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Why Fashion Expert Tan France Nearly Turned Down 'Queer Eye'

Sep 11, 2019
Originally published on September 12, 2019 11:28 am

When fashion designer Tan France got the call to audition for the Netflix makeover series Queer Eye, his initial reaction was to say no. France, the gay son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, didn't want to take on the burden of representing his community — especially on television.

"The thought of being one of the very first openly gay South Asian men on a major show. ... That pressure was so hard to handle," he says. "The pressure of being one of the first to do something is massively stressful."

But then France began to reflect on the racism he had experienced throughout his life. Growing up in a small town in England, bullies slapped him in the face, punched him in the gut and called him racist slurs. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he was harassed and called a "terrorist" on the street. He is still routinely questioned by the Transportation Security Administration when he travels.

As France thought about these experiences, he began to reconsider auditioning for Queer Eye: "I could have an opportunity to change the narrative for my people," he says. "And so that's why I decided to take the actual audition. ... I've got to continue to show that Pakistanis are wonderful people, that we are caring people."

France reflects on his childhood, his career in fashion and his role on Queer Eye in his new memoir, Naturally Tan.


Interview highlights

On growing up Pakistani in the U.K. and being bullied as a kid

At the age of 5 or 6, when you get hit for your skin color, it makes no sense, because you don't see that as a problem. Violence was ever present in my life. That was something I never escaped. I just saw it as normal. ... I remember saying this to my husband, that I was never bullied as a kid, and then I would talk about my childhood and he was like, "You've said you haven't been bullied, but that absolutely is bullying!" The strange thing is, we never saw it as bullying. It was just a matter of fact. ... I don't think anyone ever noticed [I was gay]. I think that they were just so consumed with my color that they just seemed to lose sight of the fact that I was also homosexual.

On being exposed to fashion at a young age because his grandfather owned a denim factory

They were making denim [with] Disney prints on them, and so I was able to experience Western clothing like most South Asian kids will never have the luxury of doing. I was able to see how a piece of fabric turns into a garment that you will actually wear, and so I was privy to the ins and outs of the process. And at the end of that process I got to keep some of those things that were slightly off — like a stitch was wrong or a color was off — those things I got to keep. So I was able to experiment with clothes more so than most people. Even though I wasn't allowed to wear it around the house, I was still exposed to that.

On experiencing racism after the Sept. 11 attacks

I saw the planes going into the towers over and over again on the news, and I felt immediate dread, because it was so clear what the message was: that it's Muslims. There was a lot of talk about Pakistan and Afghanistan. I'd already experienced 17 years of racism for being Pakistani, and the interesting thing was, I looked around the room at the other Pakistani people — and there weren't that many — and every one of us had the exact same look of complete dread, like, "Oh no, we're going to pay for this." And it happened immediately.

On the stress of running three fashion businesses and the toll it took on his mental health

I had built up these three businesses that, thankfully, were doing incredibly well. But the production was getting more and more problematic, and the thought of continuing on with that was just too much to handle. And so I got really depressed. ... I never experienced that before. I don't suffer bouts of depression. I'm one of the most positive people I know. I always can see a way out of a situation and how to get out of a situation to make myself happy again. But with that I couldn't see a time when I was going to be happy in business. So I started to really think of how I could solve the problem. It wasn't really solving the problem; it was just getting out of the situation and getting out of life.

And so I had a moment one day. ... On my way home from work, I called my husband, and I told him that I need him to talk to me and help me. I feel like I want to drive off this bridge, and I'm almost positive I'm going to do this if he's not there for me. He's wonderful. He's an angel sent down from heaven, and he talked me through it and urged me to just get home as soon as possible. He was going to leave work and come home to make sure I was OK, and then when I got home, his answer was simple. It was just, "Let them go. You don't have anything to prove."

I've always been the kind of person my whole life that has felt I have something to prove and ... I know it's because of my childhood and the amount of abuse we suffered and I suffered, that I've always felt like I had to prove something, and I feel that even to this day. - Tan France

I've always been the kind of person my whole life that has felt I have something to prove and ... I know it's because of my childhood and the amount of abuse we suffered and I suffered, that I've always felt like I had to prove something, and I feel that even to this day. Every day when I get out of bed and I work as hard as I do, it's to prove my worth. And so he said, "You don't have to prove yourself in this business anymore. You've made it. Your businesses are successful. Your plan was to always sell them maybe 20 years from now, but sell them now, get rid of them — we don't need any more money." And so I did.

On telling his Muslim family he was marrying a man

My dad died when I was young. He died just before I was 14 and I wasn't out at the time, so he never would have known that I had desires to marry a man. My mom, when I told her, my mom is quite liberal — she practices her religion, but she's quite liberal and ... is quite docile. She just wants to keep the peace and go with the flow, and as long as everyone's happy she's fine. And so that was the case with me. I told her that I was marrying a man; she was like OK. ... There was never a fight about it. There was never really a discussion really about it. She was just so matter-of-fact about it and has been ever since.

And so it was quite easy for me. ... The fact that she had a love marriage [with my father], she [too] had gone against our cultural norms, which back in the day — this was in the '70s — was shocking, absolutely shocking. She was probably one of the very few people in her community, if not in her extended family, who would have had a love marriage. And so I think that that probably made it easier for her to understand.

But she always knew that I was the black sheep of the family. She always knew that I wasn't going to have the same life as her other children. She knew from my very early age that I was nothing like her other children. She didn't know how to articulate it — as I said, she'd never even heard the word "gay" before — but she just, she said I wasn't like any of her other sons. ... I was like her extra daughter.

On his initial reluctance to join the Queer Eye cast

France helps Kenny Yarnevich find a new look on Queer Eye.
Christopher Smith / Netflix

I was worried about the people that I know and love being attacked by people within our community. I wasn't concerned about what Caucasian people might think of it, necessarily. It was what my own people would think of it, that they would be concerned that my family have a gay man who's very openly gay, very unabashedly gay, so publicly. ... In our culture you don't represent yourself; you represent your family. And as far as my culture is concerned, when you are ... "sinning" in their eyes, you are bringing shame to your community.

On how doing Queer Eye has pushed his personal boundaries

Being around Jonathan Van Ness changed my boundaries! ... I was always very, very much Westernized, but I've become more so with the things I will discuss. I was always quite foul mouthed. I've always been foul mouthed. And that's just very typically English, especially in working-class culture, and my parents were definitely working class. ... I have become more vulgar now, because ... that's the humor on set. We're just a silly, playful bunch.

And actually I love that side of me now that's able to just be free and talk about things that people are really going through. I was quite guarded before. ... All the [Queer Eye] boys will say I'm the most bounded person they know. If I don't want something to happen, if I do not want something discussed, if I do not want to be close, I will make it very clear. I set my intentions with people very clearly, very quickly, very early on. And that's something that's quite rare for Americans, I think. ...

Please know that this is my personal opinion, but being foreign here in the U.S., I found that Americans are quite passive-aggressive when it comes to setting their true intentions when they first meet friends. But the British culture, we were a lot more open about what we will accept or not accept from our friends and family, and so I think that's quite jarring for the boys. So I've taught them my boundaries, but they've also pushed them, and the parts that have been pushed are for the better, as far as I'm concerned.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Tan France, is the fashion expert on the Netflix series "Queer Eye." When the show received an Emmy, he said, I never expected a Pakistani boy would be winning an Emmy for being on a show about being openly gay. Tan France grew up in a small town in northern England, the son of Pakistani immigrants. He says our home wasn't super religious, but we had a profound connection to our Muslim heritage. France's husband was raised in a Mormon family on a ranch in Wyoming. They now live in Salt Lake City.

In France's new memoir, "Naturally Tan," he writes about growing up gay and Muslim and how eventually he learned to express himself through clothes. On each episode of "Queer Eye," France and the show's four other experts try to help people improve their lives by helping them with their wardrobe, cooking, personal grooming and the interior design of their home or business. It's not just advice. The show has the budget to buy the clothes and redesign interiors. The series is a reboot of "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy," which was a makeover show for straight men. But the new series has expanded to include a more diverse set of subjects, including women and LGBTQ people.

Tan France, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you're the clothing and fashion expert on "Queer Eye" and you've been in the fashion biz as a designer. Tell us what you had to wear when you were growing up, at home and at school.

TAN FRANCE: Oh, hi, Terry Gross.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANCE: So I had to - well, I had to wear preferably something called shalwar kameez, which is a long tunic and harem pants. However, my mom was relatively liberal, and so she would let me play around a little at home with my attire. And at school, I had to wear a school uniform. However, we had Fridays where we could wear whatever we wanted. So they - so my mom and dad provided a lot of clothing that was Western but not technically school uniform, so I was able to dress up every now and then at home in a way that definitely wasn't considered modest. I've got air quotes. The reason why we wear shalwar kameez at home is because it protects your modesty.

GROSS: Just describe what it looks like. People will recognize it from your description.

FRANCE: Sure. It's a long tunic that goes down to your knees. It's very boxy. It hides your form. And then you wear a harem pant underneath, which is one size fits all, and it's an elasticated waist. And the legs taper down to the hem. It's - quite honestly, it's not flattering, but it's not meant to be flattering. It's not meant to be sexy or cool. It's meant to be modest and to protect your modesty. It's not usually in a flashy color. It's usually in a very subdued color. And so it's simple clothing that is culturally appropriate for Pakistanis. It's not necessarily clothing that is desperately needed for a Muslim. There are many options that you can wear as a Muslim that aren't necessarily shalwar kameez but have to be modest. However, in the Pakistani and Indian culture, a shalwar kameez is what we go for.

GROSS: You know, the shalwar kameez is a kind of flowy set of garments. And, you know, in Western culture, like, flowy garments are considered very feminine...

FRANCE: Yes.

GROSS: ...Which is not what they're meant to convey (laughter)...

FRANCE: No. Actually the...

GROSS: ...In Pakistani culture. Yeah.

FRANCE: No. The shalwar kameez is definitely something that is a sign of refinement and sophistication for a man. There is a women's version also, but they are usually a lot more colorful. But, no, there's definitely - it's not seen as effeminate at all. If you were to wear more Western clothing, that's seen as quite effeminate. Even though that would be our version, now, in the West, a suit would be the ultimate armor for a man, the ultimate sartorial choice for a real man. But that definitely wasn't the case in my culture.

GROSS: Wait. Are you telling me that jeans and a T-shirt would be considered feminine in...

FRANCE: Yeah 'cause you're showing so much of your body, which is, in our - in my culture, definitely in my family, was more of a feminine trait. Why would you want to show off your bum?

GROSS: Right. OK. Confusing, isn't it, all these norms (laughter)?

FRANCE: Unless it's to lure (ph) a man, yes.

GROSS: So your parents are from Pakistan. You were born in England in a small English town in South Yorkshire.

FRANCE: Yeah. Actually, one slight correction - I didn't actually articulate this in the book, but my mom's family is from India and Kashmir, and my dad's family is from Pakistan.

GROSS: Thank you for clarifying that. So you say your school was mostly white, maybe 10 other South Asians and one black student. In America before 9/11, I think most Americans probably couldn't tell you exactly where Pakistan was...

FRANCE: I'm almost positive of that, yes.

GROSS: ...Let alone, like, who lived there. But after 9/11, many Americans became very suspicious of Pakistan.

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: And - but you grew up before 9/11. So let's talk about the pre-9/11 era. In England, it was very dangerous to be Pakistani. Like I said, Americans probably didn't - couldn't find Pakistan on the map. But in England, why were Pakistanis so targeted and discriminated against?

FRANCE: So I don't know the facts on this - or I should know the facts a lot better than I do. But there was a time when there was a major influx of Pakistani people - and Indians but mostly Pakistanis - who moved from Pakistan to the U.K. They emigrated and they settled, and they had large communities within established Caucasian towns or cities. And I think that a lot of people saw them as a threat. And so ever since my parents arrived in the U.K., they'd suffered so much abuse. And that didn't seem to ebb when when my generation was born. And so just the slurs got more aggressive or more fine-tuned to really hurt us.

And so when I was raised in my small town, people really knew how to hurt us very easily with the words that they chose to use for us. And because of all of the other cultures that were intermixed within Doncaster, the place that I am from, the Pakistani community was the largest of them, I think that we were seen as a threat to the community. And so people wanted to make sure that we were reminded that we did not belong there.

GROSS: It was kind of dangerous to be Pakistani when you were growing up in England, at least in your town. And you write that you weren't even allowed out of the house after school hours because it was dangerous. Were you beaten up a lot?

FRANCE: Yes. I - well, not beaten up, but I guess it depends on your definition of beaten up with the listeners. You'd get slapped around a little bit or punched in the face or punched in the gut, but it wasn't really a beating. It was just a quick hit, and then they move on. But as a kid, it was really hard to handle because I didn't have the understanding, really, at the age of 5 or 6 when you get hit for your skin color. It makes no sense because you don't see that as a problem. Violence was ever present in my life. That was something I never escaped, and I just saw it as normal. And I remember I - actually, I don't remember if I wrote this in the book, but I remember saying this to my husband that I was never bullied as a kid. And then I would talk about my childhood, and he was like, you've said you've never been bullied, but that absolute is bullying. The strange thing is we never saw it as bullying. It was just a matter of fact.

GROSS: So you were targeted because you're Pakistani, and I'm sure being gay made that only more difficult.

FRANCE: You know, the interesting thing is, Terry, I don't think anyone ever noticed. I think that they were just so consumed with my color that they just seemed to lose sight of the fact that I was also homosexual. Also I learned from a young age to hide it well. I really played mask as much as I possibly could because I - there were a couple of things that happened as a kid that I knew were problematic for my family. And so I learned very early on that those feminine traits needed to be quashed. And so nobody ever really caused me any problems outside of the home because they thought that I was gay. I don't think anyone even assumed that at any point.

GROSS: Your parents might have had no gaydar at all.

FRANCE: They had - that's not a question. They had no gaydar whatsoever.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANCE: They - I remember when I first talked to my mom about it, and I said the word. And she truly had never heard the word before. And when I explained what it was, it was as if I was explaining an alien race to her. She wasn't disrespectful. She wasn't rude about it. She just - it - she was just flabbergasted. She had never heard of such a thing because she'd never watched - she - we call it white TV, which I know is so offensive. But that's - we call it white tv or English TV, even though it wasn't. It was usually American shows that we would watch in secret.

But my parents never saw that because my mum didn't speak English super well when I was a child, so she would only watch Pakistani TV. And there was never a gay storyline in any of those shows, so she was - yeah - shocked when I finally said, OK, there's a whole community of people that you've never understood, you've never even heard of. Let me explain this to you.

GROSS: Well, in terms of fashion, one of things that helped give you your start was that your grandfather owned a denim factory. And what - did they make jeans...

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And shirts?

FRANCE: Yes, they made denim for Disney. They would - do you know, I don't know if it (laughter) - I don't if we can keep this in, but I just found out very recently from my sister. She said, I think that the reason why it wasn't allowed to stay around was because I don't know if it was actually an - a licensing agreement with Disney. I think that my granddad was just producing product that had Disney logos on it.

GROSS: Oh - oh, oh, like, he was just bootlegging the logo.

FRANCE: I know.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

FRANCE: (Laughter) Well, we don't know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANCE: We don't know because my grandparents have since passed away, so we truly don't know. But that's what we (laughter) - that's what they were doing. They were making denim, and then they had Disney prints on them. And so I was able to experience Western clothing like most South Asian kids will never have the luxury of doing. I was able to see how a piece of clothing turns from - sorry - a piece of fabric turns from piece of fabric into a garment that you will actually wear. And so I was privy to the ins and outs of the process.

And at the end of that process, I got to keep some of those things that were slightly off - like, a stitch was wrong, or a color was off. Those things, I got to keep. And so I was able to experiment with clothes more so than most people. Even though I wasn't allowed to wear it around the house, I was still exposed to that.

GROSS: You worked in stores for a while, in clothing stores.

FRANCE: I did, from the...

GROSS: What kind of salesperson were you? Were you the kind who would always say, oh, it looks great? Or were you honest...

FRANCE: No...

GROSS: ...When it didn't look great?

FRANCE: No, I was a difficult salesperson. I was - I truly - I - this is immodest, but I was a very good salesperson because I refused to tell somebody that it looked good if I didn't think it looked good. So - but I would have a very nice way of saying it. I would like to believe that I'm not cruel. And so if I didn't like what somebody was wearing when they came out of the fitting room, I would say, listen, this one I don't think is the right look for you. But I know that there - I've got three other things in this store that are going to make you feel amazing. And so I'd go grab those. And I'd put looks together for these ladies.

And so therefore, they were more willing to buy because they knew that I wasn't just saying yes to everything. But I would - I always did it in the most diplomatic way. However, if somebody had already purchased something, I would then say, yes, it looks wonderful, because at that point it's too late. And I still do that with my husband now. If he's purchased something, I lie and say, yes, it looks wonderful, dear, because you've invested in that piece. And who am I to at this point tell you it's terrible?

GROSS: There was a period when you had three businesses, three fashion businesses. And it got so stressful, you say you became depressed and nearly suicidal.

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: And you're not prone to depression. So this was...

FRANCE: No.

GROSS: This was very much connected to the stress of the three businesses. What were the problems?

FRANCE: The problems were it - they became quite successful, which - the more success - which means that the more successful they became, the more stressed I was because the stakes were higher. I had more employees to take care of. If there was a problem, it was a large-scale problem. Initially, when I first started the business, a problem would maybe be production went wrong, and I lost out on $5,000 worth of product. But towards the end, production went wrong, and I lost out on $100,000 worth of product. That's a big mistake. That's a real knock. And so it got more and more complicated.

Production was always difficult. Anyone who works in production knows how stressful it can be, especially when you're producing in a foreign land where their first language isn't English, and so communication's difficult. And so after quite a few years - it was seven years - I had built up these three businesses that thankfully were doing incredibly well. But the production was getting more and more problematic, and the thought of continuing on with that was just too much to handle.

And so I got really depressed. And I - as you mentioned, I'm - I'd never experienced that before. I don't suffer bouts of depression. I'm one of the most positive people I know. I always can see a way out of a situation and how to get out of a situation to make myself happy again. But with that, I couldn't see a time when I was going to be happy in business. And so I started to really think of how I could solve the problem. It wasn't really solving the problem. It was just getting out of the situation and getting out of life.

And so I had a moment one day that I considered quite a few times on my way home from work - I called my husband, and I told him that I need him to talk to me and help me. I feel like I want to drive off this bridge, and I'm almost positive I'm going to do this if he's not there for me. And he's wonderful. He's an angel sent down from heaven. And he talked me through it and urged me to just get home as soon as possible. He was going to leave work and come home to make sure I was OK.

And then, when I got home, his answer was simple. It was just, let them go. You don't - you have - you don't have anything to prove. And I - I've always been the kind of person my whole life that has felt I have something to prove. And I think it - well, I - as you know, it's because of my childhood and the amount of abuse we suffered and I suffered that I - I've always felt like I had to prove something. And I feel that even to this day. Every day when I get out of bed, and I work as hard as I do, it's to prove my worth.

And so he said, you don't have to prove yourself in this business anymore. You've made it. Your business is - your businesses are successful. Your plan was to always sell them, maybe 20 years from now. But sell them now. Get rid of them. We don't need any more money. And so I did. I decided to start to sell the businesses.

GROSS: Well, there's more I want to talk with you about, but first, we have to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tan France, and he is the fashion expert on "Queer Eye," which is on Netflix. And Season five is coming out when, Tan?

FRANCE: Next year. We don't have a date yet. We just wrapped.

GROSS: And that season's set in Philly, where FRESH AIR is produced.

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: So we're looking forward to that. OK.

FRANCE: It's a great one.

GROSS: And Tan has a new memoir, which is called "Naturally Tan." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMILES' "FANTASY WORLD (ORIGINAL MIX)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tan France, the fashion expert on "Queer Eye." He has a new memoir called "Naturally Tan." When we left off, we were talking about how he sold his three successful fashion businesses because the stress had led him to a state of deep depression.

So you sold your businesses, and just a few weeks later, you got a call from "Queer Eye," basically asking you to audition for it.

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: But what - in between selling your business and getting the call from "Queer Eye," what did you see ahead for yourself?

FRANCE: So the part - part of the reason why it wasn't so difficult to let the businesses go was because I always wanted to be a father. I've wanted children since I was 19, 20. Like, I - if I'd had a stable relationship at that time, I would have desperately tried to have children. And so I'd already put it off for so long at that point. I was 33 - or about to become 33. And so I was going to sell my businesses and start to have children with my husband. And that costs a heck of a lot; surrogacy for gay men costs a heck of a lot.

And so I was going to use the money to start that process. And I was going to be a stay-at-home dad, which is something I've wanted for many, many, many years. And so that was the plan. And I actually - crazily, I still want six. I don't know if that's going to happen, but yeah, I still want six children.

GROSS: Wow. So you - after you sold your businesses, you got the call from "Queer Eye." And...

FRANCE: Five days later. Yeah, five days later.

GROSS: Wow. It wasn't weeks; it was days.

FRANCE: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And you didn't want to do it. You didn't want to talk to them, even. Why not?

FRANCE: No. So I'd sold the final business. My husband and I - his name is Rob - Rob and I went to Vegas. We frequent Vegas, which is funny because neither of us drink, smoke, dance or gamble (laughter). But we love Vegas. The weather is real nice, and it's nice and close. So we went on a mini trip to Vegas to celebrate the sale of the businesses.

And I got a call from a friend of a friend, and he was helping find somebody for the show "Queer Eye." And he wanted me to chat with the casting director, and I was - I said, no, that's definitely not for me. I'm not a showbiz person. I'm about to retire, and I'm going to have children. And he said, they really want to talk to you. They - one of them saw your Instagram post. I did a final post on one of my businesses. And they want to talk to you about it. They think that you could be great. They've seen you on camera. And I was like, no, no, no, definitely not for me.

GROSS: How did they describe the reboot to you?

FRANCE: They didn't. At that point, they didn't. They just said, we're remaking "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy." It's called "Queer Eye," and it's going to be on Netflix. And so it wasn't for me. And I'm going to - I'll say why. So I didn't want to be on a show, anyway. It wasn't - I didn't want to become famous. That wasn't really the life for me. And I didn't necessarily need the funds. And I didn't think I wanted to be on "Queer Eye." I wasn't necessarily about making things pretty. That wouldn't have been what enticed me to join show business.

And so when I had the actual call with the casting director, they explained what it was, and the direction was so different to what the original show was. And I'm not trying to be disrespectful or denigrate the original show at all. I loved the original show. And I used to watch the original show, the British iteration of it. And it was wonderful, and it was playful. But the plan that they had for this version of the show was to connect people and to have them see a version of people that they've probably never connected with before or communicated with before, and I just thought that could be really interesting for me.

I have struggled with this for many, many years - people seeing my people as troublesome or a threat. And I could have an opportunity to change the narrative for my people. And so that's why I decided to take the actual audition.

GROSS: My guest is Tan France, the fashion expert on the Netflix series "Queer Eye." His new memoir is called "Naturally Tan." After we take a short break, we'll talk about similarities between his background, having been raised in a traditional Muslim family, and the way his husband was raised, in a Mormon family on a Wyoming ranch. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAWN MENDES SONG, "LOST IN JAPAN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Tan France, the fashion expert on the Netflix series "Queer Eye." He's written a new memoir called "Naturally Tan," about growing up in England, the son of immigrants from Pakistan. He was raised in a traditional Muslim home, and when it came to clothes, the emphasis was on modesty, not fashion. Now on "Queer Eye," he's part of a cast of five gay men, including experts on food, personal grooming and interior design, who help the person who's the subject of the episode improve his or her life.

So you got to meet the people who became the cast.

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: And you write that when you first met Jonathan - Jonathan is the grooming expert on the show. He started talking right away about his sex life, and you thought, like, I could never be close to somebody like. This is crazy. This is like...

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: 'Cause...

FRANCE: I was quite prudish before meeting Jonathan (laughter). I am not now. But back in the day, I was not the same person as I am now. I didn't have friends that talked about their personal lives like that. We would talk about everything other than that. And so to find somebody who told me that within the first two minutes of meeting, I was shocked. I could tell he was lovely. I could tell he was friendly. It was just a very jarring experience. And so I thought, oh, gosh, I can't imagine him and I being friends. I can't imagine ever speaking like this with anybody. But that's just because of my sheltered upbringing. It's just - they're not the conversations you have.

GROSS: Has being on the show changed your boundaries?

FRANCE: Yes. Being around Jonathan Van Ness has changed my boundaries.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANCE: Yes, it has. It's - I was always very, very much Westernized, but I've become more so with the things I will discuss. I was always quite foul-mouthed. I've always been foul-mouthed. And that's just very typically English, especially in working-class culture, and my parents were definitely working class. And so I've always been foul-mouthed, but I was never one for being vulgar. But I have become more vulgar now because they're just - that's the humor on set. We're just a silly, playful bunch. And actually, I love that side of me now that's able to just be free and talk about things that people are really going through.

I was quite guarded before. Jonathan would say - and he has said in many interviews; actually, all the boys will say - I'm the most boundaried (ph) person they know. If I don't want something to happen, if I do not want something discussed, if I do not want to be close, I will make it very clear. I set my intentions with people very clearly, very quickly, very early on. And that's something that's quite rare for Americans, I think.

I found this and - please do know that this is my personal opinion - but being foreign here in the U.S., I found that Americans are quite passive aggressive when it comes to stating their true intentions when they first meet friends. But the British culture, we're a lot more open about what we will accept or not accept from our friends and family. And so I think that's quite jarring for the boys. So I've taught them my boundaries, but they've also pushed them. And the parts that have been pushed are for the better, as far as I'm concerned.

GROSS: So when you were told that you got the part, that you got the job, did you have to think over whether to take it or not?

FRANCE: At the time, no. So initially, when they called, I was just so excited I screamed, and then I went to my husband's job to tell him. And then the reality set in, and I didn't think I could do it.

GROSS: You had just gotten out of the pressure cooker of your three businesses and deciding to sell them.

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: And, like, this happened, like, right afterwards.

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you think it was the fear of the depression that was created by the pressure of your businesses? You didn't want to be in that depressed situation again. You'd been feeling suicidal. Were you afraid that the pressure of the TV show would lead you to get back to that place again?

FRANCE: No. If I'm going to be honest - and I will; I should be honest, and I don't talk about this much - no. The reason - I knew the moment I said yes to the job the reason why I was so scared. The pressure of being one of the first to do something is massively stressful and difficult and anxiety-inducing. The thought of being one of the very first openly gay South Asian men on a major show - and I knew it was going be a major show because of the plans that Netflix had.

Netflix, when they plan a certain marketing strategy, global marketing strategy, they know at least people will click on to the show. Whether they continue to watch the show, who knows. But at least people would watch at least the first few minutes to see if they were interested. So we knew it was going to be a big show, as far as visibility was concerned.

And I was going to be the first openly gay Pakistani man - and I'm an immigrant, and I was raised Muslim. That pressure was so hard to handle, and it kept me up at night every day for the few weeks before I started the show, for the first few weeks of filming the show. And actually, after the show wrapped, I was wracked with anxiety and guilt, thinking I'm about to destroy my community or the perception of my community.

GROSS: Well, how did you think you might destroy the perception of your community?

FRANCE: I - because I was worried that I may not portray them in a way that they may be happy to be portrayed. I was worried that they - that people would really come for me to say, this is not a true representation of our culture, of our community. This is not what people who are raised in this faith behave - in a way that they behave. This is not what gay people are like. They don't - they're not unsure of themselves at the age of 30-something. They do have other gay friends. They're not isolated from their community. This is not a representation of any of those communities that Tan represents. The pressure was so high. The pressure was so great.

And I was worried about the people that I know and love being attacked by people within our community. I wasn't concerned about what Caucasian people might think of it, necessarily; it was what my own people would think of it, that they would be concerned that my family have a gay man who's very openly gay, very unabashedly gay, so publicly.

And that could be really problematic for people who know me and love me and their communities are aware that I'm affiliated with them because, at that point, you represent your family. In our culture, you don't represent yourself; you represent your family. And as far as my culture is concerned, when you are - I've got air quotes here - "sinning" in their eyes, you are bringing shame to your community.

GROSS: I don't know how observant you are now as a Muslim, but did you have any feelings that maybe being so openly gay and being on TV on a gay show would be going against your faith? Like, did you feel like you were betraying your own principles at all being so out and gay?

FRANCE: Oh, no.

GROSS: You know, was there...

FRANCE: I reconciled that when I was a child.

GROSS: How did you do that? Because I think, for a lot of people, that's really hard.

FRANCE: It is. Thankfully, I had belief in the god that I had been raised to believe in that he was the most peaceful and most loving. And I - even at the early age of 11 or 12, when I really started to understand that I would never marry a woman, that I - that if I were to marry, it would be a man, I couldn't imagine, I couldn't figure in my mind at any point that the god that I was raised to love would send me to eternal hellfire for purely loving someone else.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tan France. He's the fashion expert on "Queer Eye" on Netflix, and now he has a new memoir called "Naturally Tan." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Tan France. He's the fashion expert on "Queer Eye," which is on Netflix. And now he has a new memoir which is called "Naturally Tan."

You've been with your husband Rob for 10 years. How many of those years have you been married?

FRANCE: So actually, we've been together 11 years now. And the - when I wrote the book, it was 10. So yeah, we've been together 11 years now. We've been married for nine and a half.

GROSS: Good. So...

FRANCE: And it's bliss.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANCE: Blissful. I could - I mean, you've read the book. You know how much I go on about my husband. I could write 10 books about how much I love my husband. He's the most impressive man I know.

GROSS: So you grew up in a Muslim Pakistani family in England, whereas your husband Rob grew up in Wyoming on a ranch in a Mormon family.

FRANCE: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) So your background is Muslim. His background is Mormon. One of the things that's so interesting, the way you describe it in your book, is that when you met each other - and this was through, like, an early version of what we'd now call a dating app...

FRANCE: Yes.

GROSS: ...You were so thrilled that he too was raised in an non-alcoholic environment. And like you, he did not drink (laughter).

FRANCE: Yes (laughter). Yeah.

GROSS: Why did that mean so much to you?

FRANCE: So being from England, I had never met a gay guy that didn't drink and do much more. And I always struggled with it. I wasn't a drinker. I didn't come from a home where alcohol was allowed. And so I started to drink with my boyfriends even though I hated it just to feel like I was fitting in with that crowd. And I never really enjoyed it. And I always hoped that I could meet somebody who didn't drink alcohol, but that just was so unlikely. Like, that person would be a unicorn in England. If you are gay, you just - you go out, and you drink. And so I thought that was my lot in life.

And I knew that I was always going to be relatively unhappy in a relationship if I was dating somebody that drank. And so then, when I finally met Rob, and - well, I finally came to Utah, and I learned of these Mormon people who didn't drink alcohol, I just - I was shocked that there were Caucasian people out there that didn't drink alcohol. And then I met Rob, and it just - it fit me perfectly because his lifestyle was quite similar to mine as a kid.

Yes, we lived worlds apart. Yes, he was on a ranch. Yes, I was in a town in England. But his day-to-day with his family was actually quite similar to mine. And still, to this day, neither of us drink alcohol. Neither of us smoke. Neither of us take drugs, or we don't eat pork.

Our understanding of each other's life is very easy because we both practice the same way. And it's not that either of us practice a religion, but we just have those things that we don't do from our childhood that we never really then started to play with or experiment with because it wasn't part of the life that we lived as children. And so it makes for a much smoother relationship for us.

I can't imagine at this point being with somebody who drank. It just isn't - I - all my friends do, and it's not a concern at all. But as far as my partner, I want him to be in line with who I am. And so it makes for a much stronger connection for me. And so the Mormon religion is quite different from mine, but I'm so grateful for it because it has created a marriage for me that is so happy.

GROSS: Well, you both came from religions that were kind of restrictive.

FRANCE: Yes. Yes. And I think that one may assume that that may be difficult for us, that we might want to rebel. But that - and we know many people within our faiths that have done that. They've gone the complete opposite way, and they drink a lot. They take a lot of drugs. They are in nightclubs every night. And so be it. But thankfully for me, I found somebody that connected with me so strongly and didn't do any of that. We both still held on so strongly to certain parts of our religion.

GROSS: Your parents were, as you put it, very bold when they were young because they had a love marriage as opposed to...

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The traditional arranged marriage.

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: And did that help them understand when you decided to marry a man?

FRANCE: So my father passed away when I was young...

GROSS: And I say decided, but you - (laughter) it's like...

FRANCE: Sure, sure, sure, sure. No, no, no, and I...

GROSS: It's not like you were deciding to marry a man or a woman. But, I mean...

FRANCE: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

GROSS: But you get my point.

FRANCE: Yeah.

GROSS: They were bold for what they were doing. Did that help them understand that what you were doing was outside of tradition, but you were going to do it...

FRANCE: I actually...

GROSS: ...Anyway?

FRANCE: Terry, I actually would implore you to keep the original in because I did decide to marry a man. And many people in my position choose to marry a woman because that's more culturally acceptable, and then they hide the life that they truly want to live. So it was a decision for me to marry a man.

GROSS: What an excellent point. Yes.

FRANCE: Yeah. But it did - OK. Here's the thing with my parents. So my dad died when I was young. He died when I was - just before I was 14. And so - and I wasn't out at the time, so he never would have known that I had desires to marry a man. My mom, when I told her - my mom is quite liberal. She practices her religion, but she's quite liberal and very - this is going to sound horrible, but she's quite docile. She just wants to keep the peace and go with the flow. And as long as everybody's happy, she's fine. And so that was the case with me. I told her that I was marrying a man, and she was like OK. I said OK, I'm going to marry him, and his name is Rob. OK.

And so there was never a fight about it. There was never any discussion, really, about it. She was just so matter of fact about it and has been ever since. And so it was quite easy for me, but I think that you are right to the fact that she had a love marriage. She had gone against what our cultural norm is, which back in the day - this was in the '70s - was shocking, absolutely shocking. She was probably one of the very few people in her community, if not in her family - extended family - who would have had a love marriage. And so I think that that probably made it easier for her to understand.

But she always knew that I was the black sheep of the family. She always knew that I wasn't going to have the same life as her other children. She knew from a very early age - from my very early age - that I was nothing like her other children. She didn't know how to articulate it. As I said, she had never even heard the word gay before. But she just - she said I wasn't like any of her other sons. I was nothing like her sons. I was like her extra daughter.

GROSS: So she wasn't surprised, I guess, that you married a man. But was she - like, my understanding is that she didn't come to your wedding.

FRANCE: She did not come to my wedding. None of my family did. But that's mostly because they don't fly. None of them fly.

GROSS: Oh, oh.

FRANCE: And I got married in America.

GROSS: Oh.

FRANCE: They're terrified of flying.

GROSS: I see, OK. OK, so have the two families met?

FRANCE: They have not. They have not. Here's the thing; my family is - so Rob's family is more liberal as far as religion goes. Actually, the religion is different. In the sense of my family - with the Islamic faith, if you openly support a thing that goes against your belief, then you are cosigning. And therefore, you are responsible also. And so I've never asked for them to be part of this life. I actually wouldn't because I was raised in the faith, and I know exactly what that means. And therefore, I've never even asked them to be a part of my life with Rob or my marriage or my wedding because I know that that's asking them to do their version of a sin. And in my opinion, that's not fair to them.

GROSS: Tan France is the fashion expert on the Netflix series "Queer Eye." His new memoir is called "Naturally Tan." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tan France. He's the fashion expert on the Netflix series "Queer Eye." And now he has a new memoir called "Naturally Tan," which is in part about growing up in England in a Pakistani family in the Muslim faith and also being gay.

So one of the last chapters in your book is titled 9/11. Now coincidentally, we are broadcasting this interview on the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Where were you when you found out about the attacks? You were still living in England.

FRANCE: I was still living in England. I was at work. I just arrived at work. I was working in a call center. And we had these really large screens at either end of the call center. And I walked in the call center, and the atmosphere was so bizarre. It was usually so loud. There were about 700 or 800 people working there all the time - at any given time. And it was quieter than I had ever seen it. And I started to walk to my station, and I saw the planes going into the towers over and over again on the news.

And I felt immediate dread because it was so clear what the message was - was that it's Muslims. There was a lot of talk about Pakistan and Afghanistan. And we had already experienced - I'd already experienced 17 years of racism for being Pakistani. And the interesting thing was I would - I looked around the room at the other Pakistani people - and there weren't that many - and every one of us had the exact same look of complete dread, like oh, no, we're going to pay for this. And it happened immediately.

GROSS: How did it change your day-to-day life?

FRANCE: I started becoming a lot more fearful for my safety. And it sounds ludicrous because I was always afraid that somebody was going to hurt me. But this time, it wasn't that they might hurt me, it's just that they might actually kill me. And that people desperately wanted us out. I would see it on the news every day that we were a threat to the country, and that it's time for us to go.

Up until that point, yes, being Pakistani was a quick knock when it came to jobs or immigration, if you wanted to move somewhere else. But now, it was more than that. It was that you wouldn't get a job because you could potentially blow that workplace up. You wouldn't get a visa because you were going to go to that country and blow that country up. It just became a lot more sinister and a lot more global. The threat wasn't just me. It was what I could do to take out the world. And it wasn't just - I'm not talking about just myself. I'm talking about every other Pakistani person who people assume are Muslim also. The majority of my people are peaceful, wonderful people who just are trying to get by and get through life and be the best people they can be.

And so 9/11 is a reminder that, especially now, that I've got to continue to show that Pakistanis are wonderful people, that we are caring people, that we are loving people. And that's why I do the job that I do. It's - don't get me wrong. I love my job, but I took this job for a couple of reasons. The main reasons are that I've managed to make gay friends, which was wonderful, but I get to represent a version of my people that is never seen anywhere else - and the amount of times I've had to have this conversation that is basically saying my people are good people. What you see in the media are terrorists. They are not my people.

GROSS: So you and your husband live in Salt Lake, which is both a university town and a Mormon town. And I'm wondering what it's like for you to be Pakistani and gay living in Salt Lake and married? Yeah.

FRANCE: Yeah. Wonderful. I have a massive smile on my face as I answer this question because there are many common misconceptions about Utah and Mormons, what life must be here. Actually, almost every one of my friends here in Utah is an active Mormon, like, an active, active Mormon. And they are our closest friends and have been for 11 years now. I have never been called anything racist here, mostly because I don't think people can figure out where I'm from. I think most people assume I'm Mexican here, which I find hilarious. I've never been called something offensive for being Pakistani or for being a threat to this state. And as far as my homosexuality is concerned here, the people are very typically American and they are passive aggressive, and if they are thinking something rude about me, they wouldn't dream of saying it. There's only ever one time somebody said something rude, and that was many years ago, and he was just a stupid man. But other than that, I'd say that that was pretty great. Eleven years in this state and only one silly comment - I chalk that up to a win after receiving horrible comments for 20 something years of my life.

GROSS: So something you told somebody where you say, like, wear your good clothes. Like, don't lock them up in the closet. Let them out.

FRANCE: Yes.

GROSS: Is that a mistake that a lot of people make, do you think, of, like, saving their good clothes and they never wear them as a result?

FRANCE: Yes. It was the fight I had with my husband for years. He was the original "Queer Eye" makeover for me because I would buy him the most beautiful clothes that he would love, and he would save them for fancy occasions. Use those clothes every day. If there are other things in your closet that make you feel better than the thing that you probably are wearing right now, why would you choose to start your day looking a way that you don't want to, feeling a way that you don't want to?

GROSS: Tan France, it's just been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

FRANCE: Thanks, Terry. This, honestly, has been an honor and a pleasure. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

Tan France is the fashion expert on the Netflix series "Queer Eye." His new memoir is called "Naturally Tan." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll try to answer a lot of questions about recycling, like when you recycle plastics and paper, are you unknowingly contaminating the recycling by including things you shouldn't? Where does your recycling really end up now that China is no longer accepting it from the U.S.? And what about e-waste - your computers, devices, batteries? Why is that waste hazardous? And what should you do with it? We'll talk with Kate O'Neill, author of "Waste." She addresses these and other issues on a local and global level. I hope you'll join us.

On this 18th anniversary of 9/11, we're remembering those who died, keeping in our thoughts those who were injured and those who lost loved ones. And we want to convey our gratitude to the first responders, many of whom are still dealing with health problems resulting from their exposure at Ground Zero. We'll close today's show with Charlie Haden's very reflective version of "America The Beautiful." I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.