After four years and more than 50 episodes of “Queer Eye,” Tan France thinks the show is still doing good for each episode’s “hero,” viewers and the public in general.
“I don’t want to be so arrogant to say that we have an impact on culture and politics,” said the longtime Utah resident, “but I do think we normalize and humanize queerness for so many people who may never have understood our community.”
And that may be more important than ever at a time when gay marriage and gay rights are under attack, and appear to be headed for a major setback in the Supreme Court.
“I guess the best way I can articulate it is this,” France said. “I’m hoping when [candidates] suggest that they want to take queer rights away, that the people who love us on ‘Queer Eye’ will understand why it’s important to vote against those people. … I do believe that the more we do, and every other queer person within the public space does, to show that we deserve love and compassion and equal respect, the more we can encourage the regular person at home to think differently when they’re voting.”
He said he also thinks Pride is “incredibly important” because “it gives us visibility. It gives us the moment to really remind ourselves of why we should celebrate how far we’ve come. Because we have come a very long way since I was 17, 18, which is only about 20 years ago.
“I love that it’s become a month. It wasn’t a month when I was coming up. It was a day at best.”
France won’t be home in Salt Lake City for Utah’s Pride celebrations; he’ll be in New Orleans filming the seventh season of “Queer Eye” for Netflix. The last time he was able to attend a celebration was New York Pride in 2019, when the cast of “Queer Eye” was on a Netflix float. “Other than that, we’re not released to go home,” he said. “I’d love to be there if I could.”
Life-changing. Well, career-changing
Just over four years ago, not much of anybody knew who Tan France was. He had fewer than 3,000 followers on Instagram, and Netflix executives were hoping that after “Queer Eye” started streaming, that number would increase to at least 10,000.
France now has more than 4 million Instagram followers. He is, arguably, the most famous out, gay person in Utah. He’s known around the world as the fashion guy on “Queer Eye.” The second season of his other Netflix show, “Next in Fashion,” is in production. He wrote a best-selling autobiography. He recently hosted the fifth-season reunion of Netflix’s “Selling Sunset.” His documentary about colorism and skin bleaching, “Beauty and the Bleach,” recently aired on the BBC in the U.K.
It’s pretty amazing for a guy who, not so long ago, hated having his picture taken and who, during the first days of production on “Queer Eye,” called his husband in tears, thinking he’d made “the biggest mistake of my life.”
“I don’t think I could have ever imagined how much things would change,” France said. “Although it’s funny. My job changed so much. And the things that my job affects changed so much.
“But my actual life, it’s pretty much weirdly, probably scarily the same,” he added with a laugh. “When I’m not on the job, I live a life that most people would consider quite normal.”
And that’s because he decided to keep his off-camera life as unchanged as possible. “I chose not to move to L.A. I chose not to move to New York,” France said. “I chose to keep my same friends. I chose to continue to love my husband as much as I always loved my husband. I chose to have a child to double down on my relationship with him.”
When he’s not working, France is a homebody. About the only time he goes out when he’s home in Utah is to restaurants, and that’s when “people get really excitable. The question is always, ‘Oh my God — what are you doing here?’” France said. “My response is, ‘I’ve been here. This is my home.’”
Utahns drive more than they walk, but France likes to get out and walk when he’s working in New York. “But if I don’t have a cap super low, a collar super high so it covers the back of my hair, a mask on — it just takes me a lot longer to get to where I’m going because a lot of people want to say hello.”
He said he doesn’t want to become “a caricature.” And, despite his success, he still finds it “weird to describe yourself as a famous person. However, ‘Queer Eye’ got so big, it became a global phenomenon,” France said. “I mean, I thought maybe the gays would recognize me every now and again in a gay bar. But it’s so much bigger than that.”
Best friends forever
If you’ve somehow managed not to see “Queer Eye” — or its 2003-07 predecessor, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” — in each episode, five gay guys offer love and support to a “hero,” helping him or her overcome a variety of issues on the road to a better life. France, the fashion guy, teams up with personal grooming guy Jonathan Van Ness, interior design guy Bobby Berk, cooking guy Antoni Porowski, and “culture” guy Karamo Brown.
One of the reasons France auditioned for the show, despite thinking he would never be cast as one of the Fab Five, was because he hoped to make new friends. And that’s worked out for him. “I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s better than ever,” France said.
He and his husband, illustrator Rob France, are best friends with Antoni and his partner — in part because Antoni lives in New York and Tan spends a lot of time there and, in part, because they are “so similar. We don’t drink, we don’t smoke, and our partners are incredibly close. That makes it easier.”
Tan sees Jonathan “often, but he lives in Austin. So it’s difficult.” He’s close with Bobby and Karamo, too. “I think possibly Karamo got funnier than ever. … I need to feed off somebody. Our days are long. And so when somebody is just nice, that’s nice. But when somebody’s fun, that’s great.”
Since he started doing interviews in the buildup to the “Queer Eye” premiere in 2018, France has been one of Utah’s biggest boosters – to the “dismay” of some locals who “don’t want people to keep coming and buying property here,” he said. “However, I can’t help but talk about how much I love Utah.”
Back in 2018, France told The Salt Lake Tribune that, a dozen years earlier, while eating in a Chili’s on 400 South in Salt Lake City, he decided he’d make Utah his home — after he’d been here for about 20 minutes. And, he said, he’s never regretted that decision.
“Some people make fun, thinking, ‘Oh, why would you love that place? It sounds so podunk,’” France said. “It’s not. I think it’s wonderful, I think it’s got the perfect balance of city and country, and I think it’s the most beautiful landscape in the world.”
His jobs often keep him away from the state for weeks, even months, at a time. “And every time I go back, I still feel that same excitement there,” he said. “It feels very fresh to me.”
Tan said he “finally” convinced Antoni and his partner to visit him in Utah earlier this year. “I’ve been telling them for so long how much I love Utah. And within the day … Antoni said, ‘I absolutely see why you live here and we want to come back and visit again as soon as possible.’ They absolutely love it.”
In June 2020, Tan became a U.S. citizen. But perhaps the biggest change to Tan and Rob France’s lives was the birth of their son on July 10, 2021. Baby Ismail was born, via surrogate, seven weeks early and spent three weeks in the newborn intensive care unit before he could go home, but he’s now a bouncing baby approaching his first birthday.
And fatherhood is everything Tan hoped it would be.
“Oh my God, yes. And so much more,” he said. “I have loved my husband for 14 years now. And I thought, ‘This is the most I could ever possibly love a human.’ He’s my very best friend. He makes me laugh all day, every day. I thought I couldn’t love anything any more than I love him. And I’m so blessed to have a husband who seems to love me as much as I love him. …
“And then the baby comes along, and skyrockets. Ismail is the most amazing thing that could ever have happened in my life. I can’t even articulate the feelings I have for my son.”
Another season of “Next in Fashion”
Netflix canceled France’s fashion competition series “Next in Fashion” after season one started streaming in January 2020. Then Netflix uncanceled it, and he’s now in production on season two.
“We were not going to get a second season,” France said. “And then we found out they wanted to bring it back because it did very, very well, which I knew it would. I was, like, ‘Well, I’ve got a feeling I’m going to get a call soon.’ And, lo and behold, I did.”
He and his new co-host/fellow judge Gigi Hadid preside over 10 designers who compete to win $250,000 and a chance to design a luxury fashion collection.
“Oh my God, it brings me so much joy,” France said. “It is the most fun thing I’ve ever done.”
That’s not a diss to “Queer Eye,” but that show, he said, is “incredibly emotionally draining. This one is just pure joy. And this season it’s even more pure joy.”
Even though he has “never gotten so many angry messages in his life” as he did about season one of “Next in Fashion” because of the decision he and first-season co-host Alexa Chung made about who to send home, who to keep and who won. Which didn’t really surprise him.
“Let me make it clear, we didn’t expect that people would agree with us. We see it through a fashion lens, and many people in the audience are seeing it through a shopper’s lens. We’re thinking, ‘What would be an incredible runway show?’ This is art. This is theater. It’s not just ‘Can I buy it at the mall?’ And so our perspective is quite different.”
He said the criticism didn’t hurt him. “It just made me laugh thinking, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe this is what riles you up,’” he said. “I’ve been extra queer on ‘Queer Eye’ for quite some time, and nobody seems to have a problem with that. But my choices on who I send home and who I let stay on this show is the thing that gets you?…
“Honestly, we’re just having a lark. It’s a lovely time and, hopefully, we will be able to change somebody’s career.”
Beauty and the Bleach
In his autobiography, “Naturally Tan,” France wrote about how, when he was 9 years old, he stole his cousin’s skin-bleaching cream and tried it on himself. That he tried again when he was 16. And he wrote about how, when he was 5, he was beaten up by a group of men because of his color and ethnicity.
He translated his own experiences and those of others into the documentary “Beauty and the Bleach,” which recently aired on BBC2 in the U.K. France said he hopes American viewers will be able to see the show before too long — hopefully, by the end of the year, although no firm plans have been announced yet. “The story is very much global,” he said. “In any community of color, you’ll find it.”
The documentary is both “the thing I’m most proud of” and the “hardest” and “most intense thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I talked to many people. But the story revolves around me and my experiences with colorism and skin-bleaching as a child.”
It took an emotional toll on France, who couldn’t bring himself to return to the town where he grew up because of his memories of the racism he experienced there. “It was incredibly emotionally draining,” he said, “and I never want to experience that again.”
Hosting the ‘Selling Sunset’ reunion
The man who, four years ago, felt like he was struggling every day while shooting the first episodes of “Queer Eye” looked calm, cool and completely together when he hosted the fifth-season reunion of the Netflix reality/real estate show “Selling Sunset.”
“It was one of the most difficult things, logistically,” France said. “You have cue cards that you’ve never seen before. You’ve got somebody [talking] in your ear, you’ve got a teleprompter, and you’ve got to react to what everybody is saying. It is so incredibly difficult, but I’m really proud that I think it turned out really well.”
He does have one regret after he “got some heat from a few people about something I said that I regret so greatly.” During the taping, one cast member told France she was dating a nonbinary musician, and he asked the others if any of them had ever kissed anyone with a gender identity that would surprise viewers. And when another cast member said she’d kissed a girl, Tan joked, “Oooh, naughty, naughty!” — offending a vocal few.
“That was never my intention,” he said, “and sometimes I wish people would consider my intention when I speak. I’m not trying to be hurtful to anyone.”
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