Karamo was one of the first openly gay Black men to be cast on reality TV when he was given a spot on The Real World: Philadelphia in 2004. But for him, it wasn’t about making any kind of statement. “I was just comfortable enough in myself then, and still to this day, just to be honest about who I am and just live my life freely,” he said. “I was just fresh out of college and was like, ‘Go on The Real World? Yeah, sure!” It wasn’t until after he left the house in Philadelphia in 2005 that someone told him that he was one of the first openly gay Black men on reality TV, a fact he hadn’t even known going in. (Big Brother’s Marcellas Reynolds was the first, just two years prior in 2002.) “And I was like, ‘Really? I thought that happened 40 million years ago!’ And it just shows why representation is so important because there are still so many groups that have never been seen on television.”
Now Karamo is part of the rebooted Queer Eye’s Fab Five, alongside Bobby Berk, Tan France, Antoni Porowski, and Jonathan Van Ness. The show, which calls Netflix it’s home, premieres its fifth season June 5, and the whole crew is heading back to Karamo’s reality TV roots: Philadelphia. “We’re in Philly; it’s a return. I was there 15 years before when I was on The Real World. And so to be back was awesome,” he said.
The show’s stars have new heroes this season, whose transformations will no doubt touch the hearts of viewers all over the world. Queer Eye is a show that’s become such a cultural movement and such a beacon of positivity, something the world especially needs right now. But what some viewers may not realize is that this show is the realest of reality TV.
“I get chills even saying it because a lot of people don’t realize that we don’t have producers who tell us what to do,” he said. “At the beginning of the week, they ask, ‘What do you want to do?’ And then we sort of decide how we feel we can help them and they just follow us. And now we’re such a well-oiled machine that it’s like, we just look at each other and we just know, ‘Oh, we’re all on the same page. This is the issue.’ And the way we communicate in between the scenes to make sure that everyone is working towards the same goal is so great.”
In the show, the Fab Five meet with the heroes, who have been nominated by people in their lives, for a week to help them better themselves. Whether it’s helping them find the confidence in their looks or get past a hurdle in their lives, the Fab Five is there to help. Karamo’s role as culture expert has been a mainstay since season one, though now he says the showrunners and the audience have a better understanding of what exactly he does.
“My job has always been to work on the hearts and minds,” he said. “It’s like, you can fix the outside, but if you don’t know what’s going on inside, you’ll just go back to it.” Karamo’s job on the show is now more clear as a mental wellness expert and an all-around guiding light in inspiring the show’s heroes. And it’s a role that he takes very seriously off the screen as well and has for years.
Not only does Karamo have his own podcast, aptly called Karamo: The Podcast, where he welcomes listeners to call in and get advice from him like Queer Eye’s heroes, but he’s also always using his platform to speak out about causes and movements he cares deeply about.
Amid promoting the new season of Queer Eye and episodes of Karamo: The Podcast, Karamo’s Instagram is sprinkled with motivational memes about getting through COVID-19 lockdown — which he admitted has been very up and down for him — and much more seriously, a demand for equality after an unarmed Black man named George Floyd died at the hands of police brutality in Minnesota this May. But even Karamo had a really hard time sharing about it on social media.
“It took me a while before I posted because after seeing a man killed in the streets, I was thinking, ‘I just got traumatized by that,’” he said. “I never witnessed someone die until I started watching Black men dying on Facebook. I don’t have anybody who’s ever died in front of me, and so it’s traumatizing.”
Karamo’s now speaking out more and sharing resources with his followers on what they can do as part of the Black Lives Matter movement and smartly pointed out that now more marginalized groups have the opportunity to stand together during Pride Month this June.
“What I think a lot of people don’t realize is that Pride movements are actually protest movements,” he said of his plans for Pride Month. “And so I actually believe that Pride is still happening right now. It’s just being combined with the Black Lives Matter movement. And I say that with understanding the importance of just having the Black Lives Matter movement, but in solidarity LGBT people, more than anyone, should understand what it is like to be told you’re not worthy to have your lives taken just for being who you are. We live in a time where a lot of people feel very privileged and feel very accepted and loved, but there are still many people who lose their lives just for being who they are, who are in the LGBT community, just like Black people.”
It’s a much-needed reminder that even though Pride Month now is soaked in sequins and rainbows to spread love, the marches didn’t start that way, and even though public events have largely been canceled because of COVID-19 this year, it doesn’t mean Pride Month isn’t still happening. “At the core of it, we’re all out there marching to say, ‘You must see us, you must hear us, and you must give us equality,’” Karamo said. “And that’s the same thing that’s happening right now [with Black Lives Matter protests]. And so I would actually encourage people to reframe themselves, their mindset and say, ‘No, Pride is still going on.’ We have just now bundled up with another movement so that we can all fight for equality and for a better tomorrow.”
And Karamo has big plans for all his tomorrows — he’ll soon marry his partner of a decade, Ian, whom he affectionately and jokingly calls his “baby daddy.” Karamo originally proposed to him in May 2018, but after the two had to postpone their wedding this year because of COVID-19, Karamo took it upon himself to propose to Ian again, one year after the first time.
Though they’ve had to put off their wedding plans for the safety of themselves and all their guests, Karamo can’t wait to walk down the aisle. “I’m completely that guy, you know what I mean?” Karamo confessed. “I’m just so ready to get married and just be like, ‘I’m married now.’ I don’t know if it’s something Southern in me but I want it all, I want the marriage, I want the white suit with a long tail as if it was my dress. I want all of it!”
The two haven’t yet figured out when they’ll be able to get married, but Karamo knows when it happens, it’ll be the wedding of his dreams with the man of his dreams, whom he says is “very, very special.”
Until then, Karamo’s focusing his positive energy on making it through the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting for equality, and spreading the good word about the new season of Queer Eye on Netflix. Not much, right? But the soon-to-be 40-year-old takes it all in stride and keeps it real every step of the way. He’s even heading into his 40th birthday later this year with a plan to continue to improve himself — “I want to go in my 40s feeling sexy and healthy and being nutritious.”
You can stream all the seasons of Queer Eye, including the newest season, on Netflix now and see the Fab Five in action as they inspire the heroes in Philadelphia. Karamo promises that the season is as beautiful as we’ve come to expect from the series, so have tissues handy when you queue up the show. But you can also count on some humor, especially when the Fab Five are all together.
“It’s like you put five kids on a road trip, so you can just imagine that,” Karamo said of the five of them being in the car together. “And so what happens is that usually Bobby and I turn into mom and dad. I’m dad, Bobby’s mom. And then the three in the back — Jonathan is like our wild baby, and then we have Antoni who is our emo, and then Tan who’s in the middle punching both of them.” Though Karamo admits that many of those moments never make it into the show, he wishes that someday Netflix releases a blooper reel packed with these moments and more. Here’s hoping that wish comes true.
For more on how you can contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement, check out these resources for petitions to sign, places to donate, and ways to educate yourself. https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Karamo was the first openly gay Black man on reality TV. It has been updated to reflect that Marcellas Reynolds was the first in 2002 on Big Brother.