Jonathan Van Ness gets his nails done “literally every week.”
When he’s on tour or traveling, he stipulates that he isn’t always able to keep his nails up, but outside of that he is really, pretty serious about keeping a tight manicure weekly, and changing up his colors, too. To him, it is an act of self-care — an hour he can just take for himself in the midst of a busy week.
Though Van Ness never had to come out of the closet, the beating heart of Queer Eye did get his fair share of bullying growing up as a kid. He jokes that people “chased around with torches and pitchforks,” telling stories of kids who would scream “faggot” in the hallways or push him down the stairs for his feminine behavior.
That’s why his new partnership with essie nail polish, showcasing the ultimate look through a Pride-themed manicure, is meant to encourage fans to own their individuality and express themselves however the heck they want to. In conjunction with this partnership, essie is also supporting WorldPride through multiple queer activations, including offering manicures at The Ali Forney Center’s annual PROM event and sampling product at LGBTQ+ events throughout the month of June.
Van Ness’s oeuvre as a high-femme queen is the power of this campaign, as his identity plays front and center. Van Ness describes himself as “nonbinary” and “genderqueer,” also clarified that he prefers he/him pronouns, but does not identify as a “man.” While his nails were drying on the set of this campaign photo shoot, we chatted during his dry-time about how his newly-named identity came into play in this campaign, and what Pride means to him.
So, are you feeling ready for Pride? I feel like I’m still catching up on sleep from last year’s Pride.
Totally — are we ever ready? I’m so ready for Pride. I love being able to celebrate it, and I love all the fun, but I also feel like Pride is a great opportunity for all of us to like, not only celebrate ourselves but also bring new people into the fold of allyship and into the fold of awareness — the people that were really excited to get away from when you moved out of your hometown — like, when you see them next or on Facebook, reach out and make some contact with folks that may not look the way you look, or act the way you act. Let people celebrate you that are maybe not in your community.
Why did you decide to do this essie partnership?
I love Pride, and I love essie — and look at all these colors, honey. So much diversity, so much fun. Any way that I can celebrate Pride and celebrate diversity, I’m gonna do that. It was essie’s idea, and look at all the ways you can express yourself! There are like a million different colors! They have so many different ranges.
How do you feel about being a spokesperson for a brand that is predominantly marketed toward women?
It’s really cool! The older I get, the more I think that I’m nonbinary — I’m gender nonconforming. Like, some days I feel like a man, but then other days I feel like a woman. I don’t really — I think my energies are really all over the place. Any opportunity I have to break down stereotypes of the binary, I am down for it, I’m here for it. I think that a lot of times gender is used to separate and divide. It’s this social construct that I don’t really feel like I fit into the way I used to. I always used to think “Oh, I’m like a gay man,” but I think any way I can let little boys and little girls know that they can express themselves and they can like be — like, making iconic partnerships with brands like essie no matter now they present is really important and exciting.
Right! It’s about visibility to them. What does visibility mean to you? It’s essentially your entire job.
I definitely had Will & Grace and I definitely had Queer as Folk to look up to growing up, but social media has changed so much in terms of visibility. I just want to show people that you can change your circumstances, you can just make your own lane.
To that effect, one of the reasons I love your work is that, in addition to being very publically queer, you are very publically femme — like the femme-iest femme-femme femme. What is your relationship to your feminine identity?
I feel like my feminine identity is what makes me the strongest. All the people that I look up to the most, that I want to emulate the most are like 90% women. The people who shaped me the most was my mom, my grandma — it’s Gloria, Celine, Aretha, Shania, Mariah.
Did you say Selena?
I said Celine [Dion]. I love Selena though. I was talking about the cast of VH1’s Divas Live. But Selena should have been there. But that fucking hideous Yolanda.
I’m wondering —
That took a dark turn …
We’ll lift it up a bit. I know you never came out, but did you ever have an “a-ha” moment of any kind where you realized your femme identity?
Growing up, I definitely put on every nail polish, every heel, every scarf — I definitely had my mom’s knock-off Hermès scarves in my hair and around my waist — those were my skirts, and I loved it. But when I was really young, I had really femme-shamey, gender-shamey [comments] when I would dress like that. When I would play with those things, I knew it needed to be before the sun came up or after the sun came down, like, in the basement and it needed to be something I couldn’t wear to school — like when I would do it, it had to be behind closed doors. As an adult, I really busted out of that, but it didn’t occur to me that when I was doing dances in heels — nothing that I’m doing now — the only thing that’s new about it is that I have a checking account now, and I can buy hotter shoes and cuter looks. My old shoes were just from Payless so I had to wear them more infrequently and doing Beyoncé dances on Instagram — but I didn’t really put that together with “gender nonconforming” or “nonbinary” or owning that as an identity until recent because I think I just thought that I loved skirts and heels and like a kind of Whole Foods Face. I don’t love, like, a full lash on myself. Every now and then I do a little bit of a lash, or an extension, and day-of I’ll do a little concealer, a little beauty cream, a little mascara, maybe a little like clean blush —
So like, nine things.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, just like, subtle! But some days I’ll just wear like, little high tops and little short-shorts and a little croppy toppy. But then other days I’m like in a heel, and then other days I’m like in jeans and a sweatshirt, and then other times I’m in like jeans and a poncho. I just am either like gender-bendy or nonconform-y or nonbinary and somedays I feel like a boy and somedays I feel like a girl. I didn’t think I was allowed to be nonconforming or genderqueer or nonbinary — I was just always like “a gay man” because that’s just the label I thought I had to be.
Is the label of nonbinary one you’ve come into recently?
Well like, no. I just didn’t know what the name was. I’ve been wearing heels and wearing makeup and wearing skirts and stuff for a minute, honey. I just like didn’t know that that meant — that I had a title.
You touched on femme-shaming earlier in life. How do you deal with it now?
There’s a lot of it within our community. And either it’s getting better, or I just don’t care as much. Within our own community, we need to be more sensitive or kind to each other, just not be like a nightmare on the apps and [instead be] two people in your faces just being kind and gorgeous. But it’s from the other side too. Comments come from everyone, but I really feel like if you’re expressing yourself and like that’s what you really feel, then I don’t care. I’m just being who I wanna be.
Do you think femininity is something everyone should try?
I think everyone has it in them, and everyone has masculinity in them, but I also think that this construct it is like — strength is strength, and whimsical is whimsical, and rude is rude, and everyone has all of that in them, but thats whats like “namaste” is, like we all have all of that going on in us, I think?
What would you want to say to your femme and nonbinary fans as we approach Pride?
Really talk to everyone you know about like who — especially if you’re in like middle America and you moved to the coasts. Let’s think about different ways to talk to our families that lives in like Midwestern and Southern states [about] like, state legislatures in 2020. Obviously celebrate Pride, but anyone we can talk to to get our more gorgeous votes for our state legislatures and like continue to flip some state houses — we really need to get this Equality Act passed.
How are you celebrating Pride this year?
I think I’ll be around for New York Pride, and celebrating Pride on the stage. Lot of comedy in June. We’re gonna be a touring baby.