While many people know him as the charismatic “culture expert” of Netflix’s popular Queer Eye reality show, Karamo is also an activist, a former social worker, and a father to two sons. The first openly gay Black man cast in a reality program, Karamo received the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award in 2018 and was nominated for the Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program Emmy Award in 2020.
He’s also an advocate for the Black LGBTQ+ community and cofounded 6in10.org, a group to provide mental health support and HIV education. He continues to travel across the nation to speak at organizations, churches, and schools to address HIV stigma, equity issues in the gay community, and mental health.
This spring, Karamo visited Chicago Booth to share his perspective on diversity and inclusion, creativity, and self-care as part of 2022 Diversity Week, an annual series of events organized by the Graduate Business Council to foster connections among students and help them become more inclusive, supportive leaders. His keynote was cosponsored by Booth’s Student Life department.
Growing up in Coral Springs, Florida, a planned community, Karamo said he often felt “not good enough” and rejected his Jamaican heritage. “I remember a time in my own life when I used to go by nicknames,” he reflected. “I hated the fact that I had a big, Jamaican name, so I was KB, I was KK, and for a while I was Jason. When you go to an all-white school, you start to be trained to think, ‘I don’t like my identity.’”
As he got older, Karamo said he learned to reframe his life story and recognize that “identities can be your friends.” Now he embraces the unique aspects of himself that converge to form Karamo. “I don’t walk into a room without wielding my identity,” he said. “The more I started to realize that it’s OK to be myself, the more beautiful, the more powerful my life became. Identity should be a part of you that makes you feel great about yourself.”
In a similar vein, Karamo spoke about the importance of expressing total authenticity, especially for minorities, while acknowledging how hard that can be. “If you’re the only one who identifies in a certain way—whether a certain culture or gender identity—you’re constantly asking yourself, ‘Is my voice loud enough that it will be valuable?’”
He encouraged those who are struggling to take that leap: “When people bring their authentic self, culture shifts. Things get better, things change, movement happens.”
As a former social worker, Karamo said he brings a growth mindset to everything he does, and a core tenet of that mindset is encouraging emotional vulnerability. On the set of Queer Eye in the early years, this approach proved to be a bone of contention. “The crew would tell me, ‘Stop making people cry.’ They said mental health just isn’t something people want to talk about.”
But for Karamo, vulnerability and expressing difficult emotions are intimately entwined with personal growth. He noted that as recently as 10 years ago, few people were talking about mental well-being.
“I knew what I wanted. The very first step I took toward growth and self-betterment was trusting myself,” he said. “Being patient on this journey was very important—being patient in my actions and being patient in my life. Once you trust yourself and become patient with yourself, you’re able to see things much more clearly. That clarity is where growth happens.”
“The more I started to realize that it’s OK to be myself, the more beautiful, the more powerful my life became. Identity should be a part of you that makes you feel great about yourself.”
Queer Eye centers on five gay men—the “Fab Five”—who set out to transform the life of a different client, or “hero,” in each episode through style makeovers, healthy eating tips, and life lessons. As the only Black member of the Fab Five, Karamo is no stranger to confronting privilege. While it can be painful, he said acknowledging and grappling with the implications of one’s own privilege is the only path to personal and societal growth.
“Growth only happens through discomfort,” he said frankly. “When I’m talking to straight, white men, particularly about their privilege, I tell them, ‘It’s OK to be uncomfortable right now. Because through this discomfort, you’re going to have a life that’s going to be better not only for yourself, but for others too.’”
Karamo stressed the necessity of discussing privilege moving forward. He advocates for teaching about privilege in schools so people learn what it is early on, how to identify it, and how to use it to help others and better their communities.
In response to a question about work-life balance, he said he incorporates well-being into his daily schedule. “I set alarms on my phone to make time for myself,” he said. “If you don’t schedule and prioritize your own well-being, no one else will.” For Karamo, these scheduled self-care sessions aren’t just a lunch break at work—they’re genuine opportunities for “you time.”
“The same way you set an alarm to get up, set an alarm to go sit your ass down,” he said, with a laugh.
Karamo also associates self-care with setting proper personal boundaries, from recognizing that he doesn’t need to solve everyone’s problems to understanding that he’s allowed to prioritize himself. “Eventually, I realized it’s OK for me to choose me,” he admitted. “It’s OK for me to say, ‘Instead of pleasing you right now, I’m going to please me.’ When I choose myself, I’m choosing my mental health. I’m choosing safety.”
Tackling Tough Conversations
In many episodes of Queer Eye, Karamo sits down with the “hero” of the episode to discuss difficult issues such as self-love, loss, trauma, and depression. Often concluding with a cathartic cry and embrace from Karamo, these sessions are the emotional crux of the show. So when an audience member at Booth asked how to handle difficult conversations, he was ready.
“We’re not really taught how to be empathetic,” he began, adding that in fraught discussions, he listens “just to listen” and tries to banish any preconceptions about the individual.
He also suggested that sometimes people aren’t looking for solutions to their problems. “So when I talk to them, I’m not trying to solve the problem—I’m not trying to figure out what’s wrong with them. I just listen.”
Karamo said it’s important to let individuals guide their own growth without the added pressure of unsolicited advice. “We never give people an opportunity to have a place in their healing or the conversation. We usually just delve into what we think they want to hear, instead of saying, ‘I hear you. How would you like to proceed?’”
Booth News & Events to Your Inbox
Stay informed with Booth's newsletter, event notifications, and regular updates featuring faculty research and stories of leadership and impact.
We want to demonstrate our commitment to your privacy. Please review Chicago Booth's privacy notice, which provides information explaining how and why we collect particular information when you visit our website.