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TELEVISION : FACES TO WATCH 2008

Casting his eye anew

Carson Kressley moves from straight guys to aiding naked women. Really.

December 30, 2007|Choire Sicha | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — "I am going to Pennsylvania, just like in the Karen Carpenter song, and spending Christmas Eve with my family," said Carson Kressley, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" veteran and the ringleader of the lavender menace. After dinner, he said a few days before the holidays, the plan was to get in the minivan for church outside Allentown, where they dim the lights and sing "O Holy Night," one verse in English and one in German. The next morning his niece and nephew would come over and open presents, and everyone would eat "giant sides of ham." What a wild, demented lifestyle.

Sixteen years ago, "I got off the bus from Allentown, it was just like '42nd Street,' " Kressley said. After a few confused years in New York, he went to work for Ralph Lauren. His showstopper came 10 years later, when he marched into a stuffy conference room on Seventh Avenue with 75 or so gay men, including the designer John Bartlett and one-time "Star" editor Joe Dolce.

He wore a gauzy, poofy-sleeved shirt and Ralph Lauren pants with a hibiscus pattern, threw down his giant Louis Vuitton duffel bag on the table and said what his fellow "Queer Eye" host Ted Allen recalls as: "I think it's really adorable they let all of you think you have a chance when I already have it." He and Allen were the first two cast.

The swank Park Avenue one bedroom (with terrace, on a high floor) he moved into three years ago picks up the tale of how things went from there.

Incidental tables are piled with boxes and Christmas cards. There are also oil paintings of horses; a transparent chandelier with leopard-print shades; zebra-print rugs; a picture of himself with Dolly Parton; a picture of himself with Heather Locklear; an Emmy; an orchid sent by Ralph Lauren; a burning Harry Slatkin candle in a scent called "den" and a large flat-screen Samsung TV playing a DVD of a fireplace, "for the modern Joan Crawford."

His pink bathroom is the gayest place on Earth because it has a TV that seemingly plays only "The Golden Girls" and also a framed letter from Cher that has the salutation: "Carson, My Darling Darling Boy."

"Queer Eye" ended production last year; the men of America are no longer baffled by clean underwear and hair product, so it had to go. But America's women seemed to need attention, thus "How to Look Good Naked," a new reality show debuting on Lifetime on Friday that has Kressley at the center.

It's just part of his cottage industry, what he calls merchentainment.

At 38 he may not have a boyfriend or dog, but he does have a QVC fashion line (just like Joan Rivers!), and he's "contemplating a book aimed at women," according to his ICM literary agent; it would be his fourth. He is also a judge on a reality show -- the CW's madcap beauty pageant show "Crowned." "How To Look Good Naked," though, is the project that pulls him back in the tumultuously emotional territory that is the makeover.

Woman, meet Kressley

"Doing guys on 'Queer Eye' was like training puppies," Kressley said. "There's so much less mental baggage for guys when they're getting dressed. But with women they get it from every angle."

Each of the first three episodes of "Naked" has the same thrilling arc: A woman, the sort who keeps her head down and wears schlumpy sweaters, meets Kressley. (The third installment stars a mother-daughter team.) She hates her body. He makes her get down to her bra and panties in front of mirrors! She cries and talks about her arm fat.

Kressley reveals that they have projected a huge picture of her -- just in underwear -- on a building and asked passers-by what they think.

They show her video of this, and none of them say that she is fat or ugly but that she is pretty and/or hot! They get her a bra that actually fits. They have her place herself where she thinks she belongs in a lineup of normal- to plus-size women, arrayed from thinnest to least thin; always she puts herself at the much-larger end, but really, she is so much thinner than that and her fat is just in her mind!

There are new clothes and hair and talk and makeup and spa time and a nude photo shoot -- and then she is really happy. More tears!

Kressley says things like: "Zero isn't a size, it's a warning sign!" And when they are pointing to their rolls of what they believe is back fat: "That's called your rib cage."

At the end, the nude photo gets projected too, and people on the street tell her she is beautiful. It is madly cathartic, and although the whole idea of gaining self-esteem by being judged for sexiness by strangers on the street is horribly wrong, it is also affecting. (Does this inside-job makeover have long-term effects? Who knows? The cameras are long gone.)

Chatty Kressley had to do a little listening practice at first. But he has this rapport thing with the women -- weird for such an extrovert, but it makes sense for someone who violates gender norms so happily. (What about all that acting queeny on TV? "Acting?" he said. Good point.) "I grew up in a blue-collar Protestant environment where you have a conscience. Everyone has that potential. Culty people act like they're the only ones who can give advice. We can all give advice. You felt ugly or were wallowing in self-pity? Hey, this is what happened to me, and this is what I did. It's called being empathetic."

It helps that "Queer Eye" was Kressley's own personal makeover show. "It was cheaper than therapy," he said. "I was not comfortable with myself for a long time -- and now I try to gay it forward."

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