Just before the September 24 release of his memoir, Over the Top, Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye sat down for an interview in which he discussed childhood sexual trauma, his history of drug use, and being diagnosed with HIV at 25.
In an interview with the New York Times, Van Ness revealed that he was sexually abused by an older boy from his church as a child. In the years that followed, Van Ness battled addictions to binge eating, cocaine, and methamphetamine, spending stints in rehab twice in his early twenties. Too afraid to ask his family for more money or help, Van Ness says he supplemented his income as a hairstylist by offering sex for money on Gay.com.
When he was 25, he discovered that his flu-like symptoms were actually HIV. In his book, he writes, “That day was just as devastating as you would think it would be.”
Using money from a family trust, Van Ness quit hard drugs following his diagnosis and rebuilt his life, becoming an online hit with his Gay of Thrones recap videos. But following a lengthy casting process for Queer Eye and his subsequent rise to stardom as what he calls the show’s “effervescent, gregarious majestic center-part-blow-dry cotton-candy figure-skating queen,” Van Ness was originally reluctant to share his HIV status. He says he eventually decided to do so because of an increased pressure to be candid about his experiences in the face of a presidency in which Donald Trump and conversion-therapy advocate Mike Pence rally support for further stigmatization of the LGBTQ community:
“When Queer Eye came out, it was really difficult because I was like, ‘Do I want to talk about my status?,” he said. “And then I was like, ‘The Trump administration has done everything they can do to have the stigmatization of the L.G.B.T. community thrive around me.’” He paused before adding, “I do feel the need to talk about this.”
While he talks about his painful experiences to the Times, fans keep coming up to an emotional Van Ness in a New York City cafe expressing their love for the show and, by proxy, their love for the JVN character who is always on, always cheerful. Van Ness dismisses them with “Namaste,” which the interviewer interprets as “kindly leave.” The interactions provide an intimate look at how difficult it must be to act as a public bastion of positivity while dealing with private trauma:
“Mr. Van Ness exhaled and gently took a sip of coffee. ‘If you’re having a terrible moment or in the middle of a conversation about something serious, people don’t care,’ he said. ‘They want their bubbly J.V.N. and to get that major selfie.’”