The beauty of Netflix’s new reality series Styling Hollywood, which launches globally on the platform today, is in its small moments. Second-long vignettes, little asides that call to mind other scenes like an episode of Greenleaf where one Black gay man calls his fiance “shawty,” or an episode of Noah’s Arc where the titular character corn rows his boyfriends hair, feel, in a word, refreshing. These moments are visions of two Black men, lovingly in a relationship doing things that feel authentic — Visions that are, still, seldom seen in popular culture.
“For us growing up, we never got to experience seeing two Black men in love, visually, on a big screen,” Jason Bolden, one half of Styling Hollywood’s central couple, told Out in a recent interview. “It was just something we didn’t see. We knew it existed but we just didn’t see it. But now we have loads of friends who look like us, who are in relationships and it’s amazing and it’s refreshing to see it happening, but on television we still don’t see it.” And so here they are, showing it.
As a reality show, Styling Hollywood revolves around JSN Studios, a Los Angeles-based company that offers both fashion styling and interiors services. Headed up by Bolden and his husband Adair Curtis, the business does exceptionally well for itself. They represent gold star talent like Ava Duvernay, Yara Shahidi, Janet Mock and Sanaa Lathan, and do a damn good job at it. And that’s great. But the show really sings in the personal.
To be clear, this is not the first Black gay love story we have seen on television. Noah’s Arc did a lot of important work, and the first season can now be watched on YouTube. Other shows like Empire and Greenleaf have as well. Even in the reality space, Milan Christopher was a supporting character on Love and Hip Hop: Hollywood, in a relationship with Miles Brock. But Bolden and Curtis feel refreshing because never before have two married Black gay men been the center of a reality show, frankly just talking about things that gay men talk about.
“You get this in every other form when it comes to people who are not Black,” Bolden said, “And it’s been portrayed in these amazing colorful, beautiful, shiny, sparkly ways, but you’ve never seen it — we’ve never had an opportunity to be presented — in this way.”
Throughout the season, the show goes through its requisite reality “drama.” On the business side, John, who assists Bolden with the styling, drops the ball in ways that lead to last minute scrambles. With the interiors portion of JSN, things come to a head with Kafia, a long time friend and employee with whom boundaries have proven an issue. But in the personal, the couple’s season-long discussion revolves around the possibility of starting a family. Not just a “chosen family” as queers are known for, bringing together John, Kafia and Melinda, another employee, but the couple have realistic discussions, and worries, about the possibility of fathering a child.
In a more subtle thread of the show, there’s also an ongoing conversation about body image. “We live in a really visual society and we would be fooling ourselves if we presented it as if that’s not an obstacle or people weren’t talking about that,” Curtis told Out. And though it comes in small moments — Bolden sneaking chips and hiding them in a closet inside of a shopping bag here, and Curtis ordering them both salads there — it feels uniquely authentic. One episode in particular, that centers around a shoot for Out, brought those conversations to the forefront.
In the episode, both Bolden and Curtis was shot for Out’s Hollywood issue, in a feature about JSN Studios. For it, we hired photographer Clifford Prince King to shoot a portrait. But, as the show revealed, the process surfaced ideas around being sexualized, and body ideals for Curtis in particular.
“When I heard who was shooting it, I went to look at the photographer’s work and I noticed that it does veer into that sphere or that space,” Curtis said of why he thought the shoot might go sexual. “I think that is really cool, but I would prefer that I’m not the subject of it. To be completely honest, at that point I just wasn’t feeling myself. I wasn’t feeling my absolute best and wanting to take my shirt off and be shown that way. I think so often as brown men, that’s the direction publications take; we are always sexualized. I wanted us to not be sexualized, and maybe even be romanticized for the public at that point.” And those feelings are real and valid — though to be clear there was never the intention to have Curtis or Bolden in any state of undress for the shoot.
Styling Hollywood is not a nail biting show. It’s not a “what are they going to do next” situation. It is not a thriller. But most of us don’t live our lives like that. What it is feels real, it feels authentic, and it feels refreshing. And to be honest, that’s all we need right now.
“Everyone is going to take different things away from it,” Curtis said. “But we’re just like everybody else — our lives may look differently than yours but there’s a certain commonality in human experiences.”