Jonathan Van Ness and Mayor Ted Terry in a salon
Hairdresser Jonathan Van Ness chops off the mayor's beard. Netflix

Hint: The Millennial mayor grew back his “resistance beard.”

When I texted Mayor Ted Terry to confirm his interview, he responded in the most Millennial way possible:


The public official was first elected in 2013 at just 30 years old, the youngest mayor in the history of Clarkston, Georgia, the Ellis Island of the South. But his wrinkled flannels and tattered Converse shoes didn’t impress his older constituents.

So Terry appeared on season two of Queer Eye, Netflix’s reboot of the mid-2000s makeover show hosted by five gay men. The Fab Five mentored the “hipster mayor” on public speaking, hosting dinner parties, and keeping his resistance beard moisturized at all times.

They invaded Terry’s home, chasing after chickens in the backyard, ripping apart his old shirts, and rummaging through his grooming products (or lack thereof). As they struck a downward dog pose, they lamented the organization of his combined dining room/home office/yoga room.

“This looks more like frat guy kind of just threw some things on a table,” said Karamo Brown, the culture expert. “Doesn’t look like mayor of a city.”

By the end of the episode, his home looked like it jumped out of a Pottery Barn catalogue. The bathroom was stocked with sunscreen and hair spray, and his closet actually had more than two pairs of shoes. His signature “resistance beard” had been left on the barbershop floor, and he was donning a dapper suit—though he’s still wearing sneakers.

His new dining room was fully set for the culminating event of the episode: Terry was hosting delegates from the Philippines and Sierra Leone for dinner at his home to talk about his city’s approach to refugee resettlement.

The intent was for Terry to look the part he was already playing. Terry is leading a city that is making a name for its tolerance and progressive policymaking. The small Atlanta suburb has received over 40,000 refugees in the last 25 years, a standout in the deep South. After filming in July 2017, Terry won his re-election the following November.

I talked to Terry to find out how life has been for him since his makeover. Below are the highlights of our conversation.

The name of your episode is Make Ted Great Again. Do you like that title?

I think that's right on. In a lot of ways, the policies that I'm promoting and the principles of my leadership are in direct contrast to President Trump. It's a little bit of a nod to the Make America Great Again slogan that has been used as a pseudo-attack.

I read that the producers actually reached out to you to be on the show. What did you think when you heard that and what made you say yes?

When they came to Clarkston scouting potential characters, I was like, “Ehh, that's okay. But hey, you should go talk to Dr. Heval Kelli or Brian Bollinger.” I was giving them other people in Clarkston who do amazing work. I think they do a lot more work on the ground with real people than I do. They deserve this opportunity. But the producers kind of kept coming back to me. As a politician, I humiliate myself on a daily basis. So being on a reality show would be no different than the ordinary.

For your delegates dinner, Antoni, the show’s food and wine expert, helped you make a perfectly plated grilled peach salad with heirloom tomatoes. Tell me the truth: Have you grilled any peaches since the episode?

Oh, yeah! Yeah, definitely. The only change is that all the plants that Bobby gave us died. So I need to work on my indoor plant cultivation. But everything else is set up perfectly, it's exactly how it was when they filmed last July. I am fully utilizing my office space and my dining space to have people over to learn about Clarkston and build relationships. I think I've done grilled peaches at least three times since then.

Why did you decide to run for mayor?

The street going into our neighborhood is on a hill and people would speed down it, which was unsafe for the kids playing outside. I tried very hard to get speed bumps but really couldn't get the mayor at the time to take these concerns seriously. I asked the city council members, “Hey, are any of y'all going to run for mayor?” thinking I'd love to help out on their campaign. But none of the council members were going to. I have always had the mindset that if no one's willing to do it, I'll do it.

Honestly, I didn't think I was going to win. A lot of political people said, “Ted, that's great you're going to run, but Clarkston is 82 percent nonwhite. People of color will never vote for a white person to represent them.” And I didn't care. I'm not running for me, I'm running because I want to get the issues out there. You don't have to win the election to win on the issues.

Source: Netflix

In the episode, you mention how your red canvassing Converse shoes are so important to you. Can you tell me about that campaigning experience during your first election, especially being so young?

One of the things that I learned working on campaigns is you want to set yourself apart. I got these red Converse shoes during the Obama campaign and I would wear them while canvassing. When you're knocking on doors and talkings to strangers, it's always good to have a moment of levity. By having these really bright, red shoes, you couldn't miss 'em. So when I ran for mayor I was like, I gotta wear these shoes everywhere I go. They're my good luck shoes.

Sometimes we get so serious when we're talking about campaigning or being a government official. Anything I can do to express that I'm just a normal person, that I'm not above anyone else, even if I'm the mayor, I'm one of them. My whole job and my whole ethos is that I'm supposed to represent them. The best way I know how to do that is for them to feel comfortable telling me what they want. People get really nervous about talking to elected officials. That's a big part of my philosophy. People have ideas, they need to speak up and speak out until they see change happen.

On that note of feeling comfortable, one part I really liked about your episode was how relaxed you seem when talking to constituents, like holding meetings in coffee shops. Could you tell me more about why being approachable is so important to you?

I gave up my office in city hall because [the other staff members] work five days, 40 hours a week. I get paid $6,000 a year to be mayor; it was always meant to be a part-time job. So I said I'll just have my meetings out in coffee shops or restaurants or parks. We'll go to Refuge Coffee truck, or to the Ethiopian cafe, or to Kathmandu Kitchen, or to Brocket Pub. It's a lot more relaxed and more spending money at the local businesses. Especially when people are visiting Clarkston for the first time, if they were just in city hall, behind a wood door, it would just be this stuffy meeting. You can't experience Clarkston in an office, you experience it by actually going out and meeting people.

And people are much more likely to say, “Hey Mayor, can I tell you about something I'm having a problem with?” when you’re out in public. It's easier for them to share their concerns rather than writing an email or leaving a voicemail. I've just found that to be a really effective way to actually find out what's going on in the city on the ground level.

What has the town's reaction been after your episode aired?

Everyone really likes it. Everyone knows Atlanta, but if you name a Chamblee or a Doraville or a Hahira, people would be like, huh? Where? What? It really becomes an opportunity for people to connect with each other. It’s great having Clarkston on the international stage. I got an email from someone in France, Sweden, New Zealand, Istanbul. All these people who are watching Netflix internationally are saying, “Wow, your message and what you're representing and what you're doing in Clarkston, this small town, makes me so happy to hear that there's American leaders that are compassionate and are willing to see the strength in diversity.” I think a lot of people in town, it gives them a lot of pride. That's what I want. I want people to feel proud of where they live.

What has it been like leading such a diverse community in this political climate?

The travel ban has exacerbated people's fears on both sides. We've got people in Clarkston who are legal, lawful permanent residents, like settled refugees and immigrants, who are afraid. We do have some people who are in this no man's land of asylum seeking and they're also really afraid about being deported and separated from their families. People are living in Clarkston because they love America and they want to have safety, security, and opportunity for themselves and their family. On the other side, there are a lot of people being scared by Trump. They're unfounded. We had a candidate running for governor who came to Clarkston a few months ago with a “deportation bus.” It's little stunts and things like that. What you're seeing is a lot of mistrust, a lot of fear.

Now, on the flip side of that, Claire, I will say that since the travel ban and all this negativity, people have been showing up in Clarkston to volunteer, to donate, to invest their time and their money. They're saying places like Clarkston are positive examples, like “I don't agree with what the President's saying. I can't do anything about it because the election's not until 2020, but what I can do right now is give my support to your community because that’s what America should be doing.” So that's the other side. There's been an outpouring of love and compassion.

Source: Netflix

During the episode, Karamo organized a rap battle between you and “Joe,” a student state champion in speech, to help you work on your confidence in public speaking. You rapped about some of your achievements as mayor, like decriminalizing recreational marijuana and setting Election Day as a holiday. What are some policies you’re currently working on?

What's really exciting is when I got re-elected, we elected three Millennial council members. Since then, things are increasing at a rapid pace. Right now, we are looking at an election reform act that would create public financing for candidates and an all-paper ballot election system. We're looking at all resident voting, so basically any legal, lawful permanent resident that resides in Clarkston would be able to vote for city council and mayor, even though they're not citizens yet. We have a study committee right now on a plastic bag ban and single-use plastic. We have a micro-farming ordinance that would expand the opportunity for people to have live animals, like more chickens or beekeeping on their properties. Pretty progressive stuff.

You mentioned you had done zero grooming on your beard. Jonathan, the grooming expert, wanted to make you “a little less mountain man” and a little more professional. What did you think when Jonathan cut off your beard, and why did you grow it back?

[LAUGHS] Well, the show really wanted a transformation, so I was happy to abide by a very stark contrast from a beard that I had been growing out for almost a year to being clean shaven. Most of the flack is mainly from [my partner] Andrea, she's like “I like a little bit of the beard.” If Andrea says she likes something and she wants it, then I'll do it. I think I look a little young when I'm clean shaven. I won't grow out my beard to full mountain man again. Jonathan said if the beard comes back, use beard oil and keep it moisturized. So I'm taking his advice.

Is there anything you think could’ve been portrayed better in your episode?

You know, I'm pretty sure that I had a better version of the rap battle. We did two different takes because there were some sound issues, because we have a railroad track going right through the middle of town. The first take of the rap battle, which I thought was all off the cuff, like “Yeah, this is awesome!” a train came through. The sound got screwed up, so they're like “We gotta do it again, guys.” And I kind of got iced out of there. [LAUGHS]

What is next on your plate after your mayoral term ends?

It's hard to say. I just got re-elected, so I'll serve out my second term which ends in 2021. I really want Andrea to run for mayor. She's in the city council right now, so I'll probably do all I can to help her get elected in 2021. I'm really putting all my energy into electing Stacey Abrams as governor of Georgia. She's an amazing policymaker and leader in our state. If the worst happens and she loses, I will definitely run for governor in 2022.

Is there anything else you want to add?

One of the things that bothers me a lot about our political system is that it's very ideological. Particularly in Washington, you get in this mindset that the ideology trumps—well, not trumps—the ideology sets us up to where we're just never going to agree. When we look at evidence-based policy making, then you actually can find ways to compromise, because you're not basing it just on how you feel, you're basing it on what actually works. As a mayor, I actually have to solve problems. We actually have to fix the road, we have to create economic opportunities, we have to deal with crime or youth issues or affordable housing or environmental concerns. We actually have to deal with it at the ground level. Rhetoric and ideology will never solve these problems, it's actually trying something new and being innovative.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: A cyclist rides past a closed Victoria Park in East London.

    The Power of Parks in a Pandemic

    For city residents, equitable access to local green space is more than a coronavirus-era amenity. It’s critical for physical, emotional, and mental health.

  2. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

  3. Coronavirus

    The Post-Pandemic Urban Future Is Already Here

    The coronavirus crisis stands to dramatically reshape cities around the world. But the biggest revolutions in urban space may have begun before the pandemic.

  4. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  5. Perspective

    In a Pandemic, We're All 'Transit Dependent'

    Now more than ever, public transportation is not just about ridership. Buses, trains, and subways make urban civilization possible.