Picture it: The Sound End of Boston, September 2001. Scout Productions founders David Collins and Michael Williams are touring open artist studios with pals when they overhear a woman scolding her husband for the way he’s dressed and loudly wishing that he’d look more like the three stylish gay men standing nearby. They watch as that trio walk over to the couple to keep the peace: “They said, ‘Hey, give him a break. He’s not so bad. We just have to do this, and this, and this,’ and showed him how to fix himself and look presentable,” Williams tells Yahoo Entertainment. “David looked at me and said, ‘They just got a queer eye for the straight guy. That’s the show we’ve been looking for.’ We went outside later and were talking to our friends, who were like, ‘That is genius.’ And I turned to them and said, ‘I guarantee you a year from now, it will be one of the biggest hits on television.'”
The prediction was nearly accurate: It took two years for the makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to premiere on Bravo, on July 15, 2003, and become the highest-rated series in the network’s then 23-year history. Within a month, the hosts known as the Fab Five — food and wine connoisseur Ted Allen, grooming guru Kyan Douglas, interior designer Thom Filicia, fashionista Carson Kressley and culture vulture Jai Rodriguez — graced the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Four months after that, they made Barbara Walters’s list of the year’s 10 Most Fascinating People alongside Beyoncé, LeBron James, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. And in September 2004, they won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program.
We went to Manila to do book signings in two different malls, and you would have thought it was Michael Jackson in ’87. Screaming, crying girls. Girls clawing at our clothes — maybe it was guys too.Jai Rodriguez
Fan engagement was measured differently pre-Twitter. Williams knew the show had struck a chord when he was on the Amtrak traveling from New York City to Boston on a Tuesday night, and the conductor made an announcement that the Acela train would be delayed in New Haven, Conn., for an hour. “I’m sitting in this car, and I hear someone say, ‘Oh my god, we’re not gonna get home for Queer Eye.’ And then the whole train started saying, ‘Oh my god, we’re not getting home for Queer Eye!'” he recalls with a laugh.
Even better was hearing from the “thousands and thousands” of viewers who would eventually say the show changed their lives for the better, making them feel seen and opening up a dialogue with family members. Williams wells up when he shares his favorite letter, from a fellow gay man in Massachusetts — the first state to legally recognize same-sex marriage in 2004. The man had grown up in rural Georgia and was confident that his relatives, who knew he was gay but never spoke of it, wouldn’t make the trip to Boston for his wedding. He invited them anyway.
“His sister, who he was close with but again would not discuss the gay issue, called him and said, ‘We’d all love to come to the wedding,'” Williams says. “He was literally dumbfounded. He said, ‘I love that you’re coming. I’m beyond excited. Can I just ask how come now?’ And she goes, ‘Well, ever since we started watching that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Everybody’s just wonderful, and we’d love to be a part of that.’ This man was able to have his family at one of the biggest moments of his life because of a TV show. That’s crazy!”
Williams still hears those stories as an executive producer of Netflix’s lauded Queer Eye reboot (2018-present). But so do the original Fab Five, whose trailblazing efforts will be feted July 13 with a 20th anniversary marathon of fan-favorite episodes on Bravo (starting at 6 a.m.), followed by a replay of their Andy Cohen-hosted 10th anniversary special. To mark the milestone, we caught up separately with Kressley, now a judge on MTV’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, Paramount+’s RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars and Food Network’s BBQ Brawl; Filicia, who still runs his own design firm and the Thom Filicia Home Collection; and Rodriguez, a Broadway vet who’s looking forward to bringing his cabaret show to New York City later this year and preparing to film Season 2 of the Neil Patrick Harris-led dramedy Uncoupled, which moves from Netflix to Showtime. (“I’ve been eating my spinach and going to the gym like crazy, ’cause in my mind Showtime means naked,” he says.)
Looking back, when did you first know the Fab Five chemistry was special?
Carson Kressley: For me, I had never done television, so I didn’t even know what this elusive chemistry was all about. I just was trying to get rid of mullets and pleated khakis with a bunch of new friends, who were having a great time doing it all together. I just thought that’s how things worked.
Thom Filicia: We really didn’t have a perspective on that until we saw it through other people’s eyes. When we were shooting the show, it seemed easy, natural and fun. And then when other people started seeing it on television, we would hear, “You guys have this incredible chemistry.”
A lot of parents didn’t have the opportunity to know five gay guys. And they got to know us and they liked us.Thom Filicia
Jai Rodriguez: I think what people don’t know is, we had directors who specialized in comedy. We were making a comedy. I want to underline that, because the new Queer Eye has an emotional throughline from jump, and I love that for the show because I love watching it. But ours, we never knew we were making something that had any emotional depth. We came into it doing an earnest job, not anticipating an outcome because we had never done it before. The function was: You go in, you go through all his stuff, you set up a plan, each of you takes him for a little while, you return and the house is done, you tell him what he’s gotta do, and then it’s time for us to leave. But before we do, a producer steps in and says, “The boys are gonna leave. Do you want to say anything to them?” And the straight guy has an opportunity to reflect on our time before we go and he’ll never see us again. Early on, some of the straight guys would say, “I just…” and they would break down. They could barely get it out. And we laughed, because we thought they were mocking us. We thought they were making a joke, because we didn’t expect something as simple as taking genuine interest in someone’s life in all aspects and becoming intimately aware of who they are, what motivates them, and what drives them would have such an emotional effect on them. So it caught us off-guard.
When did you realize the show was a hit?
Filicia: The first week it was out, there was a lot of buzz. We thought it would go down, but the second episode, [the ratings] increased. When that happened, we had to go do media training.
Kressley: I’m still wondering how it was pretty much an overnight sensation back then, before social media. It premiered and in weeks, we were going to L.A. and staying at the Beverly Hilton, and we were gonna be on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and we were doing the Ellen show. I remember when they sent us on that first press trip, some of the Bravo execs gave us dark sunglasses, like, “You’re gonna need these.” And I was like, “Oh, what are you talking about? It’s just a little tiny makeover show.” But we did need them, at least for a while.
Rodriguez: We did that press tour in L.A., and we would be invited to things, and I was like, how am I here? Celebrities knew us. Ashton Kutcher is like, “Oh my god! This is my girlfriend [Demi Moore]. And look at this, we know how to do that dance move you taught that guy.” Can you imagine you’re 24 years old, you get to be a presenter at the VMAs the year Britney and Madonna kiss, and your category is Best Female Video where a young up-and-coming gal named Beyoncé wins her first solo award? That was the world we were in.
Kressley: It was very fun and very hectic. I think that first year we worked like 50 weeks out of 52 because there was such a demand for episodes and there was a requirement to film some abroad for endorsement/product placement-y kind of things. So we just worked all the time. I was getting to do movies. I did [2005’s] The Perfect Man. I did a Super Bowl commercial. So I was a very busy little beaver.
Filicia: I had, at that time, maybe 15 employees. I was running my company, going through my clients’ designs on nights and weekends. When we were in London [filming], I’d be FedExing things back and forth every day because I’m looking at samples. It wasn’t like I had a job that I quit. I was doing all kinds of different projects all over the country, and then I was basically living in a motorhome driving around filming a TV show. I mean, it was kind of a weird moment. [Laughs] Also, you couldn’t go anywhere without people running up and wanting to take pictures.
Rodriguez: Every single guy had a different experience of what it was like to shoot Queer Eye. Everyone had a different end result. I thought fame, if I ever got there, would be a byproduct of my scripted work. What I didn’t anticipate was that Queer Eye would educate the world that I was a Puerto Rican Emily Post, and that to transition back to being an actor would be an uphill battle. I share this not out of hate or resentment, but because I believe this is queer history: When we were filming Queer Eye, we were invited by a very fancy agency to sit down and they wanted to sign all five of us. They gave this big pitch and then they separated us and put us each with an agent, and I told the one I got about my acting pedigree. I was really trying to give him a picture beyond Queer Eye. He looked at me blankly and said, “I don’t know what to tell you, but you’re not gonna be the next Antonio Banderas.” And that stuck with me. The idea that I was at the pinnacle of success but wasn’t getting the same opportunities — the seven-figure endorsement deals the other guys were getting or whatever. What it boiled down to after meeting with other agents and managers like him was, “Your identity being queer, Latin, slightly femme at the time was not marketable.” Or at least that was the messaging. So for me to embrace the impact of Queer Eye always, while also trying to carve out a lane for myself in an industry that didn’t see me was really tricky.
You have to remember, 2003 was the rise of gay television and specifically white gay television. In that era, I was probably the only queer person of color in the Queer as Folk, L Word, Will & Grace, Queer Eye land. And a safe choice, because to some people Latin people aren’t people of color. So it was an interesting journey, and one that isn’t talked about so much because we get all excited about the diversity of the idea of gay people having space in media, but what we don’t reflect on is how all of our experiences were different.
The show won Outstanding Reality Program for its first season. Where do keep your Emmy?
Rodriguez: I live in one of those 1950s buildings that has the phone nook. So it lives there. Sometimes I dress her up. She’s got her own little life.
Filicia: For like 15 years, my Emmy had been a toilet paper holder in my powder room in New York City. You put the toilet paper right on the two wings. It fit perfectly. Then one of the wings broke — it was dropped as it was being cleaned — so now it’s on a table in my hallway. I prefer things like that to not be taken too seriously.
Kressley: That’s very Thom to not give a s***. Or, actually, he does, because he’s using it as toilet paper holder. I keep mine on my bar in New York City. And it’s a mirrored bar, so it looks like I have three of them.
The original Queer Eye ran for 100 episodes. If you could watch one episode today, which would it be?
Rodriguez: We made-over a nudist. We were told he was gonna be nude, but nothing quite prepares you for an out loud and proud nudist with a water bed. And nothing prepares you for what it’s gonna be like when you’re in a room with Carson, and you’re going through this guy’s stuff, and Carson turns to you and says, “I think I’m gonna get nude.” And without missing a bit, I quickly began to undress him and said, “Oh yeah, I think that’s a good idea.” Because I didn’t want him to backpedal and second guess it. So he got completely naked, started streaking around, and then we locked him outside, in suburban New Jersey. It was a great day.
Kressley: Well, it would not be the nudist episode. No one needs to see that. I don’t even think that would be legal anymore. We went to Dallas, Texas for a little mini capsule of shows, and we worked with a bunch of cowboys. A) they were really hot, but b) we got to ride horses. And a little backstory: I’m, like, a pretty good rider. I’ve won some world championships, and I know my way around a horse. And, of course, the moment the cameras were rolling, I fell off. I don’t know if that ever aired, but that’s actually what happened and I would love to see that.
Filicia: The episode I really liked, there was an older guy named John, and he was married for over 40 years and his wife passed away. He was really, really lost without her. He was very moved by what we did, creating this space for him that was respectful of their life together but also a place where he could invite new people in. He was in tears. We gave him a new chapter because he was kind of stuck on the last page of the last chapter. Everybody did their thing, from hair to clothing to this interior and Jai getting him back out into the world. He wasn’t our typical demographic. We didn’t know how that was gonna translate. But it was a good one.
What trend are you proudest to have promoted — or aborted — through the show?
Kressley: Overall, I think what we hoped to inspire across all categories of the show is that it’s OK to care about how you present yourself. That’s always been my brand, to say, “Listen, if you present yourself in a positive way and you care for yourself, you’re going to affect how you move through the world and it’s gonna, in fact, help you get the job, get the girl.”
And then more specifically, the thing that I take away as my big contribution is the word “zhuzh.” It was very much a 7th Avenue fashion insider’s word. I learned it from Ralph and Jerry Lauren, who I was working for before Queer Eye started. When we were putting together runway looks or photographs for ads, one of them would always say, “Carson, give that a little zhuzh,” which means to make it look more lived in, more real. So I just used that word a lot on the show and it has stuck around. Every time I hear it, I’m like, “Um… I didn’t invent that, but I still brought it to the forefront, so can I get a royalty on that, please?”
Rodriguez: I feel like we really, really popularized the phrase “manscaping.” We should have come out with the actual tools to do that. Grooming was not my category, but I get, “Don’t worry, I’m shaving with the grain!” from people all the time. Cologne application: Spray, delay, walk away. That’s Kyan. Thom had an incredible tip for how to pull ideas to redo a room that I still remember. Pull five of your favorite items and display them in front of you — it could be an album cover, your favorite shirt — and you’ll find there’s some commonality to all of them, which is a good starting point for getting inspiration for the colors of the room.
Filicia: I think I may have eradicated the “chofa.” There used to be these chairs that were really big, odd proportions and looked kinda like Alice in Wonderland; it wasn’t a chair and it wasn’t a sofa. However, it’s funny: In the Thom Filicia Home Collection we have a furniture line, and we do have a two-seater chaise. I was considering calling it the chofa.
What was the best thing you learned from each member of the Fab Five?
Filicia: Patience. [Laughs] Just kidding. I would say the power of working as a team.
Kressley: From Jai, I remember this because he was a theater kid, “If you’re not early, you’re late.” So he inspired me to always be punctual. Kyan was kinda the spiritual guru of the group, and I guess he taught me how to zen out and remain calm. Ted? I think he taught me about artisanal cheese, because that wasn’t a thing when we first started. He really expanded my food horizons. And Thom, oh gosh, he’s taught me a lot of different things. Mostly that I can’t drink as much as he can. I mean, that man can still go out and party like a rock star and he’s, like, 53 years old. But I guess he also taught me the power of editing. I’m a more is more kind of person, so in a room, outfits, whatever, I would try to layer on the whole kitchen sink and then some. Thom has a great eye for removing what’s not necessary to make an even better aesthetic picture.
If you have five guys out there rooting for someone and wanting to help them change their life — we need more of that, regardless of the LGBTQ lens.Carson Kressley
Rodriguez: For Kyan, it’s openness to spirituality and creativity. Ted was structure, stability and consistency. Thom was to not be fearful of the unknown; I learned how to lean into the unexpected or the unplanned. And Carson was the biggest one, which was learning how to take up space in spaces that may not want you there or may not make you feel welcome. Your presence is earned and valid and you can confidently be yourself.
Do you have any regrets?
Filicia: I think I regret that the power went out in New York City the first time we were on The Tonight Show, because nobody saw it. [Laughs] Every one of my friends couldn’t see it.
Kressley: That’s true! We were telling everyone at home, “Don’t forget to watch us on The Tonight Show!” And then the New York City blackout happened. I regret basically having a mullet and wearing a Von Dutch T-shirt for all of my press photos that live on in infamy. I’m sure if you Google me right now, you’ll see me in a leather Aztec jacket with basically a mullet and a Von Dutch T-shirt.
Rodriguez: I was too young and scared of authority to push back on things early on, and that includes wardrobe. I didn’t know that my wardrobe on the show wasn’t a costume. I wore costumes in theater, so when I was given things, I didn’t question them a whole lot. Looking back at the cover of Entertainment Weekly, I hated it then and I hate it now. I could have easily said, “You know what, I’m not comfortable with that,” but I didn’t. I wanted to make everyone’s life easier, and what I didn’t realize was people probably wanted more of my input than I was comfortable giving in the front part of the series.
Share one fan encounter you’ll never forget.
Rodriguez: We went to Manila [in the Philippines] to do book signings in two different malls, and you would have thought it was Michael Jackson in ’87. Screaming, crying girls. Girls clawing at our clothes — maybe it was guys too. We had bodyguards.
Filicia: It feels like almost every time I go to an airport, I hear “Your show changed my life as a young person.” I cannot tell you how many times I hear from people — people who are traveling and living and working and have really interesting, exciting lives — that they’re so thankful that the show happened when it did because a lot of parents didn’t have the opportunity to know five gay guys. [Laughs] And they got to know us and they liked us. The family would watch the show together, and whoever in the house was trying to figure their path out knew their parents were open to a conversation they were afraid of having with them.
Being yourself is just the most amazing thing ever and it’s totally doable. There is a whole community and whole world out there that actually loves you and embraces you.Carson Kressley
Kressley: I’d be on an airplane and I’d get a notecard from the flight attendant and it would say something like, “I grew up in the rural south. I identified as gay. Queer Eye helped me have a conversation with my parents because they loved you and they loved the show. It allowed my coming out process to be much less scary than it could have been.” When people tell me those stories I’m just very, very humbled and touched and honored.
When was the last time someone thanked you for what Queer Eye did for them?
Rodriquez: Last week. I was playing Palm Springs, and, for sure, audience members after the show came up to me, all unique stories with the throughline that Queer Eye made them feel seen or was a great companion at a time when they wanted gay friends and didn’t have them.
Filicia: Three weeks ago. I was in New Orleans on business and I was at the airport and a young girl came up to me sort of teary-eyed and said, “I don’t want to bother you, but I know who you are, and I just can’t tell you how you guys changed my relationship with my parents.”
Kressley: Literally just last night, I was at a gala for the Music Conservatory of Westchester, and a straight woman came up to me: “I was an angsty teen and my mom didn’t really know how to handle me. Your show allowed us to bond, and now we have a great relationship that I chalk up to that shared experience of watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy together.” I had never heard that one, and I was thrilled to know that it made their life a little better even if they weren’t part of our community.
Why do you think the world needs Queer Eye today more than ever?
Kressley: First and foremost, I think that our world needs a lot of love right now. There’s so much hate out there that’s so inexplicable. If you have five guys out there rooting for someone and wanting to help them change their life — we need more of that, regardless of the LGBTQ lens. And then segueing into that, I think visibility is so important in these times when there’s so much new legislation that’s very, very targeted against LGBTQ people. Television is a very intimate, widespread medium, and young people from Bangkok to Birmingham, thanks to streaming, can see out people living their best lives and being represented in a positive way as opposed to some of the damaging, untruthful, derogative and hateful rhetoric that’s out there right now. I’m so lucky and blessed to have been a part of Queer Eye, which did that initially, and now RuPaul’s Drag Race, the most Emmy-award winning reality show in the history of television. It allows that same platform to celebrate marginalized people, to be exactly who I am, and say, “Being yourself is just the most amazing thing ever and it’s totally doable. There is a whole community and whole world out there that actually loves you and embraces you.”
Rodriguez: I don’t know why life puts people in my path who care for me deeply but have social and political views that wildly oppose mine. That has been a challenge in my life. I come from a very conservative home. I understand the lens in which they view the world, and I feel like the best way to change hearts and minds is locally with your friend group, your workplace or the people who see you living your most authentic life in a way that is courageous, brave and strong. That’s what I liked about Queer Eye. We had this permission to be ourselves, and people respond to authenticity. They may not agree with you, but they learn to respect you.
To see how far we’ve gotten off having basic empathy for one another makes me want to get back into a space of having those difficult moments. I love that the new Queer Eye cast gets to do that. If anything, that would be the only thing I’m jealous of.
Filicia: We are very excited about the next generation of Queer Eye and happy that it’s continuing to move [progress] forward. We know someday we’ll be welcoming [those hosts] into the OG network and, hopefully, there will be another group of folks that will help people with challenges that we probably aren’t even thinking of yet.