Queer Eye's Tan France on how he learned to embrace being 'different'
'I loved my community, but it was a community that was so stifling,' he says of growing up in England
Originally published on June 5, 2019
In only a little more than a year, Netflix's hit show Queer Eye has become a global phenomenon, making the stars of the show, aka the "Fab Five" — Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski, Bobby Berk, Jonathan Van Ness and Tan France — into household names.
France is Queer Eye's fashion expert and while viewers normally see him getting to know the lives of the people he helps on TV, in his recently released memoir, Naturally Tan, he invites fans to learn more about his story.
"I hadn't thought about life as a kid when I was younger at all," France told q's Tom Power about his memoir that touches on Queer Eye, but also confronts some persistent and painful experiences from France's childhood and adolescence, which he admits he didn't always recognize at the time.
"If anybody ever asks me now, 'did you suffer bullying as a kid?' My answer was no and still is no. But it was shocking that only 30-something years ago, I was constantly taunted for being brown, being Pakistani, being a different colour, practising a certain religion at the time. ... Now, as I'm older, I realize how incredibly ludicrous that is."
I felt the weight of [being different] very early on, thinking, I'm going to have to try and find a way to hide this.- Queer Eye's Tan France
France said that writing the memoir forced him to challenge his own perceptions of what life was like growing up gay, Muslim and Pakistani in South Yorkshire, England. He and his family faced racism and he learned to hide his sexuality at an early age.
"I lived in a very traditional South Asian community and being different is definitely something that's discouraged," said France. "I felt the weight of [being different] very early on, thinking, I'm going to have to try and find a way to hide this because my differences are definitely not what make me special here and will not be well-received."
Fashion was something that France says he was always interested in because it was an outlet for him to express himself, have fun and experiment.
"I loved my community, but it was a community that was so stifling when I look back on it, that the only way I could really express myself was through my clothes. I wasn't allowed to say what I was, who I was, the differences that I had inside me, but I was able to experiment with clothes, at least in the home."
In his memoir, France recounts how his interests in music, movies and pop culture helped him further develop his identity and his sense of self. Watching Dirty Dancing for the first time led to a lifelong "obsession" with the film because it taught him that it was okay to love someone who others didn't approve of.
"It was just this dream that you could fall in love with somebody and even though you're going against the grain, even though you're doing something that your family would never approve of, you get to live a life that you truly want to live," said France.
"It was the ultimate dream for me. Did I imagine I would be with Patrick Swayze and not Baby? Yeah. 100 per cent. Who didn't at the time?"
Written by Vivian Rashotte. Produced by Ben Edwards.
This summer during Pride, CBC is collecting LGBT stories from across the country. You can find them at cbc.ca/pride.