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Queer Eye's Jonathan Van Ness talks authenticity and self-acceptance

<h6>Marissa Michaels / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Marissa Michaels / The Daily Princetonian

The University’s inaugural Wintersession culminated in an intimate keynote conversation titled “Beyond the Resume” with television star Jonathan Van Ness and media personality Ashlee Marie Preston.

Van Ness is most famous for his role as a hairstylist and self-care advocate on the Netflix reality show “Queer Eye” and for his Emmy-nominated series “Gay of Thrones.” He spoke with Preston — a cultural commentator, civil rights activist, and the first transgender person to become the editor-in-chief of a national publication — about activism, risk-taking, self-acceptance, and boundary setting.

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While recognizing a new level of energy around activism, Van Ness urged people not to forget that a large percentage of Americans still falsely believe that the 2020 presidential election was rigged despite ample evidence that there was no serious voter fraud.

“We have to figure out how to reach out to people that have completely bought into this idea that systematic racism doesn't exist,” he said. “Be the person that changes the world for the people around you, for queer liberation, for racial equality.”

In doing this, Van Ness urged young people to devote themselves to truth telling.

“Journalism is so important. Our journalism is just completely under attack,” he said. “So young people, we need you so much. We need your passion, we need your curiosity, we need you to really be on these front lines, so get involved with politics, get involved with truth telling.”

The prospect of spreading acceptance through more of the country was one of the things that drew Van Ness to audition for “Queer Eye.” He was attracted to the tagline, “turning red states pink, one makeover at a time.”

While helping people now brings him happiness, it took some learning for Van Ness to be able to help others while fulfilling his own needs.

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“As I became more well known, I felt as a survivor of abuse and just having survived so much of what I've been through, I felt like I could never help everyone that needed it,” he said.

He felt he could help people more fully after he started living authentically.

“So many people would open up to me but I couldn't open up all the way back, because I wasn't living my authentic life, and that was really giving me pain that I couldn't talk about living with HIV, I couldn't talk about surviving abuse,” he said.

Once he shared his story in his memoir, he realized that the openness energized him. Van Ness strives to help others live more authentically.

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To do this, he stressed the importance of taking risks, which Van Ness has been doing his entire life.

He said finding ways to combine joy and motivation make him feel comfortable going outside the box. Being a hairstylist allowed him room for creativity and joy that he now shares with others when he gives “make betters” on “Queer Eye.”

“One of the things I like most about the show is that not only do you counsel people, give them advice, and help them learn new things about themselves, but you encourage them to take a risk essentially,” he said.

Van Ness told University students exclusively that his most recent risk was buying a fifth cat.

Director for Wintersession and Campus Engagement Judy Jarvis, who helped organize and moderate the event, noted that Van Ness’ history of taking chances made him an ideal Wintersession keynote speaker.

“Wintersession is all about students taking risks and trying out something new, and Jonathan has a career that embodies exploration and risk-taking,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian.

In addition to risk-taking, Van Ness gave advice on how young queer and non-binary people can navigate their professional lives.

He encouraged students to weather tough times with self-compassion and self-love. For him, repeating mantras helps.

“I'm so inspired by our college students and by our high school students and by LGBTQ youth that are blazing a gorgeous, strong, progressive path unapologetically,” he said.

Emily Weiss ’22 appreciated Van Ness’ words of advice to students.

“It was nice to see his perspective on queer students and how to make your way in the world without sacrificing any of your identity,” Weiss said.

Preston added that she takes time to remind herself that she is worthy of space.

She mentioned that she loves the quote, “If there's no room for you at the table, bring a chair.”

“For me, it has always been a constant reminder to never shrink any aspect of who I am,” she said.

However, both Preston and Van Ness recognized that they do not feel their best every day. Self acceptance, Van Ness said, is not linear.

“I always have this tendency to want to be like, ‘I've made it to the other side of self-acceptance and I'm never going to come back on the other side of it,’ and sometimes I feel like that's a constant journey that I'm still in,” Van Ness said.

He advised students to give themselves permission to not feel fulfilled sometimes.

“It's just important to remember that at the end of the day, [self-acceptance is] a process,” Preston agreed. “It's something that we have to work towards. Some days we have it, some days we don't.”

Van Ness has found setting personal boundaries to be one key to fulfillment, something he was not always good at as a self-proclaimed people pleaser.

He now asks for what he wants upfront.

Preston added that it can be difficult for people who have suffered abuse to set boundaries due to false expectations.

“It's really common for those of us who have had traumatic experiences growing up or throughout our life because we began to believe that the abuse or the exploitation is the way that people show us they care,” she said.

Now she finds it necessary to carve out space for herself.

“Once I learned how to set boundaries around things, I can show up for what I really want to do, which is help out other people and be more vulnerable and authentic,” Van Ness said.

Weiss said that despite the webinar format, the conversation with Van Ness and Preston felt intimate.

“I’m a big fan of ‘Queer Eye’ so it was great to see Jonathan and also get to hear what he had to say in a more intimate conversation,” she said.

Weiss also appreciated Preston’s contributions.

“I really loved hearing from both of them,” Weiss said. “I actually didn't really know anything about Ashley Marie Preston, but she had really insightful things to say.”

Jarvis agreed.

“Ashlee Marie also embodies the Wintersession spirit, as someone who takes risks and has explored a wide variety of fields,” Jarvis wrote.

Three hundred and seventy-five people registered to attend the Jan. 30 event and 251 tuned into the Zoom during the actual event. The event was hosted by The Office of Wintersession and Campus Engagement.

“Beyond the Resume” was the culmination of Wintersession, which held over 300 virtual events and workshops between Jan. 18 and Jan. 31.

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