Tan France wasn't supposed to be a TV star.
But as of publication, the fashion designer has over 183,000 Instagram followers and a number of giddy, straight husbands asking to take his photo to show their wives at his local grocery store in Utah. "I can't walk the street without somebody stopping me," he explains earnestly, still surprised that complete strangers would recognize him. (Maybe it's the hair?)
Photo by Paige Soviet.
France, who'd never held a job in the entertainment world before, says he was reluctant to audition for "Queer Eye," a Netflix reboot based off the original Bravo series, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," that's become an overnight cultural phenomenon since premiering in early February.
But France went to the audition anyway. And now he's a member of the show's Fab Five — the stylish, sincere queer guys who bombard their "heroes'" homes and make over their closets, diets, and, really, entire existences in just a few days.
Photo courtesy of Netflix.
The reason France ended up taking the offer, he says, had nothing to do with fame or fortune. It was the series' shooting location, of all things, that sealed the deal.
Unlike the original, the new "Queer Eye" found its heroes to "make better" in deep red, rural Georgia. For France — a British-Muslim immigrant to the U.S. with Pakistani roots — the opportunity to build bridges and befriend straight, southern Republicans was an opportunity he simply couldn't pass up.
I sat down with France to chat about the first season of "Queer Eye," what it's like representing gay Muslims on the world stage, and which member of the Fab Five he secretly loves best.
I'm so happy to talk to you. I went through season one of "Queer Eye" so quickly.
The response has been out of this world!
I don't know if you know, but I'm the only one who hasn't ever worked in the entertainment industry before. I never had any desire to do so. I had to be convinced to go audition for this show. So for me, it's been really shocking. I receive, on average, a thousand DMs a day.
Oh my gosh.
Yeah. It's insane. It's lovely, lovely, and I'm very grateful, but it's insane. And then not really being able to go out of the house as much anymore, unless I'm either really dressed up or have a hat and shades on — that's been a major adjustment.
That's wild. And for many Americans, you're either the first or one of the first gay Muslims they've ever seen on TV. What's that been like for you?
I just am unapologetically myself, so it wasn't something I was really cognizant of until people really started asking about it the past few weeks. And so I've been like, oh shit, maybe I should be paying more attention to that [laughs]. People all over the world have been reaching out and saying, "I've never seen a version of myself on TV." And that's really powerful.
How comfortable are you taking on that role?
I don't feel uncomfortable because I am who I am, and I don't make any apologies for it. That's the case for all of [the Fab Five].
But I've never seen myself as any kind of role model or trailblazer, and I still don't. I don't like that kind of responsibility because I don't expect that people should live their lives a certain way because someone else lives their life a certain way. However, I do love giving exposure to a community that really hasn't had the representation it needs.
As a Muslim, how did it feel helping Cory in episode three? He was a big Trump supporter. Was helping guys like him something you considered before heading to Georgia to shoot?
It was something I thought about a lot before accepting the offer. And actually, it was the reason I took the show.
If the show had been filmed in New York or L.A., I don't think it would have been as enticing for me. [The original "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"] was wonderful for its time. It moved the gay community forward and it gave us exposure we never had before. However, I didn't want just the original version back. I wanted it to be more [representative] of how we've progressed as a community.
So having the opportunity to work with a bunch of Republican people [in the South] was the most enticing part of this job for me. It wasn't about making them "pretty" — that's secondary. My job on the show is making sure I'm having very open, blunt conversations with people without hiding who I am.
Unfortunately, some of the conversations didn't make it [into the episodes]. Like, Cory and I had a very lengthy conversation in the car about Trump and the fact he doesn't love gays or immigrants, and I represent both of those things. [Trump's] made some derogatory comments about the Middle East, and again, I represent that.
Photo by Paige Soviet.
I read that Tom had at one point suggested you were a "terrorist"? But then he ended up giving you a yellow rose?
He sure did. You've seen the full [first] episode ... right?
So I had a driving scene in the car with Tom that didn't make it [into the final cut], where we're shooting the shit — just talking about everything while I was driving — and then it came up in conversation that I am Middle Eastern. He hadn't realized I was Middle Eastern. So his first question was, "You're not a terrorist, are you?"
Yeah. That was really important for me to be able to address that in a certain way where he didn't feel like he couldn't ask that question — and I told him he can't ask that question again.
There's a way of asking questions to find out what you're wanting to find out without being so offensive. There's a certain level of tact that's required [pauses, laughs] ...
Sorry, what was the rest of your question?
I asked about the yellow rose.
Oh, right, yes! Sorry, sometimes I go off on a tangent and I don't remember where I was going! So we had a really open conversation and he actually asked that question [about being a "terrorist"].
We ended up becoming really close. I love Tom. By the end of the week before I left, when the cameras weren't around, he came over and said, "I got a rose for you, which is yellow — the color of friendship. And I want you to know that I wasn't trying to be offensive by the question I asked. Now I understand you."
He said, "I want to have these conversations with other people. I love knowing that now I have a Middle Eastern friend, an immigrant friend, a liberal friend, that I never thought I would have had."
Oh my gosh.
Tom was definitely one of my favorites. I also loved A.J. too.
I loved A.J. I mean, it helped that he was really attractive [laughs]. But he was such a sweetheart.
That's awesome. Well, those scenes with Tom sound so powerful. I wish I'd gotten to see them.
You know, here's the thing: We're not trying to make a political show. I guess we make political statements by the nature of who we are. But I think [the yellow rose scene with Tom] would have been way too heavy. Baby steps.
Sometimes, subtlety can make the show accessible for a lot of people who may not have tuned in otherwise.
Exactly. And they can make their own assumptions. We don't necessarily have to ram anything down their throats.
Photo by Paige Soviet.
So how about some fun questions?
I know the Fab Five are all close with one another. But who do you get along with the best?
OK, I will actually be honest with you. I love them all. When we're together, we have the best time. I don't know if you follow my Instagram or if you don't —
I mentioned in a post that people seem to have really responded well to in my Instagram story: Antoni sat on my lap, and I [said], "It doesn't matter how many chairs there are in a room, my lap is always Antoni's seat." And that's true. It doesn't matter what's going on, if there are a lot of people around us, we are always so affectionate. We love each other very much.
There are differences between some of [the Fab Five] because, for example, some of the boys like to go experience the night life and go to bars and clubs. And me and Antoni, neither of us drink alcohol. So it made it so much more organic for us to build a bond quickly, because when those guys are out going to bars and clubs, Antoni and I were cooking in each other's apartments and watching "The Great British Baking Show."
I now go on vacations with his family. We basically married the same person [laughs], so they get along really well. We're all very, very close, but me and Antoni formed a bond like no other.
That's amazing. Can we talk about Antoni for a second?
Everyone wants to talk to me about Antoni! You love him, I know. [laughs]
I do! But he seems to be the most controversial Fab Five member. Is he just the talentless eye candy on the show, like some people have said?
OK, wait, Robbie, let me tell you this. Because you are now the third person in the last couple days who've asked me this.
All I get all day is DMs from people saying, "Oh my gosh, Antoni won't reply to my DMs; can you tell him that I love him?" I'm like, "OK, get a grip, everybody. He's not just a piece of meat [laughs]!"
Maybe I am jaded because we're so close, but I see him as the heart of the show. Truly. He's got a way of connecting with our heroes — that's what we call the clients we help — he has a way of connecting with heroes like none of us can. He's so truly genuine.
And look, people can have their own opinions with what he does with food. But in the first episode where he made Tom guacamole, he actually made a full meal. But we've only got time to show one thing! He's actually an amazing chef. He cooked for me almost every night because our apartments [when we were shooting on location] were right next door to each other.
For the record, I'm pro-Antoni.
Good! Honestly, no joke, he's probably the best person I've met in my entire life. Like, he's an angel sent down from heaven.
Photo by Paige Soviet.
So, I'm already craving season two. Any news?
OK, here's the thing. Netflix doesn't tell us anything [laughs]. All we can say is, we hope it's doing well. Instagram's fucking blown up, so I assume that's a good indication of how the show's doing.
It seems like it's doing great, but I don't know if I'm just being trapped in my own gay bubble.
[laughs] You know what's funny though? In Utah [where France lives], they have a very high Mormon population. And when I'm out in the grocery store, one of my favorite things in the world to do is go to the grocery store. For a British person, coming to America and seeing the ridiculous abundance in a grocery store is fascinating.
And every time I'm there now — at least three or four times — I'll get stopped by a man who I assume is straight and wants to take a picture with me to show his wife and kids. It's always straight men! It's always straight men.
That's so funny!
I know, I love it.
That about covers my questions, Tan. Is there anything you want to add?
I'd love to go back to the relationship thing with the other boys, because you're the only one who's asked who I am closest with.
I am the closest with Antoni, but I never expected that my colleagues and I would become my best friends. Of course, every now and then there's going to [be a fight]. Actually, I like that we argue every now and then, because it's usually about the hero and what we want to do that episode — we have those kinds of arguments. And that makes for a better show.
But on the whole, [the show creators] chose five people who could be, and thankfully are, the closest of friends. And I think that's why the show works so well.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.