The design guru and ‘Queer Eye’ star has lost nearly every job he’s had. Read his first-person account of how he learned to “fail upward” every time.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at my hometown Target, about 45 minutes away from where I grew up in Mount Vernon, Missouri. I was visiting my parents and popped in for a few things my mom needed. Some of the employees recognized me as the design expert on Netflix’s Queer Eye, and they were freaking out. When I left, there were 15 or 20 fans waiting for me in the parking lot to ask for a picture and say hello. I can’t say I didn’t chuckle to myself: Many years ago, I was fired from this very Target on my first day. Now they sell my Tempaper removable wallpaper, and I get a receiving line as I leave! Oh, how far I’ve come.
My success wasn’t overnight—far from it. It was a very bumpy road from Amish farm country, where I grew up, to running my own design company, Bobby Berk Home, and starring on a major TV show. I left home at 15 for a bunch of reasons, but the biggest was that I was gay and I didn’t feel I could come out in my small town. I was already hearing that I was never going to be anything, that I was wrong, and that I was broken. I think I’m so driven today because I grew up as a gay kid in Middle America. It lit a fire under me. I wanted to prove myself to the world.
I headed for Branson, Missouri, the nearest “big city.” There, I went to high school by day and slung burgers and fries at Applebee’s by night. When my shift was over, I’d wait until the parking lot was virtually empty and crawl back to my 1984 Buick Century to sleep. I hid my circumstances from my friends and coworkers because I was ashamed. But I couldn’t attend high school, eat, and pay rent. It was a difficult time and it made me question whether I’d made the right decision to leave home, and I’d wonder if things would ever get better.
But working at Applebee’s taught me a valuable lesson: No matter what job you have, do it to the best of your ability. It may not be exactly where you want to be, but everything you do prepares you for your future—whether it feels that way at the time or not. I was barely scraping by and sleeping in my car, and still I waited on every single table with a smile. Every job I’ve ever had—and I’ve had many—taught me something. Even the ones I got fired from.
I’ve always had a great work ethic. My father was a truck driver, farmer, and rancher. My mother cleaned houses and, later, worked at a local insurance company. As a kid, I was expected to do my chores every morning before school. I helped out on neighbors’ farms from the age of nine, and I earned my first “official” paycheck at 14 for manning the drive-through window at a Chinese restaurant. Even though I’m not sure I was old enough to be legally employed, I was happy to have a job.
But on paper, my work history is nothing to write home about, because I’ve been fired from more jobs than I care to count. At Target, I didn’t even last one shift as a cashier—something that I joke about all the time. I was 17, and I’d lied on my application about never having been arrested. Technically, I had been arrested for failing to pay speeding tickets. In Missouri at that time, if you had unpaid tickets, they’d put a warrant out for your arrest, so when my background check came back, I was immediately let go. I’d gotten stuck in the unfair cycle of keeping poor people poor in this country: I didn’t feel I had much choice but to lie if I wanted to support myself , because I assumed that if I’d admitted to having been arrested, I’d get an instant no before I had the chance to convince them to look beyond that. But if I’d told the truth up front, they might have let me explain, and if they wouldn’t have, then maybe it wasn’t meant to be anyway. Lesson learned: Own your past and be honest about it, even as you focus on your present and your future.
Sometimes I was fired for something that was decidedly not my fault. In my late teens, I was working in telemarketing, and I had been promoted to a lead sales job. A coworker, whom I considered a good friend, asked me about my weekend, really pressing me for details. I’d gone out and met a guy and had a lot of fun, and I didn’t think anything of sharing it with her. But she was jealous—she thought she’d deserved the promotion. She went to HR and told them that I’d been telling her explicit stories about my “homosexual lifestyle.” I was fired.
That was blatant discrimination. But it also taught me a hard lesson: It reminded me that the workplace is about work. Be careful when it comes to discussing your personal life in a business environment. There are some lines that should never be crossed at work.
No matter what job you have, do it to the best of your ability. It may not be exactly where you want to be, but everything you do prepares you for your future—whether it feels that way at the time or not.
My “best” firing was at Restoration Hardware. I had a great manager and mentor named Calista. In a funny bit of fate, the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was going to be filming in the store with Thom Filicia, then the show’s design expert. The night before the shoot, I’d worked late with some other employees to get the store ready, and we’d forgotten to clock out. When I got in the next morning, I changed our time cards to reflect the hours we’d actually worked. There was a right way to fix it and a wrong way, and I chose the wrong way, which violated company policy. I left Calista no choice but to make an example of me. Lesson learned: In a world of gray, some things are black and white. Do the right thing.
And another lesson: You have to take the bad and make it good.
Seventeen years later, Calista and I are still in touch. She always says, “Aren’t you glad I fired you?” Though it felt awful at the time, I am glad. I had no choice but to dust myself off and try again. I’m a firm believer in this kind of “failing upward.” I made all the wrong decisions for so long! But those bad decisions are the reasons why I make a few more right ones today. Every single one of my experiences taught me something. They turned me into the person, employee, and boss that I am today.
My final lesson, dear readers, is: Never take no for an answer. My assistant once told me he was going to have this engraved on my tombstone. I’ve been told no so many times in my life: “No, you can’t do that.” “No, you can’t be that.” When I wanted to open up my stores, I couldn’t get anyone to give me a loan. I was turned away, again and again: “No, this isn’t the time.” “No, retail isn’t smart.” I took all those nos and used them as fuel to do things my own way. It took a little longer and was way harder, but, ultimately, I persevered. Launching my Bobby Berk Home stores helped me become a brand and led to bigger things, like my partnership with Target and my role on Queer Eye. If I’d listened to all the people who told me what I couldn’t do, I’d still be crashing in my Buick.
Want more from Bobby Berk? Hear him talk about design, Queer Eye, and all things home on his episode of At Home with Linda & Drew! Podcast episodes available on the At Home website, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify.
By Bobby Berk | Illustrations by Laura Breiling
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Reveal, Drew & Jonathan’s lifestyle magazine.