Meeting David Collins in the reception area of Scout Productions in Los Angeles, a visitor could get the impression that the creator of Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is in a mad scramble to find a follow-up to his groundbreaking hit. He races up the long, steep staircase to his second-floor office, taking the steps two at a time.
As he bounds upward, Collins' lean torso and signature bald pate make the 37-year-old appear positively aerodynamic. “Come on up! How're you doing? Sorry for all the craziness. Would you like something to drink?”
Unwinded, not stopping for breath, Collins seems unlikely to sit still for an interview for more than a couple of minutes before returning to the pressing business of trying to capitalize on his moment of programming glory. But despite his convincing impersonation of a human pogo stick, Collins is in fact biding his time.
“There's this big pressure to rush out with something new,” he says. “Hurry! Step right up! See what's next in reality television!” Collins says he fell victim to the circus-barker routine for a time, eyeing the growing empire of Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice, The Contender) and wondering how he and his producing partners, Michael Williams and David Metzler, could follow Queer Eye's remarkable slam dunk with both gay and straight audiences after its debut in the summer of 2003 (an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program followed in 2004).
“But then we got some really good advice from our agents at Endeavor, Rick Rosen and Greg Horangic,” he says. “They said, 'When Mark Burnett started Survivor, he didn't rush right out with something else immediately.' So we've decided to stay focused.”
Focus, in this case, means finishing up the massive order for QE's second season—38 episodes—and starting 27 more for season three, which begins airing in June. Viewership has cooled to about 1 million from the audience of 1.6 million for its premiere, but QE remains a powerhouse for Bravo.
There is also an order for 13 episodes of the franchise's inevitably less revolutionary (and less watched) spinoff, Queer Eye for the Straight Girl. In addition, Collins takes a supervisory role in the red-hot franchising and marketing of the QE brand to more than 100 countries. An additional 15 nations, not content with taking fashion, grooming and interior-design tips from homosexual Americans, have created their own teams of five gay “superheroes” under Collins' guidance.
“What we want to do now,” he says, “is work quietly on development.”
He's contemplating test-driving pilots in overseas markets. And he's exploring the possibility of striking deals with advertisers to co-sponsor a show from the pilot stage onward “so we take the pressure off the networks in trying something new.”
But beyond offering those tidbits, Collins is mum on the subject of his next projects. Reality-show producers often try to keep their operations hush-hush, but avoiding attracting attention will be difficult for Collins, whose face has been plastered across the television airwaves in American Express (“Do you know me?”) Small Business Network commercials. And trying to out-do QE will be a daunting challenge, given that the show's status as a “make-better” program, which utilizes gay men helping clueless straight men, has had a seismic cultural impact.
Despite its arrival on TV as a decidedly radical production (putting the word “queer” in the title for starters), QE originated on more prosaic grounds.
“This show was born out of our friendship,” says Metzler. “David being the gay guy and me being the straight guy. At the beginning of every audition, David would say, 'Gay guys, straight guys, they may do things a little bit differently in the bedroom, but in the end, they're just guys. So why is there an issue?'” And if there were an “issue,” they reasoned, it could be quickly vanquished. “It's the old idea of 'show, don't tell,'” says Metzler. “If you just show people how great these guys are and how good their work is, they'll figure out the rest by themselves.”
Although the show has built bridges across a sexual divide, Collins did not approach it with an activist agenda. He came out in college, “but, for me,” he says, “it was never a political thing.”
The eldest of three boys, Collins grew up outside Cincinnati, where the suburbs meet farm country. His highest aspiration was to excel within the Future Farmers of America and become a veterinarian. But with his drive and dramatic bent, the lure of the FFA couldn't keep him down on the farm.
“I have always been overzealous in everything,” he says. “When I was little and my parents told me that they were getting divorced”—his father is a salesman, his mother a seminar and conference coordinator—”I got on my bicycle and rode through the neighborhood telling everyone. My parents got a phone call from a neighbor, saying, 'David is telling everyone you're getting a divorce.' I was broadcasting it.”
But it was in his sophomore year in high school, when he was 15, that the wheels really came off. Collins—class president, football player, choir member and after-school assistant to the principal—played hooky with some friends to go to the Cincinnati Zoo. There they were caught, truant and smoking pot, and Collins was suspended for one week and barred from all extracurricular activities.
His response? He ran away from home for three solid months and got odd jobs in New York City, a far cry from bucolic Ohio. “I found out,” he says, “that the world is bigger and that there is a price for everything.”
Safely back home, Collins graduated as senior-class president, enrolled in Ohio University and fell in love with campus radio. After graduation in 1989 (with a B.S. in film and television), he showed up at the Cincinnati Film Commission looking for a job.
It just happened to be the day that Jodie Foster, in town to scout locations for Little Man Tate, was stranded at the airport. Collins volunteered to pick her up, made himself useful and was rewarded with his first screen credit: Special Projects Coordinator.
He also met his life partner of 15 years, Michael Williams, on the set. Five years later, after working on a string of feature films, he and Williams launched their own location-scouting company, which would lead to independent films and TV shows, including ABC Family's Knock First, a teen room-makeover show, and an Academy Award for Williams' producing role on the 2004 documentary feature Fog of War.
“David energizes everyone,” says Bravo SVP of Programming and Production Frances Berwick. One of QE's breakout stars, fashion guru Carson Kressley, remembers first encountering Collins at a casting agency in New York.
“I walked into a rickety building in Chelsea” for an audition, Kressley says, and spotted the man who would soon be his boss. “And I thought, wow, who's this little firepot? He is a very tightly wound, passionate person.”
And a person who doesn't have to worry about knocking himself out just trying to get the attention of the sort of skeptical television executives who once squirmed through his pitch for a show about “queer” lifestyle gurus.
“We definitely paid our dues and have solid creative behind the company,” he says. “Sexuality doesn't really play a role. Confidence plays a role.”
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