Health & Beauty

Jonathan Van Nice

June 20, 2022

Everyone loves the TV version of Jonathan Van Ness, the hairdresser who in 2018 shot to fame on Netflix’s Queer Eye, which is about to go into production on its seventh season. So it’s a huge relief to report that the real-life (or, at least, Zoom) incarnation of JVN is even more delightful: not saccharine or over-smiley, but thoughtful, clever, passionate, witty, overflowing with empathy and curiosity, and absolutely himself.

The 35-year-old grew up in Quincy, Illinois, and was always destined to work in beauty. “There were three things that attracted me—it was the perfect trifecta,” he says. “One was my mom’s roller set. My mom would do hot rollers and I just thought hot rollers were the coolest thing of all time. The next was beauty pageants because my mom thought they were really cool—well, thinks they’re cool. … And then ultimately it was when my mom took me to an Aveda store when I was 10. It was 1997 in St. Louis. That’s where I started to learn about ingredients and the origins of ingredients. That’s the first time when I was a kid when I was like, ‘I want to be a hairdresser and go to Aveda,’ and that’s what I ended up doing.”

After finishing his training and working as a hairdresser in Arizona, he landed in Los Angeles. There he had a taste of showbusiness, first with a Game of Thrones web series and then Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness, a podcast he’s hosted since 2015. Its title tells you everything you need to know about what drives Van Ness. He interviews authors, academics, activists and actors about everything from a day in the life of a coral reef, what was it like to get loved up in Georgian England, why we fall for fake news, what’s Indigenous science to whether or not figure skaters can defy gravity, all with a focus on listening and questioning with humility, passion and genuine interest.

His career path has been a zigzag, as befits such a curious character.  After Queer Eye exploded, he took up figure skating and gymnastics, popped up in Detective Pikachu and wrote a kids’ book about a non-binary guinea pig. That he would create a haircare line seems almost mundane, except for the fact that he’s doing it in his own unique way.

The JVN range comprises shampoos, conditioners and styling products—so far, so standard. The range is sustainable from both an ingredient and packaging point of view; we’re impressed, Van Ness. It’s also non-gendered, which is something of a departure for a beauty industry that prefers its products to be clad in macho black for the boys and something pink for the girls.

“So many of the biological differences between the sexes are arbitrary. You can say that women usually fall within this range and men usually fall within this one, but there are millions of men and women that fall outside of those. The systems that were defined said that men have more testosterone, so men are like this, and women are like that. Those systems were usually formed by white male doctors in the 1940s through 1980s. It’s the same as BMI for instance, all those things—and it’s a way of policing fatness or maleness or gender,” says Van Ness, who identifies as non-binary and uses he/him, they/them, she/her pronouns. “Whatever your gender is, your hair either is too dry and needs more moisture, or it’s too brittle so it’s breaking, so it’s weak and needs more strength, or it’s too fine and you need more body and volume. That’s why it was so essential to me to create those shampoo and conditioner lines.”

As you’d expect from someone who, as a child, was so obsessed with ingredients he would read shampoo bottles in the shower, Van Ness is particular about what goes into his range. The key ingredient in all the products is hemisqualane, derived from sustainable sugarcane. “It’s so transformative to hair because it’s such a refined molecule, and it also is a molecule that makes all the other ingredients in the formula work harder,” he explains. “It brings out the best of them because it’s such a good carrier. You put it on your hair and it’s like, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ to the rest of the things in the formula. It’s also light and universally efficacious no matter what your hair type or gender.”

The products come in jewel-toned packaging made from aluminum and glass, both highly recyclable, with caps from mostly post-consumer recycled plastic. “My first goal was to be plastic-free on launch and then the scientific team was like, ‘There’s actually no technology short of shampoo bars,’ and I’ve never used a shampoo bar that didn’t … yeah,” Van Ness laughs. “So now we’re working on it and our goal is to be plastic-free in 2025.

“The other thing is that with all the plastic that exists, we need better recycling capabilities and there needs to be a market for PCR plastic. So we do want to use that so we can deal with the volume that exists.” As you’d expect, given his passion for social justice, Van Ness wants to help move the needle on sustainability on an even grander scale. “We need to do both: pressure lawmakers to regulate more and, because we are in a capitalistic society, show the bigger beauty makers that going plastic free is profitable and people want it,” he says. “It can be a parallel path—hello, let’s be non-binary.”

Perhaps the most enduring criticism that’s levelled at beauty is that it’s silly and frivolous—that it’s vain to care about how you look, that your attention and time are better spent on other things. Van Ness engages with the question thoughtfully. “I think that several truths can exist simultaneously. For some people, that can totally be their truth and that’s OK, and I don’t need to change that. For me, I don’t dress the way I dress or do my hair the way I do because I’m looking for validation. I do it because it’s how I feel good and confident, and it’s how I like to present. But also, if you see me go to get coffee in the morning or you look at me gardening in my sweat shorts with my hair all sloppy, I feel good like that, too. I feel good in lots of different ways.”

As with many things, Van Ness believes it ultimately comes down to connection. “For some people connecting with yourself is like, ‘I’m flossing, and that’s it.’ That could be what some people’s connection with their authentic self is and to them I say [applause] yass queen, but maybe we could get some Nurture Shampoo and Conditioner, too.”

This year has been a particularly challenging one for the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S. and Van Ness doesn’t paint a rosy picture when we talk about whether, these days, it’s easier for men to dress and express themselves the way they want. “I think across a lot of spaces there’s less shame particularly for men. You see more diverse people in the beauty industry and in entertainment. And also there is a lot of pervasive homophobia and transphobia as it relates to beauty and how men, women and non-binary people choose to express or show that beauty,” he says. “This year in particular there’s been more anti-trans legislation passed in the U.S.—and it’s May—than in the whole of last year. Last year was the biggest number of anti-trans bills passed in U.S. history. We need to start demanding more of our leaders; I live in Texas so this is on my mind now. I feel like I’m talking about that a lot lately because it’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve come but also figure out how we spread that equity and liberation to more places.”

In such a wide-ranging conversation, we’re curious now, about what he’s curious about now. “So much! How midterms will go. I’m going to New Orleans for season 7 of Queer Eye and I’ve never been there before, so I’m excited to live there for a few months,” he says. “And we also have so many exciting things with JVN Hair. It’s such a passion project for me. I love it so much. It’s the most work I’ve ever done—and that’s coming from someone who’s written two memoirs and, like, done all this other stuff. And also, I have a husband and five cats and dogs and, henny,  I’m just trying to grow into this space in my 30s, spread my roots and thrive.” —Aileen Lalor


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