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‘They Play Nice’: Inside the Tensions and Tumult at ‘Queer Eye’

Queer Eye has a new member after Bobby Berk’s departure, as sources claim long-standing tension among the group and alleged "rage issues" with star Jonathan Van Ness

In early January, the hosts of Netflix’s feel-good series Queer Eye reunited for what might be the last time at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards. Through tears and smiles, Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski, and Jonathan Van Ness proudly raised their long-awaited golden statues.

After six years, five cities, a stint in Japan, and connections with dozens of hometown “heroes” that the food, design, grooming, style, and culture experts helped make over, the quintet — known as the Fab Five — took home awards as producers in the Outstanding Structured Reality Program category. (They had been previously nominated as hosts, but this was the first season they were credited as producers.)

The moment was bittersweet. Last November, interior designer Berk stunned fans with news he was leaving the show. “It’s not been an easy decision to be at peace with, but a necessary one,” Berk explained in an Instagram post. “Although my journey with Queer Eye is over, my journey with you is not. You will be seeing more of me very soon.”

The timing seemed abrupt. Netflix was gearing up for a promotional rollout for the new season in late January, and future seasons were still up in the air. Even Brown balked at Berk’s announcement. “We are #ForeverTheFab5 no matter what,” he commented. “I’m about to be at Netflix’s door & e-mails telling them you can’t leave! Who is coming with me?”

Berk was breaking up the beloved band, who had always publicly presented themselves as a familial, tight-knit unit. But after eight long seasons, 10 Queer Eye production members and well-placed sources tell Rolling Stone, that notion was beginning to shatter. Petty disputes and competition over who is considered the show’s top star were increasingly spilling out into the public. Even making the show was difficult, four production sources say, due, in part, to Van Ness’ behind-the-scenes behavior. Three more sources who worked with the reality star described Van Ness as emotionally “abusive” and having “rage issues.”

Eventually the illusion of a happy family ended with Berk’s departure. Although Berk presented the decision to part ways as amicable, three sources with knowledge tell Rolling Stone there was more to Berk’s departure: Not only was he allegedly “blindsided” with how things played out, but talk has been circulating among those close to the show that another Fab Five member may have campaigned for Berk’s replacement. (Berk did not reply to multiple requests for comment.)

“It’s not a new story that a boy band falls apart,” says one Queer Eye production member, who, like the others, requested anonymity, citing NDAs and career repercussions. “Essentially they were a group of people put together in their mid-thirties and told to be best friends. But people don’t expect that Queer Eye could be that. That’s truly what it was: a manufactured boy band with big personalities that certain ones were favored and certain ones were not, and then eventually [things] turned really toxic.”

David Collins, the creator of the original series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that aired on Bravo in the early 2000s, helped piece together the Fab Five after an international search. Producers whittled down hundreds of applicants to 40 and flew everyone to Los Angeles for final rounds. As the story goes, the chemistry within the group was instantaneous. “They all really hit it off, and they all really liked each other,” recalls one production source. “There was a reason why they were cast.”

Apart from Brown — who appeared on The Real World: Philadelphia in 2004 — they were all relative newcomers to being onscreen. Van Ness was building a rising profile for their popular Funny or Die YouTube series Gay of Thrones. Berk had an established interior design business and home furnishings line. France headed up his own clothing company. And Porowski was the protégé to Chopped host Ted Allen (who was on the original Queer Eye as the food and wine expert).

The rebooted version followed the general beats of its predecessor, with each show centering acceptance as its main premise. Along the way, the makeover recipient — who may not personally know any queer people in their daily lives — forges a genuine connection with the Fab Five. It’s feel-good television, with silly laughs, misty-eyed scenes, and hopeful, teachable moments.

The original premiered in 2003 — more than a decade before gay marriage was legalized nationwide — and ran for five seasons. And despite being 15 years apart, Netflix’s Queer Eye came after the 2016 presidential election, which brought a fresh wave of divisiveness in the country. The Fab Five were tasked with stepping into a contentious climate to give people of varying backgrounds makeovers, while trying to form authentic emotional connections that didn’t come across as forced.

And they exceeded expectations. Headlines and reviews from The New York Times, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The Ringer, and others raved about its approach and the need for Queer Eye in the current political climate. “The Queer Eye reboot is even better than it should have been,” Rolling Stone wrote in 2018. “These Georgia boys are more than just makeover consultants: They are healers and sages for our time, not to mention sublimely bitchy quip machines.” Mia Fischer, associate professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Denver, says part of the success was Netflix bringing the show to a wider, global audience. The Fab Five’s diversity also helped the show feel more relatable for viewers, Fischer says.

“I think the Fab Five are representing different nuances and ways to be within the LGBTQ+ umbrella … Jonathan being very open about coming out as nonbinary and also sharing experiences with how that sometimes feels really alienating and invisible even within queer spaces,” Fischer explains. “The show is having some real conversations: Karamo speaking about the complexity of Black queerness and Black masculinity … Tan sharing about his Muslim-Pakistani heritage and challenges with intercultural and interracial dating; Bobby being homeless because he had a non-accepting family and a non-accepting religious community. Those are all things that are very real to a lot of LGBTQ folks and really makes the show very relatable.”

“Essentially they were a group of people put together in their mid-thirties and told to be best friends.”

‘Queer Eye’ production member

The friendship the Fab Five convey and their attempts to connect on personal levels with the “hero” is a crucial part of the show’s impact, Collins explained in 2018. “[The] show has shown that we’re able to talk to one another and have these dialogues, even from different sides of the equation,” he said.

“The Fab Five are so effective at having some of these really difficult conversations,” Fischer adds. “They communicate to us that it’s really important not to stick in our echo chambers, but to try to bridge those differences and to have conversations with family members who might not be on the same page.”

Still, says one production source, “My queer friends aren’t necessarily lining up to watch it, but [it’s] a show that a Southern mom with a gay kid — who’s kind of on the fence about whether to accept him — would watch and be affected by.”

The new show was a ratings success and one of Netflix’s early forays into original reality programming, paving the way for future hits Selling Sunset, Love Is Blind, and The Circle. It also catapulted each member into the public eye. “As a team, they blew up overnight,” says one early production source. “They were really trying to figure out how to navigate their own lives — their popularity as pop culture icons was definitely growing in size.”

They were beloved as a unit, but each was also focused on growing their own personal brand and securing their own various deals, leaning into their areas of expertise. Berk is the level-headed father figure with a solid design business. Brown is smooth, wise, and can quickly establish a genuine connection with the hero. France is English, chic, and quick-witted. Porowski is the quirky, foodie heartthrob. And Van Ness, who uses they/he/she pronouns, is beloved for their silly quips and joyous, over-the-top personality.

“How is it not obvious to everybody that none of these people are friends? None of them. They don’t hang out socially. They live very different lives.”

‘Queer Eye’ production member

As Queer Eye got bigger, the quintet grew increasingly competitive over screen time and who had the best sound bites, production sources say, as each jockeyed to be the show’s biggest star. Still, it was clear hairstylist Van Ness was the breakout personality.

That, however, brought another set of issues. Four Queer Eye production sources and three sources who worked with Van Ness said the reality star was terrible to work with, using words like “monster,” “nightmare,” and “demeaning” to describe them. Three people labeled Van Ness as emotionally “abusive” and having “rage issues,” and all seven sources said the star would lash out at crew members and people who worked closely with Van Ness.

“[There’s] a real emotion of fear around them when they get angry. It’s almost like a cartoon where it oozes out of them,” one source who worked with Van Ness explains. “It’s intense and scary.” During filming, one production source estimated that Van Ness would explode at least once a week. “He was a yeller,” they said. (Van Ness did not reply to multiple requests for comment.)

It’s a stark contrast to Van Ness’ public personality. While there is genuine connection between Van Ness and the heroes, six sources say, they also describe the star’s public persona as largely a charade. “Jonathan’s a person who contains multitudes and who has the capacity to be very warm, very charismatic, and has the capacity to make you feel really special that they are paying attention to you,” one source who worked with Van Ness explains. “But at least once a day, they would need to yell at somebody. It might be something small, but there’s always going to be somebody to point out and blame and make the villain of the day.”

Van Ness’ behavior allegedly contributed to the rift within the Fab Five, with two sources saying it led to certain members of the group — including Berk — reluctant to shoot scenes with Van Ness. “There was absolutely tension between everybody else, especially from Jonathan Van Ness,” says one production member. “He didn’t want to ever share the spotlight with anyone. There were times when we couldn’t even shoot scenes with certain members of the Fab Five together because it got so bad.”

Other members could also be difficult at moments, but Van Ness stood out in terms of unprofessionalism, with his various moods dictating how the day would go, two sources say. “When he comes on set, everything changes if he’s in a bad mood,” one explains. “Working with him is very difficult in any capacity.”

Van Ness’ alleged two-faced behavior was disappointing, a third production source says. “As much good as he wants to do in the world, I think a lot of it is very hypocritical,” they add. “There’s a definite contrast between the principles and the values that Jonathan stands for publicly,” another source who worked with Van Ness explains. “They’re really centered around having this warmth, love, and care for other people. There’s a real contrast between that and the way that they treat the people who are closest to them across the board. It’s the opposite of what this person is touted and paid to be.”

Netflix executives had at least one meeting with Van Ness over her behavior and treatment of the crew, two sources with knowledge tell Rolling Stone. Yet it seemed to result in little change, sources claim. “The apparatus of [the show’s production company] ITV and Netflix promotes Jonathan and actively rewards them for their bad behavior,” one of those sources adds. “There’s no accountability at all,” a third person who has worked with Van Ness says. (Netflix declined to comment for this article.)

By the time Seasons Seven and Eight rolled around in summer 2022, the group’s dynamic was nothing more than a cordial working relationship, according to two production sources. Apart from Porowski and France — the only castmate invited to Porowski’s bachelor party last September — “none of them are friends,” says one source. “They play nice.” (Through a rep, France declined to comment for this article. Porowski and Brown did not reply to requests for comment.)

“Their relationships have definitely changed since Season One,” explains a second Queer Eye production member. “As in all workplaces, as time moves on, people become closer with some people and move further away from others.” A third was far blunter: “How is it not obvious to everybody that none of these people are friends?” they say. “None of them. They don’t hang out socially. They live very different lives.”

In New Orleans, there was a feeling of consensus among cast and production that it might be everyone’s last season, according to three show sources. At that point, the show had raked in 10 Emmys, the Fab Five’s contracts were ending, and each member was juggling their own business ventures and side projects.

The most recent season was especially difficult: The schedule itself was intensive, filming from June to September with little downtime in humid temperatures. Crew members considered unionizing over alleged construction and safety issues due to rushed renovations, according to one show source. A rep for International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the union for crewmembers working on theater, TV, and film productions, tells Rolling Stone that they “weren’t able to organize” the Queer Eye crew but confirmed members raised alarms about “worker safety concerns.”

And there were serious safety issues after assailants carjacked a production vehicle, yanking a production assistant from a SUV and taking off in her car, according to show sources and The Hollywood Reporter. Filming was halted for two days, and ITV hired additional security after the Fab Five threatened to walk away from the shoot if everyone’s safety wasn’t prioritized. (A rep for ITV did not reply to a request for comment.)

Berk also was butting heads with Van Ness and France during filming, sources say. All of the Fab Five’s work is essential to the hero’s transformation — and each relies on support from their departments — but it’s been a long-running joke among fans that Berk does the heavy lifting in the group, ripping down walls, building furniture, and renovating entire spaces on a tight four-day turnaround.

“[There’s] a real emotion of fear around them when they get angry. It’s almost like a cartoon where it oozes out of them. It’s intense and scary.”

Source who worked with Jonathan Van Ness

But while viewers see the other members having one-on-ones with the hero throughout the episode, producers routinely cut filmed scenes with Berk, according to four production sources. He would be absent for much of the episode, mainly appearing during the finished home’s grand reveal alongside his castmates. “I know Bobby did feel a bit less in the running [of being the fan favorite] because you didn’t see him that much in episodes,” says one production source.

Initially, Berk himself was in on the joke. (As recently as last summer, he posted a video on Instagram making light of his scarce screen time.) But, according to show sources, the bit was beginning to wear thin. By New Orleans, two production sources claim that while Berk was friendly and professional, he seemed to be “checked out.”

It all seemed like the perfect time to wind the series down. “After New Orleans, everyone was like, ‘I think we’re gonna end it,’” one production source recalls. “It wasn’t a sad thing, but, ‘I think we left our impression.’”

Berk also believed New Orleans would be the last stop for the Fab Five, recently telling Vanity Fair that the entire cast and crew had a tearful send-off. “We thought we were done,” he said. “Mentally and emotionally, I thought we all moved on. I know I did, and I started planning other things.”

But following the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes last summer, according to Berk, Netflix was left with a gap in its original programming and renewed Queer Eye in the fall. While the new contract would extend another four seasons, Berk told Vanity Fair he declined the offer, referencing the team’s ostensible goodbye in New Orleans. “All the plans that I had made when I thought we weren’t coming back, I just wasn’t willing to change those,” Berk said. “I would have had to pump the brakes on multiple other projects that are already in process. We had mentally just prepared ourselves to move on — that’s why I left.”

Berk explained that he believed the others were also on the fence about not returning, and at the very least, all five would have to be in agreement to continue. “We’d just assumed that the show wouldn’t come back if we all didn’t come back,” Berk told Vanity Fair. “I was like, I’m not going to be having FOMO ’cause the show is not going to happen. I had become at peace with it.”

Unbeknownst to Berk, at some point castmate France — with alleged support from Porowski — campaigned to replace Berk with interior designer and friend Jeremiah Brent, three sources say, with one calling it “mean-girl antics.” (Netflix announced Brent as Berk’s replacement last Tuesday.)

France appeared on Brent’s podcast last April, and Brent is also part of the Queer Eye extended family, previously co-hosting Say I Do — a short-lived Netflix show from the creators of Scout Productions, the company behind Queer Eye. (Neither Brent nor a rep for Scout replied to requests for comment.)

For some reason, Berk told Vanity Fair, the others ultimately changed course and renewed their contracts — leaving Berk the lone one out. “There were definitely emotions,” Berk said to the outlet. “But each one of us had our reasons why we did what we did. I can’t be mad — for a second I was.”

Many production sources are surprised by the decision to keep Queer Eye going — even more so by the bulk of the group’s decision to return. Some speculate that despite the in-fighting and tensions, the other members agreed to return because Queer Eye serves as the main vehicle to keep their stardom afloat and support their separate ventures, some of which are floundering.

France’s Next in Fashion competition show with co-host Gigi Hadid stalled after two seasons on Netflix, and he recently launched his own production company. Van Ness’ popular podcast Getting Curious was refitted into a docuseries on Netflix, which has gone dark after one season. The main backer for their JVN Haircare line went bankrupt, with the brand offloading at a stunningly low $1.25 million price. Brown’s syndicated talk show brings in around 600,000 viewers, and YouTube episodes fluctuate between 150K and 500K views on average. However, his little-known skincare brand MANTL has fewer than 10,000 followers on Instagram. And Porowski — who recently announced a new docuseries with National Geographic — saw his co-owned restaurant the Village Den in New York City shutter in 2021 after three years.

“Of course they’re all still doing it to maintain popular culture relevance,” says one source. “They’re all basically influencers for their own brand.”

With Brent officially signed on, Netflix can move forward with Season Nine, which will send the new Fab Five to Las Vegas as casting for the new set of “heroes” is already underway.

Those who worked on the show say that despite any feuding among the hosts, it shouldn’t take away from what the show means to viewers. The cast and crew believe in the show’s message, and the Fab Five’s intentions and interactions with the heroes are genuine, they say, despite any behind-the-scenes problems. 

“The experience that the Fab Five gives to the heroes … all that’s very real,” says one production source. “A lot of people — who believe in that message and care about it — work very hard and lose sleep to make a quality show that people care about.”

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