BOBBY BERK: I always say my, my career is just, uh, a bunch of upward failures. You know?
ANNA SALE: Wait, tell me about that. Why do you say that?
BB: You know, because to me, like, because I failed a lot, you know, I made a lot of wrong decisions. I just, I never let my failures end it.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
By the time he was 17, Bobby Berk had been out of his parents' house for a few years. Home was a duplex in Springfield, Missouri. And his roommates were getting him into trouble.
BB: I got a receiving stolen property charge because they had taken some yard gnomes and -
BB: Yeah - stolen some yard gnomes and put them in our yard and the lease was in my name. And so I got in trouble for that. Yeah.
AS: What was the punishment for stolen yard gnomes?
BB: Um, it's on my record. Yeah. I got some community service and some fines that I couldn't afford. I think it was probably like 200 bucks, but you know, that's was - should've - might as well been 2 million to me back then.
Bobby is now one of the stars of the Netflix show Queer Eye. He’s the show’s interior design expert, known for putting his head down and getting a home completely redone in just a week...no gnomes to speak of.
Bobby grew up in a religious family in Missouri. He was not out to his parents, and they often clashed.
BB: You know, my mother and I butted heads a lot. She's definitely a control freak. She's definitely a worrier. Um, and that worrying personality and the controlling personality really culminated in, okay, your bedtime at 15 years old is still 8:30 at night. You can't go out with the youth group after church, like something could happen. Like I had no life at all, like, I wasn't allowed to go to friends' houses because she didn't know their parents, you know. It was, it was a very controlled environment and that's - I did not flourish in that. And I did not like that. And one night a fight occurred and it got a little crazy and I just, I decided to crawl out the window of my bedroom and shimmy down the gutter and leave.
AS: Crazy in what way?
BB: Um, it just, you know, it was a very religious family and there was always that, you know, line in the Bible, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." And, you know, unfortunately that's the way a lot of religious families think they need to be, because that's what God tells you to do, you know, "beat the devil out of the kid." Um, and I just, I wasn't down for that anymore. So I left.
AS: Did you have in your mind that you were not coming back?
BB: [Sighs] Yeah, I don't, I don't know. I don't, I don't think, you know, any time other than that moment was really in my thought process. You know, I was just thinking about getting the hell out at that moment. Um, I don't know if it was - I think actually, maybe it was, 'cause you know, my, the line my parents used to always use to me was, "If you don't like it, there's the door."
BB: You know, "If you don't like our rules, there's the door. If you don't like this, there's the door." And that was said that night, you know, "If you don't like it, there's the door!" And I'm like, well, okay. You know, I'm calling your bluff. "Bye," you know, there's the window.
AS: Where did you go?
BB: Um, I had a friend's mother who was kind - you know, she was great. She, she was kind of like that safety blanket for a lot of kids. And so I called her up and she came and got me and gave me a place to stay while I tried to figure out what I was going to do.
AS: And how long did you stay with that family?
BB: Um, I stayed with her just for, um, a few months. Um, I stayed with her while I finished out my sophomore year of high school. Yeah, 'cause she was about an hour and 15 minutes each way drive to - back to my high school.
AS: Huh. So you were still going to the same high school, you just weren't living at home.
BB: Correct. Yeah.
AS: And, and did you have any conversation with your parents during that time?
BB: No, no. At that time, no, that, uh, it wasn't until the next school year when I went to enroll in Kickapoo High, you know, where Brad Pitt went in Springfield, Missouri, uh, that I actually had to have the conversation with my parents because I was underage. So I legally couldn't enroll myself in school. Uh, I had to get their permission and they didn't want to get it to me. They tried to use that as a way to force me to come home. And so I then got myself emancipated, so they didn't have a choice. And in the end, I ended up only being able to go to school for about a month and a half before I realized that I couldn't afford to eat and pay rent and go to school.
AS: When you were deciding that you needed to leave school, like what do you remember the sets of feelings being? Was it like exciting that you were like -
BB: No, no. Leaving school was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. Um, 'cause to me, like school was so important, you know, I, I remember like knowing those kids in high school that dropped out and just thinking, God, you - you've just ruined your life. You know, that is just so trashy that you're dropping out of school and to do nothing, like just to sit at home and do nothing just because you don't like school. Um, so no, it was not an easy decision. It was not an exciting decision. It was actually something that I didn't talk about for years. I actually, for a very, very long time lied about it. I never told anyone I dropped out of school. I used to lie and say, I went to college. I would lie about it for employment applications and people, because I was horribly ashamed that I had dropped out of school because education was very important to me.
AS: When did you stop lying about it?
BB: Um, I would say it wasn't until I became a success in business that I stopped lying about it. 'Cause I didn't - you know, I knew that I, I judged myself for it. Until I had become successful, I was a perfect example of what happens, when you drop out of school, you know? Until I proved otherwise I lied about it.
It was then—after he dropped out of high school—that Bobby moved to Springfield, totally on his own.
BB: In the beginning, when I first moved there, I lived in my car. Um, I lived in people's basements on their sofas, you know, couch surfing. Um, at one point I was working three jobs. I worked the graveyard shift at a gas station, um, that got robbed all the time.
BB: And I would work until about six, seven in the morning and I'd go home, I'd sleep for three hours. Then I would go work my shift at The Body Shop. And then after that, I would usually work an evening shift at the Gap. And then sometimes I would even work a fourth job, and I would - at the time I was working at Applebee's as well. So I would go work a late night dinner shift, and then I'd go back to the gas station and I'd work my graveyard shift and do it all over again.
AS: Did - at that point in your life in Springfield, did you feel like you found a community, an LGBT community?
BB: Um, yeah. You know, there was a, a nice little community there, there was a couple of gay bars, you know, I got heavily involved in the drag community there. Um, you know, in small towns, often drag is like the heart of the gay community. And it was definitely the case there as well. I don't know if you watch Drag Race -
BB: But one of the top girls, Crystal Methyd? She's from Springfield, Missouri.
AS: Oh! [Laughs]
BB: Yeah. Yep. My hometown girl. Um, so it, yeah, I, for awhile I did drag, 'cause you know, I would do anything for money back then 'cause I needed it. So yeah, there was, there was a good little gay community there.
AS: What was the club called where you performed?
BB: Martha's Vineyard.
AS: Oh, that's just lovely.
BB: And then, there was another one called Xanadu.
AS: And what, did you have a particular song that you really did well?
BB: Um, "I'm A Bitch."
BB: I would wear, I'd wear a red little like power suit, and I'd be like that like powerful executive woman. Looking back, like I always loved portraying the, the woman that I was in a very powerful boss bitch kind of way.
BB: Yeah, like my outfits were not, you know, the little string bikini or the corsets. It was like, you know, Hillary Clinton power suit. [Laughs]
[MEREDITH BROOKS - "I'M A BITCH"]
Coming up, Bobby takes the boss bitch show to New York City.
BB: You know, you find the free places to go, you know, my friends and I, we always started going out early 'cause the open bars would start at like seven, so you'd go out and you'd go to the open bar and you'd drink as much as you could before the open bar stopped. It was a blast.
Last week, we asked you how you’re thinking about childcare right now, whether you’ve got kids of your own, or if caring for them is your job.
And so far, we’ve heard from a lot of you on both sides. Olivia in Colorado has worked in early childhood education for 18 years. She runs a Headstart program in the Boulder area that’s been closed for in-person learning since March. It’s the only free, full-time program available in Olivia’s community.
OLIVIA: And all I can think about are the kids and families that qualify for Headstart services. And I just… I’m devastated.
They received funding from the CARES Act which provided enough for them to continue to pay their staff during closure. But now, Olivia’s thinking ahead to the fall, and how to reopen safely while also keeping her employees healthy.
OLIVIA: You need staff in classrooms. But you also need to minimize the number of adults that are at a work location. So who carries the brunt of this essential services work?
We really want to hear from both parents and childcare providers. How is child care working for you right now? And what sorts of hard conversations are you having about it? Record a voice memo or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
When Bobby Berk was 18, he moved to Denver, and in with a boyfriend. It was the late '90s. And by this point, he and his parents were talking, and Bobby’s sexuality was a point of friction between them.
So when his mom decided to visit Colorado and stay with him and his boyfriend...Bobby panicked.
BB: And I had said to him before she got there, you know, I, I really want to have a good visit with her and I don't want any drama. So I told him to go stay with his mom while she was there, because I just, I didn't want any fights. So I was going to change, you know, who we were to accommodate her. Um, but then when she got there that evening, you know, he went to grab his bag to go to his mom's and she's like, you know, where are you going? And he's like, "Oh, I'm going to go stay at my mom's." And she's like, "No, no, no. Don't do anything different now that you wouldn't do if I wasn't here!" And I was just like, what? Who is this woman? And then like the next morning, you know, the apartment we lived in, the only bathroom was like in the bedroom. And so she like knocked on the door, she's like, "Are you boys decent?" And I'm like, what, what? Like, who is this woman? You know? Um, and so that was kind of a, definitely a turning point in our relationship. I think they started to see that, you know, being gay, wasn't this crazy thing. It was just, you know, my relationships were more healthy and lasting longer than my - my sister and her ex husband. Um, and so I think they, that first relationship of mine, and first longterm relationship 'cause we were together for a few years, kind of helped them come to terms with me being gay.
AS: And did you say to your mom, like, can you catch me up what's going on here? Or was it all unspoken?
BB: Uh, it was all unspoken.
AS: In your early twenties, when you moved to New York City, what prompted that move?
BB: Um, initially it was for love. I had met somebody, um, and it just seemed like it was meant to be. I actually met him online, and he actually, he lived in New Jersey. So I was moving not to New York, but to New Jersey. And thank goodness we actually broke up before I ended up moving there because otherwise I would have ended up, you know, out in New Jersey instead of Manhattan, and who knows what could have happened. Um, so yeah. I ended up deciding to move to New York anyways, even though it wasn't moving there for him, I decided to move there for me.
AS: How did you support yourself in New York City?
BB: I - originally my plan was that I would just get a job as a server, um, just to start, but then I got there and I quickly realized that in New York, if you don't have New York City server experience, no one will hire you. So it took me about three months to get my first job there and it was, um, a, a visual design management position at Restoration Hardware.
AS: Was sort of design and thinking about physical spaces, was that something that you knew you had a talent for?
BB: No. I mean, growing up, I was the one always moving the furniture around the house and my bedroom and redesigning my bedroom. But it wasn't, again, like without that education, it wasn't even a thought of mine that, oh, this is something I could do, because, you know, I just assumed that I had to have that degree to be able to do this. So it, it never really, you know, I, I didn't go work at Restoration Hardware 'cause I, I wanted a design career. I went there because I - I had retail management experience and, you know, I liked design, so it was a fun place to work. You know, I wasn't folding clothes. I was, you know, getting able to put together furniture and design, like I liked, but no, it wasn't, I didn't get the job there because of design. I just got the job there because it was one of the only jobs I could get at the time.
AS: How did you meet your husband?
BB: It was Gay.com. Um, it was, it was kind of like an old, like AOL chat room type website. Um, there was no, there were no smartphones. There were no apps. Um, you know, it was, it was not easy. It was, uh, very different back then.
AS: Did you know about yourself at that time in your life, that you liked to be in relationship?
BB: Um, I definitely was not looking for a relationship when I met him. You know, I was in the relationship I was in before I moved to New York and then within a month or so of moving to New York, I met somebody that I ended up being in about a year relationship with, and it was not a good relationship. And so I was, I was actually not looking to date anybody. I was just looking to be single.
AS: What, in those early months of being with your husband, do you remember sticking out about what was, what was special about what you two had?
BB: Um, he was just very sweet, you know, genuinely a caring, sweet, loving person. And that wasn't something I had, you know, really found, especially not in New York. Um, you know, everybody kind of always wanted something or had an ulterior motive and, and he didn't. You know, and he went out of his way to give to me, you know, I was always kind of the giver in the relationship, but, you know, he would, he was going to med school at the time at Mount Sinai all the way uptown at like 96th Street. And I was, I lived on 17th Street and he would leave med school and come all the way downtown to like stay the night at my apartment and then get up at 4:30, 5 in the morning to go all the way back uptown, even though his apartment was like a few blocks away from the hospital. So he was the one that really, yeah. Without his, without him, we, well without him, we wouldn't be together obviously, but you know, he definitely was the one that made it work in the beginning.
BB: 'Cause again, I wasn't looking for a relationship, so I wouldn't, I wouldn't have worked that hard.
AS: Did it feel okay to have somebody trying to show up and kind of take care of you after you being on your own for so many years?
BB: Yeah, it was nice. Although, I mean, when I say - I'm still the, always the nurturer in the relationship. I would say he would've, he would have gotten hit by a car years ago if it wasn't for me. I’m not even joking. That boy is always off in cloud nine. He's always thinking of something else. There have been many a times where I've had to grab his hand to keep him from walking out in front of a car. To this day he's still like that.
Bobby and his husband Dewey got married in 2012. By then, Bobby had built his own successful design business in New York, which eventually moved to LA. But it wasn’t until 2017, when he was cast on the Queer Eye reboot that things felt like they were really changing in a big way.
BB: I mean, it's, it's only been in the last few years that I've ever not worried about money and stressed about money, you know? And I still don't take it for granted. You know, I still, I still allow it to stress me out sometimes. But, you know, it's just on a different scale now.
AS: When you noticed that, when you noticed that you could not be all the time worrying about money, um, was there something nice that you bought for yourself?
BB: Yeah, we bought our first home, uh, about - going on two years ago now.
AS: And what was that like for you who's - for somebody who's like spent your - so much of your adult life thinking about physical spaces and what makes them feel nourishing and cozy?
BB: It was just, it was just amazing to me that I was able to buy a home. I mean, I never thought that I'd be able to buy a home. Definitely not the home that we bought, you know, and since then we've, I've bought another home, you know. And to this day I'll sometimes walk through and just be like, I can't believe this is mine. To this day. You know, 'cause I, I never, I never thought that this would be an option for me. And even, even when my businesses were successful, even when my husband was a successful doctor, we tried to buy a house and couldn't because, you know, I worked for myself, mortgage - banks don't like giving mortgages to self employed people. My husband, as a surgeon, was a self employed surgeon at multiple different practices. So we weren't able to get a mortgage. I wasn't able to get a mortgage until, you know, two years ago. And even then it was not an easy process. Um, so yeah, I was, it's, it's still shocking to me.
AS: When did you get rejected from a mortgage? Did you like try and apply and not get - not get through?
BB: Yeah. Even in, even in like 2018, in the beginning of 2018, we had been rejected.
AS: It must have felt really good to get that mortgage. [Laughs]
BB: Yes. I mean, honestly until, uh, I even, even up until like pulling into the closing, I just assumed something was going to go wrong and it wasn't going to happen. Um, yeah, I, I remember I, I found this house while we were filming in Kansas City, like on the Redfin app. I'd be, I'd be sitting in the trailer while we were filming, just looking at houses. Um, and at that point, honestly, I had, I was just looking at them because it was just such an obsessive dream, but I had given up on the fact that I'd be able to get one, I'm like, I had been told no and rejected for so long that I'm like, eh, you know, even to, up until closing, I assumed it was something was going to fall through and it wasn't going to happen.
AS: Do you feel, a, an awareness of a class difference with the family you grew up with now when you go home?
BB: Um, no, 'cause I, I still don't. I don't know. I still think of myself as poor.
BB: You know, I grew up that way. Yeah. I mean, I, luckily I don't have the, the stresses that I know come along with being poor because, you know, I had those honestly up until, you know, two years ago. Um, but, yeah, I don't know. I don't, I don't think of myself - I don't want to think of myself as, you know, wealthy. I don't, yeah. I would prefer to not, I think that creates a lot of attitude that I never want to have.
AS: Hm. And poor, is that a word that you have used for yourself?
BB: Um, I mean, I don't now, but oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I was dirt poor, you know. Growing up, we never went hungry. You know, I do remember some times as a child that there would, we would get some help from the food pantry because you know, my, my dad would get laid off of a job or something, but, you know, there were some times where we were, we were pretty poor, you know, but my parents, they always took care of us.
AS: And can you tell me more about like, I don't want to think of myself as wealthy because I don't like the way that might change me? Like what, what, what are you afraid of that that would mean?
BB: Um, I don't know. I just, you know, I meet a lot of wealthy people and I don't really care for them.
BB: And don't get me wrong. There are a lot of amazingly wonderful, generous, loving wealthy people out there. But I, I, you know, I, I have seen very firsthand money change people, um, and fame change people. And I never, I always want to make sure that I consciously don't allow that to happen to me.
AS: Mmhm. Yeah. "I don't care for them." I like that a lot.
BB: [Laughs] You know, I just, I find that a lot of times their world revolves around money, you know, and I don't want my world to revolve around money.
That’s Bobby Berk. Seasons one through five of Queer Eye are on Netflix now.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. This episode was produced by Anabel Bacon and Katie Bishop. The rest of the team is Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
And thanks to Mia Garritsen in Utah who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Mia and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
Even though Bobby never got his degree...he did get into a college yearbook.
BB: I dated the editor of the yearbook at the University of Denver. And for three, for three years, I'm actually in the University of Denver's yearbook as a student.
AS: [Laughs] Oh my gosh.
BB: Um, yeah, if you, if you pull up the University of Denver's yearbook, I'm in there as a student in the yearbook every year.
I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money, from WNYC.