We’ve all seen (I hope) Queer Eye and found ourselves falling deeply in love with each of the Fab 5. Bobby - the one who specifically does The Most, by rebuilding someone’s whole house. Antoni - the beauty who provocatively slices an avocado and you yearn for him to make you that hot dog in your bedroom. Karamo - the stunning ‘culture’ advisor who sits you down and says, “yeah but why did you parents do that?” until you break down on his beautifully sculpted shoulder. Jonathan - the one everyone wants to become best friends with. He will give you beauty tips and dance with you as you sing Mariah Carey’s greatest hits in your bedroom. And then there’s Tan France - the stylist, who will dress you to perfection. But he isn’t known just for that.
“Antoni Porowski - food and wine guy, Booby Berk - interior design, Pakistani immigrant Tan France…it reminds me that I don’t get to just be free, chill, fun Tan”.
Tan is on stage at Hackney Empire, promoting his new book and is a lot more revealing than I expected. He talks about what’s it’s like to be a Muslim and specifically British Muslim on TV. He isn’t spoken about for his work on the TV without the caveat ‘Muslim’, to draw a clear distinction of who he is. He’s the brown one. The one who tried to teach the Fab 5 how to dance at an Indian wedding in one episode.
I hear him say “I’m not drawing the race card” when speaking about specific personal experiences and I find myself wondering how often he’s had to say that. How many people have stopped him and said “we’re all human, no one sees a difference in you” and yet he’s still considered the ‘Pakistani Muslim’ of the Fab 5.
He grew up in Yorkshire as one of the only brown families in their community and recants the moments that led him to realise his separation. But he’s not here to represent all Muslims and he makes that clear.
“I wanted to just be visible…that’s all I ever wanted to show, a version of my community that you’ve probably never seen before”
These things are what made him apprehensive about being in the show. He was called in from Netflix from auditions, and unlike all the other cast members, he was not media trained and worked as a designer. In fact, he was enjoying retirement - his successful business allowed him to bask his accomplishments with his husband. That’s all he wanted - and to make more gay friends. He went there with that goal and he found the additional four cast, who he became close to. Netflix called to tell him he got the gig and he turned it down. He went there to get what he wanted - friends! He couldn’t imagine being on TV, he was retired.
But he accepted finally and went to shoot the first season.
“I would go on set and cry all the time. I really couldn’t take the pressure of the cameras”
These are the things we don’t see. People on the show asked him if he’s a terrorist. Tan isn’t there to confront these issues, he’s there to help someone find their style and reinforce the french tuck. It became too much and he tried to quit.
But he eventually stayed and we’re so happy for that. He doesn’t want to represent a whole community “there’s millions of us”, but he does add visibility and that’s valuable.
He’s being interviewed by Greg James from BBC Radio One and we instantly forget him. He’s sitting down as Tan gets up and walks to the edge of the stage to speak to us. He sits on the edge of his seat and turns his body to us. He wants us to know his story.
He talks about the privilege he’s had to move to the US, to find a husband who loves him and to be successful, but we’re told how different it is for him. Because yes, he is a gay Pakistani immigrant Muslim man in America. After seeing Riz Ahmed get refused a flight to the US by Homeland Security recently, there’s a systematic prejudice against Muslims & it can’t be ignored.
But here he is, on the stage of Hackney Empire, with a new book, a TV show and working on the latest season (5), coming out soon.
“I won’t try and quit this time”, he laughs.
We laugh with him, but the pain shows through it. His charm is infectious - he could probably do stand up. He could have his own show. He could take over. Tan is a strong man, but his vulnerabilities come through - like anyone he needs to be comforted. So while we are entertained by his attempt to get a man into skinny jeans, we need to remember what he went through for this.
You can buy his book here.
Thank you to Penguin Live.