The designer brings his partnership with husband Nate Berkus to TV — hoping to change hearts, minds and lives.
“When I was growing up, my mother used to always say to me every time we traveled somewhere, whether it was a park or a store: ‘Find one beautiful thing in this place and just tell me what the beauty is,’” Jeremiah Brent remembers. “I feel like that shifted the paradigm since I was a kid.” As we sit sipping coffee and discussing his decision to share his life with husband Nate Berkus and daughter Poppy Brent-Berkus on his recent show Nate and Jeremiah by Design, the memory seems an apt reflection of his values. “I care about the connection — connection to your home, connection to the people you’re working with, connection to your family. Because that’s really; that’s it. That’s the birthplace of all of it.”
To the Rescue
On Nate and Jeremiah by Design, Brent teams with Berkus to bring out the beauty in homes where renovations have gone awry. Whether from lack of time, lack of funds or inability to make decisions, the homes are often often in shocking disrepair when the husbands arrive. Yet in episode after episode, they manage to create miraculous transformations. I ask Brent if it makes him feel like a superhero. “Not at all,” Brent says with an easy laugh. “I always look at Nate, and I’m like: ‘Are we talented or frauds?’”
However, anyone who has seen their results can tell that they are talented. What may be harder to understand is how these homeowners allowed their properties to become money pits. “Here’s the thing,” Brent explains. “Design television — for the last ten years — has been about how much we can do for how little. The truth is, it’s expensive, and if you’re not doing it correctly, it costs you a lot.” Many homeowners don’t take this into account before beginning. “People just swing a hammer and ask questions later,” Brent says. “I’m like: ‘That’s a wall! Hold on!’”
And though each episode is in a large part about dealing with a home’s physical problems, it also ends up being about dealing with the homeowners’ personal issues. “It was interesting getting people to take responsibility for their situation,” Brent reflects. “That’s part of the process of moving through it.” As Brent and Berkus worked with couples, one half of each tended to gravitate toward each of them like a life coach. “It happened organically every single time,” Brent explains. “I respond to vulnerability. … I can deal with it all day.” Meanwhile, those in need of a firmer hand gravitated toward Berkus. “Nate is amazing in his ability to ask the real questions, the hard questions, in a way that’s respectful,” says Brent. “He’s really good at being very direct and honest, whereas I’m like: let’s just like hold each other. You know? I’m Mama Bear.”
After the emotional work is done, it ultimately comes down to the frenzied moments before the big reveal. “It’s so chaotic,” Brent says. “You’re juggling 3,000 different types of energies. My husband is a stress case and focuses on the weirdest little things. I’m big picture,” Brent explains. “It’s a unique adrenaline rush because it’s the culmination of everything that’s been in your head, and it’s at your fingertips.” Brent describes their renovation team as a symphony working in concert, but the final decisions come down to Brent and Berkus. “He and I place every bowl, every bead — because the show’s so important to us.”
A Master Class
Brent’s route to Nate and Jeremiah by Design took some unexpected turns along the way — including a detour into fashion that introduced him to many television viewers via The Rachel Zoe Project. “Working for Rachel was a crazy coincidence,” Brent recalls. “She asked me eventually to be on the show. And I was like: ‘Okay, fine. This is what I’m going to do.’ And I wore too many tank tops.” He laughs. “I learned that the hard way.”
Despite his love of fashion, Brent soon saw it was time to shift focus. “I realized at a certain point that I cared more about the sofa that the model was sitting on than about actually putting the woman in the dress,” he explains. Zoe advised him to follow his passion. “She goes, ‘You don’t care about dresses; you care about furniture,’” Brent recalls. “She was like a master class in professional maturity.” Even as Brent embarked on the process of setting up his own design firm, Zoe would also be influential in opening yet another new chapter of his life. “She introduced me to Nate,” Brent explains. “So I always believed that the reason I started working with her is because I was following that heartbeat.”
Brent and Berkus would eventually be married in May of 2014, and their union soon connected Brent to a certain media mogul who had a Do-It-Yourself show that needed a host. “Home Made Simple came about because Oprah asked me to do it,” Brent says. “She was like, ‘Would you do this little show?’” And though Brent describes hosting the “master class in DIY” as an amazing experience, he and his husband had their eyes on what would come next. “We had done a couple of projects together and we were ready to kind of tackle something bigger,” Brent remembers. “Nate had done a couple of other shows at the time, and we were like, ‘We need to get you back to design. You need to be in the room doing it again. And so we created this show.”
Judging from how their relationship appears on Nate and Jeremiah by Design, Brent and Berkus have absolutely adorable chemistry — the camera often catches them sweetly teasing one another about their respective foibles. In person, Brent seems just as lovingly exasperated with his husband. “We got into an argument this morning on the way down about my earphones,” Brent says with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘Why can’t you figure out how to work anything? Like, what is wrong with you? How have you survived for so long?’”
The show also features the pair being genuinely affectionate with one another, and I wonder whether they were aware of how revolutionary it could be to see a same-sex couple interact with each other in that way on TV. “We’re cognizant of it so we constantly are just like: let’s just be honest,” Brent explains. He realizes they are in a unique position to show what it means to be a gay family to audiences who might not have other gay families in their lives. He recalls both he and Nate being moved when they received a tweet saying: “It’s so nice to watch a show where two men kiss that’s not about two men kissing.”
In the first episode of the show, Brent says he never anticipated his life turning into this kind of story. “If I was going to be asked, I’d have guessed I’d be alone in the hills with a couple of dogs. The house would be nice, and the dogs would be well maintained.” He laughs at the idea but grows serious. “I never thought that I’d have a great love story,” he confesses. “I love him madly. And that’s not something—you don’t grow up with a lot of gay people with their amazing love stories in front of you. You just don’t.”
And Poppy Makes Three
In addition to the rescue renovations, episodes of Nate and Jeremiah by Design follow the couple into their personal lives — including raising their daughter Poppy, who they had by surrogacy in 2015. “I’ve only done reality television. Nate’s never done it. He’s always been hosting or had his talk show. So I was a little bit nervous to see how it would pan out,” explains Brent. Nevertheless, they wanted to invite audiences into their home in the same way that homeowners were inviting the designers into theirs. “It was all about the most intimate moments we could share with our family — because these [homeowners had] shared that.” And so we see moments with the family playing and parenting and planning for the future. “All that stuff just kind of happened really organically. We had a really amazing showrunner, and TLC was great. They were like: ‘Okay, we’re going to follow the way you lead us,’” he says.
Initially, they were not sure how Poppy would react to the cameras. “The first day I was like, ‘Okay, well, let’s just ease her into this. It’s going to be weird, but Daddy’s here!’ And she walked in and she goes, ‘Hey guys!’ She starts talking to everybody,and I was like, ‘Oh Lord!” Brent remembers. “It’s like she was almost too good — like [a young] Drew Barrymore! I was like, ‘What’s happening?’”
Brent tells me that he and Berkus are in the process of trying to have a second child, and he admits to feeling a familiar sense of trepidation. “Having a child is like a type of vulnerability that nobody really prepares you for,” he says. “The luxury that we had with surrogacy,” he adds, “is that we had the time and the space to have some really important conversations with each other.” Primary among their goals for Poppy was to provide her a life free of rigid expectations. “She can be who she wants and do what she wants. We’re gonna teach her how to be a good person,” he elaborates, “but she doesn’t need to be a doctor for me; she doesn’t need to be a decorator. She doesn’t need to be anything! And that’s the gift we’re going to try to give both of the kids.”
As a gay parent, he worries about government forces that would seek to limit or deny the rights of gay people to be parents — partly because of the message it sends to future generations. “I’m concerned about the ways that affects kids that are gay — who are looking at a system where they don’t feel like they’re validated,” he says. “Never mind your political affiliation,” he adds. “It’s about human decency.”
“I loved the reaction from the show,” admits Brent. “Random people — including husbands, wives, kids, whatever — come up and give me hugs! They’re like, ‘I cried with you!’ And I cry with them!” He loves that what started out as a home-makeover show “became a show about humanity, and the fact that we are a gay family, living openly and honestly [and we’ve] connected with all different types of people. It didn’t matter the religion, it didn’t matter skin color, it didn’t matter — any of it. It was about the idea of us coming in and looking at people and saying, ‘We see you and we hear you,’ and helping people live beautifully.”
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Last modified: April 2, 2019