Mention to Carson Kressley that “You would hate the way I dress,” and his response is kind, gracious, diplomatic.
“Hate is such a strong word.”
He then adds, with a gracious touch of reassurance: “Your gay brothers will help you, don’t worry.”
None of this should come as a surprise. Kressley spent the better part of the early 2000s as the fashion guru on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a TV show that launched not only his star, but his four compatriots, including Food Network’s Ted Allen (Chopped). It also solidified Bravo’s status as TV’s gayest cable network. The Emmy-winning Queer Eye became a gay cultural landmark, and Netflix recently announced a reboot of the series with a fresh young cast (Kressley notes that the original gang may show up in a cameo — it’s still under discussion).
The 47-year-old Kressley has not remained dormant since his Queer Eye years ended in 2007. Among other things, he’s hosted the Miss Universe Pageant, continues to design clothing lines, and has even had a few shows of his own that have briefly graced the cable pantheon, including Carson Nation and How to Look Good Naked. Recently, however, he’s boosted his national visibility with appearances on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, the most recent Celebrity Apprentice — featuring Arnold, not Donald — and, perhaps most crucially, as a judge on the cultural juggernaut that is RuPaul’s Drag Race. The ninth season of the show premieres on Friday, March 24, with guest judge Lady Gaga, and while Kressley can’t specifically comment, he doesn’t hide his enthusiasm for meeting the singer — or any of the other Drag Race celebrity judges over the years.
“When you get to sit next to these people for an entire episode, that’s a real treat,” he says. “We’ve had Marc Jacobs and Olivia Newton-John and the Kardashians. You name it. I’m very lucky to be involved with this.” As for the host herself, Carson says, “Ru is just one of the most amazing people I know and, especially, one of the most hardworking people that I know. She is so enlightened and such a joy to work with.”
Asked to name a favorite contestant, he hedges between Bianca del Rio, Alyssa Edwards, and Ginger Minj, but he notes that all the contestants are incredible. “The girls are very talented, they’re very funny. They get better and better every season because it becomes more and more competitive. I can’t believe they pay me to actually be a judge because I get to go have a great time and see amazing performances.”
Last fall, Kressley co-authored his fourth book, Does This Book Make My Butt Look Big? A Cheeky Guide to Feeling Sexier in Your Own Skin and Unleashing Your Personal Style ($25.99, St. Martin’s Griffin), a casual, brazenly fun guide to personal makeovers that includes such chapters as “Five Upgrades that Make Everyone Look Amazeballs” and “The Ten-Step Closet Enema.”
Over the course of a wide-ranging, hour-long phone call, Kressley reveals he’s being wardrobe fitted for a new show he can’t yet discuss because “it hasn’t been announced,” and you can hear the authority in his voice when he suddenly instructs a tailor to “nip it in a little bit here.”
The conversation eventually broaches the topic of Melania Trump. “I don’t really want to criticize her in any way because I feel like she’s an innocent bystander,” Kressley says. “She’s kind of like a Roberto Cavalli-Gucci First Lady, which we haven’t seen in a very very long time. She’s obviously a very beautiful woman and she looks great in clothes.
“I did happen to really like the Ralph Lauren blue ensemble she wore at the inauguration,” he adds, calling out his former, pre-Queer Eye employer.
As for those designers who have publicly refused to dress the First Lady out of protest, Kressley’s response is, once again, kind, gracious, diplomatic.
“Designers are artists and many of them have very strong political views. That’s the beauty of our country. If you don’t want to work with somebody, you don’t have to. I think it’s well within their rights to say no. I don’t think it’s disrespectful. It’s just a personal choice.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your childhood. What was it like?
CARSON KRESSLEY: I grew up just outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania, in the countryside. I often joke and say I was practically Amish. I grew up next to my grandparents’ pony farm. That sounds pretty gay, but it was actually really fun, a great way to grow up. I was very much involved in horses and horse-showing and being outdoors and being artistic. It was pretty idyllic until middle school and then, of course, there’s the usual drama — not feeling like you fit in, hating gym class, the bullying.
MW: Were you bullied because people perceived you as being gay?
KRESSLEY: Yeah, for sure. It’s very hard to hide who you are. As a kid, you’re kind of a free spirit, and I was rocking designer jeans in the fourth grade. I thought it was all normal and fine. Then you hit those middle school years and everyone starts to turn on you. Everybody’s very aware of anybody who’s very effeminate. It was really difficult.
I remember the first days of seventh grade, getting punched in the arm and tortured every day in homeroom. Going to the bathroom and dry heaving because I was so anxious over the situation and not wanting to go to school. I also remember not being able to tell anyone — certainly not being able to go home and tell your family that you’re getting picked on and people are calling you “gay” and “faggot.” And that’s what’s so hard for gay kids growing up. If you’re the only Asian kid in your class and you get ridiculed for being different because of that, you generally go home to your family and they’re understanding. Gay kids feel like they can’t tell their loved ones because they might lose their loved ones. It’s very, very difficult.
MW: How did you cope with it at the time?
KRESSLEY: I don’t really know how I coped with it. I think I internalized most of it. Once I got out of that environment at school, I had my horses and lots of other activities to take my mind off of it. I traveled. I went to [horse show] competitions, which were a little bit more open-minded. I learned to develop a sense of humor. If you become the class clown or become the funny guy in the hallway, you could sometimes win people over and they would just not want to bully you. They’d want to hang out and hear your jokes or funny things you were saying. In that sense, the bullying lead to my sense of humor, which wound up being my saving grace, and also a great gift that I still get to use today. It’s one of the reasons why I think I’ve been successful on television. I’m not a comedian, but I think I have a good sense of humor and that came as a way of surviving.
MW: When did you first realize you might be gay?
KRESSLEY: Probably during the first season of the Six Million Dollar Man. I distinctly remember — it’s so funny — going to first grade and being like, “Don’t you guys love The Six Million Dollar Man?” The other boys were like, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “No I mean, I really LOVE the Six Million Dollar Man.” I think there were probably some side-long glances of, “What?”
So I knew at a very young age. You don’t really know what it is. You just have a feeling and obviously I felt different from a lot of the other boys. I think that’s a common experience for a lot of gay people growing up.
MW: When did you come out to your family?
KRESSLEY: I came out at a very old age. It was in the Queer Eye days, about 15 years ago, and I was in my very early 30s. I remember the show was about to come out. There was going to be a big spread in TV Guide and I had not told my family about the show or about my sexual orientation. I knew I needed to do it very quickly, so I got my family together and gave them the news. It was not a big deal but like so many other gay people, you fear you’re going to lose your friends and loved ones. It was one of the many blessings of doing the show. It made me come out.
MW: Prior to the show, you were a designer with Ralph Lauren. Looking back, how did Queer Eye transform your career, both professionally and personally?
KRESSLEY: I had never done any television and I didn’t really have any aspirations of doing it. I didn’t think I was probably cute enough to be on television, but I heard about the show from a coworker at Ralph Lauren. They said, “Hey, they’re doing a show and they need a fashion expert who happens to be gay,” and I said, “Oh my god, I’m all those things!”
I sent them a headshot and a resume — and by headshot, it was just a photo that I had from a Ralph Lauren shoot of me and some guys with a Siberian Husky. They called and said, “Come on down for a meeting.” I did, and I got the show. Obviously that was an unexpected career twist. We had made a pilot in 2002 and I took off some time from work. I told my boss that probably nothing’s going to come of it and I’ll be right back after my vacation. About a year later, NBC purchased Bravo and loved the show and wanted to make it the cornerstone of the network.
They called and said, “Are you ready to quit your job?” I said, “Do you even have dental insurance?” They said, “No.” I did it anyway. It was a leap of faith. I had a wonderful boss at Ralph Lauren who said if it doesn’t work out, you can always come back.
MW: But it did work out.
KRESSLEY: It did work out. Very lucky. I think we did one hundred episodes. It was about a four-to-five year run. Which was very unexpected and certainly a career-maker for me. I have a Primetime Emmy. I got to meet amazing people like Cher and Dolly Parton and do the Oscar Red Carpet. Travel all over the world. It just opened a world of opportunities for me and the other guys.
MW: Kind of a dream come true, really.
KRESSLEY: It was not even a dream come true because I never dreamt it. I never dreamt something like that could happen.
You had asked about how it affected me personally. Growing up, I’d been so used to hiding who you are and being ridiculed for who you are, to then have the tables turned and be actually celebrated for who you are was really an amazing thing. I remember being a young gay kid in my hometown and going to the mall and other kids saying, “Eww, there’s that queer guy” with a tone of disdain. Then I remember coming back to my hometown after Queer Eye and a different generation was saying, “Oh my god, there’s that queer guy” with a sense of celebration. It was such a remarkable turn of events.
MW: What’s your best memory from your years on the show?
KRESSLEY: Best memory? I think the first season was probably the best because we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were just being ourselves. We didn’t even think about it being on television. I think that’s why people responded. We were just five gay guys who happen to be experts in food and fashion and home design. We were just really being ourselves and sharing our best advice — and also our best wishes for these straight guys who we truly wanted to help get the look, or get the job, or get the girl.
MW: Do straight men really need help from queer guys?
KRESSLEY: I think so. And they still do. There’s still guys that are wearing pleated khakis and hockey jerseys. There’s still work to be done.
MW: Could you not argue that there are gay people that need similar help?
KRESSLEY: Yeah, I think so. Taste doesn’t discriminate. But I think overall, the gay community is a little bit more forward-thinking and more progressive. A little bit more urban. We’re usually ahead of the curve when it comes to fashion and design trends. It’s a stereotype, but I’ll take it because it means we have great taste and I think that’s a compliment.
MW: So do gay men naturally have a “queer eye”?
KRESSLEY: I think that gay men generally do, and here’s my theory why. When the guys who created the show were naming it, they were very adamant to keep the word “queer” in there. Meaning something extraordinary or unusual, or looking at things from a different perspective. That’s literally one of the definitions of “queer.” I think gay guys have sometimes elevated taste because we grow up feeling different. We’re not involved in sports and traditional guy things, so we do a lot of daydreaming. Part of it is maybe an escape mechanism, but through that process I think you develop a more artistic look at the world. I don’t think it’s any better or any worse, I just think that it’s a different perspective. I think that’s what we brought to the straight population on the show and I hope that’s what the new cast will do in the reboot that’s coming out from Netflix. The essence of the show was showing people another way to look at things.
MW: How does it feel to see Queer Eye reborn with a new cast?
KRESSLEY: It’s wonderful. It’s a different era. There’s a whole new group of straight guys that need the help. There’s also a whole new era of young design professionals who should have that opportunity. I mean it was the most wonderful experience for the five of us, and I think it’s going to be wonderful experience for the five new guys.
MW: Do you think the show will still be culturally relevant?
KRESSLEY: I don’t know. That’s something we’re going to have to see. There’s a whole new generation of people who didn’t experience the show who can gain a lot from it. Maybe it won’t be as groundbreaking culturally but I do still think that people want and need that information. Also, any time we can have gay people on television, being represented for exactly who they are, especially reality television, it’s very powerful. It’s real people being themselves. That’s very powerful. Any time gay people are out and on television, it gives young people someone to look up to, to admire, to realize that we exist and that we’re visible. I think that’s always helpful. That, in essence, is the power of being out. It gives gay people a name and a face. People like you and respond to you and want you to do well and, ultimately, want you to have the same rights.
MW: One thing about the show was that it mixed straight men with gay men — and depicted straight men being unthreatened by gay men. Queer Eye put straight men together with gay men in front of the public in a fearless way.
KRESSLEY: A big part of why the show was successful was there was that inherent potential for tension. But by the end of an episode, the straight guys were saying things like “Fabulous!” and “Look how great these pants look!” I was like, “Whoa, dial it back! You’re sounding gayer than me!”
There was a really great dynamic that it showed people that gay guys and straight guys don’t have to be afraid of one another. And that goes both ways. Growing up and being bullied, I even had a bit of fear and intimidation from, you know, straight guys, but it was a great revelation for me to do the show that it was not a big deal and you can have a great time. We were more alike than we were different. I think that was one of the reasons, again, why the show resonated and did so well. It showed that human dynamic of us just wanting to help these guys.
MW: What would be your advice for straight guys today?
KRESSLEY: As far as fashion and design, I think it’s kind of evergreen. Don’t be afraid to take some risks. Be educated, get out there, see what’s in the marketplace. Have fun with it, enjoy it, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Not everybody has great taste or has a style gene or knows what to wear, but now more than ever, there are so many great resources and so many places where you can get design direction that there’s no excuse for not looking up-to-date, for looking and feeling your best, because it’s totally doable.
MW: If Queer Eye was the cultural television touchstone for gays back in the early 2000s, RuPaul’s Drag Race, which you’re a judge on, is the touchstone for the emerging gay generation right now. It’s huge. RuPaul has always said that drag would never be mainstream. But with Drag Race moving from LOGO over to VH1, is drag now mainstream entertainment?
KRESSLEY: I think it is becoming more and more mainstream. That’s the power of television and what’s so wonderful about RuPaul’s Drag Race is that it took this art form that was really kind of sheltered and cloistered off to only the gay community, because it happened in our clubs and in our bars, and exposed it to the whole world for what it is — which is this amazing art form, this amazing entertainment. While I think the participants may not be as mainstream, the appreciation for the art of drag has gone very mainstream.
MW: You’ve done a lot of other types of shows as well. You’ve been on Dancing with the Stars, for instance, which I can’t even imagine attempting. That just seems so grueling.
KRESSLEY: It’s very hard. I mean, up until that point I’d probably never worked harder. I have this terrible habit of just saying “Yes” to everything and figuring it out later. I got there and I realized “God, I have no rhythm whatsoever.” It was very challenging, and even if you have some rhythmic ability, it’s very very hard — just the hours and having to learn everything so quickly. Not having any rhythm was a huge handicap and I had to make it up with amazing costumes and a fun sense of humor and a great attitude about it. I did, and I had a wonderful time. It became a real cottage industry for me — I got a lot of other work from that.
MW: Are you ever disappointed when you don’t win one of these things? Or do you just take it in stride?
KRESSLEY: Oh, God no. I’m usually thrilled I stay on as long as I do. Dancing with the Stars I was on for, like, five weeks or something. I was, like, “I can’t dance a lick, I can’t believe I made it this far.” With Celebrity Apprentice I didn’t win, but I can very close. Again, became great friends with people like Boy George and Vince Gill and raised a lot of money for the True Colors Fund, and more importantly, raised national awareness for youth homelessness in the gay community. People don’t realize gay kids are forty percent more likely to experience homelessness than their straight peers. It’s because sometimes gay kids get turned away from shelters that are religiously-based, or they get thrown out of their homes because their parents are not accepting. It’s a huge problem and being on The Apprentice was a great way to highlight it, to let people know about that problem and how we can fix it.
MW: It’s sad that it’s still such a huge issue.
KRESSLEY: Well, hopefully it becomes less and less of an issue as people become more socially evolved when it comes to accepting gay people for who they are, but I think we’ve seen it with this administration that not everybody is as understanding or progressive when it comes to LGBT rights and acceptance. Kids — our gay youth — are most vulnerable. They’re still very much at risk.
MW: Is there any particular reason why this cause spoke to your heart?
KRESSLEY: I feel very very blessed to have had the life that I have and the success that I have had. But I remember how hard it was being a gay kid. My attention has always been toward gay youth and saying loud and clear that there’s a community out there that will love and support you and make sure that you’re okay. The other reason why I got involved with this particular charity is because Cyndi Lauper is a very dear friend of mine. I hosted her True Colors tour in 2008. That’s when this was all being put together. She asked if I would help and I said “Absolutely, yes.” I’ve been involved for nine years. I’ve been on the board since it’s inception. They’ve made some amazing strides. You kind of have to pick and choose and make the biggest impact where you can. That’s what I tried to do with this particular organization.
MW: Back to the new Apprentice. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the show, mainly the war between the former host, who is now, inexplicably, our President, and the new host who just resigned from it. How did you cope with all that?
KRESSLEY: Honestly, we shot it over a year ago — last January, February — before he was even nominated, before we even thought he would have a chance of winning, so we didn’t really give it a thought. The producers said, “Don’t reference Trump and focus on Schwarzenegger being the new host.”
Schwarzenegger was incredible. He’s a self-made man and a real success story and he led from a place of positivity. I really enjoyed working with him. After it was done and ready to air, that’s when Trump started. It was just so silly. I think Schwarzenegger handled it beautifully. He’s a class act and a smart guy. I just wished that the President would stay focused on “making America great again,” and not worry about the ratings of Celebrity Apprentice.
MW: You hosted Miss Universe back when he owned it. I’m guessing you’ve met him.
KRESSLEY: Yeah, I have. Many times.
MW: What’s your impression of him?
KRESSLEY: I’ve only ever encountered him socially and he’s always been warm and charming and nice and, you know, Trump. I’ve just been a little surprised by all of the stuff that’s come out since he’s become President.
MW: Such as?
KRESSLEY: Just… some of the selections of his cabinet and his advisors seem a little bit ultra-conservative for someone who I thought was, you know, a little bit more progressive than that.
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MW: Having met him, are you surprised that he’s our President?
KRESSLEY: Yes, I think I am. I didn’t think it was possible but, that being said, he is the person that’s in charge and we have to somehow figure out how to work with him and make sure all the advances we’ve made in the past eight years stay intact.
MW: But they’re already rolling back part of the trans guidance. They’re already showing signs of attacking the LGBTQ community. What would you say to him to get him to come to his senses on the issues important to us?
KRESSLEY: I would just remind him that he was supposed to be the representative of the people. There’s a wide variety of people that make up our country and it’s not just the ultra-conservative people that voted him in. I would remind him of that.
MW: What kind of queer eye advice would you offer our straight President?
KRESSLEY: Oh gosh. It would have to be a mini-series. But I just think that he needs a good tailor and a good barber. Just from my eye of looking, I think he’s wearing some very luxe fabrics, I think he’s thinking that expensive is better, but in his case, a less expensive, less silky fabric with more body would actually cover some sins and make him look a little better. Tailoring is key and I think things look oversized on him. Then the hair — that’s a whole other story. I’m not an expert on that.
MW: Forget Trump, what style advice would you give today’s queer guy?
KRESSLEY: It would be the same for all guys. Dressing for a man is pretty simple. Buy the best quality you can afford. Make sure it’s the right size and it fits properly and it’s beautifully tailored. If you keep it very simple and just make it about quality and fit, you’ll always look great.
Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race premieres on VH1 on Friday, March 24, at 8 p.m. Check local listings.
Carson Kressley will appear at the 11th annual Fashion for Paws Runway Show on Saturday, April 8, at the Grand Hyatt Washington, 1000 H St. NW in Washington, D.C. Tickets are $100 to $1,000 and benefit the Humane Rescue Alliance. Visit fashionforpaws.org.
For more information on the True Colors Fund, visit truecolorsfund.org.