Jonathan Van Ness
Onda brand manager Cristina caught up with the Queer Eye star to talk holiday gifting, career choices, and of course, JVN Hair.
Photo credit: Danielle Levitt
JVN: You know the acronym well. Jonathan Van Ness is the resident hair expert on the wildly popular Netflix show Queer Eye, the host of the ever fun and educational Getting Curious podcast, even a co-founder of Yummers, a line of gourmet mix-ins for your beloved pet cats and dogs. But if we had to choose the iteration of JVN that we love most, it would be the hairdresser and hair care brand founder. And we’ll tell you why: it’s because he oozes passion for hair in a way that’s both endearing and inspiring.
We are honored and thrilled to be partnering with JVN Hair and our other Amyris brands for this year’s “Discovery” Holiday Box, and were lucky enough to steal a few moments of Jonathan’s precious time. Read on for the scoop on what makes JVN Hair so special, and to fall in love with JVN himself (if you haven’t already).
Jonathan: Thanks for taking your time to talk to me this morning!
Cristina: Oh, my gosh, thank YOU. I'm having a fangirl moment. I'm so excited. I'm trying to keep my cool.
Jonathan: You got this, queen.
Cristina: Thank you. Well, I've listened to your podcast, and you're a great interviewer. I hope I can do this interview justice. So on that note, let’s get to it! We first fell in love with you through your work on Queer Eye. You have such a bubbly, optimistic, and infectious spirit. We can't seem to get enough. If you can put it into words, what does your work on the show mean to you? You, Antoni, Bobby, Karamo, and Tan affect such positive change in each subject's life, and that must be really rewarding. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Jonathan: Sure. I think what my work on Queer Eye means to me is, it’s one of the biggest dreams coming true in my life. I grew up watching Queer Eye with family during my teenage years. The first Queer Eye was huge... It meant so much to me, and it meant a lot to my family, watching it together. And so to get to be on the show now is just incredible. All of the success from it is so far beyond what I ever thought could happen or would happen. I just feel so honored to be in this role. And I think it also means an opportunity for me to share what I've learned, and share what I know about hairdressing, and hair care, and just life on a larger scale.
It's also an exercise in vulnerability, and frankly, a little bit of fear. Because I think when you're vulnerable and you're authentic, you're like, "Are people going to like this?” I think it's really just fun for us to get to be together and to get to help people and meet new people. I've gotten to live in so many different cities. Again, I think just the impact that it's made on people is really beautiful, and to get to be a part of that in other people's lives is really special.
Cristina: Absolutely. I cry literally every episode. What you do for all the people that you work with is so heartwarming.
Your Getting Curious podcast is one of our favorites. You have such interesting guests and discuss such compelling topics. You're also quite knowledgeable about a wide variety of things, we've learned! Have you always had such a thirst for knowledge?
Jonathan: I think I have. I've always been one of those people where if I'm curious about it, I just have to find out what happened. When I saw the movie Anastasia when I was 10, I literally was interrogating my Aunt Lisa about it because she'd taken us to see it, and she ended up taking me to the public library because she was like, "You're driving me nuts. I answered all the questions. I don't know anything else." So I've always just had this insatiable thirst for knowledge for things that I'm curious about.
I come from a family of both broadcast and print journalists, and so I was encouraged to go find the answer. I think a lot of times, we aren't encouraged to go seek out the answers. And so I think if you're curious about something, go for it. If you're not a scientist, if you're not a hair care expert, if you're not whatever it is that you're curious about, you don't have to be an expert in that field to go get curious. I think that's part of why I'm so inspired by the podcast and why I love doing it so much, because I hope that it shows people a roadmap for how they can pursue curiosity in their own life.
Cristina: That's so true. I learn so much every episode; it's amazing how you're able to pack in so much knowledge in a short amount of time.
Jonathan: Thank you.
Cristina: If you weren't the multi-hyphenate that you are today and you had to choose one "career", what would it be?
Jonathan: I think it'd always be a hairdresser. I love doing hair. I love it so much. Yeah, it was my first love, and I think I would always love doing it, and I would always love doing it if it's the only thing that I did get to do because you still get to interview, you still get to entertain. You get to write down your formulas. So I would still encompass a lot of the things that I love doing into that one career.
Cristina: Right, right, right. I's so cool that you didn't skip a beat, you just immediately knew. So speaking of multi-hyphenate, between your work on Queer Eye, your podcast, your JVN Hair line, Yummers, and any other projects you might have going on at any given time, you undoubtedly lead a very busy life. We're overwhelmed just thinking about it! How do you stay sane and centered?
Jonathan: I have an incredible supportive team, and my husband is so helpful. And I have an incredible assistant. I must say, I have a gigantic team that really helps me so much. I couldn't really do anything that I do without their attention and support, so it's definitely not something that I do alone. I also have an incredible therapist, as well as a corporate coach that I work with, who helps me cultivate my leadership style and skills, because I've always worked for myself and just been a hairdresser and that's one thing about public life...I'm so excited and so lucky to get to do what I do, but I remember back in the beginning part of my career, when I was doing hair and doing Gay of Thrones and hadn't done Queer Eye yet, I used to think, "When's my big break going to happen? I really want to do more things. I want to be on camera, I want to write, I want to produce. I want to do other things in addition to doing hair." And what I didn't realize is that if that ever happens, you also become a CEO. You have to manage people, and you have to understand business, and you have to understand time management and negotiation and people skills. Also, you really just have to manage people, and people can be a handful. It's just a lot. I love it, but it's like that part I don't think I ever realized would happen, and that it's as engaging and time consuming and...it's just so much of the job. I forgot what the question was, but...
Cristina: How do you stay centered?
Jonathan: Oh, yeah. It's really my therapist and my corporate coach, and my whole team. I think you’ve got to have support, because it is a big job.
Cristina: Yeah, yeah. It's like a Pandora's box, right? When you get what you think you wanted, there's all this other stuff that comes with it.
Jonathan: Yeah, but it's also really exciting. I feel like Pandora's box is like...it's like a positive Pandora's box with a little bit of pressure. There's so many P's in that sentence, but we love it.
Cristina: Totally. I read that you were really into yoga for a time. Is that still something you do?
Jonathan: It is. And I think your relationship to your practice may fluctuate and may change. I have psoriasis, and my first yoga love was heated yoga but I can't do that because it really flares my psoriasis now. And I do love other forms of yoga, but I think what I've really taken from my yoga practice is the mindfulness and the meditation. And I incorporate that into my life on a daily and weekly and very consistent basis. So I think that's the part that I really need for the regulation of my nervous system and for helping me process everything. So yeah, it's the mindfulness and the meditation that really help.
Cristina: Yes. The mindfullness is so key.
So as a hair stylist–and a very in-demand one at that–you must have access to the best in hair care. What inspired you to create your own line, and what sets it apart from others on the market?
Jonathan: So I think there's a lot of things that set JVN Hair apart. When I first started doing Queer Eye and started to get a bigger following, I started getting sent so many different products and I already had my opinions on products as a whole, but there were a few things I noticed that were just really lacking and that concerned me on multiple levels. But the availability and accessibility of clean hair care [was one of the first]; so much clean hair care is so inaccessibly priced and it's like, if you want the shampoo and conditioner, you're already spending a hundred dollars plus.
So our hemisqualane, which all of our formulas have, sets us apart. Our formulas are all silicone-, paraben-, and sulfate-free. But what’s even more important than what's not in our products is what is in our products, which again is our hemisqualane. It’s really the star of our show. And squalane and hemisqualane historically were formulated using shark liver or using olives; with shark liver obviously we don't want to kill sharks for squalane and hemisqualane, and olives are great, but it can just create a less stable and a less long-lasting squalane than ours.
Also not to get too far into the weeds, but “hemi” is Latin for half. So hemisqualane is just a half size molecule of squalane. And so that's really the molecule that we center all of our formulations around because it's such a size that it's able to fill in and penetrate the rough parts of the hair cuticle. [Regardless of your hair type], hemisqualane is able to form to your hair and bring out the best in it by repairing it past that cuticle layer and getting into the real guts of the hair shaft.
I learned about hemisqualane through working with Biossance. I just started putting their oil on my ends one day because I was out of hair oil, and I was like, that particular face oil, I was like, why does this make my hair feel so amazing?
And then I learned that squalane was in that formula. And then I pitched my idea of focusing also on sustainable packaging and making formulas that are designed to work for your hair goal versus what your hair type is, because so much of hair type branding is just that. It's branding and marketing because really all hair either just needs more moisture or it needs more body and volume or it needs more strength. That's usually what hair goals are, or a combination of those things. So really my entire line is formulated to work with all hair types, it's really that you just need to pick out the shampoo and conditioner or styling product that's giving you the goal that you have in mind. So I think it's a more user-friendly line because we formulate with hair goal in mind, not hair type.
Another thing that sets JVN apart: a lot of other hair care lines use a lot of plastic. Just plastic as far as the eye can see. And I really wanted to prioritize a clean, accessible hair care line that had sustainability at its center, but also had effective formulas at the top of its priority list. How can we make the most clean, the most highly effective formulas that also center around sustainability? And we were able to do that in multiple ways, and I think part of that is our packaging. It's our prioritization of using aluminum and glass. It's our prioritization of not using virgin plastic. I think our virgin plastic is under 3%, or it's just a very teeny minuscule percentage [in our caps] because our bottles are all aluminum and glass and we're working on phasing out plastic by 2025, which we're really excited about and working really hard on.
Cristina: That’s great! Very exciting.
Jonathan: But also, not to be a nightmare, but when I test other people's products and formulas, sometimes I even talk to our team and I'm like, girl, we really could be charging a hundred dollars! The reason that we're able to sell them at a lower price point is because we produce and formulate all of our formulas in-house. It's all within JVN Hair, our cosmetic chemists, our product formulators; and then within our parent company of Amyris. So we're really able to keep our costs low.
And I think that's another thing: as long as you're understanding what the ingredients are and what the formulas are, that's really what's important. And our formulas are beautiful. We source such incredible ingredients. My hair's never been healthier. My clients' hair has never been healthier. And I know so many people whose hair has been so positively impacted by our formulas, which really is thanks to hemisqualane. It's like my experience as a hairdresser mixed with our incredible formulators. It just creates such a good situation. I love it.
Cristina: Amazing. This is sort of a sidebar, but do you have any insight into, if someone suffers from hair loss, is there any benefit to using your products? So many people I know are going through some degree of hair loss right now for various reasons. It can be stressful!
Jonathan: Yes. I think it's a wider conversation because if you're someone who's suffering from really widespread genetic hair loss...I see a lot of things on social media about topical products that I just think are selling snake oil, frankly. They promise unrealistic results. And so a lot of it with hair loss, it's multifold. So there are so many both/and situations where you may have genetic hair loss, but you also may be having your hair get more fragile, and so you're having breakage and hair loss. If you're experiencing hair loss, we really want to keep the hair that we do have, keep it from breaking. We want to keep it as strong as possible. So a lot of hair loss is really about maintenance of the hair that you do have and then also doing whatever you can to prevent a few things.
So one is preventing hair breakage. Another thing is, you might be having genetic hair loss where the hair shaft is getting thinner and thinner and thinner over time. But at the same time you can be having–as a result of using topical things like color or you're using a lot of extensions, you're wearing a lot of hats, or you're using tons and tons of dry shampoo–you can also have buildup in your hair follicle, which can plug up the hair follicle and that buildup can prevent your hair from coming through the follicle. So you want to prevent that congestion in your scalp and you want to prevent hair breakage. So in those regards, JVN Hair will absolutely help make your hair fuller and thicker looking because it's going to keep your hair from breaking off. And it's also going to keep your scalp from getting congested because all of our formulas are noncomedogenic.
Our Complete Pre-Wash Scalp Oil has ingredients that will decongest your hair follicle and at the same time will increase blood flow, which is going to set up the best conditions for robust hair growth.
Jonathan: So Pre-Wash Scalp Oil has rosemary extract, which is really good for blood flow. It’s worth noting: you do need to use these products at least two to three times a week for three months to see these results. I think another thing that we have to be clear about upfront, it will instantly improve the integrity of your hair and you're going to notice immediate improved results. But for best results, you're going to want to use these products consistently over a long period of time. And then you're really going to be like, wow. And I have so many clients where I do see super tangible, obvious differences in the fullness of the hair.
But back to the Pre-Wash Scalp Oil formula, that rosemary extract is major. It also has turmeric, which is a gentle and natural exfoliant. So instead of using buffing little beads or something like that, turmeric is just naturally exfoliating and decongesting, so that's going to clarify the hair follicle. But then it also couples with bisabolol, which comes from chamomile and really strengthens the hair shaft. And then there's also neem oil, which is really good for not only the scalp, but also for hair. It's going to make it way stronger. Then it has our hemisqualane, it has our squalane. It's just such a powerful, amazing product.
Cristina: Okay wow that was very thorough and I’m SOLD on the scalp oil.
So, as we know, there's no governmental oversight about the term “clean”. If you had to put clean into your own words, how would you define it, and why is it important to you?
Jonathan: Clean to me means good for you and not harmful to the planet, in the simplest way. [Other countries] have more stringent regulations and have a lot more banned chemicals than what we do in the U.S. And we actually haven't passed any personal care reform I think since like 19... It escapes my brain now, but I think it's like 1920...
Cristina: I think the 1930s, yes.
Jonathan: Yeah, it's like the 30s. It's a long time ago. My brain's just farting right now, but it's been a long time.
Cristina: Too long.
Jonathan: So clean means that it's good for you and not harmful to the planet. So that means, it's going to be paraben-free. It's not going to have phthalates. Both of those can have endocrine-disrupting qualities. They can also just be generally irritating to the skin and to the scalp. So can sulfates. That to me is what it means.
I think for me, I candidly have mixed feelings about it. Because as someone who is HIV positive, I think that especially in the queer community, the term "clean" has been used in a very binary way where it's clean vs. dirty. And I don't think that products that aren't clean...it's not that they're necessarily dirty. It just means that they're maybe not as transparent and they can have ingredients in them that can be harmful and irritating to skin. And I think the other thing about especially silicones is that they're what's called a bioaccumulative. So it's like once you rinse it off your hair, it's fine for you personally, but it's like once you rinse them into the water, they build up in our water supply. And I think there's just, we don't have enough long term research and understanding of that. So it's not that it's dirty, it's just not as good as it could be. So it's kind of a spectrum more than a complete binary thing.
Cristina: Absolutely. At Onda, we talk a lot about how, of course there are some ingredients that one should avoid altogether, but it's basically up to everyone to define their own personal "clean". It's not the ideal word, I agree; but it's the best word we have to describe it at this point in time since we don't have the oversight that we need.
Jonathan: Yeah, it's a heavy lift. But I do feel like one thing that I'm really proud of at JVN Hair is that we want to sort of change things from the inside and make things better in the beauty industry. Celebrate people where they're at, not make people feel like they need to change. And I think that's why “Come As You Are”, our company motto, is another thing that sets us apart and makes us so beautiful. If you're embracing your natural texture and you want to celebrate that, yes queen, we're with you. If you want to heat style and color treat the living crap out of your hair because you just want to express yourself in that way, I want to celebrate that too and I want you to protect your hair on that journey.
And so it's really about empowering folks to express themselves in the way that they feel that gives them the most confidence and their best lease on life as opposed to, do this and treat it this way. And then you're beautiful and then you're worth celebrating. We want people to know that they're already worth celebrating right here and right now, no matter what product you use. And so I think that's really beautiful and really exciting and more transparent and I'm excited to be a part of that change.
Our formulas are just so f*cking good. Sorry, but they are.
Cristina: No, that's fantastic. That's a beautiful motto. And I also wanted to mention: it's so impressive how involved you actually are in your brand. You're so knowledgeable about your products and it makes me love you all the more to know that you're so intimately involved in JVN Hair.
Jonathan: Oh my God, I love it so much. It's my favorite thing.
Cristina: It’s clear!
So next: you are so unapologetically you. You seem to have an unshakeable sense of confidence. Have you worked hard to cultivate that or were you always very secure in who you are?
Jonathan: No, I've worked really hard on it. There's this type of therapy called PACT, which stands for the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy, and it was invented by this doctor called Dr. Stan Tatkin. And I've interviewed him on my podcast. He talks about how your relationship with your partner can be either secure functioning or insecure functioning. And so I actually think that you can have the same thing with your relationship to yourself.
So I feel like I've worked really hard on having a secure functioning relationship with myself, and it's still something I work on daily. Sometimes you're more in balance, you're less in balance, you have a better relationship to that relationship with yourself. So I'm still in that process and I think that being so in the public eye and having new responsibilities and everything is always a constant negotiation in your relationship with yourself. But I think that I've come a long way and I think that I've cultivated a lot of self-awareness, and when I do lack that compassion and the self-acceptance, I'm able to make better choices and adjust my behavior so that I can get into a better space.
Cristina: I love that.
So this Onda Inside feature is tied into our Discovery Holiday Box, in which we're featuring beautiful products from four Amyris brands, one being JVN of course. It makes for a fabulous gift. So I’m curious: do you have a gift giving style? For example, in my family, we try to only give consumables because we feel like everyone has everything they need already, so why create clutter and more waste. You know what I mean?
Jonathan: I do. But I'm kind of a really erratic, bad gift giver. Some years I go really hard, some years I'm like, I'm literally not doing anything. Pretend you've never even heard my name before, because I don't have the bandwidth. I do feel like one thing that I have gotten really consistent with is I like to do gifts for my siblings' kids and my best friends' kids where I've literally opened them 529s [savings plans].
Cristina: Oh wow. Not too shabby!
Jonathan: Like savings accounts for their colleges.
Cristina: That's amazing. Very generous. And practical. I love a practical gift.
Jonathan: I've done that for my best friends. I just have certain folks who I'm like, oh my God, I want to make sure that you're okay. And I know that maybe they're having struggles here or there with whatever random thing and I'm like, let me take this thing and help out a little bit. I love a really practical thing like that.
Cristina: Me too.
Jonathan: But it's just kind of erratic. But since understanding 529s and knowing how expensive college is, and now that I have money, that's one thing I don't miss yearly. For my nieces, niblings, and nephews, and then my friends' kids who I've done that for. I do that really every year and that makes me feel good. Then other people, you might get a purse one year, a really fierce one, and then you might not hear from me again for a few years and then I might get you a... it just depends. I'm going to do a lot of JVN Hair little gift baskets this year though because I just accumulated so much JVN Hair at my house that I need to send a cute little cute cute. Like a cute little mailer. But yeah, I wish I was a better gift-giver. I wish I was one of those people who gets really joyful from giving presents. And it's weird because it's kind of like going to yoga, sometimes you don't want to go, but then once you go you're like, oh my God, I'm obsessed with this. Why didn't I go sooner? I feel like I'm like that with presents. Once I do it, I'm obsessed. But then going to do it sometimes I'm just like, oh, I want to get myself a bag, you know?
Cristina: I do know. It’s a chore! But feels really good when you find just the right gift for someone.
Jonathan: It's just all over the map. You never know.
Cristina: Okay, I can't believe this is my last question! This time has flown by. What are you most hopeful about and looking forward to in the near future? Do you have any exciting projects in the pipeline that you can share with us?
Jonathan: We have a lot of fun stuff brewing at JVN Hair. We also have a lot of fun stuff brewing at Yummers, which I'm really excited about.
Cristina: Very cool.
Jonathan: So we have some really fun stuff happening there. And my husband and I are going to get to go on vacation at the end of the month and we're going to Costa Rica. I've never been there before and I'm so excited to get to see it.
Cristina: Ohhh you’ll love it. Costa Rica is incredible.
Jonathan: Oh, so excited. I love going to a place I've never been to before. And I also get the week of Thanksgiving off, which I'm also super excited for.
Cristina: A much-needed break.
Jonathan: Yeah, that's what I'm looking forward to.