Before he hosts the Damien Center’s annual Grande Masquerade on Oct. 19, IndyStar caught up with “Queer Eye” star Carson Kressley to discuss the changes in how LGBT stories are told in media.
Carson Kressley doesn’t care about being on-brand.
In the nearly 20 years since “Queer Eye” premiered on Bravo, the fashion savant has been busy, but never bored.
He’s got a creative design contest show in the works that he has to stay tight-lipped about because it’s “not yet signed, sealed, delivered.” He recently wrapped filming a season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” a competition reality show he’s judged since 2015. He’s working on a show house for the Round Top Antiques Fair in Texas.
And when he’s not working, he’s showing American Saddlebred horses or raising awareness for philanthropies serving the LGBT community.
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On a phone call from Los Angeles on a recent Tuesday morning, Kressley told IndyStar that he doesn’t care about whether a project fits in with his other work. If it’s creative and sounds exciting, he said, he’s game.
“I call it the William Shatner School of Showbiz,” he said, “where you just say yes to a lot of different things and see where it takes you.”
This fall, Kressley will make his way to Indianapolis to emcee the Damien Center’s 32nd annual Grande Masquerade. Opened in 1987, the Damien Center provides preventative, supportive and medical services to those affected by HIV/AIDS.
IndyStar caught up with Kressley before the event to discuss LGBT representation, how the media landscape has changed and why he’s looking forward to his trip to the Circle City.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What have been some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in how the media portrays the LGBT community?
“I can only speak from my own experience, my own perspective. But, you know, I remember growing up as a little gay kid in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and knowing that there was something very different about me, but not really having anybody … that I could really relate to as a role model, and say ‘Oh, this person’s like me, and they’re successful, and they’re happy and they’re doing great, so I can be successful and happy and do great.’ … The first person I remember who had such an impact on me was Pedro Zamora, who was on “The Real World.” And he was so open and honest about his sexuality and his HIV, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s so brave and so cool,’ and was really the first open and out gay person on TV that I really related to and responded to him.
So, that for me, was kind of that first exposure. I think that, you know, obviously shows like “Queer Eye” and “Will & Grace” helped keep that momentum moving forward, and the “Queer Eye” reboot now is doing tremendous things to expose the positive things that queer people are doing in society to a world stage. And I think it’s been moving ahead steadily since the early days, but there’s still so much work to be done. There’s still places where homophobia is rampant, there’s still places where, countries where same-sex marriage isn’t legal, there’s countries where being gay is illegal. We still have work to be done here and also globally to help people understand that gay rights are really human rights and we’re all more the same than we are different.”
In the first episode of Netflix’s “Queer Eye” reboot, Tan France says: “The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance.” Are there still stories that are begging to be told in that journey from tolerance to acceptance?
“Of course. I think the power of the media and being out on television, on whatever platform you’re on, is that it allows people to see you at a human level, and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this person happens to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender’ … but it allows those people to identify with them on a one-on-one human level and see, ‘Well, they’re not scary, and they’re very similar to me and they’re going through the same things I’m going through,’ and they just happen to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender. It engages people and creates allies, which I think our original show did in an almost subversive way, because we didn’t have a political agenda — we were just literally trying to get people out of khakis and get rid of their mullets.”
Since “Queer Eye” premiered, what do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?
“People would go for the obvious, like having an Emmy, or professional accolades, but honestly, for me, the best thing — and the original ‘Queer Eye’ was such a blessing for me in many ways — but the highlight for me, and it still happens to this day, is meeting a young person who will come up and say ‘I grew up gay in a very conservative community and I didn’t know anybody who was gay, I didn’t have any role models until I saw you on TV, and my family also saw you on TV and liked you and we laughed together, and it made it easier for me to come out to them and made my life better.'”
When you’re not working, you’re often volunteering or fundraising for various charities. What causes are important to you and why?
“I am very interested in supporting LGBTQ youth. Having grown up gay in a small community in the 1970s and the 1980s, I understand firsthand how isolating that can be and how alone you feel and how you feel like maybe there’s something flawed with you. Anything I can do to help young kids realize that they’re perfectly perfect just the way they are and that there’s a community out there that will love and support them even if sometimes their own community does not. That’s really important to me. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the True Colors Fund … and we work to eradicate homelessness, especially within the LGBT sector. And I also grew up during the AIDS era, so of course that’s something that has been part of my world and something that I’ve been very aware of, and that’s why I’m coming to Indianapolis for the gala at the Damien Center. And that’s something I’ve always been passionate about, you know, HIV and AIDS, educating people about it, and also de-stigmatizing. And also remembering that it’s still something to be aware of, something to fight for for this community, to raise money for, to not only find a cure, but also to support people living with HIV and AIDS.”
As someone with a national platform, is it important to you to attend local-level events like the Damien Center’s Grande Masquerade?
“I’ve had a great life, and I feel like when you’re blessed in so many ways like I’ve been, it just is what you do with that, you give back and do what you can to help people who maybe have not had such a great go. And I think everything starts on the local level. I think it’s really important — big, giant national charities are great, wonderful, they do amazing work. But I think local, smaller charities are the ones that need maybe the extra exposure and maybe a little extra push that having a celebrity either there or raising awareness or raising money, it’s more beneficial to smaller, more local-level organizations.”
What have you learned through your work with these organizations?
“I’m always inspired by people who do so much for the organizations across the country. They give literally their heart and soul, and it’s very inspiring to see that. When you attend one of them or you work with one of these groups, you see their leadership and their volunteers, you think, ‘My goodness, I should be doing more.’ And it inspires you to become a little more active in causes that are important to you. At the end of the day, it’s an inspiring kind of process that fuels my own passion.”
Any tips for folks who are prepping their outfits for this year’s Italian-themed masquerade?
“It’s a black-tie gala, so you could really just get away with something that’s men-in-black-tie or women-in-an-evening-gown and then the most fabulous masks that should be one-of-a-kind and sparkly and glittery. And I’m sure there are places where you can, online, buy these kind of Italian carnevale masks, but then I would encourage people to personalize them and bejewel them and bedazzle them and go crazy.”