This year marks the 20th anniversary of the pilot for the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy series being delivered, and this year’s Realscreen Summit featured a keynote panel to spotlight the occasion and the progress made in non-fiction TV for more diverse representation, and highlight the steps that still need to be taken.
Moderated by journalist Jean Bentley, the panel included David Collins (pictured, center), co-founder and executive producer for Scout Productions, and one of the creators of Queer Eye; Scout Productions chief creative officer Rob Eric (pictured, left); HBO Max EVP of original non-fiction and live action family Jennifer O’Connell (pictured, right); and Dashaun Wesley, host of the Legendary TV series on HBO Max.
Comparing the Fab Five of the original Queer Eye series with the new group formed for the more recent Netflix reboot illustrates the progress made in non-fiction TV for more sexually and racially diverse people to be able to show more of their authentic selves on TV, Collins said. The original Fab Five, he said, were like superheroes swooping in and out, because audiences didn’t want to know much more about them than that. Meanwhile, the new group are able to be shown as real people with authentic stories.
When asked to summarize the goal of the series, Collins offered: “Transformation through information told with comedy that has heart… It’s really about that inner work, the inside-out work that we get to do, and seeing ourselves and telling stories.”
Collins discussed how the idea for Queer Eye, which he created with Michael Williams, revealed itself to him 20 years ago. While previously he had worked in scripted and doc content, the idea for his most famous series came from a commotion he witnessed at a party where a woman loudly berated her husband for his somewhat style-challenged appearance. The room fell quiet, until four handsome, well-dressed men strolled towards the man and started giving him advice, fixed up the way he looked, and built him up to give him more confidence. On the spot, Collins recalls saying “You see that? That’s like queer eye for the straight guy.”
From there, the show further developed by identifying five main categories for its hosts from Esquire magazine’s sections: fashion, grooming, interior design, culture, and food.
Eric praised the impact of the original Queer Eye series for finally featuring five gay men as the leads of a TV series, not as background or supporting characters. But with that realization, and its impact, Eric said the team at Scout Productions started thinking about which other groups aren’t represented on TV.
Scout’s drive has been to tell omnicultural stories, and put platforms in place for people who don’t see themselves on TV, Eric said. He added that while representation across media has improved, there’s much more work to be done.
“We need to stop saying under-represented, because I think that that is such a horrible term. Let’s just say what it is, which is ignored. The community is being ignored,” Eric said.
“Under-represented is just a polite way of saying ‘sure, we’ll get there.’”
One aspect of the industry that needs to change, Eric said, is there needs to be more executives who don’t blink at the prospect of series like Queer Eye, and who don’t question that these stories should be told and celebrated.
That work to tell diverse stories at Scout has continued today with the HBO Max ballroom reality competition series Legendary. Premiering in 2020, Legendary features teams comprised of five dancers competing in a variety of fashion and dance challenges. Dashaun Wesley, the series’ host, beamed in virtually for the session from New York, and praised the production team and streaming execs behind the series for actively soliciting input from the ballroom scene itself about the best way to portray it.
O’Connell said that she was excited when Legendary was pitched, because of the way it celebrated the world and people within ballroom culture. It presented a window into a world she didn’t know much about before.
“There are hardships and those stories are there, but it’s also [a series that says] ‘Hey, look at me. This is amazing, I’m amazing, and [for] you out there who might not realize that there’s a community for you , you might feel alone or need a lifeline.’ We can help people too,” O’Connell said.
“We’re still not done,” summed up Wesley. “There are still parts of our community that we can’t even discuss on a one-hour [episode], because there’s so much that goes on. But this is a bird-eye’s view on what happens in our community.”
(Photo: Rahoul Ghose)