Perhaps the most poignant chapter in Tan France’s autobiography is the last one he wrote; the one he added at the last minute.
The one titled “9/11,” about racial profiling and the lingering effects of the 2001 terrorism attacks on “brown people.”
It was “the one chapter I knew I wanted to write,” he told a sold-out crowd at Salt Lake Community College’s Grand Theatre on Wednesday night, a stop on his national book tour sponsored by The King’s English Bookshop. “I thought if I’m going to do [the book], that’s the reason I want to do it. I want to finally articulate that. Because I have the luxury of a platform like no one else in my community.”
He added: “But I was so too chickens---, quite honestly,” to include it in his original draft.
Utah’s own “Queer Eye” fashion guru — he’s one of the Fab Five on the popular Netflix series — said he’s been repeatedly pulled aside at Customs when entering the United States. At least 24 times in less than five years. And held in a room with other “brown people.” And asked things like: When was the last time he visited Pakistan? (He was 9.) When was the last time his mom visited Pakistan? When was the last time he operated heavy machinery?
“Once, I said the last piece of heavy machinery I used was a sewing machine. I could make you a dress within a day!” And that did not go over well.
“They get so angry,” he said. “They’re in a position of power and they get to intimidate you. ... And at that point, I was not Tan France. I was Tan. And you don’t get a voice.”
France said he’s “100 percent” sympathetic to the “never forget” mantra that followed 9/11. “I can absolutely understand that. Can’t forget the people who are victims of 9/11.”
But he believes that, for too many people, that mantra has become justification for treating Muslims and minorities as a threat.
“The amount of times somebody said something disgusting to me on the street, I cannot count,” France said. “And it used to be, when I was a kid, just about the color of my skin. But now when they taunt me on the street, it’s ‘f---ing terrorist’ or ‘rag head’ or ‘Go back to your own country.’ Or when you get on a plane, they start to shift funny as if I might blow the plane up.
“That’s what ‘never forget’ means to us brown people.”
Which is why he wanted to add the chapter to “Naturally Tan,” even though he was “so scared that Americans were going to come for me” if he did. And because “Queer Eye” stardom gave him prominence no other gay, British-born child of Pakistani immigrants has.
“You know me from the show. You know I like to speak from a place of love and understanding,” said France, 36. “And so I’m in a very lucky position to be able to say, ‘I need you to listen, whether you agree or not.’”
A receptive audience of about 1,200 at the Grand Theatre answered that with thunderous applause. The mostly young audience members — in their 20s to mid-30s — responded enthusiastically to their fellow Utahn, who has made Salt Lake City his home for the past 11 years.
“We could have sold twice as many tickets,” said Rob Eckman of King’s English. “We sold out in three days.”
France was joined onstage by his husband, illustrator Rob France, who he describes as a “Mormon cowboy” from Wyoming.
“You are looking at the original Tan France makeover,” Rob France said before he began asking questions. France answered expansively, pacing back and forth across the stage and, at one point, sitting on Rob France’s lap.
And, yes, his shirt was tucked in only in the front — the “French tuck” he talks about so often on “Queer Eye.”
Much of his autobiography is lighthearted and fun. He offers job, dating and fashion advice, writes about everything from jeans to sweatpants to cropped shirts, and lets people know just how much he loves living in Salt Lake City.
But he also deals with more serious parts of his story.
“Let me tell you, some of that stuff isn’t going to be easy to read,” France said. “But, at least hopefully, you will learn more about not just me, but my people and what it’s like to be a person of color in the LGBTQ community.”
Like growing up as one of the few people of color in his town in northern England and not just fearing he would be beaten up on his way to school, but actually getting beaten up at the age of 5.
“And let me make this clear — these are not 5-year-olds who are trying to kill me. These are men who were in their late teens, early 20s, who would happily beat the s--- out of a 5-year-old because of my color.”
“I want you to read that chapter ... and if ever somebody in your family who makes a snarky comment about some Muslim or some brown person or some gay person, I want you to think back to that chapter and think, ‘No. I will stop my family member from saying such things.’”
He began the 70-minute session with a question for the audience: “Did you all struggle with what you were going to wear tonight? Are we happy with our choices? You all look so good.”
France got a big laugh, one of many throughout the evening. His wide-ranging narrative included:
• He learned Wednesday that his book was No. 10 on the New York Times’ bestseller list. “Only two positions behind Michele O-frickin’-bama!”
• He expanded on the story he told The Salt Lake Tribune last year about how he decided to move to Utah while eating at the Chili’s restaurant on 400 South in Salt Lake City.
“I love you all, but your gaydar is terrible,” he said. “These girls kept hitting on me from all over the restaurant. I’m like, ‘I’m attractive in Utah! I’m exotic in Utah!’”
• He met Rob France through an online dating site. “This dude who had just come out messaged me and said, ‘Hey, you don’t look like you’re from around here.’ And my response was, ‘Yeah, no s---, Sherlock.’”
And France wasn’t interested in getting into a relationship at first. “My plan was to date my way through Utah. Those Mormon boys were all about it. Love me those Mormon boys.”
• He acknowledged that many of his followers don’t agree with policies and behavior of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints toward the LGBTQ community, but defended his Latter-day Saint friends and in-laws against attacks that crop up on his Instagram feed.
“I disagree with so many things that the leaders of the church may say, but I disagree with a lot of the things that are said in my own religion. But that doesn’t mean it’s [OK to] hate on our friends and family.
“So when you see my Mormon friends on Instagram, don’t come for them. I don’t let people hate on you guys, my LGBTQ family. I’m not going to let people hate on my Mormon family, either. Leave them alone.”
• His “Queer Eye” fame has put plans for a family on temporary hold, but France still “desperately” wants to have children. “I want to have six, but [Rob] will only let me have four. But I’m very manipulative.”
• When France met his “Queer Eye” co-stars Bobby Berk and Karamo Brown, he liked them at once. And then he met Jonathan Van Ness, “And I was like, ‘Holy s---!’”
Van Ness told France “the most disgusting story” about his, um, personal life “within 20 seconds” of their meeting, and France thought, “There’s no way this guy’s ever going to be my friend. I can’t have somebody this loud. But, two, three days later, he was one of my favorite people on the planet. ... He’s such a fricking idiot, but I love him so much.”
It took a bit longer with Antoni Porowski.
“Everybody kept going on about this guy called Antoni, and then finally I was like, ‘That guy?’” France said with a laugh. “Don’t get me wrong. I see he’s beautiful. ... But he’s too pretty.”
The two “didn’t like each other very much because we both thought we were too sweet.” Until they ended up talking late into the night about the rough day they’d had shooting the show, and Porowski became France’s “new favorite person. ... I love him. He’s my brother for life.”
And there’s a bonus in the audio version of “Naturally Tan.” France himself reads all of the book — except that Porowski reads what France wrote about him. “It’s really funny. He has to read why he wasn’t attractive to me.”
• France is really ticked off that “trash papers” made headlines out of a brief passage in the book when he mentions that he once stole his cousin’s skin-bleaching cream and tried it when he was 9 or 10 years old — which he included as an example of racism within his own community.
• He’s also annoyed by recent online criticism that “’Tan always goes on about how much he loves Utah, but he doesn’t join our Pride parade.’ B----, screw you. I was filming the show. I couldn’t be here. Of course I wanted to be here.
“If I don’t have ‘Queer Eye,’ I don’t have the voice that I have to lend to our community.”