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JVN on living with HIV, his new book, and his 'bad assumption' about Leo Varadkar

We chat to the effervescent and thoughtful Queer Eye cast member, who has written a new memoir.

“I MADE A bad assumption and I assumed…  [I found out] the Taoiseach was a member of the LGBT community and I thought everyone must love him.”

Sometimes, what we assume can turn out to be well, not quite on the nose. As Jonathan Van Ness (we’ll call him JVN from here on in), Queer Eye presenter, grooming expert and new author, learned during his recent Dublin stand-up shows.

When TheJournal.ie speaks to him over the phone a week later, the charismatic 32-year-old describes how during his Dublin sets, he noticed that his references to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Brexit weren’t going down as anticipated.

It turned out to be a case of mixed signals. When he found out that Leo Varadkar was gay, he presumed the Fine Gael leader “was a local hero”. But the complicated reaction to his mentions of Leo at the Olympia Theatre showed the American that the real situation is more nuanced than he thought.

On top of that, JVN also wound up having to get his head around the nuances of Irish and UK politics. As he puts it, before he got to Ireland he found the whole thing a bit discombobulating:

We are all confused about Brexit, the relationship to Europe and then Ireland’s relationship to the UK versus southern Ireland – and then it’s like, what’s Wales and Scotland?

“I was a little bit confused but it was all fine. I am living and learning,” he says. “I had the most amazing time in Dublin – I also learned about politics in real time.”

It’s not often that a celebrity admits they need to know more, but then JVN is frank about the fact he’s always learning. He even has a podcast called Getting Curious, where he thoughtfully explores a different topic each episode, like the insulin crisis, Planned Parenthood, and climate change. 

His big takeaway from his Irish jaunt? “Mainly: research a country’s politics before you go talk about it.” A big lesson, but JVN’s faced much tougher things in his 32 years, and he’s come clean in his new memoir about all of them.

Queer Eye

As he details in the book, the Quincy, Illinois native first lit up the small screen as the presenter of Funny Or Die’s series Gay of Thrones, where the then hairstylist would do someone’s hair while talking about GoT.

Cultural references sashayed with acerbic plot postmortems as he dissected the actions of characters who he renamed things like ‘Baby Kill Kill’ (Arya) and ‘Vintage Mia Farrow’ (Cersei). 

But his big break was Queer Eye, the Netflix series that turned he and his four co-stars’ lives upside down. 

The relaunched Queer Eye is an updated version of the original TV makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Landing in a hail of glitter on Netflix in 2018, it brought into our lives a quintet known as the ‘fab five’: queen of grooming JVN, chiselled foodie Antoni Porowski, interiors expert Bobby Berk, fashion king Tan France, and culture expert Karamo Brown.

The first incarnation of Queer Eye in 2003 was radical in its own way – it put gay men front-and-centre on a high-profile TV show. Instead of talking about gay men, it allowed them to talk for themselves, pulling up a chair and taking their rightful place in post-millennium popular culture.

But at the same time, it did pander in ways to the stereotypes around gayness. The focus of the show was initially on showing how gay men could transform (in a ‘make-better’ rather than makeover) straight men. There wasn’t much wiggle-room for the nuances of individual human behaviour.

For the reboot, the makers took a step back – away from the strict boxes labelled gender and sexuality – and embraced a more fluid look at things.

One of the fab five, Antoni, labels himself – if he has to label himself at all – as queer rather than gay, while JVN has come to refer to himself as gender-queer. The fab five show that to be part of the LGBTQ community doesn’t mean having to adhere to stereotypes. And if you’re straight, you don’t have to play by hetero rules. In the world of Queer Eye, finding happiness means finding peace with being yourself. 

That is reflected in those who are made over on Queer Eye. The guests could be male, female, trans, any gender or none. They could be gay, straight, queer, or however they see themselves. 

The reason the show connected with audiences immediately was that it took the emphasis off transforming the person’s outer appearance for appearance’s sake. Instead, the focus was put on showing the person the benefits of self love. In season one, watching the fab five show 57-year-old Tom to care for his skin and find joy in a new wardrobe was as powerful as watching AJ come out to his stepmother. 

Show me a person who hasn’t watched Queer Eye, and you’re showing me someone who really needs to sit in front of the TV (or laptop) and cry into their toast with just their dressing gown sleeve to dab their tears with. 

Over The Top

2019-creative-arts-emmys-awards-press-room Antoni Porowski, Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France, Bobby Berk, and Karamo Brown at the 2019 Creative Arts Emmys Awards. Source: Birdie Thompson

JVN’s memoir is called Over The Top, and its baby-blue cover features him in a hitched-up satin skirt, navy boot heels and a turtleneck. He wears a serious yet commanding look on his visage.

On the back of the book jacket, there are four more JVNs, each showing a different side to his personality. We get the topless JVN looking morose but handsome, with mascara smudges under his sad eyes. The multitasking stylist JVN with a hairdryer and notebook in one hand, gabbing into a microphone. The cheerleader JVN joyously raising a flashy pom-pom. JVN with his long hair slicked into a topknot, wearing a crumb-scattered dressing gown and slipper socks, eating a Pop Tart.

These all represent a ‘part’ of JVN, as he puts it in the book. Initially, he says, he wanted to write the book from the perspective of these ‘parts’ – each separate side to him getting a chance to have their say. 

“But when I tried to do that I was more confused,” he laughs. “It takes a more talented writer to do that – it takes 10 years of practice. So I thought, let’s do it chronologically.”

He opens the memoir by explaining:

This is a book about all my parts, and how I learned to integrate them: the part of me that’s funny and the part of me that’s still wounded and fragile and the part of me that’s loving and the part of me that’s kind of a diva and the part of me that’s read the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible and the Four Agreements and is still Postmatesing twelve-dollar coffees and screaming about my first-world problems.

Take me as I am, is the message in Over The Top. And there is no person who knows who he is better than JVN.

He occasionally breaks into therapy-speak in the book, in a way that shows that he has connected deeply with something he has learned through the therapeutic process. He seems to be on a constant journey of self-discovery, but it’s a journey where he has had to climb over boulders, gotten lost on the way, stopped for a few ill-advised detours and broken a few stiletto heels.

If you just watched Queer Eye, you’d be forgiven for assuming that JVN is always a self-love-epithet-touting, empathetically-orientated people-helper. Someone who is charming, flirty and positive. Someone who connects with people because he wants the best for them.

He’s all that. But he’s more too.

And the first hint that Over The Top wasn’t going to be a frothy, glitzy celeb read was when the New York Times carried an interview with JVN about it, four days before its US publication date. 

Coming out

“Jonathan Van Ness of ‘Queer Eye’ comes out” was the confusing NYT headline. Confusing because, well, JVN’s sexuality wasn’t under question.

But the coming out referred to something else: that he had written in the book about living with HIV. This was something new. There was more: that he had written, too, about surviving child sexual abuse and his past addiction issues. 

JVN didn’t know, when he did the NYT interview, that there would be a short gap between its publication and his book going on sale. 

While he describes the article as “beautifully written” by “an incredible journalist” (Alex Hawgood), he says “it was an interesting experience having this book I had worked so hard on boiled down to” the HIV diagnosis and addiction. 

The gap between the article and the book’s publication “was a bit of an anxiety-inducing moment”, he says. “I needed to hang out with my cats and my mom that weekend, and my close friends.”

That interview was the first time he’d talked to anyone aside from his publishers (and his mother – though she had only read the parts she’s mentioned in) about the book. He was doing a comedy tour in Toronto and Las Vegas while waiting for the interview to go live, and describes himself as being “on pins and needles” over it. 

His therapy learnings come through when he processes what all this means. “I think there is still… you can have very different feelings around the same experience – variable feelings and at different times. One time troubling, a different time amazing, another time I dunno how I feel about it…” he says.

“I’m not complaining,” he adds. “It was an interesting experience. That article does set the tone for how people will receive the book. The book is joyful. It was overwhelmingly positive, I think.”

Catharsis

During the writing process, he’d get up every morning and write (after his ‘coffee dance’, which Instagram fans will be familiar with).

“It was definitely a difficult experience, but it was also one that was equal parts cathartic and also really like a lesson for me,” says JVN. “I’ve always wanted to write; I’ve always wanted to express myself that way. It was difficult but it was enriching at the same time, like you know mentally, to make my brain talk the way I talk and think and put it on paper.”

It had been his idea since Queer Eye took off to write such a book. He was inspired in part by Brené Brown, the researcher whose TED talk on ‘listening to shame’ led to her becoming a self-help phenomenon.

Brown preaches that to let go of shame, we must own our vulnerability and tell our story. It’s a lesson JVN has taken to heart, and he says Brown has “taught me so much”. He even quotes her in his book. Thanks to her, he sees shame as something that’s ”a universal thing” that we all struggle with – so why not try and confront his own shame through his writing, and see if it changes things?

Yet getting up every day and writing about his life was not easy. “I always found myself saying it felt like putting some of my difficult stuff into a food processor and eating it every morning,” is how JVN puts it.

As his life changed, the book ”became this safe space for me”.

The book almost became my therapist or something.

“Even though it was very difficult, I like to think very difficult things affect me and stick with me; some of those really traumatic experiences I wanted to leave them there and allow myself put them there and unfurl my hand…” he says, and I imagine him in repose, gently allowing his past troubles to float away into the ether.

He says his stepdad Steve always told him “you don’t always have to identify yourself with that baggage”. Writing helped him to see that even clearer. The weight he was carrying around could lessen.

“I felt like that was true. I have felt lighter at the end of it.”

Accepted and loved

Over the Top

It’s a risk, to put yourself on TV and star in a globally popular Netflix show where you promise to help people find the answer to feeling good.

It’s an even bigger risk to write a memoir where you describe, as JVN does, your own sex addiction, drug use and risky behaviour. But now that he has laid it all out there, what he has gotten back is the collective voice of his fans telling him that all is OK. It’s his own Queer Eye reveal.

“It feels like a relief to just be loved and accepted and have people know my story,” says JVN of the reaction. “I think that it very much confirmed what I think I always really knew, that I was ready to talk about it and it was a jumping-off point for my advocacy and activism in this space.”

He says that he knows what people living with HIV come up against in the US in terms of stigma, but he knows too that around the world things can be even more difficult for people who have a diagnosis like his.

“I also think one thing I realised is there is a lot of cruelty in the world for people living with HIV,” he adds. In going public, he’s trying to show that a HIV diagnosis does not mean that people can’t thrive.

“So many people were [saying to me] ‘so sorry for your diagnosis’ …” he says, sounding more than a little disheartened. “I’ve had it for seven years, I’ve never been healthier, more active.”

Indeed, anyone who follows his Instagram stories will have seen him tumbling and swan-diving through regular gymnastics and figure skating lessons, and he has a daily yoga practice. 

He says that: “Anyone who has HIV can accomplish anything, do anything [that] anyone else can do – as long as they have access to medication and a doctor.”

Through his own health journey he has “learned so much about T-cells and numbers”, and describes how his own immune system is thriving thanks to his daily medication and healthcare practitioner. 

Talk turns to the AIDS epidemic, and how many lives were lost in the 1980s before work began on finding a medical treatment. On this topic, JVN goes into full flight.

“People are so scared about it [now] because the stigma of the 80s, that is a really real thing. We’ve seen when politics and people, religious people, religious ideology and morals come before health – we saw in 1982 when HIV become a thing the reaction around it was… it was all gay men, so it took about 10 years before they realised it could affect [other] people, [when] it started affecting the hetero population.”

He points out that it wasn’t until the 1990s that the first effective HIV antiretroviral medication became widely available. While that was a win, it also highlighted the tragic loss of those who had already died. Forty years ago, the life expectancy for a person with HIV was about a year. Now, JVN says, people can expect to live into their 70s.

JVN says he wonders about this – how many people would not have got HIV had work on finding a treatment started sooner, “what if we started researching in 1983 with the full force of the US government?”

“We have the tools and resources we need to control the spread of HIV and make sure it stops, and make sure people living with HIV can live great, gorgeous health lives,” he says of how things stand today.

As the above shows, JVN isn’t content with resting on the comfy laurels of fame. He’s here for the activism too. While he finds it hard right now to balance his schedule – “time management honey, that’s going to be my moment” he says of his 2020 resolutions – he has one major thing booked in for next year.

“I’m taking a month and a half off before the [US] election,” he says. He reels off the details of why it’s important not just to focus on the presidential election, but the machinations of the US government – “really when it comes to protecting LGBT people and people of colour it’s really all about state legislature” – and says he wants to focus on campaigning around this next year. 

It’s a cause that’s not just close to his heart, but one that he actively wants to use his high profile in aid of. He admits to feeling “stressed out for everything going on”, and has turned that stress into action.

So we can see from this why people are drawn to JVN like multi-coloured moths to a flame. Through his trials and tribulations, he teaches us: no matter who or where you are, there’s always something you can do to make the world around you a bit better.

And if you can have a whole heap of love for yourself while doing it honey, then even better.

Over The Top: My Story by Jonathan Van Ness is out now, published by Simon and Schuster.

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