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June 18, 2020

'Queer Eye' star Bobby Berk on filming in Philly, how the show has changed and keeping it real

Plus, what the show's design expert thinks of the Philly accent and why QE is more important for straight people to watch

Queer Eye Netflix
Bobby-Berk-Jennifer-Sweeney_061820_Netflix Ryan M. Collerd/Netflix

Queer Eye's Bobby Berk with Jennifer Sweeney, one of the Philly heroes from Season 5.

Earlier this month, the fifth season of the hit series Queer Eye dropped on Netflix, and from the very beginning, it was clear this year was going to be a bit different than past seasons. 

For starters, the season premiere opened with The Fab Five — Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski and Jonathan Van Ness — dancing around and decorating their new headquarters to "Philadelphia Freedom," leaving little doubt that the cast had left the more rural settings of previous seasons for The City of Brotherly Love. 

While the house on the 300 block of Cherry Street served as their home base, The Fab Five was all over the city (and beyond) during filming last summer — and not only did they get a first-hand look at Philly, but the city came off looking extremely well when all was said and done. 

So what did The Fab Five think of our city, our culture and... our accent?

We were recently lucky enough to chat with Queer Eye design expert Bobby Berk and get his thoughts on all the above — and much more — following his first extended stay in Philly. 

Berk's story of growing up in a strict Christian household and community that vilified homosexuality is one that's important to hear, and one that was highlighted in the first episode of the new season when the guys visited Atonement Church in Fishtown in order to make over its leader, Pastor Noah. 

After leaving home at 15 due to the homophobia he faced as a gay youth, Berk lived out of his car before moving to New York in 2003 and finding his footing in the design world. Without a high school diploma, Berk still worked his way up at a high-end NYC furniture store. In 2006, he launched Bobby Berk Home and after opening several brick and mortar stores, he launched an interior design company (Bobby Berk Interiors + Design) in 2010. 

Since 2018, Berk has been the resident design pro on Queer Eye, and currently has his own lines of wallpaper and furniture as well as the design firm. He's clearly a busy man, but he was kind enough to take some time to chat about his recent time in Philly, how the show has changed since Season 1, how it stays authentic and, of course, that notorious Philly accent. 

What were your first thoughts when you heard this season was coming to Philly? Had you spent any time here? What did you know about it? Did Karamo warn you or give you any advice?

BOBBY BERK: "I don't know if I would've necessarily listened to any of Karamo's advice considering the experience he had there the first time [that] I think he brought on himself. [laughs] He was just on a very different show at the time. 

"I was a little familiar [with Philadelphia]. I had lived in New York for almost 14 years and so I would take little weekend trips down to Philly sometimes to get out of the city. So I didn't know a lot about it, other than the Old City area, but I was excited. I was excited to head back to the East Coast. You know, Philly is kind of like New York, but a lot more digestible, so it was nice to be back out there."

You saw A LOT of the city. What were your overall impressions of it? And its residents?

BERK: "I thought it was great. There are so many beautiful areas in Philly. So many beautiful parks and hiking trails, and the suburbs — it was impressive everywhere we went."

"We were definitely making fun of Tan trying to do the [Philly] accent, because Tan always thinks that just because he has a non-American accent that he's able to do other accents. And it's not always true."

What were your favorite places in Philly, whether it's eating or getting design inspiration or going out?

BERK: "To be honest, me and the boys, we don't really get to 'go out.' It's a little hard for us to go out, because it turns into kind of a fiasco. The few times I did though, I used to eat at Vedge a lot, and also V Street. Two vegan restaurants, I actually think they're owned by the same restaurant group. But those were my two go-to places all the time." 

I'm sure I'm giving you PTSD flashbacks here, but you guys were making fun of the Philly accent a bit in one of the episodes.

BERK: "Hey, I wasn't making fun of it. [laughs]"

Maybe it was more you guys making fun of Tan trying to do the accent?

BERK: "We were definitely making fun of Tan trying to do the [Philly] accent, because Tan always thinks that just because he has a non-American accent that he's able to do other accents. And it's not always true. [laughs] He thought he was very good at the Australian accent when were there and yeaaaah that's up for debate. But Tan was obsessed with Jennifer Sweeney's accent — I mean, how could you not be obsessed with anything about Jennifer Sweeney, she was so cute. But, yeah, it was fun to hear Tan attempting to mimic her accent."

[Note: Jennifer Sweeney was the hero from Season 5, Episode 7 seen in the photo above.]

How has the show changed since Season 1?

BERK: "I don't really know that I'd say that it has changed a lot. In a way, I definitely think we've been able to become more diverse, which has always been important, and I think that is kind of key to the city's that we've gone to. I also know that before the show came out, like when we were filming Seasons 1 and 2, we definitely had a much smaller pool of people to choose from because nobody knew what the show was. Nobody wanted to give a show called Queer Eye a chance. I mean, they had never seen it and, honestly, we had never made it yet, so there wasn't good information to tell them. It was kind of a huge risk, so it was a little bit of a smaller casting pool. Now, since the show has come out and people know it and people know that our intentions are good and that we're there to help people, it's definitely opened up the doors to a much larger pool of diverse people. So I would definitely say that the show has gotten more diverse. 

"We've also started helping more business, which has been a lot of fun. I feel like our first business was the Jones sisters [Jones BBQ] — I might be missing one but I think the Jones sisters were our first — and I think we proved to business owners that we're here to help you. The Jones sisters are doing very, very well now. Our only goal with any hero is to help change their lives for the better.

"So I think the show has changed with the diversity and I think the diversity has changed just because we have a much larger pool of people to pull from because people are definitely more willing to give us a chance now than they were at the beginning." 

Bobby-Berk-Shore_061720_NetflixRyan M. Collerd/Netflix

Queer Eye's Bobby Berk takes a ride while visiting the Jersey Shore in Episode 6.

One thing Pastor Noah mentioned was how genuine and authentic you guys were and the production in general. How do you all keep it so authentic? Is there a secret sauce? Or is it just as simple as five friends who want to help people?

BERK: "I mean, a little bit of both. We went in, all five of us in casting, we didn't really know each other. But we were kind of the five, out of 40-something, that were in there really helping each other and helping other people — even people we were up against. We were just helping them, and giving them clues of what had just happened to us. We were just naturally those type of people.

"But there is kind of a secret sauce to it. We do go in there, and we are vigilant about trying to always make our hero forget they're on a show. That is part of — we don't repeat anything, nothing's scripted. If audio or a camera doesn't get a situation that just happened, we don't get it — it's gone forever. Because the moment where you're like, 'I'm so sorry, Pastor Noah. We didn't get that. Could we go back and recreate that?' Then they're like, 'Oh, I'm on a show. I need to be guarded. I need to be careful of what I say. It's when we get them to forget there are cameras there and get them to forget that they are on a show is when we get an authentic experience, not only for the viewers but for our hero. 

"So we're always so, so aware — like when the cameras aren't rolling, we actually go out of our way to separate ourselves from the hero because we always want to make sure that the conversations that we're having on camera are real organic conversations. We don't want to accidentally talk to them about something off-camera and then we're like, 'Oh, God, this totally needs to be something that's on camera.' And then be like, 'Remember what we were talking about before? Talk about that again.' Because it then becomes unauthentic."

"The only way to change anyone's mind about negative feeling they might have about a group of people they know nothing about is by visibility. And that's not just for the LGBT community, that's for any human being."

And obviously it's not scripted, despite what some people may think. 

BERK: "I read a tweet the other day from a young lady who was actually talking about the Pastor Noah episode. And she was like, 'I was sitting here bawling at the Pastor Noah episode about him and Bobby and their conversation. It was breaking my heart. And then my boyfriend was like, you know all that's scripted, right?' And she said that made her so sad, and I was like, 'No. No, actually it's not AT ALL. It's not at all.' 

"There are parts that are planned out, like me and the boys will have conversations with production about where we need to walk into the room or sit where the lighting or audio is going to be best. But that's because, again, it's something we don't want to put our heroes through. We don't want them to have that conversation. We want to get that all out of the way. So things like that, yeah they're pre-planned. But it's pre-planned in order to make sure our show and the hero's experience are as authentic as possible."

I think that really comes across. I never thought anything was scripted, but the one thing I could never figure out was the surprises in the beginning since there's already a camera in the room.

BERK: "It's funny because I don't think that me and the boys even knew that until like Season 3 or 4. We never really understood. We're like, 'God, why do they always act so surprised? Obviously they know we're here. And it wasn't until — I don't even know what episode it was — our executive producer was like, 'Wait, you guys think they know you're here?' And we're like, Well, don't they?' And they were like, 'No. We always just tell them that we're filming their backstory... and you're coming another day.' And we went, 'Ohhhhh, OK. We get it now!' [laughs]."

This is obviously a show that's important to the queer community, but how important is it for straight people to watch? Maybe it opens their eyes to a different types of people they normally wouldn't interact with?

BERK: "Honestly, I think it's more important. The only way to change anyone's mind about negative feeling they might have about a group of people they know nothing about is by visibility. And that's not just for the LGBT community, that's for any human being. Which is why we really went out of our way to feature an immigrant family this year, because we wanted people to see what they're really like. Especially at the time, all that rhetoric was going on from you-know-who about the caravan's coming to attack our border and we're like, 'No! We have to make sure that we tell a true authentic story about immigrant families that have built this country.' 

"So I think it's so, so important for people from every walk of life to watch a show like ours. We really try to make sure that we give a voice and visibility to every type of person that we can."

So there's this meme, viral post, whatever you want to call it, floating out there. I'm wondering if you've seen it. It goes something like... 

So my final question to you is this: How does it feel to be the hardest-working member of The Fab Five?

BERK: "You know, I don't look at it that way. I might do the most time-consuming and physical labor, but I also knew that going in. I'm very aware of what my job entails. I really truly am a designer, I really have a design firm, I really do projects just like this every day. So I never in a million years expected the workload to be anything less than it is. I'm fine with that. But just because mine is the most time-consuming and labor-intensive doesn't mean it's the most important. All five of our verticals, none of us could do what we do without the others. So yeah, I appreciate the love and appreciation that everyone shows for me about that, but I don't look at it that way."

You can follow Bobby Berk on Twitter and Instagram, and visit his website here

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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