Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski Goes Deep on A Little Life

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Antoni Porowski seems like a character imagined by Hanya Yanagihara: He’s a beautiful man, with soft, dark eyes that betray a glimmer of turmoil underneath an Instagram-perfect life (see his carefully laid thirst traps, food photos, and equally beautiful boyfriend). Until recently, he was a working actor appearing in smaller parts, but his biggest role so far is playing himself as the food expert in the newly rebooted Queer Eye. Unpredictably, he has become the most controversial member of the five, in the way that the internet likes to take a joke and run with it, because what did this beautiful man really know about cooking if he was teaching people how to make grilled cheese?

“There’s been a lot of attention and objectification, which I didn’t think, as a 33-year-old basically married male, would be the case, but it has been,” Porowski tells me. He’s wearing his signature Queer Eye look: a band T-shirt (Arcade Fire this time), a black leather jacket, and a smile that curls at the edges. He’s also carrying a tote bag that lists the major streets from Yanagihara’s contemporary tome of male friendship and love, A Little Life. It’s companion swag to two T-shirts he has worn on the show that read “Jude & JB & Willem & Malcolm” – the four main characters from A Little Life that suggested something twisted and knotty beneath the surface of a teary but optimistic makeover show.

A Little Life, published in 2015, has a power that only accrues with each passing dinner party and cocktail conversation. The novel, which describes harrowing sexual and emotional abuse, has been described as everything from tragedy porn to the greatest gay novel of our time. If the shirts weren’t enough of an indication, Porowski loves the book, identifying as a mix of Jude and Willem — the broken protagonist and the caregiver. This interview, which took place in an extremely loud Joe & the Juice, is about that love, and the funny, unexpected places talking about a book you love can take you.

Okay, so I have something very specific I want to talk about, but I need to address the stuff that other people are talking about first.
[Laughs] What-ever do you want to bring up?

People are having fun with this piece asking if you can cook or not. Did you read it?  
The best advice that was given to me during this whole insanity storm since the show came out is that I’m not allowed to read good or bad press, which I’m starting to understand now. I maintain a healthy amount of ignorance. My boyfriend reads a lot of stuff, he relays a bit of information, and I have friends who feel the need to send me screenshots of certain things that get written. So I am aware, but I’m not engaging or indulging in them too much.

I mean, what am I going to do, cry about it? I have to laugh! It just goes with the territory. I signed up for this. It’s like buying a hot dog in Central Park. It’s consensual: You know it’s made with some pretty disgusting stuff, you’ve just got to be okay with it. I just don’t want it to detract from the fact that it’s a show about helping people, and it’s not about my skill set. It’s not about me trying to show the world what an amazing home cook I am, but about how we can come in and, in a short time, better their lives, because it is a service job. I know there’s a lot of fluff around it, and color, and the chemistry between all of us, and the car rides, humor, heart, and crying, but it’s a service job.

From my vantage point, it’s mostly lighthearted. But is it strange to be talked about not so much as a person as much as a character. Is that a weird mind-fuck?
Yes! That’s actually a good word for it. I have to sort of detach myself. When the whole thing first came out on Netflix, the first show to ever drop in 190 countries, it was big. Instagram has been blowing up. One thing is, my boyfriend reads me little parts of the Vulture recaps of every episode. The first time I heard about it, I was in utter shock. But then when he started reading more of them, they’re actually hilarious and so funny! We have to take it for what it is, because it is entertaining. One week, there’s a piece that literally doesn’t address any of my cooking but just talks about my physical appearance. Thanks, Mom and Dad, but I had nothing to do with that! [Laughs.] So yes, there’s vanity and maybe I go to the gym and am a little bit more of a narcissist than most people in taking care of my physical appearance, but at the same time, if I’m not going to indulge and really take on that BuzzFeed article that objectified me … if I’m not going to get excited about that, I can’t get as excited about — and I’m using this in quotes — “negative,” because I don’t even see it as that negative. It’s just people being bitchy, catty, looking for fodder and trying to get attention. I kind of feel like I’m back in kindergarten with a bunch of people who have university degrees. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit, but they’re people who have very strong opinions and expect you to indulge. So I’m staying in my lane and I’m just focusing on the next thing, working on my recipes.

Now we’re going to get to the part that I really want to get to. Are all the T-shirts yours?
I’m so glad that you asked me that! [Laughs.] So have you heard of A Little Life? [He holds up his tote bag.]

This is literally the only thing I want to talk about.
Well, we’re going to talk about it right now! [Looks at his manager] I don’t care if I’m going off topic, this is important.

So picture it: I come back from L.A. after our premiere. The show came out on a Wednesday, I wake up on Saturday morning and Joey, my boyfriend, is looking up at his phone. He’s like, “Holy shit, get on Instagram, go to Hanya’s account right now.” I look and she posted a photo of me wearing the T-shirt, and then I go to the Little Life page and I see the photo there. I sent her a DM and we just start chatting.

What did you say?
I probably tried to stay cooler than I was actually feeling because I burst into tears immediately. Her book has such an important place in my life. I thanked her and said, “I don’t really know what to say except I’m crying and thank you for posting about it and taking notice, and I hope you know that I wore the T-shirt with pride.” And she wrote back saying, “The boys would be really proud of the work that you do on the show.” I know they’re characters, but I think we all have a little bit of Jude and Willem inside of us.

When I met with stylists, the show creators were like, “You’re NYC. You’re jeans and T-shirts. We’re keeping it simple for you.” I was like, “Great, T-shirts are all I fucking wear anyway.” So what’s my favorite band? The Strokes and the National. Netflix contacted the Strokes, who have been my favorite band, to see if they could use the T-shirts for the artwork. It’s one thing to use the T-shirt, but sometimes you have to contact the original artist, so it’s a two-step thing. So the Strokes’ manager was like, “We showed it to the band, they approve of it, but the shirts you bought are fakes so the band would like to send you a bunch of free T-shirts.” I already owned a couple, but they sent over even more. So that was one of my first snot cries before production even started on the show, the fact that the Strokes even knew what we were doing.

Then I was like, “Okay, we’re busting out the Hanya T-shirts.” Hanya and I were sending each other these messages and she said, “Would you like me to send over a couple of totes?” and I was like, “Yeah, of course, send them over!” The next morning a courier from the New York Times brought over a little box with totes and a handwritten note from Hanya that’s on my fridge, so that was my second cry in 48 hours!

What did it say?
Something like, “Thank you for carrying the message of the book.” That book is so important to me, and I am someone who definitely indulges in melancholia and the happy-sad of life. I think both of those exist on the same continuum, and if you have one, you have to have the other. At the end of the day, it’s a story about showing up for somebody who doesn’t even believe in themselves, which is exactly what we do on the show. It’s just a story about kindness, when you don’t even believe in yourself, to have someone endlessly show up for you. The story doesn’t work out the way I thought it would; there are lots of surprises along the way, and that pain can be really insurmountable sometimes, and it’s just ongoing. But there are still moments of beauty within that as well. I think if you have had a life of pain – and I can relate to a lot of the story – it really makes you appreciate the good that you have in life as well.

When did you first read A Little Life?
My dear friend recommended the book. Before that I’d read My Struggle, so you have a bit of an idea of the type of stuff I like. I mentioned to him that I loved the book and he said, “Now you have to read A Little Life.” This was right when it came out. When I showed up at Three Lives, my favorite bookstore, and said, “I need another book to read, I kind of want A Little Life,” the person who helped came back with it said, “Hang on. Hanya was here. She signed some of them and this one is special because there’s a happy face she signed with her initials, so I’ll let you have this one.” I immediately fell in love with the book. It took me a while to read it because I put it down a lot.

Where would you read it?
I’m a subway reader. I don’t really sit when I’m at home. We live in a studio and I really spend time with my boyfriend Joey there. I don’t get to do quiet time. It’s really just when I’m on the train or in a car, mostly on subways. It took me a few months to read, and I kept on putting it down because it would bring up a lot in me. It forced me to look at some aspects of growing up that I chose to put away, but it was done so beautifully that it made it okay to start thinking about it again.

Can I ask what?
Basically it deals with addiction and some of the emotional abuse in there as well. Those were things I could relate to on a pretty personal level. It just brought it up in this way where, yes, Jude was alone in his struggle and a lot of the stuff he experienced, but what makes the book so special is the interaction that he has with these people, particularly with Willem. I constantly find myself jumping between, “Am I Jude or am I a Willem?” I was an actor so all actors are like, “Of course I was a waiter, and I love to talk about food,” and there’s so many amazing food references with the gougère in the book! It’s so beautiful! So I just find myself vacillating between the two characters. It made a lot of this stuff less lonely. I’m going to keep it a little general and leave it at that.

I read it in, like, five days.
How?

I could not put the book down.
You masochist! I mean, I kind of am too. No judgment.

Well, I did feel like my relationship with the book was masochistic. Did you feel that way at all?
I think so. There were some days, depending on what my mood was, where I had to put it down, like when he was in the bathroom and when the self-harm scenes came up, there were some days where I found myself so uncomfortable but I still had to watch, kind of like an eclipse. Then there were other days where I just had to put it down and go watch reruns of 30 Rock or The Office to get my mind off it. But it was written in such an intimate way, sometimes I felt like I was violating somebody’s privacy by reading it, and I’ve never felt that way with a book before. Before that, it was always a lot of Milan Kundera existentialism, and I love reading about alcoholics. I’m a big Hemingway and Salinger fan. So this was different. It changed the way I look at the types of books I want to read, where you feel like you’re coming into someone’s space, the way you feel with British comedy for example. On the original British Office, it feels uncomfortable to watch because it’s so inappropriate. It felt like that, but on a more emotional, heartstring level.

Did you cry on the subway?
Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s not a challenge for me to cry if you’ve seen the show. I call the moments where we’re in our confessionals “Kardashian Moments,” where you can really see a wet streak and my voice starts to tremble. My boyfriend can detect it when he watches it and so can his mom, and he was like, “Oh, you definitely snot-cried right before that scene. I can tell you’re puffy and makeup was trying to cover it up!” I’m a highly sensitive, very emotional person, and the book, like the show, gave me plenty of opportunities to cry.

I was in a gay book club, and we read The Group, by Mary McCarthy, but it just turned into a conversation about A Little Life! [Laughs.] The book comes up constantly in my life. Have you had those moments where random people talk to you about the book? People get very passionate about it.
Yes. I’ve sent it to my father, my boyfriend’s mom, who indulges in my sensibility. She was really uncomfortable with the book and I thought she’d dislike it, but I wanted her to read it anyway and she ended up loving it. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like she was almost embarrassed to admit, “Yeah, it was really difficult, but you know what? It’s really beautiful, and it’s a really important story.”

Is there a scene that you think about?
Near the opening of the book when they’re all stuck on the roof. That’s the nostalgia I get of going to a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club concert, drinking a bunch of whiskey, and just being free in my 20s, and when I used to smoke, the smell of cigarettes, and a life of no consequences. And when Willem finally gets his big part, I kind of feel like I’m experiencing that right now. It’s an emotional time, a very positive time, but it’s also very weird. It’s very bizarre. It’s like the giving up of anonymity for a life that’s public and wanting sometimes to complain about it and be like, “Oh, this is hard,” but then again, “Woe is me.”

You said you feel like part Willem and part Jude. How so?
When I think about the person I want to be, it’s a bit of Willem, where he has this unconditional love for Jude, and there’s a humility and a kindness that’s there in the way he shows up for him, first as a friend and then as his partner. And then with Jude, I understand the ambition, and trying to compensate for what you think are your defects, or what I think are my defects of character, and thinking I have to be successful to prove the people who wronged me, that the best revenge is success. And I want to be like Jude in that I definitely want to be better at baking. I can’t bake.

I may be mistaken, but I didn’t get the impression from reading the book that there was clarity on what place and time the story is set.

It’s kind of out of time.
I feel like it’s actually in an idealized future because of the fluidity of their sexual path as well, especially with Willem. [Editor’s note: At the start of the novel, Willem dates women and later is in a romantic relationship with Jude.] There’s a certain flow to it where it’s less judged. The references are all dealt with in a very casual way, which is natural and how I’ve always felt about my own sexuality. I really related to that part on a personal level because, although it felt idealized, it also felt like the way that I see things.

How do you see your sexuality?
Since puberty, I’ve always known there was a possibility of me being with a man. It wasn’t anything I felt the need to explore until the time came to explore it. I had much more encounters with women than I had with men. I’ve only had two meaningful relationships with men. I dated one guy, and then I saw women for several years. Now I’ve been with my boyfriend for seven years. Each relationship I was in suited the person I was at the time. When I was struggling with my family, I had a very complicated relationship with them, I was with a woman who was very maternal, who took care of me and taught me that family was what you made of it, that it was logical vs. biological. When I started exploring my own vanity and going to the gym and working out and paying attention to my body, it was when I started dating a guy and seeing a naked man for the first time, and that comparison and this brotherhood … it all happened exactly when it was supposed to happen. And then when I didn’t feel like I was really being myself and I didn’t know the type of gay man I wanted to be, I went out and dated women again. Some of it was really good and some of it was really destructive. But I feel like it all made sense at the time. I wouldn’t go and change anything. The way they deal with that in the book as well is similar, because with Willem, it’s a nonissue that he’s dating Jude. I don’t think anyone protests or is shocked by it. They treat it like anything else, which is the world I want to live in. That’s how I feel, and it’s why I don’t often talk about sexuality. That’s why it’s funny I ended up on the gayest show that ever existed in the history of the world! It was something that felt so personal.

But maybe that’s what being gay, or queer, is, right? I don’t know what word you want to use.
When I was first allowed to talk about the show and people would ask what I was on, I’d say, “Oh, I’m on Queer Eye.” [whispers “Queer”]. Like, I was too ashamed to say the word because it felt like a dirty, terrible word! But spending more time with gay men — and I’ve lived a pretty sheltered life — spending time with people like Jonathan, the hair/grooming guy on the show who’s super comfortable in his own skin, you can’t help but have that energy rub off on you and have comfort with you being you. My boyfriend joked in a kind, sweet way, “You definitely got gayer over the summer!” and I was like, “Yeah, I guess I did! And I’m totally okay with that! When I’m around Jonathan or Tan, we behave like children and we’re so free and it’s like boys at camp.

Is this the first time you’ve been surrounded by a gay cohort or community?
Yes. I’ve had friends in the past, but for the most part, I get along with women very well, better than I think I do with men. Actually, that’s not true anymore. The older that I get, the more I feel I’m the same person with everybody. In one of the episodes with Neal Reddy, we were talking about how when I was only out to some but not to everybody, I was a different person based on who I was hanging out with — an employer, my father, my boyfriend, or my best friend. Now I feel like I’m more the same person with everybody, so I’m not drawn to a specific type.

What’s been the most emotional moment for you doing this show?
The most emotional moment was, I think, when I met AJ’s mom, in the coming-out episode. This didn’t make it to the final cut, but when he was asking her, “Are you okay with this?” she said, “You’re AJ.” She just loves him unconditionally, and that’s a choice she makes to love him. There is no judgment there. She’s a really religious person with crosses all over her house. I was actually really worried about how she was going to react. She had no idea. And for her to make that choice and still love him just as much, if not more, because he’s finally being honest with her, that was something that … I wish I had a little more of in my life growing up, in certain stages. I’m glad we got to show that. That’s what a parental figure can be like. It’s the whole idea of how your parents are an accident of birth. Bob Dylan was big about that; he changed his name because he felt like he never really connected to his parents. We get to create that for ourselves. There’s a universality there that I feel a lot of people, gay people in particular, because obviously, coming out is such a huge part of our development, but I think for anybody. And just dealing with unconditional love, losing a parent, and sharing the bond of that pain together — and of course, I’m drawn to pain — we all relate to that.

Have you talked about the show with your parents?
I don’t have a relationship with my mother, so I don’t know whether she’s seen it or not. My father has seen it and he’s very quiet about it. He’s like, “I think it’s very cool what you’re doing.” He’s not a man of too many words. He’s very cerebral, very Dostoevsky. He hosted a big viewing party with 40 family members and they all watched it. He had no idea before he watched it what it was about! He had no clue. But he loves it when I talk about food, and he’s always loved when I talk about food. I think he’s proud.

Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski Goes Deep on A Little Life