Having fallen for the wit and quip of Trevor Noah, Colin Jost and Michelle Wolf, Cornell students again found themselves at the edge of their seats in a sold-out Bailey Hall for Jonathan Van Ness, star of Netflix’s Queer Eye, or as he calls himself, the “groomer, hairstylist and all-around self-care advocate.”
In an hour-long conversation in November with Prof. Samantha Sheppard, performing and media arts, organized by Cornell University Program Board, Van Ness brought the audience back to the Midwest and to his childhood days.
Van Ness said his rural upbringing in Quincy, Illinois — where he was “chased around by pitchforks” — made “all of this happen.” In that conservative Midwest town, he got asked almost weekly if he was gay. In another instance, when someone asked him about the kind of girls he was into, his response was that he really admired Janet Reno ’60, the first female attorney general.
But growing up gay in rural America did help Van Ness with the filming for Queer Eye, a show largely based in rural Georgia, he said in an interview with The Sun before the show.
“The people who we worked with were the ones you would traditionally consider to be Trump supporters, typically conservative — that’s my uncles, that’s the people who I went to school with. So none of that really moves a hair on my head,” he said.
In typical Van Ness fashion, he quipped that the best alternative to knowing how to deal with such people is wearing heels low enough to run away as quickly as possible.
Van Ness said he has been into hair ever since he was a child, although he admitted that he was not a good hairdresser for “easily the first six years.” But at the show, he didn’t miss the opportunity of giving out his well-tested hair and self-care tips.
According to him, the worst thing to do to one’s hair is washing it every day. Long hair isn’t for everyone either — for example, American-Italian actor Fabio Lanzoni, who also has signature long hair, would be the celebrity that Van Ness would choose to give a “hair intervention.”
While a good hairstyle could really help improve one’s look, Van Ness said people shouldn’t expect hairdressers to deliver “crazy expectations,” because hair styling is a science, and more importantly is not cheap.
“These looks that we are trying to emulate are like, I’m not kidding you, 20,000 dollar looks on these pieces of paper that we’re looking at,” he said. “It’s not attainable from an 85 dollar highlight.”
For Van Ness, his hair philosophy is about self-love, where people should really think about what they are doing and not just adopt a hairstyle because that’s what is trending.
“I’m really not a trend person … I just think people feeling good about themselves and not having to work so hard to create this illusion, like it’s pleasing who and what?,” he said.
In 2018, Van Ness joined Tan France, Karamo Brown, Bobby Berk and Antoni Porowski for Netflix’s reboot of reality television series Queer Eye as the grooming and hair expert. The original show ran from 2003 to 2007.
Comparing the reboot to the original Queer Eye, Van Ness said that the original series gave him a way to talk about homosexuality with people around him because everyone was watching that show, and the reboot is serving the same purpose, but on a more global scale, thanks to the Netflix’s worldwide appeal.
“With Netflix, it’s in Pakistan, it’s in Venezuela, it’s in Belize. It’s easier to say where it is isn’t than where it is, “ Van Ness said. “It’s like major, especially for like Tan, I mean to me — a British Pakistani gorgeous Muslim man thriving in public, I just haven’t seen that.”
As one of the stars of the show, Van Ness said he has an “enormous sense of gratitude” for being seen as an icon for the LGBTQ community, but added that he likes to practice dissociation and maintains his curiosity to avoid getting “paralyzed with fear and nervousness.”
“I’ve always aligned myself with things that are good and educational … but if I stopped and thought of myself as a famous person, or like an icon, I think I would be so paralyzed with fear and nervousness about every move I make that it would paralyze me,” he said in the interview.
When Sheppard questioned him about who he would like to see joining the Fab Five on the show, Van Ness said that the group needs “a wiser, older queen,” a “super Yoda gay,” because his generation does have a sense of entitlement and safety.
If Van Ness could choose an alternate career, he would choose politics, but he confirmed that he would not be running in 2020 because he has “too many skeletons in his closet.”
Making a transition to Van Ness’ social media presence, Sheppard brought up his involvement with Gay of Thrones, an Emmy nominated web series which recaps each episode of Game of Thrones within 24 hours of it being aired.
For Van Ness, his involvement with the series is the perfect example of showing that all opportunities or new things are worth exploring, because you never what doors it will open up.
“Just by being willing to like say yes, and making yourself available, and like going above and a little bit beyond … dot that i and cross that t, honey when they don’t expect you to … that shows them,” he said.
Van Ness is a self-care advocate so several audience questions asked him about tips that could be incorporated into one’s daily schedule.
In response to one of the questions, Van Ness said that to put one’s best foot forward as one goes about their day, one should do their own beauty ritual which conveys to the world, “don’t fuck with me.”
Girisha Arora ’20 contributed reporting to this article. She currently serves as the managing editor on The Suns editorial board.