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Nate Berkus’ Grand Design

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Is an out gay decorator the successor to Oprah’s talk show throne?

by Steven Foster (Photos by Jack Guy/Sony Pictures Television)

He is an interior decorator named Nate Berkus.

But the voiceover announcer is the only one to refer to him by his full name. Every woman in the commercial—and they are all women, it should be pointed out—simply calls him Nate, as if they’ve known him for years which, thanks to the most powerful woman in television, they have. This is not that remarkable. After all, whatever Oprah Winfrey illuminates, be it book or bath product, brand or boy wonder, millions of (mostly) women take a shine to as well.

What is interesting to note, however, is that each of these women is shown positively gushing over this man. No, not just gushing. Swooning.

Perhaps the promotions department should be commended on their restraint, for waiting until 20 seconds into the 30-second spot before saying it. But at 00:21, look out. Here it comes, almost apologizing for taking so long.

“Let’s face it,” pants the Hispanic housewife, eyes rolling back into her head, practically relieved she’s been given the go-ahead to state the obvious. (Either that, or she’s having an orgasm.) “He’s hot!”

“Hot!” echoes a blonde fortysomething.

Haaaaaaaahhhhhht!” trills the next generically styled working woman, hitting a Beverly Sills high note. Beside this woman is her mother, smiling hungrily like someone just told her mallomars were now on the South Beach Diet. Mercifully, the chorus of African-American women goo-gooing over Berkus like a newborn talk-show baby is saved for another promo.

And then there’s the hugging.

A woman opens her front door, embracing Berkus with an on-camera enthusiasm usually reserved for the Publisher’s Clearing House check carrier. Another soccer mom, in the foreground of a candy-color cotton-bloused studio audience, squeezes Nate’s neck with barely-restrained passion. Life preservers on the Titanic weren’t gripped this tight. Berkus is being pitched as both savior and sex symbol, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. On some level, all of this is somewhat disconcerting.

When Couric got the Evening News desk, CBS didn’t start talking about how “hot” she is. As Tyra Banks took to her talk show circuit sofa, there weren’t entire marketing campaigns reminding us that she is a certifiable sex bomb. And on the male side, there was no phalanx of working mothers fainting in rapture when Dr. Oz was given his own show.

“Does any of this smack of some sort of reverse sexism to you?” I ask Berkus.

He pauses.

“You know, I really haven’t stopped to consider that, to be perfectly honest with you,” Berkus admits.

He hasn’t?

“I’ve been so busy this past summer in production meetings and in brainstorming sessions, and running around the country sitting in women’s kitchens and talking to them about what they’re interested in, and what information I could put on daytime TV that would be helpful to them. It really hasn’t been a focus for me at all.”

Well, it’s obviously the focus for someone. So why the big push to make certain the latest talk show host is positioned as the designated hunk to millions of middle-American housewives?

It couldn’t be because Nate Berkus is gay.

Could it?
_________________________

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the past year, you are most likely aware that the richest, most influential, most powerful—and to some, the most feared—woman in the history of television is about to enter her final season. After 25 years, groundbreaker, gift giver, talk show genius, and mega-mogul Oprah Winfrey will be leaving the syndication scene to concentrate on her OWN network. (That’s not a typographic blunder, by the way—it’s actually the network’s acronym.) When she saw that her own initials formed the three-letter network branding Holy Grail, Winfrey claimed it as one of her famous a-ha! moments. Those who view her as a media Machiavellian likened it more to an e-gad! moment. But that was probably just the Rupert Murdocks and Barry Dillers of the world trying to cover their Venus envy.

Admittedly, this is a seminal moment, both in pop culture and broadcast history, so naturally there is a legitimate reason for a year full of glowing accolades to a television icon, jubilant celebrations for her stunning achievement, and tearful remembrances from the global village, as well as from the Big O herself. But the real tears are going to be shed by the syndication market. Oprah’s departure means millions of dollars are going to be lost when a huge income generator vanishes. In most major markets, The Oprah Winfrey Show isn’t just a crucial component in an affiliate’s revenue stream. The ratings superpower is a valuable lead-in to the local newscast. Drive down Allen Parkway and you can practically see the bayou rising with sweat pouring from the accountants at Channel 11, its banks overflowing with the tears of Belo shareholders. Winfrey’s disappearance from their schedule won’t just steal advertising dollars from the lucrative 4–5 p.m. slot—it places KHOU’s network news ratings, and therefore their ad revenue, in jeopardy. And when more and more marketing money is leaving broadcast television for the web, smart phones, and other 21st-century media, Oprah was one of the few sure bets advertisers had left to reach a sizeable audience. (Adding insult to injury, The Nate Berkus Show won’t even be airing on Channel 11. Fox 26 got him.)

Previous Oprah protégés, doctors Phil and Oz, are unlikely to pick up the slack. Dubious credentials, a personality more caricature than character, and suffering from severe audience fatigue, Dr. Phil lacks the necessary juice to bring in Oprah-size cash. The last time he attracted any buzz was when he pulled that whack intervention on Britney Spears, and Phil got stung. Oz, while inexplicably earning an Emmy for Best Daytime Talk Show Host after a scant few months on the air, has limited appeal. His scrubs can only take him so far. As Phil has found himself trapped in the relationship-advice ghetto, Oz is preternaturally pigeonholed as the home-theater house-call guy. The same claim to fame that got them their own shows in the first place has been/will be their broadcast curse. Let’s get serious. Sandra Bullock is not going to show up on Dr. Phil to ask him how to handle Jesse moving to Austin. Julia Roberts won’t be joining Dr. Oz to discuss Eat Pray Love & Gastroenteritis. As for Tom Cruise couch jumping? Not likely. These smirk and smock M.D.s aren’t going to attract the big Hollywood guns that garner equally enormous ratings. Balding, twanging pseudo-shrinks or discussions about goiters aren’t sexy. They’re not haaaaaaaaahhhhhhhht!

And that’s where Berkus comes in.

H

e learned to read a room before he learned how to read a book, rearranging furniture in his family’s living room. By the time he was eight, his sleepovers didn’t revolve around popcorn, scary movies, and short-sheeting a bed so much as they involved coercing the neighbor kids to help him move the very bed itself—along with everything else in the room. Maybe it was in his blood. (His mother, Nancy Golden, is a designer, an HGTV regular, and will guest on his upcoming show.) But if it was his decorating destiny, Berkus didn’t embrace it right away. Instead of heading to Pratt or Parsons, rather than study Fritz Brehaus or Verner Panton, he enrolled at Lake Forest College, studying sociology and majoring in French. But the design gene prevailed, and Berkus took a job at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, the Sotheby’s of the Midwest. There, Berkus put his talents to good use, honing his natural gifts. When items went on the auction block, Berkus basically played set decorator, arranging sale items in clean, pleasant cohesion. Much to the company’s delight, pieces on auction began attracting more handsome prices. Berkus then parlayed his Hindman history into snagging an internship at the prestigious jewelry house Dominique Aurientis, which might explain his knack for and obsession with patterns that became his signature design calling card.

By the time he was 24, he had formed his own firm, Nate Berkus Associates in Chicago, Ground Zero for all things Oprah. A few years after hanging out his shingle, Berkus worked on high-profile projects for Wolfang Puck’s celebrity-magnet restaurant Spago, the chic W Hotel chain, and Barneys in New York. Then, in 2002, he got the call from Winfrey to make over a microscopic 319-square-foot studio apartment for a segment on her show.
Now bear in mind, this was eight years before HGTV, TLC, and Discovery Home devoted entire blocks of programming to the practice. This was just on the cusp of the Trading Spaces phenomenon, and still years prior to Ty Pennington blowing up houses on ABC. This was well before any doofus with a paintbrush and a tape measure could become a design star.

My, how times have changed. Nowadays you can’t throw a Sherwin-Williams color sampler without hitting some hunky decorator with a Loews endorsement deal.

Berkus has changed, too. That first assignment for Oprah shows a much younger, less talk-show-polished Berkus. In the renovation clip, he’s clad in a chambray shirt, brown khakis, and powder blue Asics, looking more than a little panicked at his task. (To be fair, if you have to renovate a microscopic 319-square-foot apartment in 48 hours for the undisputed Queen of All Media, gussying up your wardrobe is probably not high on your list of things to do.) When he’s on Oprah’s set for the big reveal, he appears visibly exhausted and disheveled. His trademark mane is buzzed too close to truly complement his movie star-handsome though sizeable head. He practically drowns in ill-fitting clothes, sporting a baggy chocolate T-shirt that’s tucked into coffee-colored corduroys, waist girded in a fat tan belt. He looks more than a little bit like a melting Hershey bar. On his feet are the what-was-he-thinking? same powder blue Asics he wore for the renovation. He’s not flopsweating exactly, but the kid is a little moist.

None of this matters in the least. When the made-over room is revealed, the reaction is remarkable. The audience explodes with applause so studio-shattering you’d think each of them received a replica of the tiny show-palace for themselves. Even Oprah herself is aghast. She stands up, grabs Berkus’ hand, and raises it like she’s the referee and he’s the prizefighter who just scored a knockout.

“My God!” Oprah exclaims with enthusiasm she normally only bestows on Oscar winners. Or Eckhart Tolle.

“That is the best damn job I ever saw.” Oprah? Using bad grammar? And cussing? You betcha. She, yes, swoons.

“Wooooo! My goodness!”

Berkus beams that mega-watt smile, hangs his head in overwhelmed humility, and blushes like . . . well, like anyone would if Oprah slobbered over you that way. The audience, cued by Oprah’s rapturous endorsement, collectively, loudly, lovingly swoons as well. Not a hokey, pre-manufactured promotional swoon, but the genuine sound of Middle America falling in love. A star is born—and the stellar branding machine goes into overdrive. But the entire affair is conducted subtly, quietly, wisely. No goofy commercials for endorsement deals with Sears, and no embarrassing DUI busts à la Pennington. No shirtless, tattoo-baring, bronze-Color Splash of a muscled but mincing David Bromstad. Because it is both his demeanor and his nature, Berkus will play it straight. Never selling out, bottoming out, or queening out—though he is “out” nonetheless.

Instead, Berkus will grace the pages of Elle Décor, Domino, US Weekly, and, of course, O. He’ll design a line of refined, elegant bedding exclusively for Linens-n-Things, along with the now-required HSN swag. His book Home Rules will become a New York Times bestseller. 2006 brings his very own show on Oprah’s XM satellite radio network. In 2008, Oprah debuts her first foray into the prime-time series market, Oprah’s Big Give. Berkus is the show’s host. In all, he will perform 127 makeovers during his near-decade tenure with The Oprah Winfrey Show.

But in the midst of this media storm, a seismic shift occurred. The sea swallowed entire countries, shocked the world, and killed the man he loved. This time, instead of making America swoon, Nate Berkus broke America’s heart.

Wave after wave,

each mightier than the last,

Till last, a ninth one,

gathering half the deep

And full of voices, slowly rose

and plunged, Roaring . . .”

—Tennyson’s The Ninth Wave

O

n December 26, 2004, Berkus and his boyfriend, fashion photographer Fernando Bengoechea, were vacationing in Sri Lanka. Instead of waking up in the bungalow they were staying in at the Stardust Hotel, they awoke in water. An undersea earthquake had occurred just after midnight, the second largest quake ever recorded by a seismograph, registering a staggering 9.3. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated the energy released by the quake was equivalent to 23,000 atomic bombs. The epicenter was just off the west coast of Sumatra, and the resulting waves surged across the sea with the speed of a jetliner. Within hours, 150,000 people were dead or missing, and millions more were homeless. Indonesia was hit the worst; Sri Lanka was a tragically close second.

While the waters raged, Berkus and Bengoechea managed to cling to a telephone pole, believing they had survived the worst. They hadn’t. A second tidal wave surged, more furious than the first, and separated them. Forever.

Less than a month later, Berkus was on Oprah’s couch. But this time he wasn’t there to talk about tailored custom curtains, he was there to discuss devastation, witnessed up-close and wrenchingly personal.

“You know, there was some criticism for me going on television three weeks after Fernando died,” Berkus says, his voice a mix of softness, sadness, and defiance.

Whether you personally agreed with the decision or not, the appearance was riveting television. Berkus talked about his love and his loss, and no one cared that he was a gay man. To millions of viewers around the world, he was simply a man, one of them, one of us, grieving.

“But the reason I did that, to be very clear, is that I felt an enormous draw to the people in Sri Lanka who had helped me—helped me look for Fernando, helped me by putting clothes on my back, driving me back to the capital so that I could get back to the embassy.”

Bengoechea’s body was never found.

“It was a very, very poor, rural area where Fernando and I were vacationing. Almost overnight after that show aired on Oprah, Oprah’s viewers started sending money to Winfrey’s charity Angel Network. I was able to return [to Sri Lanka] a year later for the opening of a vocational school that we built in Fernando’s honor, and to tour all the homes we were able to rebuild with that money. We partnered with three charities in Sri Lanka who were working on the ground, and the Angel Network was able to fund those charities with no red tape, almost overnight, as a result of my appearance on that TV show.”

I ask him if he thinks about that night. If the aftermath, the repercussions, and the realization of his survival still resonate. How could they not?

“Yeah, I do,” Berkus admits. “I think that it was definitely one of the things that has formed me into the person I am today. Not that many of us have had that unique experience of grieving and having no money, no identification, no way of getting home. It was a sign of resourcefulness for me—physically, emotionally—that I didn’t know that I had. And also an opportunity for me to recognize [my own] humanity. That I needed help.” Berkus’ voice cracks slightly.

“I’m not a guy who usually asks
for help.”

B

erkus will need all of that resourcefulness for his new venture. It’s a huge opportunity, quite literally with his name on it. In addition to his mentor’s exit, Martha Stewart is following Oprah’s lead and departing for cable as well, moving her own show to the Hallmark Channel. Banks is leaving daytime altogether. This actually bodes well for Berkus. While it’s unlikely Berkus will ever don a fat suit or resort to You go, girl! finger snaps and head bobs to capture the viewers who comprised Banks’ key demographic, it’ll be easy for him to give Stewart’s fans a place to call home, which might be even easier for him to do than retain a portion of Winfrey’s book clubbers. The show is being pushed with a “Design Your Life” positioning, which helps alleviate the psychological and medical corner previous O-protégées Phil and Oz painted themselves into.

“The lens is definitely design and living well. And there’s going to be compelling stories from regular people, or people who find themselves in a situation I can help them with; either myself or one of my contributors on the show. There will be celebrities popping in, but [we’ll show] different sides of them, and not just [let] them promote their movie,” promises Berkus.

At press time, Berkus’ camp had not revealed any celebrities gracing his set just yet. But Berkus has received valuable ink and broadcast buzz by snagging Elizabeth Edwards as a guest during his premiere week. It remains to be seen, however, if he’s going to ask the famously jilted wife of the philandering presidential contender any hardball questions about her ex-husband or, more juicily, her ex-husband’s baby mama. Winfrey’s background as a news reporter always served her well when she needed to turn her couch into a hot seat. It’s one of the things that kept Winfrey from allowing Oprah to devolve into the marshmallow fluff fest so many daytime talk shows lapse into. Winfrey wasn’t afraid to bare her teeth. How sharp are Berkus’ fangs?

“I don’t know if I would show my teeth per se. But I have to say I’ve learned in the past nine years of working on the Oprah show that I will be telling my truth,” he explains, speaking like a true Oprah disciple. Dog it if you want to, it’s language that her coveted audience relates to. And Berkus knows it.

“I have a responsibility to speak for the audience.”

He also has a responsibility to Winfrey. Berkus will, after all, be only the third member of her court to have their own talk show fiefdom bequeathed on them. She never gave Gayle her own TV show. And Winfrey does not suffer fools—or failure—gladly. When Big Give didn’t pull more than 10 million viewers, she pulled the plug after a single season. ABC still wanted it, still needed it, but to Oprah it was a less-than. A flop.

Still, Winfrey’s a puppy dog compared to a nasty bunch of sniping gay watchdogs, bloggers, and pundits. She’s not venomous like Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck, two broadcast bullies who could very easily use Berkus as their new playground punching bag. Berkus is officially the first out gay man to ever host his own major daytime talk show. And while Berkus may make the housewives swoon, he could make the homophobes nervous—and nasty. That has to put on some pressure. Berkus has to sense that.

“I really don’t,” he says. “I feel pressure to lead by example. But it’s not because I’m a gay man, it’s because I feel like I have to put my very best foot forward. I’m a very open, non-judgmental person. I think this show will definitely reflect that. But it’s not something I feel pressure about because I’m gay and I have my own TV show.

“I’ve never identified myself as only a gay man. I’ve been out since I was 19 years old. It’s definitely a part of who I am, but there are a million different sides to me.”

Including a hot one.

Steven Foster also talks to Margaret Cho in this issue of OutSmart.

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Ste7en Foster

Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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