Fashion designer and Emmy Award-winning TV personality Tan France discussed style, starring in “Queer Eye”, relationships and LGBTQ+ advocacy in a Q&A with OU’s Campus Activities Council Wednesday evening.
The CAC Speakers Bureau invites guests from various backgrounds to speak with OU students and faculty about their lives. Past guests include actor from NBC’s “The Office” Rainn Wilson and former Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson.
France said he grew up in a small, religious and predominantly white town in England not knowing anyone from the LGBTQ+ community. Whether he was playing with Barbie dolls or changing his outfit four to five times a day to fit his mood, France said he has always experimented with clothes.
Maintaining a level of self-expression was difficult, but France said he found outlets through making trendsetting alterations to his school uniforms and a growing fascination with fashion. His sexuality, however, remained a mystery to members of his insular hometown as he was left without resources to share this part of himself.
“I had a lovely childhood, don’t get me wrong,” France said. “ I love my family and I love the people I was raised around — I just had to pretend to be somebody I wasn’t for so long. That was really stifling as a kid.”
When France decided to come out, he said a lack of LGBTQ+ representation in his community made explaining who he was an almost impossible task.
“When I did finally come out and tried to explain it to somebody like my mom, she had never heard the word gay before … (or) this idea that two men might fall in love because she has never seen it on TV or in a movie,” France said. “They just don’t have access to that.”
France said his mom recently uncovered his record of achievement he compiled after graduating from secondary school at 16. The record includes his grades, letters of recommendation from teachers and a personal statement so universities could have a picture of who he was during the admissions process.
France said he was not surprised to find his record exemplified a passion for fashion and a desire to pursue it as a career, yet, he found himself dumbfounded upon discovering a final thought toward the end of his personal statement.
“One of the things I wrote in my personal statement — it was the last thing I wrote — was that if all of this and this and this doesn’t work out, I would love to be a TV host one day,” France said. “I was so shocked, I could not remember that … If you told a 17-year-old me I would end up here, I would tell you (that) you are insane.”
A journey to American stardom is something France said was fueled by an adoration of TV shows like “90210”, “Saved by the Bell” and “ER”. France pursued the American life he fantasized about since he was a child by telling his parents he was going across town — when he really took a flight to New York.
“I loved it so much,” France said. “On that day, I knew that America was going to be my home.”
France recently became an American citizen June 9 after 20 years of fighting for citizenship. He said people do not realize how valuable the American dream is to immigrants.
“When people get frustrated with immigrants, it makes me so angry,” France said. “We are so patriotic, we love this country, we fought 20 years to be here and we paid a fortune … for the privilege of being here. I had always wanted to be here and it will be my home for the rest of my life. I’m positive.”
France’s forever home is where he said he realized the now ironic wishes of his 16-year-old self to be a TV host when he landed a gig with the reboot of lifestyle makeover show “Queer Eye”.
Chemistry with the other four guys from “Queer Eye’s” team provided France with a long lasting support system and friend group.
France equated his castmates to members of a boy band as they know exactly what he is going through and are always available to empathize. He said he doesn’t think he would have done the show without them.
“I got to meet my idiots (through Queer Eye),” France said. “The boys are bigger than just my castmates on “Queer Eye” — I love them so much … They equally have encouraged me to be authentically who I am.”
Beyond the serious, France said he and his castmates behave like 17-year-olds despite being in their 30’s and early 40’s. He said each guy has a unique thing they do to make him laugh.
Bobby Berk, design extraordinaire: “Bobby will take every song that I have ever loved and use dirty words instead of proper words,” France said. “He will sing it over and over again so by the time you've done with that day you never want to hear the original song ever again. But it is actually really funny at the start but at the end of it you’re like ‘I’m going to kill you!’.
Jonathan Van Ness, grooming extraordinaire: “He does this thing that I know is inappropriate … (but) we are siblings at this point and we've been through some shit together. He finds it really funny to put his hands down my shirt … and twist my nipples … during a scene when he knows the camera is not on the two of us … So I’ll scream and ruin everybody else’s scene. So it starts out funny but it becomes insufferable and actually really painful.”
Karamo Brown, culture and lifestyle extraordinaire: “If we know we're not on camera for a couple minutes, he will legit sleep — he can actually fall asleep within a couple of minutes — and then as soon as one of us says ‘Karamo, we're on camera’ … he'll say, ‘and then that's what I think he should’. You were literally snoring and drooling two seconds ago, but as soon as you say camera’s on, the camera’s on. He's good to go. It's bizarre and we all make fun of him.”
Antoni Porowski, food extraordinaire: “Antoni is just funny. He’s smart and he’s very witty. He has always got a very witty quip immediately, and I don’t know where it comes from. But it makes me laugh every time.”
France said the main guy in his life, however, will forever be his husband, Rob France.
France said he met Rob when he was 22 through a dating website while he was on vacation in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the couple has been married for over ten years.
France said in the past 12 years of being in a relationship with Rob, the most important thing he’s learned — or the secret sauce, as he so eloquently phrased it — was to refrain from big gestures.
“I do beautiful things every day that don’t cost anything,” France said. “I tell him I love him constantly and remind him he’s the most beautiful boy to me … There’s just kindness in our marriage that is really important, and it’s not about the grandiose stuff … When you’re on your deathbed, you're not going to think about how glad you are that he purchased you that handbag. You're gonna think ‘I'm really glad you loved me every day and that you made me feel beautiful every day’.”
As France continues his career, he said he hopes to continue growing and providing representation for the South Asian LGBTQ+ community. He said despite the pressures he faces as a public figure, he is honored to have the opportunity to advocate for his community and emphasize the importance of LGBTQ+ lives.
“I think that's why it’s important to see people like me on TV — to remind us that there are people like us and in other communities,” France said. “The LGBTQ+ community … are all over the world. We are everywhere and we've always been here. We just don't talk about it and I think it is because we don't know how. We've never had the representation we need to be able to offer us the tools to talk about it.”