on TV you’d see gays who were super-flamboyant, but seeing these guys at Splash really opened up a whole world of possibility.
“But these were still the days of people dying of AIDS. It was still really scary, but at the same time I was finally able to act on my sexuality, but at the same time you thought, ‘I might get this disease, I might die.’” He paused. “Another layer of shame and fear, that feeling of ‘You’re still not really free.’”
Kressley had “always been really ambitious, but hadn’t had a calling. I had a fantastic education but no area of expertise.” For two years he worked for a nonprofit, “until I realized I wanted to buy some shoes.”
He made a list of places—Calvin Klein, MGM, Ralph Lauren among them—whose corporate culture he liked. One day at the gym, attired in Ralph Lauren sweatpants and carrying a teddy bear and basketball, a female headhunter asked Kressley who he was. Kressley said he replied, “I’m Carson. I want to work at Ralph Lauren.”
Two days later Kressley, then 25, had an interview lined up there, and was quickly seduced by the mahogany walls, plaid carpeting, and china bowls embossed with polo ponies and filled with M&Ms. He was hired to be an assistant in the men’s design department, “setting up appointments, and buying sandwiches and shampoo. But I was doing it in a Town Car and thought it was great.”
Over seven years Kressley worked his way up the organization, eventually being tasked to shepherd clothes to international photoshoots “with models and Siberian huskies, and it was phenomenal.”
A co-worker told Kressley that Bravo was casting for a show.
Kressley said his initial response was: “What’s Bravo? A nonstick cooking spray?”
Told the channel was looking for a gay man who happened to be a style expert, “I was like, ‘That’s me.’”
He and other tryout presenters were shown a tape of a straight guy “who was so well-endowed he blow-dried his hair at the gym naked so people could get a good look at it. Everyone was very PC, saying we ‘needed to bridge straight and gay worlds.’
“When they came to me I said, ‘What’s the problem? He’s hung like a pony. Why not get him some flat-front khakis?’ And they were like, ‘OK, you’re sassy. That was my foray into TV. Two years later, we had a Primetime Emmy.”
With the show about to air, Kressley, then 33, still hadn’t come out to his parents.
“My mom and dad were like, ‘You’re quitting your job at Ralph Lauren to do what?’ I’d say, ‘Oh, it’s a TV show. They haven’t even come up with a name yet.’ My friends [and his sister] were like, ‘You have to tell your family you’re gay.’”
This was given an added urgency as TV Guide was set to feature Queer Eye on its cover.
“I had all the feelings you have: ‘Oh my God, will they not love me? Kick me out of the house? Disown me? Disinherit me?’ All those things. I waited till the day before TV Guide came out. Mom picked me up from the train station in her minivan, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh good, it’s raining. She can’t freak out too much or we’ll careen off the road and die.’
“She was like, ‘Oh OK, yeah, I think we all knew that. Next you have to tell your father.’ I was like, ‘Uh oh,’ and I did and it was totally fine. I had agonized and tortured myself for so long and it really could have been avoided. It wasn’t a big deal.”
Kressley said he was pleased that fame had happened to him “at 33, rather than 23. If it had I would have gone off the deep end and pulled a Lindsay Lohan and been a disaster. I had been in New York City, knew how to save money and handle things. I’d always been famous in my head, I loved entertaining people.
“We had no idea it would be a success. We would joke that we would be super-famous. They told us we were going to make eight episodes, and I would get $2,000 per episode. I said, ‘That’s great, but do you have dental insurance?’”
Kressley’s boss at Ralph Lauren reassured him they’d take him back if Queer Eye didn’t work out. He said he wasn’t asked to ramp up the camp for the small screen, he was just who he was.
Recalling fondly some of the men the team helped, Kressley said, “Some bristled at us at first—‘I don’t know about this, he’s getting up in my grill’—but by the end, they were all like, ‘Oh my god, we look like twins, I love your shirt.’”
“The day after the first episode aired, it was watercooler talk,” Kressley recalled. “It was a hot show. It was super-fun and super-validating, because all along we had been ashamed of who we were or criticized for it, and now we were being celebrated. That was a pretty amazing whirlwind.
“Other famous people told us to enjoy the ride,” he said. “So much was going on, we couldn’t absorb it. One day we were making a music video, shutting the Brooklyn Bridge down and being filmed from a helicopter. Then we were on Barbara Walters’s Most Interesting People. Then we were on a plane to open that year’s Human Rights Campaign dinner in Los Angeles. Then it was the Emmys. I wish we could have spread it out a bit, so we could have savored all those moments.”
Some objected to the show, claiming that it perpetuated stereotypes.
“I was being my loud, sassy, outspoken self, wearing the kind of loud outfits I liked to wear,” said Kressley. “I felt like the hardest criticism came from other gay people, and I was like, ‘Really, you’re not going to help a brother out here?’ People said the show embraced stereotypes, that we were not all stylists and hairdressers. I’m like: ‘Yeah, but we are some of the best ones.’
“Sometimes a stereotype is well-earned because you’re really great at it. Gay people tend to be dreamers, and because you grow up feeling like an oddball, out of the loop or that you don’t belong you live in your own world, you conjure up fantasies that later make you good at creative jobs like being an interior designer or fashion stylist.
“At Queer Eye we took the position that we were good at what we do and if that meant we were accused of being stereotypical, so be it. I was like, ‘Listen, I’m not going to live the life you want me to live, or portray the gay person you want to have. If you’re a butch, straight-acting gay guy, great, so be it. The only person I am representing on television is myself, and that is who I am.”
He himself wishes there were different kinds of gay people consistently presented on TV, and Queer Eye’s success dovetailed with shows like Will and Grace, and an increasing wave of LGBT representation.
“I think we weren’t trying to advance the cause, we were trying to do makeovers,” said Kressley. “In a subversive way we were introducing gay people to people across America. Somebody who didn’t know someone who was gay could say, ‘Oh, I know the Fab Five and they seem nice and cool and good at their jobs.”
On the scene, and on apps, there is still derision or rejection leveled at effeminate gay men. Has Kressley ever experienced that?
“Yes, I have. In 1991, when I moved here, there was still such panic and anxiety about HIV and AIDS. If you looked muscular and really built you were healthy. People had started taking steroids. That was the ideal, the big, smooth, gorgeous Nordic god, and I wasn’t that. I would go to all the places where those people were—Fire Island, Provincetown—and get no romantic interest.
“Sometimes, when you’re an outsider—and I had originally found this out at junior high and high school—in order to be accepted or maintain your safety, you take on the court jester role and entertain the masses. If 12th-graders were trying to beat me up, as a ninth-grader I’d do something to entertain them. I’d fall off the chair, make them laugh, be the class clown. It helped me develop great timing.”
Fast forward a few years, and Kressley recalled of the early ’90s gay scene, “I wasn’t the muscular ideal. I was the scrawny, feminine, loudmouthed, sassy kid. So I developed a sense of humor and entertained those people. I was the nerdy class clown of the group. Now it’s dissipated a bit. We have a lot more variety in what makes up the gay community. But at that point I felt like an outsider.”
Certainly, being famous and being on TV helped break the ice with guys, he said. It was like, ‘Oh now we’re friends! My own anthropological observation is that this [gay anti-effeminacy attitude] is about ‘passing.’ Some gay men describe themselves as ‘straight acting.’ I’m like, ‘Listen, you’re having sex with another man, there’s nothing straight about it.’ This need to pass is, I think, a result of homophobia. If ‘being gay’—flamboyant, loud, stereotypical—is seen as bad, those ‘passing’ think, ‘I’ll do the opposite and be OK.’”
You didn’t, I said.
“No, I’m lazy,” Kressley deadpanned. “Also, I just knew that wasn’t me, and it seemed a little fraudulent. I’ve continued to be my sassy self and found a vehicle for that.”
It has been 13 years since Queer Eye began, Kressley noted. “Places like Australia still don’t have marriage equality. A lot of work still needs to be done globally. There’s the issue of homeless LGBT youth, and we still have transphobia. We have progress, but it needs to move faster.”
Kressley will be voting for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming election. “It seems like a dangerous time: Somehow racism and bigotry have been accepted and in some ways celebrated, and that seems so wrong and backwards.”
He has met Donald Trump several times. “He’s always been very charming with me, and I’ve been very sassy with him. For me personally, though, he’s not the candidate that represents the America I think we live in.”
Knowing what he knows of him, does Kressley think Trump personally is homophobic? “I don’t think so, but sometimes his supporters can be.”
With fame came famous pals. Kressley met Cher at a movie premiere. She fell in love with a scapular necklace he was wearing. He tried to put it on her and was interrupted in the nimble-figured act by an alarmed assistant, who shouted, “What are you doing to Cher?”
A few days later his cell rang with an unknown number. “Hello, Carson, it’s Cher. I’m wearing those medallions. I went hiking and I want you to know how much I loved it.”
He was even kissed, “right here,” he said pointing at his cheek, by his crush Tom Ford, although at another moment, suffering a terrible sinus infection and looking messy, post-treatment by his doctor, he heard Ford call his name as he was admiring a pair of Ford-label shoes costing $4,000.
“Oh my god, please don’t let that be Tom Ford,” Kressley thought. “This is the only time I will ever say that.”
“Hi, Carson,” said Ford. “I like your beard.”
Convinced he looked terrible in front of his idol, Kressley fled the store pronto. “And he is happily betrothed,” Kressley said.
Kressley himself is single, having left a long-term relationship two years ago.
“I’m more of a romantic. I still dream of the white picket fence, golden retriever, and husband with a Volvo.” He paused. “I don’t even have a golden retriever, let alone a husband with a Volvo, but I have had lots of dates and wouldn’t trade anything looking back, because it’s been a fantastic journey.”
He noted he was always thinking “I know the perfect guy for you” for single friends. “Why can’t I find the perfect guy for me?”
He was, he said, “very career-focused, which is good and bad.” He travels a lot, particularly to Los Angeles for work. “Maybe this is my own avoidance of being grown-up and settled down. I really do like being single sometimes.”
Fame, of course, has brought opportunities to meet people “and getting a better table in restaurants. I think I’m a good judge of character. I can see if people are genuine, so when they ask for my credit card number, I say, ‘Absolutely not. I just met you.’”
After Queer Eye ended, after five seasons and 100 episodes, Kressley worked energetically to maintain his fame. He has appeared on Dancing With the Stars, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and Celebrity Family Feud. “It’s a constant hustle. When everyone wants you to do a show is the time when your show itself is hot. But I did another TV show, How to Look Good Naked, and fashion collections, and other TV shows and films. Look at my IMDB: I’ve been busy.”
Kressley would like to host a morning show, centered around living well, health, beauty, fashion, and home décor, and write a men’s book for millennial males confused about how to dress.
People ask him if Queer Eye will ever come back, “but that central tension between a straight man allowing a bunch of gay men to come in to his bedroom has dissipated, and that’s a great thing.”
Kressley is such a zippy presence I ask if he ever gets down. “I’m a Scorpio, so even if I’m ‘rah-rah look at me,’ I love to be on my own. I definitely need to recharge my batteries. If I’m on vacation with a group, I need time to lock myself in my room to read books and be a spinster: my Emily Dickinson moments. I know how serious real depression is and I haven’t had that.”
His periods of anxiety, he said, have been centered on worrying about the acceptance of family and friends to his coming out, and feeling, in his 20s, that he wasn’t doing as well as his doctor and lawyer buddies.
He said he felt at ease about aging; he used to receive his twice-a-year Botox and fillers treatments from the famous—and much-satirized—Dr. Fredric Brandt, who committed suicide last year. “He was the greatest guy in the world. I don’t know why he did it,” said Kressley.
His new Botox and fillers doctor in L.A. injected him just before Kressley started filming Celebrity Apprentice, which will debut on Jan. 2, presented by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I made the mistake of saying, ‘Do whatever you think I need.’ Three needles later I was like, ‘That seems like a lot.’ Literally I don’t think my eyes closed that first week. In the opening scenes of Apprentice, they asked me to raise an eyebrow. I was like, ‘I can’t. I think I said to the camera more than once: ‘My face doesn’t move. Deal with it.’”
He has Botox because he has a “strong furrow” between his eyes “and a gigantic forehead. Add wrinkles and it looks like a freshly ploughed field. I don’t mind aging, though. But you bang your elbow and it hurts for three days. Things linger forever. You just don’t regenerate like you used to. You can’t stay out late, you can’t drink too much. After a hangover, you’re ‘crispy,’ as I put it, for two or three days.”
Kressley also had plastic surgery, a nose job, after finishing filming Queer Eye. His old nose “hooked down,” and he felt self-conscious about being filmed from the side. “It was a little, tiny procedure but it made me feel better. I love it every day, although I still can’t feel the tip of it.” As for having anything else done, he said, “Guys with face-lifts have to be careful. Your eyes can look a little small and beady. So no, I think I’m pretty good for now.”
His lithe body is down to his mother’s genes, rather than the gym, Kressley claimed. “It’s a great place to meet hot guys, but that’s the only thing that gets me there.” He doesn’t spy the big 5-0 on the horizon with the same worry he had about turning 30 and feeling as if his professional life hadn’t really begun. “Forty was totally fine, and I think 50 might be OK. I like thinking about being old, and having a dog [he keeps one at his Pennsylvania farm, he said], husband, and adopted grandchildren.”
Where will he find this guy? “Maybe on Scruff,” Kressley laughed, referring to the gay app. As his crushes on Tom Ford, Lee Majors, and Burt Reynolds testify to, “I like men’s men. I’m a big ‘opposites attract’ person. When you see guys who look like each other, it can seem narcissistic. I want the opposite of me, like a football player or farmer.”
He has already had experience of the former, when he dated Atlanta Falcons player Esera Tuaolo. “He was hot. He looks like a big jock, but he was very sensitive and a singer. He was a real family guy and super sweet.”
American sports is “just so macho,” Kressley said, mulling why more athletes haven’t come out. “Unfortunately people still equate being gay with being weak, or prissy or feminine—which is itself misogynistic.
“In that world you want to be perceived as tough and strong, and not weak in any way. That’s why there’s still homophobia in those ranks. Eventually it will break down. Every generation becomes more open-minded and cooler. My 19-year-old niece is ‘whatevs’ about the whole gay thing.”
After a long-term relationship broke down two years ago, Kressley did nothing romantically for a year, feeling as if he was “over it.” But recently he has seen “the possibilities again,” and has started dating. “I think it gets harder and harder, and I think I get pickier and picker. When you date different types of people you realize what you don’t want. You’re less tolerant of things that don’t make you happy. They have to like the things you like: flea markets, shopping, travel, horses, weekends in the country. If he came with a basket of puppies, I’d be like, ‘Yes, sign me up.’ A sense of humor, great smile, and ‘cute’ doesn’t hurt, although it’s less about packaging and more about heart at this point.”
Is Kressley ever badly dressed? He admits to sometimes wearing cut-off sweatpants, a T-shirt with a coffee stain, and baseball cap in L.A.
When I asked nervously about what makeover Kressley would execute for me, he observed my shoes (red brogues) and shirt (red and black check), and red-striped socks, which all got a thumbs-up.
However, the prevailing red could have done with being broken up with a Kelly green sock, the shirt could be “bright sand,” and I would have also benefited from “a needlepoint belt from Smathers & Branson.” Kressley was very diplomatic about my messy hair. “You have great hair and good color,” he said, observing me carefully. “It just needs some shape: I’d super-groom the sides and add texture on top.”
Did I need Botox? “I don’t think you’re there yet,” Kressley said. Then he paused. “Actually, you could get a drop here on the sides and on the top, so you don’t get wrinkles.” He saw or at least sensed my fleeting alarm and added gently, “It’s preventative.”
Does This Book Make My Butt Look Big? is published by St Martin’s Press, $25.99