‘Queer Eye’ star Jonathan Van Ness on sexual abuse and self-worth

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Jonathan Van Ness at KCRW. Photo by Christopher Ho.

Jonathan Van Ness is the grooming expert on Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” a podcast host, gymnastics and figure skating superfan, and now an author. His new memoir is “Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love.”

In the book, he opens up about being sexually abused at a young age, and how that longstanding trauma led to other problems, including binging and purging, abusing drugs, and becoming a sex worker. Then at age 25, Van Ness was diagnosed with HIV.  

“I always thought that those things that made me look keenly abnormal and destined to not succeed, I thought they made me like permanently not fixable, whatever that meant. And I've really found that that was always confined to my imagination. And so I really felt like I wanted to be able to talk about that and help other people that felt like they were in places that left them kind of too broken -- to get back up,” says Van Ness on his motivations for writing the memoir. 


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onathan Van Ness in season 4 of “Queer Eye.” Credit: Christopher Smith/Netflix. 

Silence around sexual abuse 

Van Ness says that experiencing sexual abuse hindered his ability to set boundaries and know his worth. “The effects of my abuse… went much further into my life because of the silence, and the shame, and the secrecy around dealing with it in the first place and throughout my life.”

He first talked about the abuse with a therapist when he was a teenager, but then shelved it again. “That was such a terrifying experience: telling a trusted adult about it and having it be thrust into this pseudo public light. And no one really knows how to deal with that,” he says. 

Van Ness’ family didn’t want that part of his life to be public. “It left me with all these messages of like more shame and more secrecy. And that really took me like seven, eight years of really self-destructive behavior to kind of unpack,” he says. “Like I graduated early from high school. I kind of went to Arizona, where I immediately kind of fell into sex work and abusing drugs. And I think that the sexual abuse definitely led to a lot of those things.”

However, he emphasizes that silence and isolation were the most damaging aspects of the abuse -- not the abuse itself. “If I would have been able to have had an adult that really heard and saw and was able to deal with that situation adequately when it was first raised, I think that a lot of these things could've been avoided.”

Deciding to go public about HIV 

When Van Ness was diagnosed with HIV, he says knew that going public with it was something he could never take back, and he didn’t want to become a poster child for it.   

However, those reservations abated. “As the success and experience of ‘Queer Eye’ grew, and I saw the continued systematic attack on Planned Parenthood and just the continued really bad policy coming out of this administration around people living with HIV… I felt like it was really important for me to talk about it,” he says.

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

Credits

Guest:
Jonathan Van Ness - actor and author of “Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Alexandra Sif Tryggvadottir, Brian Hardzinski, Rebecca Mooney, Caleigh Wells