As the culture expert on Netflix’s wildly popular “Queer Eye” reboot (which released its second season on June 15), Karamo Brown is used to asking the probing questions. But it was his son Christian who posed the one that changed his life five years ago.
Christian was in the middle of writing a school paper about living your dream when he asked if Brown was living his. “I knew I could either lie and say yes, or I could say no. But I knew if I said no, I’d have to model the proper behavior,” Brown says. “I said no.”
Brown had always wanted to work in TV, but, despite appearing on MTV’s “Real World” in 2004, it never seemed like a sustainable goal. “My parents are first-generation Americans,” he says. “They wanted their children to go to college and to get a ‘real job.’” So he pushed aside his on-screen aspirations and pursued social work instead—until Christian’s question, and encouragement, sent him down a different path.
We talked to Brown about going after his dream, becoming a single dad—and the money lessons he’s learned along the way.
How did you get your foot in the door in TV?
A lot of people who go after their dreams don’t realize they need to train themselves. While I was a social worker, I went to community college at night and took broadcasting classes. In one class, I found out about an audition to be a host for the Oprah Winfrey Network. They were looking for a white male, but I decided to audition anyway to get experience. Luckily, I stood out and got the job.
What was it like to land the “Queer Eye” gig?
A dream come true. I’d been working consistently on different shows for four years, but I hadn’t had a show that was this critically acclaimed and married my passions—to entertain and inspire—in such an extreme way.
As someone who had always worked a good job but didn’t earn a lot of money, having financial freedom has been the biggest thing. There are new opportunities I can provide for my kids, and I’m in the process of buying my first house.
How do you approach your finances without knowing how long the show may last?
I got a business manager, who’s a CPA. I go to him and say, this is what I want to accomplish and this is the income I need. In the next year and a half, no matter what happens with the show, I want a home and I want to start investing [more]. I allowed him to give me the guidance.
A lot of times we feel like we have to be the experts in every part of our life. What makes you the expert is being able to ask for help.
As the show’s culture expert, you help people improve their personal lives. Have you gleaned any insights about how our finances impact our emotions?
Finance and well-being are directly tied. A lot of people don’t realize that the minute they feel they’re drowning financially, that makes them depressed, full of anxiety.
An episode in the first season had a father of six. He wasn’t making enough money to support his family, and that pressure started to seep into the way that he was coming home and laying on the couch, not interacting. It was key for me that he understood how being financially [healthy] was going to help. Part of the show you didn’t see is that I helped him with a new resume and work on his skills. I took him for an interview, and he got a brand-new job.
Speaking of fatherhood… In 2007, you discovered you were being sued for back child support for a 10-year-old son you never knew about. What was that moment like, and how did you deal with the hit to your bank account?
It was everything from: What do I do now? Oh my gosh, I’m so excited! What does he look like? I can’t do this; I’m not prepared.
Once I got through those emotions, [it sunk in that I was being asked] for a large amount of money I can’t pay, so… I asked for help [from friends] who worked in the court system or who were lawyers. I [ended up paying] a small amount upfront, then petitioned the court for full custody.
Assuming full custody was a mutual decision between his mother and me. I was a college graduate, I had more money and I was in a stable environment. I could give him more opportunities. [I later adopted] his younger half-brother because there were some issues in his parents’ lives.
How did you support your family on a social worker's salary?
A lot of budgeting! It was diff-i-cult. As a single man, my grocery bill was $250 a month max. Now, all of a sudden, I had three mouths to feed, and my grocery bill went to $200 to $300 every week and a half. I was like, why do you all eat so much? Stop eating!
I sat down and figured out what expenses I could cut. I stopped going out, which I used to do constantly. As a father, I didn’t have time for that anyway.
I’m also big on being curious about life. So part of that budget was not just to pay the bills, but to make sure I could give the boys something new to experience. We took a trip to London, [even though] my salary at the time was not high. [I saved by taking] $200 out of every check for airfare, hotels and spending money.
What money lessons did you learn growing up?
Pay your bills first. That’s the only lesson I got. Because my parents came from another country, their duty was to make sure my siblings and I went to college. I remember seeing them up all night scraping and figuring out how to pay for our educations.
For a long time, my relationship with money [was the same]: Are my bills paid? Is there food on the table? I didn’t learn how to invest and make my money work for me until my 30s. Now, my money is not sitting in a savings account making little to nothing. My money is growing and making more money for me.
What money lessons are you trying to instill in your sons?
First, investing is key. Second, pay yourself first, even before you pay your bills. Every time I get a check, I [set aside some to] invest before I start spending it.
Also, don’t be afraid to have conversations about money. A lot of times we feel like we can’t talk to anyone else about our finances. But every wealthy person I know talks to friends about their income.
When did you start having frank money conversations with your fiancé?
We talked about our financial goals on the second date. I didn’t shy away from that. I’m a big believer that you don’t need to wait to have the hard conversations.
What do you consider your smartest investment?
I purchased a parking garage. It’s passive income: a piece of land that’s making money for me. I do not manage it at all. There is one staff member who goes into check. People park all day long and pay $15.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Photo credit: Henry Wu; styling credit: Lisa Cameron.