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Of Course My Favorite TV Host Is An Asshole

TV Personality Jonathan Van Ness attends the Build Series to discuss his new book "Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love" at Build Studio on September 25, 2019 in New York City.
Jim Spellman/Getty Images|

Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness.

I’m not sure that anyone was that surprised to hear that RuPaul Charles can be off-puttingly aloof on set, or that Jonathan Van Ness is a serious diva. In my many years of watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, I have noticed one constant: the host’s remote imperiousness. Mama Ru is a bit of a misnomer for a personality that over 16 seasons has seemed so many things to me, warm never being one of them. In the case of the eight seasons of Queer Eye I have seen, Van Ness has for me, like so many people, been the most charismatic of the “Fab Five”—which includes Tan France, Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski and the recently departed Bobby Berk (to be replaced by another guy who looks like Antoni, Jeremiah Brent). But Van Ness is also the last person I would want by my side in an emergency. A crucial and complicating factor here is, of course, that both series are touted as havens for the vulnerable and the marginalized. But let’s be honest, these are reality shows. There’s a limit to their generosity.

Within a few days of each other, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone dropped stories which scratched away the appealing veneers of both Charles and Van Ness. Ronan Farrow, being a little on the nose, kicks off his almost 6,000-word profile of Charles with his subject pronouncing, in reference to his favorite show, Secrets of Great British Castles, "The human ego can justify these terrible things that people do.” Unraveling out of this observation is a surprisingly long feature, despite how little it seems able to crack Charles’s surface. The gist is that Charles, with his 60,000-acre fracking-friendly bunker-propped ranch in Wyoming, appears hell bent on protecting himself from the very divisive world in which he has received so much success. Remember, this is a person whose eponymous competition series has birthed 19 variations, seven of which he hosts. As Farrow puts it, "[Charles] has taken an underground, subversive form and made it so mainstream that Nancy Pelosi has appeared as a guest on the show."

I’m not sure what we are supposed to expect from Charles, a man who would have required a level of inexhaustible self-promotional drive to ascend to his current position. "Almost all the drag queens on the show are queer, and many are people of color, who come from backgrounds where they faced homophobia, racism, or transphobia," writes Farrow of Drag Race. Under Charles’s rules, contestants are offered the chance to transcend (if they veer outside his rules, however, he may write a song mocking them for feeling diminished by his show). In some ways, Charles has positioned himself less as a parent to the show’s contestants than as a God, if God had a net worth of $60 million. Which is to say, while Drag Race may present itself as an advocate of representation, it (and its host) still exists within the confines of an inequitable entertainment system.

Queer Eye is a smaller brand, spread across five co-hosts and its "heroes" (the people it makes over) vary more widely, but Van Ness isn’t entirely dissimilar to Charles in the reality sphere they occupy, though perhaps the former is more BFF than Mama. Van Ness’s boundless hyperactivity, with a candor exceptional even among this touchy-feely quintet, is what made them a breakout star. They are so disarming they often inspire more confession from behind their salon chair than does Karamo, whose very job it is. But Rolling Stone’s lengthy expose of the Queer Eye set painted Van Ness as a rage-filled abuser. The notion that their explosiveness could go both ways should be unsurprising, except that it has been presented to the public within a product that virtually only packages Van Ness as pure (albeit chaotic) delight.

As Cheyenne Roundtree points out in her Rolling Stone piece, Queer Eye arriving following Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 gave it an outsized gravitas. All those makeovers—both external and internal—carried with them the heavier expectation of healing an entire nation. Not only that, the emotional honesty permeating the show extended to the hosts, Van Ness in particular. When the five of them shot to fame, it was not only based on the work they did for others but on the exposure of their own vulnerabilities—it’s one thing to be famous for helping others, it’s another to be famous for opening a vein at the same time. Van Ness was venerated for their emotional incontinence and is now being vilified for not dispensing it wrapped up in a bow. "Jonathan’s a person who contains multitudes and who has the capacity to be very warm, very charismatic, and has the capacity to make you feel really special," one source told Rolling Stone, before adding, "But at least once a day, they would need to yell at somebody."

I do not want to defend Van Ness’s behavior. I believe that being a mature adult means getting a handle on your emotions so that, at the very least, they are not continuously weighing down everyone around you, particularly in a professional setting. And if you can’t do that, it is your responsibility to take some time away to figure it out. But just as it’s hard to find much of a scandal in Charles being cutthroat in the way that was instrumental to his success, it’s hard to expect emotional regulation from someone whose messy feelings are central to how they are packaged and sold. One of the sources told Rolling Stone, “The apparatus of [the show’s production company] ITV and Netflix promotes Jonathan and actively rewards them for their bad behavior.” Well, yes, because they are the person who helped this show become a hit, precisely because of their willingness to always operate in such a heightened register.

Again, I am not sure what we are supposed to expect here. We all know by now that the entertainment industry, like so many industries, operates on exploitative hierarchies. When it comes to lucrative "personalities" in particular, there is an entire apparatus insulating those individuals at the expense of everyone beneath them. That then encourages entitlement in the "talent," because they face no accountability for their behavior. This system is perpetuated by a coterie of executives and senior managers who benefit most from the golden goose at the center of it all. Several stories on toxic host-centered workplaces—from Kelly Clarkson’s show to Jimmy Fallon’s to Ellen DeGeneres’s—as well as the Queer Eye report, point to a leadership class, and the human resources departments that serve them, choosing to disregard the toxicity, which, of course they do! It’s paying for all their shit!

A strange side effect of increasingly trying to hold bad behavior to account is the expectation that because the culture is slightly more enlightened to this stuff, those within it will embody all of the good behavior they espouse. This goes double for seemingly enlightened celebrities who are seen less as people than as avatars of perfection. This goes triply for celebrities like Charles and Van Ness, who themselves came to their positions of power by meeting the culture’s demand for more representation and enlightened thinking. But beneath all of this is a system which has not caught up to the discourse, which is built down to its very core upon divisive power dynamics. The fact is, it doesn’t matter who it is—if you hold someone up like a god enough of the time, they will inevitably forget how to be human some of the time.

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