Queen For A Day

Last Tuesday's episode of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" made this gay-straight alliance cry --twice. The first time came minutes into Jersey City urban cowboy John B.'s makeover (mission: help him propose to his girlfriend) when the Fab Five's clothing expert, Carson Kressley, rifled through his closet and pulled out a particularly gruesome button-down shirt. "Where did you buy this?" Kressley asked. John winced. "Um, Kmart." Kressley pressed two fingers to John's lips. "Hey," he said, "don't you use that kind of language around me." We laughed till we cried. The second time came just before the Fab Five left John to fly solo through his proposal dinner. The gay miracle workers and their straight subject raised glasses of champagne, and John--his apartment painted and redecorated, his body refitted in classic Ralph Lauren, his engagement ring stashed romantically in a box of Parisian chocolate--got choked up himself. It was pointless to resist.

In just three weeks, Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"--a hilarious reality show in which five gay connoisseurs of fashion, grooming, interior design, food and culture rebuild a clueless hetero from the ground up--has become the summer's most-talked-about TV series. Although its ratings are still just a blip compared with, say, "Friends"--2.8 million people tuned in to watch John B. get engaged last week--every new episode thus far has set a viewership record for the tiny cable channel, which is owned by NBC. Those numbers can only go up as more and more people discover they actually have Bravo. (Until now, the 23-year-old channel was best known, and maybe only known, for "Inside the Actors Studio.") "Queer Eye" has already produced one breakout star in Kressley, a lightning-quick one-liner machine (sidebar). He's the next Simon Cowell--only Kressley's a uniter, not a divider.

That's the real secret to the show's success: whereas programs like "Extreme Makeover" leave a residue of self-hatred, "Queer Eye" is surpassingly sweet. "Maybe it's my Midwestern roots, but that was very important to me from the start," says series creator David Collins, who came up with the show during an afternoon stroll in Boston and overheard a woman berating her husband for failing to look as sharp as the gay men in their neighborhood. "Not everything has to be evil and mean-spirited. There's a little ripping on each other, but that's what friends are for."

The Fab Five's good vibes have even touched NBC, which aired a 30-minute version of the pilot episode after a recent "Will & Grace" rerun. It held onto 86 percent of the gay-themed sitcom's audience. NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker told Newsweek that "Queer Eye" will make another cameo on Aug. 14, but he insists that Bravo will remain the show's permanent home. (Its initial 13-episode order has already been extended to 20.) "NBC will be fine without 'Queer Eye'," Zucker says. "It's far more important to turn Bravo into a must-have cable channel." Of course, considering NBC remains the only major network without a monster reality franchise, executives must be relieved to finally have the show everyone's talking about. Never mind that it's not actually on NBC. Nevertheless, Zucker is jubilant enough that he doesn't seem at all worried about overstating the show's hot start. "Certain things come along from time to time," he says, "whether it's 'The Osbournes' on MTV or 'American Idol' on Fox or 'Queer Eye' on Bravo, and they steal the public's imagination." At the moment, the public's imagination seems relatively secure, but "Queer Eye" is accelerating at a rapid pace.

The one ingredient common to every successful reality show is great casting, and "Queer Eye's" Fab Five seem like they've been best friends since drama camp. Remarkably, none of them knew each other before the show. In assembling the team, says Collins, "we were looking for professional first, gay second. Carson isn't really good with clothes just because he's gay. He's had many, many years of experience." Ted Allen is a food columnist for Esquire. Jai Rodriguez, the culture king, starred on Broadway in "Rent" and is a fixture on Manhattan's club circuit. Thom Filicia runs his own interior-design company. And Kyan Douglas is professionally gorgeous. Each survived a nationwide casting call that yielded 500 candidates. Once the group was set, Kressley quickly emerged as the team leader. "His zeal for life is infectious," Collins says. "He loves the mother-hen role and they love that he loves it. They're brothers. And anyway, the straight guy is the star of each episode."

More like the guest star. Watching "Queer Eye," you'd think the show's massive overhauls occur in a matter of hours. In fact, they take about three days, chiefly because of the home redesigns. After day one, producers put the guy up in a hotel, and he returns only when his place is finished. The Fab Five, however, genuinely don't know what they're up against until they arrive at their patient's door. They receive a brief dossier during the car ride over and then have to form a game plan on the spot. "Queer Eye" pays for the entire makeover, and the final price tag ranges from $2,500 to nearly $10,000, Collins says, depending on how much the subject could realistically afford. The idea is to fashion for him a lifestyle that he can maintain, thereby heading off a slow, yearlong slide back into style purgatory.

Along with the show's success have come the usual questions about whether "Queer Eye" really is "good" for gay people. Is the series palatable to straight viewers only because the Fab Five are funny? Doesn't showcasing their expertise only reinforce gay stereotypes? The truth is, if "Queer Eye" really was that simplistic, it'd be a lousy show. The series is about people interacting with people--not to mention straight guys learning that gay men might just be a little better at modern living than they are. If one result of the series is heteros wanting a little more queer eye in their lives, what's the harm? The show's debut coincided with the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in support of gay rights. But last week, as awareness about "Queer Eye" exploded, President George W. Bush and the pope both spoke out against gay marriage. Surely they must get Bravo. Maybe they just can't find it.