Tan France’s Queer Eye journey has taken him stateside and worldwide, as he uplifts people’s lives by giving them that extra boost of confidence through fashion. He’s transformed the lives of Queer Eye’s “heroes” in Atlanta, Kansas City, Illinois, and even Japan. Tan and his four other castmates earned an Emmy nomination last year and might set out to do it again for the upcoming race. To date, the fab five have transformed over 40+ lives for Netflix’s hit series Queer Eye. They have become overnight sensations, streaming into millions of homes across the globe, catapulting them to stardom essentially overnight.
The South Asian Brit highlights that as a whole, the experience has been “90% bloom and 10% doom,” but given that he’s one of the only South Asian queer men on national television, he says having that large platform comes with risks he was somewhat conscious of before signing on to the show. “What I do speaks for more than myself, it speaks for millions of people and I think that’s incredibly difficult to navigate for anyone. I don’t think I’m a weak person; I just think it’s a very heavy burden.”
Instead of the snark that reality television often has with its contestants, Queer Eye is — for the most part — inherently joyful, and Tan France brings that energy while revitalizing a chosen hero’s wardrobe. Tan is all about adding an extra layer of spark to the person by working with what they already have. It’s about accentuating a hero’s being in lieu of making someone look completely unrecognizable. Since the start of Queer Eye, Tan has been the go-to fashion expert, hosting his own show Dressing Funny, and Next In Fashion — he also singlehandedly popularized the french tuck!
AwardsWatch sat down with Tan to discuss that irresistible fashion trend, his trajectory in the fashion world, and the next season of Queer Eye.
Niki Cruz: You’ve been through so many seasons of Queer Eye now. What does being on this journey mean to you?
Tan France: The journey changed my life completely. There’s a certain part of me that is still the private side of me that will never change, and that’s the side of me that I share with my family and friends, but as far as how the show affected everything public, I don’t get to be home anywhere near as much as I’d like to. I don’t get to see my husband as much as I used to, but there are so many amazing things that have come from it. We get to do things that I’ve only dreamt of. What I do for my work is so special. I never expected when I got the job what it would turn into. I’m not just talking about the fame of it all. I’m talking about the experiences I have on set with the heroes that I never expected to have. I thought it was going to be a TV show, and that’s it, but almost every hero leaves such a lasting impression on me.
NC: Is it difficult balancing your public vs private life?
TF: Yeah, it’s really hard. We’re on a reality show, and we have zero script. We seldom reshoot anything, so everything I say is everything I’m feeling in that moment, and so people know my intimate thoughts and my opinions on pretty much everything. It’s hard to keep a disconnect. However, there are certain things I’ve never talked about on the show and will never talk about on the show or publicly — and that’s really important to me.
NC: I’ve been watching Queer Eye from the beginning, and not to take anything away from the original, the tone of this is so different, and it made it refreshing.
TF: Thanks! The decision to make it quite different from the first one was planned by the producers, however, I do think so much of it does come from us. Us five are very vocal. They chose five people who don’t know how to shut up about what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling and who refuse to be told, “That’s not the right thing to talk about right now.” So, if we have something to say, we say it, and I think that makes the show incredibly special. That’s not the denigrate our predecessors, they just weren’t in a position 15 years ago to speak so openly about who they are, whereas we live in a world now, where in America, gay marriage is legal, adoption is legal, surrogacy is legal, so we can talk about all of those things without the fear of the show being canceled because it’s not too bold for the audience.
NC: How is it having that platform as a South Asian man talking that openly and being streamed into people’s homes?
TF: The honest answer is that it’s incredibly difficult sometimes. I absolutely expected it to be difficult; I don’t think I could’ve been prepared for how difficult it is. We live in a world where we have social media now, and people get to give you their opinion on who you are with immediate feedback. No matter what I do, I’m either making my community proud or disappointing people in my community. If there were hundreds of us it would be different. I’m just one of them, and this is just my opinion, and how I live my life, but because there are so few of us who are queer, South Asian, and in the public eye, they don’t have a reference point other than me.
NC: Was that something you were conscious about before coming on to the show?
TS: Yeah, it’s why I said to IGTV (the producing company) I don’t think I can take this job, thank you so much. Once I actually started shooting the show, I told them I wanted to quit. I thought there would be more of a script and people telling me what to say, but I realized just how intimate these conversations had to be and how personal opinions had to be — that scared the shit out of me. I thought “Oh no, I’ve never seen this on TV before, people are going to come for me,” and they did. But there was the other side to it. People in my community felt like finally, someone had a voice that they shared, and that feels lovely.
NC: Turning the conversation a bit, but what is the best fashion advice you’ve received?
TS: I have no idea who it was, but someone said years and years ago, don’t look at what’s walking down the runway, look at what the fashion designer is wearing as they walk down the runway. I thought that was a really interesting point because the designer of most of those brands isn’t wearing the most elaborate thing that’s walking down the runway. They don’t lean into that trend as much as they’re encouraging the audience to. They’re wearing something much more simple and classic and often a neutral color. I really liked that take. I wish I could remember who said it but so often when I’m not on the show, I’m not dressed how I dress for the public. I know it’s a common misconception — people assume I look like that all day, every day, and I swear to God, I don’t!
NC: I love that you showcase how style and fashion can bring someone’s confidence up and give them a sense of worth. It’s not mean spirited or done up for the camera.
TS: No, not at all. I would like to believe I’m not a mean person, and if you spoke to anyone who knows me, it’s so rare that I have something mean to say, but some of the audience thinks I’m the harsh one. The way I word it comes across harsher to the US audiences than it does with the UK audience. They call you the harsh one or the one who has a heart of stone.
NC: Wow, I don’t see that at all, Tan.
TS: Well, thanks! It never comes from that place. We all know the Brits on American TV; they’re just a little more forthright. We’re not passive.
NC: And for you, as a person of color, I would think just getting into the fashion industry would be a difficult trajectory, unless I’m assuming.
TS: No, you’re right. It was really difficult. There weren’t many people at all in the UK who I knew were South Asian designers and were making a proper living with it, and then when I came to the US I struggled to find that also. There wasn’t that community here, so for sure it was difficult. I spent a lot of time emailing from email accounts that definitely were not from the people I said they were. Names like Jane, Jill, Avery, those kind of girls to make it easier for people to understand. I think it could be daunting for people to take me seriously, and so I had to pretend to be something I wasn’t.
NC: Did you have a mentor?
TS: Yeah, I worked for a company in Salt Lake City, Utah and she ran a very successful business before she sold it. It wasn’t necessarily the style aesthetic that I needed, but she just ran a very successful business and hired a really impressive diverse team. I was one of those people, and that was very surprising for someone in Salt Lake City. She hired me as the sales director, so learning from her and that company definitely helped launch my own business.
NC: As for the transformation on the show, do you have a favorite from the show?
TS: I can’t give you one because I’ve got three. There was a girl called Kae who was a young artist. The part of the reason was because in Japan, they were a lot more comfortable and with playful fashion as opposed to conservative fashion. Often on the show I’m taking someone from 0 to 20 because they wouldn’t be comfortable at 100, where as in Japan they’re a lot more comfortable. Obviously the places that we go to in America are conservatives towns so I have to play it quite safe here. I did love a woman called Jody Castellucci. she was amazing in my opinion. This season there’s one who looks INCREDIBLE — it’s one of the best makeovers I’ve ever done. Just look out for a doctor and you’ll know who it is.
NC: Did you ever go to a location where you visited a shop and were like, okay, I really am at a loss with the fashion choices here?
TS: Yes, that happens about 20-30% of the time. The producers ask the heroes what kind of things they’re after, and then they’ll do the trick and switch, and the person will say, “Oh, I told the producers that, but I don’t feel that way.” I had someone who said they only wear neutral colors, and then as we walked into the store, the person said, “You know, I really want to do psychedelic colors.” And there was only one thing with color in the whole store, so I had to put him in this hideous thing, and I literally cried to the producers and said, “I can’t believe this is going to air.”
NC: When I think about the stories that get to me on Queer Eye, it’s about the people who overcome adversity, like Wesley Hamilton, or Skyler Jay. Was there a specific person who really touched you this season?
TS: This is probably going to be the best season of Queer Eye, because every story is unique. We’re coming out of the pandemic, so people have been THROUGH IT. We’ve found people who have been through it, so every story has been touching. I’m the only one who doesn’t cry very often. There have only been two episodes in the six seasons, and this season there are several times. That’s how touching I found it. I also think we’re our funniest this season.
NC: If you had to pick one place to travel for Queer Eye, where would it be?
TS: Easy! England without a doubt. I’ve been asking Netflix if we could please go to the UK. I think it would be very interesting for the global audience to see. There’s a common misconception that they’re more “woke” than the US, but they could do with some queers around them to open their eyes to who we are and how we deserve to be treated with more respect.
NC: What do you hope this new season in Austin brings to people? Is it the lightness you were talking about?
TS: Yeah, levity and joy, and hope. Our show has always been about hope as far as I’m concerned. Every season we go into, we want to show the best of each community we’re in and the community that the five of us represent.
NC: Before I let you go, my brother James wanted you to know the French tuck changed his life.
TS: That makes me SO happy! I’ve done one on the season this year — I need to do another one again! Thank you so much.
Season 5 of Queer Eye is currently available to stream on Netflix. Tan France is eligible for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program.
Photo: Ryan Collerd/Netflix