Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Van Ness on whirlwind journey as one of Fab Five on 'Queer Eye' reboot

Jonathan Van Ness is the break-out star of Netflix's new "Queer Eye" reboot. The Quincy native hopes to use his new platform to advocate for the LGBT community. | Photo courtesy of Netflix
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Mar. 5, 2018 8:55 am

LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Jonathan Van Ness' role on Netflix's "Queer Eye" reboot has thrust him into a national spotlight, a far cry from his Midwest roots.

A standout personality on "Queer Eye," the star of Funny or Die's Emmy-nominated "Gay of Thrones" short series and host of the biweekly podcast, "Getting Curious with Jonathan," the idea of coming full circle -- of becoming an example for the next generation of gay youth of how to persevere and find happiness -- hasn't really sunk in yet.

Van Ness recently recapped the whirlwind journey that took him from being one of the few openly-gay kids in Quincy to being the "flamboyant" grooming expert on a Netflix show able to be streamed by the service's 100 million subscribers in 190 countries.

"I'm sure my client is wondering what I'm doing," Van Ness said during the interview, after switching his phone over to a headset and returning to curl the hair of the client sitting in his Los Angeles salon.

"Queer Eye" brings together five gay men, known as the "Fab 5," to offer tips on wardrobe, grooming, lifestyle and food. Netflix's reboot is shot in Georgia, where most of the subjects featured have had very limited interaction with gay culture. The original "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" aired on Bravo in 2003 and ran until 2006, netting an Emmy for outstanding reality show in the process.

A high school student at the time, Van Ness was an avid viewer.

"It's important for people to be able to see themselves in entertainment," he said. " 'Will and Grace' and 'Queer as Folk' and 'Queer Eye' the first version, they were all indicators that there were a lot of possibilities for me."

With season 1 of "Queer Eye" in the books -- Netflix has not yet picked the show up for a second season, but it has been well-received by critics, and Van Ness is hopeful -- and his "Game of Thrones" recaps on pause until the show returns in 2019, Van Ness is able to see around 25 clients a week.

Hair from the beginning

Acting was never his goal. It has always been about hair.

"I remember being at the pool at the country club when I was like 2 or 3," Van Ness said. "The cabana girls had these really fierce pillbox hats that they had to wear, and I thought that pillbox hat was amazing. I knew then that I loved hair."

Van Ness said he has always been open about his sexuality, which opened him up to being bullied through school. He fell back on humor, and it quickly became his defense mechanism. He focused on cheerleading -- he was the first male cheerleader at Quincy High School -- and relied upon the support of those around him to get him through.

Without work arranged in advance, he moved to California in 2009 -- a mixture of bravery and stupidity, he said -- and found a job at a salon. His big break came in 2013, when a client and close friend, Erin Gibson, who worked for the comedy website, brought up HBO's "Game of Thrones" while he was styling her hair. Van Ness began recapping the show with his own flair, and the idea for a parody series was planted.

After receiving some exposure from "Gay of Thrones," Van Ness began to seek other acting opportunities. Several attempts fell short, and he heard "no" more than once.

After Netflix announced last year that it would be rebooting the series, Van Ness sought out the role of groomer in the Fab 5. From his video interview, he got a call back to test in person, along with 50 others -- a pack whittled down from thousands of hopefuls.

"It was like cheer tryouts from hell," he said. "You never knew when you were going to get cut. There were random guys leaving all sad -- three brutal days, honey."

He was styling a client's hair when he got the call that he had made the cut.

"It was a big change from being behind a chair all-day every-day to living in Atlanta and working on that show," he said.

Planted on an international platform, he hopes to use the role to give back to the LGBT community by working with nonprofits. He plans to give free haircuts to kids living at an LGBT youth center, as they prepare for job interviews.

"I don't know if I'm a role model," he said, "but I do think that I've been true to myself."

Click here for Jonathan Van Ness' website.

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