Casting With an Inclusive Lens: How ‘Top Chef’ Pioneered LGBTQ Representation in Reality TV

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Four of the 15 contestants who competed in the recent “Top Chef: All Stars L.A.” season identify as queer

Top Chef All Stars LA Melissa King
Photo credit: Bravo

Few reality competition shows have showcased queer talent as consistently as “Top Chef.” In the most recent season of the long-running, Emmy-nominated Bravo show, four of the 15 “cheftestants” identified as queer: Lisa Fernandes, Karen Akunowitz, Gregory Gourdet and this season’s winner, Melissa King. “Top Chef” has previously crowned two queer winners — Season 3’s Hung Huynh and Season 10’s Kristen Kish — and featured many more LGBTQ standouts throughout the years. Magical Elves launched the culinary competition back in 2006, producing 17 seasons of the show and several spin-offs. It is also the production company that created “Project Runway,” another series that highlighted queer talent from the start. While inclusion has recently become a top priority for many media companies, Magical Elves has always interwoven it into every aspect of its productions, especially its most audience-facing one: casting. And while there is now more representation than ever on-screen, that wasn’t always the case, especially when it came to LGBTQ portrayals. Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, when reality TV programming was at its peak, LGBTQ portrayals played to stereotypes. Kim Stolz — an out lesbian who competed on “America’s Next Top Model” in 2005 — sported short hair, wore androgynous clothes and struggled with make-up. She was initially told to downplay her sexuality but was later portrayed trying to seduce other girls in the house. 2003’s “Boy Meets Boy” was a dating show “with a twist”; half the suitors were straight men trying to trick the gay bachelor into believing they were gay. Only one of the 15 suitors was Black; the rest, including the bachelor, were white.
Hillary Olsen Ron Mare Magical Elves
Out Magical Elves executives Hillary Olsen and Ron Mare champion diversity in front of and behind the cameras (Photo credit: Magical Elves)
“Back in the early days, there was one person and it was almost tokenism,” said Ron Mare, VP of Casting at Magical Elves. Mare identifies as LGBTQ. “Now, there are broader voices, whether it’s the trans community or any person of color that’s also part of the LGBT community.” “There’s been such an evolution,” Hillary Olsen, SVP of current series at Magical Elves tells TheWrap. Olsen also identifies as LGBTQ. “It used to be the white gay male was the face of LGBTQ in media, and we’ve been able to see the evolution of that through different shows, whether it’s ‘Pose’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or ‘Drag Race’ — other shows that have been able to really celebrate the rainbow of people who make up the LGBTQ community.” “Top Chef” helped drive that evolution, particularly for queer women. The first season, which aired in 2006, featured queer chef Tiffani Faison, who finished second. Subsequent seasons have almost always included at least one queer woman; Season 4 had three (the aforementioned Fernandes, as well as Jennifer Biesty and Zoi Antonitsas, who were a couple), as did the most recent Season 17. Queerness is part of “Top Chef” but it does not define it. References to same-sex partners or spouses are mentioned without eliciting reactions. In Season 4, Biesty and Antonistsas announced they were a couple in the first episode, but after that they were rivals. Three queer contestants formed “Team Rainbow” in Season 5, but that was short-lived after one went home soon after. That’s not to say that queer storylines are absent. During Season 12, there was a challenge where the contestant’s family members came to visit. Melissa King’s mom Alice — who served as her challenge assistant — revealed Melissa’s father didn’t accept her career or lifestyle. That story was revisited in the recent “All-Stars” Season 17, where King happily revealed that following her first “Top Chef” stint, her relationship with her father had “blossomed.” Being competition-centric and having contestants tell their own stories is how “Top Chef” avoids tokenized portrayals. “We try not to put people in boxes,” explained Olsen, who served as the Season 11 EP and showrunner and held producing positions on earlier seasons of various “Top Chef” shows. “It’s a unique experience to peel the onion to see who these people actually become from their own storytelling and who they are in their authentic experiences.” To have a great competition, you need great chefs. Magical Elves casting producers are tasked with finding talent, not checking off boxes. The net they cast is very wide and thousands of chefs are interviewed, according to Mare. “The good thing about chefs is that chefs are naturally diverse people. The kitchen is a welcoming place for a lot of people. So I feel like a lot of people in the LGBTQ community get involved in the kitchen, so it’s not something that you necessarily you have to look for,” Mare explains. “When you’re doing your search for ‘Top Chef,’ it naturally comes in. Diversity naturally comes in whether it’s race or whether it’s sexual identity. A lot of chefs feel like a kitchen is a safe place and that they are a family. In the LBGTQ community, that second sense of family is important to a lot of us — we have our real family and our second set of family. The kitchen is just another version of that.” Highlighting that diversity early has served as a beacon for queer and minority contestants. To shine, they first have to be shown. “I remember watching the first few seasons and saying, ‘Wow, there are people out there that they’re representing and selecting for the show, and they’re similar to me,” King tells TheWrap. “They were pioneers of that within the culinary competition space.” When asked to return for “All-Stars,” King realized she herself had become that beacon. “Coming off the show, I saw the impact that it had on people within my communities,” she told TheWrap. “I had Asian queer kids reaching out and telling me they came out to their parents because they saw me on television or they could really relate to my experience, and they were very grateful that I shared my story. A big reason for coming back was for me being able to represent.”
Top Chef All Stars LA
“Top Chef: All-Stars LA” featured out contestants Melissa King (far left), Karen Akunowitz (second from left) and Gregory Gourdet (second from right). Not pictured: Lisa Fernandes. (Photo credit: Bravo)
“This season, I felt extremely proud there were so many queer members on the show — four out of 15. That was something we all talked about in the cast house and just how proud we were to be selected and being in that moment together,” she added. “Because if you look back 10 or 20 years ago, you would never see that, that amount of representation on television. I do hope to see a trans contestant or a trans winner, just anyone who has a story to tell and is extremely talented.” Mare says that is something Magical Elves has always strived for. Referrals from previous “Top Chef” contestants are welcome, but he’s very aware of the privilege that being on the show bestows. Inclusion goes looking beyond the established “Top Chef” community. “We don’t only put the chefs on ‘Top Chef’ that are referred to us or are on awards lists,” he explains. “We always dive deeper. We ask people in small towns, ‘Who’s the best chef?’ We like to find the diamond in the rough but more than just one diamond; we like to incorporate everyone.” Social media has been a great equalizer. Mare says casting producers scour Facebook and Instagram to find that undiscovered talent. His recommendation? “Hashtags really work. #KCChef will help us find a small-town chef in Kansas City.” Both Olsen and Mare say they are proud of the work Magical Elves has done in areas on inclusion but know there is always room to be even better. “How we talk about ‘Top Chef’ and the inclusion there translates to every project across the board, from subject matters to storytelling to hiring,” Olsen said. “We’re very mindful of what’s going on in the country and making sure we’re leaning into authentic representation of people across the board — which is something we’ve always done. We want to makes sure behind, and in front of the camera, to be a true reflection of what the world is.”


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