Jonathan Van Ness wasn’t always this fabulous, whipping his luxurious locks around as he dispenses grooming advice on “Queer Eye.” In fact, he probably could’ve used some lessons in confidence and style in his formative years.
“High school is such a challenging time, and it’s such a transition time for so many different things. I was not nearly as cute,” he confessed at a screening for “Queer Eye” in Hollywood on Sunday. “My personal style was devastated at the time. I needed ‘Queer Eye’ then so badly. My hair was this wide, and I had a gap this big, and I couldn’t stop talking about figure skating.”
Van Ness was waxing nostalgic during a screening event that was held in partnership with GLSEN, an organization with the goal of creating safe and inclusive K-12 schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression. GLSEN volunteers and supporters were in the audience, many of whom were visibly moved by watching the episode “To Gay or Not Too Gay,” in which an Atlanta man came out to his stepmother.
“I think it’s really important through really tough times in your life that you have a safe space that you feel really complete,” Van Ness continued. “So for me in high school, it was dance, it was gymnastics, it was watching ‘Sex and the City’ and eating powdered donut holes. That was self-care for me then. I didn’t know about yoga yet.”
While those life hacks helped Van Ness to self-regulate, they also helped him find his truest self during high school. Bearded, coiffed, shorts-wearing, and often prancing, Van Ness is unlike any of the previous Fab 5 on the original series that began 15 years ago. Comprised of five single men, four of whom were white, the original Fab 5 broke down barriers, but could have used some diversity among their ranks. Netflix’s reboot is far more inclusive.
“You didn’t see real actual gay people on television. You saw ‘Will & Grace’ — one of them being gay, one of them playing a gay character,” “Queer Eye” design expert Bobby Berk said. “But you didn’t see five gay men that were really, truly being themselves on television. Breaking that wall is what I think the biggest difference [between the old and new show] is. Gay people back then, they were allowed to be on television if they stayed in their lanes. They were designers, and they were cooks, and they were fashionistas.
“Now, we get to really be ourselves and really show the world that gay people and queer people are no different than anybody else. We’re husbands, we’re fathers, we’re sisters, we’re brothers, we’re wives, we’re parents,” said Berk, who is married. “I think that’s what’s really beautiful about the new iteration, is we really get to go in deep and show people who we really are.”
That message of tolerance and inclusion is emphasized even at the event when one audience member revealed that no matter how many times he’s come out to his mother, she continues to deny his sexual identity.
“Try to give her the resources and tools, even if it’s just meeting somewhere, putting a website up, so that she can learn, so that she can try to understand who you are,” suggested Karamo Brown, who handles the culture side on the show. “ And just know that as you’re going through your journey, she’s going through her own journey. As people in the LGBT-plus community, we have 20-plus years to figure out who we are, and then we unload who we are on other people, and we expect them to be right there. So your mother’s in denial because she’s mourning the death of the person she thought that you were. And that’s hard for her. So just know that she’s going through her journey and she’ll get there, and you both will come out happy at the end.”
While the Fab 5 can be good representations on screen, their travels give them an extra chance to be face-to-face ambassadors of sorts. In a country that’s so divided, the opportunity to have real, meaningful conversations with people who may not share their political outlook.
“I’m really glad that we went to Georgia… They’re so different than we are,” said Tan France, who acts as the team’s fashion expert. “And so the conversation was so much more important for the audience to see us connecting with people that we ordinarily wouldn’t connect with. I don’t think it would’ve been as successful if we went to New York or L.A. or one of those other major coastal cities. They love us already. They’re as liberal as anyone. And so I think it was important to go somewhere, Georgia, because we could have a dialogue with a white cop and talk about the Black Lives Matter issue, then we could have a conversation with people who ordinarily would vote for the orange guy.”
The process of making “Queer Eye” also puts the team members in the position to broaden their knowledge base as well. For France and Antoni Porowski, the show’s food and beverage expert, it was a learning experience when they help a transgender man named Skyler in the show’s second season.
“I’m so glad we did that episode. It’s one of the episodes I’ll remember more than any of the others,” said France. “This was an opportunity for me to really learn, something that I never really understood before. The show gave me an opportunity to have a conversation with Skyler and learn something on a level where we were just humans and I could ask whatever I wanted to. For me, it’s opened my eyes up to the community and what they go through. I hope that it encouraged a great dialogue, not just in the US, across the world. And I think people haven’t had exposure to the trans community in other nations.
“I think that people assume just because we’re all part of the LGBTQIA community, that we understand every facet of that community,” he said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. I think it’s a common misconception that because I’m a gay man, I understand the plight of a trans person. That’s not the case. So, I like the fact that we highlighted that we shouldn’t all be lumped into one thing. We should support each other, but we all sort of need to take the time to learn.”
Porowski added, “It completely redefined my definition of what an ally is supposed to be. You hear that really thrown around a lot, and I really thought it was just like, of course, be accepting, and be okay with everybody. But it is so much more than that. You have a responsibility to stand up for people who don’t necessarily have that voice. And especially in the platform that we’re on right now.”
When that platform is Netflix, the reach for the Fab 5’s message of kindness and helping each other is global.
“‘Queer Eye’ was a global revolution in the first [iteration] because it hit America, and then there were many different ‘Queer Eye ‘casts that went to different countries and kind of brought that message to their respective countries,” said Van Ness. “[With this version,] because of the reach of Netflix and the fact that it’s 190 countries, that reaches a vast more … it makes you much more connected with your peers… It connects you across the world.
“And then with Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat… that just makes a common language for people to be like, ‘Oh my God, are you smelling what I’m stepping in? Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Let’s chat about it.’ That’s huge.”
It’s clear that they take this responsibility seriously. While they’re entertainers, they’re also visibly bridging a gap between people of all walks of life with their message. At the end of the screening and Q&A, the Fab 5 donated to GLSEN with a fabulous oversized check.
Getty Images for Netflix
“Queer Eye” Season 1 and 2, plus a bonus special, are currently available to stream on Netflix. The series is nominated for four Emmys, including Outstanding Structured Reality Program, casting, cinematography, and picture editing.