'Motor City Masters' Bryan Thompson talks auto design, working with Katy Perry and inspiring the next generation of LGBT designers

TruTV's auto design competition series Motor City Masters pits 10 experienced designers against each other every week to create innovative, fully functional concept cars based on a given theme. This season's cast includes out designer Bryan Thompson who has been honing his design skills all his life and plans to use part of the $100,000 grand prize to establish a scholarship for LGBT design students if he is named the next Motor City Master.

Thompson is from a small town in Arizona and has been passionate about design since he was young. As a child he took on decorating the family home, which when he discovered he "could affect the space around you, with design." He spoke with GLAAD about his wide body of work, what drew him to Motor City Masters and how he hopes to inspire others.

GLAAD: How did you get into auto design? What interested you about the field?

Bryan Thompson: I think if you're a designer, you're one from the beginning. We are born with certain sensibilities.  Long before you have the words to articulate why you see the world differently than your friends or family do, and way before you can draw what you see. You're born straight or gay, and you're born a designer. Once you figure those two things out, the world is an amazing place.

Our neighbors had a B210 in 1976, with the HoneyBee graphic on the front fender, and I can distinctly remember being drawn to that happy image of the little bee and thinking the car was alive.  I always saw cars and objects as creatures. Everything from our family Tercel 4WD to the Bang & Olufsen stereo my mom came home with on a whim in 1979 had a soul or presence in my mind because they "affected" the world they existed in. I thought that since those things illicit strong reactions in people, they were somehow alive. They certainly had a sentience in my mind.  I wanted to make friends with the stereo, the car, the phone, and then create more friends.

My first professional project was the Nissan Titan Truck and Armada interiors.  I hit the jackpot right out of school being hired at Nissan Design, was thrown straight into a production program and told to sink or swim.  So I started swimming like crazy and won my first race.

Cars are a promise of freedom, and they are part of the fabric of our everyday lives.  They’re privy to an intimate part of us because we spend so much time in them.  They’re the purring witnesses to our private triumphs and defeats, they listen while we tap out percussion happy rhythms on the steering wheel, and sing out our passions to the empty cabin. They know who we love, and nudge us a little closer to our co-passengers in the ambient dashboard glow.  My dream, the one that excites me the most?  To bring back the bench seat with a modern twist.  A bench seat lets you put your arm around your loved one and slide them closer in a way that a bucket seat cannot.  It’s all about body language, and while people can’t always say “sorry” after an argument, they can usually put an arm around each other… And then everything is okay.  We need more of that.

GLAAD: What inspired you to take part in this series?

BT: At first, I had a lot of trepidation about joining a reality TV show.  It seems there are two types of reality TV: the train wreck shows we all love to despise (and nuke the popcorn for) and the creative shows that showcase skill and talent like Project Runway.  Both are highly entertaining, but the second one is inspirational.  When I was recruited for the show, the producers assured me this competition would be the latter. And, oh, were they ever true to their word!  Just you wait and see what we create.  It’s a rocky road at times, but that makes for good TV, and I get it.

In the end, I joined the cast with the caveat that if I won, I was going to donate a large portion of the winnings to create a scholarship for gay and lesbian students with significant design talent.  This is something I’ve wanted to do since I first “made it” in the industry, against some pretty difficult odds myself.  Something like this could change someone’s life, and I want to help make that happen.  

Regarding the experience of the show, it surprised me that we would do so much of the work ourselves!  Car design is a field where we spend a great deal of time sketching, and then, cappuccino in hand, pointing and giving directions, and relying on other skilled people like engineers and modelers to bring our visions to life. This TV show breaks through all of that, and we get our hands dirty doing a great deal of the building ourselves.   Plus, I love the tool that makes sparks. The sparky thing.  No, I still don’t know what it’s really called.

GLAAD: You've done a bit of everything, from having your designs manufactured by Nissan to designing music video sets for Katy Perry. What is the difference between those worlds and were you able to apply any lessons learned there to your auto design?

BT: The pace is much faster. And I love the high energy rhythm you get into.

Where a car project can take months, or even years to develop, production design is often a mad dash to the finish line, and then it’s in front of the public immediately.   I helped re-design and build the throne for Katy Perry’s "Roar" video, working with an amazing production designer, Teri Whittaker. You have to have the right throne to feel like roaring, so when the original design needed to be reworked - on set while everyone waited - the team came together and banged out a new design. Talk about pressure!  Motor City Masters is simple fun, by comparison.  Try having Katy Perry and an entire production crew standing by while you’re running around shouting ridiculous statements like “Birds of Paradise!  We need more Birds!"

GLAAD: How've you been able to challenge stereotypes as an out designer working in the auto industry?

BT: I’ve always been “out,” in the sense that there was never a big reveal to be shared.  In 1979 I was only five years old but I worshipped Erik Estrada enough to tear a photo of him out of the TV Guide and tape it to my wall. I remember how my mom looked at the picture, did a double take, and then asked, "Bryan, I'm curious why you want this in your bedroom?" I grinned and replied: "It makes me feel good." To her credit she just nodded and smiled. Much later she told me she knew I was gay even before I put up the photo. She let me keep the picture until the crush was over.  That episode stayed with me and taught me something, I realize I don't need to be afraid of who I am or what I want.

I tell that story here, because it helped me as an adult, when there was adversity about being gay.  I can remember an incident at a car studio where I was designing when a visiting design director made a loudly voiced homophobic slur while reviewing a car in the viewing court.  Very calmly, I waited until he finished talking, aware that my colleagues shared the uncomfortable tension he had created, and I walked over to him, firmly took hold of his coat sleeve, and asked him to take a short walk with me.  I won’t go into details of the ensuing conversation, but by the time we returned to the viewing court, he readdressed the team, and officially apologized.  This is in an important story because it illustrates why you must stand up for yourself.  If you don’t, then you make it okay for homophobia to persist, especially when it’s coming from a person of authority.  You can handle it with tact, quietly, if that’s your way, but when you correct it, you make it known that you won’t be bullied into silence.

GLAAD: You've said if you win Motor City Masters you'd like to use the prize money to create a scholarship for LGBT students who show outstanding design skills. Can you talk a bit more about your hopes for that and what young people take away from your appearance on the show?

BT: I hope this show will inspire young people to get into car design. Personally, I hope it inspires those kids who know they have talent, but are told they're misguided, to get into design. This is where they need to be. I was told that being gay was something that would lead to a life of sadness and that car design was an unattainable pipe dream. Neither of those things are true, and I'm so glad I listened to the tiny voice inside; just like a muscle, it gets stronger the more you encourage and work it out. I'm competing for a scholarship for gay and lesbian students who are interested in being car designers. I want to inspire that kid out there who’s being told there’s something wrong with them to know everybody is wrong and they're right.

Catch Bryan on Motor City Masters on TruTV, Tuesdays at 10:00pm. You can keep up to date on what's next for him including more work in television and design at his website, Bryan Thompson Design.