What Happens When Queer Eye’s Experts Get Personal

The Netflix show all along portrayed the Fab Five as superhuman helpers, but in Season 4 it deepens their images.

Jonathan Van Ness cheers at his hometown high school.
It wasn’t long ago that the list of mainstream LGBTQ celebrities was so short that the addition of five new figureheads would have represented a momentous increase. (Christopher Smith / Netflix)

When Netflix’s Queer Eye premiered in February 2018, its cuddly fun makeovers came laced with a strange amount of tension: The threat of culture clash always loomed. The first episode opened with the Fab Five introducing themselves to the camera and heading from Gay Street—the New York City landmark in the original series’ title sequence—to Georgia. As the confident cosmopolitan quintet entered the dens of the South’s schlumpy and self-doubting, they gave off a feeling of oil being poured into water, or, well, of queer people entering possible zones of intolerance. You were never sure if the subject of any given installment would get along with the guys. In one episode, a rural cop—a friend of the Donald Trump–voting makeover subject—pulled over the Fab Five’s car when Karamo Brown, the one black cast member, was driving. The suspenseful encounter was eventually played as a joke, making odd sport of a serious social issue, just as the show often does.

By Season 4 (yes, Netflix has pumped out iterations of the show with the frequency that Apple issues software updates), the anxiety-making, strangers-in-a-strange-land premise has receded. Now the Fab Five are crusaders who are well known both to viewers and subjects. You can see the shift in the season premiere, when the guys head to Quincy, Illinois: the hometown of the wise and wild grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness. Their mark is, in fact, Van Ness’s high-school music teacher, who’s sporting the same mullet she has for decades. The two of them hug warmly when the Fab Five show up at marching-band practice, and her students cheer for their celebrity visitors. The week that unfolds seems nearly as emotional for Van Ness as it does for her, and he recounts how she helped him survive feeling like an outsider during adolescence.

Fans of Queer Eye may be familiar with Van Ness’s backstory as a high-school and college cheerleader, even if it hasn’t previously been talked about in detail on the show. For many viewers, enjoying the series means not just bingeing the episodes, but also following the five stars as public figures. Not long ago, Van Ness was cutting hair in Los Angeles and hosting a web series about Game of Thrones; now he’s been cast in a scripted TV role and has podcasted with Nancy Pelosi. The other guys have had similar trajectories: from relative anonymity to Taylor Swift–music-video stars. Queer Eye turned its cooking coach, Antoni Porowski, from a personal chef to a New York City restaurateur. The show’s sartorial expert, Tan France, a fashion Instagrammer, and its “culture” adviser, Brown, a former The Real World cast member, are now inspirational memoirists. The home-decor guru Bobby Berk has launched a furniture line, a lighting line, and a lifestyle-and-design website.

It wasn’t long ago that the list of mainstream LGBTQ celebrities was so short that the addition of five new figureheads would have represented a momentous increase. But social change and the streaming ecosystem have made it so that, nearly overnight, five new queer entertainers can court ubiquity without much fuss. In fact, the growing wattage and draw of the Fab Five might seem to create a problem for the show, which is, on some level, about regular folks: real people having their life transformed. That the normies were meant to be the stars was underscored by the fact that the show refers to its makeover subjects as heroes. At what point do those heroes get outshone by the celebrities making them over?

It’s a question that Queer Eye deftly navigates in Season 4 by, somewhat counterintuitively, centering the Fab Five even more. To a greater extent than ever, the experts are pulling from their own biographies, and the results can be pretty affecting. Some amount of this dynamic was always present: One of the most potent moments in the first season came when Berk leveled with an evangelical-Christian dad about Berk’s own upbringing in the Church. In Season 4, such exchanges are common. There’s that premiere, about Van Ness’s own high school. Two episodes later, he draws on his personal interests again when helping out the depressed dad of a 10-year-old figure skater. Van Ness is obsessed with ice skating, and so he gives the precocious girl a history lesson about Oksana Baiul, and he—more importantly—gives her dad a lesson in how to cheer for his daughter’s sport.

Though, as before, plenty of unkempt straight white men are on the makeover docket, the show’s producers do keep finding new sorts of stories to tell—and relate to the Fab Five’s own lives. One episode is about a man, Wesley, who was paralyzed in a shooting at age 24. When France praises him for the fact that he shows more confidence than most of Queer Eye’s heroes, Wesley responds that he’s impressed with the Fab Five’s own poise. France then shares that he didn’t come out to his own family until Queer Eye premiered, and talks about how self-acceptance continues to be a struggle. The moment is less about Wesley than France, who’s softening and complicating his image as the most polished and put-together cast member.

A similar attempt is made to deepen the brand of Porowski, who’s long been the most polarizing of the Fab Five because of his perceived overreliance on avocados and his constant mugging for the camera. It’s simply hard to get a read on who he is as a human being, and in past interviews he’s gestured obliquely at a difficult upbringing. This season, though, we hear a little more about his family: His dad has hoarder tendencies (as does one episode’s star, Kenny), and his mom had trouble showing affection to her kids (as does another star, Wanda). There’s a fun meta moment, too, when the Mexican grandmother of a makeover subject reveals that she puts sour cream in her guacamole; Porowski looks directly into the camera and claims to be vindicated for his controversial decision to put Greek yogurt in guac in Season 1. Such winks and revelations don’t quite make him seem less ridiculous when he, say, has performative meltdowns over how much he loves pickles. But they do make him feel somewhat … realer.

Queer Eye’s formula—manipulative and effective, awkward and transcendent—remains the same as before, but the emphasis on the Fab Five as individuals does change the series’ value proposition somewhat. All along, the show has faced the problem of seeming to portray five magic gay guys sprinkling fairy dust (and cash) around. It was a victory for queer people’s reputation as fun and helpful, but perhaps not a total victory for queer people being seen as full-fledged, flawed yet virtuous human beings. With the intensifying spotlight, though, the guys—and all they represent—have thankfully come to seem more three-dimensional. As Porowski says about one of this season’s many workaholic subjects, “We are all so much more than the jobs we have.”