“I’m so obsessed with the length of your hair,” Jonathan Van Ness says to me when I meet him for coffee one morning in January. “Not that I care about trends, but chin to collarbone, in general, I just feel like continues to be a force to be reckoned with.” In person, the 30-year-old hairstylist is true to his brand, with his own signature long locks tied back while sporting a glistening beard. His sentences only get faster once he gets them going, and he moves quickly between emotions, where humor can dip into pathos. It’s all familiar and part of the Jonathan Van Ness experience if you’ve been watching him since the days of Gay of Thrones, the Funny or Die video series where he recaps each Game of Thrones episode with a client seated in his styling chair. Now, he’s the breakout star of Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot as the groomer serving tips and shedding tears as part of the new Fab Five. I spoke with Van Ness about what he hopes for from the final season of Game of Thrones, the controversial cop-car episode of Queer Eye, the pressures of looking a certain way as a gay man, and the recent loss of his grandfather.
Where are your dragons?
You know what? Honestly, I really think I have some, because look at me! I booked something!
Are you going to do the final season of Gay of Thrones?
Yeah, for sure. They said that it’s not coming back until 2019, so I think we’ll have to wait, but my whole theory got turned on its head this last year with Game of Thrones. In my little basic brain, I thought for sure Brienne was going to ward the dragons away. That is not going to be the road that it takes, obviously.
Who do you want to see on the Iron Throne?
I really, really, really love Khaleesi, but I also wouldn’t mind, like, Lena Dunham coming back and just really killing it, you know what I mean? [Ed. note: Van Ness has nicknames for each GOT character. “Lena Dunham” is Yara Greyjoy.] It would be so unexpected right now because she’s so beat down, and I just really love a survivor story. And I feel like Christina [Daenerys] might be too obvious for George, you know, because we just love her so much.
And also when you think about what happened to the Starks, wouldn’t that just be so befitting to spend all this time thinking that it’s all about Jon and Christina but really it wasn’t, it was Lena Dunham the whole time.
Is there anyone you want to see die?
I just am ready to see Baby Kristen [referring to Kristen Stewart, a.k.a. Arya] continue to work her way down her Kill Bill list. Obviously, Lord Frey just felt so right, and I’m ready for her to just take fucking Cersei down. Even though I do have this soft spot for how nasty she and Brother D [Jamie] are, I really do — just because it’s so crazy — but I do think I’m ready to see blonde Cher [Cersei, pre-shame] atone for her sins.
Do you feel like the show got bad?
Oh my God, oh my God, this is like journalism! I would say that it’s not that it got bad, it’s just that it’s different, because you can just tell that George wasn’t writing the episodes this time because he has to focus on the book. Having Jon arrive to the island so quickly, things like that never used to happen. It used to take all season, but I think we’ve got to get somewhere now because there’s only six hours left.
How did you get on Queer Eye? Did you do an audition?
It started off with just a meeting, and I was like, “This is never gonna happen.” Even though I’m a hairdresser and I love doing hair, I feel like I don’t look like a groomer. When I think of how a groomer would look in relation to the first version of Queer Eye, I feel like I don’t fit in that box.
You mean Kyan?
Yeah. I love him, but, you know, my aesthetic is soft lines and I have really long hair. If you have body hair, I’m like, “Have your body hair. Have it sticking up the top of your shirt.” I’m really about body positivity and self-love, and I will definitely push the boundary with a pink midriff-baring top. So I just feel like I didn’t look necessarily like what a classic groomer looks like, so I didn’t think that I would get it. But I really wanted to be involved in it because Queer Eye was just something I loved so much.
Did you watch it?
Oh my God, yeah. I’m from a really little town called Quincy, five hours southwest of Chicago. That and Queer As Folk and Will and Grace was all of my queer content. So Queer As Folk was really important, and actually — IRL true story — Kyan was literally my first crush, because I feel like he was the sex symbol of the first Fab Five for sure.
I was just dying for a topless scene. I was like, please. Because all else we had was like Bowflex commercials. You know, we were so starved back then.
Now we’re inundated.
Inundated. And it’s like covering up is sexy. It’s all about the opposite now. Less is more.
Do you feel pressure looking a certain way as a gay man?
Yes. I think one place that I have definitely felt pressure is when I first started doing Gay of Thrones, I was 70 pounds heavier and my dad had just died. The third comment I ever read of Gay of Thrones was like, “He loves more than three things. He loves Game of Thrones, something something, and beer. Look at that gut.” And then the next one was like something about how pale I was, and then the next one was about how my hair was like Lord Farquaad from Shrek, which I was like, “Touché.” I was growing out a very short haircut, and you know, that was a lot to deal with.
I never meant to be on camera, and seeing yourself on camera you’re like, Oh my God. I definitely have had a therapist that I’ve seen once or twice a week for the last five years. I’ve had to do a lot of work on growing up as a gay kid from the Midwest that really was bullied so much and had not an easy time. I would say that my love of the gym and yoga is a half of the way it makes me feel and half of because it’s like when you see yourself on camera.
But yeah, I do feel pressure. I think all of us feel pressure. That’s so much of what life is, getting through it in a balanced way where you can still look at yourself in the mirror and be like, “Good job, girl. I love you.” Like, “You’re just doing the best you can with what you know.” My journey’s been trying to find what balance means and how to love yourself at the end of it.
That feels like the ethos of the show, too. Not necessarily trying to make people different people, but helping them take care of themselves.
I’m definitely a bit of a perfectionist and I love doing hair, literally. But the idea of being an expert and telling someone how they need to be because that’s what I’ve been doing doesn’t feel organic to me. I really want to know how much time you’re going to spend on your hair in the morning, because I don’t want to give you some experience on camera that makes no sense for you, because why would you do that for the sake of a transformation? I don’t want to do transformations on people for the sake of a visual. I want to do it because it makes sense. That was something coming into this experience that was a challenge, because a lot of people want really bombastic things for the sake of doing it, and I’m kind of like, “But does that make sense for that person?”
What would you say to criticism that the show puts gay men into boxes?
We’re not really in a box, we’re really just being who we are. That’s literally how I am, which I bet you can imagine can be tiring sometimes because it’s a lot of energy. But also I think that criticism speaks to this larger gay-on-gay — but it’s also human-on-human — criticism.
My mom taught me people want to put things in boxes, which is why they want to call you the names that they call you, so don’t hate them so much. It’s really human for someone, if they see a kid running around in purple Barney spandex onesies screaming about Spice Girls and girl power, they will just say stuff and want to put you in a box, but don’t worry about that because, girl, that’s just how it is. I feel like that was how Queer Eye was the first time. That was us trying to make gay men palatable — not even palatable, but that’s the tolerance and acceptance thing. We were just trying to be seen. We were being seen, but we couldn’t really get too deep because, literally, DOMA. Now I can do my female-hormone monster voice and wear hoodies whilst talking about douches. We can talk about shower douches with almost 60-year-old men in rural Georgia. Like, that’s kind of cute.
Did you think any of the guys were cute?
Yeah. Wait, heroes or on the cast?
I actually meant the cast.
I think everyone on the cast was super cute. Bobby has a really funny video of me from our second week in the trailer curling my hair with seven fans on me, trying to get my hair looking kind of okay in 117 degrees. I also have psoriasis, so my psoriasis flared like really hardcore when I got there because it was like the change of temperature and my skin had never experienced that humidity and it was electrically painful that entire time. So, I was topless, trying to curl my hair, and I’m the only one of us that’s single, and I started doing this very Drop Dead Gorgeous thing of, “Why won’t you eff me,” yelling over and over. Bobby took a really funny video, but I would never want anyone to see it because I’m topless in the ugliest shorts, covered in psoriasis, curling my crazy long hair.
Did this show change any preconceptions you might have had?
I want to say something gorgeous. I think coming into this, being authentic is something that’s really important to me. Coming into a makeover show, I knew that a lot of whoever we’d be working, they wouldn’t be getting into these problems overnight, so how are we really going to fix it? I didn’t even know how much time we’d have with them, but I just really didn’t want it to be disingenuous and I really wanted to move the conversation forward. There are two who I still chat with regularly on Instagram and they both have, even now, long-lasting changes. Especially Neal. He was, like, legitimately depressed. That experience did boomerang him, and he has continued to get so much cuter. His hair is still looking so cute.
Did it change how you thought about …
You know, it’s interesting. I’m from a town of 30,000 people in rural Illinois, so being in rural parts of Georgia wasn’t a cultural shock for me. That felt like a homecoming. I’m the cultural shock for them. Seeing like a long-haired person looking like Jesus skipping to the chicken wing place holding Karamo’s hand, literally you heard like forks like [drops cutlery onto the table]. I mean, it stopped. And I was like, “Oh, yeah. I remember that. This feels like junior high school all over again.”
I was wondering if you had a conversation with Karamo after everything that happened with the cop car in episode four?
Yeah, we had a conversation before, during, and after that whole day. The de-straightening process is supposed to be this fun, raucous experience where you’re getting to know someone, and it is not easy for him to compartmentalize that and put that in a different place. While we were doing it, I was like, “Are you okay?” and I could definitely tell that it’s harder to be like, “Oh, my gosh! You’re hot! So what deodorant do you use?” when that’s more on the forefront of your mind. So yeah, there was lots of conversation about that before, during, and after. It’s a really difficult conversation and I have a lot of feelings about it. I feel like when everyone reads things that I’ve said about the militarization of the police force, I’m not going to be able to go to my hometown, because that is like a thing. [The cop] ended up being very nice, but the energy that he brought walking up to the car is just so familiar when you’re a civilian with someone in a place of power. I didn’t know what was going on, and I literally whipped out my phone and started recording. But also, when he was saying this stuff about, “It’s a state law to have to drive with your ID,” I was like, “I think that’s a federal law.” And that’s when I first in my mind was like, “I think we’re on Candid Camera.”
Did you and Karamo talk after the episode shot? Because he was upset about how you were playing in the cop car.
First of all, one thing that didn’t make it in that, is that Bobby playfully locked me in the back of that cop car, which gave me like a nervous breakdown. I think that when you’re doing an unscripted television show, you obviously bring yourself into that situation. I feel like I was very authentic in that there were little kids there and I wanted to play with them and get to know their hair. There was, like, a trampoline and that just made it seem like this really Dominique Dawes and Shannon Miller space, so that’s where my brain went.
I was pulled over so many times in this little town as a gay kid in my hometown. Like, very much targeted because I was the only gay kid in a rural town. Maybe that is literally fucking white privilege that I was able to go through that experience and then go to a house and run around and play directly afterward. Maybe that’s what that is? But I do feel, as Karamo’s friend, I was like very sensitive to it, and did hear what he had to say.
Also, that whole experience was extremely uncomfortable. Being pulled over in that car with those people by a police officer with that attitude, I was very aware of the dangers. I think my ability to joke and laugh about things is because I’m forced to. I’ve been through a lot of things in my life that if I didn’t make light of it, I would literally keel over. Like, literally, my grandpa died last night. There are so many things. I just think that I’m able to compartmentalize, because even saying the thing about my grandpa passing away last night is like a twentieth of what I’m referring to, which I wouldn’t get into now. I had a job to do that day and part of that job was to entertain. But I will also bring up the militarization of the police force and what a threat that is to every American because I feel very strongly about that.
I think a lot of gay men have had to use humor as a way to survive in the world. I’m sorry to hear about your grandpa.
Thank you so much. He made it to 92, so that is fierce. Also, literally my whole life, he’s like said to me, “You’re gonna grow up to be famous.”
Did he get to watch you on the show?
He saw the billboard three days ago. My brother showed it to him when it came out, and it was the last day that he was conscious. He squeezed my brother’s hand and smiled. It’s like really surreal for both of those things to be happening at the same time. Also, with that happening, I can smile and do a whole bunch of interviews and talk about all of these things that in comparison are important, but I think that as humans we have to compartmentalize because you’d literally keel the eff over if you didn’t. [Tears up.]
But sometimes you can let things …
Yeah, I mean, I have concealer on right now and I’m going to have to touch this part up right here. That’s okay. That’s okay. We’re vessels that can make room for all sorts of stuff.
We are complex human beings.
Yeah, we are! We’re just little babies doing the best we can with what we know, honey. [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed. It has also been corrected to show that “Lena Dunham” is the Gay of Thrones nickname for Yara Greyjoy.