My favorite episode of Queer Eye is the one where the Fab Five goes to Quincy Senior High School in Illinois, which Fab Fiver and JVN Hair founder Jonathan Van Ness attended. High school poses a particular place in the lives of many queer people as somewhere they had to worry about survival, while others were living out their glory days. It’s a time and place that can be wracked with trauma, bullying, neglect and, sometimes, violence. Even now, as a queer adult, my heart pounds when I think about my high school years.
Usually, I’d say that nothing could ever get me into the halls of my high school again. But watching Jonathan Van Ness walk through their high school and perform the Fab Five’s makeover magic on their former music teacher (with their trademark positivity and warmth, despite an obvious emotional response to being in that space), did something to me. It made me think about the immense level of strength and confidence it took for Van Ness to confront a traumatic environment with such grace. “It was a little nerve-wracking to go back, but it was also cathartic,” Van Ness tells me from their home in Austin, TX .
It takes a lot of confidence to face your past head on and Van Ness has it in spades. Ahead, JVN unveils the key to creating unstoppable confidence and, of course, how hair can play a part in this — because of course, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Part of what makes Van Ness so engrossing to watch is their relentless positivity. That positivity comes across in everything they do — Queer Eye, of course, but also their podcast, books, live shows, hair care brand, and, yes, even Zoom interviews like ours. In many cases, that positivity translates to confidence — like incredible, in-your-face, extreme Confidence with a capital C. “What I’ve realized is that confidence is a daily journey,” they say. “We always think that confidence is a destination we must get to, but it’s a choice we make. I don’t think it’s something we ever really get to and stay at. And I think once you know that, it takes the pressure off.”
It’s the journey that is key. “You can still be confident and positive and still have things you want to change,” they say. “You can also be a really positive person and also have days where you’re not feeling your best.” We all have those days, sure, but when those days do come, “I feel empowered by knowing that confidence is on the inside.” That’s part of what drew Van Ness to their newest role as a part of Smile Direct Club’s Confidence Council, which they take very seriously. “When it comes to beauty, it’s perceived that we’re doing it for someone else,” they say, but in their own case, loving how they look doesn’t mean they don’t see things they’d like to improve — like, say, a crooked smile. “I am confident and at the same time there is something I wanted to change and that’s OK. There is a beautiful duality in that we can be more than one thing at one time.”
The impulse to spread their infectious self-assurance has been part of Van Ness for as long as they can remember. “As a kid, I always felt that if I could ever help other kids not feel bullied or alone, it would’ve been worth it,” they told me. How exactly they would do that wasn’t always clear, though especially when faced with insecurities of their own. It was hard to reconcile that feeling they had grown up believing — that they weren’t conventionally talented enough to be an entertainer or comedian or even a hairdresser. “There has always been a voice saying ‘I’m not sure I can’ but at the same time, there’s been a voice in me that was really passionate about what I was doing and curious about what the next thing was,” they say. It’s curiosity that pushes the other voice away and keeps them moving forward.
Whether it was collecting rocks when they were a kid, deciding to become a hairdresser at age 19 or, more recently, learning to figure skate and do gymnastics, “if there’s something I’ve been curious about and I allow myself to go learn about it or do it, that builds confidence. And that confidence that I’ve been able to build over the years has set me up in a really good place to enter into this part of being so public-facing and doing all the things I get to do.”
Another semi-recent first for Van Ness was starting their own hair care line in August of 2021, which Van Ness says was beyond their wildest dreams. “I’ve always loved beauty, to play with hair and makeup, always wanted to know about ingredients. My mom had to literally put me on a leash at the mall because I would run away from her and she’d find me reading ingredients lists in the department store beauty departments,” they laugh, “but I never thought I’d really be able to do my own line.” After the first season of Queer Eye, however, Van Ness missed their 12 years in the salon and interacting with such a wide variety of people, which led them to product creation as a way to reach, well, everyone.
The ethos of JVN Hair is “come as you are, to celebrate people whatever they want to do with their hair,” says Van Ness. “It’s about feeling included, feeling celebrated and really feeling educated and empowered on how to express themselves using their hair. Hair is hair, no matter who it’s coming out of.” That’s why, over the two years it took to develop the line, they decided to formulate the range of products based on hair concern, not hair type. “In my experience behind the chair, your hair either needs more moisture or more strength or more volume and body.” The full collection is broken up into three shampoo and conditioner ranges (Nurture, Embody, and Undamage) and a styling line that can be used for all hair types.
Really, the entire JVN line reflects their attitude toward confidence — through hair and in life— even down to the ingredients. The hero ingredient throughout the collection, hemisqualane, is a “very refined molecule” that not only strengthens the hair from within, but also helps other ingredients penetrate better more effectively. “It improves the integrity of the hair immediately and over time,” they say. Which, when you think about it, the same can be said about a positive and confident attitude.
To Van Ness, however, their products (and hair care in general) are about more than just how our hair looks. They’re about how they make you feel. “Skin-deep self care isn’t skin deep because, for a lot of us that are survivors of trauma or have been through stuff, it’s not about how other people see you. It’s that you took that time for yourself, for you to feel the most confident about the way you’re presenting to the world.” If something like hair care or a better smile can give you that confidence, even pride, then it’s what really matters. Self-care to Van Ness, like confidence, isn’t always about the finished product, but about the process. If they’ve learned anything, the most important thing of all is just doing it. “Whether I fail or succeed, it’s the going for it.”