Words: Thomas Stichbury; images: Leigh Keily & supplied
Queer Eye star Tan France opens up about loudly and proudly celebrating his heritage (fashion critics be damned), and why he would love to give Boris Johnson a makeover of the moral and spiritual variety.
In an exclusive interview – an excerpt of which appears in the Attitude September Style Issue – out now to download and to order globally – the TV presenter and style guru reflects on his experiences as a queer Muslim, be it on the red carpet, or on social media.
Tan, 38, also lifts the lid on showbiz snafus, why he is keeping his legs crossed, and his new podcast, Tan France’s Queer Icons, available to download now for Audible members (or for free with Audible’s 30-day trial).
Last month (July), Tan and his husband Rob, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, became parents after welcoming their first child, Ismail, via surrogate.
Your new podcast, Tan France’s Queer Icons, celebrates LGBTQ+ trailblazers. Which queer pioneer has had the biggest impact on your life?
Before recording this podcast, I would have said the likes of RuPaul or Elton John. However, after recording the podcast, I realised the person that has impacted my life, and probably all of our lives, is a woman named Dr Evelyn Hooker, the first person who was willing – as a psychiatrist – to do research to prove that we [gay men] are not insane; we do not have psychological issues because we’re queer. She was able to prove, categorically, that this was neither a mental health or psychological issue or a crime. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be married to my husband, I wouldn’t be able to have a baby right now.
Sounds like the series has been hugely eye-opening for you. Now, I don’t want to massage your ego, but you are an influential queer figure yourself, and I imagine you’re flooded with messages from LGBTQ+ fans. Have you had an encounter with, or heard a story from a fan that has stuck with you?
God, this is going to sound really depressing, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Honestly, and to be frank, I don’t check DMs anymore. I haven’t done for almost two years; my assistant does, and she will tell me if something really needs my attention. But other than that, I don’t look, just to protect my sanity. I am a queer brown Muslim immigrant in the US, which means there’s a lot of stuff I don’t need to see, a lot of people’s opinions I don’t need to see to protect myself.
But before then, I used to read as many DMs as I could, and there was a queer Pakistani boy in a city called Lahore and he’d never seen a version of himself on TV. At that point, he was suicidal. He was a teen, and he had no idea it was possible to be an openly queer Muslim, especially in somewhere like Pakistan. Obviously, I wasn’t raised in Pakistan, I was raised in the UK, but he understood that I understood his plight. Apparently, it gave him hope that he could find a way to, either, come out in his own country, or move away and live a life he never thought was possible.
That, in my opinion, is the beauty of what we do on our show. We show people who, maybe, have never thought that my life, our life, is possible for them.
It demonstrates the importance of being able to see yourself on TV and how that can be a literal life-changer.
I tried so hard not to be on Queer Eye, so hard at every turn to say, “It’s just not for me.” My husband was the one who convinced me. The reason I did it was, to hopefully encourage kids like the boy who messaged from Pakistan – just hearing that one message from him, I was like, OK, you did this for a reason, and you were right to do it.
You talked about not reading messages in order to protect yourself. What are your coping mechanisms?
I live in a place called Salt Lake City, Utah, which is the least showbiz-y place that you can possibly imagine. We have a home in LA, and I’m only there for work. My castmates, who I love, they’re in New York and LA, and they are always immersed in it, they can’t really get away from it. I have a very normal life outside of the show. When I’m at work, I’m at work; when I’m not at work, I’m with my friends who I cook for most days, and they hang out at our house. I live on a normal street; I still go to the same gym I’ve been going to for 11 years; I go to the same grocery store. My life hasn’t changed very much. So, I try and limit my social media interaction to make sure that, outside of work hours, I am very much the ‘old Tan’ that everybody knew. That’s how I keep myself sane.
Sounds very sensible. That being said… what is the most awkward showbiz encounter you’ve had?
I’ve got a few [laughs]. But the most awkward one was – so, I never used to watch this show, actually still haven’t watched the show Game of Thrones. I didn’t know who the main cast was, other than the main girl Emilia [Clarke], and I was at a hotel in London on a press tour, and I was walking through the hallway and saw this lovely man. I said, “Hi, Viggo [Mortensen], it’s so nice to meet you.” He said, “Hey, do you mind if I get a picture for my daughter? My family’s a fan of the show,” and I was like, “Sure, no problem.” So, I went to his room – he was with his press people, doing a shoot there – we took a quick picture, I gave him a hug and was like, “Viggo, thank you for being so kind.”
I walked off, got into my car, and said to my publicist, “Oh my god, I just met Viggo Mortensen, isn’t that so nice?” And they said, “That’s funny, Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau, aka Jamie Lannister from GoT] is also in the same hotel.” I was like, “Who’s Nikolaj?” They showed me the picture and I was like, “That’s the guy I just met.” I mistook him for the other hot dude.
It happens. We’ve all been there.
I’ve never made the same mistake since, I’ve always said, “Hello mate” or “Hello love,” and I’ll wait until they say who they are. Even if I know it’s Meryl [Streep], I’m going to wait for her to say, “Hi Tan, it’s Meryl.”
You’d like to think you’re safe with Meryl.
You just never know. She could just be an attractive white lady.
And she is a chameleon.
She really is [laughs].
A couple of style-related questions now because, well, of course. If an item of clothing in your wardrobe could speak, what story would it tell?
It’s something that I wore to the second Emmys. It is called a sherwani jacket and it was the first thing that I ever wore on a red carpet that showed my heritage. If it could speak, it would say, “It’s about time we saw f***ing one of me on the red carpet!” I’m sure I made every worst-dressed list, because nobody understood it, and instead every white guy who wore a black tux made the best-dressed list. It’s this gold jacket, and I wore a cummerbund, a black pair of trousers and a white shirt, and I think it was the chicest thing you’ll ever see. Everyone just thought, well, why is he wearing that ethnic thing, that’s horrible, but it’s because they refuse to take the time to understand.
OK, hit me with one fashion do, and one fashion don’t.
I’m going to start with the don’t: f*** Crocs. I don’t care that they made a comeback, they’re hideous. Then a fashion do… I want to keep it simple, just make an effort. It’s not a certain thing, but if you know that you haven’t put thought into your clothes, you can’t expect other people to think you look nice.
Obligatory coming out question: who was the first person you came out to?
My best friend when I was, I think I had just turned 17, she was 16, and we were at college. I couldn’t tell her verbally, I was freaked out – was that your Mum? Hi, Mum!
Oh sorry, it’s my brother. I was trying to say “Get out” with my eyeballs.
[Laughs] But, yeah, it was my best friend. I was too scared to tell her verbally. I was really nervous; I’d wanted to tell her for weeks and weeks and weeks, because I’d met my first boyfriend and started dating. So, instead, I text her on my Nokia 6210 and she was so nice about it. She was like, “Tell me more!”
Who was your childhood crush?
Dolph Lundgren – I think that was the first time I thought, oh, I need to climb that. And then, what’s his name? Jean-Claude Van Damme. [There’s that movie], the one where he and Dolph Lundgren are, kind of, robots for the army and he’s completely naked in one of the scenes and he’s so hot. I was probably seven or eight, and I was like, s***, I’m in trouble…
If you could give a celebrity a makeover, who would it be and why?
Normally we [the Queer Eye cast] don’t answer that question, but the reason I’m going to say this person is because it’s not about clothes, I couldn’t give a f*** about this person’s clothes, or the person’s crazy hair… Boris Johnson. It’s about getting him to understand my people better, so that he treats us as equals. I’m not just talking about the queers… I’m talking about people of colour, Muslims in particular. I wouldn’t love to spend a week with him, but I would love for him to experience me for a week and then tell me I’m not equal to him.
When was the last time you cried?
We’re [my husband and I] expecting our first child and it’s made me incredibly emotional. On Queer Eye, you’ve only ever seen me cry two times; my American counterparts literally cry every episode. I’m very British, I have a stiff upper lip and I don’t get emotional over things that Americans get emotional over. Ever since we found out we were having a baby, I’ve cried almost every day over random s***.
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If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
I come from a very particular community, the South Asian community, where there isn’t a lot of representation. I was very feminine, I am very feminine, and when I sit down, I always cross my legs. I wish I could tell 17, 18, 19-year-old me, even 10-year-old me, “Keep your legs f***ing legs crossed. If they say something to you, tell them to go f*** themselves, you’ve got every right to be as feminine as you are.”
I wear a lot of heeled boots now; I wear them almost every day, it makes me stand a certain way. I’m relatively short – I’m 5’9 – and my castmates are all giants, they’re all over six feet tall and then they all wear heels, so I feel teeny-tiny. When I wear heels, I feel so good, and I wish as a younger person I had the confidence to do that. Actually, I wish I had the confidence to do that anyway. I’m always worried that somebody’s going to call me something in England, so I don’t.
What was the last thing you Googled?
Oh, it’s so lame. It’s a boot. It’s going to seem so shallow, but it’s a Gucci boot. I already have the brown version and the black version, and I found out that there’s this version [holds up the phone].
Mine was [checks phone] free gay porn… group.
Oh, really? Gosh, why would you go to that, there’s many better sites than that, for goodness sake!
Top tip, if you are watching porn, make sure your mobile isn’t connected to your cousin’s soundbar while she’s having a bath.
I’m going to share that tip on Queer Eye with one of my heroes, and then you’ll know that I’m referring to you.
What is your most annoying habit? You seem like an easy-going person to live with.
No, I’m not, I’m very particular, everything has its place. But my actual most annoying habit is, Antoni Porowski, my lovely castmate who is actually my best friend, will tell you, I can’t help but ask the most inappropriate personal questions. Somebody we know got a divorce, it was a none of my business, and I couldn’t help but ask, “So, why did you get a divorce? Was it your fault, or was it the other person?” I don’t know where it came from, but it’s the kind of question – I just wanted to know.
The Attitude September Style Issue is out now.