Karamo Brown Had To Be Told To Stop Making People Cry On ‘Queer Eye’
He’s not trying to make people weep “in a sadistic way”
I’m pretty sure I cry whenever Karamo Brown is on-screen. It’s like a Pavlovian reflex at this point, minus the drooling. And I'm surprisingly okay with that, which is something the Queer Eye culture guru is pleased to hear during our phone conversation. "I want you to cry," he pokes, a measured balanced of mirth and reverence underlining the sentiment that most people could use a little salty catharsis. He's careful to point out, though, that his desire to make others sob is never "in a sadistic way." Instead, it's grounded in the idea that, as a society, we are far too repressed, far too removed from our emotions, to really know what we want and need—and that's what he's here to fix, especially for those who have had to adhere to the ideals of toxic masculinity their entire lives.
A lot of people who watch Queer Eye ask: "What exactly does Karamo do?" I would argue that he has the most important job. Why? Because it's hard to emotionally bolster and instill even a modicum of confidence within someone else who has, for a while, fervently not believed in themselves. And it is truly a testament to his abilities as a connector that Karamo tends to be the driving force behind the most emotional moments of Queer Eye. So what's a journalist with a culture job to do besides ask him about identity politics, emotional labor, and vulnerability? Read our Q&A with Karamo, below.
Truth time: Whenever I’m sobbing, 95 percent of the time, you're on-screen.
That's my goal, to be honest with you.
Is it hard being the emotional rock of the entire show?
It's not. I was hoping that that could be my role! My background is in social work and as a psychotherapist—I did that for almost 12 years before I got into television. I always had an ability to listen and give people the space to open up and express themselves, and I was hoping it would translate on TV. This was my first attempt at trying that, so when I see people getting emotional and the crying... it makes me so happy. And when I say happy, it sounds, like, really crazy, but we don't have enough cathartic moments. We don't get to cry and express ourselves, whether it be happy cries or sad cries; and so I want that for people.
It's so important to be vulnerable.
One hundred percent. And I gotta tell you something, you're gonna get something no one's ever heard. So the creator of the show, after the second episode, literally came in the trailer and said, "Karamo, enough with trying to make people cry." And I was like, "No, I will not." And any of the guys—ask them—every day I was like, "My job is to figure out how I can make this guy cry." And not in a sadistic way, but to get him to reach a breakthrough. So when they were like, “Enough with the crying,” I was like, "I promise you, if you let me do my job, it will resonate with the audience." The same way you don't tell Jonathan, "Don't make people laugh," don't tell me not to make people cry. And eventually, [the creator] was like, "I'm glad you do what you do."
The level of openness that you're able to achieve in such a short amount of time is remarkable. That said, there's so much personal burden that comes with trying to educate people at times. And, it's gotten to the point where some people are saying they need to limit the amount of education they give because it's a lot to continuing reliving their traumas—what's your stance on that line of thinking?
I completely disagree with that. I think it is our jobs to check in with ourselves and see what has molded us into being the human beings we are. Sometimes it's happy moments, and sometimes it's traumatic moments, but it's about doing the work with yourself. And sometimes we don't know how to do that. That's why I always advocate for therapists, psychiatrists, even life coaches if you feel more comfortable with that or if you don't have insurance. Because I think that, by checking in with yourself and getting to the core of why you react to life in a certain way, you'll be a better and more gracious and more healthy human being. I mean every moment that we've had from when you were a child—like that triggered me or was a traumatic moment—can be tackled by saying, "You know what, I need to figure this out." [And doing that for me] has helped me to be a better adult now.
I feel like most people are scared to really take that first step.
That's what it is. We all are scared. First of all, as a culture, we're constantly told that if you start to express yourself or express your needs, you're needy. You're too emotional. And they put all these negative connotations on it. That has started since we were kids, especially for men. They're like, "Stop crying, toughen up, be more of a man!" And even for young women, it's like you can't be emotional at work because then it's gonna make you seem weak. And it's like, what? When did we start getting to place as a culture where your emotions make you weak? I think we have to recheck that as we get older and say, "No, that's a horrible way to think."
In this new season, what was probably the most emotional moment for you?
It's not gonna be the one that's typical, like Tammye...
Tammye was amazing. I think people around the world relate to her in such a way. It's the same thing with Tom; Tom reminds us all of that uncle, that grandfather, our dad—that person in our life who's just sort of given up because life has beaten them down. And Tammye represents that woman in our lives that you always wanted to give you a big hug and tell you that it's gonna be okay. Whether it was your teacher, your mom, your aunt. And I think this world is gonna resonate with her. But, she didn't make me emotional. Ironically, the one that made me emotional was Leo, the father.
Here we have this immigrant man living in the South, who has all this guilt about being a father. And, as a dad from immigrant parents, I know what it's like to have this guilt of "I came here to give my kids a better life, and I feel like I'm failing them." And a lot of time we leave space for women to be able to talk about their guilt as mothers, but we don't give men that same space. It was one of the first times that me, him, and other fathers were able to sit together and talk about what we were feeling. There was a big part of our conversation that got left out when I did the little daddy dates—all the guys were in there crying. And I was like, "Why did this not get [put in the episode]?" It was such a powerful moment to see men say, "I'm trying, and I feel like I'm failing my wife and my kids, and I want to be better but I don't know how." And I was like, "Do you know how many women wanna hear this?" To hear these men say, "I want to do better, and I don't know how," was so powerful, and for us to give ideas to each other… I was in there sobbing, they were sobbing, we were all sobbing.
That's incredible and so beautiful to hear. I don't know why there aren't more scenes like that because there should be a lot more tears on the show. Watching Tom break down in the first season, I distinctly remember going, "Fuuuuck."
I know, right? He reminded me of my grandfather; I've never seen my grandfather cry. So, when Tom cried, it was like, "Oh, that could be my grandpa!”
Why do you think the reboot has resonated with so many people?
I think that we're at a place where assumptions have gotten the best of us. We see people, and we see what we wanna see. We see a vote, we see a title, a job title, tattoos. We see a person they're dating, we see their race, we see their gender. And we assume these things. We make these assumptions that are killing us and dividing us. And for once, we pulled back the curtains on those assumptions and said, "You're greater than those labels, and all your other labels need to shine just as great, and here's an opportunity for them to do that." And don't be ashamed of any of them. I think that you saw in the first season with Cory. Immediately we saw cops, we saw trucks, but then we find out he's so much more. We see that with Tammye. With her, we see black, we see Southern, and we're like, "Oh, we know this woman." And then we find out that, even though she's in a church, she wants to accept her gay son. I mean, I think that's why it's resonated. Because a lot of times, we feel like we have to conform as human beings to what people expect us. It starts in high school, I have to be the cheerleader, or I have to be the jock, or I have to be the goth. And I have to go with this so I have my crew and I can feel accepted. But why can't we be all these things? Why can't I be the cheerleader that also likes goth music? And this is what the show allows people to be.
In terms of labels and jump-the-gun categorizations, in the first season, there was some criticism that the show felt structured in a way where you guys almost had to prove your humanity. To the people you'd label, quote-unquote, bigots. I'm curious to hear what you thought about that criticism.
I understand where that criticism comes from, but, I think, it's okay to want to show people all your different sides. I mean, the truth of the matter is, I have family members who have never been exposed to someone trans. And I don't mean exposed to [via] the media or by walking by them in the grocery store—but actually sat down and have a conversation with them. I know friends who say, "I have a grandfather who has never truly had a conversation with someone who is African-American." We find ourselves in these places where we really haven't exposed ourselves to other people. And sometimes, having us be there allows us to say, "You're exposed now. See all of me." And if we want to say "see all of me," and that means "see my humanity," then good for it. Because we need more of that, we need more people to see all of our humanity, and to see what's great about us, so that they can understand us and respect us and see that we all want love.
On that note, Tammye is the first woman on the show, and this season, you also have your first trans makeover. Why did you guys decide to expand the casting pool?
In Season 3 of the original Queer Eye, they dropped "straight guy," so that they could do this. I just don't think they got to [do women or trans folks], because of the fact that the show went off the air. But, the creators always—when they were bringing it back—had the intention of expanding it. That's why it was no longer Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. To start with Tammye and to have Skyler in there was just critical, because, again, there are so many people who have not been exposed and haven't been able to get an in-depth look at these individual lives, and now they have. And I hope we just take it a step further. If we're blessed to get a Season 3, a Season 4, Season 5, I hope we start working with people with disabilities. I want to start seeing more stories of women, more stories of lesbians. I want us to be able to help everyone, and I want people to feel seen. I think that's important.
Final question, if you could switch jobs with any of the other guys, what would you choose and why?
Fashion. Fashion would be mine... even though Antoni, in the past two months, started mimicking Tan's style.
No, and I'm like, "Go back to those Strokes T-shirts! That's what's part of your sex appeal. You being like in a dirty shirt, in a ripped jean. It was sexy! And now you're dressing like Tan… I'm not into you in pajama pants." I'm just like not into it. But I am into it with Tan, because it works with Tan. Anyway, Tan and I have had lots of conversations about fashion outside. Even though my main thing is obviously mental health and well-being, and then my second passion would be politics, the third would be fashion.
Queer Eye Season 2 is on Netflix now.