Existential thinking with Jonathan Van Ness

"We need to have a strong relationship with ourselves and a strong community in order to withstand this world. Honey, it's a lot..."

Jonathan Van Ness doesn't trust the media. It's something that's keeping him up at night. And that's not good, because JVN's day starts early and he has work to do. A lot of work to do.

"It's like these rage machines that are completely coupled with opinion, have brainwashed so many people on the right, and on the left, to fucking hate each other. There's just so many big corporate systems and big players at play, that we just do not understand. And we are not understanding. This isn't Marie Claire's fault, obviously, it's like the media at large that has completely just abdicated its duty to help keep people informed. And that's not the issue of journalists, because I feel like journalists still want to learn, they still want to uncover they're so curious, that's what got them into the industry...

"But if those news stories don't get clicks, if it does not increase the bottom line, it's not getting research. It's not getting out there. And that's why I wanted to start Getting Curious in the first place, is I wanted to ask questions that no one could tell me 'No', no one could say 'No, you can't talk about that', or 'No, you can't research that'."

At 07.30 New York time, Jonathan has already done a workout ("I'm sorry I look like a fucking hot mess, but we're not using this video, right?"), and is now waging war on fake news, misinformation and the structural imbalance of power that underpins corporations like Fox News. It's 12.30 in the UK and I'm sat in a basement kitchen in tracksuit bottoms that have never seen any type of track. And never will.

"There are people who are doing really fierce, independent journalism still. So it's not a blanket statement. But by and large, how the masses read their news, or interact with their news, it's just not coming from places that are teaching how to break down context or giving new information. It's like regurgitated, lazy, same information. Yeah, so that's what keeps me up at night."

That and how cute his cats are.

Whilst I'm busy giving Jonathan a standing ovation thanks to his on-the-money summation of the state of the media industry, and internally crowning a new patron saint of writers, we've moved on to talk about heritable characteristics in cats and how humans have been manipulated over time by that canny thing called evolution.

Jonathan Van Ness searching for skyscrapers in his new show Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness. Credit: Jason DeCrown/NETFLIX

"This study says that the reason that people love cats is the eye to mouth ratio. When you have big eyes and a little mouth, it's a learned evolution thing. We're like, 'Oh, protect the baby!' Like big eyes, little mouth," he explains. "That's why we love kitties and puppies so much because when they're babies they have these like big eyes and this little mouth and you're like: 'Baby... must protect.'"

Welcome to the inner workings of Jonathan's mind. Equipped with a disarming ability to flit between far-reaching subjects which carry varying degrees of political and cultural weight and then interrogate them with the same level of curiosity, intellect and wit, it's no wonder journalists can get him wrong.

It would be easy to condense his words into clickbait headlines and quotes, but the result would be a far less nuanced picture of someone who has given a 12-minute long answer to a question about his childhood. Or Jeff Goldblum ("If my husband and I were ever going to open our marriage like to be a triple marriage, and he was gay, like he really is just..."). Same.

With Jonathan, no subject is off limits, you just have to be able to keep up.

"I remember being a kid and thinking to myself, God, if I could make it so that another kid doesn't have to go through this or doesn't have to feel this way, that would be so worth it."

This ferocious curiosity and pursuit for knowledge has been with Jonathan from childhood. Growing up in Quincy, a rural, Midwestern town on the Mississippi River and being "relentlessly bullied" left him seeking out entertainment in different places. "I needed to create an imagination where things were exciting, and where I could thrive and learn and be engaged. And so I remember being a kid and thinking to myself, God, if I could make it so that another kid doesn't have to go through this or doesn't have to feel this way, that would be so worth it."

"I always want to learn. It's such a particular brain chemical combination when you're curious about something and then you learn about it. And I've been addicted to drugs before so I know what addiction is like. And this is a more fun thing to be addicted to, because you get to learn. You know, you feel good, you don't feel bad afterwards."

Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness

It's refreshing to listen to someone who is so hell bent on learning; doing their research, searching out new points of views and then going back for more, in a world where information is easily available, but not so readily fact checked. It's no surprise then, that Jonathan's first solo Netflix project away from the global smash hit Queer Eye, is an evolution of his podcast, Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.

A senior proposition in the world of audio entertainment, Jonathan's podcast, which has been running since 2015, explores anything and everything that sparks his curiosity, and then delves into the inner workings of said topic with the help of an expert in that field. Tackling topical subjects like ableism, trans rights and vaccine misinformation head on, the podcast was the perfect vehicle for Jonathan to take to a visual streamer like Netflix, which affords the show to take on a whole new life. "It gets to be a little bit more exploratory and a little bit quicker paced than the podcast because there are several experts and it's visual."

Much like Jonathan himself, the six-episode series blends fact with fantastical visual elements as he takes viewers on a mind-bending curiosity trip - gently interrogating subjects including bugs, skyscrapers and gender identity along the way. It's a big production, with Jonathan not only presenting the show, but also acting as an executive producer.

But with great power, comes great responsibility, and the double duty role of presenter and producer - all taking place in the midst of a pandemic - was a responsibility that Jonathan didn't take lightly: "I wanted to do right by it. I wanted to make the team at World of Wonder proud, I wanted to make Netflix proud, I wanted to do right by myself, I wanted to do right by the opportunity.

"I also wanted to do right by all the other people who are queer, who are non binary. I'm wearing the LGBTQIA plus community. And also, frankly, I wanted to do it for people who are living with HIV. I want to be an executive producer, I want to be a host, I want to be someone who is known for what they're able to do, and doesn't need to be defined by these other things that do help define me, but I'm able to do these things because of and not in spite of."

It's easy to forget that this astronomical rise to success hasn't just happened over night. It's been nine years of continuous writing, producing and creating, ever since the web series Gay of Thrones, which saw Jonathan recap Game of Thrones to clients while cutting their hair, began in 2013. The show, which ran for six years, was the catalyst for his desire to create "multiple shows", and gave him entry into an industry that would not only embrace him, but celebrate him.

"I was like, 'Oh my god, entertainment! This is an industry that I'm allowed to be a part of.'

"It was just like a whole new medium to learn to express myself that I didn't ever think that I had the ability to be a part of. I always thought I was behind the camera. And I still am in some ways, and have kind of come back to being behind the camera [on Getting Curious with...]." 

On the subject of big productions, we're now back to Jeff GoldBlum. Specifically, the glory years of the mid 90's disaster movie. "The CGI on Independence Day really stands up for me. It does. The CGI from Twister is also very good, but listen, okay, there's a caveat. So I just rewatched it and the opening scene, there's this like really busted CGI of a satellite flying over the earth, and the satellite's like tracking this weather system that they're about to go chase. And so that part sucks; that CG is very not good. But the fake tornadoes. The fake tornadoes are really good."

And also the flying cows. "And the flying cows."

"I got my dad to take me to that movie for the third time in the summer of '96. I really wanted to be a storm chaser. I was obsessed. I was like, 'Oh, my God, I have to be a storm chaser'. And he was like, 'Son, I'll take you. But this is the last time.' Because I was like hurling myself on the floor, like freaking out that I didn't get to go see it..."

Be it revisiting busted movie CGI, analysing alien invasions or dissecting the specifics of living through a Walking Dead-type scenario, JVN is prepared for anything. Which is why with everything going on right now, real world or not, you want a JVN in your corner.

"We need to have a strong relationship with ourselves and a strong community in order to withstand this world. Because honey, it's a lot..."

Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness is available to stream on Netflix now.

Holly Rains

Holly Rains is the digital editor of Marie Claire UK. She has over 10 years journalism experience, working as an editor and writer, specialising in digital media, content strategy and dog breeds. Prior to Marie Claire, she has held senior staff positions at ELLE UK, Grazia and Company magazine.

Holly is a frequent speaker, panelist and interviewer on a range of subjects including media trends, careers and entertainment. From working with Reuters to provide global red carpet coverage for events like the BAFTAs, to discussing fashion and beauty trends on network TV, she was also the host of the Marie Claire series ‘Holly’s First Dates’, where she regularly interviewed a mix of inspiring woman and A-list celebrities (including Jack Black, Dakota Fanning and Renée Zellweger)  - a series which garnered half a million views in its first two months. And was approved by The Rock.

Her love of office-based meetings means that the days of discovering the melting point of Cadbury's Flakes are long gone, but when she isn't dreaming of scheduling in meetings, she likes to think about social media, and how best to avoid it whilst still retaining the title of 'digital' editor. She also likes learning about emerging technology, Influencers and how to become a Financially Responsible Adult.

Contact Holly: holly.rains@futurenet.com