In one of the episodes of Netflix’s Queer Eye, Bobby Berk says, “When you're happy at home, it spills out into every other area of your life.” The beauty and depth of this line can’t be experienced any better unless one has known Bobby and his personal journey: From his traumatic childhood — be it growing up gay in a conservative Missouri town, his patchy relationship with his mother or struggles of navigating adolescence on his own — to becoming one of America’s most sought-after interior designers.
In many ways, Bobby translates that over-arching journey of his through his designs — that’s precisely what we see and feel at the end of every makeover on the show. While the transformation in terms of design is definitely tangible, it is often the intangible aspects of that ‘makeover’ that strike a chord with millions of Queer Eye fans across the globe.
The style experts (Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Bobby Berk, Jonathan Van Ness and Karamo Brown) who are famously called “The Fab 5” celebrate queer culture with abundance — something which is rarely seen in the mainstream media. How often does it happen that we see five queer men forge relationships with their collaborators — people across the race, age, income, gender and sexuality spectrums — who often come with their own perceptions about themselves and the world, and yet lead to moments of social commentary, soul searching, emotional exchanges interspersed with style advice? Perhaps never.
In an exclusive interview with Firstpost over Zoom, Bobby Berk, the design expert on the Emmy Award-winning show, spoke with us about Queer Eye's brand of magic.
Bobby grew up in a very small town in the middle of Missouri. He went to a school that had a single room with 20 students of different grades; he was the only student in his grade. His schooling was in an extremely religious and conservative environment that in many ways had most of his childhood centred around the church.
“I was in the church every single day. Before school, I would get up at five in the morning to go to church for prayer meeting. And then I would have a church group at school. And in the evenings, I would go to practise singing for church,” Bobby recalls. Talking about his early childhood, for the most part, Bobby says, it had a lot of fun memories. “We grew up not wealthy and rather a little poor, but it was still a great childhood. Yes, my mom might have been mistakenly too religious back then, but it wasn't until my teenage years that things got a little not so great.”
“But as a child, I have a lot of fond memories of being on the farm with my parents and planting gardens, dealing with the sheep and the horses and the cows. It was nice even if it wasn't the typical American country childhood,” he reminisces.
Growing up in a conservative society has its own challenges, and more so if you are off the conventional path. While everyone around you either lives in denial or adopt stringent measures to “correct” you and bring you back on the “right” path, you constantly live in dilemma, doubt and despair. Bobby’s case was no different: “I didn't know I was gay, I just knew I was different, which then, of course, made me feel inadequate and awkward and shy. I would always be the odd man out because I was different. And I just didn't know why I just thought I was weird.”
He continues, “It killed me because I didn't fit in with the sports guys, because I really couldn't care less about sports. I was in a band, and I didn't even really fit in with them as well because they would always be talking about girls. I never really related to them. I didn't like the same things they liked. In fact, I liked hanging out with the girls more than I did with the guys.”
For Bobby, his moment of reckoning happened when he moved to a public school and had access to internet. Up until then, he didn’t know what being gay was, nor did he know any gay people. He didn’t have an internet connection at home, perhaps because it was never looked upon as a necessity in the first place. The only way he could access internet was in the school’s computer lab. Bobby recounts, “It wasn't until probably 13 or 14, when I started getting more access to the internet, that I then started to realise, oh, this is what [being] gay is...this is what the preacher in church keeps talking about makes me such a horrible person. Oh, I get it now, which then even brought more shame.”
“You know, I prayed every day of my life to God, even before I realised I was gay, to just make me normal. And then once I realised I was gay, I begged and pleaded for him to not make me one. But here I am.”
At home, Bobby’s life wasn’t great. His mother was strict and controlling. And for a 15-year-old, his freedom mattered to him, even if he didn’t act rebellious. His bedtime was still 8 pm; he wasn't allowed to go out with his church group after church for pizza but had to come straight home; he couldn't go to his friends’ houses because his mother didn't know those parents and they weren't part of the same church. So, the things that normal kids would be able to do to socialise, Bobby couldn’t.
But after a point he started pushing back. “I'd want to do more. I'd want to stay up later than 8 pm. I'd want to watch a television show. And then there was my sister who all she wanted to do was just ride horses with mom and dad, and she didn't need friends. So we got into a lot of fights. And one day I just left, only for a couple of days, and I stayed with a friend. A few days later, when I came back, we got into a big fight one night, and it turned physical. I locked myself in my room and packed a little bag and climbed out the window and down the side of the house and ran down the street and hid in a ditch and waited for a friend to come to pick me up. I never went back.”
While he was still finding his way through this newfound independence, wrapping his head around his sexual identity, exploring relationships, and in a way grappling with the whole coming-of-age phase, Bobby was outed by a friend. She didn't like who he was dating and staying with at the time, Bobby mentions, and so she thought that if she told his parents that he was gay they would come to get him and take him back home.
But it didn't really work out like that. Bobby recounts, “They tried to force me to come home because I was still a minor, but it wasn't in a positive way. Once they realised I was gay, I believe my mom's words were: ‘You disgust me. This is why you're going to hell. This is an abomination. How could you choose this?’” After this incident, Bobby says, he didn't talk to his parents for a while, and it wasn't probably until two years later that they reconciled to a degree and finally started talking again.
Bobby’s tryst with the church has been talked about in his past interviews and more prominently in one of the episodes of Queer Eye’s second season. Right from the time the episode started till the end, Bobby’s discomfort was quite evident. For Bobby, it has been quite a drastic transformational journey when it comes to his association with the church. He explains, “It's hard when you devote your life, your heart and soul to something… You're always taught in the church that God has this unconditional love and that he's all-encompassing and all-forgiving. Until one day, everyone finds out something about you that was always you, and all of a sudden they turn it back on you. Then you realise that the unconditional love that you were taught about is complete hypocrisy. And you start to realise then that everything about the church is complete hypocrisy.”
Bobby extrapolates his personal experiences with the church to explain what gay people go through. He says the reason why so many gay people have such animosity towards the church is because they are inherently passionate. “Most of the gay people I know who grew up in the church were heavily involved with it, it was their entire life. And then all of a sudden the church wanted nothing to do or have with them and instead sent them to conversion therapy, tortured them and told them that God is sending them to hell,” Bobby mentions adding how difficult it is to get over that dogmatic conditioning. For him, it has had a huge impact; he has never gotten over it and he never will, he says.
“To be honest, I have transcended above the thinking of a specific type of religion. I look at it very much as a man-made creation that is used to control the masses, to control women, and is particularly written by a bunch of a**hole straight guys. Their religion preaches that love, peace and equality are reserved for a select few, which is, sadly, what our country here is becoming as well. It's becoming a country where liberty and justice are for white Christians. I'm sorry — white cis-gendered straight Christians.”
After leaving his parent’s home, Bobby lived on his own. He finished his sophomore year driving back and forth an hour and a half each way from a friend he was staying at. In his junior year, he decided to emancipate himself and took his parents to court and became an adult legally so he could enrol himself in school. He got himself enrolled but within weeks he also realised that he didn't have enough money to go to school, pay rent and eat. He dropped out for six months thinking he would save up money and would then go back to school. But that never happened.
“I didn’t really know anything, I reacted to everything with emotion,” Bobby remarks. He went through a lot of different jobs, and got fired from as many. “It was a lot of hard lessons of learning how to live in an adult world when you were really still a child, and also figuring out how to keep a roof over your head and food in your stomach, and also navigating not being taken advantage of as a child. It was hard, but giving up was also not an option.”
Bobby remembers while growing up he had no idea what careers or jobs the world offered. In his small town in Missouri, one could be a farmer, a waitress or just drive a truck. And so, for the longest time that’s just what Bobby thought he would be. But once he went to high school, he started participating in debates and got better at them with each time. That made him want to become an attorney — it was his big dream. But once he dropped out of high school, that possibility also had to be ruled out.
Interior design, Bobby says, was never a career option for him though that was something he had always loved. “I remember when I was six, I saw this dinosaur poster in a store and loved it, and begged my mom to get it. And then over a few months, I designed my whole room around that poster: my bedspread matched the blue in the sky, the green pillows matched the colour of the green dinosaurs. I also got little dinosaur figurines for my room. Besides that, I would anyway help my mom move the furniture around in the house, make curtains etc,” he recounts.
However, Bobby talks about how he eventually gravitated towards the world of design and also looking at it as a prospective career. During one of his numerous stints in the retail sector, while he was working at Target, he came across a collaboration that the retail corporation had done with the famous American architect-designer Michael Graves (whose firm has also designed the Statue of Unity in Gujarat, India). Graves had put up a range of tea kettles, spoons, kitchen timers, toasters etc. “I looked at that line-up, and it felt as if somebody had thought, ‘Hey, I'm going to make this glass functional. But I'm also going to curve it right here perfectly around the bottom to where it's aesthetically pleasing.’ So, when people look at it, they're like, ‘Oh, this is pretty, but it works, too.’ And so, for the first time, I thought of things as not just utilitarian but also economical and, at the same time, as means to make people happy,” mentions Bobby.
After having worked at gas stations, clothing stores and restaurants, Bobby moved to Denver in 1998-99. He began working at a furniture and accessories store called Bombay Company and later moved to a home décor company called The Great Indoors (it shut shop in 2012). But his true calling happened after he shifted base to New York where he, after switching a few jobs, landed in the high-end furniture company named Portico where he started as a store manager and worked his way up to a buyer and then creative director of the company. Around the same time, Bobby launched his own e-commerce website, eventually opening his own store in SoHo, New York and later in Miami, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
“I would curate stuff for other designers. I would bring in furniture from manufacturers and design their stores. In between, I would help my customers design their homes. But technically, I still wasn't a designer — I was a businessman, a retailer, a curator, but not a designer,” says Bobby. In 2015 Builder Magazine called him ‘the most well-known millennial interior designer’; they contacted him for a project where he was asked to design homes that show American home builders and what millennials want from their homes. Bobby accepted that offer and thus began his journey.
Around the same time, Bobby decided to start closing his stores and just focus on product design. He says, “I didn't really want to deal with retail anymore. I just wanted to license and design products. But designing houses wasn't just picking out furniture, it was electrical plans, construction documents and engineering — stuff that I had no idea how to do. But I figured it out from YouTube and Google and I ended up doing these homes and they were a huge success.” The company that built those houses were so impressed that they hired him to test run one of their show homes for development. That home won the Interior Design of the Year in 2016 from the US’ National Association of Home Builders. “That kicked off my design career and I launched my interior design firm because of that. We started working predominantly with builders, and we've won multiple Interior Design of the Year awards since then,” Bobby mentions proudly.
Even after becoming a celebrated interior designer, Bobby remains very selective about his projects, even if it means losing out some of them to his contemporaries. He says, “I make sure that it's the right project for me, because if aesthetically, I don't love it, I'm not going to be passionate about it, I'm not going to do my best work. And in the end, that's going to translate into the project and the client is not going to be happy. And then that affects my reputation.”
As for his mantra of design, Bobby perhaps has a philosophical-cum-psychological viewpoint. He looks at design as a way to help people. “Not just people, it also helps their lives function better, helps in interacting better with their families. You know, I believe a disorganised poorly designed space causes aggravation and causes fights within families. So design is also like a therapy, it is one of the things I think affects ones mental health the most,” he explains.
It was 2017 when Queer Eye came calling for Bobby. His publicist had put his name in for auditions. He got in somewhere around the last two weeks of the auditions, which had been on for months. Out of 3,000 people, Bobby was shortlisted in the top 40. And after going through a really rigorous auditioning regime for about three days, Bobby was finalised. “It was like a combination of American Idol meets the Hunger Games meets the Drag Race,” he remembers.
Throwing light on the production and casting process behind every episode of Queer Eye, Bobby says that their main motive is to legitimately and honestly engage with their collaborators (or as they call them in the show – heroes), talk to them and find out as much as possible so that, in turn, the heroes also have a legitimate, wonderful and real experience.
“In the beginning of season 3 and 4, the producers actually started telling us more about the heroes than they did before. That dossier that we would read in the car, there would actually be a lot of information about them. And we started to realise that we got lazy because we already knew so much about them. We already knew what all their problems were, we already knew what opinions their family had about them. And so we didn't try to find out as much ourselves,” reveals Bobby and further adds: “So, a little bit into the season, we told producers that we know you're trying to help us do our jobs, but we'd rather not know.”
He believes that honesty also translates best to our viewers, because when it's fake, people know. “We work really hard to make sure that our show is never fake. So, there are no retakes: if it doesn't get picked up on the mic or the camera, it doesn't get on TV.”
Talking about the extensive casting process in the show, Bobby says that there are specific teams that visit the cities the show would be filmed in, months before the shoot date. He mentions, “They start putting notes on windshields; going to churches, Walmarts and local fairs and they just start talking to people – tell them about the show’s concept and then ask if they know anybody that could use their help. So, our casting people remain on the ground, going from place to place talking from person to person, before finding that one person,” he mentions.
On being asked what Queer Eye means to him, Bobby says it is about “showing people that being kind and helping people is still cool. It is about showing people that you don't have to be divided. It doesn't matter if one is red or blue — which are the political colours here — one can still find commonality; people can still be kind and helpful to each other.”
In a world that has definitely lost touch with that sense of community, cultural harmony, a show like Queer Eye stands for hope, a shining light of unity.
“I think producers felt that if there wasn't drama, if there wasn't animosity, if there wasn't conflict, they weren't going to get good ratings. And when you looked at reality television, most of it was kind of trashy,” Bobby points out. He says that Queer Eye showed the world and TV executives and producers that kindness sells too, not just drama and sex.
With Queer Eye’s phenomenal success, a lot of TV networks are looking at similar formats. “After all, we don't own kindness, love and acceptance. Everyone should be doing that anyway. Having said that, I am elated that networks want to make this type of TV now that they've seen it can be successful,” Bobby concludes.
All photographs courtesy of Bobby Berk. All rights reserved.