Queer Eye’s sartorial expert, Tan France on becoming an overnight sensation
On his crazy schedule, being seen as a cultural representative and more
BY Iva Dixit | May 9th, 2019
“I had exactly six days off last year; I’m trained for this, don’t worry,” is Tan France’s reassurance to me when I suggest he take a minute to recover from the eight hours of nonstop photo-taking, where he’s been twirling in a Moschino couture cape and a sequinned jumpsuit, balancing a series of elaborate floral headpieces, and tottering in six-inch thigh-high platform boots shaped like Pikachu. His schedule has been like this ever since he went from wholesaler of modest clothing for a largely- Mormon clientele to one of the stars of Netflix’s Queer Eye, where he became the sartorial soothsayer to an enraptured nation that couldn’t get enough of his French tucks, his wry sunniness, and that impeccable, immovable quiff. “I feel like the luckiest boy in the world because I got this extra career that I never planned on,” he says.
Before Queer Eye, before the parts on SNL, before he caused the Google search for ‘French tuck’ to skyrocket and taught hapless straight men across America an easy trick about the marvels of proportion, the soft-spoken Utahn had his life all mapped out. He’d sold the two modest clothing brands that he’d started in his twenties (“The first couple of years were hellacious, but after that they became quite successful, quite quickly!”). He retired at 33. He was going to have children with his husband, the illustrator Rob France, and be a stay-at-home dad. His plan proceeded quite smoothly… for five days, before a friend of a friend called to tell him about the Queer Eye auditions. He promptly said no.
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“Knowing that people might actually know my name, know intimate parts of my life—that was terrifying,” he says. “And I didn’t want to be that person who represents a whole continent. A lot of the West does not separate us. They don’t really know the difference between India and Pakistan or Iran and Afghanistan. I knew I would be seen as a representative of that culture and that is a heavy, heavy burden to bear.” It took some convincing by his husband, but eventually he agreed, and what followed would become a charmed origin story. In an industry that demands fealty in the form of bit parts for years from its occupants, and maybe blesses a few with an occasional blockbuster, Tan went from never having been in front of a camera to landing the show, and becoming a global phenomenon within a week of its premiere.
His life is now a frenzy of thousands of DMs daily from strangers, a memoir called Naturally Tan (Penguin Random House), an upcoming cameo on the fourth and final season of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and attending comedy shows with John Mulaney and Pete Davidson. From being the only one of the Fab Five who had never had any prior media training, Tan has taken to fame and all its trappings with a natural flamboyance—and with minimal griping about its cons.
“I think I’m handling it well,” he says. “The majority of my life has not changed. I now have access to people I never would have, and rooms that I have never belonged in before. But I still live in my home in Salt Lake City. I still see the same friends I always have. I go to the same gym. I just don’t get to live that part of my life as regularly. Now it’s my sanctuary. It’s my escape.”
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Tan does not talk about his family, because he says it’s the one part of his life he would like to keep shielded. Born Tanweer Wasim Safdar to Pakistani immigrants who settled in South Yorkshire in England, he grew up visiting his grandfather’s factory in North England that produced denim for Disney’s clothing line, and knew early on that he wanted to go into fashion—albeit not the family business of manufacturing, which is perhaps more sturdily rooted in traditional masculinity. So, like a true subcontinental diaspora child chafing against familial expectations, he knew that the luxury of failure was not available to him. “If you are somebody in our community who decides to go against the grain, you better excel at that,” he says. “Otherwise you’re the punchline of your family. I needed to make sure that if somebody says, ‘Oh are you going to pull a Tan France?’ …‘Yeah bitch, I’m going to pull a Tan France. Watch what I achieve.’”
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Traces of this credo show up in moments on Queer Eye, when his identity—the queer Pakistani man who grew up familiar with England’s virulent racism—asserts itself, but always with the strained patience of someone who understands that the viewing public does not take kindly to outbursts from certain kinds of people, no matter how vicious the trigger. I saw it in his self-deprecation in the infamous third episode of season one, where the Fab Five are pulled over by a cop (later revealed to be a prank) in a town in Georgia—a state that saw 88 police shootings in 2017, 30 of which were fatal—and Tan attempts to defuse the palpable tension in the car by joking: “They saw me in the back. They’re concerned.” I saw it when the oblivious Antoni declares he’s always felt safe no matter where they go, even if they’re in a MAGA-hat wearing policeman’s house and Tan responds drily, “That’s because you’re white.”
“If I were Caucasian,” he says, “I could scream and shout all I wanted, and they’d say, ‘Oh, crazy Tan!’ But as a brown person, they’ll say, ‘Crazy brown people. This is why we don’t have them on TV.’”
America demands that the public figures whom it anoints as beacons of diversity—that their rage and their discomfort be packaged in easily palatable, toothlessly teachable moments. Not too loud, not too threatening, the source of their pain from systemic racism not too visible, lest the viewers get spooked—and even stars of makeover shows are not exempt. But for Tan, his initial reluctance to take on that mantle has gradually given way to a deeper understanding: “I have so much to prove,” he says. “I’ve always had so much to prove. I’m a gay South Asian man. I better be the best I can possibly be, so I don’t fuck it up for somebody else who might be the same as me.”