Tan France’s journey from suffering racist bullying in Doncaster to starring in Queer Eye

Tan France grew up dealing with racist bullies in Doncaster - now the 36-year-old fashion expert has become a global star through Netflix show Queer Eye. Ella Walker reports.

Tan France has written a new autobiography. Picture: PA Photo/Marcus MacDonald.
Tan France has written a new autobiography. Picture: PA Photo/Marcus MacDonald.

Few have the opportunity to write a memoir – to analyse what’s helped chisel us into the (clearly outstanding) person we are today. Doncaster-born Tan France, fashion expert on the absurdly successful, tear-inducing, inspiring, uplifting Netflix reboot, Queer Eye, is singularly placed – it’s his job to sculpt others into their best selves, and yet, thanks to the celebrity of reality TV, is now faced with scrutinising his own life.

And what he’s realised from writing his memoir, Naturally Tan, is “just how particular I am as a person – how difficult I am!” he says with a laugh. “I’ve always known it, but every one of the stories I recount, it’s basically an, ‘I told you so!’”

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Bad habits aside, France, 36, felt it was his responsibility, being in a “very privileged position”, to take the opportunity to tell the story of “a person like me, who represents and is a member of many different marginalised communities”. But he is swift to point out, this isn’t a definitive story.

Doncaster Queer Eye star Tan France (far right). Photo: Netflix

One of the main reasons he didn’t want to do Queer Eye initially is because, he explains: “I don’t want people to assume that when I say something, all Asians think this, all gay people think this, or all immigrants think this.”

He points out that stories written about him “will always start: ‘Pakistani, immigrant, Tan France’ – it will never say that about [his Queer Eye co-stars] Antoni [Porowski] or Bobby [Berk], it’s just their name, and so it reminds me constantly that I am different, other, and that when I speak, people assume I speak for a whole demographic, and that can’t possibly be the case.”

Instead, he’d rather people outside his own communities take “empathy and an understanding of what it is to be a person of colour, or within the LGBQT community, or an immigrant”, and that those on the inside will “feel slightly less alone”.

During the course of promoting his recently-released book, France has revealed that grown men used to beat him as a child growing up in Doncaster – and the impact of what happened is a key reason why he has chosen to make a new life in America.

He told Chris Evans’ Virgin Radio Breakfast Show: “I was bullied every day for being a Pakistani and it was a fight for survival every day to make sure people didn’t beat the bejesus out of me.

“It was a really rough childhood. At the time I thought it was normal, it was completely the way life is, and now when I look back on it it’s terrifying.”

He has also revealed how he used to bleach his skin at the age of 10 after being “conditioned” to thinking lighter skin was more attractive.

While restrained today on the subject of his family, entrepreneur France is charmingly open about his husband Rob. Despite a controversial pair of cowboy boots (obviously Rob’s), the two of them became inseparable following a first date at Olive Garden (imagine the US equivalent of a Frankie & Benny’s), and live in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I was willing to move in with him after two months!” says France, mock aghast. “Now if I saw somebody doing that, I’d tell them they were berserk, but back in the day it just felt fine.”

They’ve been together 11 years, and haven’t let France’s busy schedule create even the slightest rift between them – however geographically split they are much of the time. It was Rob who nudged France into his first Queer Eye audition, and he was there to run sections of the book by. So no, he didn’t mind in the least that France explored their relationship amongst its pages.

“[Rob] is my touchstone, no matter what is going on in my life, he is the one constant,” says France. “There are no secrets between us.

“Quite honestly, it does really well for him,” he adds, archly. “I paint him in the most beautiful light!

“The amount of people who have said since, ‘He sounds like the best guy on the planet’ – he is!

“So, if he had been unhappy about the way he’d been represented, he’d be insane.”

From France’s giddy comments on his Queer Eye cohort’s Instagram pics, to the fun he has with clothes (the man brought back crop tops, 80s style) and his steely grey bouffant, not to mention the joyfulness of the transformations he creates as part of the Fab Five, you’d think his every fibre of being was braided with happiness.

But of course, life is more knotty and problematic than that, and in the book, France is frank about periods of depression and suicidal thoughts he has struggled with in the past.

Being in the public eye, and having his day-to-day increasingly shaped by the raucous demands of TV, he explains he’s “learnt boundaries” to keep his mental health robust.

“This life is a very complicated one, where people need you constantly. Whether you’re on camera, being interviewed or on tour, there’s always people around to be entertained, and they always want the ‘Tan France’ they see (on TV),” he says, without frustration or malice. “I’ve learned when I’m not in the public eye to have complete silence, whether it be in a car, or in my home, where I just sit and enjoy quiet time and don’t entertain. That keeps me happy and grounded.”

Ignoring reviews and online comments is a balm too, but there’s no denying some topics he covers could read as bold and courageous to some, but objectionable to others. Take the chapter on 9/11, in which France unequivocally and sincerely shares “the brown perspective”, and his experiences of being stopped at customs, and, as he writes, having had “white people waiting for an apology”. It’s a chapter that blazes with light and honesty, but France did not feel in the least brave writing it.

“No, I actually feel really weak, because I was too scared to add it until the very end,” he explains, his voice stretched thin. “It was the reason I wanted to write the book in the first place, and then I was too scared to add it, and then I didn’t, until the book had closed.”

Thankfully, he wrangled his publishers into including it “for my people and myself, for all the times I’d been stopped, and for all the times somebody treated me disgustingly because of the fact I’m Pakistani”.

You get the sense France is forever propelling himself forward, and in doing so, is chivvying the rest of us along with him – just as he does with the struggling Queer Eye subjects; whether it’s admonishing Crocs and championing the French tuck, or talking about mental health, racism or money.

However, there are things he’d much rather be talking about, like his regular life. “So many times people focus on me being brown, or me being gay –those things are secondary,” he muses. “I wouldn’t talk about a Caucasian person’s race, or a straight person’s heterosexuality.

“I’d love to get to the point in the future where people just see us as completely equal,” he adds, with hope.

No plans for children - yet

France is to co-host a new Netflix show called Next in Fashion with Alexa Chung later this year.

He says with more Queer Eye programmes on the way (“I don’t ever want to stop”), his busy schedule means the idea of having children is not yet on his radar.

“I was meant to a couple of years ago, but life got so insane, like so nuts, that I think it would be really unwise to bring them into this now.”

He’s thinking nearer 40 instead, by which time equality will have hopefully taken hold; the rest of us will have caught up with his no-bootcut jeans mantra, and he can “give them the attention I so desperately want to give them”.

Naturally Tan by Tan France is published in hardback by Virgin Books, priced £16.99. Available now.