Exclusive Interview: Krishnanand Kelkar & Ashleigh Warren – the queer stars of Max’s rom-doc dating series Swiping America

If you’ve seen the Emmy, Peabody, and GLAAD Award-winning We’re Here on HBO/Max, you’ll already know that its creators Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren do reality television differently. They’re not interested in contrived drama or arguments, or endless recapping, instead they cut to the emotional core of the stories they’re telling, using the genre in a meaningful way to spark conversations, and open up hearts and minds, all while delivering entertaining and compelling unscripted shows. Their latest ten-part series, the “rom-doc” Swiping America, now streaming on Max, is a dating show that takes four single strangers out of the Big Apple to find love on the apps in 8 different cities across the country: Asheville, NC; Miami, FL; Austin, TX; New Orleans, LA; Santa Fe, NM; Boulder, CO; Seattle, WA; and finally Honolulu, HI with the date of their choice. The result is a nuanced and fascinating exploration of human connection, self-acceptance, and friendship, as well as a fun, refreshingly gentle, heartwarming, and uplifting watch.

Kesun Lee, Reagan Baker, Krishnanand Kelkar, and Ashleigh Warren in the Max Original series Swiping America. Photograph by Greg Endries/Max.

Crucial to the success of the series is its casting, including two queer participants, data scientist Krishnanand Kelkar and social media expert Ashleigh Warren, who spoke with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about their Swiping America experience.

Queer stars of Max’s rom-doc dating series Swiping America – Krishnanand Kelkar & Ashleigh Warren

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: one of the things that I really loved about Swiping America, and it almost felt like a plot twist as the show came to the end, was the friendship that develops between the four of you. There are a lot of different romances that we follow throughout, but in some ways it felt like the romance at the heart of the show was the friendship. What was it like going on this very unusual journey as a foursome with the other participants, Kesun and Reagan?

Ashleigh Warren: “I think you said it best. We developed such a beautiful friendship that no one ever thought was going to happen. I feel like, in our own ways, we’re all very reserved and have a ‘no new friends’ kind of vibe about us, so it was so nice to be pleasantly surprised. That first week, we all felt so comfortable together and had so much fun. I don’t think I’ve laughed harder in three months in my entire life than I did with them. We enjoy each other’s company and were always respectful of how everyone felt and were so supportive. To me, the best part of the show was our friendship for sure.”

Krishnanand Kelkar, Reagan Baker, Ashleigh Warren, and Kesun Lee in the Max Original series Swiping America. Photograph by Greg Endries/Max. Photograph by Greg Endries/Max.

Krishnanand Kelkar: “When else in your life are you going to be in a group of four people in their 30s who decide to do something this emotionally risky and vulnerable? Like Ash said, I think we had our reservations, but we also acknowledged that we were all in the same space together and it brought us closer. I think the only way to go through it was to become really close. There’s no way I could have enjoyed it or survived it if it weren’t for us really supporting each other.”

Ashleigh Warren in Swiping America. Photograph by Greg Endries/Max.

How do you reflect back on it now, especially in terms of what you learned about yourself, or just what you took away from the whole experience?

Ashleigh: “I look back and think what an incredible opportunity we had. Nobody’s done anything like this ever before, there’s no manual on how to go through this appropriately. I look back and I’m like, ‘man, I wish I could have had more fun. I wish I could have done this or that, or stayed longer’, because it goes by so fast. Halfway through it, we blinked and it was over. I was like, ‘no, let’s let’s go somewhere else, I don’t care where it is!’ It reminded me how special it is to have people in your life who care about you and want the best for you. We felt that from everybody, from Johnnie and Stephen, to the producers, the directors, and everybody on set. It was such a beautiful experience that I feel like most people will never be able to relate to. It’s something so special that I’ll always carry with me and have friends from it that will be with me for the rest of my life. When I reflect back, I’m like, ‘that was friggin incredible!'”

Krishnanand Kelkar in Swiping America. Photograph by Greg Endries/Max.

Krishnanand: “Well, now I walk into a room and I’m like, ‘I’m the star!’ If you can’t tell, I’m pretty reserved, but what I mean is, I used to walk into a room and be really worried about whether everyone was going to like me or if I was going to impress everyone. Now I’m different and it’s honestly because of the example and strength of the people I did this with, Reagan, Kesun, and Ash included. I realized that they walk into a room and they’re unapologetically who they are. I want to be that way too and it’s going make me happier and it’ll mean that I’m going to attract the right people in my life, people who support me for who I am. So I think I approach life more openly and hopefully with a bit more love and happiness for myself and others.”

Krishnanand Kelkar in Swiping America. Photograph by Greg Endries/Max.

Kris, when you were talking about your social media, I realized that I was already following you, along with 30,000 or so other people. You were saying how the thirst traps you were posting was an outlet for the hidden extrovert in you, but that they were different to your personality offline. Has the experience of doing the show brought you closer to being the person we know online in some ways?

Krishnanand: “Actually, I think it’s the opposite. Sometimes I still post post a thirst trap here and there, but I stopped posting thirst traps as often because I stopped caring. I feel bad saying this, but I now know I’m hot!”

Ashleigh: “It’s true!”

Krishnanand: “There are photos out there, you can see it, but I don’t need the validation as much. I like taking photographs, so I post more photographs of other people and my friends and the things I’m doing, so my social media is a little bit closer to who I am now. I think I got what I wanted out of exploring that side of myself.”

The cast of Swiping America. Courtesy of Max.

I liked how sensitive it seemed the producers were being. For instance, Kris, you had a moment where you were talking about growing up and then stopped and said, ‘actually, I don’t really want to talk about this anymore’. Because we’re used to watching other kinds of reality shows, I thought at some point someone was going to try to get that story out of you, but that didn’t happen. It fits in with what Reagan says towards the end of the series, that sometimes there isn’t a catch.

Ashleigh: “It’s so different than reality TV, which is why we’re not even calling that, we’re calling it a rom-doc, because there was none of that cattiness that you often see on reality TV. It was honest. They were very respectful of whatever we wanted to talk about, which gave us the freedom to be who we are and come to the table with everything. I feel like people will resonate with that and be like, ‘oh my gosh, it’s okay to be who I am’. That’s why I left feeling healed in so many ways. I went home and I felt like the same person and a completely different human being at the same time and I still feel that way. I’m curious to watch it back myself and be like, ‘does that person still exist?’ I feel so different and so free now, so it’s really cool.”

Ash and Kris in Swiping America. Photograph by Jane Hahn for Max.

Krishnanand: “We had a really rough conversation once with the crew and everyone because I think we all felt a little raw. They came back to us and said, ‘we are only going to make a documentary about people who we love and we trust and we have to build that’. So to your point, yeah, there is no catch and they really respected us and I think they saw, and hopefully you saw when you watched it, that we were all baring our souls, but also parts of it are private and not everything has to be public. That’s how relationships work, both friendships and romantic. Because we had that mutual trust of each other, they were hopefully able to build something where you can not only see the love between us four, but also between us and the people behind the camera too, because we all really care about each other.”

Ashleigh: “Yeah, they were amazing.”

Ash, Kesun, Kris, and Reagan in Swiping America. Photograph by Sam Lothridge/Max.

I like that the cast is a mix of straight folks and queer folks. Did you find that you were looking for different things out of your dates than Reagan and Kesun were?

Ashleigh: “Yes and no. As with anything, it depends on how you feel that day. At the core, we’re all there for love, we’re all there for deep connection, but when you do it 5 million times over and over for months, it’s like, ‘how deep do I want to get with this person today?’ I think everybody wanted someone attractive, but then what? The girls definitely have different things that they’re looking for to what I would be looking for and vice versa. What was so fun about this show was coming home after all of our dates and having those discussions. ‘What did you find? Why did you like what you liked and why did you hate what you hated?’ That was really cool.”

Derek and Kris in Swiping America. Courtesy of Max.

I think Kris probably had the most kisses.

Krishnanand: “I did!”

Ashleigh: “You had more kisses than Reagan?!”

Krishnanand: “I had a lot! I don’t know if all of them got on camera even, but the point is I think there are different norms for sexuality and dating. I think women have to worry about being slut shamed in a way that men don’t always have to and when it’s two queer men, both parties aren’t concerned about that, so I think the norms are different. How we interact with each other is different. But specifically with me, my personal issues with sex was also something I had to navigate. In the queer world, sexual liberation is a really important part of our ability to exist and to be seen and visible, but for me navigating that I have my own sexual hang ups, so how does that play out and what do I feel comfortable with? Obviously, I feel comfortable kissing but maybe not as much doing other things that a lot of gay men, at least in New York, are comfortable and should feel comfortable exercising to their discretion.”

Kris on a two-step date in the Max Original series Swiping America. Photograph by Greg Endries/Max.

In terms of the dates, I love the two-step dance class that Kris did and the gumbo cooking class that you did Ashleigh.

Ashleigh: “Oh, that was fun!”

Did you have a favourite in terms of it being an ideal date activity?

Krishnanand: “When I was with Justin in Hawaii and we went out on a kayak, that was hard to beat. Obviously other dates were fun, but give me a kayak and a beautiful private beach and some drinks. There’s nothing better than that!”

Ash and Safira on a date in Swiping America . Photograph by Greg Endries/Max.

Ashleigh: “I honestly don’t remember 80% of my dates, so I’m so excited to see the show just to remember what I did! I did love the gumbo experience though. It was a lot of fun to do that and it was delicious. Everything we did in Hawaii was amazing. I mean, come on, it doesn’t get any better than that! I also loved our friend dates, like we had in Seattle. That dinner there was probably my favourite thing that we did the entire trip. It was just so cute.”

Ash and Jordan in Swiping America. Photograph by Greg Endries/Max.

So now that you’re both dating experts…

Ashleigh: “…I don’t know about that!”

Did you come up with your most effective, go-to question to really get to know someone fast? Especially when it was the date zeros and you were deciding whether it was someone who you wanted to see again?

Ashleigh: “No, not so much. I think just in everyday life, I pick up more on body language than what someone’s asking me. I had my five questions and 10 minutes, so you can go through the list, which we were doing in many ways, but it’s more about, how thoughtful are you in responding to those questions? How are you looking at me? Do you seem bored? Am I laughing? Would I want to do this again? Those are the things that I’m thinking about. So I probably asked everyone similar questions, but I never went into it being like, ‘these are the questions that I’m going ask this person’. It’s more like, what did their spirit give to me in that moment and what do I feel comfortable asking?”

Jose and Kris in Swiping America. Photograph by Sam Lothridge/Max.

Krishnanand: “I don’t think that there’s any one question that is going to let me know everything I need to decide. In the past I worked for a dating app and we always said that there’s no such thing as a deal-breaker. Everyone can set their own limits and think that this thing really matters to them, but if you really love someone you’re actually probably going to find a reason to overlook that thing for better or for worse.”

Ash and Zad in Swiping America. Courtesy of Max.

Maybe even if it was being a vegan, as you encountered Ashleigh?

Ashleigh: “Oh my God, I can’t wait to watch that! That was so funny. I honestly thought that was planned, that it was something that they were trying to get me to react to. None of this show is like that whatsoever, but I was like, ‘did that moment actually just happen? Am I being punk’d?! You won’t go out with me because I’m not a vegan?! Did you think that this was Vegan Swiping America? It was so crazy!”

Kris and Ash in Swiping America. Courtesy of Max.

I love the travelling aspect of the show. Did you have a favourite city in terms of queer life or an eye-opening moment of thinking that it’d be pretty difficult living there as a queer person?

Ashleigh: “I don’t know if it was because it was the first city we went to, leaving a very diverse and open place like New York, but I don’t ever have to go to Asheville again. It didn’t feel like a place that I would want to be in. I’m sure they have a queer-ish area, but I was like, ‘what is happening?’ As far as queerness goes, what would you say, Kris, where did we go that you felt was more open, probably Miami?”

Reagan, Kesun, Kris, and Ash in Swiping America. Photograph by Zack Dougan/Max.

Krishnanand: “Yeah, I was going to say there, but we didn’t have much opportunity to spend in the cities outside of filming because Ash and I were both working while we were making the show. I opened up Scruff in Santa Fe and there were two people in the city! Santa Fe is obviously one of the smaller cities we went to and a lot of people on the app were near Albuquerque, which is about an hour away. I’m not saying that Santa Fe is more or less welcoming of queer people than other places, but in terms of population and density it made me realize that I can never imagine what it’s like not to be around a lot of people who who are different than Middle America because I’ve only lived in LA, Providence, and New York.”

Adrian and Kris on a date in Swiping America. Photograph by Greg Endries/Max.

Kris, you had a date with a guy who was living somewhere really remote didn’t you?

Krishnanand: “Yeah, he was talking about his queer friends. They’re kind of a community and it’s not necessarily online where you meet each other, it’s not at clubs and bars, they just go to each other’s places and have parties and that’s great, but it’s a very different way of navigating queer life. I can’t I really imagine what it’s like.”

Clueless. Courtesy of Paramount.

Swiping America is billed as rom-doc, how into rom-coms are you and do you have a favourite?

Krishnanand: “I’m from LA and my favourite by far is Clueless. It was so foundational for me. It really feels like a part of my like childhood. Of course I love rom-coms. Miss Congeniality, Legally Blonde. All of the ones with strong women.”

Ashleigh: “I’m not a huge rom-com person, but Miss Congeniality I’ve seen 500 times. I did like Sex and the City. I love a good story that ends well.”

Sailor Moon. Courtesy of Toei Animation.

I think people who like the original Sex and the City series will get a lot out of Swiping America. One final question for you, what’s favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

Krishnanand: “There are so many things, but if I focus on an artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work is really impactful. Whenever they have an exhibition in New York I go out of my way to see it. I have a watch that reminds me of Untitled (Perfect Lovers), which is one of my favourite pieces of art by him. In terms of something foundational to who I am, Sailor Neptune, Sailor Uranus, and Sailor Moon. When I was a kid growing up, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted or why I felt the way that I did, but Sailor Moon specifically is what got me through a lot of hard times, including the things that I wasn’t even willing to talk about on the show with my family. Having that be so unapologetically queer—the fifth season that didn’t air in America has some trans characters in it and this was back in the 90s—was so meaningful to me, knowing that there’s a world where that stuff is celebrated. It’ was a part of the empowerment of myself at a time that was really tough for me. Those characters really brought me some solace.”

The L Word. Sarah Shahi, Mia Kirshner, Laurel Holloman, Rachel Shelley, Pam Grier, Erin Daniels, Leisha Hailey, Jennifer Beals, and Katherine Moennig. Photo credit: Isabel Snyder/Associated Press.

Ashleigh: “In terms of figuring out that I was queer, I worked at the Starbucks in Barnes & Noble and occasionally I would have to cover the cash register in the DVD section. I saw The L Word DVD and I was like, ‘what does that mean?!’ I bought it and secretly watched it in my room and I was like, ‘this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, I love girls!’ That was a moment for me when I realized that I wasn’t crazy and that it was okay to feel this way. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I didn’t see that lifestyle be accepted and loved and appreciated, so just seeing all those beautiful humans have a beautiful friendship and so many crazy life stories that somehow intertwined was amazing. So I’m obsessed with The L Word, all the generations.”

By James Kleinmann

The first six episodes of Swiping America are now streaming on Max. The final two episodes debut on Thursday, June 29th.

NewFest is hosting a free virtual advance screening of episodes seven and eight on Wednesday, June 28th followed by a virtual Q&A with creators and executive producers Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren, along with the cast, and Ashleigh Warren, Krishnanand Kelkar, Reagan Baker, and Kesun Lee.

Queer stars of Max’s rom-doc dating series Swiping America – Krishnanand Kelkar & Ashleigh Warren
Swiping America | Official Trailer | Max

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