On the eve of Queer Eye’s Netflix debut early Wednesday morning, the show’s grooming expert, Jonathan Van Ness, felt like he was “gonna throw up out the Uber.”
“But you can’t,” the Illinois native jokingly told EW, “because your blow-dry looks good and you’re already in your outfit… so you just have to keep your head about you.” Van Ness — whom audiences may know as host of the popular web series Gay of Thrones — kept it together, of course, and opened up about rebooting the cultural phenomenon that was Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
“To be that vulnerable and put your work out there and you can’t control all of it … you put your heart and soul into something,” he said. “You left everything you have on the dance floor, and people could love it, people could hate it.”
Along with new Fab Five members Karamo Brown (culture), Tan France (fashion), Antoni Porowski (food and wine), and Bobby Berk (design), Van Ness ventured into Georgia for the new iteration of the show to make over unsuspecting men — straight and gay, hence the show’s truncated title. That update added to the appeal “100 percent” for Van Ness, and he’s all for expanding the show’s reach even further.
“I love color corrections, getting to fix hair color, I love getting to do women’s hair, and that would be super-fun to get to work with women,” he said of his hopes for a potential season 2. “I learn new stuff every week of doing hair, and I’m sure Bobby — he loves design, and when you love doing something you’re an eternal student. I feel like I can never learn enough. I feel like none of us take ourselves so seriously that we’re infallible on learning.”
Van Ness’ “education” extended beyond, well, extensions while shooting Queer Eye. In episode 2 the guys make over a police officer, Cory, but get pulled over on their way to meet him while Karamo, who is black, is behind the wheel. Without an I.D. on him, the guys are eventually asked to exit the vehicle. To avoid spoiling what happens, it’s best to watch for yourself to see how it plays out — but suffice it to say the incident sparks a bigger conversation once the guys, especially Karamo, get to know Cory.
For more on what Van Ness had to say about that, why he thinks he was right for Queer Eye, how he made the best of being bullied while growing up, and what he thinks about having to wait more than a year for the end of Game of Thrones, read on.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The five of you were cast quite a while ago, and you filmed the show before the identities of the new Fab Five had been made public. How difficult was it to keep that secret?
JONATHAN VAN NESS: That was actually really difficult! I [would shoot] Gay of Thrones congruently in L.A. on Sundays and then fly to Atlanta and shoot Queer Eye during the week, and also maintain my hair clientele in my little studio in L.A. on Saturday. … I was so blessed. Every time I was on one of those flights, running to catch a flight leaving the set of Queer Eye, I was like, ‘Can someone smack me? Is this what I’m doing right now?’ The whole time it was a like a pinch-me moment and it was a challenge to keep the secret, but I knew it was how the rollout needed to go.
When EW first revealed the Fab Five, show creator David Collins was telling me what made each of you so unique. He mentioned your authenticity, that you have no body shame and no sexuality shame, that he loved your story about where you grew up and how bullied you were. How do you think your upbringing and life got you to where you are now and made you the right fit for this?
I’m really flattered that David … that I come off as someone who doesn’t have body shame. I grew up in a little town where my family owned a newspaper and the TV station, so a lot of people knew who we were, and I never fit in. I was a very Spice Girls-obsessed, Barney-obsessed, thigh-high-Doc Marten-wanting [kid], could not get enough of Kristi Yamaguchi, could not get enough of gymnastic classes, but I also couldn’t get enough of Pop Tarts, so those didn’t go all that well together. [Laughs] But I definitely struggled with body-image issues, I was bullied a lot because, obviously, I just said I was obsessed with figure skating and Pop Tarts and Spice Girls and wasn’t afraid to talk about that, but also guinea pigs, stamps, rocks — anything that was clinically uncool, I was about that life. And not because I meant to be uncool, I just liked what I liked. [Laughs]
I think that because I struggled and did get very bullied, that definitely made me learn how to be funny and let things roll off and be able to laugh, and I think that has definitely helped me when it comes to being in the public eye with Gay of Thrones and Queer Eye. I was the first male cheerleader of my high school; it’s very hard to embarrass me — you have to do a lot. So I think I can handle a lot of criticism, and I think that growing up in this atmosphere, in the age of DOMA … “I accept you, but I don’t agree with your lifestyle” — I can’t tell you how many times I heard that as a teenager. “I don’t have a problem with you being gay, I just don’t agree with your lifestyle.” Having to digest that, have adults tell you that, there weren’t many safe spaces for me to feel like I was myself unless I was in dance class, or I also played the violin, so I think I’ve also always had creative outlets to be able to put a lot of my stuff into. I’ve also done a lot of therapy, I’m really into therapy, I think it’s great. And, I have literally done hair every day for almost 13 years. … I love changing hair color, I love doing hair shape, I love the social aspect of salons, I love clients, and because of doing hair I’ve heard so many life stories.
David has said the original run of the show was about tolerance, and that this time is about acceptance. Given what you just said, that when you were growing up people would tell you they don’t agree with your lifestyle, were you worried at all about going to Georgia, where many people are thought to be conservative, and not being accepted?
No, because my hometown is across the river from Hannibal, Missouri, which is the home of Mark Twain. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were in my hometown — that’s what my hometown is famous for. Atlanta felt just like home, but hotter. … I think I was more shocking for a lot of them than vice versa. That felt just like going home for Christmas, but in the middle of the summer and the humidity is super-real.
Is there a standout moment from the eight episodes that you’re excited for audiences to see, or that you anticipate will be a moment people will talk about a lot?
I think that the whole episode with Cory and police brutality — I think that scene is … I whipped out my phone so fast to start recording that, and I did not know we were getting pulled over. I was super-duper uncomfortable, and I think the conversations around that episode and just how the conversations Tan and Karamo and I have had around that … police brutality and Black Lives Matter and white privilege and where do you speak up, how do you speak up, how do you not ruffle a feather, how do you move this conversation forward, how do you stand up for people, how do you do all of that with race in this time that is just so polarized? I feel like my first reaction when I read a Facebook update that’s got “MAGA” in it, even now it’s like I throw my computer out the window. So how do you have those conversations and sit still long enough with our feelings and our beliefs to get to the other side of the conversation with some understanding? And I think we all had to do that in that episode in lots of different ways.
Coming from a family that owned a newspaper and TV station, you didn’t go that route initially, but you’ve interestingly ended up doing it in your own way with Gay of Thrones, your iTunes podcast (Getting Curious), and now Queer Eye. Do you think it was inevitable that this happened, and what does your family think?
My family is super-duper supportive. I learned really early on not to read comments; my oldest brother still hasn’t learned that lesson [laughs], so people sometimes will send me screenshots of him just eviscerating someone about something ridiculous they said to me, which I think is super-cute, actually [laughs], but I also worry for his nervous system because I feel like life’s too short to worry about that.
Is it fair to call you the comedic relief of the five guys?
I would say … I think Bobby’s super-funny, everyone is funny. Antoni kills me. They all kill me. But I am a morning person, we shoot a lot in the morning, and I am also a total ham [laughs], so I do think my “morning me” lends itself well to being the comedic relief of Queer Eye for sure.
Having been a viewer and fan of the original, and presumably finding some kind of inspiration from it in your own life, what does it mean to you to now be part of this?
I think what it means is, not to sound trite or stupid, but I really can’t believe it. And, who even knows if I’m that lucky, who knows if people are going to love it next week? Who knows? It means to me that you never know where you’re going to end up, you never know what’s going to happen.
Give me your hot take on Game of Thrones not coming back until over a year from now.
Good things come to those who wait! I feel like it is gonna be so lit and they said they’re going to be, like, an hour and 20 minutes an episode, so if you think about that, it’s kinda more like eight episodes again, which is cute. My whole theory was always that Bran was going to warg the dragons and figure out how to control the dragons, and that obviously is not going to be what it is now, unless he’s the Night King, which would be what that is, but maybe not from warging but a time-travel thing, but I don’t even know. That wasn’t even the question — that was just my theory. I’m kind of okay with waiting a year. I don’t want it to be over. It’s been such a good show. But the spin-offs are going to be fierce, I bet.
The entire eight-episode first season of the new Queer Eye is streaming now on Netflix.