On and Off the Avenue
Jonathan Van Ness Thinks You Should Let Your Quarantine Hair Grow
The hair stylist and “Queer Eye” star offers wisdom on grooming, sweatpants, and more.
May 26, 2020
Photographs by Eli Durst for The New Yorker
Jonathan Van Ness—podcaster, author, and “grooming expert” on the Netflix series “Queer Eye”—misses other people’s hair. To pass the time in quarantine, he told me recently, he has been cutting his own Jesus-like locks and walking friends through at-home haircuts via Zoom. He has also been recording episodes of his podcast, “Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness,” in which he interviews guests about a remarkably wide variety of topics, from fashion to politics to history. (Recent episodes include “How Did You Become So F*#%!ng Fierce?,” with the designer Christian Siriano, and “When Did We Start To Demonize Poverty?,” with the economic journalist Mary O’Hara.)
Van Ness grew up in Quincy, Illinois, where his family owns a local media company. He has often spoken about the bullying he suffered as a “flamboyant kid” in a small town. He went to college at the University of Arizona on a partial cheerleading scholarship, before dropping out in his first year to go to cosmetology school. “Who am I fooling?,” he said in one interview about those years. “I’m not a college student, I’m a hairdresser.” He studied at the Aveda Institute, in Minneapolis, before moving to Phoenix and later to Los Angeles to cut hair full-time. (He is now based in New York.) It was while standing behind a barber’s chair that Van Ness discovered that he could wield his tongue as sharply as his shears; one of his clients worked for the Web site Funny Or Die, and, in 2013, she encouraged him to make a Web series for the site. The result, “Gay of Thrones,” in which Van Ness would colorfully recap “Game of Thrones” episodes while snipping hair, became a viral sensation. Van Ness landed a spot on the “Queer Eye” reboot and, following the show’s success in 2018, became a breakout star. With his handlebar mustache, quick witticisms, and high-heeled boots, he frolics through every episode advocating stubble maintenance and self care. Last fall, Van Ness released a memoir, “Over the Top
,” in which he disclosed his struggles with addiction and his H.I.V.-positive status. He spoke to me on Zoom from Austin, Texas, about L.G.B.T.Q. rights, his pet cats, and grooming tips for people stuck inside (hint: don’t buzz your head).
Hi. What are you doing in Texas?
Well, we were shooting “Queer Eye” in Austin when everything started. And then—I don’t know if you’ve ever travelled with four cats in an airport?
No, definitely not.
Yeah, it is not the most amazing experience. So I just stayed.
O.K., wait, I need all the cats’ names.
This is Hairy Larry, and he is my oldest. Um, I have Matilda. She’s right here taking a nap. And then I have Lady G and Liza Meownelli, who’s right here. I have to say she has not been taking quarantine well. She has really bad cat I.B.S., because she survived panleuk when she was a kitten, which is like parvo in dogs. But now if you look at her wrong, she has diarrhea.
I’m sorry I’m talking about this. Why am I talking about this?
I want to talk about grooming during quarantine. There was an article today in the Times from a makeup influencer who asked, Does anyone care what I look like? Nobody can see me. What is your take on the idea of maintenance while so many people are inside?
One of my best friends always told me, “Don’t should me.” Whenever you’re “should”-ing someone, it’s kind of a way of shaming them. This is an unprecedented situation that we are all going through, and I think everyone is going to handle it in different ways. If it makes you feel more at peace to do a full face of glam on a daily basis, even if you’re not going somewhere, do it. Never had the time to get into it before and now you do have time and you have the resources to do that? Go for it. But if you don’t want to and it doesn’t make you feel good, or you’ve been someone who’s doing that a lot and you want to take a break, that’s O.K.
What are you doing personally?
At the beginning I think I was a little bit like, Oh my gosh, I don’t have to blow-dry my hair. I had just been filming. I had just been on tour. And I’d also just been on the back of two years of nonstop go, go, go. And then, in the last couple of weeks, I’m like, I miss doing hair. Like, I’m going to do finger waves on my hair. I’m gonna do my cats’ hair. I’ve been teaching my friends how to do their hair on Zoom.
Have you cut your own hair?
Yeah, I did like a little bit of a fringe trim on myself with [the “Schitt’s Creek” star] Emily Hampshire on her show the other day. [Laughs.] I trimmed the front a little bit. It was like a little face frame.
Jonathan Van Ness’s Keys to "Gorg" Self-Maintenance
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I cut my own bangs. I did the thing where you cut up and not across.
Perfect. That’s a point cut versus a blunt cut. It’s more soft, so it’s more forgiving. That’s great.
The thing where you pull them out, twist them, and cut—is that a good way to do it? I was told once by somebody you should twist them and then cut them.
Well, what always messes up my clients the worst, and what always gave me such a headache, is where your fringe actually comes from. People cut hair here on the sides or like over here on their temple. A lot of times my clients would want that thing where when you pull your hair back and you have like a little bit of something here, you know that thing?
Yeah, like almost a shag type thing?
Right, so when you have long hair like us and then you can pull it back a little bit and all of a sudden there’s a tuft right here? It’s like, no! If you’re going to do it, you just want to make sure that it’s right on the top part.
The triangle, the Bermuda Triangle.
My rule of thumb is that you want to try to not cut it wider than the outside of your brows.
How have the Zoom hair tutorials been going?
Good. I did this thing the other night where I parted my hair all the way down in the middle and then I put in some mousse, on freshly washed hair. And then I did almost like a French braid—just every time you twist it you pick up a little bit more here. And when you take it out, it gives you the best big circle-y waves.
I wanted to see ask you a few questions about what people in different situations should do with their hair right now. Do you think people should be covering grays right now, or just let it ride?
O.K. I don’t know the legality around this, but if your colorist who you have a regular relationship with, can, like, get you your color in, like, a cute little bag and then you can, like, Venmo them and get some contactless pickup? I just don’t want you to put box color on your hair if you’ve not been doing that. So yes. Or, no!
Got it. Men growing out their hair versus buzzing it?
Grow! Please grow!
You think? But what about that weird in-between stage?
I feel like there’s a part in “Erin Brockovich” where she says something like . . . I think it’s . . . I don’t know. I can’t remember. I just want everything to be an “Erin Brockovich” quote. But, so what? We all have a middle stage. Just do it.
This is a classic “Queer Eye” question, but straight men who are starting to experiment with growing out their hair, and they’re, like, maybe should I put it in clips? Should I put it up? If they want to get it off their face, should they be wearing headbands?
I love a headband. I also don’t think this is a heterosexual-specific question. I think that there are a lot of homosexual to asexual to bisexual and pansexual people who are growing out their hair, and women for that matter, who maybe have had short hair. I love the following thing for growing out your hair: a good, old-fashioned, lightweight summer hat.
Wait, like a bucket hat?
I like to do a beanie, but it’s extremely light. You know, T-shirt material. I also love a fierce headband.
I feel like you risk looking like Josh Brolin in “The Goonies.”
Is that a bad thing?
Maybe not. What about like a bobby-pin situation on men’s hair?
I also really love a bobby pin! When I was growing my hair out—because I cut my hair off when I was twenty-five, I don’t know what I was thinking—I would twist it, just twist it. Do you remember when we used to twist it in and put little butterfly clips in it?
I grew up in the nineties; I definitely do.
So yeah, I would do that. And then I would just put two bobby pins behind and then sometimes bobby-pin the top. I would do a little pompadour.
How are we feeling about eyebrow maintenance in quarantine?
I feel really firm about letting that grow. That is such a slippery slope, you know? Next thing you know that there’s like three survivors and you don’t know what happened.
Not everybody who’s a hairstylist has been able to parlay that into a media career. People are still just hoofing, and that’s how you started out. What are people who are in that profession going to do now, to survive?
I’ve spent so much time thinking about that and talking about that, just with my friends. I’ve been thinking about what I would have done if this had happened in 2012 or 2013 or 2014 or 2015 or 2016, especially as it relates to some stuff that I’ve talked about in my book, about [my] struggles with addiction and stuff. I was going through a lot of that when I was building my clientele and doing hair.
We’re seeing new regulations for how salons are gonna function in a post-coronavirus world—you know, no blow-dries, and no more dry haircuts, and obviously not packing [people] in. Like, we won’t be able to do someone [else] while you have your color processing—I was the queen of that. And I think all of us are the queen of that, because that’s what we have to do.
Right, multitasking, getting people through the door.
Exactly. I have been wondering if, in the future, prices will go up, because you’re not going to be able to double-book. No-shows and late-shows were always something that really affected my business. And it’s so hard to make clients understand it. Because, you know, I’ve never known a salon that paid a hairdresser to be there if they don’t have a client. If you’re a stylist, you only get paid if there’s a butt in your chair. And so to only be able to do one at a time—if someone is late, that’s already impacted your bottom line.
You were all in for Elizabeth Warren during the Democratic primary, but you’ve come out recently as a fan of Joe Biden.
I’m just having a chat with my internal filter. Stand by.
O.K., so, I, um . . . I’m a really big fan of making sure that our President is someone who will instate the institutions to create an equal playing field for everyone. For black people, for L.G.B.T.Q.+ people, especially for trans people. If Trump wins again, we could lose marriage equality as we know it—[in some] states at the very least. And Roe v. Wade, the people’s access to reproductive health care—and not only is it reproductive health care, it’s H.I.V. testing, it’s trans treatment, it’s S.T.I. treatment, it’s being able to talk to your doctor honestly and openly about what you’re doing, so that you can get the treatment that you need, free of shame and judgment from medical providers who could potentially turn you away because they don’t agree with your decisions.
So, look, I think Joe Biden is a flawed person and he has a flawed past. What he did with Anita Hill, what his role was in writing the mass-incarceration legislation, is super problematic. I think that the Tara Reade allegations are troubling, and I do want to give him some credit: from the stories that I’ve read, it seems like he wants her to tell her story, and it’s really important that she does.
I just . . . we have to win. We really, really, really have to win.
Some people have compared the political battles around coronavirus to those around H.I.V. How do you feel about people comparing the two?
Reagan, at the onslaught of aids crisis, didn’t even say the word aids publicly until 1985. And, you know, his press secretary—there’s all of that audio of him making fun of that reporter who’s asking him about it, and they’re making homophobic jokes. It wasn’t until H.I.V. was seen as a threat to everyone, not just gay men, that anyone changed anything. So I do think for that reason, if we are going to play the comparison game, it isn’t the same, because there were decades and decades of inaction. covid-19’s been around for six months, and we’re talking about a year away from a vaccine.
[On the other hand], in the H.I.V./
aids crisis, there was such a need to focus blame on gay people—you know, this was God’s thing for you. And blah, blah, blah. And then, now there has been this huge racism and xenophobia toward Asian people. I do think I see that correlation. When something like this happens, instead of us turning against each other . . . I know my therapist would say we need to, like, lean into our relationship with each other. That’s how we get through.
Are you still going to therapy virtually?
When you can finally get back to “Queer Eye,” and who knows when that will be, but have you thought about how this experience is going to affect the advice you give people? The idea that an internal transformation is matched by an external transformation: do you think that has been changed at all by this quarantine?
So I obviously love to do hair. And I love to do transformation sometimes. But I feel like my passion, and my role, is more about accepting who we are and embracing who we are. I’m a lot of times more of, like, the anti-transformation beauty expert. I really want people to celebrate themselves, and that’s always what I’m trying to do.
Do you think there are new opportunities for that, now that so many people are alone with themselves?
Yeah, but I also feel like I still want validation from others, even when I’m isolated. I think that’s still a little human, too.
What’s your loungewear situation?
Well, it’s not great, because I came to Texas for two weeks in March thinking that I’d go back to Manhattan and, like, go to my house and get my stuff, which I didn’t.
You’re not online shopping, just ordering robes?
O.K., fine. Call me out. I did go rogue on some sweats. There was a sale, I forget where I found it. It was like click, click, and a click. The next thing I knew, I had gotten some tie-dye sweats. Do you want me to tell you the brand? Cause it’s super comfy.
Please, I need good sweats.
It’s this John Elliott tie-dye that I went off on.
Do you miss your own clothes a little bit?
What I miss is my mugs. I really miss my mugs.
is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She has covered fashion, style, and other cultural subjects since 2012.
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