Oprah Designer Nate Berkus: ‘I Feel Like I’ve Graduated From the Top Talk-Show School in the Universe’

By
Photo: Patrick McMullan

On Monday, designer and frequent Oprah collaborator Nate Berkus will debut his own hour-long syndicated program, the Nate Berkus Show. He's following in the gilded footsteps of many other Winfrey protégés, like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Rachael Ray. In New York he'll appear on WNBC at three p.m. He sat down for breakfast at Gordon Ramsay at the London Hotel with Chris Rovzar.

So tell me about the show. What's the format?
It's a daily multi-topic, multi-segment show. It’s got a very fast pace to it, but I want every hour to have a ton of practical takeaway information for people to put to use and also to be inspired by. Basically it’s an art show. There’s going to be a lot of design — a lot of beautiful high-quality design, but in a way that people can achieve that’s really accessible.

Oprah’s probably a good teacher, I guess.
I feel like I’ve graduated from the top talk-show school in the universe.

So what was your very first job?
My first job was working at a department store in Minnesota called Dayton’s. They put me in some department, men’s furnishings or something like that, and I moved to the tiny Ralph Lauren boutique. I actually learned a really important lesson from the manager there: A man came in and I had him try on all these things. The fall clothes had come in and they didn’t look good on him, and I sold them to him anyway. And I went back to tell my manager that I had made this huge sale. And she said to me, “But you’ve lost him forever, because he’s going to go home and show his wife what he bought, and she’s not going to like it because you know that it didn’t look good on him. It would have been better for you not to make the sale and have helped him find something that looked better on him.” It was a lesson that stuck with me.

So, obviously, you’re gay.
No! What?

According to the Times, every time you went on the Oprah show, the female audience spiked. You’re a good-looking guy, but you're unavailable to women in a certain way. Why do they like you so much?
I think it’s, actually, how available I am to women. My whole life really has been a conversation with women. When the guys were in the family room watching football I was in the kitchen getting in the way, finding out what was really going on. I’ve always related to women. There’s always been a strong woman who has helped me get to the next level.

There hasn’t been an openly gay male talk-show host, has there? Gay women, but not gay men.
No. At least none that I know of. No. It’s a first.

Do you think everybody’s ready?
Oh yeah, I really do. I’ve never defined myself by only my sexuality. I’ve never led with my sexuality, but I’ve also never hidden it. We all have a lot of facets to ourselves. That’s one of the things I’m exploring with celebrities on the show. How do we think we know them, and what else is there to know? Everybody came from somewhere, there are some common denominators, so what are they?

You told Out magazine that after the episode of Oprah where you talked about the loss of your boyfriend [Fernando Bengoechea, who died in the 2004 tsunami disaster while the two were vacationing in Phuket, Thailand], you received a lot of letters saying, "This gave me the strength to come out." How much of a part of this show do you see that type of inspiration being?
The show is open to everybody. For me, I am not pushing any agenda, because I don’t need to. What I love, though, is that after Fernando died, the letters that I got were from kids who didn’t want to come out and saw what Fernando and I had, and if they didn’t come out, they’d be missing that. It was amazing. Is that what occurred to me when I went on television to talk about what happened? Of course not. But I understand the power of television. I’ve understood it for a really long time. It’s such a big responsibility. You never know when you’re doing something on air who’s watching and what it’s going to mean to them.

So what’s your level of fame? When you walk around New York, do you get recognized?
Yeah. It depends on the neighborhood. If there’s lots of people visiting the city, then the tendency is a little bit higher to be recognized or to be asked to pose for photographs or to be asked for autographs or something like that. If it’s a neighborhood restaurant and I’m there with my friends, probably not.

Are you ready for that to change at all?
I’m not a particularly private person. I never was.

I’m glad you said you’re not a very private person, because I have to ask: Did you date Ricky Martin?
No. That story is in every Mexican magazine. No, I did not.

Talk to me a little about your relationship with Oprah. There was a National Enquirer story about how things were strained between you two and she was unhappy.
I have to commend the National Enquirer, because it was so factual. I was shocked that they had that kind of insider information. Really. [Laughs.] That is unequivocally untrue. Oprah and I have a really incredible friendship that has grown over the years and she has been absolutely accessible to me not only for questions about career but questions about day-to-day stuff.

Tell me about the features on the show.
There are a lot of signature segments on the show that I'm really excited about. One of them is called Curbside Pickup. I've been going around the country on a listening tour, sitting with women in their kitchens and talking to them about what they love.

Like Hillary Clinton.
Sort of, yeah. I've probably eaten more banana bread than she did, though. Oh my God, please, not another pastry.

Dessert bars?
Constant. Delicious. Who is turning down home-baked anything at this stage of the game? What was great is that everywhere I went, if I saw stuff on the side of the road, we'd take it, transform it, and we're going to keep a catalogue of it over the year and it will either go into one of our major makeovers of the season or we're going to donate it to a charity or an auction.

Hmmm. Picking stuff up on the side of the road. Do you have The Fear of bedbugs?
Totally, oh my God, are you kidding? We actually did a segment on it already for the show — how to get rid of them, because I use so many vintage things. There are sprays that you can use, like bleach and water. Honestly, I don’t have a fear of bedbugs right now because of what's in the media. I have a fear of bedbugs because I was born with a fear of bedbugs. I'm 38, and I've probably been afraid of bedbugs for at least 36 years.