Billy Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Published in The New York Times
January 27, 2007
IT was shortly after he appeared on the television show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” that Jeff Berman decided he couldn’t continue sharing an apartment near Battery Park with four roommates.
He still liked his roommates, but suddenly, he didn’t trust them with his furniture. The apartment’s frat house atmosphere, he said, hadn’t worried him “when we had a couch that cost $140, which we had split five ways.”
But now that “Queer Eye” had furnished the place with stylish pieces from Desiron in SoHo, Mr. Berman started feeling protective. “It is really nice stuff,” he said, pointing to a zebra-wood desk and a dining room set that could be on the cover of House & Garden. “I felt like the nagging mother,” he said.
So he was happy when a friend, Lauren Reece, asked him to share her 1,400-square-foot loft on Lower Broadway.
Ms. Reece, an owner of Billy’s Bakery, a 1950’s-style Chelsea institution, had also been on “Queer Eye,” not as a contestant, but as a dessert maven. At the time, she was Billy Reece and had not yet begun the transition from man to woman.
For Mr. Berman, a young lawyer who had met Ms. Reece — then Billy — at a bar in Chelsea two years before, moving in with a transsexual required a leap of faith. He was worried that a host of changes, physical as well as psychological, would make the perky Ms. Reece “a bit unstable.”
As it turns out, domestic tranquillity reigns. The two roommates could pass for a suburban couple: Mr. Berman, 26, in workout pants and a T-shirt, Ms. Reece, 28, in a pink cardigan and pearl necklace.
Home from work, Mr. Berman drinks a beer while Ms. Reece, who is perfecting her feminine figure, eyes a protein bar (not one of the cupcakes for which Billy’s Bakery is famous).
Mr. Berman’s bedroom is enclosed, at one end of the loft; Ms. Reece’s is reached by a stairway and sits atop the bathroom and laundry room, at the other end. The space separating them, with 14-foot ceilings and large, south-facing windows, is filled with the “Queer Eye” furniture.
“It was a boondoggle,” said Mr. Berman of his appearance on “Queer Eye.”(He is gay; his episode was about making a gay man “gayer.”)
Ms. Reece, too, has received free furniture from a television show. In 2005, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” rented the loft for two days of shooting and in the process built a large storage unit, which the producers were glad to leave behind. These days, the shelves hold part of Ms. Reece’s collection of jadeite dishes, mostly from the 1940’s.
Against another wall is a large collection of American cookbooks, including a rare second edition of “Joy of Cooking.” Cookbooks “trace social history,” Ms. Reece said, reflecting every change in society, from the Depression, to shortages in wartime, to new technologies.
She also has every issue of Everyday Food magazine, published by Martha Stewart, one of her idols. In fact, she appeared on Martha’s TV show last May; at the time, she was introduced as Billy, though with long hair and a somewhat feminine appearance as a result of hormone treatments.
“Martha was cool, but some of the stagehands were a little surprised,” said Ms. Reece, who added that more recently, she had been rejected by TV shows after explaining that Billy no longer exists.
All of which intrigues the mild-mannered Mr. Berman, who came to New York in 2002 from Philadelphia to attend Columbia Law School. Before that, as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, he said, he was completely closeted, but by 2002 he was ready to explore life as a gay man in Manhattan.
During law school, he first lived in student housing near Grant’s Tomb, then moved with several of his classmates to the apartment downtown. In the process of coming out, he began blogging about his experiences. A producer at “Queer Eye” read his blog, which mentioned the four straight roommates, and recognized a hook for an unusual episode.
It begins with the “Queer Eye” cast — the Fab Five — meeting Mr. Berman and his roommates and trying to figure out which one is gay. (They didn’t pick Mr. Berman.)
At the time, the apartment had no discernible style, and Mr. Berman was flabbergasted when, in just four days, Thom Filicia and his team transformed it into a trendy bachelors’ pad. (He also received thousands of dollars’ worth of clothes, including a white dinner jacket, and cooking lessons at the French Culinary Institute.)
In the meantime, Billy Reece had some good luck of his own. After working at the Magnolia Bakery, an impossibly popular spot in the West Village, he left to start Billy’s with two partners. The business was a success almost from the day it opened in December 2003. Also in 2003, a friend, Tad Beck, invited him to share the loft.
In the late 1990’s, the owner of the building, which houses several theater companies as well as residential tenants, went bankrupt; the banks that took over the building tried to evict the tenants, Mr. Beck said. The tenants hired lawyers and ultimately won a settlement allowing them to stay in the building for life at rents far below market. Mr. Beck, the actual leaseholder, pays about $2,200 a month and is subject to only tiny annual increases.
He and Ms. Reece were roommates until Mr. Beck decided to attend art school in California. That’s when Ms. Reece asked Mr. Berman to move in, which involved bringing his “Queer Eye” furniture, now intermingled with Ms. Reece’s midcentury kitchen appliances and her giant armoire by Martha Stewart for Bernhardt.
But the armoire will be going; Ms. Reece plans to leave New York later this year. Her partners in Billy’s Bakery are buying her out, and she plans to move to the Midwest, not far from where her mother lives. Her family, she said, has been “amazingly supportive” of her sex change.
That will leave Mr. Berman as Mr. Beck’s only subtenant, which he says will be a welcome respite after years of roommates. Not that the place is quiet. The jeans store right downstairs plays “thumpa thumpa music” too loud, he said, and you can hear it through the floorboards until the store closes at 7 p.m.
But Mr. Berman rarely leaves his office at Debevoise & Plimpton in Midtown before 7, and otherwise the place is spacious, light and, by New York standards, a steal.
And it only took litigation, a reality series, a roommate’s sex change and two people’s out-of-state moves for him to get it.