For Jonathan Van Ness, best known as the grooming expert within Queer Eye’s Fab Five, the summer of 2019 came with mixed emotions. Seeing the Netflix reality series pick up six more Emmy nominations was, of course, cause for celebration. Just two months earlier, though, the pop culture aficionado said goodbye to HBO’s Game of Thrones, a series he and millions of others had loved—and with it, his Funny or Die short-form series Gay of Thrones—the combination of which was a somber affair.
With Queer Eye, Van Ness saw his life transform overnight, going from a celebrity hairstylist to an international celebrity, working on multiple fronts as a TV personality, author, political activist, and influencer. What some may not realize, though, is that Gay of Thrones was the project that put Van Ness on the map. Coming together five years before Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot, the short-form series had Van Ness offering his unique and hilarious recaps of each new episode of the HBO blockbuster, frequently accompanied by celebrity guests.
Receiving his second Emmy nomination this year for Gay of Thrones, Van Ness will always have fond memories of putting together his first series, as irreplaceable to him as the show it was commenting on. Certainly, all good things must come to an end. In speaking with Van Ness, however, one gets the impression that for the hardworking, “accidental Emmy nominee,” this is just the beginning.
DEADLINE: What did you set out to do with Gay of Thrones, in the beginning?
JONATHAN VAN NESS: Really, our intent when we very first started doing Gay of Thrones was to do one episode, and we weren’t really even sure what the format would look like. Erin Gibson, the director and creator, she just saw me do an accidental, impromptu recap, as I was doing her hair, and she was like, “Let’s turn this into a series.” Really, it was supposed to be one episode, and our second episode, we got Alfie Allen to sign on, and we were like, “Wow, maybe we have something special. Let’s just finish out this season”—and then that turned into another season.
DEADLINE: What has been most enjoyable about working on the short-form series?
VAN NESS: Really, Gay of Thrones [took] me from [being] a full-time hairdresser to someone who still does love to do hair—but now, I’m kind of a full-time producer/content creator/accidental Emmy nominee. When I started doing Gay of Thrones, I definitely didn’t know that I would end up fully in an entertainment career. But it’s just been the most incredible, rewarding, nerve-wracking, fun experience that I didn’t know I was going to have, learning how to create content, how to be a comedian, how to be a writer, how to be a producer in my late 20s, early 30s. It has just been an incredibly honoring and awesome and humbling experience, all of it.
DEADLINE: On Gay of Thrones, as on Queer Eye, your pop culture references are always on point. Where did this knowledge base and your ability to ad lib with it come from?
VAN NESS: I’ve definitely always had a deep love of random vocabulary words. Just playing with how I would speak has always been something that’s made me laugh and brought me joy. I definitely grew up loving TV and loving Olympic sports. Definitely into pop culture. Really into the news and current events. My family is in the broadcasting and newspaper business, so I grew up running around in newspapers and really having an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I’ve never really been afraid to say that I don’t know something. I think that’s where that ability to be on point with my references and words comes from, because I like to learn a lot.
DEADLINE: What films and television series captured your imagination growing up?
VAN NESS: Growing up, outside of all the Olympics, anything Molly Shannon from a comedic side really influenced me. SNL really influenced me. Margaret Cho was really big for me. Her Notorious C.H.O. is like the first thing that I ever convinced my mom shouldn’t have been rated R or NC-17—that it was totally fine for me to watch when I was like 11. Which it was [laughs]. With movies, Moulin Rouge was and still is one of my favorite movies of all time, but Best in Show and those kinds of caper films always made me LOL really hard as a kid.
DEADLINE: Which series have you been following lately? I don’t know if you have a ton of time to watch TV…
VAN NESS: Oh, I watch so much TV. I love Broad City, I love British [Bake Off]; I just started watching PEN15, which is hilarious. Then, Chernobyl was really good. I love The Crown; I can’t wait for Season 3 of The Crown, Oh my God. I really like the gamut. I also like to devour that new Netflix competition show, Blown Away, about glassblowers. That was amazing…Oh, Mindhunter. Homecoming, I loved. Killing Eve, I loved. Euphoria, I loved. Pose, obviously.
DEADLINE: That is quite a diverse assortment of series. To return to Gay of Thrones for a moment, could you explain how that series is put together? How much of it is written, and how much is improvised?
VAN NESS: When we first started, it was a lot more improvisational. As we’ve continued, our crew has grown from two or three to 10 or however many people, and we have a group of people now that we’ve been with for a couple years who we just love.
We do script. So basically, we’d all get together on Sunday night and watch the East Coast feed [of Game of Thrones] from LA. Erin, myself, [executive producer] Matt Mazany, who’s been with us since the very beginning, [writer] Mark Rennie, who’s been with us since Season 3, [writer] Joan Ford, who’s been with us since Season 1, and [executive producer] Ross Buran, who’s been with us since Season 1, will watch the show, and then we take like a 10-minute break and collect our thoughts, because we’re basically writing the whole time we’re watching on our computers.
Then, we’d get together and go through the episode from top to bottom. We’d decide what we think, from a story perspective, is the most important to put in the recap for sure, and then once we decide what scenes we definitely want to recap, we all pitch our jokes, and we get our flow.
Previously, we would shoot that night. This last season, we wanted to give ourselves the best chance to get the most diverse, wide array of guests, and it’s hard to get super iconic people to come in on Sunday nights. A lot of times, people would rather be with their families than spend six hours with me on set. So this last season, we switched to shooting Monday mornings. We would write it Sunday night, and then we would get there Monday morning at about eight, and shoot from nine to 11, and basically have a rough cut done by about two in the afternoon. Then, we would post it at like 9 p.m. West Coast time on Monday.
DEADLINE: This season did feature a number of incredible guests, from Kumail Nanjiani to Anna Farish, Gabrielle Union and Tiffany Haddish. What was your experience with them like?
VAN NESS: Gabrielle Union, I needed to get my knees checked after she came in, because she had me laughing so hard, my knees were buckling. She was just sidesplittingly funny, and I was so honored to work with a Bring It On cast member, I almost just couldn’t breathe. Celeste Barber: iconic, so hilarious. Anna Faris, oh my gosh, could not handle. And Tiffany Haddish, I think I was literally speechless working with her. She’s just someone I love so much. I was fan-girling on her so hard before Queer Eye, so to get to work with her on Gay of Thrones was a pinch-me moment. I couldn’t believe it worked out. She’s just someone who is so incredibly, unapologetically themselves, and is so brilliant to work with. My face hurt; my occipital bone in the back of my head, I had to get it checked, honey. I was laughing so much. This season’s just been incredible.
DEADLINE: Between shooting Gay of Thrones and your time on the awards circuit with Queer Eye, have you had the opportunity to get to know some of the Game of Thrones cast?
VAN NESS: Yeah, it’s actually really funny. The very first season of Gay of Thrones, HBO had hired me— completely separately from Gay of Thrones—to groom the whole cast for Comic-Con. So, I met Emilia [Clarke] and Kit [Harington] and George [R.R. Martin] and Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau]. I met so many of them long before Queer Eye, and got to work with a lot of them and touch a lot of them up. Since Queer Eye, I ran into Emilia Clarke last year at the Emmys, but I wasn’t going to bring up Gay of Thrones, because I didn’t want to be that person. I just took a selfie with her and was like, “Oh my god, I love you.” And I saw Gwendoline Christie last year at the Emmys, which was also major.
I think who I talk the most to, and who I’m the closest with outside of Esmé Bianco—whose hair I did forever, and got to meet and work with through Game of Thrones, back when she played Ros—is Lena [Headey], because we DM a lot and Instagram.
That explains her cameo in the final season of Gay of Thrones…
VAN NESS: Her coming in to do that was so fun. I sent her a couple videos for her kids, and we sent her the sunglasses line that I did. So, I just love her. She’s been really supportive, and we talk a lot on Instagram.
Game of Thrones has generated endless conversation this year. While the series amassed 32 Emmy nominations for its final season, the way the series came to an end proved controversial, to say the least. What were your thoughts on the season?
VAN NESS: I just think that it’s so hard to watch something come to an end that we all love so much. It’s hard to say goodbye, and I do think that there’s beautiful and sad aspects of the way that the story ended. It’s so heartbreaking for all of us that love Christina Aguilera [Van Ness’s Gay of Thrones nickname for Daenerys Targaryen] so much, and love Gwendoline so much, for those storylines to have Brother D [Jaime Lannister, or “Brother Daddy”]…Having Gwendoline waxing poetic about him in that history book, and for Christina to go down like that, it was just like, What? These powerful ladies…
I was really happy for Sansa, and happy for Bran, and I think this is what it really comes down to. Everyone loves Game of Thrones so much, and we all were pulling for our people so much, and it’s just really tough to see it go. Obviously, we all have our opinions on it. But I still think that none of that controversy takes away from the stunning and incredible work that that crew did, and the cinematographers did, and the costume designers and the set designers and the makeup artists and the actors that brought so much life to these stories.
However you feel about the last season, Game of Thrones—last season included—raised the bar of television, and storytelling, and risk-taking above anything that TV has ever seen. It elevated TV across the board, so I think you’ve got to give that credit where it’s due, honey. It was such an incredible story to tell on TV, and I think they did such a great job.
Let’s turn briefly to Queer Eye, which this season racked up six Emmy nominations, and will compete once again for Outstanding Structured Reality Program after taking that category last year. What is a day in your life like these days? Are you still working as a hairdresser, outside of the series?
VAN NESS: I still do hair on the show, unless I feel like there is someone who could do it better than me, and then sometimes I’ll call in for support. I do hair for friends and family. I’m not in the salon so much anymore, unless it’s on Queer Eye.
We shoot a lot; I’m shooting now in Philadelphia. I’ve been shooting several months out of the year for the last two years. When I’m shooting, our stories have to be fluid, because it’s like real life, so I kind of fly by the seat of my pants. The [Fab Five] and our team is really about creating this gorgeous experience for our heroes, so we’re really trying to get to know them and figure out how we can be of service.
That is like a full-time job when we’re doing it, but my most accurate way to describe what my life feels like now is, I do feel like I’m like Christina Aguilera. I’m usually in the back of a car; I don’t drive around so much in New York. I’m shooting this, I’m working on my book, I’m doing an interview. It’s a wild ride, but it’s so rewarding, and a surprising second act for me.
You had a lot of great moments in Season 4, which was released just last month, returning to your hometown to make over your high school music teacher, and spending some time on the ice with Michelle Kwan.
VAN NESS: Getting to take the crew and the boys back to my hometown was definitely a very surreal experience, and it brought up a lot of feelings—a lot of cathartic feelings, and a lot of tough feelings. But it was a really rewarding experience. It was so fun to get to cut off Kathi’s mullet. Getting to have Michelle Kwan on Queer Eye, I mean like, get out of here. I can’t even believe I just got to say that sentence. That was such an incredible moment for me, and the Stoner family is just so sweet. I’m so proud of John and Lucy, and their continued success post-show.
With Gay of Thrones at its end, do you have plans to take on any other short-form projects? If you were to return to your GoT format, what show would you want to take on next?
VAN NESS: Right now, my focus is on my stand-up comedy career and tour, and Queer Eye, and the book and stuff. But I loved doing short-form content. Sometimes, I kind of miss doing hair, and I’m like, What if I do something where I’m maybe doing more hair in a short-form series? I love the team from Gay of Thrones; everyone from within that team is really busy on their own projects.
It also seems that [what] made Gay of Thrones so special was that we had such a rich story to pull from, to make so many of those hilarious jokes, and create that Gay of Thrones world within Game of Thrones, like in a salon. So, I don’t know what story is being told in TV right now that’s that rich and has that many rich storylines. We’ll see what the prequel does, though. I can’t wait to see the prequel.