ENTERTAINMENT
13/06/2018 07:00 BST | Updated 13/06/2018 14:21 BST

Queer Eye's Karamo Brown Talks Toxic Masculinity, Activism And How Fatherhood Shaped His Life

HuffPost UK sat down with the bomber jacket king to reflect on the huge impact of the Netflix series.

Netflix

‘Queer Eye’ claims to be ’more than a makeover’ and it’s hard to argue with that. What other makeover show can have viewers sobbing their hearts out one minute, and whooping the next? Or frantically searching the internet to see how each of the subjects are getting on? (FYI, Tom and Abby got married. As did AJ and Andre).

But the way it interweaves the joy of physical transformations with hard-hitting discussions about political and social issues is the thing that really sets it apart from all other makeover shows. And the show’s resident culture guru and bomber jacket king*, Karamo Brown, agrees wholeheartedly.

In one of the most memorable episodes of season one, the Fab Five’s car, with Karamo driving, is pulled over by a police officer (who they later discover is the best friend of makeover candidate, Cory). For Karamo, this moment was terrifying: “There’s a scene where I push Cory’s nominator, because when I realised that it was a prank, all the fear I had just came out.”  This event sparked an emotional conversation in the show between Karamo and Cory about why black people fear the police, with Karamo admitting that his son didn’t want to get his driving license as a result.

‘Queer Eye’ preaches acceptance of others, but how does Karamo understand and interact with people with such differing viewpoints to himself?

“We’re so divided as a world that we don’t often have the opportunity to sit down and talk to people who are different to us. We’re so ready to always be right that we sometimes forget it’s OK to listen,” he explains. “Although someone’s vote may hurt me by supporting the structures in place that hold people of colour, women and LGBT+ people down, some people just don’t realise that these structures exist. The way someone votes doesn’t make them a bad person, it just means that, at the time, this was the best decision they thought they could make.”

Netflix

His ongoing relationship with Cory, with whom he now regularly texts, has taught him that listening to others can help both parties grow. “The worst thing about our political system is that people debate; I wish our politicians were able to talk to each other, rather than scream while trying to gain sound bites,” he says.

The way someone votes doesn’t make them a bad person, it just means that, at the time, this was the best decision they thought they could make." Kamaro Brown

In the pilot, Tan, the designated style expert of the group, said: “The original show was fighting for tolerance, our show is fighting for acceptance.” While season one definitely laid the groundwork, season two – arriving on Netflix this Friday – really drives this message home.

For Karamo, the story of Skylar, a trans man, is particularly important to broadcast. Pointing out how rare it is to see the experiences of trans men featured on TV, Karamo explains: “The media would have you think that all trans people are worried about is the bathroom debate, and you realise this takes them out of the everyday experiences that we can all relate to. I think so many people in small towns, who have never encountered a trans person, are going to see him trying to get his license – something we all did during our teenage years – and realise he’s just like them.” He attests this has worked on at least one person - his aunt.

Karamo says showing Skylar’s episode to her resulted in a lightbulb moment. He explains joyfully: “That she understood gave me so much hope. I know that if my family member can get it, someone else can.”

Netflix
Skylar is one of the subjects of 'Queer Eye' season two

This desire for better representation pervades everything Karamo does. He is an activist dedicated to improving the lives of others, which he says stems from the way he was raised. He recounts sitting on his dad’s shoulders at a rally as a young child and mentions that his school was named after an activist. In fact, he went to Majory Stoneman Douglas, the subject of one of this year’s school shootings.

Since then, he has gone on to join the campaign Never Again MSD, delivering an incredibly powerful speech at the Human Rights Campaign Equality Convention. As well as the support he lends to their campaign, he also co-founded 6in10.org, which works to combat HIV stigma in the black LGBT+ community. He also volunteers as a youth councillor at Los Angeles LGBT Center, acts as a health and wellness ambassador for the National Black Justice Coalition, and was recently master of ceremony for the OutRight International Gala.

“You have a platform, you have to use it,” he says. “I don’t know how to do anything else but use my platform to help other people.”.

Karamo’s passion for improving the lives of others seems boundless, and he reveals he has just registered for sign language classes as his latest way of helping people.

“I’m so excited, it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn,” he says, and when I say that I am thinking of learning too, he heartily encourages me. “A lot of the time we make up excuses, saying we don’t have time, or that we’re not smart enough,” he says. “But I think people don’t realise that your participation can help make someone else feel like they can be invincible.”   

It’s a feeling he gets from being around the Fab Five. The way he describes their friendship is full of love and admiration. “We lift each other up,” he says.

Just one look at Instagram and you will see them commenting on each other’s posts. “So proud of you babe,” writes Jonathan on one of Karamo’s pictures; “YOU KNOW I LIVE FOR A TWIN SET,” Tan comments on Antoni’s. Aside from the joy of making friends for life, Karamo feels it is important that male friendships such as theirs are being depicted on screen.

“The bond I have with these guys inspires other men to know that they can be curious, to be emotional around their male friends,” he says. “There’s so much toxic masculinity out there. I grew up with the notion that the more masculine you are and the less you show emotion, the more of a man you are.”

I hope straight men watching the show gain a sense of being curious about life again." - Kamaro Brown

Karamo can pinpoint the moment he learned that men are conditioned not to show emotion. As a kid, he nearly broke his leg in gym class, his teacher told him to “shut up and walk it off.” His classmates did nothing. But with ‘Queer Eye’, he says we’re “showing men that being an emotional human being is beautiful.” This message, he hopes, will get through to men watching the show.

“Queer also means curious, and I hope straight men watching the show gain a sense of being curious about life again,” he explains. 

Karamo believes this toxic masculinity is also present in the way many men parent their children. Episode three of season two sees him help fellow dad-of-two Leo bond with other fathers and prepare for a parent-teacher conference. Karamo says the message he wanted to get across from the show was that it’s normal for men to be scared, and that that’s okay, but part of the problem for him is silence: “We talk about the guilt that mothers have but we don’t realise that fathers have that same guilt.”  

Netflix
Kamaro with the Fab Five and one of their new subjects

It is so important to Karamo to use ‘Queer Eye’ to talk about the shared experience of fathers, but his own journey to parenthood was far from typical.

Karamo discovered he had a son 10 years after the child was born. “My son’s mother and I were best friends, we lost our virginity to each other, she got pregnant and I didn’t find out until I was 26,” he says. 

So what did he discover about himself from realising he had been a father for a decade? “Responsibility,” he says. “There’s nothing that I do to harm myself because I don’t want to harm them. I think about my choices in the world because I want their world to be better.”

He and his former girlfriend decided he would take full custody of his son Jason, 21, and Karamo later adopted her other son, Chris, 17. When he talks about his kids, his face lights up. “I shower my kids with love because I think it’s so important that men show their kids open affection. I kiss them all the time, I tell them how much I love them and how proud I am of them.”

Watch any of the videos of Karamo and his sons on social media and it’s clear how much respect and love there is within the family. “Being a younger parent, and also being gay, has been a benefit of mine because I talk to my kids in a very transparent way,” he tells us. “In return, there’s nothing they have to hide from me.”

Aside from showering your kids in love, Karamo recommends openness. He says: “We so often tell kids, ‘if you do wrong, tell me’, but once they tell you, you punish them. So why would they tell you the truth? With my kids it has always been, ‘if something happens and you’re honest, I won’t punish you. If I have to find out, then you get punished.’” It’s to this method of parenting that Karamo credits the honest relationship with his sons: “It’s so beautiful, I can have conversations with them. They are able to have their opinions and know that I respect them.”

A post shared by Karamo (@karamobrown) on

And Karamo’s family is still growing - he recently popped the question to his partner of eight years, Ian Jordan, and in true Karamo style, his proposal was suitably romantic. 

“My proposal had to be something big. He’s the man I love,” he says. I flew in his family, I had a big party. He was surprised and crying from the minute we walked in to the minute that we left.” But Karamo hoped this grand gesture would have an impact beyond just his husband-to-be: “I think that a lot of the time in same-sex relationships we don’t have many models of how to do these romantic moments. I wanted young queer people to know that when they get engaged one day, it can be grand.”  

From being the first openly gay African American man in the history of reality TV with US show ‘Real World’ in 2004, to one of the Fab Five, Karamo is now undoubtedly a role model for many.

Miss Tammye, who features in the first episode season two, sums it up perfectly when she says: “You represent a lot of little boys who look like you and they want to be like you. Continue making the world a better place.”

And growing up, Karamo similarly looked up to American drag icon, RuPaul. “I used to run home and watch his talk show because I loved the fact that there was this black guy on TV. Even though he was in a dress, I saw through it and was like, ‘I want to do that, I want to talk and connect to people like that.’” He hopes to meet RuPaul to thank him for the inspiration he gave him. “Representation is so important,” he adds. “Without it you feel invisible.”

This is part of the reason why the original iteration of ‘Queer Eye’ is so important to him. “The impact of the show was that it allowed us to all feel like we could accomplish anything,” he explains. The original aired at the same time Karamo was on ‘Real World’, and recalls with joy that the first time he won a GLAAD award, it was a tied win with the ‘OG’ Fab Five: “There were no egos, I loved them.” His admiration for the original ‘Queer Eye’ cast is ongoing, with Ted Allen, Carson Kressley, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia and Jai Rodriguez supporting the new Five in their reboot.

Dimitrios Kambouris via Getty Images
The original Fab Five, Carson Kressley, Jai Rodriguez, Thom Filicia, Ted Allen and Kyan Douglas

Although Karamo knows he can always count on Jai Rodriguez’s advice, his predecessor’s role as culture expert was very different to his own. While Jai regularly handed out Broadway tickets to the makeover candidates, Karamo’s approach to broadening people’s cultural horizons goes a bit deeper.

“It’s about how we hit that core and really make the audience understand that we all have fears, we all have dreams,” he explains. “Our lives are like drains. At some point you have call a plumber in and clear it out so that the water is flowing again. I’m that plumber, that’s my role.”

Self-improvement is something Karamo has strived for ever since his first major TV appearance on the reality show ‘Real World’ in 2004. “I was an asshole in my 20s,” he laughs. “Don’t be an ass was the biggest lesson I learnt [from the show]. I’m glad that I failed on the ‘Real World’ so horribly, because if I didn’t I might not have had the perspective that I have now where I’m able to help people.”

I just think women are phenomenal - they should be ruling the world.” Kamaro Brown

His personal motto is “never be afraid of growing slowly, only of standing still”. He often tells himself: “Life is happening at the pace it needs to happen and it’s OK for you to take your time. And it’s OK for your journey to go slower or faster, as long as you’re not standing still.” And I can see how this would work, his voice is soothing. On the rare occasions where his own advice doesn’t cut it, Karamo turns to his family. His granny’s words of wisdom have also had a lasting impact on him. “The majority of my mentors are women because I just think they’re phenomenal,” he says. “I think women should be ruling the world.” And of course, he can always turn to the Fab Five.

On being part of this group of extraordinary men, Karamo is overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity. “Hundreds and hundreds of guys would have wanted it and I’m so blessed to be part of the Fab Five,” he says.  “I get emotional often because of the magnitude of it all and what we’re doing; it never falls on deaf ears or a dead heart that this is an amazing experience.”

*Seriously, he owns 300 bomber jackets

‘Queer Eye’ season two hits Netflix on Friday 15 June, while all of season one is available to stream now.