Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The pink posse takes on America

Gay is the word in living rooms, churches and political chambers across the US this season

By Paul Harris  /  THE OBSERVER , NEW YORK

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

To their critics they are the thin end of a wedge of perverted values. To their defenders they are heroes breaking down prejudice. But to millions of Americans they are simply the Fab Five. Meet Ted, Kyan, Thom, Carson and Jai: the flamboyant stars of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the hottest show on US television and the surprise hit of summer schedules normally given over to endless repeats.

In a matter of weeks Queer Eye, a makeover show with five gay men as its presenters, has been catapulted from an obscure cable station to a primetime slot on major network channel NBC and its stars have been the subject of countless interviews and magazine covers. But many commentators say its roaring success is no surprise as it crests a wave of gay issues dominating politics, religion and the media in what is being dubbed "America's Gay Summer."

From the appointment of a gay bishop to moves to legalize gay marriages to the creation this autumn of a specifically gay public secondary school in New York, homosexuality is the issue of the day.

"It has been a truly amazing summer for gay rights," said Matt Coles, a campaigner at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Against this backdrop, Queer Eye has caught the nation's imagination. The format is simple: a straight but slobbish member of the public is nominated, usually by an exasperated girlfriend, for a full fashion and lifestyle makeover by those ultimate arbiters of good taste: gay men. Each of the Fab Five has a speciality, such as hairstyle or diet. By the end of the show the beer cans, unwashed hair and poor dress sense have been banished and the slobs transformed into manicured, stylish new men more likely to appreciate an art gallery than a baseball game.

Some moments, particularly the opening scenes where the five ruthlessly inspect their subject and his apartment, can be brutal.

"There's certainly some tough love... but we try never to be mean-spirited. It's never, like, `Wow you're a big fat loser and you look awful!'" said Carson Kressley, the camp fashion expert whose withering putdowns have been a staple of the show's run so far.

Gay rights campaigners have applauded Queer Eye for bringing gay and straight people together. "We're just six guys hanging out, and in the end we wind up being friends. Stereotypes fall by the wayside," said Kressley.

The show's stars won the ultimate accolade in American television last week: an appearance on Jay Leno's Tonight Show. In fact, they appeared two nights running. "It is beyond a success -- it is a phenomenon," said Scott Seomin, entertainment media director with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. But the show has outraged the powerful US conservative lobby, which sees any mainstream representation of homosexuality as an affront to family values. Several conservative groups have launched campaigns against advertisers who have booked slots during the show. They write letters and e-mails and threaten product boycotts. "The homosexual lobby is doing a good job of mainstreaming its lifestyle but we want to make our voices heard as consumers. That's the American way," said Tim Wildmon, vice-president of the American Families Association.

Some local NBC television stations in South Carolina and Georgia refused to broadcast the show during primetime, relegating it instead to the early morning hours. One television controller was said to have taken the decision after being outraged at a scene where the Fab Five sort through the underwear drawer of their straight subject. No one from Queer Eye will comment publicly on the furore, saying the show is not political. But privately they condemned the move. "In this day and age, that sort of behavior is pretty bizarre," one show executive said. The TV stations have since been bombarded with calls and letters from gay rights activists.

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