Queer Eye breakout star Jonathan Van Ness leads our list of People We Love this year. In a revealing chat, our interview covers his new book, his poz status and his Fab Five co-stars.
On a flatscreen, Jonathan Van Ness often presents as buoyant, witty and composed. But in a new memoir, “Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love “(HarperOne, $27.99), the Queer Eye grooming guru lets his hair down so fans can see beyond what the Netflix cameras capture.
“That’s such a misperception of me and just life in general,” says the star. “I don’t exist in a perpetually effervescent state. I am not that person all the time. And that’s literally the basis of my book, which is: If you knew everything I’ve been through, if you saw me when I was irritated, if you saw me when I was late, if you saw me when I was frustrated, would you still love me? Would you still understand me? Would you still want to take the picture with me?”
Labeled ‘the outrageous one’ of Queer Eye’s next gen Fab Five, Van Ness is breathing in the thrill of exploding expectations. He’s put his entire life on display — including bouts with addiction, childhood sexual abuse and his status as HIV-positive. And now he’s doing his level best, with no apparent skeletons left in the closet, to simply enjoy being Jonathan again.
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As his memoir makes clear, Van Ness’ path into the limelight has been anything but straight. He writes that from a very early age, “identifying male and female in the same day is something that has always been possible for me.” (Van Ness identifies as non-binary but presently opts for he/him/his pronouns.) But don’t ask him to pretend being anything other than himself. “I can’t even do a straight accent — it’s not in my repertoire.”*
With the book already on the shelves and a special series of Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! currently streaming, Van Ness is in London when we connect. He can be sweet as pie — and that’s just the problem. He wants the world to know there’s more, and that he simply can’t manage the time or the emotional bandwidth to be the Instant Party everyone expects all the time.
“Life is effervescent,” he maintains. “But it’s also tragedy. It is happy, it’s sad, it’s tough, it’s with ease. It is a whole spectrum of emotions that are high highs and low lows. And we all can really inhabit any of those things at any of those places. And none of that means that you aren’t truly a happy person, or that you’re not truly feeling sad right now. I think it’s that life is a constant choice of, no matter what cards we’re given, it’s like, ‘How am I going to handle these?’”
The cards that Van Ness were dealt found him growing up in Quincy, Illinois. There, he obsessed over female Olympians’ routines and demonstrated early brand loyalty towards sugary treats (cinnamon and brown sugar Pop-Tarts; Cinnamon Toast Crunch). He also tried to get used to being bullied by everyone he encountered beyond his front yard.
His family has social standing in the community. (JVN suggests they’re a less-luxe, more-local version of the Kennedys.) They’re part owners of Quincy Media, which includes their hometown newspaper, The Herald Whig. His mother Mary Winters is Vice President of Quincy, and according to Wikipedia, the family has had a controlling interest in the conglomerate since the 1890s.
None of that mattered to the schoolmates who taunted little Jack Van Ness as he struggled to make sense of the world around him. “I handled my fear of bullies by becoming even louder and being even more over the top,” he says. “By the time I was three I was already committed to playing with as many Barbies as I could and making as many geode jewelry-like things as possible. I was very, very effeminate. I was always — and obviously, gender expression and sexuality aren’t the same things — but I was, from a very early age, very just boisterously myself.”
It’s a point he makes over and over again, and key to understanding how he views himself. He choreographed elaborate imaginary Olympic events in his basement and insisted his brothers and step-father assume the roles of judges from specific countries to score him (think Russian; Chinese). And, despite his mother’s admonition, he fearlessly decided to dance to a Jewel tune at school. They recently relived that delicate moment together on JVN’s weekly podcast, Getting Curious.
Despite being singled out as “a faggot” and having spray-painted epithets follow him around Quincy like the tail of a comet, Van Ness would neither shut up nor disappear. On the contrary, he made a place for himself on the school’s cheerleading squad. Keep your eyes on JVN in the Season Four Queer Eye opener as the show takes him back to his roots. He and his cohosts return to makeover the school’s matriarch, Kathi Dooley. And, when their work is complete, Van Ness breaks down.
“Quincy has had, ever since I left, a very particular, kind of painful place in my heart,” he tells her. “Because as much I loved being a [Quincy High] Blue Devil, my experience here was very hard. But one thing that you did for me and other kids like me: You always treated me the same as if I was like everyone else. And as an LGBT person, I think so badly we just want to feel normal and not treated differently. And you always did that. I just feel like my scars were very much healed this week.”
Even as he longed to feel normal, his sexual abuse at the hands of an older boy and a lack of validation sent him into the cyberverse in search of men. He found them in abundance — along with much more than he bargained for.
A cheerleading scholarship to the University of Arizona quickly crumbled after JVN tumbled into drug use and sex work. “That was my cue to get like, ‘I’m in over my head; I need help’.” In retrospect, he understands he was one of the lucky ones, “because when I did get in that really scary position, I had a cell phone that my Mom gave me that I could call and be like, ‘I need to get out of here.’ A lot of people wouldn’t have the ability to do that. But because I had that support, I think that I didn’t fully realize how dangerous and precarious a position I was putting myself in.”
The swings between success and excess followed Van Ness from Tucson back to Quincy. They continued well into St. Louis and two residencies in Los Angeles. He learned to color and cut hair, became an Aveda devotee and a workaholic by day — yet he could still steal moments to fuel his addictions to sex and meth. At the same time, he heard something inside telling him that self-care was a real thing — and that he needed plenty of it.
He devoured the works of Deepak Chopra and Brené Brown and books like “The Four Agreements” and “The Power of Now.” He came to believe that abuse survivors are often re-traumatized by triggering events that send them reeling back into bad habits. “But,” he says, “I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until I got out of it safely and had time to really get therapy and process what had happened to me.”
While trying to stay clean and work on his craft as a hairdresser, Van Ness suddenly found that Gay of Thrones — his fanciful video recap of the HBO series — had suddenly given him a toehold in entertainment. That led to getting management, firing said manager in search of better representation, and then getting a call from his original manager with the news that Netflix was rebooting Queer Eye.
A rigorous series of interviews and chemistry pairings followed, and through tenacity and talent, JVN got himself a new family. Four seasons down the road, he says, “It’s funny how much our dynamic doesn’t seem to change. It’s like some friends — if you spend three weeks apart — it’s weird like getting back together. We always fall back into a really good groove with each other. I think that for all of us [including Antoni, Kamaro, Tan and Bobby] it’s so great, because all of us have this, like, if we feel something, we say it to each other.”
Their camaraderie is back on display with new episodes that find the crew in Japan — where they knew neither the culture nor the language.
“I can really only speak for myself,” he’ll say, “but I really went into that trying to be more a student and less an expert. And really trying to go in and learn a little bit more. Because maybe there are things with their culture and lifestyles that wouldn’t work with how I think about doing hair and makeup. I was trying to listen more and talk less, especially in Japan.
“And I actually think that these are some of our most amazing episodes, because I think all of us were kind of in more of a ‘learn and listen’ place. Just ‘cause you kind of have to be. When you speak the same language, you can sometimes anticipate what people are gonna say. When you don’t, you can’t. So you really have to be present.”
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With what seems like several lifetimes of experience under his belt, Van Ness is getting comfortable in a place of grace: learning about himself and others. Being open about living with HIV and facing public reaction to defying gender-stereotypes? It’s no big deal, he says matter-of-factly.
“As far as being non-binary, I thought there was only cisgender and transgender. You know; male or female. That was what I thought what my choices were, especially as a small child. But I realized at some point over the last few years that this is way more than me wearing heels and wanting to wear dresses occasionally. There’s a lot of cisgender people who want to wear clothes from the opposite sex. But that doesn’t necessarily make them non-binary, trans or anything. For me, it was that I realized: I just don’t feel that ‘man’ thing. I also don’t feel that woman. I just, I feel like I’m other. That’s when I learned what non-binary is. All those things had to coalesce at one time. It’s something I kind of always knew. I just didn’t know what the name for it was.”
Comfortable in his skin and loving himself? That’s the role he’s been trying to perfect — not only as a Queer Eye expert, but also in life. And who isn’t?
“I do think I’ve learned to make lemonade out of lemons,” he says. “That’s why I love figure skating and gymnastics and watching TV and making perfect little routines and all the things I would do to create little pockets of joy for myself. I’ve always tried convince myself I am effervescent. But I’m also someone who can be really sad and depressed. And I can struggle with anxiety. But that doesn’t mean that I’m also not someone who can be really happy and joyful and full of life. I think all those things can exist at once.”
*Select quotes from OVER THE TOP: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness, courtesy HarperOne publishers.
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