A Road Trip with Jonathan Van Ness

Aaron Hicklin
11 min readNov 8, 2019

The charismatic star of hit TV show Queer Eye had a troubled and chaotic early life. Here he talks about his journey to fame, and deciding to come out as HIV positive.

The words “smoky lavender” appear twice in Over the Top, a memoir by Jonathan Van Ness, the most fabulous of the so-called Fab Five on Queer Eye, the hyperventilating makeover show in which he stars. The first time it is used to describe the skin color of a gun-toting meth addict he encounters during a stint as a sex worker in Tucson. The second to describe the color of the thigh-high boots worn by the hair stylist at a salon he lands at in Los Angeles in 2008. He is 19. Later, Jane Fonda, a customer, tells Van Ness his hair makes him look like Jesus.

Between these two smoky lavenders is a gulf that separates two versions of Van Ness: the garrulous, sassy, resident groomer of Queer Eye — and the emotionally bruised, risk-taking addict. As he warns readers midway through the book, “Buckle up, buttercup, because I can go from comedy to tragedy in three seconds flat.”

Van Ness and I are in a Cadillac sedan, driving past the tangled, rusting architecture of Philadelphia’s suburbs. Travelling like this is normal for him — on Queer Eye, he gets to roam the country waving his wand and transforming lives. The show, which was brought out of cold storage last year after an 11-year hiatus, has been a surprising success. America, it seems, is hungry for its uplifting brand of magic. A lot of that comes down to Van Ness, the show’s foremost cheerleader for Queer Eye’s stated mission of turning red (Republican) states pink, “one makeover at a time”. It’s Van Ness who brings the energy to the party, Yass queening his way through each episode, scattering memes and neologisms wherever he goes, and generally helping people connect to their feelings, often by tapping into his own. Tears are never far below the surface. Resistance is futile. Everyone loves him.

Van Ness has a hectic, energetic style and a voice that soars high and then higher. In the car he talks quickly, words tumbling out of his mouth in a way that can leave you trailing far behind. When I ask if any of his encounters on Queer Eye have changed him, he answers: “The…

Aaron Hicklin

Since moving to the U.S. in 1998, Aaron Hicklin has been editor of BlackBook, Out, and Document, and writes for The Guardian and The NYT, among others.