How Tan France went from trying to quit ‘Queer Eye’ to embracing his spotlight


Tan France was cast on Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” the smash hit makeover show that premiered in 2018, with no onscreen or entertainment experience whatsoever.

Now, the Fab Five’s resident style expert is one of the streaming giant’s most recognizable faces. He’s written a memoir, “Naturally Tan,” and is set to host a new Netflix competition show with Alexa Chung, “Next In Fashion.” He’s also likely the most recognizable Pakistani, Muslim, out gay man in the history of TV.

France recently spoke with INSIDER about his newfound role as a beacon of representation, his partnerships, upcoming projects, and whose style he admires in Hollywood.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Although France prefers not to open up about his personal life, his new memoir offers intimate details about his childhood

Callie Ahlgrim: A striking section of the memoir is when you write about experimenting with bleaching your skin as a child.

Tan France: It’s something that many, many people — not all, but many people — from communities of color experience. It’s not just the pressure of “white is the most beautiful,” it’s also, “the lighter you are within a community the more beautiful you are.” It’s not my community that is exclusively feeling this way. This is the black community also. This is the Asian community also, South American community also.

Read more: Here’s why one African country is banning skin bleaching products

The darker you are within a community, the less desirable people see you, which is ridiculous. I suffered with that for many, many, many years of my life. Thankfully — I don’t know what switched, quite honestly. I think possibly it was my partner, my boyfriend, who seemed to date me purely for my skin color at that point. He found it so desirable and so shockingly beautiful in contrast to his skin color, and that blew my mind because he had the most commercial skin color. It was completely pale white, no freckle, no blemish in any way.

Ahlgrim: This was when you were a teenager?

France: Yeah. So that was the first time I thought, “Oh gosh, maybe there is a community that actually finds this desirable and that I’m not going to be alone for the rest of my life.” It felt really important to talk about that in my book, because it’s something that so many people go through.

Now I’m at a point that people might find very arrogant, but I post [my skin] regularly on my social media. I will talk about how beautiful my skin color is because I want young people of color watching my Instagram to think, “Oh, maybe I’m not a monster. If Tan can talk about how beautiful his skin color is and how desirable that should be, maybe I can be myself the same way.”

Read more: 33 Instagram accounts to follow in 2019 that will actually make you feel good about your body

I do it for myself. Because if you’d told 10-year-old me, 15-year-old me, 17-year-old me that, at one point in my life, I might see my skin color as the most beautiful thing about me, I would have told you you were insane.

Ahlgrim: You’ve said before that just because you’re on a TV show, that doesn’t mean you need to talk about your personal life. So why did you decide to write about your upbringing and your origin story, so to speak?

France: I want to give a certain amount of information that would hopefully benefit people within my communities that I fall within without saying, “This is me, warts and all, so you know everything about me. You have access to my life completely.” Because that’s not the case at all.

I’m still very much my own person and my husband’s husband. I like to keep my life very non showbizzy, but it felt like my responsibility to say, “I am a person with great privilege at this point. I am one of a very few of my people that has a platform like this, a global platform.” And if I didn’t use my voice at all, I would feel like I was doing my people a disservice.

‘Not all brown people are terrorists’

Ahlgrim: Do you ever feel a great deal of pressure to represent your communities? In a debilitating kind of way?

France: Yes I do. I felt that since day one. I felt that when I actually got the job [on “Queer Eye”], and that was why I didn’t want to take the job initially because I didn’t want that pressure. However, I’ve tried, over the last few months in particular, to rid myself of the pressure by accepting the fact that I’m never going to get it right. I’m never going to represent everyone. All I can do is be myself and do my best to conduct myself well. That will hopefully encourage people to see my people in a more positive light.

But other than that, I don’t see myself as representative at all. I do what I do, and I hope that encourages people to say, “Oh, well, we don’t see all Pakistanis this way, we don’t see all South Asians this way, but we like that he’s not what we see in the press.” Of other people from — basically what I’m saying is, not all brown people are terrorists.

Ahlgrim: Yeah, of course. It’s common sense, but I guess not for everybody.

France: No, absolutely not for everybody. I live in Utah. My in-laws live in Wyoming. That’s definitely not common knowledge there.

France tried to quit ‘Queer Eye’ multiple times because he was ‘scared of the cameras and the pressure’

Ahlgrim: Was there ever a moment after you accepted the job on “Queer Eye” that you felt like you regretted it, or that it was a mistake?

France: Yeah. In the book, I talk about how, after I accepted the job, I was going to quit before I started shooting because I was too scared of the pressure. Then, episode three, I tried to quit again because I was too scared of the cameras and, again, the pressure of being part of this community so publicly and having to speak for a community.

So yeah, there were many, many times after I accepted the job that I thought, “I’m not cut out for this.”

Ahlgrim: How did you push through that doubt?

France: First and foremost, the fear of the studio was no longer a fear when I learnt that I didn’t have to be anybody that I wasn’t. I felt so much pressure to be Hollywood-y, show business-y, but I was the only one who had no show business experience. The producer of Netflix encouraged me to just be myself. That’s why I was hired. I didn’t have to put on this fabulous persona. I got to just be myself, which gave me real comfort.

Then, again, accepting the fact that I didn’t have to portray a version of what it is to be a South Asian, gay immigrant. I just got to be me, and that’s why I thought, “OK, I can do this, and at no point will I profess to speak for people. I am myself and myself only.”

The upcoming season of ‘Queer Eye’ will include a few firsts for the Fab Five

Ahlgrim: Can you tease anything about season four?

France: It’s the first time we’ve ever helped somebody that one of us knows. We’ve never done that before on “Queer Eye,” and I can’t imagine we’re going to do much more of it.

This person made so much sense because it was Jonathan’s teacher, one of his teachers as a kid. She molded the lives of many people in the community. She impacted the lives of many people in her community. Hundreds upon hundreds, if not thousands, of people. One of those people was Jonathan Van Ness, and he was allowed the freedom that he has today, the expression that he has today.

Ahlgrim: In the trailer, a hero [the name used for the subject of each episode] mentioned that he had never had a conversation with a gay person before. How do you even go about entering that sphere?

France: Oh, really easily. I go in with a boa, I go in with heels… [Laughs] No. He’s a farmer, a lovely, lovely guy. He turned out so handsome.

The way we do it is how I lived my whole life and how I’ve been doing this for many, many years. I have the luxury of going through so much s— for so many years of people constantly badgering me for things that I had no control over.

Ahlgrim: Interesting to hear you call that a “luxury.”

France: Well, it is a luxury now because I get to show people the light. I get to use that to my advantage to say, “Let’s make a better society, don’t be a dick.”

It put me in a really good position to be able to help men like this man who had never spoken to somebody like me before. He’d never really interacted with gay people, or people who were South Asian. I go in with kindness and say, “Ask whatever you want. Ask me whatever you want, no issue. I won’t be offended. The reason why you may be hesitant is because you’re worried, you’re scared, you don’t know. Ask whatever you want, and let’s open this up.”

Ahlgrim: Are there any questions that reporters or fans constantly ask you that you hate?

France: Stupid s—. The ones that they know are ridiculous. “Does your husband ever find it inappropriate with how close you are with the boys, in particular, Antoni?” I’m like, “No. My husband’s a really smart man, and he understands that gay men can be friends, moron.”

France has an enduring friendship with Pete Davidson, despite the comedian’s failure to take style advice

Ahlgrim: For your YouTube series “Dressing Funny,” did the idea come from the “SNL” skit with Pete Davidson?

France: Yeah, it did. Pete and I became friends. He wanted to go shopping. I suggested that we film it, and he was actually, “Yeah, we would love to film it. I was going to ask you, so it’s great that we’re both on the same page. We think it could be funny for ‘SNL.'”

It went really well, but I wanted to do more. I mentioned it to Netflix, and we tested it out with Hasan Minhaj. We pushed to do a full season, and it’s doing really well.

Tina Fey’s episode is coming out this week, and it’s the best one. It’s so good. Actually, all of them are wicked. The [John] Mulaney one is amazing. They’re all so good, but this one was special for me because I’m her No. 1 fan.

Ahlgrim: Does it upset you at all that Pete hasn’t really taken your advice?

France: [Laughs] No! Not at all. I knew he never would. I knew. It was never about that with Pete.

I never expected him to take it because he’s so different from me. He’s like a generation younger than me, and he’s in a world that I don’t understand. His style is very playful, and he loves very playful style, creative style, in a way that I can’t wear it.

I never expected him to stick with what I had done for that episode. It was purely meant to be shocking to see him go from hype-y Pete to refined, sophisticated Pete. Actually, I style him again for the final episode of this season of “Dressing Funny,” and we do something similar. Not the same look, but we do something similar where I try to turn him into somebody more refined — because his life changed so much since the last one. I thought it would be funny to see what his life would become after this new refined version.

Pete Davidson and Tan France in the “Dressing Funny” trailer.
Netflix/YouTube

So, no. It doesn’t affect me at all. Not at all. It makes me laugh. I spent July 4th with him, and I watched what he was wearing. I was like, “I was never going to change you. You are always going to be your version of Pete.”

Ahlgrim: What was he wearing?

France: Like a tie dye T-shirt, big baggy shorts, just Pete. He looked very Pete-y. Who ever knows what he’s going to be wearing. It’s always going to be out there.

France dreams about shopping with Adele. He ranks Alexa Chung, Gigi Hadid, and Harry Styles among the most stylish celebrities.

Ahlgrim: Is there a certain celebrity or public figure that you would love to shop with or style?

France: Yes. I have no desire to style this person because they dress incredibly well themselves, but I just want — it takes me about three hours to shoot “Dressing Funny,” each episode, so if I got to spend just three hours with this person, I would be able to retire from show business. I’d be like, “OK, I’m out.” It’s Adele.

Ahlgrim: Aside from Adele and yourself, who would you consider top tier style icons in pop culture right now?

France: Alexa Chung, always. She’s my cohost on another show [Netflix’s upcoming fashion competition, “Next In Fashion”]. Victoria Beckham, I think she’s so, so stylish. Gigi [Hadid] is always up there. She’s so f—ing chic.

Then, men — there are many, but I don’t see them as my style inspos, I just like the way they dress. I think Harry Styles does a killer job, so does Zayn Malik — all the One Direction boys. But those two in particular.

Ahlgrim: Harry’s floral suits are iconic.

France: They’re incredible. He wears his suits so, so well. Then the classic David Beckham. Every straight guy, if he’s struggling, just look at what he’s wearing and go for that.

To France, fashion plays a role in self-care and can dramatically improve confidence

Ahlgrim: Why did you decide to get involved in the Men’s Warehouse Suit Drive?

France: The thing I love about it is that we’re helping people to get back into the workplace by encouraging them to dress in a certain way for interviews and for the professional work space.

What I do on “Queer Eye” is, I’m encouraging people to make an effort in their lives, get dressed up, and that’s going to hopefully encourage the life that you want. What we’re doing with Men’s Warehouse is actually quite similar. We’re saying to people, “Please donate your gently used business attire,” men and women, and that could help somebody get back on their feet.

Ahlgrim: How can fashion and style impact the job hunt?

France: I would love to believe that people aren’t judged by what they’re wearing, but when it comes to a workplace, you are. I don’t think that’s inappropriate. I was an employer. When I would have people interview, if they looked like they weren’t making an effort, I’d be thinking, “And what other things will you not make an effort for in my business if I were to employ you?”

I think people see fashion as so fickle and shallow. What so many people don’t realize is that when you dress a certain way, when you make an effort, that affects the way you view yourself that day. It affects your self esteem, so you conduct yourself differently. You conduct yourself in a more positive way.



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