September 9, 2010 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Shadow of the Big O

The television landscape is abundantly peppered with gay characters and shows — “Mad Men,” “Glee,” the hilarious “Modern Family,” all of which have been well documented. So we’re focusing on something new that, on its surface looks innocuous, but is actually a television first — an openly gay man with his own daytime show.

“The Nate Berkus Show” premieres Monday as a syndicated daytime show cleared for 95 percent of the country including all NBC-owned-and-operated stations (check local listings here). The Chicago-based designer, who became famous for his guest appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” is launching his own program as Winfrey starts the final season of her own show. He has his own Chicago-based design firm and is a best-selling author. He also hosted the short-lived reality show “Oprah’s Big Give” in 2008.

During a media conference call Tuesday, Berkus discussed his new show, its format, some of his guests and his thoughts about being an openly gay public figure.

“I’ve never played anybody but myself on TV so it’s not my intent to anything differently now,” Berkus says. “If anything, people will be seeing more of me than they ever have before, so my day-to-day will definitely be part of the show. Being on ‘Oprah,’ I was never front and center, so this has taken some getting used to.”

The series is conceived as an exploration of a “broad range of lifestyle subjects providing take-away information and inspiration that will make a real difference in viewers’ daily lives,” according to promotional materials.

Berkus says some of the recurring segments will find him designing spaces with a 3-D gaming technology device that was designed for him, the “Nate Crate” which will ship materials to viewers all around the country to fulfill a show-issued challenge and a segment in which Berkus cohorts will comb neighborhoods for curbside trash pickup that will hopefully contain treasures worth refurbishing that will eventually be auctioned for charity. Celebrity guests will also appear. Dolly Parton and Elizabeth Edwards have already taped segments.

“The sky is the limit,” Berkus says. “I’m gonna be out there every day so everything is going through my lens. It’s my show, with my name and my stamp on everything. Viewers will see how inept I am in the kitchen, they’ll see the tension between my mother and I, they’ll really see all facets.”

While lesbians such as Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow have thrived with their own shows, observers are calling Berkus’ the first show of its kind hosted by a gay man since Jim J. Bullock hosted the short-lived “Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show” in 1996. Is Berkus’ sexual orientation important or just a side note?

“It’s important for me as a person to put my best foot forward,” he says. “I don’t define myself only as being gay or only as being Jewish. I think all of us have lots of different facets. But it is an enormous responsibility for several reasons. I try to lead by example.”

Berkus says there are no immediate plans for a visit from the big O though she may “if it makes sense.” He says Winfrey taught him to “always speak my truth, remain authentic and learn to listen before I speak.”

And what about the stereotypes of being a gay designer? How has Berkus overcome that?

“I don’t know that I have,” he says. “But it hasn’t been an issue at all.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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