Tan France comes into the room, sits to my right and immediately bounces back up and asks to swap chairs. He wants me, he explains, to see his good side. So we switch, and he sits and crosses his legs. “My jaw is squarer this side. I didn’t actually think about it before the show. Then I realised, oh, I really don’t like that side,” he says.
The show he’s referring to is Queer Eye, Netflix’s reality TV smash hit of last year, in which five gay men give someone, usually a man, a whole-life makeover, from style (where France comes in) to interiors, grooming and cooking. As the self-styled Fab Five spend a week doing their subject up, they also get to what Queer Eye considers the heart of the matter: rooting out issues of poor self-esteem hidden beneath bad hair, cargo pants and Crocs, and trying to mend them. Since rebooting as a Netflix show (it first screened in 2003, under the name Queer Eye For The Straight Guy), it has become a global phenomenon, winning three Emmys and transforming the lives of its hosts as well as its subjects, or “heroes” as the show calls them.
France’s life has perhaps changed the most. He’s gone from anonymous wholesale clothing businessman to a global star in under 12 months, thanks to a show he never imagined being a part of. “I wasn’t qualified. I’d never been on TV before. It made no sense to give this complete novice this high-profile show,” he says. Before Queer Eye, he had no gay friends, and a private Instagram account. Now he has 2.1 million followers and is writing a memoir. “The show has given me more than I’ll ever know, and not just financially or in terms of fame,” France says. “It put me in a position to represent my community in a way that I had never seen. And, I’m not just talking about the gay community, I’m talking about the Asian community.” (France’s parents grew up in Pakistan; he is from Doncaster.) He is now the most famous – and in fact the only – out gay Muslim man on western television.
We meet in a corporate hotel suite that could do with a little Queer Eyeing, though France himself needs no intervention. Neat and muscular, his style is understated, with a cartoonish salt-and-pepper quiff and Bambi eyes. Lip balm is reapplied several times; his legs remain crossed throughout our conversation. He is polite and poised, his accent remaining distinctly South Yorkshire even though he has lived in Salt Lake City, Utah for six years.
When France first meets Queer Eye participants, he tells me, he asks for a hug, then makes a promise. “I don’t say, ‘Tell me your deepest, darkest secret.’ I say, ‘You can ask me my deepest, darkest secret. Ask me anything.’” Straight men usually want to know about gay sex. “How it all works, something vulgar like that,” France says with an eye roll.
But in an episode in the new series, one guy asked France something different. “He said, ‘How are you so confident and comfortable in your own skin, when I’m almost positive you’ve had a lifetime of people judging you. You’re brown, you’re gay, you just don’t blend into a crowd. How is it you still put a smile on your face?’”
How did France answer? “Over the last 15 years, I’ve worked hard to build a career that makes me feel really confident,” he says. “I’ve done as much as possible to make sure I’m in a position that I’m successful.” France, to borrow Queer Eye parlance, has become his very best self through the world of work.
His parents came to England as children, and France grew up in Doncaster with two older brothers and a sister; the family lived next door to his uncle on his father’s side. His parents ran taxi offices, post offices and convenience stores, at different points; his grandfather had a factory in Bury that produced denim for Disney. France went to the mosque every day and did not socialise outside his community; in his bedroom, he played with Barbie dolls and listened to Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky.
He says he encountered racism early on in life, and resolved to deal with it without drama. “I knew that having an adverse reaction was not going to achieve anything. Me calling them something or swearing back would achieve nothing. I knew if they were willing to talk to me, I could say, ‘What is your problem with Pakis? Who do you think we are?’”
He also began to understand another point of difference. In primary school, there was a teacher in assembly who crossed her legs, and who fascinated six-year-old France. “I thought, ‘Ooh, that’s elegant, I want to sit like that.’” So he started crossing his legs and found he liked it – but abruptly stopped when a teenage male cousin tapped him on the leg and told him boys don’t sit like that.
France normally avoids swearing but talking about the crossed legs episode riles him. “At the time it was a case of, ‘It’s not appropriate for you.’ Nowadays I’m like, fuck appropriate. If a boy wants to sit a certain way, let him.”
He tells the rest of his childhood story in such a straightforward way that it is hard to detect any tension between his emerging sexuality and his faith. “Here’s the thing: the word ‘gay’ was never mentioned in the household,” he explains. “I don’t ever remember a gay character on TV, except maybe from Are You Being Served? But I was too young to understand what that was about.”
His father, who died when France was 13, once bought him a Barbie doll’s house and dolls – he thinks out of competitiveness with his brother next door, who had bought something similar for his daughter. But the young Tan understood that he should police himself. “I was frightfully aware that if everybody said I was obsessed with this, it might lead to negative consequences. My dad might have learned it ‘isn’t right’ for his Pakistani son. So I didn’t play with the doll’s house when other people were around.”
At 13, France was able to put a name to his feelings, when he saw a boy at school take off his T-shirt during PE, and fancied him. “I knew I was gay, I just didn’t know the word. There was never a time I was attracted to women.” How did fancying a boy make him feel? “You know, weirdly fine. I thought about this a lot. Was I scared? Was I panicking? And I wasn’t. I was always so matter-of-fact about everything. I wasn’t a dramatic child. I remember thinking, ‘OK, that’s a thing. I’m not going to try to change it. I don’t feel wrong.’ I don’t remember any adverse feelings except, oh shit, you probably need to figure out how to hide it. We didn’t have out people in the Pakistani community, so I knew it was something hidden and not discussed. I also knew there had to be more, because there were plenty of gay men in the white community.”
He is similarly matter-of-fact about coming out, a process he began at 16, when he went to study fashion at Doncaster College, and met a boyfriend in his part-time BT call centre job. He told friends, then siblings, then his mother. The rest of the family were shocked, but he accepts that they needed time to adjust. “They had planned a whole heterosexual life for me,” he says, “and it was just shocking to hear that plan was never going to come to fruition.”
On Queer Eye, coming out is usually more dramatic. One of the show’s most emotional episodes in season one follows AJ, a 32-year-old black man, on a journey to self-acceptance. AJ has a boyfriend and gay friends, but he doesn’t want to wear anything too feminine or come across as “too gay”. His father died before he got a chance to come out to him. Karamo Brown, the show’s go-to shrink (though everyone takes turns), describes why it’s hard to be gay in the black community, schooling AJ in self-love. The episode ends with AJ, in his renovated bedroom and much better shoes, coming out to his stepmother. Even by Queer Eye’s standards, it is exceptionally moving.
The series as a whole is engineered to make you blub, whether you’re watching or taking part. (Online, you can find as many gifs of Antoni Porowski, the show’s cook and resident hunk, crying, as you can with his top off.) But France has never cried on camera. “I physically can’t. I don’t know what it is. I sit there thinking, c’mon. It’s the one thing I really dislike about myself.” AJ’s episode was the exception, moving him so much behind the scenes that he asked for time out. “None of my tears made it into the cut,” he says. “But I was crying so hard at one point, I had to take a break. I could not do it any more.”
In another notable episode, France finds common ground with Neal, an Indian-American computer programmer who wants to make his mother proud. “I totally get what it’s like, as a Pakistani, to have your mum be proud of you,” France says to him. “It takes a lot for them to say it.” France’s particular skill is to make a considered and emotional connection with his subjects, expressed through his careful choice of clothes for them. Such as with Skyler, a trans man for whom a suit fitting is a difficult experience. “Nothing makes me feel more of a guy than when I’m in a suit,” France tells Skyler. “So I want to find a way to get you in a suit that makes complete sense for you.”
When Queer Eye returns this month, there will be some minor tweaks: it will be set in Kansas rather than Atlanta; there are also more female heroes. France, whose background is in womenswear, is glad to have this chance to show off his skill set. “I was desperate for it because I get to have a lot more fun with womenswear.”
And the women, he finds, are more forthcoming with their stories. “It takes longer to chip away at who our male heroes are,” he says. “They don’t give away a lot immediately. Women are just more comfortable saying, ‘This is what I’m going through right now.’ Men are taught to shut it down and ‘man up’: don’t talk about the things that are hurting or hindering them.” Each of the Fab Five has a different way of doing this, he says: he asks for honesty – and not just about the clothes he chooses. “I say, ‘This will only work if you are completely open with me. I need you to tell me everything that you’re feeling, even if that doesn’t make sense for what we are doing right now. If you’re not feeling happy about your marriage but we’re talking about a sweater, tell me. I need you to be as honest as possible.’”
The young France held no ambitions to go into entertainment. He started out in retail as a manager for high street brand Bershka. A visit to Salt Lake City led to a meeting with the owner of a Mormon modesty clothing manufacturer, who offered him a regional manager job there. “I learned every facet of retail. I got contacts for factories, learned how to buy, ship and distribute.” He worked in Utah for two and a half years, before his visa ran out.
Back in the UK, France temped and in the evenings built his own modesty brand, Kingdom & State. He launched a niche business in the US, he says, because he didn’t have the funds to compete with big brands such as Topshop or H&M. Also, he saw a gap in the market for a young, fashionable clothing range that met Mormon guidelines on modesty: floaty dresses to the knee, loose-fitting casual tops and high-waisted bikinis. “I wanted to create a brand that you couldn’t tell was modest clothing for Mormons,” France says. “These girls were cute and wanted to be fashionable. I wanted to create a London look for them that just so happened to cover the areas of their bodies they had to cover as Mormon women. And that’s where it took off really well [in Utah], really quickly.”
France travelled back and forth to Salt Lake City, where he worked with fashion influencers the Skalla family (“Think the Mormon Kardashians”). At one point, the family were in talks about their own reality show; it never happened, but executives who met France with them passed his name to someone at Netflix who was casting for Queer Eye.
On a work trip in January 2008, he met Rob France, a paediatric nurse and former Mormon whose family ran a cowboy ranch in Wyoming. There was an instant connection, with plenty of common ground in their conservative upbringings. France was especially chuffed to meet someone who didn’t drink. (“I didn’t realise there were white people who didn’t drink until I turned up in Salt Lake City,” he says.) They maintained a long-distance relationship, marrying in the US after the Defence of Marriage Act was overturned in 2013. “It wasn’t hard work at all,” France says of the long-distance relationship. “It was the constant, the easiest thing in my life.”
Six years ago, France (his birth name is Tanweer Safdar) got a green card and moved to Salt Lake City, where the couple live. “I still have the biggest crush on him,” France says of his husband. “Every time I see him, I get this feeling like I can’t believe he’s mine.”
It was Rob who encouraged him when Netflix invited him to audition for Queer Eye. “My husband said, ‘You’ve been moaning for years and years that you have no gay friends. There’s going to be a room of gay men and you’re the most sociable person I know: just go.’”
Netflix flew the 40 finalists to Los Angeles for a weekend. France hit it off with four others right away; by day two, they’d created their own Fab Five text group. That initial chemistry became key to the show’s success.
In June last year, France opened up to his castmate Jonathan Van Ness, on Getting Curious, a popular podcast hosted by the show’s grooming expert. Van Ness quizzed his friend about his experiences of being gay and Muslim, and his current relationship with his family. They did not come to his wedding, France says, but since the show aired, have begun to acknowledge his husband by name.
But when I ask France about this, he shuts down. “I… we don’t talk about that,” he says. His religion, I’m told, is also out of bounds. “Just because I am on a TV show does not mean people have access to every facet of my life,” he explains. “I never got into this as if it were my reality show.”
What he will say is that being on television has given him pause for thought. “I didn’t want my family to feel the pressure of people around them thinking, ‘This is your son and he’s going around being very openly gay, control him better.’” He spoke to his family after the show first aired. “I asked if they were unhappy with how I behaved. Thankfully they didn’t see a difference. They said, ‘You giggled a little bit more, you cross your legs, your hand is a little camper than it is at home. But it was always there, you just control it differently.’”
He faces a very specific set of pressures, I suggest. “I represent many marginalised communities,” he agrees. “There’s the pressure of how to act as a man. There is also the pressure of how you are as an Asian man, and how you are perceived and how you should behave. How you are representing yourself as an immigrant in the US – what you need to do to be the best immigrant you can be.”
France uncrosses his legs and reaches for the pot of lip balm. He tells me he sometimes feels judged by the gay community for not being out and proud enough. “You’re not a good gay if you’re not representing at every moment,” he says. “But only you get to decide how to present yourself to the world. And I get to be the version of gay I want.”
• Queer Eye series three is available on Netflix from 15 March.
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