Once upon a time, there was a flailing television network in need of a Cinderella makeover. As if arriving in their own magical carriage, a cabal of gay men swooped in to save it ― fairy godfathers savvy enough to envision a morality tale for an America that was finally ready to listen. Unbeknownst to them, they were about to change TV and popular culture as we knew it.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” the Bravo phenomenon now known simply as “Queer Eye.” From conception to Netflix revival, the series’ success resembles something of a fairy tale. The concept was a gamble, the format sometimes trafficked in stereotypes and the title risked alienating both queer eyes and straight guys. But when the show premiered in July 2003, it defied all expectations, becoming the highest-rated program in Bravo’s then 23-year history.
The ball was just getting started.
Few pop culture phenomena have enjoyed success as immediately as “Queer Eye.” The aforementioned cabal, de facto life coaches known as the Fab Five, were instant celebrities; top brands pined for a spot on what the creators called their “make-better” pageant. Before long, Bravo was saturating its lineup with all things “Queer Eye,” including a derided spin-off. By the time ratings for the five-season series had dwindled, the show was already the reality TV model upon which its network’s future was built. Essentially, we can thank the OG Fab Five ― Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley and Jai Rodriguez ― for inadvertently birthing the “Real Housewives” masterstroke.
When Netflix added the series to its vast slate of revivals in 2017, however, the “Queer Eye” premise felt outdated. Gay men arriving on hapless heterosexuals’ doorsteps, asking to be heard? Surely our queer-friendlier landscape had progressed beyond that. But instead of fighting for mere visibility like the original “Queer Eye,” the streaming rendition emphasizes a deeper human connection, one that more thoroughly challenges conventional notions of masculinity and self-care without renouncing the flagrant consumerism that’s part of its DNA. The warm fuzzies evoked by the two seasons released in 2018 ― starring Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski and Jonathan Van Ness ― prove America was hungry for bygone comfort food.
That the fairy-godfather blueprint could be retrofitted to appeal to today’s sensibilities now seems obvious. Sure, we’ve achieved LGBTQ milestones since “Queer Eye” first aired ― marriage equality, more gender-neutral bathrooms, the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the rise in transgender awareness ― but that does not mean America standardizes equality. The new Fab Five know this: They approach their missions, currently set in the Deep South, like a vocation. Similar to their original counterparts, they demolish walls with humor and grace, confirming that the open-heartedness of “Queer Eye” is timeless.
But back to that “once upon a time.” We spoke to 20 people involved with both iterations of “Queer Eye,” tracing its humble beginnings in Boston all the way to its streaming dominion in Atlanta. Along the way, stars were born, a new reality television scheme was popularized and culture was made just a little gayer. In other words, everyone lived happily ever after. But a lot happened in between.