Queer Eye's Tan France: 'When people rank me and my boys, I know they'll put me at the end, because I'm the brown one'

Ahead of the Netflix show's third season, its fashion expert Tan France tells Alexandra Pollard why Asian representation in the media matters

Monday 11 March 2019 09:23
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"As a kid, I always thought, 'Of course that hot dude isn’t gonna go for me; I’m the brown guy'"
"As a kid, I always thought, 'Of course that hot dude isn’t gonna go for me; I’m the brown guy'"

At least once a day, a self-professed straight man will approach Tan France, the fashion expert on Netflix series Queer Eye, and tell him: “I’ve never watched a gay show before, but… you’re just like us!” “And I say, ‘Haha, that’s right,’” says France, through gritted teeth. “‘We really are.’”

The 35-year-old is sitting on an armchair in a central London hotel, his posture perfect, his colossal grey quiff immaculate. “I know that’s such a weird, ignorant comment to make,” he continues, “but I love that it’s made them think.”

For all its frothy exuberance and innate memeability, Queer Eye is endlessly thought-provoking. Dig beneath the concept – five gay men travel across Texas, making over hapless people’s lives – and you’ll find a show that carefully unpacks toxic masculinity, gender, race, sexual identity, and self-worth. Rather than fundamentally changing its “heroes”, the show seeks to help them become the best version of themselves. When one of France’s subjects makes yet another jab at his own weight in an early episode of the forthcoming third season, France says: “Your self-deprecating attitude… I know you’re laughing through it, but it’s hard to hear.”

France, who grew up in South Yorkshire, is the show’s secret weapon: a shrewd, temperate cheerleader for both his “fab five” castmates, and the people whose wardrobe he is overhauling. His mission statement is: “Style is not fashion. Fashion is not trendy after a season. I couldn’t give a s**t about fashion. Style is dressing the way that you feel confident, and what is appropriate for you, your age, and your body type.”

It’s important to France that he encourages the show’s participants to have self-confidence – but he doesn’t want to do so through false flattery. “I’ve learnt over many, many years that it doesn’t help at all for me to lie. I’ve helped many a friend with their closet and their body image. And when they say, ‘Well, I’ve got weight around here that I don’t wanna show off,’ I don’t lie and say, ‘No! There’s nothing there! You’ve got a six-pack!’ I’ve got a problem area there also,” he says, gesturing to what seems to be an ironing board stomach. “I’m very self-conscious of that. I say, ‘OK, let me show you how we can solve that.’ There’s no point lying. I’ve got eyes.”

As grateful as France is to those straight men in the street, it means even more to him when he hears that he’s inspired those in marginalised communities – particularly queer Asian people, whose media representation has thus far been practically non-existent. “That’s one of the main perks of this job – people saying, ‘I see a version of me,’” he says. “They see a version that is different from the cis, white guy on TV, and they feel represented. They feel like, ‘OK, maybe there is space for us.’ That feels incredible. Getting DMs [direct messages] from kids in a small town in Pakistan, saying, ‘I’ve never seen a show that’s made me feel like I can do more than just hide. I don’t have to hide any more. I can actually be myself. There’s a chance that I could be truly happy. You’re gay, you’re Asian, you’re an immigrant. You’ve been married for 10 years, you’re successful. I can do those things’. That feels really f**king powerful.”

Tan France with one of the heroes of ‘Queer Eye’ season three (Netflix)

Growing up in England, the son of Punjabi Pakistani parents, France wasn’t afforded that same luxury. “We had [soap operas] EastEnders and Coronation Street,” he says, “and every now and then you’d see an Asian person on one of them. Were they ever the love interest? No. Were they ever desirable? No. I don’t remember a gay Asian character, and if there was, I didn’t see that show.”

Did that affect him? “Oh, a lot actually,” he says. “It had a huge influence on me. Mm. How honest do I wanna get?” He tilts his head to the side, then wags a decisive finger as if he’s conducting an orchestra. “Very. So. I wish I’d seen a version of me on TV. It felt like our stories weren’t needed. Nobody wanted to hear our stories. And it just set in my mind that we’re not seen as desirable. White people are desirable, or black people are desirable. Brown people are just… there. And so, I’ve been fighting that for many, many years. As a kid, I always thought, ‘Well, of course that hot dude isn’t gonna go for me; I’m the brown guy. He’s gonna go for my white friend, who might not be very attractive, quite honestly, but he’s white, so he is, therefore, more attractive than me.’”

France has been married to his Wyoming-born husband Rob for 10 years, but that feeling of inferiority hasn’t entirely dissipated. “Even now, on the show,” he admits, “the media is the media, and people are people, and they will always compare me and my boys.” When they do, particularly when they rank the five cast members, “I just think, ‘Well I know that you’re gonna put me at the end, because I’m the brown one.’ And that is how I feel, because we are so massively under-represented, and we are never seen in a desirable light. We are never portrayed as the hero.”

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For this reason, and many others, it was crucial to France that he never “whitewash” himself on Queer Eye. In a season one episode focusing on an Indian-American app designer called Neal, France donned one of Neal’s kurtas, showed his castmates an Indian dance, explained the significance of a dowry suitcase, and spoke of his own parental pressures to marry “a nice girl”. “I didn’t have to do an Indian dance, I didn’t have to use Indian words, I didn’t have to acknowledge the dowry,” says France. “I could have just been one of my white castmates. Yes, I know things about our cultural experiences, or what was in his closet, but it would have been easier to not, and just pretend like I’m one of the rest of the boys. I don’t want that. I want to educate the audience. I want them to know what a dowry is. I want them to know that arranged marriage is a thing. I encourage our show to not whitewash the people that we’re helping. I’m not gonna whitewash our heroes just because we’re predominantly an American show.”

Queer Eye: Season Three trailer

Ultimately, the fact that France can simply exist – let alone thrive – on a show like Queer Eye is hugely important to him. “I need people to see me just be me,” he says. “I’m not pushing an agenda – I’m just doing the same job as my castmates – but I just so happen to be brown. I just so happen to be an immigrant. I just so happen to be gay. I need people to see that.”

Queer Eye season three is available on Netflix from 15 March

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