It’s late afternoon at Bustle’s New York office and Queer Eye's Jonathan Van Ness is crying. “I never cry in interviews, this is really random and I always dread people that do," he says, wiping away tears. He quickly regains his composure to finish talking about the impact of Queer Eye, Netflix's reboot of the mid-aughts show of the same name, on which he's the Fab Five's Grooming Expert. "It's really exciting and it also feels... a little bit pressure-y," he says.
It's hard to blame him: When it was announced that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was getting a makeover with a new Fab Five, it was hard for anyone to imagine that a reboot could recreate the charismatic magic of the original's group of men. But just weeks after its premiere, Queer Eye has stolen hearts with its new Fab Five: Bobby Berk, Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Karamo Brown, and Van Ness. While most of these guys may be new faces to viewers, if you think you’ve seen Van Ness somewhere before, you aren’t wrong. The L.A-based hairdresser has been tirelessly recapping Game of Thrones in his Funny Or Die webseries Gay of Thrones, which he created with Erin Gibson. It even received an Emmy nomination in 2016.
And while Queer Eye and the impact that Van Ness is making on the world has him feeling a bit emotional when we speak, he can still immediately flip back into Gay of Thrones mode to dish out quippy one-liners about a who's who of Westeros. It's the perfect showcase for both Van Ness' hairstyling skills (he styles a guest's hair while recapping the show) and his snappy sense of humor, which is best exemplified by his ability to create spot-on nicknames for all of GoT's characters (for example, when Cersei's hair was long, she was "Blonde Cher," while Arya's turn as an assassin in Season 6 earned her the nickname "Baby Kill Bill").
Though we'll have to wait until 2019 for more Game of Thrones and Gay of Thrones, Van Ness has plenty of theories about what’s going to happen in the final season — he thinks either Blonde Cher will die by her own hand, or maybe Dany dies and Blonde Cher lives. “Maybe the whole moral of the story is that like, the worst human wins,” he says. But perhaps his biggest end-game theory is one you've probably seen all over Reddit: Yes, Van Ness is also a Bran-Stark-is-the-Night-King truther.
“That first episode of [Season 6], you see the Night King up close and personal, it's his face. Like it's literally Bran's face, but green," Van Ness says. "Then also with his PTSD, he was so PTSD-ish — he knew with Hodor. So I think that he can see that he's going to end up to come back and try and kill all of his own family. So he's feeling awkward about spending time with Sansa and with them because he knows who he is." While Van Ness and his GoT theories have may have flown under the radar before, in a post-Queer Eye world, they certainly will not.
Van Ness attributes his ability to keep a clear head amid the near-overnight success of Netflix's Queer Eye to the fact that he was able to dip his toes into the public eye with Gay of Thrones. He also got used to being around celebrities when he worked as an assistant to celebrity hairstylist Sally Hershberger, a gig that coincidentally led to him styling the Game of Thrones cast for Comic Con during one of the early seasons. All that experience around celebrities, he says, plus the fact that Queer Eye was made and released relatively quickly, helped Van Ness dive in without too much time to get in his head.
“If I thought about how much everyone loved the first show [Queer Eye For The Straight Guy] and how big of a deal it was to so many people, and then the cultural impact that it had, how far we've come now, and how much Netflix invested in it, I don't think I could have put one foot in front of the other. Like I wouldn't have been able to have done my job," he says.
As a fan of the original Queer Eye (the show came out when Van Ness was a sophomore in high school, and he had a crush on Kyan, the original Grooming Expert, who is now a dear friend), Van Ness felt the pressure to do right by the original.
“I was really worried that people were just gonna hate it," Van Ness says. But he also acknowledges that not everybody was thrilled with the original series, and he wants to prove the haters wrong, too. "There's definitely that group of ... gay men that are like, 'That show set us back 50 years.' Not literally 50 years, but put us in a box of like, 'Oh all gay men need to be hairdressers, or designers, or stylists.' And I hear that. I understand why someone would feel like that," he says. "But I knew as we were making it, I knew we put our hearts and souls into it.”
Van Ness grew up in a small, rural town, so being able to go to Middle America to have wide-ranging conversations about self-love felt necessary to him. And he sees much of the work that he and the Fab Five do as a collaboration between them and their subject. “We really were passionately wanting to improve their lives, after we were gone. We were trying to do things that made sense for them," he says. "It was like we wanted to do things that would be thoughtful and improve their lives, and so I think that is why it works now. Because I don't have like a monopoly on like, grooming. You know?”
It's that positive, open-hearted attitude that has people all over social media clamoring to be his bestie and share their stories with him. Van Ness seems genuinely touched when he mentions that a good friend asked her daughter, who was nervous about auditioning for her school musical, what Van Ness’s advice would be for her. “And through tears she was all like, 'To slay!'”
While it can feel a bit "pressure-y," Van Ness is ultimately excited to have this responsibility and to be given a platform. It's something his younger self never could have imagined. “I was just like a cute little curly-haired, buck-toothed baby, but that kid hated himself. And people would like trip me, [call me] f*gg*t, hide things, like, so cruel.” But Van Ness' giving and utterly genuine nature and his struggles as a teen have clearly more than prepared him to make an impact on the world.
“I know what it's like to be in a place where you're like really, really sad and don't see an end," he says. "I don't want to have to feel like I need to always be this bright, bubbly person because I'm also really impacted and worried about gun control, and there are so many things that I'm worried about that I will continue to talk about because that's who I am. But it also feels like such a blessing and an opportunity to be able to help anyone in any kind of way.”
While Van Ness feels lucky to be able to have a platform, we’re lucky to have his generous, joyful spirit on our screens. When asked if he was intimidated by having to follow up the original Fab Five, his answer was a little too relatable. “I'm definitely grateful for the human ability to like, dissociate,” he says. So, on top of everything else, we’re also lucky to have his biting wit.