I liked Nate Berkus long before I interviewed him for Luxury Las Vegas Magazine, and long before I became friends with his mom Nancy Golden, a fabulous leather jewelry designer who, like me, lives in Las Vegas.
The first time I saw Nate was in 2002 when he started doing room makeovers on the Oprah Winfrey show, and like everyone else who tuned in, I was smitten with the design expert and his thick, wavy brown hair, his beautiful blue eyes, and his dazzling smile.
It didn’t take long to figure out that Nate was going to become a household name and follow in the footsteps of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz and get his own television show. But it wasn’t because of his good looks, or because Oprah was his mentor.
Nate got his own show because he’s not only talented and so handsome you could eat him up, but because he has a sensitive nature, a compassionate heart, and a warm and down-to-earth personality that folks connect with.
I suppose there are those people who look at someone like Nate and think he has it all – good looks, charisma, and success – the perfect life. But the truth is that no one escapes life unscathed. Everyone has their share of hardship, crisis, challenges and loss, including Nate who appeared on Oprah on January 17, 2005 and shared how he and his partner, photographer Fernando Bengoechea, were vacationing in Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004 when one of the deadliest disasters in recorded history – an Indian Ocean earthquake that created a tsumani – killed over 230,000 people in 14 counties.
No one escapes life unscathed. Everyone has their share of hardship, crisis, challenges and loss.”
Nate and Fernando were in their room when the first wave hit and Nate says he was pinned under the bed. Then they found themselves in rushing water clinging to a telephone pole with debris and dead bodies floating by. Suddenly the water changed direction and they were wrenched apart. When it was all over, Nate was bruised and cut, but alive, while Fernando had vanished and was never found. In Arugam Bay where they were staying, more than 400 people died, hundreds were injured and more than 2,000 homes were damaged or destroyed leaving 7,000 homeless.
(On March 11, 2011, a tsunami hit Japan. Here Nate and Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova recall their experience in 2004.)
Days later when Nate finally arrived home after a 30-hour journey he was a changed man. “2005 began with me lying in my bed, unable to eat, unable to string a sentence together, my house filled daily with the people I love who all walked around with expressions on their faces that scared me even more than I already was. It was a time of conquering what have been lifelong battles for me, all of which surfaced in a matter of minutes, all because I came home without Fernando.
“I barely remember eating. I do remember the letters and e-mails that came to my door by the thousands. Many were awkward, many from strangers, who all seemed to be as shocked as I was that I had lived through the tsunami and hopeful for me that I would somehow return to life as “normal.”
“I remember asking if that would ever be possible. I remember Oprah telling me that it would be a “new normal.” That scared me as well.
“I have always had a horror of nature, of standing water, of whether or not I would have the strength to survive a physical ordeal. I was never the one who could climb to the top of the rope in elementary school gym class. I have always had a horror of having a reason to grieve, always avoided talking about death, and didn’t make it to most funerals. I was never good at being sad.
“I met with a grief counselor when I returned home. It was really helpful to me, but I know for sure that I would not be here without the love of other people and the support they gave me. I remember being shocked at their ability to care. I know that each letter I received made me a tiny bit stronger. I also remember being shocked at the pain people live with, and their fierce determination to rebuild their lives. You wrote and told me about car accidents, knocks on the door, losing a child, people drowning before your eyes. I understood your pain. I heard you. Sharing your stories made me able to sleep again. I never had nightmares. My base-level state of being was a nightmare. Bad dreams were unnecessary.
“Something changed on my birthday in September, a shift that happened inside me when I was not prepared. Nine and a half months after I had returned, I was laughing at a table with my friends. My best friend had organized the evening, my best friend who had flown to London to save me. Fernando’s ex-boyfriend of seven years was at the table too. They were laughing and smiling. I was laughing and smiling too. He was a stranger to me before the tsunami. Now he is my brother.”
A new normal.
Grief knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can; and common sufferings are far stronger links than common joys.”
Alphonse de Lamartine
“That night it occurred to me that I could again be “happy,” that I was not defined only by loss and fear and grief, but also by love and joy and light. A friend gave me a basket filled with beautiful candles. It was symbolic of something she had told me in February. ‘You can light a candle or curse the darkness.’ We lit the candles.
“I know now what it means to hurt, in every part of your being. I also know what it means to have deep, soulful connections to others. I know what it is to exist off of the energy of others, to really need help and to take it. I know now, because I am capable, that I will be okay. After you survive something like this, you learn that at a very basic level that you have the will to survive and to start to heal.
“I started working again three months after I came back. There was a lot to do. I understand, even more deeply, the importance of doing what you love. Time is not by any means a guarantee. You have to use it wisely.
“These are my gifts, the gifts that I have paid a price for. While I would never have chosen to pay that price, these now are the gifts I could not live without.”
- I have no capacity for insincerity. It is a waste of time.
- I do what I do because I love the process. It would otherwise be a waste of time.
- I allow myself to be loved and to love others. That is worth my time.
A new normal.
It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
LIFE LESSON: None of us escape pain, sadness, grief. Unfortunately some of us never recover from it, while others allow their spirits to heal, to laugh again, and to remember with joy. Life is short and grieving doesn’t change anything. Recognize and appreciate that your still being here is a gift until it is your turn. As Nate says, use your time wisely. It is precious. You still have a lot of love to give and there are many who need it and will give it back in return. Life is constantly evolving and changing form. If you don’t embrace that reality, you will always be living in the past and you will always be unhappy. If you accept it with an open and gracious heart, you will find reasons for living and loving that are much bigger than yourself. In that you will find peace.
If you let it, time does heal. For the past two years Nate has been in a loving relationship with architect and avant-guarde preservation design specialist turned perfumer, Carlos Huber who Nate calls one of the wisest people he’s ever met.
In addition to a new partner, there have been career changes for Nate as well. After eight years and 127 makeovers, Nate made his last appearance on Oprah on May 25, 2010 as he prepared to launch his own show in September 2010.
The Nate Berkus Show is the perfect vehicle for Nate who loves showing viewers how to breathe new life into their homes by rearranging and re-purposing items they already have and tackling projects that can be done inexpensively.
But Nate goes far beyond offering decorating and lifestyle tips and chatting with celebrity guests. He also puts smiles on the faces of some very deserving people by helping make their dreams come true.
Nate also uses his platform to bring to light some very serious social issues like gay bullying and teen suicides. In December 2010 Nate invited Wendy Walsh and her 11-year-old son Shawn to be guests on the show. Wendy and Shawn were the mother and brother of 13-year old Seth Walsh, a student at the Jacobsen Middle School in Tehachapi, California who hung himself from a tree in his backyard on September 19, 2010, because of the tormenting he received at school.
Seth didn’t die immediately. When his body was discovered he was taken to the hospital where he stayed on life support for nine days.
During the investigation many students acknowledged that Seth Walsh had been bullied over a long period of time. Though the school maintained they had an anti-gay bullying program, not one teacher or school official intervened to help the young boy who was being mentally tortured.
It is distressing to me that we live in an age in which we still must fight to protect our civil rights as Americans, in which a hate crime perpetrated against someone based upon their sexual orientation can go unpunished, and in which discrimination is being written into our laws.”
LIFE LESSON: Too often we turn away when we see or hear someone being mentally, physically or emotionally abused because it’s easier to tell ourselves that it’s not our business or our problem. But in the big scheme of things we are all connected and we need to take a stand for those who cannot speak for themselves – the little guy, the helpless woman, the terrified child, the outcast, those beaten or ignored. On a number of occasions my husband has followed a drunk driver while calling 911 and reporting their whereabouts to the police, and most likely saving lives. He is also a concerned citizen who lives by example and does whatever he can to raise awareness, to sound the alarm that our planet is in grave jeopardy. My sister rescues abused and abandoned animals. I lend an ear, a shoulder, my heart to those in need of someone to talk with. We all have ways we can reach out to one another and make a difference.
The Nate Berkus Show was nominated for a GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Award for the episode they did with Wendy and Shawn Walsh. “I’m proud of that,” Nate says. “Not because I was the only person Wendy felt comfortable talking with, but because the point of having a daily talk show is to shed light on things that raise peoples’ awareness and equalize all of us.”
Nate says he’s always surprised when people think he’s straight. “I’ve been “out” on TV longer than I can remember.” Nate talks openly about being gay in order to be a positive role model for gay teens to see that they can have a successful career and be in a loving relationship.
I’m a supporter of gay rights. And not a closet supporter either. From the time I was a kid, I have never been able to understand attacks upon the gay community. There are so many qualities that make up a human being… by the time I get through with all the things that I really admire about people, what they do with their private parts is probably so low on the list that it is irrelevant.”
After a rash of teen suicides, Nate went on The Larry King Show to speak out about gay bullying. He was joined on the show by Chely Wright, the first country singer-songwriter to admit she’s gay.
Here’s a portion of a longer interview you can find on YouTube that includes spots with Tim Gunn, Lance Bass, Kathy Griffin, and Wanda Sykes as well as and a public service announcement from the “We Give A Damn” campaign with Elton John, Ricky Martin and others. www.wegiveadamn.org.
In the segment Chely Wright says, “Country music has been described as being about God, family and country. For some reason people think you can’t be gay and have those beliefs. That’s why I have to step forward and say ‘Really, you think you know what gay is? Well I’m your People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful; I’m your American Legion Woman of the Year. I was the first artist of any genre to play in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and I’m gay.’”
Then Larry King talks to Nate about the difficulties he experienced growing up gay in Minneapolis, which he wrote about in the book Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America.
“I was in crisis mode from 13 to 17 and when you’re trying to hide a fundamental part of yourself, you can’t focus on anything else.” Nate explains. “But the crisis I went through doesn’t hold a candle to what’s happening today with the internet.
“It only takes one adult to notice and intervene on a child’s behalf. Where are our heroes? Adults have to get involved. It takes two minutes to identify who the bully is in the classroom and then empower your children to stand up to them. This is a call to arms and we have to come together as a society to end this.”
Prejudice, discrimination, and segregation are synonymous with HATRED, IGNORANCE AND FEAR. It makes no difference if people spew hated because of someone’s sexual orientation or the color of one’s skin. Somehow we have to break the vicious, ugly cycle and learn to respect each other as human beings.”
This summer’s blockbuster hit, “The Help,” which is already receiving Oscar buzz, provides an intimate glimpse into the lives of black maids and the young, white, racist women they work for in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s on the eve of the civil rights movement.
The reason I mention the movie is because Nate is one of the executive producers who helped arrange financing for the film before the book was even published.
On one hand I am surprised at how Nate is always charting new courses going from decorator to talk show host to movie producer. I find that so inspiring. On the other hand I’m not surprised at all.
Nate has the same “I can do it” spirit, and warm, sensitive heart that his mom Nancy has. He is so much more than a “pretty face” who shows people how to transform their houses into homes. Nate is a beautiful man with a beautiful soul who is doing his part to transform the planet by bringing the message of acceptance and equality for all.
Enjoy my full interview with Nate Berkus as it appeared in Luxury Las Vegas magazine.
Links: The Trevor Project. – www.thetrevorproject.org
GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) www.Glsen.org