He was one of the original “Fab Five” on Bravo’s groundbreaking Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He busted a move in the ballroom on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, and braved the rigors of the boardroom and beyond (once baring it all for a photo shoot on the back of a Kawasaki motorcycle) on NBC’s The New Celebrity Apprentice. He’s on a first-name basis with RuPaul and Oprah—and not just because their star power has eclipsed the need for surnames. But, on a recent late-summer day, Lehigh Valley native Carson Kressley was just another guy eating a cheesesteak and taking in a show with friends at the fairgrounds at the 2018 Great Allentown Fair.
While the TV star, author, master of fashion and all-around high-energy entertainer seems to be at ease among the bright lights and big talents who carve out their livelihoods in Hollywood or the Big Apple, Kressley has never felt the inclination to put his hometown permanently in the rearview mirror. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “It’s such a hidden gem. I do love coming back here to spend time with friends and family.”
It’s wonderful what it did for my career, but knowing that you changed people’s lives is really gratifying.”
Raised in the village of Claussville in Lowhill Township, part of rural Lehigh County, Kressley recalls an idyllic childhood. “Growing up in that era, the ’70s and ’80s, everything was so free for exploration,” says Kressley. He speaks fondly of memories of hunting for tadpoles with friends, and spending hours traversing the terrain on his trusty bicycle. “There wasn’t much going on back then. We thought going to the Lehigh Valley Mall was the height of a good time.”
Kressley also happened to be incredibly fond of his next-door neighbors. “My grandparents had a somewhat-famous pony farm,” he explains. “I thought it was normal to have a couple hundred ponies right outside your door.” Kressley was keen to explore the equestrian world. He recalls traveling to local and regional horse shows with his family. “It was a great way to meet different people and see different places,” he says. But, although he grew up with a sister, Diana, and a brother, Brian, they were eight and six years older than him, respectively, and they had other interests at the time. “My siblings were like, ‘We have cars, we’re out of here, bye,’” Kressley says.
Following his graduation from Northwestern Lehigh High School in 1987, he studied management and fine art at Gettysburg College, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1991. But, after the cap and gown were folded and put away, Kressley wasn’t entirely sure what his next move would be. “Finishing college and figuring out the real world was stressful,” he says. “I didn’t have a knack for planning. I still don’t. When people ask, ‘What’s your five-year plan?’ I don’t even know what I’m doing next Tuesday.”
He describes his life as “serendipitous,” so maybe it was a slice of that serendipity, or perhaps a gut feeling, or even a higher calling of some sort that propelled him to a new life in a new city—New York City. Kressley recalls taking a Bieber bus from the Lehigh Valley (“I was literally fresh off the bus”) and stepping into the dizzying glow and throbbing hum of the Big Apple. “I didn’t even know which way Forty-second Street was,” he says. “It was all very much by the seat of my pants.”
Kressley found his footing—and his calling—first as an independent stylist and then as a member of designer Ralph Lauren’s team, where he began working in menswear. Serendipity would strike again around the year 2003, when Bravo was casting for a new reality show in which a group of gay men would make over a straight man in need of a little—or a lot of—assistance in honing his social graces, entertaining skills or wardrobe choices. A co-worker encouraged Kressley to try out for the show, and he made the cut as one of the Fab Five. Each man would bring a particular set of skills to the table; Kressley would serve as the Fashion Savant.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy premiered in July of 2003 and ran for five seasons. It was an immediate ratings hit, and Kressley and his co-stars were catapulted into the celebrity stratosphere. Suddenly a trip home to the Lehigh Valley Mall became a lot more eventful.
“People would come up to me, and it was very complimentary,” Kressley recalls. He says his burgeoning homegrown fan base was eager to show its support for a local guy who was making it big. “It’s something I still cherish to this day. It’s like comfort food.”
And Kressley was just getting started. Queer Eye wrapped in 2007. Around the same time, he snagged a hosting gig for a new Lifetime show, How to Look Good Naked. In 2011, he joined Team Oprah to launch his own makeover show, Carson Nation. 2015 saw Kressley sign on to the judge’s panel on RuPaul’s Drag Race. His resume is also decorated with a slew of appearances as a guest, host, critic or commentator for Good Morning America, Live with Kelly and Ryan, The Miss Universe Pageant and the E! network, just to name a few. He even enlisted the help of the Kressley clan to go toe-to-toe with Paula Deen’s brood on Celebrity Family Feud.
Somehow, in between the countless quips and one-liners that have become the hallmark of a Carson Kressley appearance in front of the camera, or on the red carpet, he still found time to pen three best-selling books, including the “cheeky” women’s style guide, Does This Book Make My Butt Look Big?
Fifteen years deep into a manifold career that’s made him a household name, Kressley points to his very first breakout gig as the one that’s been the most impactful. Queer Eye won an Emmy award for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004 and was recognized several times by GLAAD, but it’s not just the hardware that Kressley is proud of: “It’s wonderful what it did for my career, but knowing that you changed people’s lives is really gratifying.” He’s referring to the letters and messages he still gets to this day from members of the gay community who say Queer Eye helped them start a dialogue with friends and family about their sexuality.
Kressley’s latest foray into television is a return to those roots, of sorts. He has re-teamed with another Fab Five alumnus, Thom Filicia, for Bravo TV’s Get a Room with Carson & Thom, which premiered in October. It’s a different kind of makeover show; this time, the dynamic duo is focusing on interior design. Each episode features two clients looking for guidance to transform a particular space. Filicia, who was known as the “Design Doctor” on Queer Eye, takes the lead. “The idea is that he’s teaching me the ropes,” says Kressley. Not that Kressley is a slouch of a student, of course. “I really love interior design and that whole world,” he says. “I feel like I have a good eye and good taste.”
Kressley also sees a lot of overlap between his niche—fashion design—and home décor. “There is a parallel between dressing your home and dressing yourself,” he says. At the root of each, he explains, is a classic piece. In interior design, it’s a furnishing that anchors the room, like a sofa. That, Kressley says, is like the “little black dress” of the space. The next step when enhancing is dressing it up with accessories. In the case of the sofa, it’s all about adding complementary pieces, like a rug or an antique that has sentimental value. For the dress, it’s jewelry and shoes that define the personality of the ensemble. “You want to accentuate the positive, surround yourself with colors that make you feel good,” says Kressley.
Fortunately for this “student,” he’s able to take his schoolwork home with him. About five years ago, he purchased a home in the Lehigh Valley not far from where he grew up—a location that Kressley calls “phenomenal.” “[The house] had such great bones, I didn’t have to do much,” he says. Kressley describes the home as a Colonial farmhouse. And while he didn’t have to strap on his tool belt to knock down walls or tear into drywall, he did want to add his own flair to the décor. The interior spaces, he says, are constantly evolving, even now. “The interior is an extension of you, your life, your travels,” he says. “I didn’t want it to feel too overdone. I wanted people to feel comfortable, to have dogs running around.”
Asked to characterize the vibe of the home, he picks equestrian chic, which is fitting for someone for whom horses have always been more than just a passing hobby or a childhood fad. Kressley, an accomplished equestrian, was a member of the U.S. team that took the silver medal in the 1999 World Cup Equestrian Games in South Africa. He raises American Saddlebred horses with his sister, Diana Kressley-Billig, a nationally ranked equestrian, who now manages the family farm in Lehigh County. Over the summer, one of their horses came in third place at the World’s Championship Horse Show in Louisville, Kentucky—a town that takes its horses very seriously. “It’s really the epicenter for that breed,” Kressley says.
While maintaining a presence in rural Pennsylvania allows Kressley to stay in tune with that particular passion, the connection runs much deeper. His ancestors, he explains, first came to the region in the late 1700s and early 1800s. “My family is diehard Lehigh Valley people,” he says. “Generations have lived here.” And showing off his home and the surrounding area to visiting friends has helped him to rediscover his favorite things about his old stomping grounds. “When you grow up in a place, it becomes very normal,” he explains. “You don’t appreciate what’s special about it. When you come back, you appreciate the physical beauty.”
Some of his favorite local spots include Wanamakers General Store in Kempton and the Bake Oven Inn in Germansville (“Incredible food. It’s farm-to-table with a Pennsylvania German flair, which is my heritage, so it’s fun.”). And each season brings its own traditions for Kressley and his crew. Summertime is for barbecues, pool parties (Boy George was once a guest) and, of course, a visit to the Great Allentown Fair. Autumn is prime apple-picking season. In addition, Kressley says he enjoys checking out the various “haunted” attractions that spring up around Halloween.
His hectic schedule doesn’t always afford him as much free time as he’d like to escape to the bucolic retreat that is both home and home away from home. Still, he cracks, there does come a day when the country boy needs to hightail it back to the city. “I love a Pennsylvania winter until about New Year’s Day,” Kressley says. “I love the romance of a white Christmas. Then by January first I think, ‘LA would be great right about now.’”