The most prominent face of the original “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Carson Kressley, stopped by “Salon Talks” to look back on his journey through fashion and media, his "gentleman" farm boy upbringing, and his new role as a judge on the gift wrapping-themed Freeform reality show, “Wrap Battle,” which runs through the Christmas season.
On it, contestants do their best to wrap gifts, many of them with awkward shapes and sizes. The judge role suits Kressley well, it seems, since he is a go-to for advice on design and fashion, and besides, his duties as a judge doesn't start again until “RuPaul’s Drag Race” reconvenes in 2020.
Kressley, a champion horseback rider, grew up on a horse farm in rural Pennsylvania, graduating from Gettysburg College Phi Beta Kappa. "On May 5 I graduated," he recalled, "and on May 6, I was on my way to New York City to work" in a job with an equestrian association. Later, after scraping together money for rent like most 20-somethings, he got a job with the Ralph Lauren fashion house.
"Queer Eye," however, was a welcome launching pad for Kressley's big, bubbly personality, which remains accessible today. He remembers "Queer Eye" fondly, and though it has been reborn with a new cast, Kressley says he is thrilled to see the show he was a part of at the beginning expand beyond its original, less socially conscience driven theme.
Watch our conversation with Kressley here, or read a transcript of the talk below, to hear more about how Carson brought the word “tszuj" into the mainstream, his quirkiest trait, and what he likes to wear to muck a horse stall.
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You look amazing. I heard you just had a birthday.
I did. I just turned 50. I've never really felt my age, and there are times when I wake up and it's just like, "God, I would love to go to the mall today and buy a new sweater." Then it’s like, "Wait a minute. I have a car, and my own money. I can actually go to the mall, and do whatever I want." But I sometimes just feel like I'm like 16 in my head, and that I don't really feel that much different, except for dating. I'm a total dad now.
You’re an esteemed gentleman farmer. I'm sure it's not hard for you to find a nice young person.
We're working on it.
You have this fantastic farmhouse, which you showed everyone on Rachael Ray. You took her and her audience on this adorable tour of your equine-designed home in Pennsylvania.
What is it like to be a gentleman farmer?
Usually those were in real estate ads, you know, it says like, “gentleman's farm," which means they really don't grow anything there, or have any animals. It just has a cute house, and maybe some farm structures that were left over from when it was a working farm. I actually have described gentleman farmer as being a farmer who doesn't get that dirty. But I have a farm that's next to my family's original farm from the 1800s, since, well, 1900 basically. So, it's a little bit of both. It's a little bit of my nice house that I weekend in, and then a working farm where we grow soybeans and corn and hay and horses. And some cats.
I did see a clip of you mucking stalls. But you don't muck a stall in Charles Tyrwhitt or Thomas Pink shirts, do you?
That was a J. Crew shirt. It was an oversized gingham. I do like to do barn work, because it's just very relaxing, and it's good exercise. And when I'm home, I will occasionally muck some stalls. I have cute Marc Jacobs wellies I can wear, and I just wear jeans. Sometimes I wear inappropriate things. Like, I'll just be like, "Oh, let me dig in," and I'll be wearing, a nice watch, or suede boots, which is the wrong thing to wear. It absorbs the scent. And I don't think it's a terrible scent, but it's definitely . . . People will be around you and be like, "You smell a little horsey."
So how do you go from being a rural individual growing up on a farm to a big city fashion guy?
I went to Gettysburg College, and I graduated in 1991. I had a liberal arts degree, which is wonderful. I had a great college experience. But it doesn't necessarily make you super hirable right away, but I was a great communicator, and I looked cute. I'm such a dreamer, and such a non-planner. I knew I wanted to move to New York City immediately. I graduated in May, like on May 5th, and May 6th I moved to New York. I had a job for the U.S. Equestrian Federation, because of nepotism. I had a friend that worked there, and she was having a baby. She was like, "You should come take my job." I'm like, "I will." So I did, and I was making $30,000 a year. It was in 1991. And I thought to myself, "Oh my gosh. How am I going to spend all that money? I'll just get gorgeous clothes." Then I found out that rent was $1,811 for a one-bedroom that I shared with two girls from college, and that was still like every penny went to rent.
I would go to the Chinese restaurant across from me, and they had vegetable lo mein. It was $1.40. I would pay in dimes, because I had spent all my money, so I was in my change jar, and I was like, "Ooh, 14 dimes." I would plop that down on the counter. I was like, "I just got back from Vegas. I'll take the vegetable lo mein. Here's $1.40." And that's how I lived for a long time.
Then after about three or four years, I was like, "I would love to buy shoes,” so I looked for a job in the profit sector. I just made a list of places I thought would be fun to work. Ralph Lauren was on that list. I had always loved their clothes. I'd always loved the lifestyle and the marketing and the branding. It's so dreamy and romantic and horsey. And I went and I got a job working for Jerry Lauren, who is Ralph Lauren's brother. It was like "The Devil Wears Prada." I got lunch, I ran errands. But everyone was really nice. They were all wearing, you know, pants with embroidered lobsters on them. But it was a great education, and I worked my way up through the ranks, and then someone said, "You should do this TV show on Bravo."
I was like, "What's Bravo? A nonstick cooking spray?" Because it was 2002. I took off time from Ralph Lauren. I told my boss. I was like, "I'm just doing this thing on a whim." She was like, "Go do it. It'll be fun." I said, "Nothing's going to happen." And I came back, and we waited a year, and nothing did happen. And then NBC purchased Bravo, and they're like, "We love this show. We want it to be the cornerstone of our network. You have to quit your job." And I was like, "Oh my God. Do you guys have dental insurance?" It was very daunting to be like, "Quit your job, for like eight episodes of a TV show." But my boss at Ralph Lauren, a woman named Liz Paley, was so amazing and instrumental. She said, "Listen. If it doesn't work out, we'll just hire you back." So, that was . . . What a gift. And I've been doing TV ever since.
Tell me something that is a quirk of yours, that someone wouldn't know.
I do have a degree in finance and fine art. And that's a great balance of things, because one was very visual, and one was very right brain. I don't know any of the math stuff anymore. I have no idea what a finance major even does. But one of my quirks that is great is that I do have a little bit of a photographic memory, like if I see it, or even if I have to write it down. Like if I'm doing a play or something, I write out the entire script, so I can see it, and I've actually written it once again. Or like when I did "Dancing the Stars," I would, like, "Turn left. Turn around. Smile. Left foot." Like, I literally wrote out every single step. That's probably my special skill.
On the original “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” you helped shape sort of schlubby, awkward straight men into better versions of themselves. What's your take on the new “Queer Eye” on Netflix, particularly as they have expanded to include LGBT folks and cisgender women, and taken the show international as well?
It's very gratifying to see that that brand is still doing well today, 16 years after it initially launched. And obviously, times are very, very different. When we were making the show, we had zero political agenda. It was not meant to be, at least in my mind, anything other than I wanted to get people out of pleated khakis and cutoff mullets. I'm just like, "We're doing the Lord's work here." And I think just being ourselves, and being good at our jobs, and that being captured on TV in a very authentic way, allowed people at home to say, "Well, you know, I think these gay guys are pretty great. And why shouldn't they get married? And why shouldn't they be able to adopt?" So when you're visible, and people can relate to you as a person on a human to human level, that's when they realize, "Well, why wouldn't they have the same rights as we do?" And that moves the needle forward.
I think what's remarkable about the new “Queer Eye” is that we did our show in New York City. These guys are out in rural Missouri, and very, very rural parts of Georgia. And it's really not even gay/straight dynamic anymore. It's just people from different backgrounds sitting down and saying, "I'm going to help you with your look, or your job, or your house, or your life, but I'm also going to get to know your story, and you're going to get to know mine. And we're going to just see each other as humans." And I think that's really remarkable and wonderful.
I do recall that, I think it was 2005, you wrote a kid's book on diversity called " You're Different and That's Super.”
Yes, literally I finished doing “Watch What Happens Live” with Andy Cohen. He just had a baby, and I was like, "I have got to dig that kid's book up." And like you said, it was from 2005. It's my old nose on the artists' cover, and my mullet, basically, from "Queer Eye." Ironic. But I read it again, and I have to say, it's a very, very cute book . . . Essentially, it's very autobiographical, about something that you think is something that's wrong with you, or that's going to hold you back, or that's something to be ashamed of, that winds up being a talent that people eventually celebrate. So, I hope little Ben Cohen will enjoy it.
I could probably do an updated children's book. I love them. They're fun, and I love the illustrations. . . . You know, I was a fine arts major, so I love doing that part of it. And I would probably just illustrate it and paint it, and do the whole thing all by myself.
Tell us about “Wrap Battle” on Freeform, your newest show where you’re a judge.
This show is really fun, because the creator is a friend of mine. I think he was just like, "Wait. There's like 75 shows about baking cookies for the holidays, but the thing that's central to every holiday, whether it's Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Christmas, is that you give people things, and you usually wrap them, and there's nothing about that kind of artistry." So when he was talking about it, I was like, "That's a great show. We should do that, and you should hire me. I should be a judge." Because it really is a design show, about how you put it together, what materials you use. It's also a competition reality show, so there is some drama. It wouldn't be the holidays without a few tears, or liquor. No. That was my childhood.
They go together.
We didn't have any liquor, maybe that's why there was tears. But it's really fun. There are nine amazing, gifted gift wrappers from all over the country, and they're competing for 50 grand. It's on Freeform as a part of their 25 Days of Christmas, so it's a great way to kind of get inspired for the holidays. Also, a lot of people aren't good at gift wrapping, I found out.
I'm a crap wrapper! You know, often it's the crappy paper. What is the hardest thing about wrapping a gift?
I'm going to give you some quick hacks. And I'm not, like, an expert. I'm a design expert. I know what looks good, but I wasn't like a wrapping expert, even though I love it. First, you want to have nice folds. You can use a ruler, or even a wallpaper smoother, to make sure your creases are beautiful. You want to use a high-quality paper that has some weight to it, so it doesn't tear when you're working with it. You want to use double-sided tape, so the tape is only on the inside of the package, so you don't see those shiny little strips on the outside.
Then when the box is wrapped, you should always put a ribbon or twine or raffia or something to decorate it. It's a three-step process, there's the paper, there's the ribbon, and there should be some kind of, like, personalized wow moment, tszuj. Which, it could be an old-fashioned brooch from a flea market. It could be a pine cone. It could be gingerbread man that you made in a ceramics class. Whatever. There should be some final touch on there that makes it really special. It could be a wax stamp with your initial. It doesn't have to be expensive or elaborate, but any time it's personal, it really makes an impact on the recipient.
Now, you just used the word tszuj. It is your word, a word you made it mainstream during the original "Queer Eye" days, right? What is your preferred spelling and definition of that word?
This has come back to haunt me. I thought like to me, tszuj sounds very eastern European, and I learned that word when I was working with Ralph Lauren. That's where it came from. Ralph and his brother Jerry, if we were styling looks for a runway show, we would have the outfit on a mannequin, on a bust form, and he'd say, "Carson, just give that pocket square a little tszuj." And it really means, you know, give it some flair. Make it look better. Pop the collar. Like, give it life.
It must be Yiddish.
It's kind of a Yiddish-y, Jewish kind of term. So, I just thought it's got to be, you know, from eastern Europe. From Poland, or some place like that. So, I thought it would be spelled with a lot of consonants, and not many vowels. I spell it T-S-Z-U-J.
Now, you're very busy. How many jobs can one man or one woman have? Where can we see you next?
I'm very excited about the launch of “Wrap Battle,” which start[ed] Nov. 25 on Freeform. And if you're not a live TV person, you can always watch it on Hulu, like the kids are doing. Then after that, in January we have a "RuPaul's Drag Race" Season 12 and/or "All Stars." I'm not sure which will air first. And then there was also announced that "RuPaul's Drag Race Celebrity Edition." That takes me through like March or something, and I'll figure it out when I get there.
Then it's summer again.
I just want to go to the beach.
Where do you go to the beach? Where's your chosen spot?
I go to Asbury Park, New Jersey, Fire Island or Maine. I love a beach and I try to go to many of them all over the country in the summer. I love a northeast beach in the summer. New Jersey, Massachusetts, Long Island.