Carson Kressley is an Emmy Award-winning TV star, fashion expert, philanthropist, designer, and best-selling author amongst myriad other credits. In June, he will host QUEER- E-OKEE at The Palladium, a new Pride event where local LGBTQ+ musicians will lead the audience in classic Pride songs with Kressley’s signature wit at the helm.
He sat down with us to talk Pride, style, and advocacy.
Let’s take it from the top. Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I had a pretty idyllic childhood outside of Allentown, PA. When people hear that town, they think of Billy Joel and steel workers, but I grew up in the countryside where there was a farming community. I often say that I’m Amish-adjacent. It was a beautiful place to grow up.
Do you think you had an awareness that you were gay as a child?
Yes, of course! I distinctly remember being in the first grade when everyone was into The Six Million Dollar Man because he could blow things up. Meanwhile, I’m just thinking, “Wow, he’s really attractive.” I definitely knew, but like so many gay kids, no one had explained the terminology to me. By the time I was a teenager, I was aware of what being gay was and I knew that I was super gay.
You eventually moved to New York City and were cast on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The show was a colossal success, but it was also airing before the passage of marriage equality, when calling someone “metrosexual” was cheeky. What was that time and that experience like for you?
The show was extremely liberating for me. I was working at Ralph Lauren when we shot the pilot, and I remember being timid when my colleagues asked me the name of the show I was doing. Once it came out, it allowed me to embrace my queerness because the thing that I thought was a flaw, my sexuality, had gotten me a great job and was being celebrated in the mainstream. I still remember when my mom called to tell me that her friends at the beauty parlor loved the show. It was major to finally embrace my entire person at work, with friends, and with family.
Still the most gratifying thing 20 years later is when I meet young people who say, “Queer Eye allowed me to have a conversation with my family about being gay, and it made my path so much easier.” Getting rid of mullets and pleated khakis was great, but making it easier for people to be their authentic selves is what I’m most proud of.
You now work on another groundbreaking show, "RuPaul’s Drag Race." What has it been like watching drag culture and the language of the ballroom scene go mainstream because of the show?
Even I was learning things at first. I was like, “What is tea and shade?” It’s been fantastic because ball culture and the drag world were cloistered away in night clubs where not a lot of people got to experience them. Now, with shows like Drag Race, a light is shined on the artistry and the richness of that culture. The show also has a lot of heart and humor, not to mention the glamorous sage of our time, RuPaul, and all of that resonates. It’s been a great educational experience for people. These days, I’ll be in the airport and the person selling me a candy bar is like, “I don’t have any change – no shade!”
I love a show where, if you sneeze, you might miss a great reference or a great line. The judging panel is like that every episode.
We all love gay culture. Whether it’s Michelle, Ross, Ru, or my- self, we’ve grown up with it; it’s the fabric of our lives. We like to throw in as many references as possible. Sometimes the kids don’t get it. I’ll say, “That’s very Wayland and Madame. Guys, put up a graphic of Wayland and Madame because no one is going to know what that is!” And they do it, and I’m like, “There, we’ve just enriched the children.”
You’re hosting our big singalong, QUEER-E-OKEE, this June. What are some of your favorite gay anthems? What are we going to hear you belt?
I love “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross, the dance mix, of course. Anything by Madonna. Maybe a little “Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John. I feel like I can sing in his range. I can’t really sing, but I think I could manage that one.
Or lip sync it, at least.
Oh, I can lip sync, don’t worry about that. I’m really looking forward to the celebratory nature of the event. There are so many awful things going on in the world, and I think that getting together with our community –gay, straight, allies, everybody– to celebrate who we are and where we’re going will be a great release that we all need.
How about some practical advice for Pride Month: what are your dos and don’ts for a Pride outfit?
I’m going to really contradict myself and say that this is the one time when you can do absolutely anything that makes you feel loud and proud. I think it’s one of the only days when there are no fashion rules.
What are you wishing you saw more of in fashion right now?
I think it’s one of the only days when there are no fashion rules.
I totally understood the reprioritization of comfort over style during the pandemic, but I do hope that we can start to ex- perience the joy of going out again and dressing up not only for ourselves, but for other people. My imaginary boyfriend, Tom Ford, always says that dressing well is a form of good manners because it’s something that you do to show other people that you care about them.
Also, a silver lining of the pandemic was that hardship forced creativity, and many people started new fashion businesses from their homes. So, you might have a new local designer or a new vintage boutique on Instagram that you can support and explore. I hope that people dive in and see what fashion resources are out there now.
You champion a number of philanthropic causes, but you’ve said that you’re especially passionate about supporting LGBTQ+ youth-focused charities. Can you tell us about the work you’re involved with?
I love supporting LGBTQ+ youth projects because our youth are our future, and they’re also our most vulnerable population. I’ve been working with Cyndi Lauper at True Colors United for about 20 years to end youth homelessness. LGBTQ+ youth are 40% more likely to experience homelessness than their straight peers, which is a totally curable statistic. We’re working to end it, but we also make sure that when LGBTQ+ youth do experience homelessness, they have community and government resources available to them without discrimination.
I’ve also loved supporting The Trevor Project over the years. More than ever, there’s so much pressure in certain places to reject who you are, and it’s critical for youth to have a 24-hour suicide hotline that they can call for support. Peo- ple sometimes need a voice telling them that they are loved and have a community even if they feel unsupported in that moment. If we don’t support our youth, where are we going to be? We have to look out for our kids.
Thank you for the work that you do and for talking with us today. People of all ages will be excited to have you here in St. Pete.
I’m very excited to come see everyone in St. Pete! I know that St. Pete has a vibrant and growing LGBTQ+ community, and I’m looking forward to checking it out and seeing what’s new!