Nate Berkus. Arugam Bay

Nate Berkus at Arugam Bay 2004

Nate Berkus at Arugam Bay 2004


Life-changing moments

Berkus was vacationing in Sri Lanka on a fateful December day in 2004.

He was with his partner, photographer Fernando Bengoechea, sleeping in a beachfront cottage at Order fucidin h Arugam Bay on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast when he heard a loud noise and the roof was ripped off.

A tsunami struck and the two were swept into the sea along with debris, animals and other people. The two grabbed a telephone pole, Berkus said, but lost their grips when a second large wave hit. Berkus climbed onto the roof of a home; Bengoechea was missing, presumed dead.

A?a??A?I sort of have reached a stage with that [ tragedy ] where I do still reflect on it quite frequently, but I tend to reflect more on who I’ve become and what I’ve learned since that day,A?a??A? Berkus said. A?a??A?I would never wish for that to happen; I would never wish for anyone to experience what I experienced, the personal loss I experienced with Fernando dying and also witnessing what I witnessed, including the deaths of so many. But the truth is, the lessons that I’ve learned from that changed me so profoundly as a person, thus I wouldn’t recognize myself before the tsunami.

A?a??A?When you go through a life-altering experience, you can come out [ of it ] in one of two ways. You can come out as a stronger version of the person you were before, or you can let it destroy you. Even through my grief, and truly for the first time ever understanding what grief was, I knew on some level that I would make myself a better person as a result of that, that it wouldn’t be the one thing in my life that defined me. For me, a lot of things define [ me ] ; I’m not just defined as being on TV. Nor am I just defined as being Jewish, or being gay or being the eldest son. Rather, I’m all of those things.

A?a??A?I know I was given a second chance and with that chance, I have some choices, and the first choice I have to make is whether or not I’m going to let it take me out too. And I chose to not let that happen.A?a??A?

Berkus has been dating Brian Atwood, a shoe designer who lives in Milan, Italy, for about one and a half years. Their relationship, though strained by distance, is anchored by communication. They see each other every two weeks or so.

A?a??A?I was very, very happy this [ past ] spring when non-stop flights from Chicago to Milan were added; that shaved about four and a half hours off the travel experience,A?a??A? he said, laughing. A?a??A?Our long-term plan is not [ to be living so far apart ] . We eventually will be spending more time in the U.S., but for now he’s based in Milan and I’m based in Chicago.

A?a??A?We have a great relationship; it’s completely worth it to me, the effort [ of maintaining a long-distance relationship. ] A?a??A?

Berkus came out while a sophomore at Lake Forest College.

A?a??A?I think there’s a level of forced dishonesty when you don’t come out of the closet, whether that’s your decision or your circumstances that prevent you from doing so,A?a??A? he said. A?a??A?That level of dishonesty can start to sort of seep into other areas of your life in time, where you can’t feel like you genuinely have a relationship with your parents because you’re hiding something. I believe that you have to live your life true to who you are. I don’t define myself as strictly being gay, but I’m completely comfortable talking about it; it’s an aspect of who I am.

A?a??A?Like almost everyone, I went through [ a difficult ] phase of coming-out where, I didn’t know what relationships in my life would survive. Knowing that you’re about to take that risk [ by coming out ] is really a horrible situation to be in. To this day, gay teenagers are still driven to suicide at the thought [ of coming out ] , and that’s got to change.A?a??A?

Berkus said he considered not coming out. A?a??A?I think the fantasy was, I’ll just hide [ being gay ] , get married, have kids, and it’ll just be the one thing that I have to deal with. But that’s an intensely selfish reaction; it robs you of honest relationships with everyone who loves you and it also starts to affect other people’s lives, such as the person you marry, your children. And I’m not a selfish guy,A?a??A? he said. A?a??A?When I came out, both of my parents said to me, A?a??E?At the end of the day, we love you, and that’s what you need to know. But we need to work through this on our own.’ And they did.

A?a??A?I think, for a parent, they want their kid to have the best of everything; they want their kid to have the easiest life possible,A?a??A? he added. A?a??A?And even though that’s unrealistic and can have nothing to do with sexuality, when you come out to your parentsA?a??a??even if they’re the most liberal, most wonderful, warm peopleA?a??a??they still have to be allowed a period to mourn the life that they thought you would have. Their little baby has gone on a different course from what they predicted, or hoped, for you. I was very respectful of my parents and acknowledged it was a surprise to them and very hard for them to accept. My father had no idea, for instance. But it didn’t make me want to back down and not tell them this information. Instead, what I told them is, A?a??E?I’m going to give you guys time and be here to answer whatever questions you may have, no matter how crazy you think the question is.’A?a??A?

Berkus will be speaking to college-aged students in Toronto this fall, detailing his tsunami experience and his business success, etc.

A?a??A?After the tsunami segment aired on The Oprah Winfrey Show, I received literally thousands of letters and e-mails from gay teenagers from around the country, some of whom were moved to come out of the closet because they viewed a really open, honest, happy relationship [ between me and Fernando ] , and it was the first time they ever witnessed it, and it happened on television,A?a??A? Berkus said. A?a??A?And it was presented as two people in love, not just as two gay people.A?a??A?

More Nate…

Here are some more fun facts from Nate Berkus:

A?a??a??Dream vacation spot: A?a??A?I have two: The Temples of Angkor in Cambodia and Careyes, Mexico.A?a??A?

A?a??a??Little-known fact: A?a??A?People are always surprised that I’m Jewish. I have no idea why.A?a??A?

A?a??a??Favorite restaurant in the world: Contro Vapore in Milan

A?a??a??Favorite restaurant in Chicago: The Wiener’s Circle at 2622 N. Clark A?a??A?have the best hot dogs in the world.A?a??A?

A?a??a??Favorite movie: Overboard

A?a??a??Favorite actor: A?a??A?I don’t really have a favorite actor.A?a??A?

A?a??a??Favorite actress: Diane Keaton

A?a??a??A fashion faux pas: A?a??A?Over-designed denimA?a??A?

A?a??a??One overused material in homes: Granite

A?a??a??One fact about Oprah we don’t know: A?a??A?She’s really like an open book. There’s no rehearsal for the show.A?a??A?

A?a??a??On air travel: A?a??A?The truth is, I’m on a plane almost every other day anyway; it just depends where that plane is headed.A?a??A? His travel tradition is turning off his Blackberry, then reading books and magazines, and also doing some work. A?a??A?I get a lot done on airplanes.A?a??A?

A?a??a??Upcoming on The Oprah Winfrey Show: A?a??A?We’re doing some really exciting makeovers on the Oprah show this fall.A?a??A?
source: Clarinex online

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