There's no one as unapologetically and unabashedly himself as Jonathan Van Ness. From his on-screen tears to his "YAS KWEEN" moments, the Fab Five's resident groomer, Gay of Thrones star, and LA-based hair stylist isn't afraid to wear his heart out on his longline muscle tank's non-existent sleeves. And we love that about him.
The 30-year-old Khaleesi (with, sadly, no dragons) herself takes a moment to let his gorgeous flowing locks down with PAPER. JVN gets candid and honest about his sexuality, owning his femininity, and what it means to be truly fierce — while managing to get a Beyoncé reference in here and there.
What was the defining moment of your sexuality?
I think it's difficult to encompass your entire sexuality into one defining moment, but I think that — as far as knowing that I was gay — I knew by the age of five that I was definitely different. And all the other little boys wanted to go push down the girls, but I wanted to push down the boys and braid the girls' hair. So that was pretty clear to me by kindergarten, I was like, "I think I may be a little different."
And by the time that I saw Bowflex commercials and WWF wrestling I was like, "Yup. Definitely different. I think I'm into the guys."
I come from an episcopal family, and I come from a small town in rural Illinois, so definitely there was fear. Parents, they work for their children. They want them to live a well-adjusted life, and I think my family was worried for that. But they've been really supportive. Luckily, I have the type of personality that can just energetically machete down the shadiness that comes with intolerance sometimes.
What was it like figuring out how to live out your sexuality?
I think it's been a very long road of figuring out. That also means that it changes a lot in the seasons of your life. It's a lot of experimental growing up and figuring out what type of person I want to be.
As all of you guys mention in the show, there's no "right" or "wrong" way to be gay. How did you know what was the "right" way for you?
By doing everything. The Internet. A lot of Internet. I came out in the age of Gay.com and TK chat rooms. So there was a lot of that. And honestly, if I had to do it all over again, I would talk to my younger self about being more careful, about who and what I let inside my body. It's amazing to be sexually free and to be sexually expressive, but I think I kind of treated my body and my soul with reckless abandon in just being like "Oh my God! It's fun! It's fun!" I would make decisions and then think about how I really felt about those decisions later, and I think now at 30 years old, I'm a lot more thoughtful about who I give my time to, who I give my body to.
Not to say that I don't have fun and have something one-off here and there. That's totally fun! I was just really reckless as a teenager and in my 20's with my little bean. I think that because as gay men we've been taught that we weren't natural. In the 80's and 90's people were like "We tolerate you, but we don't agree with your lifestyle." Our reaction to that was "Oh, well, if you don't like it I'm going to do it ten times more."
For me, personally, I did not have enough of an overall maturity level and well-being level to be making some of the decisions I was making a young as I was making them. So I would say that I reconciled my sexuality with a lot of danger and a lot of Internet, and thank God I got to here and this side of it in a wholehearted, vulnerable way.
Who would you say was your guide through it all?
My stepdad was so important for me, growing up. I met him when I was six. He is someone who taught me how to change a tire, taught me how to ride a bike.
I think I called my mom the b-word, like, one time when I was twelve. And definitely that was not going to be happening again. I think everyone needs a father to be like, "You cannot talk to your mom that way." He taught me respect. He taught me rules. He taught me boundaries. And every single time someone was really hateful to me or while I was mercilessly bullied when I was growing up, we always had his TV chair and we always watched telly together. And he always knew when to talk and when not to talk — to give me space and just let me be. He's just such an amazing person. He really gave me the nurturing and masculine qualities that I have. A lot of it came from him.
Among the Fab Five, audiences see you as someone who's truly owned your femininity. How did you get to this point of being so confident and comfortable with owning your feminine side?
Growing up in the place that I did, I was very flamboyant and, like I said, I was really really bullied and made fun of for that. So at a very early age, I had a choice to make and it was either shove who you are way, way deep down. But then when I considered that, I realized at seven years old that I can't act. I am not an actor. I can't change my voice. I can't change the fact that all I want to do is wear Kristi Yamaguchi figure skating outfits to school. I can't help that I quote the Spice Girls. I can't help dancing to my favorites. I just felt that I could not dim my gay shine! I just couldn't!
I don't know that owning my femininity was ever a choice. Because, also, I could change tires so fast that I'd make your head spin! I am super feminine, but I just think that all of us are dual-spirited. I think everyone has masculine and feminine flowing throughout their body. It's about letting yourself be comfortable letting those energies flow. And I think my feminine energy, which is still Erin Brokovich strong, that there's no question for her. She's old faithful, my feminine side!What other common misconceptions do you want to debunk?
A lot of the questions that I get asked is if any of the five of us sleep together. And I think because of gay men's sexual freedom, I think a lot of people think that if two gay men are friendly that they're automatically sleeping together. I've never been asked in an interview if any of us hooked up, but friends and fans ask that a lot. And I think it's totally okay for two attractive people — whether it's man on man, woman on man... Like it's that misconception where men and women can never be friends. There's always an ulterior motive. I'm like, "Why?" Why can't people just be friends? Two attractive people can just be friends.
I think that's just a misconception about human nature and sexuality. It's definitely part of all of us, gay or straight. But it doesn't have to dictate every decision we make.
How does grooming empower you and people in general?
I mean, to quote Beyoncé, "I'm feeling myself!" When you look in the mirror and you feel like you look good, it literally creates this scientific chemical reaction in your brain. You're going to make some endorphins. You're going to make some adrenaline, "Oh my gosh! Sexy, slay, work, bitch! You look great!" So there's that self-empowering face to it. And there's also "actions speak louder than words." So when you make this time for yourself, whether it's two minutes or twenty minutes, or however long it takes to style your hair and put on some sunscreen — that's you showing yourself through action that you are worth investing in. And that, energetically, empowers other people.
And that brings up another point: "Am I doing this to make myself feel good? Or am I making myself look this way so that other people will like me?" But it's kind of like, chicken or the egg. Do you need to do it because you like how you feel about yourself? And you like what you feel when you're taking care of yourself? But when you do feel good because you're taking care of yourself, I believe that other people will likely invest their time, their money, their love, their whatever. Because when you invest in yourself, people are like, "I want what you have."
What's the difference between self-care and vanity? Where do you draw the line?
I think that's a very good question, and I think it's a very personal one. To me, if you're quest for "perfection" is getting in the way of you living your best life, you've probably gotten into a vanity phase. If your life is becoming unmanageable because you are so concerned with maintaining a certain appearance...Ooh! Oh my God I just got the answer to this!
If your self-care crosses the line to where you're only doing it for other people, for how other people perceive you, it's probably gone to a vanity phase. But if you're doing it for yourself, if you're doing it to feel good about yourself truly, then it's self-care. But if you're in an abusive relationship and some guy is asking you to lipo your thighs and get lips done, or lose ten pounds or get bigger arms, then you're kind of foregoing who you are to appease something else. That is not self-care. That's actually someone else's vanity affecting your life.
Yas nice speech, girl! I'm doing great!
Outside of grooming and doing your shows, what else do you like to do?
I love to learn, and I love to read. I love National Geographic. My brain, she's just bored when there's nothing percolating in there. So my podcast is really good for that. Two times a month I literally get an expert on something I've been curious about and I interview them. And I just make thirty minutes of recording that doesn't really have editing. It's just thirty minutes of me learning from somebody smarter than I am about something. And that is just so enriching for me.
I also love yoga. I love the gym. I love telly. I love to watch some gorgeous television. I can't wait for Westworld Season 2. It's just like: podcast, cats, gym, my friends. That's what I like to do when I'm not doing "work" stuff. And of course hair. Although that seems like work, but I love doing hair.
Would you do a Westworld recap show?
I feel like Westworld is one of the few shows that could hold a candle to Game of Thrones in that regard. Because you really need a show with a ton of meat and multiple storylines to do a Gay of Thrones-style recap. We'll see!
What does it mean to be truly fierce?
I think being truly fierce and all about living your truth. And if someone is being negative to you or calls you out, or doesn't support you living in your fiercedom, you are strong enough in your sense of self that you don't respond. That's what fierce is.
Who is the fiercest person you look up to most?
Mirai Nigasu. Really really look up to her. Proud of her even though she's younger than me, but I really look up to her. She's making it real big right now.
Now we're down to the speed round. Are you ready?
Favorite color: Green
Favorite scent: Something of No Man's Land... It's Rose of No Man's Land by Byredo! Or Blanche by Byredo!
Favorite hair product: Wonder Worker by Shu Uemura
Fave skin product: Ohmygod! Ohmygod! Ohmygod! I'm spacing... Pink Cloud facial moisturizer by Herbivore.
Favorite song that you're listening to currently: Dua Lipa, "Garden"
Favorite person: Mmmmmmmm....Eliza Dushku
Favorite person whose hair you did: Pedro Pascal
Favorite GoT episode: Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod ohmygod. When Christina Aguilera fucking burns down all those Dothraki last year.
Favorite animal: My cats. And if it was like a really random animal, a springbok, because I think they're really fierce.
Top or bottom: Balance. Balance, hunny. Yes, balance! Yes, versatility!
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Images by Amy Sussman and Aaron Richter