“Turn to your neighbor and say, ‘Neighbor, you are allowed to set boundaries,'" Karamo Brown instructed the audience, which included his little sister and best friend, at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue last week.
Everyone shifted their bodies and repeated the mantra in unison: “Neighbor, you are allowed to set boundaries."
From instructing audience members on how to deal with negative self-talk to offering up job interview advice, Brown’s D.C. stop on the tour for his memoir, “Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope,” felt more like a group-therapy session than a book talk.
Anyone who expected anything less has clearly never seen Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” the tear-inducing reboot of the hit makeover show, which returns Friday for Season 3, on which Brown serves as the resident culture expert.
Brown chatted with us — around a table stacked with treats — about what culture means in 2019 and how things have changed since he first entered the spotlight as a cast member of MTV’s “Real World: Philadelphia” in 2004.
This is a great array of snacks you have here.
[Laughs] I wish I had anything to do with it. Someone told them my favorite snacks. Antoni [Porowski, a “Queer Eye” castmate] has been on this mission, and every interview he goes through dispelling that my abs are not real — because I don’t work out, they’re just by genetics. So that’s why he does it. He works at it and that’s why he’s beautiful, but I’m like, “Listen. You’ll have abs at 40. Me? I’m going to have a gut. So let me enjoy my time.”
You’ve been in D.C. somewhat frequently over the past couple of years for advocacy work, so welcome back.
Thank you. Yeah, one day I hope to get into politics, so D.C. might be my new home.
Really? In what regard?
Well, I’ve actually been working for the past couple of years with California representatives and the state assembly. In the past three months, I’ve worked with President Barack Obama twice. I visited the Trump White House [last year] and I met with Karen Pence’s chief of staff with Creative Coalition [an arts advocacy nonprofit]. I’m actually excited to go back to the Trump White House, because even though I didn’t vote for them, I think it’s important for us to find a space where we can talk to those who are different from us. That’s what we do on “Queer Eye.”
So are we talking about a possible presidential run?
I can tell you right now I do not want to be president. We’ve already had one too many reality stars as president. But something in California — maybe governor, maybe senator — but that’s a long way away. I’m enjoying filming “Queer Eye.”
You’re coming back for Creative Coalition’s arts advocacy day on the Hill again this year, which falls over White House correspondents’ dinner weekend. Does that mean you’ll be attending the dinner itself?
I watch it on TV and it just sounds like a dinner where people go to insult the president. I can just go on Twitter for that.
You graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and were actively pushing for gun control laws after last year’s shooting. Are you still involved with the cause?
Yeah. We just had some legislation passed, which was a step in the right direction. But there’s still a lot more work that we need to do. But that moment in that day, it will stick in my heart forever. Being an alum from there, it hurt to see students running the hallways that I used to walk so carefree. And then Aaron Feis, who was the coach who saved them [the students], was actually my classmate.
I’m proud of how these kids stepped up and became these activists and these voices, and I believe that in the next 10 years we’ll see real comprehensive change. So I’m not going to stop until we do.
How do you balance your activism, political involvement and work on “Queer Eye” as the only parent on the show?
Well, Jonathan [Van Ness, another castmate] would be very upset, because he is a cat mom, so let me be clear: My kids have two legs, his have four. But there were many moments when I was younger that I wish somebody would try a little bit harder for me. So I find the time. I take a lot of self-care. I take a lot of bubble baths.
You worked as a social worker for many years after your stint on “Real World.” What made you come back to TV?
TV was always my dream, but the unfortunate part is that unless you come from a family that has direct access to it, it’s very hard. And I had the opportunity to go on MTV’s “Real World,” but that didn’t constitute a career.
My son was writing a paper on living your dreams, and he asked me if I was living my dreams. And in that moment I knew I could either lie and say “Yes, I am,” or I could say “no.” It really did sit in my soul like, “Why aren’t I?” I was in Texas [at the time], I just got custody of them, and I made the decision. I was like, you know what, I’m going to go back to California. And here we are four years later.
You shifted the concept of culture from what it meant on the original “Queer Eye.” What sparked that change?
What I realized was missing in every conversation and every episode that I watched — and this is no dig to the original show, because it was groundbreaking — was that they would address the external, but no one was addressing the internal. And if you haven’t cut your hair in 20 years, if you haven’t changed your clothes in 10, if your house is full of dirt, if you are eating nothing but junk food, there’s a reason, and we need to get to the root of that reason.
Why do you think the new emphasis on the internal and mental health has resonated so well with viewers?
I think people are open to it because, especially with the contention between our government right now with President Trump in office, people are feeling so divided and so hurt. People are realizing that if they don’t support themselves and love themselves . . . that we’re going to be continuing this cycle. That is clearly what my job is — to give them the language to focus on themselves.
Okay, if you could take over any of the other experts’ roles on “Queer Eye,” what would it be?
Design. I think maybe it’s because I just bought a house and I love going to, like, Crate & Barrel and West Elm.
How is your experience on reality TV now as a 38-year-old different from how it was as a 23-year-old?
Well, 22-year-old Karamo was called “Crazy Karamo.” When I got that show [“Real World"], there was no positivity. That led to, as I described in my book, the addiction issues and tumultuous relationships. I realized that I was just in a circle of negativity that I was not getting myself out of. So I started to do the work on myself. This time around, people come up to me and they cry and they feel supported and loved because I’ve shifted the bubble around me. And so, two different types of fames, but I’m glad that I had that because I needed to know that failure so that I could grow. I say often, “Failure is not the opposite of success. It’s part of it.”