No talking just kissing: inside the UK’s first ever gay dating show

Flexing muscles, leopard print, an outrageous moustache and Dannii Minogue. Welcome to the UK’s first ever gay dating show – a programme so wild it slaps you in the face like a martini-throw from Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones.

Right from its opening seconds, BBC Three’s new flagship series, I Kissed a Boy, is quite something. Presenter Dannii Minogue whirls across the screen with impossibly good hair, blows a kiss and says “Buongiorno boys!” to a group of excited-looking lads in Vinted and Versace’s finest. You could easily mistake it for some form of Eurovision content, featuring an all-male dance troupe, with Dannii performing for a minnow competitor like San Marino.

It is, however, a matchmaking show that riffs on the ingeniously awkward format of the likes of Love Is Blind and Married at First Sight. It takes 10 men who have been pre-paired then has them meet for the first time – by kissing. They’re not, however, obliged to stay in their pairs and, as eyes wander, frantic poolside confessions and multiple utterances of “it’s nothing personal, hun” will surely ensue. As Bad Education’s Layton Williams intones gleefully in his puntastic voiceover, “the path to love is NEVER straight”.

From left: Gareth, Subomi, Ben, Ollie, Joseph, Ross, Jake, Kailum, Josh, Bobski, Two Four and James Stack in I Kissed A Boy.
Heroes and villas … (from left) Gareth, Subomi, Ben, Ollie, Joseph, Ross, Jake, Kailum, Josh, Bobski, Two Four and James Stack in I Kissed A Boy. Photograph: James Stack/BBC/Two Four

The most surprising thing about this show is that it’s the first time the UK has ever dedicated a programme to gay dating – even if the sort of people who tweet complaints at airlines are constantly telling us that gay people are always being shoved down our throats on TV. The closest we’ve previously come are the likes of the tediously stereotype-enforcing Playing It Straight, in which a woman had to pick a partner from a selection of men, some of whom were gay.

“I think, unfortunately, to the heteronormative audience there is still a view that homosexuality … it’s all just promiscuous and sinful, and that has stopped it from happening until now,” says contestant Gareth of the trailblazing show, biting into a bagel on his balcony back home.

“It has taken people a long time to feel comfortable with the concept,” adds fellow cast member Subomi – who is paired with Gareth on the show. “Their discomfort shouldn’t be a punishment we have had to bear, but that is how it’s been. It’s important to remember what brought public perception to its current state – and this is down to all the trans and queer people, who continue to advocate for visibility and resist the discomfort of those trying to push us back into the dark.”

I Kissed a Boy might be a UK first, but it follows hot on the Balenciaga-trainered heels of a recent surge in American gay reality TV. So far this year, there’s been the perfectly fine but likely already axed Real Friends of WeHo, about a group of LGBT+ people in West Hollywood, who probably aren’t friends and may not even be real; plus the much better For the Love of Dilfs, in which “daddies” and “himbos” seek romance, guided in their quest by a certain Stormy Daniels. It’s also soon to be followed by The Ultimatum: Queer Love, Netflix’s new version of a previously straight dating franchise, featuring female and non-binary contestants, all of whom identify as queer.

This flood of gay and queer dating shows may be down to a shift in mainstream culture as a whole, thinks Gareth. “Social media and shows like Heartstopper have softened the blow,” he says. “It’s made viewers understand that the gay community have stories, hardships and the want for love. A lot of people up until now have embraced the ideology of the nuclear family – gays can be gay but just ‘not in front of my face’.”

Glitter ball … Contestants Subomi (left) and Gareth.
Glitter ball … Contestants Subomi (left) and Gareth. Photograph: Screen Grab/BBC/Two Four

I Kissed a Boy has a diverse lineup of contestants. The smooching couples we meet include stylist Gareth and Subomi, a model and athlete from west London via Nigeria. There’s also Ben from Scotland who says he likes cheeky chappies – cue his pairing, Brighton lad Ollie, swaggering into frame saying: “Oi, oi!” Then there’s the very sweet Jake and Kailum. Jake talks about his passion for gardening (“the insects and bees, butterflies … they’re just lovin’ it.”) Josh from Rhyl, who has never kissed a boy (allegedly), is paired with Bobski from Essex, who absolutely hates being tall.

Seemingly, they have all been instructed not to say a word to each other before kissing. Although odd, it’s a nice concept when you consider the fact that same-sex kisses are still rarely seen on television. “We met without knowing anything about each other,” says Gareth of the intimate first moments. “It was very heightened – strange, but exciting.”

Another thing the show brings to the genre is casting, which means that – in a refreshing departure from most reality shows – the contestants are not awful. The choices cleverly navigate an increasingly toxic and tricky landscape for reality TV. It seems, at first glance, born from a genuine effort to help these nice, young, gay men find love. Then, with a last-minute twist at the end of the first episode, some cracks start to show and we’re heading into familiar tears and tantrums territory. But, after all, this is a reality TV dating show set in a villa, so many of the viewers will have come hungry for drama – and the contestants clearly enjoyed themselves anyway.

“They were all really nice boys,” says Gareth. “Gay comedy’s like a clique, so we all knew all the same references and we were making jokes straight away. We were referencing hun culture – Gemma Collins and Megan McKenna. It was kind of like Cheaper By the Dozen but gay.”

The men’s romantic interactions are shown in an amusing smashing together of dewy-eyed whimsicality and voyeuristic softcore adult film, a – possibly inadvertent – pastiche of two tropes of gay portrayal in the media. The camera lingers, Heartstopper-style, on locked lips and adoring eyes. It is also unafraid to linger suggestively on biceps and bums, and on couples getting hot and bothered. It’s an unexpectedly daring choice.

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Love and kisses … Host Dannii Minogue.
Love and kisses … Host Dannii Minogue. Photograph: BBC/Two Four

“I’m not going to lie, it was weird,” says Subomi. “The secret was forgetting the cameras were there, which seems impossible as they were literally in every nook and cranny. But that is the same logic that has to be applied to holding hands or kissing in public because, let’s be honest, you have no idea who is for you or against you when you’re walking down any old random street.”

In its handling of this potentially sensitive subject, the show succeeds. Far from lascivious or inappropriate, it comes across as sex-positive and healthy, whipping a rainbow feather boa in the face of homophobes, and putting out a nice message to the young gay and queer men who will probably make up the core audience.

“This will help any child or teen struggling with their sexuality,” says Gareth. “Something I would have found useful when I was younger.”

Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the show is its choice of host. It’s not entirely clear why Minogue is involved – other than the fact that she’s one of pop culture’s great gay allies. When she arrives from on high, waving from a sun-drenched balcony, there’s an actual audible gasp from the group. She says she’s excited to be there and genuinely looks it.

“Dannii was a goddess Aphrodite! I was in awe of her beauty,” says Gareth. “You can tell she really cares. There was a point when she was talking about her friends who couldn’t get married back in the day, and now she feels special to be a part of something that’s been a long time coming.”

Just in case the show isn’t clear enough in its desire to celebrate gay love on screen, at one point it even throws a “pride party”. As people gossip on sofas and gyrate around gardenias, the whole thing has a 5am-at-the-afters vibe. According to contestants, though, the show was keen to balance capturing intimate footage with allowing headspace.

“We were on camera pretty much round the clock – except when we went for a wee cheeky smoke or a wee vape,” says Gareth. “But we were always told how much time we were being allotted, and that we could nip out if we needed to. The welfare was really good. If we needed a break, we could always have a chat away from the camera.”

There might be hope for reality dating shows yet. They still need to whip up that winning poolside cocktail combo of not being implosive but still being great television – and if there’s one thing to take away from I Kissed a Boy, it’s that that might just be possible. Also, Dannii Minogue is back!

I Kissed a Boy is on BBC Three and iPlayer on 14 May at 9pm.

The Guardian