To kick off the pandemic, Bobby Berk and his four fab friends halted production on the newest Queer Eye season without even finishing a single episode. But now, for the first time in three years, this forced quiet time has given the designer a chance to stop, breathe, and spend quality time with his husband Dewey—between cover shoots, other interviews, and business calls, of course.
We borrowed an hour of time to reflect on his own philosophies, and how Bobby Berk (the man) and Bobby Berk (the design-focused lifestyle company) have evolved from their very humble beginnings.
Your role on each episode of Queer Eye is to makeover one ‘hero’s’ personal space. But oftentimes, that’s a fresh coat of paint and shiny new furniture, whereas their previous space reflected a lack of order, and perhaps low self-esteem. Do you ever worry that the hero might fall back into bad habits after you leave? What do you tell people to help ensure that their personal transformation goes deeper than a superficial renovation?
For me, the key to building a healthy habit with organization and design is to start small, so you don’t get overwhelmed. With the heroes on the show, I always try to walk them through the reasons why I did what I did. One hero, John Stoner in Kansas City, was struggling with depression. And one thing I noticed was his bedroom, there were clothes everywhere. The room was a mess, the bed wasn’t made, the sheets were dirty. If every night I’m going to bed in squalor and feeling like a failure, then every morning when I wake up, the first thing I see is a reminder of the things I didn’t accomplish…. I’d think, I can’t take this on today.
So, I walk them through all those small decisions that they don’t think have any impact on the way they feel. I sit down with them and look around the room and ask them if they feel less overwhelmed. Even in your bathroom, where you spend the most time in the morning getting ready- if you don’t have a nice, well-organized bathroom, you start your day off pissed. So if you take a few minutes a day to keep things organized and keep the chaos down, it can have a massive effect on your life.
I suppose that this can be a metaphor for your real life, too, beyond design and the home—regarding the people we let into our lives.
I always try to surround myself with people who truly are happy with my success. Because when you surround yourself with that, it spreads, the courage and positivity. If you have people in your life who really are not genuinely happy for your successes and allow you to wallow in your failures, those are not the type of people you want in your life.
Our professional lives can morph into something detrimental, too. Have you had to audit things in that way, before? To step back from work and make big changes, for your own happiness?
I had retail stores all over the US up until 2015 when I decided to close them and focus solely on interior and product design. Before that, I was on a plane every other day. In 2014, I was at my Miami store 80 percent of the year because I couldn’t find a good manager in Miami. And at my store here in LA, I finally found the perfect woman, she was a career manager in retail and furniture, and three weeks in, I got a call from the store next door saying ‘uhh I think your manager is dead. She’s lying on the floor in the stockroom.’
Sorry, what? She died in your stockroom?
Come to find out, she was passed out drunk, smoking a cigarette with a bottle of vodka. She was going through a breakup, and I found out from an employee who had started the day before, who didn’t say anything because he thought this was the way things worked at Bobby Berk Home. So, that week, I said “screw this”, and closed that store and made plans to start closing Miami. I couldn’t do it anymore because I was always gone. When you’re not a big company, you wear all the hats. So, if there’s an issue at the store in LA and you have to fire a manager, who goes there? You do. You can’t just take a store manager away from another store, because then they don’t have one.
So my husband and I decided to get rid of my stores and focus on interior design and product design because at that point I had started licensing my design and brand out. We moved to LA and had this wonderful life of working until 3 p.m., coming home to go hiking, having dinner. It was great. And that instantly went away when I got cast on the show. Now I’m back on the road all the time, and, you know, I’m never home, I’m living in other cities. So another big sacrifice was giving up the life I had just gotten back.
What did Dewey think about that—about you being gone so often again?
Our relationship has always been a lot apart. I’ve often thought, “Is that how we’ve made it through 16 years?” We met a week before he started med school. I rarely saw him, then he was in residency. We lived together but we only saw each other at night basically, when we were sleeping. And then with my stores, I was always traveling. But we’ve been together 24/7 in quarantine, and we’re still great. We’re the right people for each other. He’s always been very supportive.
Initially, you weren’t sold on doing the show. But you accepted the offer for Queer Eye in early 2017. And at the time, it was a risk—many people were not excited about the reboot when it was first announced. And many reality TV stars have a hard time finding off-screen credibility in their trades if the show doesn’t flatter them. Why did you choose to do the show; were you worried about how it might impact your career?
What drew me to do the show was the impact that the original had on my life. The impact of seeing the original Fab 5 thriving and living their best lives as openly gay men. We didn’t have those types of [real life] role models. I had been approached by a lot of networks before Queer Eye to do reality shows about my life, to do design shows, and I had always said no because I didn’t want to put my brand in the hands of networks or producers who only care about ratings. I had seen friends who had successful brands, whose brands were destroyed because of editing on a show. I knew with Queer Eye that that would never be the case because the show’s goal is to help people. We’re five gay superheroes, so even if we did fuck up on an episode, that’s not gonna make it on the show. So I knew that being on a show that was all about positivity and love, it would be a good thing and I wouldn’t have to worry about my brand.
Speaking of your brand, how is it evolving after the show? BobbyBerk.com is looking a lot more like a lifestyle brand, albeit centered around design and furniture. What do you envision for it?
A good example is what Rachael Ray has done. Food was Rachael’s thing, it was her passion. She had her cooking shows, but she’s taken that and expanded into other categories like furniture. And that’s my plan, which is why BobbyBerk.com is design heavy and with a design point of view, but a design point of view when it comes to lifestyle, travel, fitness, health, food, and fashion. I don’t just want to be known for design. Right now I’m a renaissance man, and you come to my site for the best in everything.
Are you still making furniture though?
My furniture is in 26 countries now. My wallpaper is around the world. We’re working on partnerships with more large retailers. The wallpaper, furniture, art, and rugs were all collections I’ve had since before Queer Eye.
You’ve spoken before on other projects unrelated to lifestyle and design. Is it true you’re also workshopping other filmed projects?
I’m working on new shows, not just ones where I’ll be the talent. I’m working on developing shows for other talents, in genres that you would absolutely not expect me to be a part of. So I don’t just want to be in design and consumer products, but I also want to be in entertainment as well and make that big, all-encompassing company.
Is it safe to assume that this kind of personal and professional innovation is in your nature? You never even graduated high school, and went from being homeless, sleeping in your car, to managing your own successful design business—and that was before you became a household name.
When it comes to business and jobs, the world equates not having an educational background or CV as an inability to be successful. I have found that [the secret to my success is] always saying yes, and then I figure out how to do it. At the end of every interview, people wanted to hire me for me, and so much so that it would make them forget that this person probably isn’t even qualified for this job. I would go in with the right attitude.
And honestly, fake it til you make it. For my first interior design job, Builder Magazine contacted me wanting me to design the showhomes for the International Builders Show, and I had only done retail stores before that. I had curated furniture but I had never really designed a home, and I’m talking about construction documents, electrical plans… And I was like, yeah yeah of course absolutely, I can do it. Then I’m at home googling how to do it, using Photoshop instead of CAD. So it’s always a yes, then teaching yourself how.
If ‘fake it til you make it’ is a recipe for success—and I do believe that it is—then how do you stay true to yourself, without falling into the vortex of Hollywood and social media? You’re swimming with the sharks, and you’ve got millions of eyeballs on every post you make.
I try to be as genuine as possible and let my heart speak for me, which has always been the key to my success. And then in Hollywood, finding out that’s not the way this works, it turned my life upside down. I was always able to show my success by working my ass off, but in Hollywood, that’s not enough. There’s a game to play, there’s so much fake bullshit, and that’s the stuff that gets the glory. So I worked through that, got over that, and learned not to give a fuck. And maybe that’s the key: Not giving a fuck.
That was the key to some of my depression [after the show first aired]—seeing how the world responded to certain things, and I knew those things not to be true at all. Knowing the work I put in and how genuine I try to be to not have that acknowledged and recognized, and to see some of the fake shit glorified, that was what triggered it the most. And honestly, I think that a lot of people’s issue with depression is allowing other people—and how they talk about you—to control the way you feel about yourself.
Also, comparison is a killer. Comparison will put you in the ground, and you sit there and try to compare yourself to everyone else, especially on social media. It’s so not real. Trying to compare yourself to everyone’s perfect life.
Is that why you’re forthright about a lot of things? I know you’re not shy to admit that you’ve had a hair transplant, for example. Some actors wouldn’t be caught dead admitting that.
Especially in Hollywood, especially in the days of social media, everyone puts out this persona of how perfect they are, and it’s created this horrible wave of low self-esteem. Because, for those of us who don’t look like that and try and try and try, it kills you. You wonder “How are they so perfect?”
They’re not real! It’s not real! It’s either airbrush or they’ve had procedures. So, I’m totally open to talking about it. Because it’s like “Oh, Bobby has this great head of hair but… he didn’t [before].” So, why should I feel bad about myself? Everyone goes through this stuff, everyone suffers from it, but not everyone talks about it. There’s no problem talking about it. If there’s something about yourself you don’t like, change it, but make sure you’re doing it for you, and not for everyone else.
It feels like the conversation in the past few years has shifted from “love yourself exactly as you are” to “if you want to change yourself, do it safely and smartly, but for yourself”.
It’s important that you feel good about yourself. For me, my receding hair was a piece of the puzzle, and having a little more self-esteem. When I got in my early 30s, to see that going away and away and away, I needed to do that, to feel good about myself.
There’s no sense in trying to act like you’re that perfect naturally. I know friends who have gotten work done, and then you look at their social, and they have strategically deleted every picture of them before they got their nose done. And it’s like, why? We saw your nose before.
In regards to that shift in perception, maybe it’s like, “if you can change something, go for it”. But a lot of insecurities stem from things that we can’t change—and obviously we’re moving past superficial concerns right now, and into more serious matters. And those ‘unchangeable’ things are often inherent to depression. How did you navigate those, during your own bouts with depression?
Don’t worry about the things you have no control over. Don’t let them give you anxiety. Keep yourself busy, focus on bettering yourself. Focus on the things you can control.
That’s applicable advice for the pandemic times, too. And it brings us back to those ‘small things’ that we talked about before—making small changes to build healthy habits.
It’s always best to start out small, taking off small bites you can consume, so that you don’t get overwhelmed. It does get better, and I’m living proof of that.