Ah, self-love. It may be a buzz word these days, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Just ask Jonathan Van Ness, who recently released his memoir called, Over the Top: A Journey to Self-Love.
Best known for his gig on Netflix’s hit, Queer Eye, Van Ness always delights with his optimistic attitude and warm personality.
Yet in his new book, the sensational Van Ness gets vulnerable. Turns out, he wasn’t always the bubbly ray of sunshine he is today, having struggled with with child sexual abuse, body image, drug addiction, prostitution, insecurities surrounding his sexuality and being diagnosed with HIV, among other profound experiences.
That’s why I’m excited to share this list of the top 9 things I learned from Over the Top. By the end, you’ll understand why Jonathan Van Ness is everyone’s favorite beacon of positivity.
1. Self-Love Begins with Forgiveness
From struggling with addiction to receiving a diagnosis of being HIV positive, Van Ness says he used to struggle with negative self-thinking regarding his past decisions.
After surviving sexual assault by an older boy at his church, JVN’s suppression of this childhood trauma led to a series of other “self-destructive” behaviors.
As a teenager, he began spending hours in online AOL chat rooms in order to meet up with older men for sex. Next, Van Ness started college at the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ, where he began experimenting with cocaine. Because he had limited money to spend on the drug, he turned to prostituting himself to earn cash.
After having a “John” pull out a gun on him, JVN escaped through a window, ran down the street to the safety of his friend who was waiting for him in a parked car. With a flood of tears, called his mom to get help. Soon after, he flunked out of college.
It took years of yoga, therapy and self-care for JVN to turn his life around. That’s why, in Over the Top, JVN stresses the importance of forgiving yourself.
However, forgiving yourself isn’t an overnight process, he says. It took years of work, work he continues to do every single day.
Through his determination to find love and acceptance in himself, Van Ness inspires us all to head off on a journey of forgiveness and self-acceptance.
2. Vulnerability is Strength
In the introduction of his memoir, Van Ness admits that he feels disingenuous being the face of confidence and positivity. Like all of us, he has insecurities and is haunted by past mistakes.
He struggles to open up, worrying that his audience won’t love him as much if we knew all of his dirty little secrets. In the opening pages of the book, JVN openly shares this worry.
It took enormous courage on his part to share the most vulnerable parts of his past in this touching memoir, including being the victim of childhood sexual abuse at that hands of an older boy, his teenage sexual encounters with older men, and his struggles with drugs and selling his body for money during his time at the University of Arizona.
After leaving the “U of A”, Van Ness decided to enroll at the Aveda Institute in Minneapolis, MN (my hometown, btw). After graduation, he worked in Arizona for five years before moving to Los Angeles, CA, in 2009 to pursue a career as a hairstylist.
While in LA, he was introduced to methamphetamine, which led to two rehab trips and two relapses. One day while working on the salon floor, JVN felt ill and fainted, which caused him to go to Planned Parenthood where he tested positive for H.I.V.
“That day was just as devastating as you would think it would be,” says JVN.
What is profound about JVN’s willingness to share these stories is that they make him human. They make him lovable. Most importantly, they free all of us to be complex and messy and human too, just like him.
It’s safe to say that, after reading his deeply vulnerable memoir, I love Van Ness all the more. We can all learn something here: that being vulnerable is being strong.
3. You — Not Others — Determine Your Worth
Van Ness is no stranger to fame and, with fame comes the constant opinions of others. While Van Ness admits that these opinions can be quite positive, he often struggles with the more negative views to which fame exposes him.
For example, JVN receives an extraordinary amount of both positive and negative feedback for his self-described “femininity and natural flamboyance.”
For example, after his MTV VMA Red Carpet appearance in 2019 where JVN appeared in a full-length cape and heels, JVN was attacked by vitriolic haters on social media who criticized his outfit.
Of course, with epic wisdom and grace, JVN knew just how to respond, saying on Twitter:
“The VMAs were so major for me,” Van Ness began. “I’ve gotten caught up in reading some really judgmental mean stuff about me. Some people hated my outfit, some hate me, they think I’m fake, irritating, too loud, too femme. But really I have to stay focused.”
The VMA’s were so major for me. I’ve gotten caught up in reading some really judgmental mean stuff about me. Some people hated my outfit, some hate me, they think I’m fake, irritating, too loud, too femme. But really I have to stay focused.
— Jonathan Van Ness (@jvn) August 28, 2019
Clearly, Van Ness approaches life from a place of internal validation, making a conscious decision not to let others’ ideas of him affect his own self-worth.
Instead, he encourages us to form a sense of self-worth based on how we treat ourselves. Throughout his memoir, JVN shares others stories of conflict and resilience, teaching us how to embrace our uniqueness and celebrate it.
4. Being Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) is Powerful
One of the things that I love about JVN is that he is wonderfully gender non-conforming (GNC), wearing skirts, dresses, heels, scarfs and a diverse range of fabulous accessories. As a grooming expert, he also has an appreciation for skin care routines, hair care and grooming practices.
As JVN says, “It wasn’t an option for me to be closeted or to keep it to myself. Sky’s blue, grass is green. Can’t fight it.”
Because JVN has embraced being gender non-conforming (GNC) for its beauty and strength, it has led to him achieving new heights in television, fashion, modelling and more.
For example, in December 2019, JVN became the first ever non-female cover star of Cosmopolitan UK in 35 years!
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5. Real Life is Always Different than the Pictures
It’s refreshing to hear Van Ness, a celebrity always in the public eye, speak on the influence of social media.
Yes, the person we see on TV and Instagram may always have a smile on his face.
Yet that doesn’t diminish the fact that he goes through struggles just like the rest of us.
His life has included struggles with child sexual abuse, body image, drug addiction, prostitution, and being diagnosed with HIV, among other profound experiences.
Nonetheless, he has come out on the other side as an example of happy, authentic living.
6. Joy and Pain aren’t Mutually Exclusive
One of the most hope-filled sections of Over the Top is Van Ness’s discussion about his relationship with his step-father. He described his step-father as a “man of action,” always encouraging Van Ness to try things that scared him.
Yet his close relationship with his step-father came from a place of extreme pain.
When the teasing at school got out of hand, his step-father was quick to distract him with something fun. This loving and supportive relationship, writes Van Ness, came out of the alienation he experienced in his social life.
This exemplifies that sometimes the most joyful experiences of your life can come out of harrowing situations.
JVN also struggled to have a close relationship with his birth father, which in many ways, made a close relationship with his step-father more natural.
As another example, JVN was the first male cheerleader at Quincy Senior High School and continued cheerleading in college at the University of Arizona when he enrolled. While JVN adored cheerleading for its fun, challenges, and pageantry, he also experienced a great deal of bullying, because he was an early person to break gender barriers within the sport.
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Try
Van Ness doesn’t want you to try the things that scare you, he wants you to attack them. Using a hilarious vignette about learning to do a backflip off a diving board, Van Ness highlights the absurdity of our fears.
You might not know this about JVN, but one of his biggest fears growing up was doing a backflip. That’s why it’s incredible to see him knocking these out on the regular on his Instagram page.
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Realizing you can do something new or different, says Van Ness, is how you learn what’s possible.
It also shows the power of one-on-one coaching, because JVN works with both a gymnastics and figure skating coach today. These coaches have been instrumental in his ability to overcome his fears and achieve new heights.
8. Quitting Can Be About Self-Love
Like many of us just starting off in our careers, Van Ness struggled with low pay, long hours, and toxic work environments. After two years working for a prestigious salon that didn’t value him or his work, Van Ness says he finally learned how healthy it is sometimes to say, this isn’t worth it.
You’ve probably were told from a young age that quitting is for losers. But armed with Van Ness’ intelligent insights, you can debunk that myth.
Sometimes it’s better for your health to recognize when something isn’t working for you.
9. “You are Never too Broken to Heal”
In one of the most talked-about and poignant sections of Over the Top, Van Ness discusses his diagnosis with HIV. He’s struggled with the stigma attached to this diagnosis since his 20s. Yet Van Ness still manages to be the bright spot on a cloudy day.
What’s his secret? Van Ness doesn’t believe that anyone– including himself– is too broken to find happiness.
He especially wanted to make this point to his LGBTQ+ audience, saying that despite the dark and difficult times you might be experiencing now, the future belongs to you.
Most importantly, JVN’s success reminds us that we need more LGBTQ+ people in the spotlight, sharing their stories and their lives.
Over the Top: The Bottom Line
As described in the summary of Over the Top, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll come away knowing that no matter how broken or lost you may be, you’re a Kelly Clarkson song, you’re strong, and you’ve got this.”
Here’s the bottom line: if you’re looking for a book that will make you experience a range of beautiful emotions, you need to pick up Over the Top.
Through his sage advice and hilarious quips, Van Ness shows us that sometimes it’s not our families and teachers who help us learn the most. It’s the people who’ve walked the same paths as us– and rose to the top.
A beam of hope and inspiration for many both within and beyond the LGBTQ+ spectrum, JVN will warm your heart as he bares all in this heartfelt and incredible memoir.
*Author’s Note: At the time of this publication, JVN (who is gender non-conforming, and nonbinary) uses “he/him” pronouns. If JVN’s preferences change in the future, this article will be updated to reflect it!
What did you love about JVN’s memoir, Over the Top? Share your reactions in the comments below.
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