With his retro ‘fro, signature turtlenecks and painted nails, Eugene Daniels has been bringing Mod Squad swagger to Morning Joe and Meet the Press, more than holding his own alongside seasoned political analysts. Described as a “rising star” Politico reporter by Vanity Fair upon his inclusion in Playbook, Daniels is part of an elite squad of reporters tasked with having their fingers on the pulse of the power players in Washington D.C. As an openly gay African American White House Correspondent, Daniels is broadening the lens of what it means to be a journalist in 2023.
I sat down for a one-on-one Zoom session with Mr. Daniels to get a glimpse behind the man and his mystique. If intersectionality is the current buzz word du jour, Daniels is an apt representative, keenly aware that the very things that once were the source of trauma growing up are now valued traits which give him a unique insight into American politics. Combined with his calm demeanor and nuanced commentary, Daniels has become a mainstay on MSNBC and is representing in the best possible way as an openly gay, proud Black man. What’s more, Daniels is keenly aware of the responsibility that comes with this position. It is what drives him and informs his coverage.
Little did he know as a Black gay child growing up in a smattering of Southern states from Arizona to Florida that he would one day not only be part of the White House press corps, but that he would be living out his ancestors’ wildest dreams, flying on Air Force One, chatting with the Bidens alongside his husband Nate Stephens at the White House Christmas party or posing questions for a one-on-one sit down with Madam Vice President Kamala Harris. But all that is a day in the very hectic life of Eugene Daniels who was once told by a former boss that he’d never make it in broadcasting because his voice was “too Black.” Fortunately, that very wrong and very bad advice did not deter him. To the contrary, it likely spurred him to greater heights because he realized if he wanted to spread his wings, he would need to leave behind the comfort of local news in Colorado and head to Washington D.C.
Daniels posted a photo of himself as a child to his Instagram account on National Coming Out Day. It’s a sweet photo capturing the innocence of childhood but there’s a sadness that comes through his eyes. Whether the sadness had anything to do with his sense of being different or whether it was something entirely mundane, we’ll never know. Swipe right and we see the adult, fully realized out and proud man he would become. Beside the childhood photo, Daniels writes: “To the kid in the first picture: It’s going to take you decades (almost 3) to finally love yourself and accept what you already know to be true. It’ll take you longer to celebrate it.” Talk to me about what your childhood was like and the perspective that you now have looking back.
I look back at my childhood and I feel very fortunate, despite the fact that I got bullied as a kid for being gay. I didn’t come out till I was 27, but I felt really lucky to have parents and siblings who were very loving. And so, while school really sucked, I would get to come home and my mom and I would talk almost every day. My dad was in the army, so he was deployed a lot, but also very there and fabulous. So, my home life was great. I think a lot of queer people look back and feel very sad for the kid that we were. There is a kind of hopelessness when you’re a kid and you know something’s different before you have the words to know what it is. I was one of those kids who always knew I was different and more fabulous and gay.
Daniels describes the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016 as a catalyst for his own coming out. Though he was living in Colorado at the time, a safe distance from the massacre, Daniels recalls how the horrific event had a profound impact on him.
I remember thinking seriously, for the very first time that I could die and no one would know who I actually am. That kind of shook me to come out of the closet. This terrible thing happened to all these people who were just being themselves and here I was in the closet. I started to envision what my life might look like if I started to live my truth, if I started to actually be myself and be with men. Up until that point, I dated women exclusively. I just could not leave this earth without my family knowing fully who I am. And it changed everything about my life.
If Pulse provided the impetus to come out, it was his move to Washington D.C. which served as his springboard into embracing his truth as a gay man. He recalls reading a New York Times article by Jeremy Peters proclaiming Washington D.C. as “The Gayest City in America.” Though to be clear, there was a question mark in the title which gave the author a little wiggle room since the claim was based on surveys by Gallup and the Census Bureau.
When I came out of the closet, I was very intentional about repeating the mantra “we’re never doing that shit again.” We’re never going to hide who we are. I’m going to feel comfortable in my skin. I’m going to always feel like I belong somewhere. My mom gave me this advice when I was younger which was “you belong in whatever room you find yourself.”
Daniels applies this mantra to his professional life as he finds himself in spaces typically reserved for straight, white counterparts. A self-proclaimed Beyoncé super-fan, Daniels draws strength from the song “Cozy” from her Renaissance album.
It’s about being comfortable in your own skin. That is a constant thing that we’re all battling is being comfortable being ourselves, being cozy as we are. And showing up in these spaces that are often very white and very straight. Spaces that would never have someone with an Afro but me, no men with nail polish. I listen to that song often when I’m walking into the White House. I’ll throw that on to just center myself.
It is a struggle. Imposter syndrome comes for all of us at different times. And every time I go to a new place, I’m like “remember what my mama said.” The first time I was on Meet the Press I thought I was going to pass out. Or going to the White House Christmas party with my husband and talking to the President and the First Lady. It’s like, what the hell am I doing? How the heck did we get in here? You have to remind yourself that other people in D.C. who have power are just people. We all have a closet that we have to come out of. As a reporter, I often feel in control because I’m holding them accountable. It always blows my mind when I’m at the table with Mika, Joe and Willie [on “Morning Joe”] interviewing members of Congress or mayors and governors. I try to remember the reason I’m here is that I’m bringing something that no one else can. So I push that fear to the side and focus on the work. And then when I come home, I freak out with my husband – “oh shit, I can’t believe I did that!”
Daniels recalls his first date with a man and his first “boy kiss” as a 27-year-old.
It was in December of 2016 here in D.C. I got here in September, and I just came out gay.
He also remembers the exact day he came out because it fell on the same day immortalized in the Earth Wind and Fire song “September” with its infectious beat and exuberant vibe and lyrics: Do you remember, the 21st night of September, Love was changin’ the minds of pretenders, while chasin’ the clouds away…”
The first time I came out I basically just threw up the words. The only thing I was able to say up until I told my family was I’m not straight. So I started to come out little by little while I was in D.C. And then I just started dating. I started doing all the things we’re supposed to do as people who can live and love. Like going on dates and figuring out what I like in a man. I knew what I liked in women, but what do I like in a man? Do I want someone taller than me, shorter than me, older, younger? I met the man who would become my husband the next year. I was ready for a boyfriend.
For someone who’s managed to make it this far in an extremely competitive field, what advice you would give to somebody wanting to follow in your footsteps? Let’s pretend you’re speaking to college graduates at their commencement ceremony.
One – be yourself. It is at the core of how I feel. I have been able to carve out a path for myself. So be yourself fully and everything that means. Two is to find organizations that celebrate the idea that you are a singular person with singular experiences and who aren’t trying to change you. There’s nothing wrong with them making you a better reporter or giving you techniques to make you a better writer. But at the end of the day, you can’t change the fact that I’m Black and gay. Those two things cannot be – and I won’t allow them to be – changed. Number three is to stay surrounded by love. This is a difficult career. And depending on where your path goes, and how much attention you get, you can hear a lot of terrible things online. There’s a constant deluge of people calling me the N word or the F word or putting them together. Surrounding yourself with people who remind you that the hate that you receive is outweighed by the love that you receive is vital. Number four is to stay focused on the work. I think often, young people get caught up in wanting to be like this person or that person. Focus on being yourself and on the work. Put your head down and work on your craft. Don’t think about climbing the ladder. Don’t think about, you know, oh my God, how do I get on TV at 24. And then I think number five would be to create a work family of people who you trust to come to and talk to. Find mentors.
One of Daniels’ favorite pinch-me moments was the first time he flew on Air Force One.
Me and my dad share the same name. And they give you all these things that say Mr. Eugene Daniels, so I sent him all this stuff. He was like, “Oh my God, you took our name on Air Force One.” Up to that point, I had not thought of it in that way. With every experience that I have been very lucky to have, I bring my entire family, including the people I never met, the people who were snatched from Africa. I bring all of them with me to those big moments. And I think that’s what means the most about the career that I have been really fortunate to have.
When I ask him to tell me about the Eugene Daniels swagger, he busts out in laughter, prompting me to elaborate. When you’re on the air, you seem very cool and collected. You make your points, like you are just sitting in someone’s living room. It’s a very appealing quality. Does that come naturally? Or did you have some on-air coaching?
It is really funny that you call it that. The first time I was on television was during COVID. I was at home and my then boyfriend, now husband, was just sitting nearby. So the stakes felt lower, if that makes sense. Like the nerves of oh my God, I’m sitting next to Andrea Mitchell or Chuck Todd …
When I prepare for going on television, I often think about my grandmother who’s in Bucksport, South Carolina. And I think, what are the things that this older Black woman in South Carolina on a fixed income, or her friends or my cousins, need to know about this topic? What does it mean for people? How do you talk about politics in a way that is accessible? I don’t feel the need to use a bunch of SAT words. Because I think about those folks. People deserve to understand and have conversations about politics in a way that makes sense to them.
Let’s talk about your fashion choices. First, tell me about the outfit you wore to your wedding which was very fashion-forward.
So both Nate and I went to a shop in Georgetown called Everard’s Clothing who made both our suits. They were amazing and since I wanted something that was a little bit different (no lapel, Nehru collar, only one clasp) we got to really collaborate on it. The train from my shoulder is actually a detachable bow train from a wedding dress that the tailor at Everard’s affixed to my shoulder.
Shifting to your professional, on-camera wardrobe, I think the way you put yourself together is really fun and kind of livens things up. It doesn’t feel like the standard talking heads. To see you in bright colors and unafraid to go against the grain is refreshing. Do you have a stylist or do they give you a wardrobe allowance?
What? No! I wish. No, they do not. What’s funny is – people ask about this a lot because I’m basically always in a turtleneck if I’m on TV. And the main reason is because I don’t like ties. When we did our photo shoot for the new Playbook team, they were like, we want you guys to look cool and young – but really smart. So, I got a turtleneck and thought that it looked very Mod Squad. I had the Afro already. Then I got this nice textured blue jacket. Instead of buying ties, I just bought a bunch of turtlenecks in different colors. This is a lazy way to look fashionable, and feel good and comfortable. My full self likes to play with fashion and colors and fabrics.
As all roads invariably lead back to the Queen B, Daniels showed me that he just had his nails done to match the promotional artwork for Beyoncé’s upcoming tour which he’ll be attending in August. When I asked if Beyoncé is familiar with his work as a reporter, Daniels had mixed feelings about the prospect.
I don’t know. I hope so. Maybe I don’t hope so. I’m scared. She’s like a goddess. She’s one I’d be scared to meet. Terrified.
As we wrapped up our wide-ranging conversation, I asked Mr. Daniels what his proudest moment had been. He paused for a moment before responding.
Oh my God, I’m gonna cry. As I mentioned, my grandmother is from Bucksport, SC, which is this small town of mostly Black people. During the 2020 primary, I was still on the video team and I was talking to our Executive Producer about how we were going to cover the South Carolina Primary, which we knew was going to be Biden’s big moment. My family is from the area, so Brooke was like, go talk to your grandmother. We’re going to do a story featuring Black women. So go to your grandmother’s house and talk to her about politics and who she’s voting for. And I did. Reporters usually don’t talk to their family. Being able to sit down with her and talk about her life story, about being a Black woman in South Carolina, about her politics, about why she thinks the way she thinks. A lot of the stories I already knew, knowing and hearing from her over the years. And being able to share with people the story of how my great grandmother would have a bucket in the car for all her kids because the “black-only” bathrooms were so disgusting. Ruby Brown is not someone who would typically be sitting across from a reporter, talking to them
When I think of the sacrifices that have been made for me to be able to do the things that I do, sacrifices she made, that her grandmother made, that my great-great grandfather made. That’s why I’m able to do what I do and why I feel confident moving through the world as myself is because they did all the hard work. What I do now is small potatoes compared to having to carry around a bucket in the car so you can use the bathroom because white people won’t let you use theirs. Those are the real struggles. Telling that story is my proudest moment out of everything.
Last modified: April 14, 2023