This is the queer-centric version of the Netflix success, and it's much better.
Written by: Braden Bjella
Tracey is pacing around Red Bull Music Studios in Berlin. She’s live streaming, nervously entering and exiting the building as she tries to find a solid wifi connection. In just a few moments she’ll be connected with Mya, the woman with whom she’s been chatting intimately over the past week. She takes a deep breath, and Mya logs on.
But Tracey’s name isn’t Tracey. Mya isn’t Mya. In fact, neither of them have ever even seen each other in the flesh until this very moment — and it’s all being streamed live for a rapidly increasing number of viewers.
When Netflix released Love Is Blind in mid February, the response was swift. Memes about the show spread rapidly across the internet, and the series quickly became a pop culture fixture for a population drawn closer to their televisions thanks to COVID-19. While some were content as viewers, others saw the series as an opportunity.
“We were hanging out in New Orleans, and we were a little bit drunk,” remembers Ruby Joy. She’s referring to her friend Harold, with whom she co-hosts the @loveisblindqueersinquarantine account. “We just started thinking, what if we were on the show? And we couldn't stop laughing."
Soon, the duo had created their own queer-centric Love Is Blind-themed Instagram game, inviting their friends from around the world to take part. Some of those invites eventually landed in the inboxes of Rio and Naoki, two Berlin-based artists who had previously shared a similar idea. They joined, and a brand new Instagram dating game was born.
The rules are simple. Fill out an application form, then wait. If you’re one of the ten selected, you’ll be contacted by — then immediately blocked from — the main account. Over the next two days, you’ll get to know the other contestants over text under a false name, detailing your experience in video recaps at the end of the day. On Wednesday, phone calls start, with contestants connecting more deeply until the weekend rolls around and the final selection officially begins. Friday night brings proposals, and on Saturday, the (hopefully) happy couples share their first face-to-face experience on Instagram Live.
Admittedly, this isn’t a totally original concept. A similar — straight — Love Is Blind-themed account recently picked up some positive press in the New York Times and even managed to get verified by Instagram.
“Ours is objectively better,” boasts Ruby Joy with mock braggadocio. The two were unaware of the other Instagram account when they launched QiQ. “The original Love Is Blind is amazing for what it is — but it's really just like, oh my god you're from Illinois, I'm from Illinois… We're going to get married. I think, like, gay people are just smarter,” she laughs.
After all, she adds, “it's not fun if it's not gay.”
QiQ has since proven to be a runaway success, something neither host could have anticipated. “We were like, how are we ever going to find ten queers who don't know each other? It's impossible!” recalls Harold. Seasons now routinely get anywhere from sixty to seventy applicants, with that number increasing as the online word-of-mouth spreads.
Rio and Naoki, who both participated in an early season of QiQ, have since split off to form their own Euro-centric version, @libeurope. While both enjoyed their experience on QiQ, they knew their own iteration had to have something different.
“I think because we wanted to do our own thing from the beginning, we already came in like, hmm. Let's critique,” shares Naoki. The time difference between the US and EU made participating difficult, and at a base level, playing the American game was “more serious.” “That's really nice, but sometimes we need some silly stuff to happen in our little reality show,” they remark. “We've all seen [traditional reality] shows, and we wanted to see that on our show.”
The two games now run concurrently, with fans watching globe-spanning relationships unfold across both accounts. Much like the Netflix original, contestants drift from person to person, sharing heartfelt and occasionally tantalizing exchanges for a live audience. And when the reveal actually happens, it’s always a sight to behold.
As comical as all this may sound, running the accounts is serious business. “We definitely put a lot of work into our shitty graphics,” Naoki reveals with a self-effacing smile. Along with those “shitty graphics” (helmed for by season one contestant “Bo” for @libeurope and designer @momalleydesign for QiQ), @libeurope and QiQ now employ a resident astrologist, Maya Ru aka @coconut.mystic. They have also both committed significantly more time to the project to make sure everyone keeps active and content with the game.
“I'm overwhelmed by it,” admits Harold half-sincerely. He laughs. “It was a goof! It was supposed to be a goof!”
Despite this increased time and effort, the sailing hasn’t always been so smooth. Contestants on the first season of @libeurope apparently considered staging a quasi-coup against the hosts, a move that radiates a powerful “my subs have unionized” energy. To their credit, the hosts (who laugh recounting the ordeal) took it in stride, bringing the group together on Zoom to ask how they could improve the show and, naturally, make it sexier.
“We're not trying to push people to do anything they don't feel 100% comfortable with,” Rio stresses. @libeurope now has more group games, such as a particularly salacious round of “Never Have I Ever” featuring questions like Have you ever said “I love you” to get laid? Games like these ease the tension, bringing contestants closer to both their potential partner(s) and the group as a whole.
“It's a weird time to be queer and in quarantine,” Naoki confesses. “It's nice to not just have some romantic match, but it's also cool to have, like, friends.”
“Friends” doesn’t mean things can’t still get a little risqué. “The way of communication [in Europe] is a bit different,” observes Rio. “It's less polite. It's a bit more spicy, more weird.” Here, they continue, “it's just a pretty common thing to feel comfortable talking about sexuality — and sending pictures of dildos or whatever.” To that end, season one’s contestants had to be reminded they were forbidden from sending nudes until the competition ended; Mya from season two promised all fellow participants free OnlyFans subscriptions.
All this is not to say that the show’s American-based counterpart is unsexy. More than one QiQ update has been given from the bathtub. Season two’s Angel introduced themselves with a quasi-striptease that ended with them shaking their ass on the hood of a car. And that’s not even mentioning the private messages — or the many flings that have continued well after the show’s end.
For the @libeurope hosts, running the show has shown them another side of queer life, especially in the German capital. “I always complained about how no one's silly in Berlin,” details Naoki. “Like, if I met any of these people at the club I'd wonder how silly they really are — but everyone's so much goofier on our show.” Being in a group enhances this. “You can kind of gauge who everybody is when you're all in a group chat… You can see, oh, three other people sent a picture of a dildo. I can totally talk about my piss fetish.”
So far, neither queer Love is Blind account has proven lucrative enough to be a full-time job replacement. Both Ruby Joy and Harold are seeking work in television, while Naoki is a creative advertising copywriter for hire in Berlin. Still, the hosts are reveling in their newfound roles as matchmakers. There’s talk of reunions, bringing back contestants from previous seasons, and, in the case of @libeurope, a possible “wedding ceremony.”
“The future's partially up to the contestants, but I'm very here for our weird wedding plans, if everyone else is down for it. I think we were kind of like, it's a joke, but we could also do it,” Naoki explains. “That's the thing with queerness. Everything's serious, but also everything's a joke… That's somewhat of the theme of the show: haha... but really... unless? Yes.”