AMERICA’S GAY BOYFRIEND arrives at Coco Nails on East 33rd Street in Manhattan a few minutes past 10 on a crisp November morning. There are only a few employees and a lone man getting his nails done in the salon, so there’s no fuss over the sight of Carson Kressley, who for four years educated the hapless regular Joes of the world in all things fashion on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Though he had just arrived home the night before from a whirlwind trip to Australia, where he attended horse racing’s Melbourne Cup, judged the Aussie version of Dancing With the Stars, went to a Justin Timberlake concert, flirted with a cute local (“Could he live in a more geographically unfortunate area?” sighs the single star), and celebrated his 38th birthday, Kressley doesn’t seem the least bit tired. He’s still tan, and his buttery blond hair curls at the ends. He’s fit and trim, wearing jeans, gold Puma sneakers, a dark leather jacket, and a vintage T-shirt with an illustration of a horse, which betrays his equestrian roots: Kressley competed in the 1999 U.S. World Cup and still owns seven horses. “I’m kind of obsessed,” he says.
Since the end of Queer Eye, Kressley has kept busy. He has a clothing line—Perfect, available on QVC—and three books under his belt. Now he’s turning his queer eye toward women in two new vehicles, Lifetime’s How to Look Good Naked and the CW network’s Crowned, a mother-daughter beauty pageant. Each examines women’s beauty in very different ways.
In How to Look Good Naked, Kressley convinces women to stand in their underwear in front of a full-length mirror and confront their body image. Throughout a five-day, emotional journey, he helps his subjects build their self-esteem by pointing out their attributes, getting them properly fitted for a bra, shopping for clothes that accentuate their best assets, and of course, giving them the usual hair and makeup treatment.
Each episode climaxes with Kressley popping the question, “How about you do a photo shoot—naked?” to the horror and surprise of the women, who nevertheless take it all off with a little encouragement from Kressley.
“I was like, ‘What have I turned into?'” he says in mock disbelief. “I am so good at getting women to pose nude.”
For Kressley, whose pre–Queer Eye background in fashion was spent working in men’s fashion at Ralph Lauren, discovering the extent of women’s self-esteem issues was a learning experience.
“Women are so bombarded, they try to be something that’s not really realistic,” he says. “Even gay guys, who are obsessed with their bodies, have less to obsess about.”
But as someone who worked in the fashion industry, was Kressley inadvertently part of the system that fed unrealistic media images to women? It’s a conundrum he’d never considered.
“I don’t think I was part of that,” says Kressley, who with Naked gets the chance to reverse years of gay men’s (unintentional) negative influence on women. It’s ironic, then, that his other show, Crowned, would seem to be the most “traditional” presentation of feminine beauty of all–a pageant–albeit one presented in an untraditional way (pairing mothers and their daughters as contestants). In Crowned, 11 pairs vie for the crown in a quirky beauty pageant. The plastic pageant queens think they have the upper hand over the less polished ladies, but many learn the hard way that they are not the ideal. Kressley might toss off a typical quip about one pair’s overly glittery outfits, but he and the other judges encourage the ladies to dig deeper and show their true personalities. “I’m a little more tough love on Crowned,” says Kressley. “I think the shows are wildly different, but I think that my message is the same. It’s about celebrating who you are and showing us your best stuff.”
While in some ways Naked is just another makeover show, it too is refreshingly different. “So many of the other shows are about getting a boob job and fixing your eyes,” he says as his toes get a buffing. “This is kind of the opposite of that–it’s stripping it all away and seeing that after five days with me, in going through this process, you are still going to love yourself, actually more than before, with nothing on.”
And there’s probably no one better suited for this job. After Queer Eye’s debut in 2003, Kressley quickly became the show’s breakout star, the one with the quickest wit–possessing a disarming charm that convinced burly boys to swap their ill-fitting flannel shirts for tailored oxfords. Five years on, his mug is instantly recognizable. “I call it the Farrah Fawcett syndrome,” he says. “Because I was the loudest and most obnoxious. And being blond doesn’t hurt.”
Though there’s a seemingly never-ending stream of makeover shows on cable TV, Ymost of the hosts are nonentities, many of whom go so far as to belittle their charges. Kressley gets women to trust him in a way few other makeover-show hosts do. A familiar presence with a warm, open smile, he is just what the show’s subjects need in an already tense and uncomfortable situation.
“He made it safe,” says Layla Morrell, the star of the pilot episode of Naked. “The first day they asked me to take off the clothes, I had just met him that morning.”
Morrell had been cast after answering an e-mail announcement calling for women who wanted to confront their body image. But she didn’t know the full premise of the show until she turned up on the set. Still, it was Kressley who made her more comfortable. “I don’t know if [I would have gone through with it] if it had been anyone else,” she says.
And Kressley’s cheerleading worked. Within just three weeks of wrapping her episode, Morrell had broken up with her boyfriend, quit her human resources job, and enrolled in cosmetology school to pursue her dream of becoming a makeup artist. “[Kressley] changed my life,” she says. “When I got back to work on Monday, I missed my gay boyfriend.”
“What makes them trust me?” says Kressley with an arched brow. “A couple of margaritas.” Joking aside, he offers, “Maybe getting naked in front of a gay man is more comfortable than doing it in front of another woman, because women tend to compare themselves to other women.”
He even dropped trou himself to show solidarity with one lucky lady. “I was really naked,” he says. “Much to the crew’s dismay.”
His self-deprecating humor helps too. Throughout our conversation Kressley pokes fun at himself. He admits that his most-hated body parts are his “skinny” arms, which he dutifully camouflages by layering a thick green thermal shirt under his T-shirt. Self-described skinny arms aside, Kressley’s put-together appearance could be intimidating. “It’s like, ‘Well, what do you know about hating your body or about being a little overweight or having big thighs?'” he says. “I don’t know about that, but I know about not liking yourself and I know how devastating that can be, and that’s what I try to convey to these ladies.”
With that, America’s gay boyfriend breezes out the door as stealthily as he came in.