Carson Kressley, The Queen of Reality TV is Authentically Increasing Gay Representation

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

It’s hard to remember a time that Carson Kressley hasn’t been a fixture on TV. 2003 marked the premiere of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on the (then) small cable network called Bravo. The show was an overnight success for the Bravo, the Fab Five cast, and for the visibility of gay men in mainstream media. Every woman wanted a gay bestie, and their straight boyfriends were more than ok with that. More than a makeover show, it began to present the straight and gay communities coming together. The Fab Five won an Emmy for the show and the careers of these relatively unknowns would evolve into other mainstream genres. It has been almost two decades since Carson Kressley appeared on our TVs, and though he’s been on numerous TV shows, hosted multiple red carpets, written books, and become a beloved judge on Drag Race, not much has changed (how does this guy not age? Who is his dermatologist?); his message remains the same – do you, and look good while doing it.

So, what came first, the fashion or the personality?

I was actually a very shy kid if you can believe that! But I was also very fashionable and clearly remember having to have Calvin Klein jeans in the fourth grade – mind you this was 1979 and they were all the rage. It didn’t make me super popular with the other boys but the girls LOVED me!  I was a miniature John Travolta, or maybe I should say Shaun Cassidy, as I had very blonde hair and wore designer jeans and printed silk shirts.  

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Before becoming a central figure of the LGBTQ community, he was a queen of the equestrian world. His family raised ponies and Carson started competing at equestrian events at an early age, going on to become a member of the U.S. World Cup Saddle Seat equitation team and winning a world championship. The tools he would learn early on would prepare him for his future in entertainment. We won’t make a “riding” joke here, we will let Carson do it.

I love riding! Horses mostly! But, in all seriousness, I really love the equestrian world and I have been competing since I was just a kid. I started riding when I was about four years old because I grew up in a horsey family with a sister who also rode. It really prepared me for so many things in life including a long and very rewarding stint with Ralph Lauren – which ultimately led to my role on Queer Eye. Fortunately, horses have always been a part of my life and I’m lucky enough to live part of the year on my family’s horse farm in Pennsylvania. I still compete all over the world and I’ve been lucky enough to win some world titles with both my saddle-bred horses and Friesians.

Being a top equestrian competitor requires a team; not only teamwork with your coach and trainer, veterinarians, etc. but also with the horses themselves. I think competing in the equestrian world has taught me how to be a graceful winner and loser, how to be a team player, and, of course, learning how to build a successful partnership.

It was also in his early years that Carson noticed that he was different than the other boys. Yes, he dressed better, but there was something more.

I think it was in the first grade discussing the Six Million Dollar Man. The other boys were like, “Isn’t it a cool show?” And I was like, “Yes, it is, and that Steve Austin is so handsome.” Silence. I knew I was a little different from that point on!

The environment that Carson grew up in was clearly not the one today, where shows like Queer Eye and other on-screen representation have made coming out a viable and positive option. This gay icon was not an early bloomer, so to speak. His family was the last to know.

What I like to tell people is that when I was born and the doctor slapped my butt I was like, “Wow he’s handsome AND a doctor!” But actually, it was much later than that! I came out when I moved to New York City in the Spring of 1991 following graduation from Gettysburg College. I was out to almost all of my co-workers and the new group of friends I was amassing in the city. The funny part is that I didn’t come out to my family until Queer Eye was about to air. I knew that we were about to be on the cover of TV Guide with the headline – something like “TVs Gay Summer Heatwave” and I knew I better spill the beans before that landed in our mailbox back home in Pennsylvania. Like so many gay people, I was scared and nervous. But I guess the timing was right and my family couldn’t have been more loving and understanding.

LOS ANGELES – FEB 7: Kyan Douglas, Carson Kressley, Thom Filicia, Jai Rodriguez at the “Queer Eye” Season One Premiere Screening at the Pacific Design Center on February 7, 2018 in West Hollywood, CA

Besides horses and Six Million Dollar Man crushes, another constant in Carson’s life was his love of styling.

I’ve always loved helping people look and feel great by wearing the right clothes for the right occasion. I mean, I think my first styling gig was when I was 10 years old and I helped my older sister select her prom gown. I remember it like it was yesterday – it was a white ‘toga inspired’ column dress. That was 1980. And she was prom queen so I guess I knew what I was doing!

After graduating from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, Carson started working as an independent stylist until Ralph Lauren came calling. He worked with Ralph Lauren for eight years.

Working for Ralph Lauren was a highlight. I was lucky enough to style a lot of regional and national ad campaigns for the brand as well as runway shows in New York and Milan.

I learned so many things at Ralph Lauren. Things like details matter, quality is paramount, and a sense of urgency.  I have used all of these in my career on television. Whether it’s a makeover for a person or a home I always try to make sure that every detail is attended to and things look perfect!

One year we were doing a men’s show at the Ralph Lauren Palazzo in Milan. All of the men were wearing brown velvet slippers embroidered with the Ralph Lauren monogram in gold thread. When Mr. Lauren walked through the presentation, he thought the thread should have been silver and of course, we all said, “No problem.” Cut to me riding around on a scooter throughout Milan looking for silver metallic model airplane paint and then painting each thread on each slipper (there were about a hundred pairs) until they were perfect!

His work with Ralph Lauren would ultimately lead to the show that changed his life.

Carson hadn’t yet come out to his family, how was he going to come out to a whole nation?

I had a little bit of trepidation thinking that, you know, when you’re one of the stars of the show called Queer Eye everybody is going to know that you’re absolutely out! But it was really a blessing – it turned something that I used to be ashamed of into something that was now celebrated and that really felt pretty great.

None of the cast had any idea the show was going to be such a hit. The cast had not worked on television before and had no clue what to expect, they just knew they were making straight guys look and feel fantastic and were having a good time doing it. Carson started to get hint about the success of Queer Eye when the cast was flown out immediately after the show aired to appear on The Tonight Show and on Ellen.

I think Queer Eye was a success for two reasons: because we approached the makeovers with kindness and with a sense of humor. We also had great support from the network and our producers and clearly, it was a great format as it is just a successful today as it was almost 20 years ago.

Carson would quickly get an idea of the reality of reality TV.

I think it was all supposed to take place in one day – one gay day – which was actually three days! I actually think nowadays we would show more of the bloopers as part of the show. Things didn’t always go as planned. Sometimes clothes didn’t fit, curtains fell down, and even some tiny fender benders happened on the way to work.

Queer Eye wrapped after 100 episodes and with a Prime Time Emmy in tow, Carson would host How to Look Good Naked, which was Lifetime’s highest-rated reality program at that time. He didn’t just become everyone’s favorite gay to chat style and clothes with a side of sass, he also became a spokesperson for the LGBTQ community. As he was dishing on a celeb’s outfit, he was also responsible for increasing gay representation on many different networks – not with bombastic activist speech, but with his signature style.

LOS ANGELES – SEP 22: Ross Mathews, RuPaul Andre Charles, Carson Kressley at the Primetime Emmy Awards – Arrivals at the Microsoft Theater on September 22, 2019 in Los Angeles, CA

I think all of my roles whether on Queer Eye or RuPaul’s Drag Race are me being authentically myself. So, I don’t find that there’s a lot of pressure. I do try to show young people that you can be absolutely yourself and be very successful doing just that.

Queer Eye would get a reboot 15 years later on Netflix. The new version expands on the original, with a little social commentary thrown in for good measure. The new cast has also enjoyed newfound fame and the show has been renewed for a sixth season.

I think it’s been great! To be a part of a brand that still resonates today as much as it did originally – it’s really wonderful. I especially appreciate that the new show is venturing into uncharted territory by filming in more rural locations and addressing a variety of social issues. I’m very proud of the new iteration and its fantastic cast.

From some new show on the little network that could to our current boom in gay-themed programming, being gay has become fabulous. Carson is part of that history.

I’m very grateful to have been part of that process! I think visibility is so important whether it is Queer Eye or Drag Race or any show with LGBTQ people. It can be so empowering to people who may have previously felt quite alone.  And, of course, seeing LGBTQ people on television can start the conversation about why we all deserve love and equality and that we are more alike than we are different.

With that visibility for Carson came fame. He was a household name, he was in demand, the media loved him, and men (gay and straight) stopped being afraid to add color and florals to their wardrobe.

You know it’s 99% good and the great thing about fame is that no matter where you go, people feel like they know you and you are almost treated like family. That’s a really wonderful thing to experience. It also helps with dinner reservations.

As if the Oscar, Golden Globe, and Miss Universe gigs weren’t enough, Carson would serve as Master of Ceremonies for Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Tour and host Carson Nation on Oprah’s OWN. Drag Race was still on the horizon and would introduce him to a new generation of LGBTQ youth and the drag family.

I tell this story to young people wanting to get to showbiz all the time. You have to take advantage of every opportunity and you never know where it may lead you. I was doing another show called Skin Wars on the Game Show Network and RuPaul was one of the hosts. While we were filming, he asked why I hadn’t done his show and I said I would love to. And the rest is history! I still have the voicemail he left me after the show asking me to do Drag Race!

I really love that young people across the globe can watch the show and see that they can be celebrated by being their authentic selves. That is the most rewarding part of being on the show.

It has been such an incredible journey meeting so many talented queens and working with Ru. The judging panel has been so fun and fulfilling, more than I could ever express here.

The most challenging thing about being on Drag Race?

I happen to fall in love with almost all of the contestants. They are all so compelling, entertaining, and funny.  But it’s not about who we like the most, it’s about who slays the challenges each week most effectively. I think we all do a very good job of staying subjective and rewarding those who master the challenges with charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.

One of the great things is that, after the queens are on the show, we sometimes work together on the road either at clubs or at Drag Con or other drag-related events. All of us who work on the show enjoy one another and it’s always a fun reunion when we get to work together outside of the show.

If Carson was a contestant on the show, which challenges would nail and fail?

I think I would be pretty good at the Snatch Game. I do a mean Nancy Grace after all! I would be terrible at anything with choreography. I mean … did you see me on Dancing with the Stars?!

Drag Race has gone from being a fun drag show on Logo for the gay community to being an Emmy-winning mainstream hit. Celebrities watch Drag Race, our community watches Drag Race, the straight community watches Drag Race, everyone is watching Drag Race. With the growth of the show has also come its highlight of social and political issues. It is not just a fun show to watch, we see the journeys of the contestants and hear their stories. To Carson, it has remained true to its beginnings.

I think the mission has always been the same – to treat each other with love respect and kindness and to celebrate those who may have been marginalized in the past. I think the show has had the same message all along but perhaps now has a larger platform.

A favorite part of Drag Race is the moment RuPaul shares pictures of the contestants in their youth and asks them what they would tell themselves as a child. What would Carson say to his five-year-old self?

Oh wow, this is a great question. I guess I would tell myself to relax and that things will be OK. I grew up always been nervous and scared probably from bullying and also thinking that being gay was not OK. I would tell my five-year-old self that this Achilles’ heel, so to speak, is going to wind up being one of your greatest blessings. So, sit tight stay strong keep it sassy and everything is going to be just great.

Not only can Carson be accused of being a smart ass, but he can also be called a smart cookie. His stint on Jeopardy put him against Regis Philbin and Nancy Grace, taking second place, losing by one dollar.

I don’t know about being a smart cookie – I’m just very curious I always have been. I was that nerdy kid in elementary school who would read the encyclopedia “for fun.” Right now, I’m reading a bunch of different books – one on Sissinghurst Gardens, one on Grace Kelly, and one are written by Jane Fonda about climate change. I try to read several books at a time to keep it interesting. And I have ADD!

In addition to reading, Carson has a love of cars. How butch.

Most of my hobbies are pretty gay: horses, antiques, decorating, and traveling. I guess one that would surprise most people is that I know a lot about cars. My dad was a car dealer for many years and I was exposed to that business for so long I couldn’t help but absorb some of it. I do enjoy classic cars from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Carson can be called the Queen of reality TV, having also appeared on Dancing with the Stars, Worst Cooks, Celebrity Apprentice, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, and The Chase. Which one has been his favorite?

I guess I would have to say I really enjoyed doing Celebrity Apprentice. It was not hosted by Donald Trump at that time – it was hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger who I really enjoyed. I guess I liked doing that competition because I was actually really good at some of the business challenges. I had a career in advertising and marketing and that was really helpful. It was fun to actually be good at a reality competition especially after my dismal performance on Dancing with the Stars

Carson’s message this Pride is fabulous:

I think this year as well as last year it’s about a sense of community and supporting all of our brothers and sisters.

Always be yourself. And follow me on social media. I need the numbers!

Photo:@mattmonathphoto

 

 

Last modified: June 3, 2021