About 20 minutes into the third episode of “Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!” — which hits Netflix on Friday — it’s obvious that a big surprise is about to drop. Karamo Brown, who’s in charge of “culture” on the show, says that he has “invited a friend” to speak with the episode’s makeover subject: 23-year-old Kae, a manga illustrator.
When Kae sees who that special guest is, she screams aloud, clapping her hands over her mouth. The reaction is warranted: In walks comedian Naomi Watanabe, the country’s most-followed star on Instagram. Donning a bright pink shag sweater, her hair plaited in buns, Watanabe says hello — “Konichiwa” — and pulls Kae into a hug.
In the four episodes that comprise “Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!,” the Fab Five — Brown, Jonathan Van Ness, Antoni Porowski, Tan France and Bobby Berk — go sushi tasting, explore a Harajuku hangout spot and meet a Buddhist monk. Led by their Tokyo guide, actress and model Kiko Mizuhara (and aided by a translator), they connect with various makeover subjects, including a hospice nurse and a radio director.
In past seasons, the show — a Netflix reboot of the 2003 Bravo series in which a team of gay men revamp a subject’s style, home and more each episode — has aimed to tackle social issues in the United States. The same goes for this mini-series, and Japan presents a new set of complexities. Gay culture, for example, is a focus of the episode featuring 27-year-old Kan (“In my daily life, I have a lot of stress and anxiety towards being gay,” he says). Kae’s episode, meanwhile, puts a spotlight on body image. After being bullied growing up, Kae says that she has long internalized negative comments about her body — leading her to feel insecure in her professional life.
In Japan, strict ideals of beauty have long reigned supreme, and the rate of eating disorders among women ages 30 to 50 is rising. But the body-positivity movement is also gaining traction, and there’s perhaps no more visible advocate than Watanabe. The 32-year-old first became a sensation in 2008 for her impressions of Beyoncé. Now, she’s a full-blown comedic star with her own fashion line, Punyus, and several accolades under her belt, including being named one of Time’s 25 most influential people on the Internet in 2018 (that’s no surprise, given her nearly 9 million followers on Instagram).
But for many Americans, “Queer Eye” will be their first introduction to Watanabe, who’s now splitting her time between New York City and Tokyo. Her hope is to break into the U.S. comedy scene, she says, and she’s taking English classes so that she can fully express herself here.
We recently caught up with Watanabe over the phone through her translator, Rei, and talked about the “unwritten rules” of being fat, her friendship with Tan France, her favorite restaurant in New York City and more.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: New York City must be much different than Tokyo. What’s been your favorite part living in the city so far?
Naomi Watanabe: I’ve been going back and forth between Japan and New York. I like that every person who lives in New York has their own place; everybody respects each other’s originality.
TL: Have you developed any favorite spots around the city?
NW: I live in SoHo, and I love to eat at this Italian-style restaurant called Sant Ambroeus.
TL: I’ll have to check it out. What was your most standout memory filming with the Fab Five?
NW: The most memorable thing was just how kind the guys were. They were just all so amazing. My English wasn’t as good as it is now, it was even worse, so it was very hard for me to communicate with them, but they were so kind about that. A translator was working with us, but there was only one person amongst all of us, so I could tell that she was very overwhelmed. I’m grateful to her as well.
TL: Did you have a favorite one of the guys?
NW: All of the guys were nice; I liked all of them. But even after the shoot was over, when Tan [France] noticed that I was in New York through Instagram, he hit me up, telling me to let him know if there was anything he could do for me or if I needed any recommendations for good restaurants. He was so nice, recommending all these restaurants, and I just responded:
TL: Is “Queer Eye” popular in Japan?
NW: Yes, it’s very popular. When we were shooting, we got a lot of attention from all the people passing by. Everyone’s really excited that the guys finally made it to Japan.
TL: And how accepting is the country of gay culture?
NW: It’s definitely starting to get accepted, so things are starting to change. So for example in Tokyo, there’s the annual Rainbow Pride celebration that takes place. Unfortunately, marriage is not yet accepted, but in individual wards — we have wards that separate each Tokyo area, like neighborhoods — some of them are starting to officially provide proof of partnership. So it’s slowly but surely starting to change.
TL: The show also focuses on self-confidence. Can you talk about how you’ve been a voice for body positivity in Japan?
NW: When I was young, I was never able to think about anything positive — the only thing to think was that being fat was negative. Once I started performing in front of people, the fans told me I was “kawaii” — cute — or how funny I was. Those are the things that gave me confidence.
For me now, it’s not how I look physically. Instead, there are certain things where I feel like I’m the only one that can do it, you know, like making people laugh or whatever it is. I hope that by me feeling that way, fans or the people that look at me can gain confidence, too, thinking that there’s something that only they can do in this world and it shouldn’t just be about how they look.
Actually, I don’t even consider myself fat anymore. People still tell me that I’m fat, and I think that the people telling me that are the people who aren’t over the fact that I’m fat. I really hope that people stop looking through this filter that they’ve created and just see me for who I am.
NW: I definitely don’t know about the U.S. comedy scene because I haven’t been a part of it yet, but the Japanese comedy scene — I don’t know everything that goes on, but I feel that around me there’s a good amount of male and female comedians. But again, I hope that everyone who watches the comedians looks at them as individuals. They could be older, younger, female, male. I hope there comes a day where we’re just seen as who we are.
TL: When did you start being interested in fashion?
NW: I started getting into fashion once I became an adult and started making my own money. In my teens, I didn’t have enough money to buy clothes and there was nothing to wear because of my body size. So I definitely had an interest in it, but couldn’t yet purchase what I wanted.
TL: And how would you describe your personal style?
NW: When I was younger, there was an unwritten rule of, if you’re fat, you shouldn’t wear colors that make you look even bigger. Like, I should never wear white. I should stick to black or navy or dark colors like that. I really don’t care about that. I’ll wear light blue or pink or white, because fashion is a way of expressing myself. What I wear now is just what I like and what I want to wear that day.
That’s another thing. As body positivity — as that concept spreads — some people tell plus-size people that they should wear colors or show their arms, for example. But I think that’s also wrong. People should be wearing whatever they want — they should be wearing gray or black or whatever it is they want. … I just want everyone to be able to pick their own style that they’re comfortable in.