Hairdresser, cheerleader, gymnast, Queer Eye star, podcaster, political advocate and comedian: there are many sides to Jonathan Van Ness. Amy Grier sits down with him as he adds “Cosmopolitan cover star” to an already quite impressive list.
A peach tulle gown cascades over milky-white skin. Thick, Bournville-brown hair dips between shoulder blades. A glimpse of collarbone catches the photographer’s light. Beaming pearly teeth nestle beneath... a perfectly groomed beard and moustache. A slight flash of downy leg hair pokes out from the full coral skirt as Lizzo’s 'Truth Hurts' fills the room.
Jonathan Van Ness is serving pre-limousine prom queen meets sexy cult leader, and he knows it. This is the Jonathan you’ve seen in Queer Eye, the breakout Netflix show that catapulted him from LA hairdresser to the joy- sparking, speed-talking, scene-stealing, catchphrase-dropping human currently preparing for his first Cosmopolitan cover. But there’s also another Jonathan: one very few knew existed, until now...
Four hours prior to what JVN would call "that gorgeous peach tulle moment" on set, we are cosied away in a quiet corner of London’s Standard hotel. It’s 8.30am and he’s just out of the shower, damp hair drying slowly on the shoulders of a navy wool jumper. Fresh from the stage of his Road To Beijing tour, he’s here to promote his book, a tell-all memoir called Over The Top, in which he reveals that as well as being sexually abused as a child, he later suffered with sexual compulsivity, substance abuse, and has been living with HIV for seven years. When we speak, it’s been three weeks since The New York Times broke the story of his HIV+ status, which made headlines around the world.
"In my head, I always thought that article would come out the same day as the book. And then I realised a week before that, no, it could come out at any time in a 72-hour period before that. It could come out when I was on stage for my tour in Toronto or Vegas. I got offered the chance to host a red carpet with E! that, three years ago, I would have jumped at. But I said no because in that moment I was really trying to protect myself. I was really scared of the reaction."
His voice cracks and he wipes a few tears away with the corner of his jumper sleeve. The waiter (whose beautiful curly hair is pulled into an epic ponytail) puts two steaming cups of coffee down in front of us.
"Oh my god, your hair is SO amazing. I cannot handle how pretty it is. Oh wow, congratulations. The texture. The density. The shine. What is it like to have gorgeous hair like that? Your parents just really nailed it. Good work, henny."
For a moment, I’m transported into an episode of Queer Eye, or back to the JVN I know so well from his Instagram account. But as the waiter’s hair bobs into the background, things shift back.
"This is only the beginning. I’m quickly realising that there is still so much misunderstanding, so much sensationalising of living with HIV. The stigma and the difficulty around the process of getting treatment is creating that. My work has only really just begun.”
It seems that despite the considerable "outpouring of love" that the revelation of his HIV+ status has prompted, there has, he says, also been a backlash.
"I recently endorsed Elizabeth Warren for [US] president, and then, two days after the book came out, Bernie Sanders [another US presidential candidate] supporters dug up this video from an interview the guys and I did for season one of Queer Eye where they asked us about different candidates. My whole thing with Bernie was: I love his policies and his advocacy, but if a woman presented herself the way he does, she would never become a mayor, a congressperson or a senator.
"If a female politician was walking around that dishevelled, she would never have got a foot in the door. No matter how much I agree with Bernie, I am just much more comfortable with a smart, strong female leader. So in the video I say, 'Look, could [former president] Ronald Reagan be bothered to mention HIV or AIDS until, like, 1987 when he’d been president for six years and all those people had died? No. But at least he put gel in his hair.'
"I’m obviously joking, but Bernie’s fans find that one minute of the video and put it on Twitter. Suddenly all these LGBTQ+ activists who don’t watch Queer Eye or listen to my podcast saw that clip and were like, 'Ewww, he is a nightmare of a stereotype.' Others were like, ‘It’s really disappointing to see someone who’s HIV+ trolling Bernie, who has been fighting for his [Van Ness’s] access to healthcare since before he was born.’
"People within the LGBTQ+ community were retweeting it and so were loads of straight men. They were tagging me, saying the most horrific, vile things. It was the first time I ever cried from feedback on Twitter – like ugly-cry in a foetal position.'
And herein lies the problem if you happen to be Jonathan Van Ness. You are fighting a constant war, not just against the forces of discrimination and conformity in society, but against the expectations that society places on you based on your twirling-into- a-room TV/Instagram persona (if you haven’t seen his morning coffee dance on Stories, have you even lived?), versus the strong, strident core of activism and advocacy that’s coming ever more to the forefront. It’s Instagram versus reality, but make it... political.
"Diane von Furstenberg says, 'Knowledge sometimes is not facts, it’s context,' and that’s true. Because if you only knew that one minute of that one video that you saw of me? I’d hate me too. I really would. If I saw the headlines of 'Queer Eye star reveals devastating HIV diagnosis' and then, two days later, you see this one-minute video of me cracking jokes about Ronald Reagan’s treatment of people living with HIV, I would hate me too. But they also don’t understand that I’m someone who is living with HIV; that that was the first press tour I’d ever done; that I’m also a comedian who makes jokes out of stuff because if I didn’t make jokes about it, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. I have always used comedy as a way to soothe myself and move forward."
It’s a point that Van Ness is at pains to make clear in the book – that there are different parts of him than just the one we see on Queer Eye; that there is a difference between the public and on-screen persona fans fell in love with and the private everyday person dealing with (sometimes above- averagely stressful) everyday stuff.
"When I’m having a bad day, everything feels rushed. I feel like I’m letting people down, biting off more than I can chew. Like today, I was 10 minutes late for you and I hate that. It makes me feel that I’m not my best self, and as someone who talks a lot about the ways we can be our best selves, that’s hard."
What becomes clear, however, is that no matter what expectations his followers and fans put on him, none will be higher than those he has for himself. At one particularly poignant moment in the book, Van Ness essentially turns to the reader, shrugs and says in loving exasperation, "I’m literally just as lost as you."
JVN? Lost? It’s not even 9am and the person in front of me has already done an hour of cardio after a late night out in Soho. He’s showered, sipping coffee more elegantly than Joan frigging Collins, flipping breezily between chats about Bake Off (he’s a massive fan) and Brexit (not so much of a massive fan) and, at only 32, is trying everything he can to use his platform to shift the political dial in favour of democracy. Basically, if he doesn’t have his shit together, I don’t know who does. So in what ways does he feel "lost"?
"Henny, I don’t know how to fix the world!" he laments. "I really want to improve the social safety net for people living with HIV and figure out how to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t win [another election] and find out how to make legislators sexy again and make critical thinking cool. I want equal rights and protections for women and LGBTQ+ people. I say in the book that I really love boxes, f*cking clean tidy edges, let me put all the bad stuff in a box and never deal with it again, but I really don’t think that’s how life works. There’s a billion ways you can get better."
He pauses for breath. The last two years have made him, and the rest of the Fab Five, agony uncles to a generation beset by health, climate, sexual and political anxiety. People want him – maybe even expect him – to have all the answers, and sometimes he wants us to know that he just... doesn’t.
"A lot of times people will come to me in life or in DMs with, like, really intense f*cking long things and I’m like,'I don’t know!'" How, then, does he deal with that kind of pressure? "Well, my therapist, and therapy, period. My yoga and meditation practice. And I do smoke weed. I mean with Brexit around the corner, henny, you all need something. And with those politicians doing all that lying about how much money the NHS was going to get if you left the EU, I bet if you had some gorgeous legalised marijuana you’d have enough taxes for, like, state-paid lipo or nose jobs or fillings. I bet we could get dental and vision [healthcare]. PUT THAT ON A BUS."
I’m about to interject to ask if he’d consider moving to the UK and running for parliament because I think we could really use a brain like his, but he’s not done (and I’m laughing too much anyway). "I also now say no to a lot of shit. I mean, stuff I really want to say yes to. The other day, Taylor [Swift] and I were making soup and she asked me to go to a Madonna concert with her. That was the day before my 5am flight to London to come here for this shoot and my tour. I knew it would be an amazing experience. But also... my nervous system. I was a full-time hairdresser and small-business owner, like, 19 months ago. But I hate saying no. I love my friends. I get FOMO. But I have to prioritise self-care. Because if I don’t then my candle will burn out."
I want to pause on the image of Jonathan Van Ness and Taylor Swift making soup so much, but our car is here, and a full-day photoshoot awaits. Over the course of the next eight hours, he’ll transform himself into a prom queen, a biker-damsel, a Botticelli Venus meets early-’70s Mick Fleetwood and still make time to pose with every single member of the Cosmopolitan team who wants a selfie (which is a lot).
I’d love to tell you he’s a mass of contradictions. That the "hennys" and "yas queens" that have become his calling cards stop the minute the cameras stop rolling. That no one can be quite that... Jonathan... all the time. But while there’s certainly a gradient – with the zenith being everything you see on Queer Eye plus plus – even the beginning of that gradient is still everything you and I hoped it would be. The world is a strange, scary place at times. Is the answer a 6ft force for social change with better hair and shoes than all of us? Yes. Yes, it most certainly is.
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