This story appears in STYLECASTER’s Activism Issue, starring Jurnee Smollett. Click here for more.
With stay-at-home orders came an abundance of extreme binge-watching sessions—and if there’s one show that we can all collectively agree upon binging, it’s Queer Eye. Each member of the show has a special place in our hearts, and we all can agree that the Emmy-nominated Fab Five are indulgently enjoyable for both their collective harmony as well as their individual identities. That said, one can’t deny that the calming presence of Karamo Brown, the show’s resident culture expert, stands out.
From his beginnings on the silver screen as the first openly gay Black man to be on a reality series (he did a stint on The Real World: Philadelphia) to his now-household name status, Brown’s soothing and genuine manner has always found a way to shatter the fourth wall. When he speaks, it often feels as though he’s talking directly to the viewers, not at us. And of course, we can thank his background in social work for his ASMR-worthy demeanor.
“I just wanted to help people,” Brown tells STYLECASTER. “I have immigrant parents and that was the path that you sort of take. And so you find something that naturally meets where you are, and so it was always rooted in helping people, and that’s sort of how it came about.”
Brown’s giving nature and genuine hunger to help don’t stop with Queer Eye. Earlier this year, he launched a podcast on Luminary, aptly named Karamo, that allows listeners to call in so he can spread more wisdom to his behemoth of avid followers.
“Basically, people were always saying, ‘I want an opportunity to get my Queer Eye experience,’” Brown recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh boo, there’s only one me. I don’t know how to do that.’ So what I decided was that if I could create a podcast where people can call in, then anybody from around the world could call and get advice.”
Of course, he then did just that. “So I have a 1-800 number, and I just take calls and people can call and talk and tell me their issues and I help them through it,” he says. Of course, theres’ a fun celeb angle to the podcast, too. “Then I pair some of the calls with a celebrity interview who might be going through the same thing,” he explains.
Brown isn’t here to solely soothe your soul. He’s also the founder of MANTL, a grooming line made for balding men and women. But the Beyoncé-backed beauty brand wasn’t made to fill Brown’s pockets; in fact, he says he created MANTL to embrace his own journey with balding.
“I never had an idea to create a skincare line, but I started losing my hair, as most men and women do during times of stress or as you start to age,” he says. “I started losing my hair around age 28; it was slight but I could start seeing it thin out. And then by the time that I got on Queer Eye, I started to really have balding in the middle of my head and also kind of in the front, and I was like, ‘I’m way too young for this.’”
Even with all his preachings of positive thinking, Brown couldn’t shake his insecurity. “I started to feel ashamed, because everywhere I would go online was like, ‘If you’re balding you’re not going to have the life you want. You’re not sexy. You’re not important.’ And so I started to believe those narratives.” Brown went as far as drawing on his hairline during the first two seasons of Queer Eye. “It was not a secret with the Fab Five, but it was something where we would joke about it,” he says, “but even though we were joking about it, I was still super insecure about it.”
You have to think to yourself, ‘Who told you that this wasn’t good?’ And how can you challenge yourself to fight against that narrative?
Rather than let his insecurities swallow him whole, Brown decided to take matters into his own hands and shave off his hair entirely. “I shaved it off and it felt so freeing,” he says. “It felt so liberating. I was like, ‘What was I afraid of before?’ And it started to really challenge me, like, ‘Who told me that I wouldn’t be good enough? Who told me that I wouldn’t be beautiful if I had a bald head? Who told me these things?’”
“I’m telling this story because, for me, it’s baldness, but for a lot of other people that could be their weight, their nose, their hair, their height, it could be a myriad of things,” he continues. “And you have to think to yourself, ‘Who told you that this wasn’t good?’ And how can you challenge yourself to fight against that narrative?”
It goes without saying that Brown is both a success story and a modern example of the American Dream. But, as an openly gay Black man in America—and in the limelight, no less—Brown’s success was not handed to him on a silver platter. With the pandemic of racism and discrimination running rampant across the globe for centuries, Brown has had to fight twice as hard (if not harder) in comparison to his white, cis counterparts.
“I think one of the things that people should understand about communities that are often discriminated against, whether it’s Black, gay, trans, or women, is that we’ve been dealing with racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, our entire lives,” says Brown. “So for me, coming on Queer Eye and having these experiences with these individuals who need more education, and need to be challenged so they can grow has been something I’ve been dealing with my entire life. Growing up Black in the South, growing up gay in America, growing up with immigrant parents.”
For Brown, growing up as a gay Black man came with obstacles many people, his own castmates included, will never have to endure. And fans of Queer Eye know this is a subject that comes up fairly regularly on the show—could we ever forget Karamo’s on-screen encounter with the police that made us all collectively hold our breath? But, given that Pride month just so happened to fall during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement back in June, Brown felt hope that black men within the LGBTQ+ community would finally get the respect and attention they’d been denied for decades.
Pride was always a protest for a group of people who felt marginalized.
“First of all, people have lost sight, in my opinion, of what Pride’s true meaning is,” says Brown. “And now people are starting to wake back up to the fact that Pride was always a protest for a group of people who felt marginalized, and who said that they were being denied their rights, and who were proven to be shown they were denied their rights.”
Indeed, Brown can admit that the LGBTQ+ community is by no means perfect and all-accepting. At least, not yet. “For me, what I most appreciate about it is that it finally woke people up to realize that within the LGBTQ+ community—as much as we love during Pride month to show rainbows and have a good time and dance, which I’m all about—there’s still racism, transphobia and sexism in the LGBTQ+ community that runs rampant,” he says.
Brown is confident that only way to thrive will be to embrace one another. “As a marginalized community, I think it’s important for us to wake up and realize that we can’t knock other people in our community as others outside of our community are knocking us,” he insists.
One of the biggest culprits knocking down LGBTQ+ minorities: Hollywood. Though we have just barely scratched the surface of diverse casting on the big and small screens, Tinseltown is notorious for pushing two-dimensional stereotypes of the BIPOC LGBTQ+ community, which particularly strikes a nerve for Brown, especially as a queer father.
“I think that the entertainment community has a shitty way of shining the light on anything that’s different, and they put a side lamp on one person or one story and be like, ‘Look, we highlighted it,’ and I think that needs to change,” says Brown. “The only way that’s going to change is to start waking up Hollywood executives to say, ‘You need to start highlighting stories that are happening all over our country, that are beautiful and show the intersections of who people are.’”
In particular, Brown feels there is not enough representation of Black queer parenthood. “There are many Black gay fathers who are raising their children, who are happy, and Hollywood just does a horrible job of portraying it,” he says. But unlike many of the social justice warriors gone rogue, Brown isn’t taking the finger-wagging, cancel-culture approach to righting society’s wrongs.
I try to be open to not faulting someone for what they don’t know.
Instead, he chooses to use his experiences to teach others about the trials and tribulations that minority communities are forced to endure on a daily basis. “We have to continue to appreciate the progress we’ve made, but also challenge them to say more needs to be done,” he says. “While things are getting a little better, it just needs to move faster, because at the end of the day, the media has the power to influence homes, workspaces and politics.”
Brown believes it’s also up to each of us to educate one another on the ways in which we experience life, and he hopes Queer Eye does exactly that. “I think that the beauty of our show is that these individuals—who would have never had the opportunity to grow and to learn and to understand the experience of someone else who they perceive as different—is giving them a chance to challenge what they thought to be true,” he says, adding, “And that’s where real growth happens and that’s where we start to be united as a country.”
“But I try to be open to not faulting someone for what they don’t know…I think that’s what I’m hoping people are learning from Queer Eye,” he continues. “And hopefully through Queer Eye, through my experience as a Black man, Jonathan [Van Ness]’s experience as someone who is gender-nonconforming, through Tan [France]’s experience as a Pakistani Muslim man, that people are saying, ‘Oh, I need to understand their challenges, educate myself and learn how I can be a better ally for them.’”
And in the times of the Black Lives Matter movement—the largest social movement within U.S. history—being a better ally is more important than ever. But, as we all have learned, to be a proper ally means much more than posting a black square on your timeline and re-tweeting statistics.
“I think social media is good for making people aware, but I don’t think that it’s healthy for discourse or dialogue,” says Brown. “The thing is, unfortunately, there are people who do go on social media who get a rise or a kick out of just trying to start controversy. And this is unfortunate, because we live in a culture where people are lonely and they want attention. And so if you want attention, you’ll seek it, whether it’s positive or negative.”
Real change, Brown insists, happens when we communicate with others face to face. “If you have the opportunity to step outside of social media and to walk into the world, and if you have the capacity, you feel safe, to talk to people in your life that directly have a different opinion, that’s where change happens,” he says.
So, how can we all take the fight for equality outside of our cell phone screens? According to Brown, simply taking a cold-hard look at the world you live in can unravel the injustices surrounding you—then, there’s the matter of speaking up publicly.
“The first step is always to recognize if there’s a challenge or if there’s an issue, and that’s a simple thing that people can do that I don’t think that people do enough in their life,” says Brown. “They look at everything from their own perspective, which is natural because most of us come into this world by ourselves, and so we’re always thinking about self and what’s going on in our world and our world is the biggest issue.
“Take a moment in your day, one time, two times, three times, to look around your neighborhood, to look around your school, to look around your jobs and identify if there are people or situations that could be highlighted and things that could change,” Brown suggests. “And then I want you to ask yourself, ‘Are you okay with this being this way?’ A lot of times when people are afraid to say to themselves, honestly, ‘I guess I’m not okay with it being this way. I’m not okay.’ And that’s where you have to then start to challenge yourself by educating yourself.”
Of course, knowing what you’re talking about is always key. “Do the work yourself before you go to the other person saying, ‘What should I do?’ Because part of allyship is duly educating yourself and doing some work on your own,” says Brown. “The work has to be done with your own heart and your own mind before you can have someone else come in and transform it.”
As for fellow marginalized people trying to get through these stressful times, Brown wants you to remember one thing: Don’t be sparse with your mental health check-ins.
“During this time, I want you to take a moment to focus on your mental health, because what happens here,” he says, referring to instances like the overlap of Pride Month and the BLM movement, “is that the intersections of who we are, are colliding. And so for many of us who are Black or Latino—which is another side of this, because people of Latino descent have been being harassed, hurt, and killed—we’re getting triggered. You’re getting it from one side because of your race and who you are, and then on the other side, you’re getting it because of who you love or how you identify your gender.”
“Then secondly, I would tell them to understand that they have power within themselves,” says Brown. “There is power in our numbers. There is power in our minds, in our art, in the way that we move, we talk and everything that we do, and do not ever forget that strength.”
Lastly, Brown urges people to put that power to good use. “Do what you can through those means to create change in your community. Sometimes you feel like you have to change the world at once, but all you gotta do is change the four blocks you walk around and that’s where change starts to happen,” he insists. “If you change your four blocks, I changed my four blocks, eventually the city is going to change, because we’ve all done the work collectively.”