There are certain things about Jonathan Van Ness that are not, for any of his followers, very surprising.
For instance: He’s, like, really into yoga. He will ask which Sex and the City character you most identify with and, in turn, self-describe as a Carrie/Samantha hybrid. He is unflinchingly generous with his fans. And he will show up to your photo shoot 20 minutes late, apologizing profusely and looking unfairly put-together despite his wet hair and gold gel masks forming crescents under his eyes. But for all of his predictability, there are infinite more surprises hiding beneath his manicured hands and William Howard Taft-chic mustache. He has a serious fascination with Middle Eastern politics, he carries dental floss with him wherever he goes, he’s overcome more than his fair share of adversity, and he has a great relationship with his mom, in spite of her being a “Bible-thumping Christian.” “I say that jokingly,” he clarifies. “She’s just, like, en fuego for Christ.”
After years of cutting hair in cities around the country, Van Ness, 31, has recently been launched into the spotlight thanks to his role on Netflix’s Queer Eye, a spin-off of the early 2000s show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. In this fresh adaptation, now with two complete seasons, the basic structure remains the same: Five gay men who each specialize in a different realm of self-improvement—such as food, fashion, or, in Van Ness’s case, grooming—travel around Georgia to spend a week at a time making over a male stranger who lacks either the resources or the sense of self-worth to invest time in his appearance, his home, or his diet. Some of the “heroes,” as the subjects are referred to by cast and crew, claim to have never interacted with a gay person before meeting the “Fab Five.”
When the first season aired in February 2018, I was quietly opposed to watching the series. From what I could glean from trailers and snippets on social media, it struck me as yet another attempt to capitalize on the ever-growing LGBT+ movement while offering a too-narrow look at what queerness has come to mean in present-day America. Peer pressure did eventually get the best of me, however, and halfway through the first episode, my engagement transformed from begrudging to ravenous. If other reality shows (or “unscripted television,” as Van Ness politely reminds me several times over the course of our conversation) are like junk food, Queer Eye is a crisp, juicy Granny Smith. It is nutritious content; it celebrates and uplifts instead of degrading and deriding. Unlike other shows of a similar concept, this one is less about a complete overhaul of someone’s life or personality and more about locating and honoring the attractive qualities they already possess. It may not be all-encompassingly representational, but it is a desperately necessary window into the kind of healthy, glowing masculinity that can thrive when we dissolve its toxicity and soften its rigidity. And leading the charge for this new form of male expression is the freckle-faced, angel-haired, mustachioed man sitting in front of me, recalling, among other things, the deliciousness of the cinnamon roll he ate on his first-ever first-class flight, 25 years ago: “I was six, and they upgraded me, and I could see that everyone wanted to stick a fork in my temple because they were like, ‘Oh, you’re six and you’re in first class?’ But that roll is still in my mind.”
From his voice to his hair to his wardrobe, Van Ness models this flexible masculinity in very physical ways, both on the show and in his day-to-day life. But that’s not exactly new; feminine-presenting men have been working (werking?) their way into the mainstream for decades. What’s much more revolutionary, particularly for television, is the emotional core of both Van Ness and Queer Eye. Instead of embodying the “catty” or “diva” tropes that we often see, Van Ness seems to be in a perpetually complimentary state, frequently interrupting himself or others to say something along the lines of “Um, P.S., your center-part bob is so fierce.” It’s his genuine kindness that makes him a natural-born connector, a trait that serves him well as a hairdresser, TV star, newly minted international gay icon, and, of course, as a traveler.
“I’ve been behind the chair, doing hair five days a week since I was 18 years old. So the concept of meeting a client, working with them, and getting a result comes extremely naturally to me,” he says. But just as he can sometimes be all over the place verbally, Van Ness doesn’t tend to physically stay in one place very long. Raised in Illinois, he attended cosmetology school in Arizona where, once he moved to Los Angeles to work as an assistant, he would return every weekend to see past clients. When his late stepdad got sick with bladder cancer, he flew back and forth between L.A. and St. Louis to work on clients closer to home without alienating those back on the West Coast. “It’s extremely important to me as a hairdresser to get to connect with people face-to-face,” he says. Now, in the months following Queer Eye’s debut, he splits his time between L.A. and New York, cutting hair when he can and managing his new life in the limelight.
As we talk, he reveals that the tan I’m admiring is the result of a recent Hawaiian vacation, one of the few non-work trips he’s been able to take since the success of the Netflix series. Turns out, fame presents an all-new set of advantages and challenges when it comes to connecting with others—and with oneself. As we’re stopped several times in the lobby of New York’s Standard, High Line hotel by admirers who ask for selfies and hair advice, I get the sense that his popularity has already made it impossible for him to disconnect. He doesn’t mind, though. “It is such a massive honor to have people react to you like that,” he says.
It would seem that all of his travels back and forth, plus his budding celebrity status, might threaten his relationships. But Van Ness isn’t too worried about that—he can “chat on the phone like nobody’s business.” And as for his relationship with himself? “I’m really into routine—I love going to the gym, I love going to yoga. Also, continuing to do hair and to stay in the salon in some way so that I can be around those friends and clients and coworkers who I’ve known for so long helps me.” Between his clients in L.A. and his “heroes” in Georgia, plus his fans on Instagram and the guests on his podcast, “Getting Curious,” Van Ness’s professional connections provide an endless well of stimulation. They also make his personal time—whether on vacation in Hawaii, in shavasana pose, or in his bedroom with his two cats, Harry Larry and Love Bug—all the more nourishing.
After 30 seconds with the man I already feel connected to him, too. His quirks are infectious; by the end of our morning together, I’m fighting the urge to refer to absolutely everything (down to the room service salmon sandwich) as “she” and “her” and as “fierce” or as “having a moment.” Outside, near the West Side Highway, our photographer instructs Van Ness to “have a little fun” with his poses. Before she has time to walk the 15 feet back to her camera, Van Ness has clawed his way up the side of the chain-link fence behind him. And maybe it’s the way he’s clinging to the fence with one hand and gracefully propping up his umbrella with the other—as though he has just floated down from the heavens and stuck his landing on the abandoned construction site that we’ve converted into a set—but the congruity of this modern-day Mary Poppins look is not lost on me.
From a distance, his positive energy seems boundless; all the more mystifying once I learn more about his past. He grew up five hours south of Chicago, on what he describes as “a hog farm just above the Mason-Dixon line.”
“I like to call her the belly button of Illinois because Illinois looks like a pregnant lady on the west side,” he says. And though he credits his hometown of Quincy for his “quick-witted nature,” he acknowledges that being “a flamboyantly gay little boy in middle America” was severe. As with many queer kids, relentless childhood bullying was a given for Van Ness. “From, like, fourth to eighth grade, I was like, ‘Please, can we just do a home-schooled situation?’ It’s really not fun having ‘fag’ screamed at you twelve times in four minutes between periods,” he explains. “Being so extremely bullied for that long was difficult.”
But as is also the case with many members of the queer community, that exclusion allowed Van Ness to develop his many creative sensibilities, discover diverse talents, and take risks. “Being in that very prolonged dark place made me learn how to entertain myself, and do it in ways that I didn’t care what people thought about it,” he says. “I was definitely the only boy in gymnastics class, and the only boy in dance class. I was locked in a bitter battle to overthrow the first-chair violinist. I was just really into a lot of things that other boys really weren’t.” He lets out a laugh that surprises me with its raspiness. “I just think it gave me a good sense of humor.”
Rural Illinois turned out to be the perfect primer for starring in a show about queerness in the Deep South. Shocking conservative America with his gay agenda was nothing new to Van Ness, who used to sport Magnum P.I. short-shorts, a puka shell necklace, and a “wife-lover” (his preferred alternative to the outdated wife-beater) on Main Street and in the local rotary club. He reminisces about being 16 in his hometown: “I wore some outrageous looks for the middle of America. People were aghast. Mouths agape. So I wasn’t like a fish out of water in Georgia. It felt like where I’m from, just hotter.”
Queer Eye has been celebrated for using its platform and setting in the South to address, if sometimes clumsily, intersecting social issues including racism, police brutality, and religious bigotry. “It’s about going to places that are maybe not so accepting and trying to find the grounds that you can connect on as opposed to fighting or really living in your separation,” he says. “Queer Eye asks you to see if you can get to know your connections.” For Van Ness, however, there’s still no denying that there is plenty of work to be done in addressing the pain of marginalized communities.
“All that [filming in Georgia] informed me of is that things haven’t moved as far as we think they have. The older I get, the more I realize that we are all trying to get through those seasons of hopelessness—of feeling, like, how many more school shootings do we have? How many more hate crimes do we have to hear about? How many more restrictive anti-abortion laws get passed? We’re all trying to get through those feelings of defeat. It doesn’t feel good. But you can’t wallow in it,” he says. “Yes, you have to acknowledge them because they’re there, and you have to know what’s broken in order to fix it, but you can’t just focus on the injustices. My whole life, my stepdad told me, ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’”
For Van Ness, his community reminds him of his place within the larger solution, especially considering his new status as a public figure with an incessantly tuned-in audience.
“Every time I see something that makes me feel hopeless, I’ll see a DM from somebody who says, ‘You just inspired me to come out to my parents,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we are getting somewhere, we are doing something.’” It doesn’t all happen on social media, though; he’ll also take to the streets with his community to support a cause, like the AIDS Walk New York, which he attended this year alongside friends and fellow Queer Eye cast members Antoni Porowski and Tan France.
Though he doesn’t have much time anymore for personal travel aside from the occasional Hawaiian escape, Van Ness, like the rest of us, still daydreams about future trips. He’s longed to visit Finland since the fifth grade, when he had a Finnish teacher who got him hooked on the idea of reindeer and the Northern Lights.
Back in the hotel room, he and I talk a little bit about gay politics around the world, including the recent government crackdown on Lebanon’s first Pride parade. I ask him about the idea of gay travel, and whether or not certain places still feel off-limits to him as a gay man, and now a gay celebrity. Without batting an eye, he affirms. “I wouldn’t feel safe in places like Chechnya and most of the Middle East, with my hair blown out and people seeing me, the way I present. I wish I could go to those places,” he says. Then, just as quickly, he changes his tune. “But you know what? It’s still physically dangerous for gay people in parts of [the U.S.], and violence could be a thing anywhere you go. So maybe I shouldn’t be such a close-minded, silly American person. Maybe Qatar is really cute!”
It’s comforting to know that Van Ness’s “character” on Queer Eye is an honest reflection of who he is when the cameras are shut off. In person, he elevates the collective mood as effortlessly as he pulls off a fierce blowout, and his aptitude for connection keeps him searching for the best in people (and places), even if it seems that they are predetermined to clash. At the end of our morning together, he scrolls through the images in search of a still to send to Porowski, who’s asking how the shoot is going. When he arrives at the Mary Poppins chain-link moment, he exclaims through giggles: “She’s climbing the fences, honey! As fast as you can put ’em up, I’m gonna climb them!” Nothing can fence him in—not adversity, gender roles, or ideological differences. That’s the magic of Jonathan Van Ness: He has no barriers.