Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk and the Fire Inside Us All
Our next guest in our Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire series is—get ready—Queer Eye’s delightful design guru Bobby Berk. Bobby walks us through the backstory we’ve all gotten glimpses of on TV: how he left home at 15, after realizing he was gay and knowing he would struggle against rejection and hatred in his small hometown. This began a tough journey where he worked multiple jobs, slept in his car, moving to Denver then eventually NYC, where he worked his way up at various design retailers before opening his own acclaimed design business. Bobby gives us the inside scoop on the nail-biting process of becoming part of the Fab 5 (and why Jonathan thinks Bobby would be the first to go in a zombie apocalypse!), and what gives him joy and fire being part of that crew and changing lives around the globe. Bobby tells us there’s enough love and success to go around, and in the spirit of reversing lies we’ve been told about ourselves, Bobby refuses to accept that we all aren’t capable of success. As Bobby’s story illustrates, we can make our dreams happen if we freely and fiercely go after them.
Bobby: There is enough success and happiness out there for everyone. And the more we encourage other people and support other beautiful people to find that success and happiness, the more will come for us.
Jen: Welcome to the Fierce, Free and Full of Fire series here on the For the Love Podcast with me, Jen Hatmaker. Today we’re talking to Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk about how learning to love yourself is the key to loving the rest of the world.
Hey, everybody. Jen Hatmaker here, your host of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show, you lucky thing that you’re here today. You’re going to love every minute of today.
Okay, really quickly before I get into it, just a reminder: we are in a series called For the Love of Being Fierce, Free and Full of Fire, because you may have heard, I wrote a book called Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire, and it releases April twenty-first. This is a weird time, right, to release a book, except that I just keep thumbing through the pages and thinking, This is going to serve my community. Like, this is what we need right now. We’ve got to figure out in flux right now how to be fierce and free and full of fire.
And I am just telling you, weirdly, there are so many tools in here that now I am looking at in light of being quarantined and isolated from each other, and having to dig deep and find some resiliency. I’m like, Oh my gosh, we need this now more than ever. Now more than ever. And so we’ve got a whole podcast series built around Fierce.
This is what I want to tell you real quick. Anybody who preorders a copy of Fierce in any format, audio or digital or hardback, whatever you want—any format, any vendor, it doesn’t matter what—you get immediate access to some really great preorder stuff. We’ve got a goodie pile for you. You get a one hour coaching video from me, you get the intro and two of my favorite chapters right away, an instant download. You get an audio chapter, we worked really hard on the audiobook and I think you’re going to love it. You get all that today, so if you haven’t already preordered, go get it wherever you want—any vendor, any format—and then just hop over to jenhatmaker.com. Just go to my website, and there’s an easy click button. Like, How do I get my preorder goodies? It’ll take you right to it. It’ll take three minutes.
I want to put these in your hands. We are home, we have a little bit of time. We are in need of content that serves us well and encourages us and builds us up. And I’m telling you, I’ve got it for you. I’ve got it for you. And you can read and listen and consume a bunch of that today. Today! So jenhatmaker.com has all the details for you. And I can’t wait for this to be out so we can start talking about it and building around it and serving our community with it and teaching our daughters. I mean, I’m just so excited. So jenhatmaker.com.
And in the meantime, we’ve got this podcast series, and we said, “Okay, let’s call on people who are fierce and who are free and who are full of fire, who are teaching us those practices in our life, who are modeling it for us, who are inspiring us toward this in every possible way.” So guess what, people? I’m pretty tickled about my next guest in this series.
I literally ran into him in Mexico, like, shockingly, surprisingly, and I made him take a very awkward photo with me, like a weirdo, just so you can see that I essentially got to second base with him without asking. And I said I was sorry. Okay? And then I made him be my friend. We’ll talk about that in just a minute, so you’ll see.
I couldn’t be happier to welcome to the podcast today Bobby Berk. You of course, know Bobby Berk—that Bobby Berk from Queer Eye. I know, right? We have met up for a second time, on the internet, and recorded this incredible conversation. So, of course, you know that Bobby is the design guru on Queer Eye over on Netflix—which, if you’re like me and everybody else in the world, you’ve just binged in huge quantities. But we’re going to talk today about how he got there, about growing up in Missouri, about leaving his house when he was fifteen. Fifteen. [We’re going to talk] about how he built his career just out of grit. He tells us the whole entire story, and then he walks us through his audition process for Queer Eye. You guys, I was on the edge of my seat. It made me feel nervous, and I already knew he was going to get the job. And so he tells us how that worked, how these five guys came together, and whether or not they even thought the show was going to work.
I loved this conversation. You may know that when he isn’t filming, he lives in LA with his husband, Dewey. He’s just got a lot on his plate, you guys. It’s not just Queer Eye. He has a lifestyle website, bobbyberk.com. He’s launched his own furniture line with A.R.T. Furniture. He’s in high demand, y’all. High demand. I don’t know.
Well, I mean, he said yes to this, and I’m thankful, and we’re happy to have him. I can’t wait for you to hear his story. He got really vulnerable with us. He told us what it was like growing up as himself, exactly where he was, and the family and the town that he was in, and that essentially he left to save himself. It’s a powerful conversation. And if you didn’t already love him, you’re going to fall hard today. And I’m so happy to bring you just my delightful conversation with the wonderful, wonderful, charming, amazing, talented, Bobby Berk.
Jen: Well, it’s like really, really fun for me to have you on the show, Bobby, especially after I low-key physically assaulted you in Mexico. Thank you for your forgiveness.
Bobby: Of course, of course.
Jen: Everybody, we were just talking about that. So I was in Mexico with my friends. Who all were you there with, Bobby?
Bobby: I was there with my mom and my aunt and my husband and my best friends and their kids. So yeah, a little friends-and-family trip.
Jen: Yeah. So we’re all down there, and we, each of us, your crew and mine, we were doing boat charters, and we were going to go out and swim with those terrifying stingrays. Stingrays, were they stingrays?
Bobby: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jen: Oh my God. I got right out of the water. No, thank you. And you walked around the corner with your people, and I just started like smacking my friends around to get their attention, like, “That is our Bobby.” And then we just like gang rushed you, and I’m really sorry about that. We lost composure. We weren’t ready for you.
Bobby: It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m used to it. I just did my thing. I took my pictures, I went on, and then you posted your picture and my phone started blowing up. And I was like, “What?” And then I looked, I’m like, “Oh my God. Yeah.” And at that point you were on the boat, across, you know, 100,000 stingrays. And I was like, “Yeah, that’s the girl from the boat.”
Jen: Yes. We were trying to act normal in front of you and your adorable husband and your family, like, “Everybody, stop staring at him.” But it was so terrifying to be swimming with all those stingrays that I forgot about you for a minute, because I just wanted to live. Yeah.
Bobby: Yeah, I didn’t even really swim with them. I did get in the water, but I don’t like snorkeling.
Jen: I don’t either.
Bobby: I grew up in Missouri in a landlocked state. You know, I didn’t really get in water except maybe a couple days a year in my aunt’s pool. So swimming, yeah, it’s not really my thing.
Jen: Me neither. I grew up in Kansas right next door to you.
Bobby: Oh, you know what I’m saying.
Jen: And I’m like, “No, thank you” to the ocean. I respect it and I fear it, and I don’t want to be that close to the fish and the things. I’m not interested. I’d rather be on the boat.
Bobby: Yeah, I can see them just fine from the boat.
Jen: Sure. I mean, 100%.
Bobby: What part of Kansas did you grow up in?
Jen: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Well, we always wanted to live in Kansas City, the city that we share with you, because that seemed like for sure the coolest city in the state, but we were, alas, not there.
Bobby: Kansas City, it’s funny, when I was little, Kansas City was like, rough. You know, anytime we’d have to drive up there it’d be like, “Make sure you’ve got gas and you don’t get a flat tire, because if you get stuck downtown, you’re going to get killed!”
Bobby: So when Queer Eye told us we were going back there, I’m like, “Oh God. I spent seventeen years of my life trying to get out of Missouri. I don’t want to go back.” But, that being said, Kansas City was awesome.
Jen: Totally. What a reboot they’ve had.
Bobby: I really, really loved it. There were many days where I’m like, “God, I could live here.” But then it started snowing, and I was like, “Nope, bye!”
Jen: Oh yeah, no, it’s brutal. I’ve lost all my capacity for legit winter. We’ve been in Texas now for over twenty years, so we just don’t have it. Our winter is fifty degrees, and I can’t do it. I can’t do it. But you are right, especially in downtown Kansas City, they’ve just had so much innovation and renovation, it is beautiful now.
Bobby: Yeah, I really like it. But I did not grow up in the city. I grew up in Mount Vernon and Miller, Missouri, which is down between Springfield and Joplin on I-44.
Jen: I know exactly.
Bobby: [I went to] Christian school in elementary, and then I started going to public school in middle school and high school. Yeah, my life revolved around the church back then. I went to church probably every single day for school and activities after school and youth group on Wednesdays and Sundays and Sunday afternoons.
Jen: You and I probably had enough church by age ten to last us for, like, seventy lifetimes, honestly.
Bobby: Oh, God, yeah.
Jen: Yeah. What kind of church did you go to?
Bobby: Assemblies of God.
Jen: Yeah. So really, really conservative.
Bobby: Yeah. Yeah.
Jen: And your whole family, like this is your whole family, right?
Bobby: My mom and dad and my sister, we were definitely the most church-centric in my family.
Jen: When you think about you back then, just as a kid, were you able to love what you love and be creative like you are? Did you have to grow up until you could be you? I mean, even outside of like, “This is who I love and who I’m gonna marry.” Did you get to be creative? Where you always like this? Did you always have an eye for beauty, and for culture and innovation? Did you notice that when you were a kid?
Bobby: Yes and no. There wasn’t really much to notice. I mean, we were very closed off from the rest of the world. We didn’t really get to watch TV a whole lot. You know, we didn’t really get to go over to other people’s houses, because if my mother didn’t know them and didn’t know their parents, and they didn’t go to our church, then it wasn’t allowed.
Creative-wise, yes. I mean, I remember when I was a little redoing my bedroom when I was four or five, color coordinating it, and I was always helping my mom do that type of thing. And then I loved building with LEGOs. They were my favorite thing. To this day, I fill up my home with LEGOs. So creatively that way, yes, but as far as like knowing that it was something different, no, because I had nothing to compare it to.
Jen: So what happened? You get north of elementary school, and you’re a teenager. And when did you start realizing, I need to leave, and I’m going to leave. Because you left early, right? How old were you?
Bobby: I was fifteen. Fifteen, almost sixteen.
Jen: Yeah. Oh my God, Bobby.
Bobby: I grew up in a home that was very strict. You know, God bless my mother now, but she was very strict. She was very protective. She was definitely—and to this day she still is—a worrier, and definitely was like, “I want to prevent bad things from happening instead of waiting for them to happen,” which I definitely have gotten from my mother.So, you know, it was a very strict home, and I’m very much an independent thinker and [want to] do my own thing. I wasn’t a bad kid, I just kind of wanted a little freedom. So we always butted heads a lot.
And then at probably 14, I realized I was gay. I mean, I always knew I was different, but I didn’t really know why. I didn’t know what that meant. Then we got the internet at school and I started Googling some things and I was like, “Oh.”
Jen: Yeah, it’s all coming together.
Bobby: I also was realizing that there was no way I could come out in my hometown. Like, I would be probably killed. One kid came out, and some people ran him off the road one night, and almost killed him. With everything that was going on at home, I’m just like, “You know what, I’ve got to leave, I’ve got to be me. I can’t be me here, and I can’t wear a mask one more day of my life.” So after one big fight one night, I crawled out my window and down the gutter and never went back.
Jen: Oh my God, fifteen. Where’d you go?
Bobby: I stayed with friends. I lived in my car. Yeah. A little bit of all kinds of different things.
Jen: Wow. That is scrappy. I’m serious. I have a bunch of teenagers. I told you I have five kids, and they’re all between fourteen and twenty-one, and I don’t even think my kids at fifteen have the life skills to live three days on their own.
Bobby: Yeah. You think that, but once you get out there, you learn quickly.
Jen: I bet. Well, how on earth did you go from a fifteen-year-old kid living in his car to begin putting together the early pieces of your adult life, and what would ultimately, obviously, turn into an incredible career?
Bobby: God, I don’t even know. I just got lucky.
You know, I worked retail and restaurants and gas stations. And at seventeen, I decided to leave and move to Colorado. Seventeen? Yeah, seventeen, to move to Denver. I just needed to get out of Missouri. I wasn’t doing anything with my life, and Denver happened to be the one place where I knew somebody.
So I moved to Denver, and I continued to work retail and restaurants with Applebee’s. I worked at a few retailers that did furniture, The Bombay Company, if you remember them, and The Great Indoors. And I realized that that was something that I was passionate about. And at twenty, twenty-one, I decided to move to New York. And so I moved there, and the first job I got was managing Restoration Hardware as their design manager.
Jen: Wow. That’s pretty awesome. At twenty-one.
Bobby: Yeah. You know, at that point, I had tons of retail management experience. And you know, those artistic liberties on your resume that you have to take when you’re out there on your own and scrappy…
Jen: I do know. Listen, I’m a writer. Everything is embellished. Just, if I say it, you have to just assume I’m adding fifteen percent onto whatever it is.
Bobby: Yeah. I mean, back then I learned that to get jobs, I had to be a little creative on experience, you know?
Jen: Right, because you didn’t finish high school. Right?
Bobby: Yeah. I would always have to say I finished high school. I laugh, because now I’m a spokesperson for Target, and back in the day I worked at Target for one day, and only one day, because they hired me, and they loved me, so they had me start right away before they even did my background check. And then, when they did my background check, they realized I had been arrested, even though I checked on that resume I hadn’t. It was always kind of a Russian roulette, because if you checked that you had, you were instantly not hired. If you checked that you hadn’t, maybe they’d find it, maybe they wouldn’t. And it was just for unpaid speeding tickets, because our system just screws the poor as hard as they can. So yeah, I was a little creative on getting jobs, which then got me the experience I needed. And then as that happened, I didn’t have to be as creative.
Jen: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And so at twenty-one, you’re in New York City, and you have a pretty grown-up job. And then did you just continue to sort of move up the ladder, then?
Bobby: So at Restoration Hardware, I lost my job actually the day Tom Felicia was filming the original Queer Eye in my store.
Jen: No way. That’s a crazy fact.
Bobby: I was there the night before, getting the store ready, and me and my team ended up staying like four hours longer than originally scheduled. And the next day I went in, and I realized that we had forgotten to clock out. So I went to go do that for us all, and I saw that the general manager had already clocked out at 8:00 PM, assuming that’s when we left, because that’s when we were scheduled to leave. So I went in and I fixed everyone’s time, including my own, which was against the rules, and we had just fired three managers the week before for doing the same thing. So unfortunately, [it was a] technicality. She fired me.
When I got the job on Queer Eye—I’d kept in contact with her for years. She’s like, “Aren’t you glad I fired you?”
Jen: She did?
Bobby: Absolutely. After Restoration Hardware, I worked at Bed Bath & Beyond, and I worked for an Italian linen company, and then a company named Portico, which was a high-end boutique furniture company, and a spa company as well. And I worked my way up there from store manager to buyer to creative director and head of e-commerce.
The e-commerce database side for Portico, I was like, Maybe I’ll sell it online while I look for another job. That was 2006, and I sold a few more than a couple of sofas.
Jen: It worked out. It worked out.
Bobby: Yeah, it worked out. I did really well. And through the success of online, I started opening up my own brick and mortar stores, and those were successful, so I started licensing out my brand and my designs, and as the licensing and the design got more successful, I started getting rid of retail stores because retail was never the business I wanted to be in. I was more design. I was lucky that I got to start doing the career that I really loved. And then Queer Eye came knocking, and the rest is history.
Jen: You know, of course, that’s how we know you and get to see you shine as you joined that crew.
Jen: I know you know this, I’m not telling anything you hadn’t heard a billion times, but that show is just, ahh, we just freaking love it. It was such a gift to the world when you guys hit the scene for the reboot of Queer Eye. Everybody I know was watching it, and falling in love and going bananas and making sure everybody else was watching. And what you were doing at the time just felt so right and so important. It just hit at the right spot and oh, I’ve never missed a single episode of any of your shows.
Okay, so if you could just tell us a little bit about how Queer Eye came knocking, as you said, and how did that feel to you? Because you just described a humongous career that you already had. You are in charge of an empire, so it’s not like you had a lot of free time or just a lot of wiggle room in your schedule. You’ve got a ton of people that work for you. You are a boss. And so we just have to know how you felt when they came. Did you think that show was going to work? How did you figure out how to do both at once? All of it.
Bobby: You know, my publicist, Courtney, had heard that they were bringing the show back, so she figured out who to contact to get my name in the running, and she found out, I think, about two weeks before auditions were done. And at that point, I think they had auditioned about 3,000 people, and I came into it the last two weeks. I did a Skype interview with producers that I thought went horribly.
Jen: Did you?
Bobby: And I was like, Oh. I had set up a cute little spot in my apartment for the background for this video interview, and the power went out about ten minutes before the interview was supposed to start.
So I jumped in my car and drove to my office as fast as I could, which was only about a mile away, and it was in the middle of summer. So I get up there, and I’m all hot and sweaty, and I get to my office, and the wall behind my desk was black, so it wasn’t the greatest background for a pasty white person to be in front of. But I looked like Powder. I was all hot and sweaty and disheveled, and I’m like, “Well, that was horrible. I’m never hearing from them.”
But I did. And then they wanted me to come in for an in-person audition with the top forty that they had chosen. And so the first night was a cocktail mixer for everyone, just to kind of meet everybody and meet executives and producers and stuff. And then the next day was some kind of like speed dating. They had three tables set up, and at each table was about four executives from Netflix, ITV, and Scout Productions.
Jen: Oh, gosh. Nerve-wracking.
Bobby: And we all just kind of rotated through. And design happened to be the very last category that day, so I think that sat around for twelve hours to do maybe ten minutes of audition?
Jen: Oh, for Pete’s sake.
Bobby: And I was also extremely sick. I had a horrible flu.
Jen: Oh no!
Bobby: I was downing Sudafed to wake me up, and DayQuil to keep my fever down and keep my cough down, so they didn’t think I had the consumption when I came up there.
Jen: What a mess.
Bobby: You couldn’t go through an interview now with a fever and a cough.
Jen: Right, totally.
Bobby: People will shut you down. So that was the first day. And then I was like, All right, well, I don’t really know what’s going on. So then the next day, let’s see, that night, they were like, “You know what? We’ll give you a call if you’re getting called back the next day.” So it was twelve-thirty. Let’s see, that was, yeah, that was twelve-thirty at night, and I still hadn’t got a call. And I was actually supposed to go to Spain the next morning. Porcelanosa, the amazing tile company, was taking me to Spain for this beautiful week trip to visit their factories and go all over Spain. I was like, “I think I need to get on the flight tomorrow. I don’t think I’m getting called back.” But then at almost one a.m., the creator of Queer Eye called me and he’s like, “Hey, sorry it took so long. We just want to let you know that we love you, and we want you to come back tomorrow for the final day.” And he’s like, “Without giving anything away, you’re our first choice.”
Jen: Oh my gosh.
Bobby: I was like, “What?!” And it’s funny, because when I actually got cast on the show, I didn’t have nearly the reaction I had that night, when he was like, “You’re our first choice.” And that night, I just had a breakdown, and I was like, “Oh my God, my life is about to change.”
Bobby: And it’s funny, I got into auditions the next day, and there was anywhere from five to seven people—vertical—per category on the very first day. And when I got there, tons of people from every category had been eliminated, except I get there and everybody is still there in my category. And I’m just like, “Wait a second, I thought you said I was your first choice? Why are all these guys still here?”
So I went in, really sure of myself. And then I got there and instantly I was just defeated and I was like, “All right, these Hollywood people. You know, they probably told everyone that they were the first choice.”
Jen: They told everybody, “You’re our first choice.”
Bobby: And so I went in feeling great about it, and then I walked in going, “Uh, no.”
Bobby: So that day kind of was like American Idol meets Hunger Games, meets Drag Race. So that day, they started putting us in groups of five, one from each vertical, and just kind of rotating us around in groups and seeing who had…
Jen: Like for chemistry?
Bobby: Yeah. Seeing who had good chemistry together. And the five of us, it was the very first day, Karamo and Tan and I instantly gravitated towards each other and started hanging out. And then as time went on, Jonathan and Antoni kind of came into our group, and we really just had natural chemistry. We really actually liked each other. And I’m sure executives with all their hidden cams watching us every moment noticed that.
And so at one point, we ended up in the final room, and at that point there were probably still at least twenty people left, I’d say, or more. And so they put us in a room, and we’d started going through kind of fake show scenarios, where like, they’d hold up a picture. They’re like, “Here’s the hero,” and they’d go through each of our verticals, “What would you do to help this person?” And it was always so annoying for me, because I’m like, “I don’t know anything about their home.”
Jen: Oh, absolutely. That’s not fair.
Bobby: Yeah. It’s always so hard, even like when we do interviews and stuff, sometimes they’ll be like, “All right, we want you to do a makeover on one of the people in our band.” You know, like we did on James Corden. And luckily, with James Corden, actually it was great, because they had a space for me to really redo. It was a cool outdoor area at their studio. But a lot of times when we do those interviews, they’re like, “All right, we had an intern here at BuzzFeed, and we want you to give him a makeover.” I’m like, “All right, what am I going to do?”
Jen: Right. You’re going in blind.
Bobby: Yeah. Even sometimes, Antoni will be like, “Yeah, what the hell am I going to do?”
Jen: Oh, that’s true. Antoni, too.
Bobby: “All right, here’s our snack bar. What, should they be eating from the salad bars?” Sometimes he has something to do. But often, him and I are like, “All right, well what? Hi, what are we going to do?” Jonathan and Tan have the easiest when it comes to those types of things, because they can affect instant change by zhuzhing up their clothes, cutting their hair, and Karamo can always pull out a good heartfelt conversation.
But going through those first initial scenarios, the first few, they had zero information for me for the home. And so I’d be like, “Well, how do you guys want me to put in any feedback here?” And so they started printing out just like these awful messed up homes. And I’m like, “All right, that’s great, but it’s still really hard for me to give any type of feedback based on one picture of a pile of laundry in the corner.” And so they would start rotating people in and out of that. So they put me in, I was in there for three of those. And then they were rotating people in and out, and then they rotated me out, I think for maybe two. And then they brought me back in, and then I never left again. And then I think Tan never left again. And then Karamo, and then Jonathan, and then Antoni. And at that point, every time one of us would need to go pee, we’d notice that less and less people were sitting outside.
Jen: They were like slowly getting rid of the rest of them.
Bobby: And then at one point, they’re like, “All right, we’re going to take a break.” And then we walked out and there was no one left. We were the only ones there. And we’re like, “Oh my God!” And then they’re like, “Nope, it’s not done yet.” And we’re like, “All right, great.” They’re like, “There’s actually one other team that’s still there and now we’re going to take you to some random person’s house and we’re going to film you. And basically, you’re going to do an episode.”
Jen: Right that day?
Bobby: Yeah, right that day. And it was like nine o’clock at night at this point, and we were exhausted. They’re like, “We have a hero, and he’s a dad who’s recently had a heart condition. And he really needs to learn how to get his house in order and destress his life,” and this and that.
And one of the creators of the show—still our executive producer, he’s been with the show since the very beginning—and the other creator of the show were married for twenty-five years. He and I had had a conversation earlier in the day, or two days before, and we were talking about his home and where his home was and what his home looked like. So we pulled up to this house, and based on Michael and I’s conversation, I realized, This is Michael’s home. You’re wanting me to go into the executive producer of this show and rip his house.
Because at that time, at that time, the show concept was still very much the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It was very much, “Go in and rip the house apart and tear it apart and say how awful it is and find everything that’s wrong with it, because you’re going to come in and you’re going to magically fix it.” So it was still very much kind of being negative in that first scene, which we sensed once we got into filming. We were like, “Nope, not going to do that. You can’t make us do that.” So I was like freaking out, because I’m like, “I can’t go in and rip this guy’s house apart. He’s literally, he’s the boss. Like, what the hell?”
Jen: It’s not fair.
Bobby: So we all kind of went in. I’m like whispering to the guys as we’re pulling up to this house, I’m like, “Guys, I think this is Michael’s house,” which then makes us even more nervous, because we’re like, “Well crap, that means the guy in there’s probably Michael’s husband.” We’re like, “We’re supposed to go in there and rip apart our executive producer, our potentially future executive producer’s husband, and his house.” And we’re like, “Oh God.” But we went in there, and I guess we did okay.
Jen: You must have.
Bobby: And you know, we’d go back to the hotel in downtown Glendale, and they’re like, “All right, well you know what? It’s in God’s hands now, and we’re God. So you’ll hear from us in a few weeks.” And we were like, “Wait a minute. What? What?! No!” And so we all had to just kind of sweat it out for the next few weeks.
Jen: Oh wow. They really mean it. They didn’t tell you right way.
Bobby: Yeah, no. Yeah, because we also knew that there was a team B. And we really didn’t know exactly who was on that team B, so we didn’t know. We didn’t know what was happening.
Jen: Did any of you guys know each other before? The five of you?
Bobby: No. None of us did. We didn’t know each other at all.
Jen: Okay, so you were all just strangers to each other. It’s so weird to think of you meeting together during those days of interviews, because now, of course, we think of the five of you as just a squad, and you’re close and you’re so kind, you’re so good to each other and you love each other so much. It’s funny to think about your ten o’clock in the executive producer’s house, trying to be nice to his husband.
So from that time, how long was it until you started rolling cameras for real?
Bobby: I think that that final day was like February twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth. And then I think we started rolling the first week of May.
Jen: Oh, okay. So fast.
Bobby: Yeah, it was very fast.
Jen: And was Dewey like, “Yes,” because of course—you and I were talking about this earlier before we started recording—this means being in a different city for weeks at a time. It’s long hours. You already have a full-time job. How did he feel about sort of handing you over to career number two that was going to take you on the road?
Bobby: You know, I don’t think either of us ever knew how much this was going to be and how literally there would be zero time in my life or anything else. That being said, when I had my retail stores in New York, Miami, Atlanta, and LA, I was on the road all the time.
Jen: I guess that’s a good point.
Bobby: [That was] 2014, I think I spent probably ninety percent of the year in Miami, because I couldn’t find a good manager for my store. And so I was down there manning the shop for almost the whole year. So 2015, 2016 was the first time in ten years, if not more, that I actually had a set schedule, because at that point, I had gotten rid of my stores and we were just focusing on the design firm. And so we had moved to LA. I was home every day, I was at the office, we would go on hikes every day. So it was the first time in my entire adult life that I had a set schedule and I was home every single day. And I absolutely loved it and I never wanted it to change. And then…
Jen: And then it did.
Bobby: But he’s always been very supportive. We met a week before he started med school, and I went through med school with him and residency and supported him through that. So he’s always been very supportive.
Jen: That’s awesome.
Jen: Up until this point, let’s see, how many seasons has it been?
Bobby: Yeah, we are here in Austin—we were in Austin for filming season six. We’re on a bit of a pause right now because of the current situation. But technically, it’s season seven, because we have a season in Japan as well. But Japan wasn’t numbered. It was just called, “We’re in Japan!” So numerically, we’re here filming season six, but time-wise we’re season seven, and keep in mind the show’s only been out for a year and two months.
Jen: That’s true.
Bobby: No, I’m sorry, two years and two months, because it came out February seventh, 2018.
Jen: Yeah. Yeah. Listen, you don’t have to tell us that. You guys dropped those episodes all at once, and none of us got anything done. That was it. That was the end of productivity. I mean, it was literally impossible to just watch one episode. Impossible. I’ve never done it in my life. I’d call my sisters or my best friends. I’m like, “Clear the day. Just clear the day. We’re going to start with mimosas in the morning. We’ll just transition the alcohol over the course of the day, and this is what we’re doing. So like, get your game face on.”
Bobby: Back to one of your questions earlier, did we think this was going to be successful? No, we didn’t.
Jen: No, really?
Bobby: Yeah, all of us separately, we were like, “Oh, this is cute. We’ll do this. We’ll do this, we’ll film this, and it’ll come out, and we’ll go back to our regular lives in six months.”
Jen: Yeah. Oh my gosh.
Bobby: Especially [since] we went in thinking we were filming a very different show. Like I had mentioned, we thought we were filming the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. We had dropped the straight guy. In the beginning, the original executive producers, the creators of the show that had been with the show since the very beginning of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, they had a very specific way they wanted to show done, and they wanted it done pretty much just like the original, and that’s no knock to them. They had an Emmy-winning recipe. Why would they change that?
So, Little Tom comes along, our very first episode, and season one and two were filmed together, and we filmed sixteen episodes at once. They were all intermingled in together. Season two, they actually showed the second episode we ever filmed, but you guys wouldn’t know that, they were all intermixed.
But Tom really was our very first episode—first episode to air, very first episode we filmed. So we get there, and we meet little Tom, poor, little broken down Tom, and we get to his house, and they’re like, “All right, go in and tear everything apart and find everything that’s wrong.” And we get in there and we just see this poor, sad, lonely man. And we’re like, “God, we can’t be mean to him.”
Jen: I know, he’s too dear!
Bobby: “We can’t pick him apart, my God.” And so we just kind of all naturally went against the grain, and without even talking, we’re like, “Nope,” and we just tried to start finding everything that was great about it and pointed it out to him. And we instantly saw this man change before our eyes. And we’re like, “No, no, this is what we’re going to do.” And it took a few episodes, a few heated discussions with our bosses telling us, “Nope. This is the way we’re going to do it.” And we’re like, “No, I don’t think it is.”
Jen: I’m so glad you held center on that. Your instincts were right.
Bobby: At a few episodes, they saw, and they’re like, “Actually, yeah, this is exactly what the world needs right now. No picking each other apart.”
Jen: That’s exactly it. That’s what I was saying earlier, that this show brought a warmth and a kindness, like, a sense of possibility to us just at the right moment. I don’t think it would have had nearly the same impact if we were feeling anxious for the Toms, like, if we were feeling embarrassed for them or ashamed for them, but you never made us feel that way. You only taught us to love them. And we did. And we love them because you did, and then they loved you so much, which were always the moments that just sent me right over the edge. These burly, awkward, straight men bawling on your shoulders. I can never handle that.
I’m sure people have asked you this—I don’t even know if you have an answer—but to date, and you’re not finished, I know, do you have a moment in the show that is your favorite thing, your favorite moment of something that was most meaningful to you or memorable? Maybe not even anything we would notice as viewers, but something that you just are going to hang on to?
Bobby: You know, honestly, I would say kind of that moment with Tom, when he broke down crying on a picnic table out back, and it just kind of made me realize the power of kindness and the power of building each other up and thinking about the fact that if in this world we all just build each other up instead of feeling the need to tear each other down, what a different world it would be. People don’t often believe in the … The law of abundance, there we go.
Jen: Oh, there it is. Right. Right, now we reach for scarcity.
Bobby: Yeah, that there is enough success and happiness out there for everyone. And the more we encourage other people and support other beautiful people to find that success and happiness, the more will come for us.
Bobby: Unfortunately, as humans, our natural first instinct is to attack, you know?
Jen: Yeah, I know, you’re exactly right.
Jen: Hey, listener. How about a little read aloud from Fierce, Free and Full of Fire? Just a short little break from the interview, because something Bobby just said sent me racing to my book to find a passage that I wrote that was more or less exactly what he was saying, and here it is in the chapter called “I Want This Dream.”
“Do not disparage the clunky beginnings. Treat your early steps as seriously as if the whole world was watching, a crucial part of the process to be proud of later. Remember why you care, why you want this. Because discouragement lurks abundantly here. Even your early adopters can flounder if it takes longer than expected or goes sideways for a while. Failure will be there to potentially derail your dream—that is, only if you think failure can’t be your best teacher, which it can and it is. You might look at someone a few miles ahead of you in a similar lane and decide you’re too far behind. Or you might see someone else who started after you bypass you, and despair and jealousy seeps in. This is a pile of garbage. Don’t fall for it. There is enough, enough, enough. There is enough business for all, creativity for all, big ideas for all, innovation for all. No one is stealing from anybody. Just put your head down and do your work.”
Much more on that in the chapter called “I Want This Dream,” and I hope it’ll just light ya up. I hope it will light a fire and give you every bit of permission you don’t even need to chase what it is you were made to do on this earth.
Okay, back to our interview.
Jen: What you’re saying right now is a drum that I beat a lot. I lead, primarily, a pretty large community of women, and I see this narrative of scarcity infect our thinking all the time, and that we often look at each other as competitors, or we’re just worried, and I’m always saying, “There is enough, there really has never not been enough. There’s enough of everything to go around, and we don’t have to hoard it, we can share it, we can pass it on,” and I think there’s a lot of power in that.
And I believe that’s a bit of the energy your show captured. And just kind of in a live setting, it showed us what it looked like to act that way toward one another. It’s really powerful—really it was—and it continues to be just one of the greatest things that has come out in recent years, and I can’t wait for this weird time to pass so that you guys can get back to work, so you can make some new episodes for us.
Bobby: I know, it was honestly really sad. I mean, we had only been here a few days when this all started going down. And even when we were on day three of filming the first episode, we just kind of knew that we weren’t going to get to another one anytime soon.
Jen: Dang it. Shoot. Why did this have to happen when you guys are here in Austin? Darn it.
Bobby: I know. And the sad thing is there’s probably going to be some heroes who won’t not be around, but there’s going to be some heroes whose lives have changed for the worst…
Jen: No doubt.
Bobby: …while we’re on sabbatical, and probably aren’t going to be there. Our casting directors are amazing, because they find people that are really at a precipice in their life. They’re really at a massive life changing event. Some of them—I won’t say in detail—could be businesses that were already on the tipping point of probably not going to make it without our help. And when this is over, they probably won’t be around anymore.
Jen: Oh, it’s so heavy.
Bobby: Yeah, it’s sad that we’re going to miss probably being able to help some people that really needed it.
Jen: I’m sad about that, too. You’ve made me think just now, and as we’re sort of all in quarantine, everybody listening right now is at home. And so, because we’ve got you here, we’re going to pick your design brain a little bit.
Bobby: Paint. I mean, first of all, a coat of paint, a can of paint, goes a long, long way in completely changing the look of the space, making it feel new again. So paint is always, well, I guess I was going to say quick, but that depends on how quick a painter you are.
Jen: Well, it’s cheap.
Bobby: It’s funny. Our hero this last week—not to give too many things away—there were a lot of unfinished paint jobs in her home.
Jen: Okay, sure. Like a swatch on the wall?
Bobby: No, just like never all the way up.
Jen: Oh, okay. got it. Got it.
Bobby: She’s also five foot three, so you could always see, like, it was just as high as she could reach, and she’s like, “That’s it, I’m done.”
Jen: That’s it. I don’t know.
Bobby: And it’s funny, because I was FaceTiming with my sister, and I noticed the exact same thing at her house because she’s been doing some painting. And she’s also like five foot two, and I’m like, “Wait, what is up with your walls?” And she’s like, “Eh, that’s as high as I could reach, and I just didn’t feel like getting a ladder to finish this room.”
So painting can be quick, it can not be. But I mean, right now we’ve got nothing but time. So paint is always a quick and usually inexpensive way to really freshen up a room. Also, new rugs, new throw pillows, new curtains—anything that’s fabric like that is a quick and usually more inexpensive way to change up a room without changing furniture.
Jen: Great ideas. Sometimes, too, I notice that when I’m wanting to change a room out, I’ll just remove a bunch of the clutter, and then just see how it feels for a couple days. Like, “Let’s just see if I like this, let it breathe a little bit,” and then all of a sudden, I notice that I am a little calmer in that room, and I’m feeling a little bit more grounded.
Look, we’re neck deep in projects over here right now, because all these kids are here. I have two kids in college, and so that’s it. College is done. And so they’re here, they come back with their dogs. I’m just like, “Oh my Lord, what are we going to do?” So yeah, I’m in the laundry project right now. That is, if I don’t make it out of here, just remember me fondly.
Bobby: But yeah, decluttering. We’re surrounded by chaos, it creates chaos in your mind. But now more than ever, it is such a good time to go through your closets and get rid of things you don’t wear. If you have kids, get rid of the kids’ clothes. Donate it to people in need right now. We’re going to have kids over the next month or two that are growing out of clothes who don’t have the money for more. So finding those people that are in need right now is a huge, huge thing that you can be doing for yourself these days.
Jen: 100%, yes, 100%. Thank you for mentioning that, none of us are going to have to look real far in our communities to find neighbors that are going to need something. And so we have our eyes peeled right now for that, and it’s a really good time to share, a really good time to think of other people, which also has this incredible effect of giving our own energy and mental health a boost. Because it’s easy to get a little bit locked in right now in fear and worry and isolation, and so thank you for that.
I want to ask you if we could talk about this a little bit. Your story is special. It’s meant a lot to us. I told you once you and I connected—and I know you know this. You must have heard it from I can only imagine who, but specifically your episode with Mama Tammye and how vulnerable you were in that show, and kind of what we learned about you, it meant a lot to me, and it meant a lot to my community.
One of the things that I’m constantly yammering about is that every person deserves goodness, and we are worthy of receiving and giving love just as we are. And we are wonderfully created and perfectly formed. I mean, I’m always, always, always saying this, and you have turned out to be a good teacher for us on this, just living your story in front of us in a way that was really tender and vulnerable was, I mean, for lack of a better term, like a sermon in and of itself. And so I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the interior work that you did to get to that place where you said, “I am just wonderfully created just like I am, and I’m deserving of love and goodness.”
Bobby: That’s a hard one, because I don’t know if I ever really will fully be there. Definitely more so than I used to be, but the church really does a number on you, especially as a gay kid, especially growing up in Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, where you’re taught to just hate homosexuals.
Jen: I know, I’m sorry.
Bobby: And that day when you finally realized, “Oh, wait, oh, that’s me.” You instantly are taught to self-hate. And so it takes a long time to get over that. I don’t think anyone in my position will ever really fully be over that.
I just really go out of my way to show the opposite of that and show the opposite of judging and just being completely open and loving and accepting of everyone no matter who they are, what they are, what race, what nationality, what sexual orientation. Well, I was going to say “force myself,” but yeah.
Jen: Oh, that’s good. Well, that’s a good word right there. That practice you can turn it outward and eventually, you’ll learn to turn it inward. That’s so true. I found that to be true also.
Jen: Dear listener, one more little read aloud for you.
I asked Bobby what interior work he did to finally believe he deserved goodness. And I want to read you one paragraph from Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire. And this is from a chapter called, appropriately, I Deserve Goodness.
“You deserve goodness, full stop. Because you are a cherished human being, created by a God who loves you. Because you bear the imprint of heaven. You are worthy of honor. Every person is. You deserve the blessings of this earthbound life like anyone else: to be deeply loved, to be wanted and seen, to be valued and treasured, to be productive and fruitful. You are not just a commodity for someone else’s bottom line. You are not a utilitarian tool to be used and discarded. You are not dumb. You are not a problem. You are not inferior. You are not too much.”
Just a teeny little moment to cheer you on. You deserve goodness, listener. More where that came from in Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire, specifically from the chapter entitled, “I Deserve Goodness.” I can’t wait to just imprint that message on every single reader.
Okay, back to Bobby.
Jen: It is really beautiful to watch, I’ll tell you that. And it kind of oozes out of you, just what you say and how you are, how you treat people, how you speak to people. You have so many people watching you, I know that’s weird. Nobody’s really built for this many eyes on them. But I think that you should be really proud of how you have operated with such a public life that you lead now, and how much it is meant. I think about all the gay kids watching you right now, and even the gay parents, and what you are showing them as possibility is, it’s like magical. It’s monumental. And it means a lot and I’m really proud of your work and what you do.
Okay, listen, let’s wrap this up. You know, we’ve just got to go back to being in our houses. It’s just where we are.
Bobby: Where we are, right? I’ve got to go work out and do.
Jen: I mean, good on you. Yeah, good for you. I’m really proud of you for doing that. I’ve not yet found that energy in my journey. Maybe today’s the day, I don’t know.
Bobby: I also don’t have five kids.
Jen: That’s a good point, Bobby! That is a really good point! And I want you to remember that.
Jen: Okay, so these are three questions we are asking all of our guests in the Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire series. And these all kind of come out of the book of its name. I’ve got a book coming out in April, which is a super weird time to release a book. And so I thank you for coming on the podcast during the series.
Bobby: Captive audience!
Jen: I mean, what do we have? We got time on our hands. So here’s the first one. This is one thing that I wrote about a lot and care about a lot. What is the biggest lie you’ve stopped believing about yourself?
Bobby: That I wasn’t capable of success. I was told that a lot as a child, that I was going to end up in jail, which I did, but only for a night.
Jen: Joke’s on them!
Bobby: Yeah, I’m like, “Haha, I got out!” Yeah, that I wouldn’t be able to succeed. Yeah, I stopped believing that.
Jen: Well, I would suggest that you’ve succeeded. So that was definitely not true.
How about this one, kind of the flip side of it. What’s the most freeing, liberating, the most life-giving truth you’ve learned about yourself to date?
Bobby: That maybe my mothering is actually a good thing and not a bad thing. I don’t know. It’s funny, because I’m always the one taking care of everyone, making sure they’re getting where they’re supposed to be.
I remember our very first season, we were riding back all together after filming. And I think Jonathan brought it up, or maybe Antoni, and he’s like, “Which one of us would last longer in a zombie apocalypse?” I’m like, “Oh God, here we are in this.” And Jonathan was saying like, “Oh, Bobby would die first, because he’d definitely be the one making sure that we all got through that hole in the fence when the zombies were coming, and then they get him.”
Jen: Oh, that’s actually nice. That’s a wonderful quality, and it’s nice that everybody sees that in you right away. I’m not surprised to hear that a bit.
Here’s the last one. This is a question that I learned from a favorite author of mine, and people answer this any which way. We ask every single guest this question, it could be funny and silly and small, or it can be really big and monumental and important. So whatever on the gamut, you can answer how you want, but the question is, what is saving your life right now?
Bobby: Right now?
Jen: Right. I mean, that’s a loaded question at this point.
Jen: Oh, yay. Yes!
Bobby: Fast forward 100 years. Remember the movie WALL-E? That one company was everything. I’m like, “Oh, God, is this quarantine, this pandemic, that moment when it starts, when Amazon takes over the world. And everything in our lives soon will just be Amazon.” But you know …
Bobby: Yeah, I mean, I’m not saying…
Jen: You’re not wrong about that.
Bobby: It’s literally, in so many ways, I’ve been just ordering crap that I don’t even need, because I’m like, “I’m so bored.”
Jen: I know. I know.
Bobby: But also just like, you know, I honestly think fitness right now is saving my life, like going out and taking walks and working out a few times a day. Otherwise, I just go out of my mind. That’s kind of the only routine.
Jen: Well, no day is any different than the day before it right now. So they’re just melding together, and you’re not the only one. We’re like, “Oh, it’s Friday night. Well, who cares? Like so? What difference does that make anymore?”
Listen, that’s hilarious. Thank goodness for delivery service is all I’m saying, we’re still polishing up that account, too. Don’t you worry about it. Okay, well, it feels so depressing that you’re right here in my town, and we didn’t even get to meet in person, which we were going to. But we’re keeping each other safe and everybody else safe. I’m glad that you’re here. And I’m just glad that you are alive, and I am glad that you are who you are. And we all feel really lucky to get to just sort of peek into your story, and watch you and your people and your family and husband and your friends live the way that you’re living right now. It’s just a real joy to us. And so thanks for making us happy, and doing it with such grace and joy all the time. You’re the best.
Bobby: Thank you. Thank you. It’s been fun.
Jen: It’s been fun. Isn’t he just as delightful as you thought? I loved it. He is definitely fierce. He is definitely free. He is definitely full of fire. Very, very happy that I accidentally assaulted him in Mexico and then made him my friend. I’m so happy that I was not able to access any restraint or chill whatsoever because what a guy.
This series has so much more to come, you guys. We are bringing you so many fiery, amazing guests who are just going to light it up. Light it up. We’re kind of gathering around the message of Fierce, and we are talking about how to live, and all these best practices of how to be true to yourself and how to show up for our lives, and every single guest in this series has both done that work and is showing us how to do the work. So you’re going to want to come back, you’re not going to want to miss a single episode, that I can promise you.
Don’t forget to grab your copy of Fierce. Remember, if you preorder it—it comes out April twenty-first—you preorder it, you get a whole pile of goodies, and you can find all that at jenhatmaker.com. It’ll take you three minutes, and today you could be reading portions of the book, you could be listening to portions of the audiobook. You’ve got a coaching video like right into your hands. Boom. Go do it. Any vendor, any format.
Also, over at jenhatmaker.com is the transcript for the podcast, Amanda builds that out every week. We’ve got the transcript, we’ve got links, we have pictures, we have behind the scenes stuff, all of it. It’s a great, great resource for you.
The podcast crew is just steadily working, even in the middle of this weird, new world, you guys. We know that the one thing we can keep doing is this. We can keep doing this. And we can keep bringing you content. And so I’m telling you that we have never worked harder, and we’re so happy to do it. And so on behalf of Laura, our producer, and her crew, and Amanda and I, we love you, and we thank you for listening. And we’ll see you next week.