‘Queer Eye’s’ Tan France defends Utah in university speech

(Scott D. Pierce | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Queer Eye" star Tan France spoke to students at the University of Utah on Friday.

Tan France loves living in Utah “so much.” And he’s made a convert of one of his “Queer Eye” co-stars, although it wasn’t easy.

“Every time I mention Utah, people make fun of me. Like — you choose to live in Utah? What’s wrong with you? You could live anywhere,” France said. “And one of those people is [‘Queer Eye’ food guy] Antoni Porowski. He is a vile b---h. … He’s so vile, because he refused to understand the beauty of our home.”

That, however, changed when Porowski visited Utah a couple of months ago. “He was, like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me … Utah is gorgeous,’” France said. “I’m, like, ‘Yeah, b---h, I’ve been telling you that for two and a half years.’”

France extolled the virtues of living in Salt Lake City to University of Utah students at their annual Conference on Diverse Excellence on Friday afternoon. And he readily acknowledged that as someone who grew up the son of Pakistani immigrants in England, he’s definitely in the minority.

“We’re in Utah, and any of you who live here, you know that’s just the way life is,” he said. “There aren’t many people of color here. And sometimes that’s quite lovely.”

He recalled when he first came to Utah 14 or 15 years ago, “it was so nice feeling so special,” he said with a laugh. “Dating here was so easy” because he was thought to be “exotic.” He added: “But I know that can be isolating.”

And he recalled his now oft-told story — which he included in his bestselling autobiography, “Naturally Tan” — about how, when he was a child, he was beaten up repeatedly by much older white guys because of his skin color.

“But you make it through. It makes you a stronger person,” France said. And he recently visited his hometown, saw some of those men “and I thought, ‘You look miserable. You look unhappy. You destroyed people’s lives and karma’s a b---h, b---h,” he said to applause from the audience.

Because of experiences like that, he said, on “Queer Eye,” “I cry the least.” Because “I’ve seen some sh-t."

But not in Utah. He said that when he arrived in the state, “I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to allow me to be whoever I want.’”

France acknowledged that that isn’t everyone’s experience. “You probably see Utah as really backwards and really difficult,” he said. “Maybe that is the case for you. But for me, I promise it wasn’t. I was able to live my life in a way that was very open and fine and nobody ever caused me any problems.”

Not that there aren’t Utahns who don’t like ethnic minorities and gays, but “Utah people are lovely because they’re too scared to say it to your face,” he said. “It’s so much better than having somebody attack you in real life.”

Which is what happened to him in England — he was attacked both physically and verbally. “Just say it behind my back. It’s fine,” France said.

After moving to Utah, “I started to feel a lot more empowered to do what I wanted to do. Behave the way I wanted to behave. And then I joined ‘Queer Eye’ and sh-t went nuts. But I don’t feel like I’m a different version of myself. I’m just more open about who I am.”

The U. had a chair on stage for France, but he rarely sat in it, pacing back and forth onstage before several hundred people at the Olpin Student Union as he spoke enthusiastically about … a lot of things.

About his book. About his shows — not just “Queer Eye,” but the fashion design competition “Next in Fashion” and “Dressing Funny,” in which he gives comedians fashion device.

Students heard the story of the time France tried skin bleaching. (Big mistake, he acknowledged.) That he watched “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “ER” when he was a kid (which is why he knew about birth control when he was 5). That his husband, Rob France (who was in the audience) “was probably my first ‘Queer Eye’ makeover.”

He continued his campaign against a certain type of footwear. “If you wear Crocs, you are choosing to be single and celibate,” France said.

He spoke out against racism and Islamophobia in both his native England and his adopted home in the United States. He declined to weigh in on who the worst-dressed celebrity might be. “You’re all morons if you think I’m going to answer that question,” he said.

He spoke about his passion for fashion. “Here’s the thing,” France said. “If you think that clothes don’t matter to you, my God, you’re so wrong.”

He said most people have days when they don’t dress well, run into an old friend and try to hide. “I don’t really have those days.”

Although he continues to choose to live in Salt Lake City, he noted that, “at this point, it’s actually much harder living in Salt Lake” because of his TV production schedule.

“But when you live in New York or L.A., especially in my world, you get sucked into that life really quickly. You’re always at an event. You're always falling out of a cab with your knickers showing,” France said. “Whereas in Utah, I live a really nice, quiet life.”

And it’s one down, three to go when it comes to making his “Queer Eye” castmates appreciate the state. “I think they just have this [wrong] idea in their head of what Utah might be,” France said, “because I did before I came out here.”