Jonathan Van Ness is quite the busy person. In addition to starring on Netflix favorite Queer Eye, the multihyphenate beauty expert is a bestselling author, podcaster, hair stylist and founder of JVN Hair. Their recently launched haircare line made its way to SXSW for a special pop-up, as did Van Ness. Between offering expert hair advice and their featured discussion with writer, poet and comedian ALOK, Van Ness made some time for Modern Luxury to talk all things beauty, business and self-empowerment.
So first off, how's your SXSW going?
It's my first one in real life. It's so exciting…To be back with a takeover by my haircare company that I've been working on so hard for the last two years— it's a surreal day.
View this post on Instagram
You’re an amazing author and beloved TV personality, but your roots are at the salon. How does it feel now to tap back into the hair and beauty world?
I feel my career has led me to this point of being able to create change for the industry, and I get to make a company with the culture and an ecosystem that I could believe in. It was different than what I've ever been a part of before. Around the same time, I started working with Biossance and that's where I discovered their sugarcane-derived squalene.
I started talking to Catherine Gore, who's the president of Biossance, my agents, and some other people. People have come and approached me about doing a beauty brand, whether it was their reliance on plastics or they were these beauty companies that are kind of like turnkey, bespoke companies where you just go put your name on something. I want to build something from scratch. I want to work with our formulators. And I made good friends with the lead formulator and the chemists from Biossance.
For so long, there's been all of these companies that don’t take care of everybody's hair. Heather, she was a fierce Black woman, and she was like, “Hair is care.” There might be some textures here that need a little bit more heat, maybe they need one extra process to get the desired result. But you can't go around being afraid of people's hair. You need to get that through your head right now. She was incredible. I think that because I got that lucky experience, being educated in Minneapolis and being around such diverse clientele, I've always felt this passion to make sure that clients felt loved.
I'm passionate about formulas and ingredients, but I'm also passionate about the way that we feel. I've been made to feel like other... I've met so many clients that didn't feel included, and they didn't feel they were allowed to feel beautiful. I want to get through everybody’s head that everybody's beautiful and worth celebrating.
You touched on a lot of solid points, and one that really resonates with me is, like you mentioned hair is hair, but some hair stylists get afraid of my texture. What would be some advice you would give someone that has trouble embracing who they are with their hair texture or their pattern?
First of all, I think you have beautiful hair. I think that it's a matter of understanding how to get your hair the way that you want to look. So, you embrace your natural texture. How do I apply product? How do I let it air dry? How do I use that if I want to take heat to it? It’s hard to find teachers. I don't mean schoolteachers; I mean teachers in the world. Whether it's YouTube or someone in your family, I think having the courage to ask questions is the first part and learning to accept where you are.
I think having the courage to ask is the first part of accepting because no one's born knowing how to style their hair. I've been doing hair for 15 years. It wasn't until I was 25 that I learned how to sell my own hair. Newsflash, I've been a professional paid hairdresser for six years by that point. It took me forever to figure out how to style my hair.
Who taught you?
I could do it on other people…I was doing hair on people in the salon all day, every day for six years before I could finally really style my hair in any way that I wanted to. It takes a long time. Practice makes perfect, and sometimes who's got time for that? Figuring out the amount of maintenance that you want is important. What we learn so much about haircare is from the media, social media, print, TV.
But to know that the hair that we're seeing on TV, the hair that we're seeing in photoshoots, is done by people who have been working their entire adult life to learn how to do this day in and day out, and then there's also help in Photoshop and correcting in post— you don't need to look like that to be able feel beautiful.
I don't get a lot of extensions in my hair. I'm particular about if you Photoshop something in my hair, it's because like some weird shadow happened. I’m particular about not photoshopping in a bunch of hair. I think it's beautiful to celebrate people and their natural hair.
I love that and you can sense the authenticity with your brand. I was actually mind blown at your products being able to work in my hair.
Squalene! It's just so incredible. The reason why a lot of people say, “I don’t like styling products, they weigh my hair down” is because so often they're based on silicones and so many other oil-based products. They sit on the outside of the hair, but it sits on the outside of the hair shaft and it weighs it down from the outside.
Having squalene, it’s such a small molecule that no matter what your hair shaft is, it's going to go inside that cuticle. I like to compare squalene to Beyonce: it is the best. It's such a good carrier molecule. It's really driving past that cuticle to address the issues that your hair is having from the inside out. Squalene also gives you a better slip and gives you more shine than silicone. It's also derived from sugarcane.
We ferment the sugarcane and that's what makes it develop squalene. So even the gas that's made in that fermentation process, they repurpose that gas and use it to power the plant. We are always thinking of ways to make our process better for the environment. It is such an incredible ingredient. It's in all our products and it brings out the best in every single formula.
I can tell that you really know the science behind the product, and it is sustainable. Was this all intentional?
100%. We have a major plastic issue in the beauty industry. Also silicones are what's called a bioaccumulative and we rinse it down our drain. I wanted to create a line that works better than other lines on your hair type and was also good for the environment and didn't contribute to the plastic issues and crisis that we're already facing. The first thing in the line that I was unwilling to compromise about was ingredients. I wanted the best ingredients, the best formulas. Then the second piece was how we market and how we talk to people about the products. I want everyone to feel included. I wanted it to be a truly inclusive life for everyone. And also, to degender the view; it should be for everyone. The third thing was sustainability. I really wanted it to be 100% plastic free from the get-go until I was talking to Rami about it. She was like, “About that queen. If the bottles have a closure, there's no technology for it to be plastic free, but it's around the corner, there's prototypes, they can still be cleared up.” So that's why our goal in 2025 is to be plastic free. I also didn't want to wait until then to start because these formulas and these ingredients and squalene are so good. It's so much cleaner and brighter.
What would you say is a mantra you live by in conjunction with this product line?
Come as you are. It's about celebrating people for where they are. No one has to change to be noticed or change to be celebrated. I want everyone to feel they can be empowered to play in the beauty space or they want to do it because they want to. Not because they're trying to change for someone else. It's because we want to engage in a relationship with ourselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Courtesy JVN Hair