Karamo Brown is no stranger to Philly, but he sees the city differently now that he’s back.
“[Being back in Philly] is one of those full-circle moments where I came here as a little 22-year-old, fresh out of college, unsure about life," Brown said. "Now I come back as a fully grown man — aware of my purpose.”
Brown first made a name for himself as a cast member on MTV’s The Real World: Philadelphia, filmed in 2004. For the first time in the franchise’s history, the show featured two openly gay cast members — including Brown, who was then known for his feisty personality, and multiple altercations with castmates. Years later, he discovered he had a son from a prior heterosexual relationship and went on to seek full custody. Brown later adopted his son’s half-brother.
Since then, he’s made appearances on such TV shows as HLN’s Dr. Drew On Call, VH1′s Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, and TV One’s The Next :15. Earlier this year, he published a memoir, My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope.
Most recently, Brown has been guiding people through teary bouts on Netflix’s Emmy-winning Queer Eye, which is currently filming its fifth season in Philly. (Its fourth season premiered on the streaming service on July 19.) Brown, 38, said that upon returning to Philadelphia, he’s found a deeper appreciation for the city.
Early on in Queer Eye, people “had no idea what my role was because you’re not seeing something physically happen,” Brown noted. He describes himself as the show’s mental health expert, assisting guests with “emotional breakthroughs.”
The Inquirer caught up with Brown to talk about Philly, his podcast, and his own emotional journey.
How is filming in Philly different from other cities you’ve been to?
I have a personal connection with Philly. When I got to Atlanta [where the first two seasons were shot], I had been there, but I had never lived there. I had never been to Kansas [where the third and fourth seasons were shot]. With Philly, I lived [here] for months. So when I’m walking the street, I have a deeper connection to it.
Also, because after I finished Real World, I dated someone who I met on the show who lived in Philly. So I was back here almost every week for like two and a half, three years. I know this place. I know the experiences that Philadelphians have been through.
Do you know what Queer Eye is looking for in nominees during the selection process?
Vulnerability. The five of us have nothing to do with casting. People hit us up all the time and say, “Can you get someone on the show?" And we’re like, “Nope. That’s not how it works.” But what we do know to be true, is when people contact us because they want a new house, or they want a new wardrobe, that’s usually what does not get them on the show. We want people who have a full-breadth experience [like] people who have struggled in school, [people] that anyone can relate to. So it’s really vulnerability.
In the second episode of Season Four, you reconnected a victim of gun violence to the man who shot him. During the episode you said, “Forgiveness is something that you have to continue to work on.” Could you unpack that?
A lot of the times people believe that forgiveness is a destination and [do] not realize that it’s a journey. They think that you have a conversation with someone, and that you’re going to be healed immediately —from one conversation. And that’s just not the truth.
Sometimes when things that are traumatic have happened to us, it takes time to heal. It takes time to understand the process. There might be moments where you feel you’re not OK, or you feel that the forgiveness you gave, you shouldn’t have. But then people feel guilty for that. [They say], “I already said, ‘I forgive you,’ so I don’t have the right to bring something up or express it.” We’re all human beings with complex emotions and it’s OK to being in the space to forgive today and tomorrow still be confused on why something happened.
How did you prepare for your role on Queer Eye?
Well, I’m a trained social worker. A lot of people don’t know that. My skills as a social worker gave me [the tools] to help people, how to sit down and have those hard conversations. Secondly, I’ve been through a lot of challenges. The beauty of my experience in Philadelphia was that, here, people got to see me as a 22-year-old that didn’t know anything and was full of anger. At the drop of a dime he was gonna cuss you out or cry because he didn’t understand complex emotions. His relationships with his roommates, with his father, was just a mess.
Being able to use my training from school but also go through challenges and really work on myself, helps me to help other people. That’s why I’m very transparent about everything that I’ve been through in my life, because if I can make it through, you can make it through.
Tell me about your podcast, Karamo.
I’m filming Season Two right now. My podcast is a call-in show where people can call in [to discuss] a choice they’re making that brings them joy, but is causing conflict in their lives. I help them navigate how to deal with the people in their lives but also heal themselves.
For Season Two I’ve decided to give back to Philadelphia because there are so many people who want to sit down for a conversation, like on Queer Eye. This is their opportunity. While I’m here filming, I’m designating a couple of weeks where people can sit down right in front of me and get a one-on-one [advice] session.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.