Karamo Brown has mastered the art of multitasking. As you know, he's part of the Fab Five on Netflix's reboot of Queer Eye. He's also the cofounder of 6in10.org, an organization that aims to end the stigma around HIV. Even with so much going on, the 37-year-old still found time to plan an elaborate proposal to his longtime boyfriend, director Ian Jordan. Four days before our interview, Karamo shared photos from his special day, when he popped the question in front of friends, family, and loved ones. It's that same blend of optimism and heart that took the Southern boy — he was born to immigrant parents in Houston and raised in Coral Springs, FL — from a high school athlete to one of the most recognizable figures in the LGBTQ+ community.
Whether you remember him on MTV's The Real World: Philadelphia (where he became the first openly gay black man on reality TV) or you recently fell in love with him on Queer Eye (welcome to the club!), Karamo is without a doubt a trailblazer. I spoke to him about all of this and more in honor of Pride Month, and it only deepened my admiration. Ahead, get familiar with the man behind the screen as we discuss his two sons, his favorite Queer Eye episode, and why ending the stigma surrounding HIV is so important to him.
POPSUGAR: First off, I have to say congrats to you on your engagement. It looked like such a beautiful moment.
Karamo Brown: It was a very special event. I was planning the proposal for almost a month and a half. And it went off flawlessly. That's what I was most happy about — and the fact that he said yes! [Laughs]
PS: What's the one thing you're looking forward to about your wedding day?
KB: Well, it's not going to be for a while. I want to live in this space for a little bit — maybe a year, year and a half. I think what I'm most looking forward to is having all of my friends and family come out. We had about 200 people at the engagement party. I realized that our circle of friends and families is really big, and there's a lot of people who couldn't make that. I just can't wait to have us all in the same room partying together, drinking, enjoying each other's company, because that's what life is all about.
PS: You've definitely been a busy man lately. I'd like to go back to the beginning, though. Before you became the Karamo that we know today, what was life like for you growing up?
KB: Life was pretty normal. I was an athletic child. I played sports. I felt like I had to fit a certain image so that people wouldn't discriminate against me or hate on me. Growing up in the South, I felt as if the more masculine that I was that I wouldn't be bullied and picked on. Then somewhere around 16 years old, I was like, "Hmm. Let me just be me." That's when life just started to blossom. I still love sports. I realized that I didn't have to give that up just because I identified the way I identified. I realized that I also didn't have to block other things in my life. I can just be myself. I was met with some resistance from family, friends, and community members. But I was also met with a lot of love.
PS: You were still a teenager when you declared that you were gay. How did your family react to you taking ownership of your sexual orientation so early on?
KB: My father never was able to recognize my sexuality because of his religious views. But then I had a mother who did, and I had sisters who did. [They] loved me unconditionally. I had teammates who were like, "We don't care. We love you," and friends as well. It varied, but what I always did is I tried to focus on those people who showed me love and not [on] those people who showed me hate. I think that's what kept me sane at such a young age, and today. I think that everyone needs to go on their own journey. I don't like when people pressure others to let people into their lives when it comes to their sexuality. If you want to start letting people in when you're 40 or you want to let people in when you're 60, it's up to you. It's your journey. But I think [for] me, I wouldn't be comfortable — and I wouldn't feel whole — if I didn't start letting people in.
PS: You recently spoke about how you prefer not to use the term "coming out." It's also a term that I find problematic. Do you believe there will ever be a time when members of the LGBTQ+ community won't have to "come out" in the same way heterosexual people don't have to?
KB: Well, see, I think it's about language. I believe heterosexual people let you into their lives. It's just that we've normalized it, and we haven't made it this grand experience. I don't take issue with anyone who uses the term "coming out" or people who like the point of coming out. The reason that I don't use that term is because language is power. I realized that letting people in gives me the power to say, "You know what? I'll still be fine." It takes away the power from someone else to reject me. And just like my straight counterparts, when I'm talking to them, and they'll say, "Oh, yeah. By the way, my girlfriend and I . . . " — that's them letting me into their lives regarding their sexuality. It's just not this grand gesture.
I do the same thing. I let people in when I say, "Oh, by the way, my fiancé and I . . ." And they'd say, "Oh, you have a fiancé," and I'd say, "Yeah." So we have similar experiences. It's just that we put this pressure on ourselves in the LGBTQ+ community — and society puts this pressure on us — that you have to make it so big. The closet part I've always hated. I can't lie. I have never lived in a closet. I don't know where this magical closet is. If there is a closet, there better be a pot of gold or leprechauns there, for all the sh*t I had to deal with. [Laughs]
PS: Going back to your childhood, did you always know you wanted to be on TV?
KB: Oh, honey! I knew from a very early age. I used to run home after school before anyone would get home and watch The RuPaul Show. This was in the seventh grade. I was watching and thinking, "I want to do exactly that." Being from immigrant parents, entertainment was not a career choice. The career choice was: you go to school; you become a "professional." My parents saw the entertainment industry as a hobby. And so, to not rock the boat, I took a traditional path. I don't regret it. It gave me the skills I needed so that I can be successful now in television, but I always knew that television would be a medium I'd want to do. It was always television or politics.
PS: You are credited as the first openly gay black man on reality TV. For me, personally, it was a big deal to see someone like you on The Real World back in 2004. I was still discovering my sexuality back then, and to see someone who looked like me living their truth gave me hope that one day I would be able to also.
KB: Oh, that's beautiful! Thank you for sharing that. That means the world to me.
PS: You're welcome. Did you have any idea that you were having such an impact while filming the show? If not, when did it hit you?
KB: I didn't have a clue at the time. I'd be lying if I said I did. I was young and immature. I watched The Real World and I kept thinking, "No one looks like me." Also, no one even had the style that I had. No one represented hip-hop culture. Obviously, all black people weren't immersed in hip-hop culture, but the group I hung around listened to hip-hop and dressed a certain way. And I was like, "Where are these black people?"
I remember all the black guys on The Real World wore those puka shell necklaces. I was thinking, "I have never seen a black dude in my neighborhood wear one of those necklaces." For me, it was more about showing another part of the black community. Then I was like, "Well, I live my life openly as gay, so of course I can't be anything but who I am." It was after I got off the show that I started receiving messages from everywhere. People used to write me, saying, "Oh my gosh. You saved me; [you] made me feel better about myself," and it was overwhelming. It was humbling, and I'm still appreciative of it because representation and visibility matter.
PS: Do you remember the first time you felt a tremendous sense of pride in being gay?
KB: I do, actually. It was 2005. I was part of Atlanta Pride with the cast of Noah's Arc, which was a hit show on Logo back in the day. We walked into the Georgia Dome and there were — oh my gosh — had to be about 12,000 to 13,000 predominately black and Latino gay men there. I remember walking in and everyone was smiling and happy. I felt safe. I felt special. And I felt normal. I just felt so much pride in that moment. That moment is something I've never experienced. Up until that point, any time I experienced gay pride celebrations, it had always been white pride. So to see that was just amazing. To be black and to be gay, it just made me feel so good.
PS: Now, we have to talk about Queer Eye. I binge-watched it, and I'm obsessed. One of the things I noticed about your role on the show is that you sort of deconstruct the human psyche and figure out who the guys are beneath the surface. You worked as a social worker for a while after The Real World. Did that help with your role as the resident culture expert?
KB: One-hundred percent. Culture was a hard category to define because how do you make going to a museum or showing someone a drawing something that can create long-lasting change? For me, it was more so about having culturally relevant conversations that were on a deeper level and fixing the inside. I love what my castmates do, but hair can grow back and you can change your outfit. But if you can change your heart and your mind, then you can really have long-lasting changes. That was my goal, and it worked.
"One of the ways to deconstruct toxic masculinity is to encourage men to realize that they can be curious about life."
We still hear from the guys we worked with. To hear them say that they have completely transformed their lives, it's because they figured out that they could be more confident, but they also got to the root of what the issue was. That's the main point.
PS: The episode with AJ had me on the verge of tears. What was so striking about his story is how universal our internal struggles can be, especially for black gay men. Just as black men in general, we're taught to be tough in order to survive in this crazy world — and rightfully so. But as a result, we're also conditioned to suppress our vulnerability. How do you think we can all be better to unpack some of that toxic masculinity?
KB: I got to tell you, AJ's episode is probably one of my proudest moments I've ever had on TV. Queer Eye is a show that goes worldwide. The images that we normally see of black men through the media is that we are fighting gang members, we hate each other, and so on. Here, you had two black men who were hugging and telling each other how much we loved each other.
I get messages from people who are white, Asian, and Latino who are like, "I've never seen that image." And also from black men who are like, "I don't get to see that image enough." I think one of the ways to deconstruct toxic masculinity is to encourage men to realize that they can be curious about life. That's what we do so well on Queer Eye. We let men know that they can be curious. At some point in men's lives, they're told, "You can't be curious anymore." They're told, "You've got to toughen up. You can't cry. You can't show emotion." It creates a block in them. It holds in so much of their greatness. We just try to chip away at that block. That's when they become better fathers, better boyfriends, better husbands, better human beings.
PS: There were some critics who felt the original Queer Eye was stereotypical in the way it portrayed gay men. Were you ever apprehensive at all about doing the reboot?
KB: I watched the original, and I didn't think it was stereotypical. Sometimes we want to tear down things that happened in our past because they weren't what we wanted them to be. The original cast got into people's homes who were like, "Oh my gosh. These guys are just sweet and kind. Maybe we shouldn't be fighting against them. Maybe we should be helping them get their rights." When you can walk into a home in Middle America and people say, "Oh my gosh, Carson Kressley, I love you," that is the path to the way that they vote, the way that they go to church, the way that they help someone else. That's so important. I didn't have to be apprehensive of coming on because I just wanted to continue the legacy. In 20 years, I hope people are saying this version is stereotypical because that means that we've progressed again. I think that's the goal. We want people to look back and be like, "Girl, what were they doing back then?" If it's not the goal, that means we're stuck.
PS: You've already expressed a desire to bring in more diverse LGBTQ+ members for makeovers, including nonbinary identities in the second season. Can we expect to see those new changes in season two?
KB: We're already finished shooting season two, and you'll see a lot more diversity, which I'm very excited about. We have a transman. You'll see women. These are things that we're all very excited about.
PS: Is that something that you and the entire cast were pushing for or is it something that was already in the works if there was room for a season two?
KB: Well, we have an amazing cast and directors, but they knew that for us, we didn't want to limit ourselves. I will tell you if we get a season three or four, I want to keep pushing even more. I want to explore and help people who live with disabilities. I think it's important for us to keep pushing ourselves to show we're all alike. At the end of the day, we just want love and support. We all just need a little help sometimes. I think myself and the other guys, that's what we all want.
PS: For those who don't know, you actually have a beautiful blended family. In 2007, you learned that you had fathered a son named Jason from a previous sexual relationship. Jason's mother agreed to let Jason move in with you. And in order to keep the family unit together, you adopted Jason's brother, Chris, in 2011.
Do you remember the biggest challenge you faced transitioning into fatherhood so suddenly?
KB: I would say realizing that I don't have to be perfect. I thought that if I was perfect, whatever perfect is as a dad, then my kids would not be screwed up. Luckily they're not screwed up, but I did put a lot of pressure on myself; it felt like I had to.
Literally, at one point, I wore khaki pants and my phone on my hip.
I was 29 years old at that point in my life. And [I'm] not saying there's anything wrong with fellas who have that style, but for me, I was doing it because I was trying to be what I thought a dad should look like and what I thought my kids needed. And then I realized my kids just need me to be there and love them, support them, and listen to them. That took a lot of the pressure off of myself.
PS: How are you raising them to be allies within the LGBTQ+ community?
KB: You know, I didn't raise them to be allies. They naturally became allies and they became allies because I was confident in myself and I exposed them to members of the community. I think exposing your children, your coworkers, or anyone who straight-identifies is what's really important. By exposing them to our community, that's how they become allies. It's very hard to hate someone when you know what makes them smile and what makes them scared.
For my kids, I never said, "Hey. You've got to be allies. You have to stick up for me." Nope. When I was a social worker, I worked at an LGBTQ+ center in LA. I would bring my kids, at the age of 15, to the youth center, and they would hang out with trans youth.
I remember the first time my oldest son came up to me [and] said, "Hey, Dad — is that girl trans?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "Oh. I don't know if I'm supposed to be able to hang around them." I said, "Who taught you that?" And he said, "I don't know."
I said, "Well, then, if you don't know who taught you that, because it wasn't me, then go say hello. Be respectful." And he then said "hello" and made friends.
I remember the first time my son, who straight-identifies, had one of the transwomen at the center ask him out on a date. His response was, "You're a beautiful woman, but I'm already seeing someone."
It made me so happy, because I realized that the toxic way that some straight men feel they should respond — like, "Oh, if a transwoman comes up to me, I have to make a derogatory comment" — [was] dead. He saw this woman as just another beautiful woman and did not feel disrespected. That's what it's about. It wasn't me teaching him; it was just exposing him and letting him see she's a human being. These are your friends and your families. Give them the same respect you'd want.
PS: Part of the amazing work you do as an activist is with your organization, 6in10.org. It was founded to help break down the stigmas of HIV in the black LGBTQ+ community. Why is that so important to you?
KB: The numbers of black men and women being infected with HIV, especially black gay and bisexual men, are high and still rising. There's something going on. Why are we not exposing ourselves to health care? Why are we not talking? Why we're not protecting ourselves? I've dated men who were positive. I've fallen in love with a man who was positive, and it was no different than me falling in love with a man who was negative. I think that those types of conversations aren't heard. We hear shade, and we hear negativity. "Oh, you can't date this person. They got this or that." It was important to me to get that message out there. If we don't start talking and loving and supporting each other, then we're going to keep dying. I'm thinking, "Us not communicating and us shading each other is killing each other." So why not stop it?
PS: Lastly, before we go, I'd like to know: what do you want your legacy to be?
KB: Other people will have to decide that. Anybody who says they know what they want their legacy to be is limiting the possibilities of their life. As I walk out into the world today, I might accomplish something that I had no idea I was going to accomplish, and that may end up being my legacy. I'm going to keep pushing myself to keep being my best self and pushing other people to be their best self. That way, people will show up and say, "Hey, this was his legacy."