Most people know Jonathan Van Ness as the breakout star of Netflix’s reboot of “Queer Eye,” in which five gay men makeover a different person every episode. But Van Ness — who’s in charge of “personal grooming” and whose catchphrases (“Yas queen,” “Can you believe?”) have become mantras for the show — isn’t only a television star. He was a hairdresser in Los Angeles when he started hosting the web series “Gay of Thrones,” which instantly took off. Now, between shooting “Queer Eye” and dipping his toes in standup, Van Ness hosts various experts to discuss topics that interest him on his podcast, “Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.” On Oct. 27 at Bentzen Ball in Washington, D.C., he’ll be doing a live taping of the podcast with a special guest.
The Lily chatted with Bentzen Ball comedians via text and phone calls ahead of the festival, which runs Oct. 25-28.
Lena Felton: Hi Jonathan, how are you this morning?
Jonathan Van Ness: So good, thanks. How are you?
LF: I’m good – this is much more exciting of a morning than I usually have.
JVN: Love that story. So glad I could be a part of it.
LF: Where are you right now?
JVN: I’m in rainy Kansas City.
LF: In the midst of production [for the third season of Netflix’s “Queer Eye”]?
JVN: Yes. Good word play.
LF: Ha, thanks. So everyone here at The Lily is super excited for Bentzen Ball.
JVN: Me too. Can I just say that literally – and I’m ashamed to say it – but I have not been to gorgeous Washington, D.C., since I was 9.
LF: What? No way.
JVN: I know, I know, I know, I know. I said I was ashamed and I was not kidding. But I’m very excited to be back in gorgeous D.C. I’m very excited.
LF: What are you most excited about?
JVN: Well, just seeing it. I feel like it’s just such a gorgeous, pretty town. And when I was there when I was 9 and there with my family on a vacation, my dad lost his wallet and it had like $400 cash in it and this really nice lady at the Smithsonian found it and called us and gave it back. So I just feel like Washington, D.C., left a very gorgeous taste in my mouth. And speaking of gorgeous tastes in my mouth, I’m hoping that the Smithsonian still has that gorgeous float that they had – like a very gorgeous chocolate root beer float situation in this little restaurant-y thing that they had there. So, excited for that.
LF: Oh, you definitely need to get that again. But D.C. is a really nice place – very nice people. How did you get involved in Bentzen Ball in particular?
JVN: Well, usually what happens is I am typing something or doing something on an email or posting something and then I get a gorgeous little email notification and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, like, we have this offer to be in this festival.” And I’m like, “Oh my god, okay.” So that was how that happened and I was so excited. Obviously Bentzen Ball is a fabulous festival and I’m so excited to be part of it. So, really, that’s anticlimactically how it happened.
LF: Things do just tend to happen that way. It’s always the emails. And you’ll be doing a live version of your podcast, “Getting Curious,” for the show?
LF: Can you give us any sneak peaks as to what you’re going to be talking about on this one?
JVN: Well, I think I’m – okay, here’s, like, the other casualty of my schedule and my handle of said schedule. Things change so much, and I can’t remember if I’m doing like one show or three shows or 11. So, like, I can tell you it’s either going to be informative and funny, or it’s just going to be funny. Or it could just informative. There’s going to be funny moments, there’s going to be informative moments. There’s going to be heart, there’s going to be soul, there’s going to be me.
LF: That’s the best.
JVN: Yeah. And also, it’s going to be fun – I think. But we will see how it goes.
LF: Who’s someone you haven’t had on your podcast yet that would be your ultimate guest?
JVN: Oh my god.
LF: Or a topic?
JVN: Well, I’ve kind of covered – honestly, it’s such a hard question. I know that’s like a lame thing to say. Oh my god, there are so many topics that I really want to do. One thing I really want to know right now is what really happens to recycling? Is it really recycled? Like where does it go? How good should we feel when we recycle stuff? Like, as good as I want to feel? I don’t know. So that’s one thing. I also – I think it’s all “Anastasia,” that animated film from the ’90s, but I’m really obsessed with the Romanoffs. I kind of did cover that on my second episode, but I could always do more. Also, too, like any Olympic gymnast or figure skater will always – I freak out for them the most.
LF: You grew up doing gymnastics, right?
JVN: Kind of. You could call it that.
LF: Were you a big fan of watching it when you were little?
JVN: Yes. Always. The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta always really dominated my developing gay brain in terms of my sports obsession. And also 1994. And Tonya [Harding] and Nancy [Kerrigan]. That really impacted my psyche a lot. And don’t even get me started on Kristi Yamaguchi, because I love her too. Like oh my god.
LF: She’s the best. What podcasts do you listen to besides your own?
JVN: I only listen to “Serial” and “Throwing Shade.”
LF: I’ve never listened to “Throwing Shade,” but “Serial” is so great.
JVN: “Throwing Shade” is really funny. It’s got Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi and it’s really, really funny. I think you’d like it.
LF: I’ll definitely check it out. So you’re also doing a special brunch with Antoni Porowski [of “Queer Eye”] to help raise money for Whitman-Walker Health during Bentzen Ball. What’s your go-to brunch dish?
JVN: I like anything with salty and sweet, but I really love a good chocolate chip pancake. Oh my god, I do.
LF: I want one right now, actually. That just made me hungry.
JVN: Do you? That’s like your truth right now. I’m okay with that.
LF: It sounds delicious. You’re also coming to D.C., which is pretty politically charged right now, as you can imagine.
JVN: Is it? Just kidding.
LF: Ha. I was like, seriously? But you’re pretty outspoken about politics on social media. Do you think that increased as you became more of a public figure? Or have you always been politically engaged?
JVN: I have always been really politically engaged. I come from a broadcasting family. I have always been really into the news and into reading and I think I’ve just always had a voracious appetite for wanting to have an understanding of the systems that are working around me. If I’m interested in them, which is a big caveat. Like, I have to be naturally invested in it to want to know.
LF: What are the things that you’re naturally interested in?
JVN: I’m naturally interested in equality and people being heard and people being seen. And I’m interested in really wanting to know, like, do I feel this way? Or do I feel this way because I’ve been told I need to feel this way because of what I’ve read and things I’ve been led to believe? So it’s understanding how to think critically about a lot of different things is what naturally interests me. What does not naturally interest me is, like, algebra. I can’t handle algebra. Or any, like, cosine, trig. Tangents, cotangents. Any of that is something that I am not, quote, “here for.” That’s not my truth.
LF: Me either. By the way, are you still doing hair? Do you have the time?
JVN: My assistant Melissa who has been my hair assistant for like three years, she’s an incredible hairdresser, and my business partner Monique, who’s another incredible hairdresser and just a very dear friend of mine who I had a studio with for like five years – my plan when I started filming again was that I would work like one day every other week or one day a month, because I did that when we shot the first time. That has unfortunately not been the case. I still do hair on the show, of course, and I still do Bobby [Berk] and Antoni’s hair, and I still do some friends’ hair. But I don’t – I kind of passed on the baton to my assistant to maintain my clients in L.A., and she’s doing amazing. I still want to do hair, it’s just with everything that’s coming up and shooting I literally –
LF: It’s impossible.
JVN: It really is, which I never thought. You know my clients, when “Queer Eye” first came out, they were like, “You’re going to leave us, you’re not going to be doing hair anymore.” And I was like, “Get out. I’m always going to do hair.” I understand what they mean now. It’s just like, hold on, one second, BRB. I’ll totally BRB.
LF: Did you always have big dreams of being famous? Did you expect this?
JVN: No. No. I mean, in seventh and eighth grade I think I went through this phase, like when we would get ready to go to St. Louis to go to the big mall, I was like, “Oh my gosh, look really cute, because what if there’s a talent scout in St. Louis and you become a model?” Because I watched that VH1 Kardashian-style confessional show about how supermodels become supermodels. So I was like, “What if I became a supermodel?” When I was, like, a chubby, buck-toothed, really curly-haired gay kid in the middle of America. But I really, long before that, really, truly wanted to be a hairdresser. And really wanted to do hair. That was always my passion, and I moved to L.A. with really that in mind and just wanting to be a hairdresser. So “Gay of Thrones” was kind of a detour for me. I was like, “Okay, I’ll do that, that’s fun.” So this platform and this career has been a surprise, but at the same time it’s one I’m really, really grateful for. And also, it would be naïve to say that after “Gay of Thrones” – like, that gave me a taste of entertainment and it gave me a taste of what it’s like to create content and a taste of what it’s like to have a voice. And definitely over the last five years it has made me want to seek that out more so. But prior to “Gay of Thrones,” that was definitely never my goal. And I’m always really shocked. Like it’s been half shocked, half intentional since after “Gay of Thrones.”
LF: Definitely. Okay, so because this is a comedy festival with a lot of funny people talking about their own lives, what’s the funniest or craziest thing that’s happened to you in the past week?
JVN: Hmm. What have I done in the past week? I was wearing overalls, and I was trying to get dressed and get mic-ed for a show I was hosting, and I had to take like one leg out of my overalls to get this mic wire right, and my heel caught the overall and I just fell. Like, completely like a 2 by 4, just a board. Like all the way on the ground. But also it’s not that funny, because it’s almost impossible to embarrass me – like, it’s almost impossible. There are certain things, but you really have to work hard for it. But that was funny. I literally got confused in a heel and my overalls and literally timbered.
LF: Overalls are one of the most confusing pieces of clothing anyway.
JVN: And then you add a mic into it? Just forget about it.
LF: Oh, totally. Okay, well thank you for taking the time, Jonathan.