Tan France: Making America Queer Again

Tan France: Making America Queer Again

The Netflix Queer Eye reboot had an ambitious task: to take a 15-year-old show and reframe it for a generation that's seen significant developments in LGBTQ acceptance, both legally and socially. While it may have seemed like a reality show starring five queer men is no longer vital, Trump's America has proven there's no better time to put these difficult conversations front and center. The series' premiere season was a sweeping success, and the second launches today, uniting Fab-Five with different subjects — or "heroes" — to transform their lives. Queer Eye's not a makeover show, it's a make better show, the Five often say.

The queer behind every heroes' style overhaul is Fashion Expert Tan France, a Muslim immigrant from England whose husband is Mormon and currently lives in Salt Lake City. Born to Pakistani parents, France brings an important, complex perspective to Queer Eye's Fab-Five. He's feminine in presentation, and comes from a conservative background, allowing viewers to learn about people through the experience of a femme man who hasn't had as much exposure to LGBTQ culture as one would expect. France flaunts his informed understanding of style with each episode, but his heroes (and co-hosts) teach him just as much — a give-and-take that's refreshing in a polarizing red-or-blue country.

PAPER caught up with the Queer Eye Fashion Expert to talk about how the show's making American queer again.

Did you ever anticipate the Queer Eye reboot being this successful?

Here's the thing, I think everybody thought it was going to be a niche show, even me, and so the fact that it has become this mammoth thing is still blowing my mind. Honestly, the majority of the time when I'm out doing my regular routine — if I'm going to the store or the gym — I often do forget how big the show is. It's not until somebody comes over — and it happens regularly. When I first get into the gym I forget and then 15 minutes in when somebody says, "Oh my gosh, can I take a selfie with you real quick?" I never expect it and it shocks me every day still.

Blouse and Shorts by Dolce & Gabbana

Blouse and Shorts by Dolce & Gabbana

Why do you think it's been such a massive hit?

The reason why I think it's so successful is the fact that it's unlike any other show that I've ever seen, and I think that most people have ever seen. Most reality shows are highly produced, and I'm using quotes when I say "reality shows" — they're not actually real, whereas ours is. When we shoot a scene, we shoot a scene from start to finish, no producer tells us what to do or what to say, we just do what we do when the cameras are rolling, so what you hear is our true opinions, and what we are with these heroes is truly how we want to interact with them. Obviously, there is editing that goes along with that, but as far as production goes, we get to really control that narrative, and so I think that is the reason why it has had such an impact on people. We're having real conversations and our heroes are responding in a very real way, and I just don't think it's something that you've seen before. Also, we're a positive show, and I think that the majority of the shows out there are super negative. I think having a space that is positive, especially in this current climate is special, and I think that's why people are connecting so strongly to it.

Blazer by Christian Siriano

It is positive, and it also brings people together that would not necessarily interact, which feels particularly responsive to the times.

It's not something they ever planned for, it is just that we are five very opinionated gay men and very unruly, and when you hire us, it is basically a case of "they're gonna say whatever they want, and there's no stopping them." I think having this particular cast has really helped propel the show into something that it wasn't initially. It was supposed to be a makeover show — or a make better show as we call it — but it has become so much more than that. We are talking about real issues, especially with the political climate the way it is, we're able to bridge a gap like nobody else seems to be able to.

In my category, fashion, I use it as a vehicle to be able to have very honest conversations with these men. I am really the only one who gets to see them at their most vulnerable, and so, I am able to talk to them pretty much about anything at that point. Once you're down to your underwear, it kind of gives you permission to be able to talk to you about anything. A lot of the time, they will open up to me about real heartache and real stress in their lives, and again this is something you don't see on other shows. Usually, those shows are to keep us polarized and to keep us separate and to keep that anger and drama. We don't respond well to that, we want people to meet in the middle.

I don't expect people to completely see my way of thinking, and become liberal — and as liberal as I am — but I expect them to at least be open to having conversations where they are opening up their mind. And vice versa, they teach me stuff. I mean, some of the stuff I have learned from men who are republican and very conservative, I am shocked that they are able to articulate exactly how they are feeling and that they feel the same as how we feel on the far left. Where we are feeling we are not being heard, they are feeling exactly the same. So, having our heroes be who they are, having us be who we are, has created this perfect mix for a show like this.

Knit by Valentino, Pants by Coach

Why do you think style is so personal? Like, people are so afraid — I remember in the first episode on the first season, he didn't want to wear a hat — he said, "I would never wear a hat like that." Why do you think people have that reaction to just clothing?

Even men who say they don't care about clothes, they don't care about fashion; they care about what they are putting on their body to a certain extent because it reflects who they are. So I think that style is important to most people whether they admit it or not because it conveys a certain image, — a certain personality. When I get dressed in the morning, if I feel like I haven't made an effort, I definitely feel it. I don't feel like I want to meet people, I don't want to speak to people, I feel weighed down. I feel like that's the power that style has on people. The power of style is much more than just "I want to look pretty."

Going into fashion, did you anticipate that there would be so much psychology attached to it?

No, not at all. When I was just a wee boy, I thought that I was just making things pretty. But now as I am getting older, and especially with this show, I always knew the power of clothes as I came into adulthood and I knew how that made me feel, but I didn't know that it was universal. This show has really opened my eyes, again, speaking to these Southern, Republican, conservative men about what they want to put on their bodies. It has really opened my eyes to the fact that everybody feels a certain kind of way when it comes to clothing, whether they get it or not.

Jacket and Vest by Fendi, Pants by Paul Smith

For viewers who don't interact with LGBTQ people in their everyday life, what do you think this show teaches them about queer men? Specifically with this show, there are multiple different types of queer men represented.

Thank you for saying that because, and this was yesterday, somebody said that it is a concern that we are not very diverse and we only work with that one kind of gay man. I totally think that's bull. I do think that not only are we physically diverse — we are a multi-ethnic bunch — but also our experiences are very different. The way that we interact with them and the way that we live our lives are very different. I think that is really important for our show and the people who are watching our show who do not have queer friends or family members or who don't have us in their lives. Because we do show that the gay, or the queer community is multi-faceted and we have very differing opinions.

You'll notice that in AJ's episode that was very much evident. He is a gay man who would never have known how to dress, didn't understand grooming, wasn't like one of us five. When we were having our conversations about us coming out and how we came out, our conversations within us five were very different. Antoni and I are very different from the other three who live in coastal states. I know that Antoni does too, but he came out later, and he lived a more conservative lifestyle, he didn't go out to bars and clubs really, so he didn't have the exposure that the other boys had whereas the other three boys in our cast are immersed in gay culture. So, I think it's important that we represent as many different versions of queer men on this show. I think so many shows depict gay men as a very particular stereotype, and I like to believe that we're crushing those.

Some people have critiqued Queer Eye as a show that panders to a straight audience. I don't necessarily agree, and I wonder if you've heard that same argument.

Yes, I have, I've actually heard that a few times. I couldn't disagree more. I think it is a show for everybody and I think we want to be as inclusive as possible. Everybody can learn something from this show. It's not about just making things pretty. As far as I am concerned, my job as the style guy on the show is secondary. First and foremost my job is to inform people of who we are and what we represent and the fact that we are five very different gay men. So yeah, I think that even queer members of our society can learn a lot from this show. I hope also that it opens up a dialogue from them, because I know that all five of us came into this knowing that we were going to meet people who weren't like us and we would hear a lot of ignorance from our heroes, and that was fine, we accepted that and we were there to educate. I hope the queer members of our community also feel the same way, that they may not be willing to hear the conservative side of what their opinions were, I think it's really informative for them also.

Jack by Coach x Keith Haring, T-Shirt by Area, Pants by Jeremy Scott

Jack by Coach x Keith Haring, T-Shirt by Area, Pants by Jeremy Scott

What was the process like for you growing up, not only coming to terms with your sexuality, but learning to embrace your femininity?

Being in a small town in England, I am from a conservative background, it was hard to embrace femininity. It was definitely discouraged. But as I left home and I went to fashion college, it became a lot more comfortable for me so I was able to experiment with my clothes, cross my legs and not be scolded for it. It was definitely a long process. Even now, it is still a process, and I have to remind myself that it is okay to be exactly who I want to be. There is a member of our cast who I love very much, his name is Jonathan Van Ness, who also gave me permission to be who I want to be. Up until that point, up until I got the show, every now and then I would catch myself doing something more feminine and I would have to say "Tan, no, don't do that, play the part, butch it up." I am very effeminate, so that was also quite difficult, and ever since I had more exposure to people like Jonathan, it has reminded me that I don't have to hide away the feminine parts of myself and I should embrace them. They are every much as important as the masculine parts of myself. I didn't have much of a queer friend circle before I got this show, in fact, I didn't have a queer friend circle at all. I live a very conservative lifestyle in Salt Lake City, Utah. I wasn't free to express who I wanted to be, and now I definitely don't feel that way. I am sure that you will even notice that throughout this season that I become more and more comfortable. I become more and more myself in showing every facet of me, femininity included.

I think JVN's role in the Fab 5 is great. By being so unapologetically feminine, he creates a safe space for people to be feminine themselves.

Agreed. And I think having representation like that on TV is important. I do feel like we have had representation of that sort for quite some time, but I don't think inside of being in a space like this, where you're seeing all the versions of gay men in a situation at the same time. Jonathan encourages us to be our true selves and he encourages the audience as well, but the audience can see us interacting with him and loving him and being as engaged with him as we should be, and hopefully that will remove some of the stigma for people who are watching the show who have never met a gay person. A lot of people — or some people that I know of — said "he was a lot in the first episode and we didn't think we were going to like him that much and by the time we got to episode 8 he has become one of our favorites." I love that. I love that they see us also interact with him and show that just because he is feminine doesn't mean that shouldn't sway your opinion of him. He is one of the most incredible people I have ever met.

Jacket and Trousers by Stella McCartney, Shirt by BOSS

Your husband comes from a Mormon background, and you live in Utah, which is a hub for the community. Traditionally, Mormons are not accepting of the LGBTQ community. How has that experience been for you?

Pretty much every one of my friends here in Utah is a staunch LDS person — their official title is LDS — and they are some of the most loving people I know. Of course, there is always going to be people within a culture or a community or religion who are hateful and don't treat us with the respect we deserve, however, the ones who are closest to us are incredibly opened minded and liberal and supportive. And, there is a massive movement within the Utah community, especially within the Mormon community, to try and bridge those gaps. It's called "Mormons Building Bridges," and they are one of the biggest groups that march in the pride parade in Utah, so there really is a big movement to try and dispel this common misconception that gays can't be a member of this community.

Which ties back to the mission of Queer Eye.

Exactly, and honestly, that is the one thing I want to come from this show, is to open up the dialogue, to speak to people who normally wouldn't ever speak to us and show them — I want this show to be a vehicle to show people that we represent more than just having sex with men. There is so much more to us than that and there is so much more to other people than just the version that they are, the moat that they made. I think it's so important, especially in this day in age, to have those conversations.

Shirt and Shorts by Stella McCartney

Do you think we'll reach a point where a show like Queer Eye won't be needed?

I'm gonna give you two answers on this: I hope not because I really like my job [laughs], but secondly, I really hope so. I really hope that we come to a time where a show like this would be seen as archaic and doesn't have a place in this world because everything is great. However, people said that about our show before it came out. We got such bad press before the show came out, people saying, "There's no place in the world for this right now, the gay issues are done, they can get married now, there's no such thing as homophobia, there's no racism, it's not a concern!" Oh really, arrogant douchebag? You really think that one show 15 years ago solved the problem? You are out of your mind. I love that we are around now, and we can remind people that actually there really is a space for a show like this. But, I do pray there is one day there isn't a need for a show like this because we have come to a point where we're willing to listen to each other and not be so hateful.

What growth can we expect from season 1 to season 2?

I am going to preface this by saying that season 1 and season 2 were filmed at the same time. We didn't know which episodes were gonna be season 1 and which were going to be season 2. So, they have a similar feel, a familiar feel. However, the editors are incredible, the showrunner, her name is Jen Lane, she is incredible. She had a vision for season 1 that was going to give you a teaser as to what this is all about, and then season 2 is when we really open her up. Season 2 you get to learn a lot more about the Fab 5 and our opinions on things. I think the reason why they did that was because after season 1 launched, they realized just how connected people were to us and our stories and how different we all are within this group. That was surprising because I think again people assumed that we were all basically the same person. But, we also have our first woman, she opens up our season for episode 1, and we also have our first trans hero, a trans guy. This season is definitely more diverse. It has everything that the first season had. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry (hopefully not too much) but, it has even more heart than season 1. I think season 2 is formidable. Episode 5 in particular, the trans episode, I think it is groundbreaking. I can't wait for you to see it.

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Full Look by Louis Vuitton

Episode 5 sounds like a standout.

Episode 5 starts in silence. This is the first time we start in our loft, and it's a really powerful moment. We are watching somebody's top surgery, which, I've never seen on TV before. And then we go into having very important conversations about what it is to be trans, what his experience is and how the world can help make it an easier process for them. I think it's questions that people all over the world have and I was given the opportunity to have a longer scene than I've ever had before where I get to sit down with Tyler and ask questions that I have, because I've never had a trans friend before. In Utah, we don't have many trans people, they probably don't feel like it's a place for them so they go somewhere they're way more accepted. I just don't have access, so I am able to ask questions that so many people want to ask but don't feel like it's appropriate to ask.

It sounds like this show was a genuine learning experience for you, too.

Yeah, it was. Being raised in a Middle-Eastern household with limited access to Western stuff, I think that people just expect that, oh I'm gay I must know everything and I'm on this really big show I probably should know everything about the gay community... I really don't. So yes, it has been really important and I love that people are learning with me as I go along.

Photographer: Katie Levine
Stylist: Nicholas MacKinnon
Hair: Luis Guillermo at Factory Downtown
Makeup: Emilie Louizides
Photographer Assistants: Brendan Woods and Sara Jensen
Stylist Assistant: Mercy Amankwe
Location: Dune Studios
Video: Mariah Oxley