A Road Trip with Jonathan Van Ness

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 act of showing up for your family and being able to live in the world I think is heroic. There’s like 15 bajillion eggs in the ovaries and who even knows how many, like, little spermies are in there, so the fact we got to be born and be living this long is kind of like a mathematical who-knew.” This is, I think, a roundabout way of saying we all deserve to be acknowledged. But things are way more fun when Van Ness says them.

For our meeting, I’d taken the train from New York to Philadelphia, where Van Ness was filming an episode of the show, with vague plans to walk to the Liberty Bell. But he’d just received a 24-hour reprieve from work and, shortly before arriving, his publicist suggested I drive back to New York with him. Sitting in the back of a car with someone you’ve never met can be awkward, and I was conflicted. But Van Ness disarms with charm. A pop culture magpie, he slides from subject to subject and dares you to keep up. How he finds time to watch so much, know so much, work so much, is a conundrum. Lately, he has learned to meditate as a way to manage his stress. “On Sundays I sometimes don’t work,” he says.

We are on route 95 somewhere outside of Philadelphia, and as we navigate the traffic we admire his latest manicure, each nail painted to represent a different cast member of the 1996 comedy, The First Wives Club, a touchstone for Van Ness. “This is Goldie Hawn getting her lips done,” he says, as he lifts a finger for inspection.

We talk about cats — he has four, including Liza Meownelli, who clearly wins the prize for best name; and we watch an old video that surfaced late last year on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. In it the 11-year old Van Ness performs an interpretative dance to Jewel’s “Pieces of You” — his entry in the school talent show. For the number, he wore a Kabuki mask positioned on the back of his head and a baggy black t-shirt emblazoned with a question mark. The piece culminates in a triple-axel-style pirouette that is so wholehearted, so gutsy, and so precious that it’s heartbreaking. At the time, his mother gently suggested that he might want to reconsider. The other kids, she said, would not let him live it down. But when had they ever?

“I have been able to identify with the female experience because I come from a home where my family was broken.”

Part of the reason Van Ness identifies with movies like The First Wives Club is, of course, its peerless cast (Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton at their peak), but it springs, too, from a deep well of empathy for the characters. He was four when his parents divorced after his father was caught out having an affair. “I have been able to identify with the female experience because I come from a home where my family was broken, and my mom was hurt by my dad, and a lot of women in my family experienced that,” he says. “The feeling of betrayal that those women face, I felt from my city.

What he also knew, early on, was that the world of women was more interesting to him than the world of men. He recalls at the age of four telling a friend of his father’s that he wanted to be a cabana girl or a cosmetologist when he grew up. As an adult, he would gravitate to “gender queer” to express his place in the world, but that wasn’t an option in childhood. A particularly dismaying story conjures his father’s war on his son’s gender exploration. “I remember very clearly my dad finding me in an evening gown with my two cousins,” he says. “He tore me out of the dress, holding me in the air so that I was perpendicular to the ground. I was terrified.”

But there were pockets of joy, too. Joining the junior varsity cheerleading squad at high school at 14 was an epiphany — he felt at home immediately. When I make the faux pas of forgetting who starred in Bring It On, the cult 1999 cheerleading movie, Van Ness gasps. “I could almost throw you out of the back of this car for asking such a preposterous question,” he says. “So, you’re telling me you came to this interview not having seen Bring It On? What were you doing?” I daren’t tell Van Ness that I have also not watched Game of Thrones, the show that gave rise to his hugely popular recap series, Gay of Thrones — a springboard for his showbiz career.

In season four of Queer Eye, viewers saw Van Ness return to his high school in Quincy to makeover his arts teacher, Cathy Dooley, a beloved figure who stood out for not making him feel different or unusual. The cameras show Van Ness performing with the cheerleading squad as students clap and whoop. It’s a moving spectacle that implies a circle has been closed. Everyone loves queer people now, even in Quincy.

But what we see on screen is not the whole truth. A few weeks before the Fab Five arrived, the school had asked parents to sign permission slips for their children to be on camera, prompting protests from a local pastor. “He sent a letter to the newspaper that blasted the normalization of LGBTQ culture, and said we should not be rolling out the welcome mats at a public school,” Van Ness says. “It was just a really nasty letter.” Nor was it just any old pastor. “This was someone who was like a family friend, someone I’d known for a very long time.” He looks glum. “I don’t think we’ve come as far as I wished and hoped that we had.”

“I cussed my dad out 300 of the days of 2016… Our relationship literally was on thin ice over that election.”

Leaving small town America in order to be fully himself, only to find being fully himself is what brings him back to small town America, is an irony not lost on Van Ness. “It’s a little bit Gift of the Magi,” he says. But he also knows Quincy is his secret weapon because “even the most Republican-ass Trump supporter is someone I have grown up next door to”. Or even grown up with. Three years ago, he had to work hard to convince his father not to vote for Trump. “I cussed my dad out 300 of the days of 2016,” he says. “Our relationship literally was on thin ice over that election.” In the end, Van Ness Senior voted for Gary Johnson, the nominee for the Libertarian party. “I was really proud of him for it,” he says.

When the original Queer Eye premiered on the Bravo channel in 2003, it was a more straightforward makeover show inspired by advice columns in Esquire magazine. Where it was radical was in the casting of five confident, unapologetic gay men to dish advice to hapless straight men. But people rarely cried and there was little talk of self-care. “I was just trying to get guys out of pleated khakis and to get them to cut off their mullets,” says Carson Kressley, who starred in the original. “I don’t think any of us thought the show had any sort of idea about making a political statement.” The 2018 reboot, on Netflix, repackaged the Fab Five as social missionaries spreading the gospel of love around America. A masterstroke was to take the guys out of New York, where the original show had been located, and into the heartland states that voted for Donald Trump in 2016. In a fractured society, the show would open minds by showing that our similarities were greater than our differences. Or, as another of the Fab Five, Karamo Brown, said in the opening episode of season one: “We’ve all got to come together in a way we can understand each other.”

There have been four seasons of Queer Eye since its debut in February 2018 and a new one will drop early next year. The show’s hosts have not wasted time, assiduously attending to their brand while they still enjoy the spotlight. Three have published books this year and this month it’s the turn of Van Ness. His memoir, Over the Top, could have been a ghostwriter’s gift, packed with his witticisms and mantras for self-care. Instead it’s a lightning bolt — devastating and stirring, powered by years of anguish and humiliation. Does he worry how fans will react to his own revelations? “I’m scared,” he admits. “But I’m ready to pull the Band Aid off.”

For Van Ness, Over the Top is about charting his own path through adolescence towards the triumph that is Queer Eye, but it’s also about owning — and thereby defusing — two of the most traumatic chapters in his life. The first occurred when he was four, when an older boy molested him in a closet. Van Ness tells his parents but it’s written off as “experimentation” and swiftly passed over. That single act of abuse casts a long, pernicious shadow over the book as we witness the ways in which Van Ness acts out his confusion and pain, from taking crystal meth, to sustained binges in sex clubs that satisfy his need to be wanted. He joins a 12-step program for sex addiction, but relapses.

In the midst of all that, his stepfather, Steve, is diagnosed with bladder cancer, and told he has 11 months to live. His death, when it comes, knocks Van Ness back into the unhealthy behavior he’s been working to quit.

“Everything that happened to me that summer will always be painful to think about,” he says. “It was like saying goodbye to so much of what I wanted.”

Shortly after the funeral, his former boyfriend tracked him down at a bathhouse in St Louis and Van Ness’s fall to rock bottom seems complete. Almost. When he gets sick, collapsing at the hair salon he is working at one afternoon, he already knows what a doctor will tell him a day later: he is HIV positive.

Van Ness writes about these bombshells with a quiet tenacity that skirts melodrama. He wonders if his reckless behavior was a self-fulfilling prophecy, the consequence of all the fear ingrained in him at such a young age. He wants other people not to have to go through the same thing.

“It occurred to me: what if everything I’ve ever been through was preparing me for this moment — to be strong enough to share this, and to share it on my own terms,” he says. “Part of that for me is to process what’s happened, but the bigger part is that I wanted to do something to move the conversation forward in a meaningful way around HIV/Aids, and what it is to live with HIV, and to humanise and normalise a lot of the things I talk about.” He blinks, then adds, “I’m talking slow because I’m trying not to cry.”

We are nearing New York, and the canyons of Manhattan fill the hazy skyline. Growing up, Van Ness used to fantasise he would help other people like himself. “I always felt that was part of my purpose,” he says. “But I thought it would be a really chic juice studio with great baked goods, maybe a dance and yoga studio.” He didn’t think the way he’d help people was simply by being himself on a global TV show — or by penning a generous and frank memoir.

At a certain point, Van Ness picked himself up and decided he didn’t want to throw away his life. “It really took some time to figure out how to put my life together,” he says. But medical advances mean the virus is now undetectable in his blood. He remembers the day he was given his HIV diagnosis, asking the doctor if he could still live to be 75. “She was, like, ‘I will keep you alive long enough to die of a heart attack or cancer like everyone else,’ and then she laughed uncontrollably.”

Is he making time for relationships? Van Ness shakes his head. “In the past, I’ve had relationships with people who I was almost using to validate myself and my existence, and that’s not been a great plan for me,” he says. “So, this is a season of me falling in love with myself all the way.”

In some ways, he thinks that testing positive for HIV has been his liberation. In the past year, he has taken up ice-skating and thrown himself into gymnastics. And, of course, there is an election to fight. “I absolutely do not think I’d have been as socially aware or conscious or want to make as much of a difference,” he says. “It gave me a reason to really fight.”

This piece originally ran in The Observer/Guardian UK (a few lines cut for space have been reinstated)

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.

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