Exclusive: Jonathan Van Ness on the life lessons he would teach his younger self

Written by Lauren Geall

Following the publication of his memoir, Over The Top, Jonathan Van Ness sat down with Stylist to reflect on everything he’s learnt over the years, and the lessons he’d like to teach his younger self.

Jonathan Van Ness has a long list of wannabe best friends, and this writer is undoubtedly one of them. 

Whether he’s sharing his latest red-carpet look on Instagram, guiding thought-provoking discussions on his podcast Getting Curious or spouting his signature “yas Queen” mantras and dramatic hair flicks on screen in Queer Eye, there is no doubt that Van Ness’ cheerful and charismatic personality is hard not to love. 

But underneath the surface – and among the pages of his new memoir, Over The Top – there is a Van Ness many of his fans will never have met before. A Van Ness that has dealt with sex and drug addiction, a HIV diagnosis and childhood sexual abuse, and spent his formative years dealing with people who thought he was “too loud” or “too femme”. 

Indeed, the difference between the way the public see Van Ness – and the layers of personality that actually form the Queer Eye star’s identity – is a topic he explores in the opening chapter of his book. “Would you still be so excited to meet me if you really knew who I was?” he asks. “If you knew all the things I’d done? If you could see all my parts?”

As the reaction to Van Ness’ book shows, the answer to this question is a resounding yes. Over The Top is raw, emotional and incredibly honest – and it’s only given the world yet another reason to love Van Ness and everything he stands for.

Between promoting his book, touring the world and trying to spend some quality time with his newly-adopted cats (“I love having four cats. The only thing better than having four cats is five, and the only thing better than five is six”), Van Ness sat down with Stylist to look back on the lessons he’s learnt over the years.

From style and hair to relationships and criticism, we questioned Van Ness on the lessons he would teach young Jonathan with the wisdom he’s gained over the years. Here’s what he had to say.

On relationships

“It’s so important to focus on building a relationship with ourselves. I think we focus too much on our relationships with others – romantic relationships, friendship relationships. 

“Obviously, as humans, we love connection and we need connection, but we can often overlook that connection with ourselves – a really integrated connection – and learning how to soothe ourselves and our nervous system, and making sure that’s a priority. I wish I’d learnt the value of that earlier.”

How can we work on that relationship with ourselves?

“Slow down. Any moment we can, slow down.”

On work

“I think it’s really important to be passionate about your job. I always loved doing hair. I still love doing hair, and I love everything I’m doing now. I love learning to write, getting up and doing stand-up comedy, making Queer Eye and getting to do hair on Queer Eye, and all of the other different things that I’ve been able to do over the years – I’ve always been so passionate about whatever the opportunity was. 

“I’m not someone who excels if I’m not engaged in a passionate way with what I’m doing. If it’s something random, like I just do this to get paid, I can’t function. So if you’re feeling really lukewarm about your profession I think it’s important to change that.”

On health

“I think with health, it’s just understanding the value of it. I think you just never know. Your health is so important, it’s just about enjoying every day you have. I think my stepdad dying of cancer, and my mum being an ovarian cancer survivor made me realise you just never know if your life is going to change and when it could and what could happen, so it’s just about really enjoying every moment that we have.”

On friendships

“Oh my gosh, that it’s OK if you’re alone! If you don’t have that many friends, or if you feel like you don’t have as many friends as you wish you did, or you don’t feel like you’re a part of the group that you wanted to be in, none of that’s really important. And to refer back to the relationships point – like really focus on that relationship with yourself honey because that one’s just really so important. 

“I think I gave my friendships too much power always growing up. Like my worth and validity as a person was based on if I was going to the mall with someone that Saturday. And that’s like… no.”

On mental health

“That it’s just so important. I used to think that mental health was just a very clearly defined “oh, I have mental health issues” or “I don’t”. Bitch no – everybody has a relationship to mental health, you know? 

“And I think that “issues” is not the way to talk about it – it’s not mental health issues, it’s your relationship with your mental health. Everyone has a relationship with their mental health and their mental wellbeing and their wellness. In that case, everyone has mental health issues because everyone has to tend to it, whether they like it or not.”

When was the moment you grasped that?

“Maybe like today just right now? I think it’s not a clearly defined thing, as much as I want it to be. I think it’s very multi-layered – it’s cultural, it’s where you came from, it’s your religious experience, it’s your racial background, it’s how you were raised and who raises you, all of that has such an impact on your relationship to mental health. I mean it really does – your gender, your religion – all of that has implications on how we’re taught to relate to this idea of mental health.”

On identity

“You don’t have to know right now – take the pressure off. You don’t have to know everything. I used to think I needed to know what box I was in because I wanted to belong, but it’s OK to be a floater. 

“When we played Trivial Pursuit when I was younger, we would always call my Grandpa the floater because he would randomly yell out on questions – like answer the other team’s questions and he wouldn’t pay attention – so we called him the floater. So it’s OK to float, but don’t answer the question randomly like he would just do. It’s OK to not know.”

On style

“I think just have fun. Don’t judge yourself. Just express it. It’s just like painting but with clothes.”

How has your style changed over the years?

“Well my chequeing account has certainly changed a little bit so I feel like I can impulse stuff that was only in my wildest dreams before – like I can’t believe I get to wear the stuff that I get to wear. 

“I also think [my chequeing account] is my biggest problem – like I worry that my cats and I could end up in my Mum’s basement at this rate because I’m going to be like Carrie Bradshaw who had a house full of shoes. Like I won’t have a house, I’ll have to build a house out of shoes. I’ve always been someone who has struggled with a little bit of impulse buying you know, but before it was like Zara, All Saints. I’ll still do a bit of quick fashion if I need to honey, but I love to impulse buy things.”

What’s your favourite thing that you’ve bought recently?

“This stunning Chanel canvas bag yesterday that I shouldn’t have bought – I still have this crazy twinkle in my eye just thinking about it, like ooooo I just wanna touch it!!! I was just stressed out and I was just like working, so I was like I’m gonna buy myself a little treat. She’s really pretty – like a canvas – and she’s got this really cool design.”

On hair

“Daily heat styling really is not good – my hair just really needs a break, like I’ve been styling my hair like six days a week for the last couple years. The more you can lay off the heat styling, the better.”

On criticism

“If it’s constructive it’s OK to take it. It’s OK to be wrong, it’s OK to not have all the answers. But also it’s important to know when someone’s not coming from a constructive place and know to protect yourself. I think the most important thing I’ve learnt is not getting defensive and being open to what someone is saying, but constructive and venom are two different things. So being able to tell the difference I think is important.”

Over The Top is available to buy now.

Images: Getty/Simon & Schuster/Netflix

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