On screen, he’s the personality-forward, effervescent fifth of the Queer Eye team. Behind the glowing smiles and tresses, he has thoughts to share about … well, pretty much everything.
Jonathan Van Ness visits Seattle’s Paramount Theatre this Friday, bringing stories, comedy, and gymnastics, too. His second book, Love That Story: Observations From a Gorgeously Queer Life (2022), is out now.
If people learned everything there was to know about me, would they still love me?
— from Love That Story
Jonathan Van Ness has had some hard times. He’s been there, knows that.
But he didn’t fully anticipate another layer: convincing the press that his life isn’t a big tragic trainwreck, following the publication in 2019 of his open-book memoir, Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love. Homing in on the easier-to-sensationalize bits, write-ups focused on the “raw journey” — dealing in Van Ness’ revelations of past heartbreaks, addictions, and his HIV-positive status — rather than the crucial “self-love” part.
Some of the dish in his new book, published earlier this year, seems targeted as a rebuttal to the scalding spotlight after Over the Top. In Love That Story: Observations From a Gorgeously Queer Life, Van Ness opens and closes with personal bits that read like a re-synopsis of his journey on his own terms, as well as wading through new grief amid the media scrutiny. In between those are his thoughts on … well, pretty much everything else.
Van Ness’ new book is a long-form collection of short-form commentary, with chapters on wide-ranging topics: weed, social service networks, body positivity, politics, race, gender identity, and more. In many ways, this feels like a natural extension of the curiosity he’s well known for on screen, in his entertaining, informative, and similarly wide-ranging Netflix series, Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness.
But what’s appealing on-screen, or perhaps is just woven together by some very talented editors, can make for a frustrating read.
Van Ness is at his most relatable when he’s looking inward, telling his own stories without trying (overtly at least) to relate them to everyone or everything else. His personal stories, goofiness, insecurities, just are relatable. Getting feelings thinking of his grandma throughout a Rockettes performance? That was me while watching Alex Trebek, my grandma’s decades-long crush, for years after her passing. Dreaming in divas from a fabulous concert hall you’d eventually sell out? Inspiring and beautiful. The struggle, hopes, and building blocks to get there? Ditto.
But this book isn’t structured primarily around Van Ness’ own stories. It’s set on a framework of topics he finds interesting (many of which, like structural racism, he started thinking about fairly recently, apparently) and wants to teach people about. The problem with learning from a recent convert, or a dilettante, rather than someone who’s entrenched and well-versed in a topic, is that the “lesson” ping-pongs around all over the place. And did you know … ? And did you know … ? And did you know … ? Yes, yes we did.
The strongest chapter in the book, in my view, is a tale that he’s among the best-qualified to tell. Van Ness turns on his local journalism vibes and delves into the queer history of Quincy, Illinois: the small town where he was raised, in which he found little in the way of queer community growing up, and which was the subject of a very sweet episode of Queer Eye. He relays some behind-the-scenes bits about the episode that help give the town, and the series, more context. More broadly, he uncovers decades of queer history in his town, including a dark-but-welcoming place called Irene’s Cabaret, and a visionary public health worker in a time when HIV and AIDS were practically unspeakable (and, in part as result of that, extremely deadly). The Quincy chapter is a compelling one to read, painting a portrait of a town that was in some ways ahead of its big-city counterparts, and suggests a new calling for Van Ness — should he ever need to add to the growing list — of coaxing out inspiring untold stories from unexpected places.
As a non-binary person (who most often uses he/him pronouns but is good with any of them) and an emerging queer icon, Van Ness has built up a wealth of insight from his own experiences. That makes for another strong chapter in the book, where he adeptly relates lessons learned growing up in a rigid gender binary to the wide-ranging harms of gender rigidity on others, queer, straight, or otherwise. (Among those observations: “Trans people aren’t what make public spaces dangerous for women. It’s the toxic masculinity that parades as protecting tradition and succeeds in maintaining the patriarchy.”)
Some other bits are frustratingly surfacy. One example takes us back to Quincy, where he compares a modern high-priced restaurant to the community space of Irene’s (the latter, a place with rough enough edges that it long “seemed like a place to be avoided until we were old enough to truly understand and appreciate its worth in the community”). It’s a widespread phenomenon, the gem-crusting of queer spaces. Is he really asserting that a gay-owned high-end restaurant, where gay men at least feel safe enough to mention their husbands around Republican customers, is a good enough substitute for decades of queer-centered community? And for whom is access to a space like that reserved?
For Van Ness, the spotlight is usually a place to shine. At points in the book, his starry-eyed focus and liberation-as-platform (through fame) risks alienating some of the youth most in need of his encouragement and example. Not every queer person coming of age wants center stage, whether as looked-to leaders locally or with the star power to sell out shows. They still need to see themselves, in a story of possibilities. What might a Gorgeously Queer Life look like for them? From everywhere he’s been, Van Ness probably has some answers.
There’s a lot to love about Van Ness’ story and Love That Story, especially in places where the warmth of its author’s personality shines through. His seemingly boundless curiosity and free-flowing discussion (on virtually any topic) can make for an unfocused book, even as they contribute to an interesting person and a lively TV persona.
That same energy is apt to make for a good live show, and only heightens my enthusiasm to see what he brings to the Paramount Theatre this Friday. Billed as a comedy tour featuring gymnastics, the show sounds a little all over the place — which, like Van Ness, is an energy that’s hard to capture in the confines of a book.
Love That Story is available at booksellers ($28); see info here.
Jonathan Van Ness: Imaginary Living Room Olympian performs this Friday (12/9) only, at the Paramount Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $63+, here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms downstairs and upstairs are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms on the main floor. Theatre’s main level and some common areas are wheelchair accessible.
And looking ahead: Margaret Cho in 2023. Van Ness cites Cho as his early comic icon (great choice!). Seattle Theatre Group just announced that Cho will visit Seattle next June, performing at the Neptune Theatre (paradoxically, for someone of her renown, a venue much smaller than the Paramount). For Van Ness fans, making it a point to see Cho on tour should be a given.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.