It’s a swampy day in the sleepy town of Winder, Georgia, as Queer Eye’s new Fab Five tears through the modest home of Cory, a police officer with an affinity for NASCAR, pickle juice and American flag-printed shorts. His basement is cluttered with beer guzzler helmets and deer antlers, his bedroom closet with his late father’s suits, with which he can’t bear to part.
As the guys giddily rummage through Cory’s belongings, the scene could be straight out of the makeover show’s original run 15 years ago. Until Karamo Brown, the culture expert, discovers Cory’s “Make America Great Again” hat, and we’re jolted back to 2018.
“I don’t think any black person has ever worn this hat,” Brown, 37, says, then conceding, okay, Omarosa Manigault-Newman and Ben Carson have likely donned the cap. Later, the two bond over the Wu-Tang Clan and segue into a discussion of police brutality.
“Black Lives Matter, they weren’t able to be heard, and the police officers weren’t able to be heard,” Cory concludes. (Today, Brown tells PEOPLE he and Cory have formed a friendship and text regularly.)
Fifteen years ago, five men broke television ground with the lively makeover show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which ran for five seasons from 2003-07. “For me, it was the first representation of ‘gay’ on TV,” says Antoni Porowski — who was so inspired by the show’s resident food expert, Ted Allen, that he became his protégé — in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands now.
Jonathan Van Ness — whose luscious locks you may recognize from the viral web series Gay of Thrones — agrees. “I grew up in a town of 30,000 people, and Queer Eye was a beacon of light,” he tells PEOPLE.
Van Ness (grooming), Porowski (food and wine), Brown (culture), Bobby Berk (interior design) and Tan France (fashion) star in Netflix’s revamp of the hit — but this time, the show will focus its transformative efforts (ranging from healthy diets to home decor) exclusively on men from the South, near Atlanta. In addition to tips on skin care and closet clean-outs, the lifestyle pros are tackling the deeply embedded cultural clashes that plague our nation in the Trump era.
“It’s so easy to stand on opposite ends with our arms crossed, hating on each other,” says Porowski, 33. “But the challenge is fun, because you find out we’re not that different.”
In the decade and a half since the original show premiered, “A lot has happened in the gay community,” executive producer Rob Eric says. “We have the right to marry now legally. But instead of becoming complacent and sitting comfortably, we have to continue expanding our friendships and expanding our understanding of each other’s communities so we do get past just the level of tolerance. It has to become acceptance.”
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Not that Queer Eye is overtly trying to Make America Gay Again. “We’re still fighting for tolerance. I think that if this were a super serious show, that could’ve gone awry,” says France, 34, of tackling social issues. “But because we lead with humor and heart and the focus is on entertainment, we can tackle controversial subjects.”
This more diverse Fab Five, grateful for the path paved 15 years ago, is also more emotionally invested in the lives of each episode’s “heroes,” like Tom, a grizzled “redneck” who insists “you can’t fix ugly.”
“There were literally nights I would go home and cry,” says Berk, 36. “These guys were so down on themselves! And they would evolve, just by getting a little love.”
- For more on Queer Eye, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands now
Another change? When the original Fab Five (Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley and Jai Rodriguez) were cast, some hadn’t even come out yet. Now, Netflix’s Fab Five openly discuss their personal lives, from their husbands to their children.
“Fifteen years ago, Carson and Ted weren’t talking about their boyfriends on television” creator David Collins says. “This time, we knew that the Fab Five’s individual stories were going to become a much more important part of the storytelling.”
Ultimately, this Fab Five embraces this opportunity to shed some light in dark times. “Somehow we seem more divided now than we were before,” Brown says. “We want everyone to be heard so we can be brought together. There’s a lot of beauty in all of us.”
Queer Eye premieres Feb. 7 on Netflix.