'Queer Eye' star Jonathan Van Ness on his new memoir, being a cat dad, and why the totality of gender binary is a beauty myth

In the sixth grade, Jonathan Van Ness had an idea: He would try out for his school's talent show by doing a lyrical interpretative dance to Jewel's 1995 track "Pieces of You." Eager to share his sure-to-shine routine with his mother, a woman whom he describes as being both supportive and professional, Van Ness performed the spectacle in its entirety in the family basement. When he finished, his mother fell silent and took his hands in hers.

"Jack, if you do this, if you try out with this, the kids will never let you live this down. They will always remember you for this," she said. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

The fear of rejection or not fitting in as a result of his dance as suggested by his mother did not keep "little baby queen Jack" — which is how Van Ness often likes to refer to his adolescent, figure-skating-obsessed, powdered doughnut-loving self — from performing at the talent show in a handmade puffy paint T-shirt. If anything, it was an early indicator that he was made up of many pieces and parts, all of which are on full fabulous display in his recent unflinching New York Times bestselling memoir, Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love.

Ever since Van Ness pranced onto screen as the Fab Five's bubbly, twirling, "yas queen" grooming expert on the Emmy Award-winning Netflix reboot of Queer Eye last year, the 32-year-old hairstylist, comedian, and podcast host has curled, tweezed, and moisturized his way into our hearts, homes, and daily skincare regimens, all while wearing lots of mesh, many a crop top, and sky-high platforms, slaying stigmas and shifting the global conversation as "a member of the beautiful HIV-positive community."

Van Ness, who performs on Thursday at the Fillmore with two shows, is having a major gorgeous moment.

We talk to Van Ness on Halloween. His Instagram story feed from the day showed Van Ness preparing coffee, twirling around his spacious kitchen, and admiring his four — yes, four — cats: Genevieve, Matilda, Harry Larry, and Liza Meow-nelli. Naturally, he was dressing as a cat for the holiday, a costume that is all too fitting, considering being a cat dad has served as a lifeline for Van Ness, who managed to escape the tense conservative climate of his rural hometown of Quincy, Illinois, at the age of 17 to attend the University of Arizona on a partial cheerleading scholarship. He would eventually flunk out, as he was blowing his monthly $200 allowance on cocaine and other party supplies. Too ashamed to ask for more money, he began offering sex in exchange for pay on gay personal sites and chat rooms, eventually working regularly as a sex worker. During his escorting months, however, Van Ness happened upon a little black kitten under the hood of a car, which he took in and named Bug. He would sleep with Bug on the couch each night, promising the kitten that he would get him out of the filthy apartment and chaotic lifestyle. Bug died last year, after 13 years with Van Ness. Bug II, whom he adopted a month later, tragically fell from his apartment window in August.

"Cue uncontrollable sobbing," Van Ness pre-warns during our phone call.

"I just think that if you're struggling with learning how to love yourself — which I definitely was when I met Bug the first, I was like 17 and going through a lot — to be consistently shown unconditional love by another living being is so helpful because that means you have to show up for another living thing and be there for that thing and make sure it has a roof over its head," he says. "You have something else to love. I think being a cat parent did kind of help me learn how to take care of myself, and I just think that cat parentship or any sort of animal parentship really deepens your ability to love — even if it's just, like, yourself."

Loving yourself is absolutely the ethos of Van Ness's memoir and of the revived Queer Eye, which is less about the "metrosexuality" makeover of the show's 2003 original run and more focused on syncing the internal with the external of those men, women, and non-binary folks who have gotten lost along the not-always glamorous, but unassumingly spiritual path to self-care. The series, since making its debut in 2018, has produced four seasons, one special, and a set of episodes set in Japan, which was released earlier this month. Van Ness's choice to write and release a memoir amid QE's filming schedule, a comedy tour, daily gymnastic and figure skating practice (sometimes with his idol and two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan), hosting Funny or Die's Emmy Award-nominated recap series Gay of Thrones, and maintaining his podcast, Getting Curious, where he asks probing questions such as, "Is there an Insulin crisis happening in the U.S.?" to "How many cats am I allowed to foster before it's illegal?" — had little to do with an Oprah "aha" moment. Van Ness needed space.

"I think it was kind of a collection of experiences, like the success of Queer Eye but also kind of knowing that I was someone who was living with HIV and was someone who survived abuse and has had disordered eating. There were so many things that I wanted to talk about more openly. So it wasn't really one moment," he says. "It was a lot of things: The political climate and the constant attack on LGBTQ+ Americans and people living with HIV in the United States under the Trump-Pence administration."

At 25, Van Ness visited a Planned Parenthood after experiencing flu-like symptoms and fainted at a hair salon. Tests revealed that he was HIV-positive.

"That day was just as devastating as you would think it would be," he writes of the experience in Over the Top.

Though he admits he was nervous to appear vulnerable as he does so many times in his book, detailing his sex addiction, experiences with meth, sex work, rehab, the death of his beloved stepfather, and HIV diagnosis, Van Ness was more concerned with getting it right and making sure the information about HIV was well-researched and scientifically sound. Now that his story is out, he's just ready to do the work. In the past year, he's met with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to discuss the importance of the Equality Act, locked arms with congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and had very cute fangirl moment with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom he has publicly endorsed for president for her Medicare-for-all platform after misplacing his HIV meds. The cost to replace? $3,500 out of pocket with high-tier insurance coverage.

‘There are so many different ways that we can express gender. So, really, the gender binary itself is a much newer historical phenomenon.’

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"I can guarantee you that there's nothing that I could ever go through [that] could be more tiring or frustrating than learning to navigate all of the different things that you have to navigate when you find out that you are HIV-positive and all of this discrimination and stigmatizing and misunderstanding that you will face when you're finding doctors and finding, like, what your new normal is," Van Ness says. "Which is just such a shame because it really shouldn't have to be as difficult and gut-wrenching as it is."

The first time we see Van Ness in action as Queer Eye's resident-stylist, he's explaining to the Fab Five's first project, a bearded, rugged, car-loving, recluse named Tom, that SPF is the key to keeping his Lupus-based skin flareups at bay and, like some Elle Woods realness, breaks down the ingredients in his body wash, informing him that they're the same ingredients used to clean a car engine. By the episode's end, Tom is independently applying sunscreen, a de-puffing eye mask, and a generous amount of a color-correcting concealer. Tom, like many of those touched by the Queer Eye squad, has benefited from Van Ness's emotional finessing. Per Van Ness's beauty philosophy, putting you and your skin in the driver's seat can be as simple as three key steps: cleanse, moisturize, and SPF.

"That's, like, what you really need on a bare-bones minimum," he says. "Of course, as I would say, yes, let's use a serum, let's use an eye cream before we put the moisturizer on. I also love a facial oil. But I also think it's really about, like, what brings you joy and, like, what makes you feel empowered and confident." 

As for beauty myths, the one that Van Ness would most like to upend is "gender binary."

"Gender binary at its totality — just the idea that, like, men are masculine and women are feminine and that there are only two styles of gender to really inhabit," he says. "There are so many different ways that we can express gender. So, really, the gender binary itself is a much newer historical phenomenon. The idea that men don't wear makeup or, like, men shouldn't spend as much time doing self-care or the idea that, like, women need to have smooth skin, soft, luscious, long hair, a bold red lip — like women [need to] wear makeup to be beautiful — all of that is a myth."

Much like a mythological creature himself — a unicorn with an eye for an immaculate Balayage, or a sassy Centaur, or maybe a Gryffin with a well-oiled mustache and a First Wives Club-inspired manicure — Van Ness is becoming the person he always knew he was, with all his gorgeous, messy, and powerful cat-hair-covered pieces in play.

"I don't think that my HIV status makes people any less excited to talk to me about, like, all the other things that I'm into," he says. "I'm just grateful that I get to be as passionate about all of the different things that I'm passionate about, like, fully now."

Jonathan Van Ness will perform on Thursday, Nov. 7 at 7 and 9 p.m. at the Fillmore; 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-5451; thefillmoredetroit.com. Tickets are $35.

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