The 39-year-old stylist and presenter was born in the town to Muslim Pakistani parents and moved to the US aged 24, prompted in part by the racism he experienced during his childhood in the UK.
The star of Netflix hit show Queer Eye previously wrote in his memoir about bleaching his skin as a child, and now he’s focusing on the cosmetic lightening process, and why people do it, in a new documentary for the BBC.
In Tan France: Beauty And The Bleach, France sets out to unearth the truth about colourism – where people with darker shades of skin face prejudice, typically among the same ethnic or racial group – and its impact on people in Britain and beyond.
“I really hope that people who have never understood colourism gain an understanding of what this is and how difficult it is for people of colour when it comes to the colour of their skin,” France tells The Yorkshire Post, by video link.
“The main thing I want is for any person of colour to feel galvanised to have a conversation,” he adds. “That’s all I ever thought that this might achieve is conversations in the home in our communities, people saying I watched this documentary and never realised how damaging it was the things I’m saying, the things people said to me, and about the actual practice of skin bleaching...
“All we’ve done is open people’s eyes to realise there’s a problem here and it’s not just normal to say things like ‘I wish you weren’t so dark’.”
He continues: “We need to try to find ways to have open conversations with our family and friends to try rid this within the next few generations.”
When France was nine-years-old, he took some skin lightening cream and began to bleach his own skin. When he was 16, he did it again. What sparked him to do so was twofold; to escape racist bullying, but also to please members of his South Asian community, some of whom, according to France, see fairer shades of skin as a passport to the best jobs, careers, and marriage partners.
“When I was growing up in Yorkshire, it never felt safe (for me),” France says. “I can’t imagine I ever felt the way that most white people felt when they left the house.
“I remember thinking of my classmates, I wonder how weird it must feel to leave the house and not think about the fact that somebody might hit you today just because you’re your colour.”
France stresses that he hasn’t lived in the region for almost two decades and that there were many wonderful people too. But he adds: “The few that had negative things to say were the most vocal.”
The messages from within the South Asian community were troubling too, he says. The day before our call he had been speaking to his cousin about it.
“I was saying isn’t it strange that one of our main memories as a kid is (being told) don’t go out, if you go out you’re going to get dark. Be sure to take an umbrella, be sure to stay out of the sun, stay in the shade.”
He continues: “Those messages – out of the house, you’re a p*** and we’re going to kill you, in the house, if you’re too dark, you’re not going to succeed so you better find a way to lighten up – they were the main messages as a kid.”
It was against this backdrop that he decided to bleach his skin. “And I would have done it way sooner,” he says frankly. “I wanted to bleach from way earlier than nine which is really screwed up..
“I wanted to get my hands on it earlier but I couldn’t. I obviously wasn’t able to just go to the shop and spend a tenner or whatever it was on skin bleaching cream so it took me ages to find a way to get it.”
In his documentary, when France puts a shout-out on social media, he’s inundated with messages from people across the globe detailing their own heart-breaking stories of feeling under pressure to lighten their skin.
It is by no means unique to South Asian communities and France looks both at how widespread colourism is and the range of factors that are driving people to bleach, focusing also on the beauty and entertainment industries.
He hopes to break the cycle that pushed him and thousands of others to bleach. His own experience is central to his journey and at the start and end of his time in the UK, he had counselling sessions with a therapist.
It helped him to process some of his emotions, but he says he’s not free of the “shame” and “guilt” he feels about bleaching. “Do I feel shame for doing that the first time? No, I was so, so young,” he says. “And knowing that I wanted to do it from even earlier, probably five, six, seven, I don’t feel angry at that version of me because I clearly felt like I had no choice.
“I still feel shame at my 16-year-old self because I wasn’t a stupid kid. I always had my wits about me...I really still regret and feel such guilt that I did it because I feel like I should have processed my emotions enough to have accepted the fact that I’m this colour and I should have been proud of it.”
France, who now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his husband and young son, Ismail, launched the Shaded account on Instagram in 2019 to champion and celebrate the diverse beauty of people of colour. The account, in part, set him up for the documentary and speaking on colourism is something France has been keen to use his prominence to do.
He was due to have a child when he first wanted to do the documentary and says among his biggest concerns was how his son might experience colourism and how that would affect him in life.
“In communities of colour, it’s so ingrained that this is how it is, that we expect lighter skin for success,” he says. “I wanted to make it clear to people that it’s not the way or the answer.
“I have got to the point where I feel pride in my skin colour and I wanted to empower people to feel the same way...and also for us to understand that we’re the ones who have the power to stop this.
“There aren’t that many of us who are willing to share so openly. So many people of colour, especially here in the US, when we’re on TV or in entertainment in general, we are playing a role as actors and actresses or popstars or whatever.
“I am known for being me and people I hope will know when they watch the show that I’m speaking from the heart. What they know of me from Queer Eye is that I say what I want to say whether people like it or not but I always do it with kindness. So I’m hoping people will know that what I put out is to benefit us and our community.”
He adds: “There aren’t that many of us in the position I’m in and I want to be able to say I did something with that, I did something to try and help.”
Tan France: Beauty And The Bleach airs on April 27 on BBC Two at 9pm.