David Collins's story is like something from reality TV. So it only makes sense that he would find success in reality TV. Spurred by a scene that he watched unfold in a South End gallery, he created a television megahit that changed the way men, straight and gay, look at one another and at themselves. Will his new show do the same thing for women?
Minutes before the cast of Queer Eye for the Straight Girl arrives for supper - and for a first look at the show, which debuts in January on Bravo - David Collins, who created the Queer Eye franchise, rushes to the kitchen of his sprawling Los Angeles home. (It's a Palm Springs-style party pad, nothing like the quaint Craftsman bungalow he keeps in West Roxbury.) Compact, lithe, and stylishly bald, Collins at 37 still has the winning, crafty energy of a teenage boy who's desperate to be liked - and even more determined to arrange the world so things go his way. Sweetly and firmly, he corrects the mistakes of a caterer's delivery man: "Gin doesn't need to be chilled" - he pulls bottles from a sink full of ice - "and red wine is served at room temperature."
The culprit, who looks to be about 20, and straight, says, "Wow, that's interesting," and Collins, whose Paul Smith socks have red racing stripes on them, jets through his living room - past the Emmys that he and Michael Williams, 47, his partner in business and life, won in September for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the Oscar that Williams won in February, for producing Errol Morris's documentary The Fog of War - to his backyard, where tropical plants shimmer in the swimming pool's light. Pacing the perimeter, he adjusts a long row of chaise longues to the exact same height before running back into the house to holler "Honey!" to a cast member, a lipstick lesbian who could be the love child of Diahann Carroll and Halle Berry and whose name, it turns out, actually is Honey.
Just as Straight Guy's Fab Five divide their makeover (or, as Collins prefers, "make better") energies among specialists, Straight Girl is led by four "Gal Pals," of whom Honey Labrador (a 39-year-old mother who's worked as a model, magazine editor, and film producer) is queen bee. The credits name her as "The Lady," and she's in charge of making sure the show's three male style gurus tailor their work to a woman's experience. ("She gives sex advice, too," says Williams.)
Her colleagues are Danny Teeson (his specialty is billed as "The Life"), a British hunk in charge of cuisine and culture; Damon Pease ("The Locale"), an amped-up Robby Benson type who designs interiors; and Robbie Laughlin ("The Look"), a boyish blond fashion-and-grooming maven.
The Gal Pals pile onto a modern wraparound sofa in a heap of toned limbs and distressed denim, and all eyes fix on a Samsung 50-inch flat-screen as the episode (it is rough and thus off-the-record) begins to play. When it's over, David Metzler, an executive producer on the show whom Collins calls his "straight husband" - he dates Collins's best female friend ("my straight wife") and shares the Los Angeles house with Collins and Williams (it's complicated) - congratulates the cast: "At the end of the show, you feel better for having watched it. Because you've lifted this woman up."
Collins jumps to his feet and applauds, a cheerleader: "That was so good, you guys! Aren't you proud?"
There's a brief, quiet contentment in the room. Pease says, "Everyone likes a happy ending."
The next week, Collins takes a lunchtime spin through Louis Boston in Back Bay, where a T-shirt with the slogan "IT'S NOT LIKE THE MOVIES" catches his eye. When he asks the store's notoriously frosty salesclerks if it comes in different colors, they fawn and scramble, calling him by name, and loot the back rooms but return empty-handed.
The phrase, if not the garment, is a perfect fit for Collins. Like every Horatio Alger figure, he's paid a great price for his success; it's as if he had to leave one life behind for the one he sought. "How's fame and fortune?" one clerk asks. "What are you doing next?"
Though enjoying the attention (entering the store, he'd whispered, "We wanted to shoot the [Straight Guy] pilot here, but the owner wouldn't let us. Boy, is she sorry"), he also seems genuinely embarrassed by it. He answers the clerk, "You know, a few little things . . . "
In fact, Collins says later, he believes his Gal Pals could be "as big as the Fab Five." It's quite a claim, considering that Straight Guy's explosive premiere in 2003 was Bravo's highest-rated program ever. Bravo's parent company, NBC, then took it to the national airwaves, igniting a cultural phenomenon that flashed on the covers of Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair, among others. Collins himself even found a measure of celebrity, appearing in TV and magazine ads for
Though some killjoy critics said the show indulged stereotypes of gays as superficial, style-obsessed queens, many deemed its popularity a milestone in America's assimilation of gay men. During that first season, it seemed almost any Joe Sixpack would let the Fab Five have their way with him. Collins often quotes a story in the national gay news magazine, The Advocate, that asked, "Who would have thought that throw pillows and chocolate mousse could be among the most powerful weapons of social change?" His own political analysis of the show is less convincing: "We took back the word 'queer' and made it a really positive concept. Now kids in high school say 'queer,' and they mean it as a compliment."
That may be a stretch. But this program earned a reputation for doing good, and not just for gay people. Nancy Franklin's review in The New Yorker hit the bull's-eye, saying that "the show fulfills a desire that has come to be almost forbidden in our culture: the desire to be taken care of."
Queer Eye has also, more verifiably, done well. The program itself is merely the first tier of a multi-platform entertainment property with enormous reach and revenue. Scout maximized the value of conventional merchandising: Capitol Records signed on for TV soundtrack albums; the Queer Eye book nabbed a $1.2 million advance and hit the New York Times bestseller list; and the show's 2004 wall calendar sold out.
The company's market muscle and savvy, however, are best shown by its canny use of products on Queer Eye. When the Fab Five dress a man in Lucky Brand jeans or furnish his apartment with a Domain settee, for instance, sales of these items can jump by as much as 400 percent and Scout often receives product-placement fees that are sizable by industry standards (Collins won't disclose figures). That's important, because, in the age of digital video recorders such as
Can TV shows tell powerful stories that also make people want to buy stuff? With Straight Guy, David Collins made it look easy. With Straight Girl, can he do it again? And if he does, what's it going to cost him?
He finds it easier to talk about the first question than the second. Its answer, Collins says, contains an almost limitless number of variables. Starting with shoes.
"For men, you've got a black shoe and a brown shoe and maybe three styles," he explains. "Walk into a woman's shoe store, and there are 4,000 kinds of shoes. . . . [Straight Girl] is really about trying to help women sort through the options." Still, the new show and the old are united in one goal: Both guide makeover subjects to be "you, only better. It's not about you trying to be on the magazine cover."
But Straight Girl aims to reach that end by different means. Williams says, "We didn't want this to be a carbon copy of the other show. It's more fun, there's more spirit and more sharing. We had to tell a lot of straight guys how to wash their face correctly. Most women know the basics. So we're trying to melt the Straight Guy categories together and be a little more detailed in the advice that's given and more complex in showing how one thing relates to another."
The producers say the Gal Pals, chosen from about 400 auditions, are a more seamless ensemble than their forerunners. "We wanted a group that could operate as a team, that wasn't as much about individuals as the Fab Five," says Metzler, who in addition to being a producer of Straight Girl is also Scout's chief creative officer. "The woman should always be surrounded. That's what's going to make it meaningful to her. She's running around town with a powerful team behind her."
Of the cast, Collins boasts, "Wait till people see them. They are such gorgeous human beings. The Fab Five are good-looking guys, but the Gal Pals are beautiful." Michael Williams adds, "Jai [Rodriguez, Straight Guy's culture vulture] never takes a bad picture. But none of the Gal Pals take a bad picture." Is that because straight men might have been threatened or intimidated by a cast of beautiful gay men, and straight women will just enjoy it? Williams quickly answers, "It may be working out that way, but that wasn't the intention."
As a producer, David Collins has lots of control over program elements like casting; but these don't guarantee a show's success. To create a sensation on the order of Straight Guy, marketing is crucial. And Collins seems worried that Bravo executives "just don't get the cool, hip factor."
At Scout's industrial-funky office in Lower Allston - "the other LA," he calls it - Collins anatomizes Bravo's shortcomings in business sense, starting with the network's disinterest in exploiting ancillary marketing opportunities "for ring tones from the theme song, endorsements, whatever." Because Bravo is part of the NBC Universal conglomerate owned primarily by
Yet Collins questions the network's competence on that score as well. "They don't have an understanding of brand management," he declares. "They aired Straight Guy to death. They completely went in and ate their own baby."
Michael Williams, who grew up in Andover, met Collins 14 years ago when they were both crew members on the Ohio set of the movie Little Man Tate, is yin to his partner's yang. He says Collins is prone to "knee-jerk reactions to things. He'll off the top of his head whip off an e-mail or make a phone call without thinking through the implications. I'm like, 'Wait a minute, let's think about this.'' Regarding network infanticide, Williams says, "They played it endlessly and pretty much any time you wanted, so it lost its status as appointment TV. One week it played 17 times. In one week."
And so the lily festered. Nielsen ratings following the second season's debut in June were down by 40 percent over a year before, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Last month, even The Advocate sniped that the show had gone "drab." Zalaznick concedes that Queer Eye is "now facing a gaping maw of schadenfreude," but Bravo won't disclose its marketing strategy for battling franchise fatigue. (Collins is doing what he can to freshen up the format. This season, Straight Guy will travel - stops include a University of North Texas frat house - and new episodes will concentrate on "heterosexual rites of passage" such as bachelor parties.)
Zalaznick does say, with what sounds like an oft-practiced sigh, "There is a lot of drama with David. If you're that creative and have so many ideas, it's hard to pick people to trust. I have to go at him like, 'It's going to work. We're going to figure this out.' I can be pushed away very, very hard, and I'm not going anywhere."
That's lucky, because this guy can push pretty hard.
When he was 15 years old, at the start of his sophomore year in high school, David Collins was the best little boy in the sleepy town of West Chester, Ohio: class president, lead in the high school play, after-school assistant to the principal - and later that fall, he and the rest of the school choir were headed to Austria to sing with the Vienna Boys' Choir.
In September, on a fateful Tuesday afternoon, Collins skipped school to go to the Cincinnati Zoo with two extremely inappropriate friends. They smoked a joint, got busted, and the school district, which had been having a problem with truancy, decided to make an example of him. "They kicked me out of everything, suspended me for a week, and removed my entire life in one day. My little brain could not compute what had just happened. I kind of snapped."
That Friday, Collins and one of his fellow truants raided their savings, packed their bags, dropped goodbye notes in the mailbox for their families, and flew to New York. They got a studio apartment at the Belvedere Hotel in Hell's Kitchen, then went to Woolworth's and blew $1,000 to set up house. "I was never going back," Collins calmly recalls. "I remember getting a little teakettle. And drapes and sheets and a radio."
The next week, he bluffed his way into a job at the Yale Club as a bar boy, then got another job modeling boys' underwear in the Macy's Christmas catalog. For a month and a half, the 15-year-old went to work and back to the apartment, "just living as if all was fine. Zero contact with my family."
In the meantime, his father had hired private detectives to track him down. Other family members flew to New York and plastered the city with fliers bearing his picture. They finally found him in November, and, in a dramatic confrontation on the roof of the Belvedere, his uncle said, "You don't have to come home. You don't have to come home. But we love you. You are loved. Your mother has completely taken care of everything at the school. You're back in. You can have everything back."
Collins passed on that offer and stayed in New York. Having lost his job, he moved to cheaper digs in Queens, and enjoyed the hedonism of 1982 Manhattan nightlife at places like the Pyramid Club.
Finally, one day in December, he called home, and his mother answered. "The sad part of this story is that my mom had had a breakdown due to what I had done. It wasn't a full-blown nervous breakdown. But she was hospitalized." He says this with a flickering wince and a shrug of the shoulders, then resumes a confident voice.
"She was so worried, but she said she always knew deep down, 'You weren't living on the streets.' And I wasn't. I had gotten a job. I had lived. I had owned my life."
His mother begged him not to hang up the phone, and he kept the connection open for almost 13 hours before finally deciding to return to Ohio. "The best thing was, I got to skip the beginning of sophomore year, and I didn't have to make anything up."
"And here's the punch line," he says, marveling at his life's trajectory: "I stood in the dining room of the Yale Club and gave a keynote speech for American Express five months ago. Exact same room I had been a bar boy in at 15. You talk about a full circle."
He takes a short stab at remorse but gets sidetracked. "I truly think that aside from the pain I caused my family - coming back from that, I knew that I was never going to be the same. Talk about being able to own the world."
The next few moments are awkward. Collins says things like, "It could be a Gus Van Sant movie," and "I'm embarrassed now." I poke around for clues as to why, exactly, the prospect of life without extracurricular activities triggered his extreme reaction. Surely other factors contributed to his flight. He'll cop to having been a very lonely kid, but he prefers not to talk much about whether his picaresque adventure had to do with being gay. (Though Collins is out of the closet, sexual identity is not his favorite subject. "I've never been a big flag-waving gay guy. I'm just me.")
His story suggests some important things about its teller. From a tender age, Collins has had a gift for inventing astonishingly creative - and effective - answers to the classic American questions: What is home? and Who am I? Moreover, he has had the courage or audacity to answer them on his own terms, even at great cost to others.
These qualities go a long way toward explaining his current success. Americans watch makeover shows partly because they help us imagine answers to questions about our identity and our environment; and Collins became a Midas of the makeover genre by presenting heartwarming tales of transformation. Queer Eye's back story, though, is somewhat less rosy.
Scout's growth spurt has been painful, and Collins attributes much of the company's continued success to Williams: "He was the firefighter who threw the tanks on his back and went and fought the fires during all the craziness," especially when it came to handling "the inertia of fame and success with the Fab Five."
Each of those cast members started at a paltry salary of about $3,000 per episode, according to their first contract, which was posted on the smokinggun.com. When the show took off, Collins says, the cast "started getting thousands of people on their team - everyone telling them how great they are and what they should have - and inevitably, there's conflict. There's crazy conflict. Agents and managers telling the network and Scout what they want and how it needs to be." Collins admits he wanted to "be like: You wouldn't have a book, you wouldn't have this. It all is because of the show. We cast you. We found you. I gave you that opportunity."
He does grant that "they've brought something to the table. As in all deals, you have to make it right." Williams guided contract renegotiations with the cast. Even so, it's rumored that the new contracts provide a very modest increase in salary - neither side will talk numbers - and the agreement seems still to be a tender issue.
When I ask Carson Kressley (Straight Guy's fashion savant) if he's getting a fair shake, he says, "I don't concern myself with fairness. I concern myself with being happy. The show has done a lot of good for me, and it's done a lot of good for other people. I'm pleased. I would have to say that."
Does that mean the contract isn't fair?
"Bottom line: It's a business. For the network, for Scout Productions, for us as individuals. Things don't always work out 100 percent in your favor. But I think everyone has been reasonable," even though "in a perfect world I would have a higher salary. And more shoes. And a boyfriend."
Williams won't say whether Scout has moved to forestall a similar clash with its new crop of talent: "I'm not even going to go there." But Robbie Laughlin of the Gal Pals says that the cast got "the same deal the Fab Five got at the beginning." He adds, "I have no problem with it at the moment." But "things can always change."
There's nothing unusual about low-balling talent in Hollywood, a town that neither rewards nor encourages altruism. If it sounds unseemly, that's only because, for a "reality" show, Queer Eye appears an impossibly pure-hearted concoction.
Collins tells a tale about the genesis of the show that appears in the foreword of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the book. In a South End art gallery, Collins "watched as a woman berated her husband for not looking more like the group of fabulous gay men who were standing across the room. She was very animated, making a big point. The fabulous gay men noticed and came over. 'Take it easy,' they told her. 'You've got some great raw materials here. A little pomade, a tuck here, an untuck there - oh, and a nose-hair trim - and you're in business.' That's when it hit [Collins]: This was the queer eye for the straight guy."
But from the beginning, for everyone involved, Queer Eye has not only been about "making better" but also about trading up. Peter Fisher, a high school teacher in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, whom Collins calls his "best friend in the world," was also at the art gallery that night. "I read that story he tells in the magazines all the time," Fisher says, with a good-natured laugh. He has a different memory of the event.
"There was this really good-lookin' straight guy and this not so good-lookin' girl, and Dave said, 'Some gay guy should dress him up, and get him a better girl.' That's where the idea really came from."
No one can say how much joy Collins indirectly helped bring into the world in the last couple of years. Straight men on Queer Eye have wept with gratefulness for the Fab Five's help. Gay men have written letters saying they couldn't imagine coming out to their parents until Carson, Kyan, Ted, Thom, and Jai made inroads with mom and dad. Only God knows how many complexions have cleared up. To work such wonders - and to make a huge pile of dough - Collins has withdrawn from some of his closest friends. They miss him, they are trying to be patient, and they express total faith that, in time, he'll find ways to restore their connections. One, his "straight wife" Sharon Fitzgerald, a visual effects producer in San Francisco, says, "He might not call you back, and he might not show up, but he's never going to do wrong intentionally. When he is there, when he does have the time, it is intense, and it is honest, and you know that he loves you. Nobody can make me feel more loved than David."
Years ago, when she lived in Brooklyn, she and Collins put on rollerblades and skated the entire route of the New York City Marathon after the race - "all the way through Manhattan, the streets totally empty, and then over the Brooklyn Bridge. It was amazing. We were just peeing our pants laughing, to go all through the city like that, like the streets were ours."
Last year, she says, Collins left a message on her voice mail that began, " 'Oh, my God!' You could hear the wind and the car horns. He was yelling. 'I am on the Brooklyn Bridge. And I have managed to cordon off and stop all traffic to shoot a Queer Eye video in the same place where we rollerbladed!'
"He had that moment. He had stopped traffic. And there was something so spectacular about that. He wanted to connect that to the quiet moment of rollerblading that we had. And he is very sentimental. So when he can tie his family of friends and his work together like that, make it all part of one thing, that is the thing that makes David happiest."
For now, though, Collins is up against the hard fact that "hot" doesn't last forever, and Scout is trying to make the most of its moment. Collins is steering both Queer Eye shows toward their January premieres, traveling back and forth between Straight Girl in Los Angeles and Straight Guy in New York. In Boston, Williams is taking the rest of the year off, to consider film projects.
In a wild time like this, one thing that helps Collins stay sane is listening to music he finds tracks he loves and plays them over and over, and these days, one of the songs that inspires him is "Top of the World," by the folk singer Patty Griffin.
The song is sung in the voice of a man who was beaten down by life, who wishes he was stronger and smarter and more faithful, and who's disappointed by his inability to share himself fully with the people close to him: "I wish I'd have known you / Wished I'd have shown you / All of the things I was on the inside."
As we're driving back from Louis Boston to Allston, I ask him why he loves this song so much, and, a little bashful, he says, "All of this - fans and stars and fame and fortune - what the hell does it really mean, and does it mean anything, really, in the end? In that song, it's just, hey, I'd rather do something that has some substance. . . . I have fears of dying as Mr. Queer Eye, being known as, there's the Queer Eye guy. But I don't think that will happen. Because I do think we have a lot of things to say and a lot of other fun things to do. . . .
["Now] it's the sophomore effort. Naivete was our greatest asset. We didn't know the industry and how things really get done, and how things are supposed to be done. . . . We were just out to do what we wanted to do and tell an interesting story. And that paid off. 'That paid off' is the bottom line. And now that we have all of this information you wish it could go away. I wish I didn't know what I know."
A few days after my last meeting with Collins, I go to my mailbox and find an envelope from him containing a CD of the Griffin song and a copy of the lyrics. At the bottom of the page, he's circled his favorite part - the coda, in which the singer abruptly decides that he's going to let his true self sing.
Because little in the foregoing lyrics makes this conclusion plausible, it forces listeners to make an interpretive choice. You can go with a strict reading of the singer's testimony, which makes for a real downer. Or you can suspend disbelief, and hope this character may finally realize his good intentions.
In the margin, David Collins has written two words, underlined twice, and followed by exclamation marks, making his choice clear: "HAPPY ENDING."