Carson Kressley began his career in fashion as a stylist but it was his debut as a part of a then unknown makeover TV show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, that’s led him to a career talking fashion and culture on the red carpet at the Oscars and the Golden Globes and being a part of one of TV’s biggest reality competitions today: RuPaul’s Drag Race. This spring, he and dancehall diva Kristine W are touring with a new live show, Stand Up with a Twist.
“[This show] really just came from my friendship with Kristine W,” Kressley said. “For a long time, we’ve been on the same trajectory. During the peak of Queer Eye, we did the same events and we really just like each other. A mutual friend who’s an agent told us we should do something together and we thought it could be nice evening hanging out around a grand piano. We’re going to have lots of fun.”
Known primarily for his appearances on TV, Kressley says the live performance aspect of his Stand Up with a Twist show affords him the perfect scenario in which to connect with an audience.
“I don’t even know what I would call myself,” he says. “I’m not a comic or an actor but I would say I’m an entertainer. I love working with an audience and honestly, the smaller the better. That’s why we chose the places we’ve chosen to do this show. An intimate room is a perfect scenario for me because you can connect and, literally, reach out and touch people. It’s special that way. I want to be able to connect with everyone in the room.”
The conversation inevitably veers to Queer Eye since the show is now enjoying new life having been rebooted on Netflix. But when it first debuted on TV, no one expected a runaway hit, much less something that would become a culture-defining moment with a reach far outside the TV screen.
“When we did the show, we never had any kind of political or social change agenda in mind. I was just trying to get people out of pleated khakis and to not wear mullets,” Kressley says. “Doing a reality TV show with five gay guys who are just being themselves and hopefully doing good work led to people saying things like, ‘I’ve never known any gay people but these guys are pretty cool.’ Something as innocuous as a makeover show can be somewhat subversive because you’re gaining respect, being embraced, and the people who watch you then want to stand up for you.”
One of the early ways he saw this firsthand was during visits to his hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“I was walking around the Lehigh Valley Mall and I would hear people say, ‘Oh, there’s that queer guy,’ in a snarky tone. But after the show came out, I would hear, ‘Oh! There’s that Queer guy!’ The tone was totally different and celebratory. This little makeover show did more than we ever imagined.”
It’s not lost on Kressley that the social landscape today is far different than when he was a part of the original Emmy-winning show. The conversation around equality has changed over time from tolerance to acceptance to inclusion. So with today’s twentysomethings being the post-Glee (and post-Queer Eye) generation, they’ve seen gay characters represented on TV for years. So the question then becomes: What is the importance for continued gay representation in the media today?
“I think at any time in history, being visible is so important,” he says. “People forget that while many are fortunate to live in big cities where there’s a thriving gay community, there are a lot of gay youth out there who don’t have support networks and who don’t feel they can come out. There’s also a big homelessness problem among gay youths. So when there’s representation on TV, people have the chance to identify with you, to literally see you. It’s true that old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.” We have to be visible for every generation. During the original Queer Eye, we weren’t doing anything intentional to push the needle forward, but through watching the show, people all over are getting to know you as a person and seeing you makes them care about the social issues that affect you.”
Right now, nothing is pushing the needle as much as RuPaul’s Drag Race and as a guest judge on the long-running show, Kressley is seeing the phenomenon from the inside.
“I think the trajectory of the show is really interesting and is a reflection of drag in general,” Kressley said. “It was an almost hidden art and unless you were a part of the gay community or a supporter of the community, you weren’t seeing drag. It happened at night, in gay clubs mostly, and behind closed doors. So now, this is another tale of visibility. When the show came on Logo, the gay community loved it because it was so fun and the queens were so entertaining and RuPaul is so wonderful to watch on TV. Now that it’s on VH1, it’s on a more mainstream network at 8:00 on a Thursday night. Everyone is seeing it. What we’ve been seeing for years, the world now gets to experience and come to respect and embrace the art.”
But Kressley says that what audiences are seeing goes far beyond just the artistry and entertainment value of drag.
“I think it shows that drag queens are like everyone else—they’re people. The audience responds to the show because it’s ultimately a celebration of the human spirit and people trying to be the best version of themselves.”
Throughout all he’s done so far—from the books he’s released to Queer Eye to his upcoming Stand Up With a Twist—the through-line has been Kressley’s desire to connect with people.
“I still get messages from young people saying that 15 years ago when the show was on, they were teenagers. They were gay, in the closet, and watching Queer Eye with their parents made it possible for them to have a dialogue together. It gave them something to talk about because then, after watching the show, it wasn’t a foreign topic anymore. They saw someone like them on TV. That’s why connection matters.”