Karamo Brown is the new Queer Eye Culture guy. He helps the schlubbs on the show by talking to them. A lot. He talks to them about their feelings, their fears, their worries and their hopes. He asks them about their families and their relationships. He cracks them open to see what shakes out. It’s a tough role and some the conversations get uncomfortable, by Brown never backs away from potential awkwardness. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas alum has a background in social work and reality television. He’s also willing to tell his story — and it’s a hell of a story.
Brown found out he was a dad — the only Fab 5 father — in his mid-twenties. He met his 9-year-old kid. Brown ultimately won custody of his son and then, unexpectedly, his son’s half-brother. He was a hyper-engaged single dad, and largely raised his kids on his own until he met his now-fiancée. He knows not every tale is perfect. He knows the only thing any man can do is try harder.
Fatherly spoke to Karamo about his path to fatherhood, what makes Queer Eye work, and the deep power of dad guilt.
Let’s start with how you found out you were a dad.
My path to fatherhood was very unexpected. I had a girlfriend when I was 15, who was also my best friend. During that time, when I was 15, I decided to start letting people into my life regarding my sexuality. We had lost our virginity to each other and stayed best friends. But she moved away. This was before the advent of social media. When someone moved, it was like they were gone.
So I went on with my life. I came home from some Real World event one day [Brown was on The Real World: Philadelphia in 2004] and there was a stack of papers on my doorstep for back pay in child support. The papers were for a 9-year-old child I didn’t know existed. At first I thought I was being Punk’d. Then I looked at the paperwork and I saw her name. I was immediately transported back. I also saw my son’s name, which blew my mind.
So what did you do?
It was a Friday, so I had to wait until Monday to call and get any information. And then the state told me, to get any identifying information, I had to fly to Texas — where I was from — to take a DNA test and then they could give me information. That was the longest two weeks of my life. At the end of the DNA test, the woman behind the desk gave me a piece of paper and said, “You’re the father. Next!” I was like… “Uh, I have questions.”
When I knocked on my former girlfriend’s door, she did not know that I was coming, because she didn’t come after me for child support. She was trying to petition for state benefits, and the state came after me. We forgave each other, and about six months into it, I saw the condition my son was living in and I asked if I could petition for full custody. She supported me. I have full custody of my son.
A year in, we found out that his little brother was having some issues and he was going to be staying with me for a little bit. A little bit turned into full-time placement because he was doing so well. I became a father of two, basically within a year. I was 26.
Walk me through how you felt when you figured out you were a dad.
At first, I was scared. Then I was excited. As a gay man, I never understood, at that time, how a child might come into my life. That’s not a conversation that we have in the LGBT community. But it was nerve wracking. I was like: Am I supposed to give up my life? I was still young. Now, I’m so thankful that happened. I was very reckless at that point in my life. Becoming a father made me realize that my life was bigger than just me. I immediately changed my behavior and became a responsible adult.
Still, you had to introduce yourself to these kids as their father. That had to be incredibly difficult and frightening. They didn’t know you.
Well, they had watched me on The Real World when they were little.
Your kids saw you on The Real World before they met you?
They did. My oldest son’s mother was watching Real World and his mother’s sister, who knew I was the father, came by and said nonchalantly, “That’s your daddy on TV.” When he heard that, he fixated on me and watched the show consistently. He wanted to learn more about me. When I found out, I felt like that was a horrible way for him to be introduced to his dad. I was in a hot tub drinking and arguing with people.
Now, I love it. I don’t have to pretend like I was an amazing 22 year old or that I came out of the womb knowing it all. When they make mistakes, I’m like, ‘I was there! Life is good now. You can get through this.’
If they watched that show, they knew about your sexuality before they met you. What was that conversation like? Or did you just skip it?
The youngest didn’t, but the oldest did, because he watched the Real World. He was like, “Oh, dad’s kissing a guy. Oh, dad’s now kissing another guy! Dad’s gay!”
The youngest and I did have to have that conversation, but it wasn’t difficult for me. It was more difficult for him to process. Kids are malicious. He’d go to school and kids would say: “Oh, you’re gay now, too.”
Beyond the adjustment of understanding, emotionally that you’re a dad, I’m sure there were a ton of adjustments with figuring out schools, homework, uniforms…
I had to figure out so much stuff. I remember the first thing that really struck me was grocery shopping. I had spent the last however many years since I was in college, shopping for one person. My fridge had eggs and milk. Mostly, I’d go out with friends. I remember the first time I had to go shopping because my son was spending his first weekend with me. I was so confused in the store.
I know that sounds silly. But I really struggled to make choices that were going to be healthy and nutritious I remember one trip taking four hours because I was reading every single thing. Now, I just know. I grab things. That’s the comfort of having been a parent. But in the beginning it was like: What do I do? Does he have allergies?
I learned a lot of the experiences I had in my own childhood. We had a very stable household: There was dinner every night and lunches were made. I was pulling from a lot of that experience. I was like, ‘This is what mom and dad did, so let me emulate that behavior.’ Still, it was a tough adjustment.
What would you say is the hardest part about being a parent?
Pretending like I know things, which I don’t. Or not. When they were younger, I used to really act like I had the answers. You’re supposed to be their guide. You can see the fear in their eyes when you say, “I don’t know.” But as I got older, I realized there was something beautiful about letting kids know that it’s okay, as you go through life, you might not know the answers.
Did you ever feel guilty for not being around for your sons?
Guilt cannot even describe how I felt. For the first year, I was unconsciously doing things to try to make up for time lost. I took my son places and we did everything. If he got in trouble at school, I was still giving him things because I wanted him to forgive me. I talked to a lot of other fathers and a therapist before I learned that I was trying to use physical gifts as a way of saying, ‘Please forgive me for not being there.’
But it’s not like you knew that you were a father. It wasn’t your choice.
I came to that realization. What had to come next was having a conversation with my son where I asked him, ‘Do you understand why I wasn’t there?’And he said, “Yeah, you didn’t know.” And I was like, ‘Oh. Perfect. Good. Great! By the way, you got an F. You’re not going out tonight.’
It was like the guilt went away. But even though that guilt went away, I still have father’s guilt all the time.
Why do you feel that guilt?
We hear about mother’s guilt. But we don’t really talk about father’s guilt. It just tears my heart up that I’m missing out on so much. Yesterday, my son had his driving test and he failed and he called me, crying, and I just wanted to be there for him. I couldn’t be, because I was working. If I was there to soothe him, he might have done better. But I wasn’t.
From the driving test, to my oldest breaking up with his girlfriend, all of that happened in the past two days. And both of them were like, “When are you coming home?” Because we’ve established this relationship where we really talk and communicate, the first person who they want to talk to is me. When I’m not around and I can’t talk because I’m running late to an interview, it breaks my heart in a way that you can’t even imagine.
You’re the only one of the Fab 5 who is a father. So doing that, and being the Culture guy, do you think fatherhood helped prepare you for that?
“Culture” is a misleading title. That’s a throwback to the original Queer Eye. I was hired to fix the inside. My background is in social work. Being a father gives me a point of entry for the majority of our heroes because at least 75 percent of them are dads.
I’m able to relate to them from that standpoint. The other guys don’t have that. There are a lot of emotions that men have about being fathers that are not discussed openly or publicly. The fact that I could immediately use that as a way of saying: ‘I understand what’s going on. I understand how hard you’re working. I understand you feeling that you’re not financially stable enough, that you’re not providing enough, that you’re not giving enough emotional support, that you’re not showing up for the kids equally as you are for your wife.’ All those things allow me to start digging in. It also allows me to say: ‘What’s your relationship with your father? Or your mother?’ It allows me to talk.
Do the men really open up?
There’s an episode in Season 2 with Leo. He is a Latino man, father of two. And he has suffered from father’s guilt. Literally, within 5 minutes of our conversation, he started crying. He expressed that no one had talked to him about the guilt he had and what he was feeling. It shifted the way that I helped him on the show. I helped him interact with other fathers. I see moms. I see their support groups. But I never see men doing that. I’m like, ‘We’re out here!’ It’s just not something that the media popularizes.
Is it difficult to work with people who are very different than you — like those who may be Trump supporters or may not support gay rights?
I grew up in the South. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. When my parents got divorced, I moved to Florida. These are predominantly white neighborhoods I lived in. So being a young, black gay boy with the name like Karamo, I constantly came across people who were different than me.
When I was dealing with the Trump supporter in Season 1, Cory, who was also a police officer, and we had a conversation about Black Lives Matter. That’s not a hard conversation for me to have. I’ve had to talk to people who were different from me all my life. Helping them to see my perspective, while also seeing theirs, is a gift that I believe I have.
Jonathan Van Ness and I got into a disagreement because I went to the White House and talked to them about art therapy. He was like, “Why are you going there? They don’t like you.” For me, it was like, it doesn’t matter if they don’t like me. I cannot stay out of the room. I have to be in the room to expose them to me so that maybe one person in there has a change of heart.
It seems like this iteration if Queer Eye goes a bit deeper, emotionally, than the first. Maybe it’s because our understandings of gender and sexuality have shifted over the past decade, but I don’t know. What do you think?
I don’t really ever talk about this, but the big shift in the show — and there’s no ego in this statement — is because of my role. In the first show, the culture guy was like, “Let me give you Broadway tickets!” It was my intention to open these guys up.
The second episode we ever shot, a crewmember came up to our trailer, and said to me, “Stop making the men cry.” I swear to God. The other guys will tell you. He said, “This is not the show. This is a comedy, light hearted, fun show.” Luckily, I had four men standing beside me, who I respect, and who respect me and they said, “No, he’s going to keep doing what he’s doing. And we’re going to keep going on this journey with him.”
It was important to you to get to know these guys and help them on a deeper level.
I knew we couldn’t just walk in there and be like, “Oh! Everything’s fine! We’re just going to make you over and we’re not going to talk about any other thing! We’re not going to talk about the fact that you’re emotionally abusive to your wife! We’re not going to talk about the fact that you’re not a great father! We’re not going to talk about the fact that you voted for Trump and we’re gay men!” I was like, ‘Not going to happen.’
What do you wish all dads knew about themselves?
I wish that fathers knew the guilt is normal and that they should communicate that guilt to their wife and kids — that they don’t have to keep a strong face. And it’s okay for them to channel that guilt into action when they are around their kids. To spend time with them. And also that it’s okay to take a moment for yourself. I was with a guy recently and I told him that it was okay to need 30 minutes for himself. I told him something very simple: ‘Allow me to show up for me, which allows me to show up for you.’