The Advocate was fortunate enough to steal a moment with the always-inspiring Jonathan Van Ness just before the vivacious star headed to NYC’s World Pride event, where he was supporting Smirnoff’s Love Wins campaign for the second year in a row. Van Ness, or JVN as many fans call him, discussed the importance of the campaign and also gave us a little hint of what we might discover in his new memoir, Over the Top, set for release in September.
“It basically started last year to celebrate Pride here in the New York,” explains Van Ness of the Love Wins campaign. “Again, we're celebrating Pride here in New York, but this year is World Pride, so there's two special bottles… the Love Wins bottle, which is really near and dear to my heart [because] for every bottle that Smirnoff makes off that, they donate one dollar to the Human Rights Campaign.”
This year, LGBTQ activist and award-winning actress Laverne Cox and international drag superstar Alyssa Edwards joined Van Ness on the Smirnoff campaign, which has pledged to raise 1.5 million for the HRC over the next three years.
“That was something I was just like, ‘Wow, wow, wow! That is a big old fat check, and that is something I can get behind with Smirnoff,’” he says.
“The other bottle that they're doing this year is called Welcome Home,” says Van Ness. “We're basically welcoming all of the world's LGBTQ+ community into New York City. They have 'welcome' in five different languages on the bottle, one on each bottle. They're really pretty. It actually replaces the Smirnoff branding.”
“Another thing I thought was great about Smirnoff from the get-go is that they're a gorgeous company who advocates for not only diversity in who they do campaigns with, but they advocate for drinking responsibly,” he adds.
When we get on the subject of Pride itself, the star admits his own journey to self love wasn’t always smooth sailing. Though it may seem like someone as out and proud as Van Ness must’ve twirled out of the womb on a sparkling rainbow, the reality is that life hasn’t always been fabulous for this beloved beacon of positivity and joy.
“I think a part of my spirit came out of the womb like that, but it also is a journey to get to a point,” he says. “Really, I think I’ve always felt comfortable in my skin. It was learning how to deal with other people’s reactions to it that took me a minute to get used to.”
Years before he stole our hearts as the Fab Five’s grooming and self-care expert on Netflix’s hit reboot, Van Ness was growing up in a small Midwestern town that didn’t understand why he was so over the top (hence, the title of his book). He tried in vain to tone it down, but his beautiful femininity and natural flamboyance made Van Ness an easy target for schoolyard bullies. He endured years of judgment, ridicule, and trauma — yet his uniquely effervescent spirit survived.
Van Ness says that despite all his success, he still sometimes can’t believe he is now so embraced and beloved for the very things he was once ostracized for. “I’m still in a state of shock from that,” he confesses. “It’s been amazing.”
He recently revealed more of his story to fans by coming out as nonbinary and genderqueer (though still uses he/him pronouns) in an interview with our sister publication Out magazine.
“Growing up, I definitely put on every nail polish, every heel, every scarf — I definitely had my mom’s knockoff Hermès scarves in my hair and around my waist — those were my skirts, and I loved it,” he told Out. “But when I was really young, I had really femme-shamey, gender-shamey [reactions] when I would dress like that. When I would play with those things, I knew it needed to be... behind closed doors.”
Van Ness admits that even as an adult, “I didn’t really put that together with ‘gender-nonconforming’ or ‘nonbinary’ or owning that as an identity until recently.”
Perhaps another thing that inspired Van Ness to put pen to paper was simply knowing how many young people may still be going through the difficulties he once endured. Reflecting on the journey it took him to discover his own identity, what would Van Ness say to young people currently struggling with theirs?
“That you’re just completely worthy of love,” he says. “Really, that’s all. You’ll find your people that accept you and celebrate you completely.”