Tan France: ‘Naturally Tan’

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Tan Frances. Photo by Master Class.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis Mitchell welcomes “Queer Eye” star Tan France, who also has a new “MasterClass” about creating one’s personal style. France is also the author of a memoir “Naturally Tan” about his path from a closeted Muslim boy to a star of one of the most popular reality shows on television. France and Mitchell discuss practical fashion hacks, the need for more diversity in fashion, and how France has stayed true to himself in the face of an, at times, unwelcoming fashion industry.

Transcribed Q and A

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. I'm thrilled to be talking to the author of "Naturally Tan," and more importantly, a Salt Lake City lover. Most recently, the host of a masterclass on personal style. Of course, I'm talking to Tan France. A lot of stuff you do in this masterclass that you're offering, you're basically saying, like your rules for going on a first date, which is don't overdo it, convey confidence, be as fresh as a daisy.

Tan France: You know, I didn't realize that I had also written that in my book about my first dates, here in America, but it just goes to show that those practices are tried and true, and it's definitely how I still feel. I think that if you really are wanting to be taken seriously, you really do have to make an effort. 

It's funny, I think that so many people before I started harping on and on about this, just thought that it was frivolous, and it was shallow to care about what you look like. But I've tried at every turn to show people that it's so much more than just having the latest cool style that you're wearing. Or it's not just surface, it means so much more to yourself and others when you care about what you put on your body. 

KCRW: I was touched by it too, because you turn a "MasterClass" into something really autobiographical, you touch on the whole thing about going to visit your grandfather's denim factory, which is a big part of the book. And I was wondering if that was basically the way you've always lived your life is to kind of make it basically once you came out in your 20s and make everything as honest as it could possibly be including your sense of personal style.

France: Yeah, "MasterClass" was an interesting one. They were wonderful to work, and they wanted to collaborate. They called many times before we actually shot the class, asking how do you want to do it. They obviously had a plan of what they would like and what they can achieve. But it was a case of how do you want to do it, and give us the ideas that you have and we'll try and execute. One of them was that I wanted to talk very openly about why I think clothing is important. I didn't just want to say this is what I think you should wear; now go wear it. I wanted to talk about why these things are important, what it's done for me in my life, and then how you actually put that into practice. 

And there's one part of the class that I love, which is something that I asked for from the very start, which was I wanted to show a split screen side by side so people can see what I'm saying. Maybe don't go with this width of jean. Don't go for a baggy jean if you're a shorter person. It's going to make you look shorter. Go for the slimmer jean, not necessarily skinny, but a slimmer jean; it's going to make you look taller. And so to show a side by side of the same person to see what that does to their body: those kind of things are really important to me. 

But at every turn, I talk about why that works, what I've experienced with that. I've struggled with my height. I'm not super short, but I'm also not tall at all. I'm five-nine, but ever since I got into the public eye, compared to my classmates, people just assume I'm tiny. And so when they see me in real life, one of the first things that they'll say is "Oh my gosh, I thought you were so much shorter." And so it's something that I've struggled with for a long time. I do all I can to give the illusion of height. And that's one of the things also that I talk about in my "MasterClass" and in my book.

KCRW: I think it's really interesting too, because in what you're talking about with the split screen, you also start off with a female model who is a pretty realistic size compared to the kind of person that we often see promoting style.

France: Yeah, that was also something that I really pushed for. I wanted to have relatable people. I mean, she was disproportionately attractive, but she's still relatable. I wanted to make sure that people watching this felt seen and felt understood. It's so easy to make somebody look great when they're a supermodel. But I think most people struggle when it comes to real people and how we can convert style to our own wardrobes and our own bodies. I love that we used the model that we did. And we also have a shorter female model to show that a lot of women again aren't supermodels, over 5-10, 5-11 and so I wanted to show what it would look like on a shorter person. Those things were really important for "MasterClass."

I wanted people to watch thinking I can really learn something from this, not just another person touting super, super skinny girl, super, super tall girl trying to make her look prettier, when really you could throw a plastic bag on her. I'm sure she'd look great. Everybody else are the ones who really want to know how they can do it, too. And feel the same way that a supermodel feels.

KCRW: I also was impressed, as a person of color, that the model you pick is a guy of color. That meant a lot to me.

France: Thanks.  What I do, even in the shows that I work on, diversity is very important. I am a man of color myself, and I've moaned for years and years about the lack of diversity. And I have been given a chance; I'm now in a position to be able to champion true diversity. And so I'm going to use it at every turn. I can't stand when people talk about diversity, diversity, but they're not really putting it into practice. That's something that I really push for no matter whether it's on screen or off.

KCRW: You make this all the stuff down to earth and relatable. One of the things you extol both in the "MasterClass" and "Naturally Tan" is how affordable and accessible real tailoring is. And something I can tell you as a kid from the Midwest, you hear the word tailor, you think, oh, my God, that's something Fred Astaire and Cary Grant do, not something I can do. But you talk about it in a way that makes it clear that it's something that's available to anybody.

France: Oh, yeah. When I first started using a tailor, I was literally 15, 16, I had a part time job... 

KCRW: You say in the book you spent every penny of your paycheck on the tailor.

France: Every penny. I mean, I know it killed my mom that I was spending every penny on that, but I had big dreams. I wanted people to think that I was successful and that I was somebody to be taken seriously. And so yeah, I met with a tailor. I didn't know how much it would cost. But I wanted to at least find out. I wasn't willing to be scared off. And so I went to see a lovely woman. And I found out that it really wasn't that expensive. I was having clothes made, but actually getting clothes altered to fit your body right really doesn't cost a lot. So I often will not spend a lot on the thing that I'm purchasing, and then I will spend not a lot on the tailoring. So it still comes out to a piece that looks very expensive when really I've cut corners at every turn to make it look expensive. 

You and I were talking before about one of the suits that was featured in the "MasterClass." It's a simple black lovely suit, but I had it tailored to perfection. That suit maybe cost around $250 maximum for the whole thing, which is actually a very good price for a suit. And then it cost me maybe $75 to have it altered. And now I can wear it on a red carpet, and people assume that it's a $5,000 suit.

KCRW: You don't want to hear how little I paid for that suit when I got it.

France: I love a sale shopping moment. If I can buy everything on sale, I do. There are many stores that I will wait until they've got a sale on. I'm not modest about this now because even though I know I'm very privileged, it took me a heck of a long time to get to this point. I had to struggle, and I was raised in a household that was not wealthy, and so I don't mind saying at this point, I am actually very comfortable financially. And yet, I will still find the sales. I am so South Asian. You can keep me in Hollywood as long as you want; I will always be very South Asian, which means we love a bargain. And we will brag about a bargain way more than we'll ever brag about a fancy item we have.

KCRW: Well, you actually gave away one of my big hacks in the "MasterClass," which: is buy something on sale and have it tailored. I frankly wait around for the Matches or Mr. Porter sales and then I go and do exactly what you're talking about.

France: Same same, because by the summer, they will have their sale on the winter stuff. And you know, winter is always coming around. It's just like three or four months until you can start to wear those colder weather pieces. It's so worth it: just prep in advance. Buy those clothes a few months in advance, and you're saving so much money.

KCRW: You have made your life what you do. There's a section in the book that surfaces in an interesting way briefly in the “MasterClass,” where you talk about working with somebody and not liking the color pink, and having come around to it. Then there's a whole section of "MasterClass," where you say, "Well, get a pink suit. It'd look great on you." All these things bouncing back and forth about how your evolution as a person is important to you and your sense of style.

France: It is. I would like to believe that I don't get stuck in a rut, as I think many do when it comes to what they put on their body or their opinions in general. I'm always open to hearing a different perspective or learning a different perspective. And if it works for me, I will foster that, and if it doesn't, I won't.

KCRW: Thinking back to that section in the book where you found some papers from school, and in them, you wrote, as a teenager, you wanted to be either a host or presenter. And that was a pretty big ambition for somebody like you to have, given, as you mentioned, there were no South Asian hosts anywhere to be found.

France: I still wonder if it was me who wrote that, because I do not remember wanting to be a host or a presenter. We call it a record of achievement in the UK. And you complete it before you finish high school, and we finish high school at 16. We start school a little earlier than Americans. And so I must have wrote it when I was 15 or 16. But I do not recall wanting to be a host. However, looking back on it when my mom actually found the record of achievement in my old bedroom. I read it thinking I clearly had a desire for it. I think I got so consumed with wanting to work in fashion that I had laid away that desire to be a host. I also, when I was that age, I was chatty, but I definitely didn't think I could have been an entertainer, really. And so it just seemed very strange that I would have written that, but I love that it came true.

KCRW: But you mention in the book wanting to be an actor, and part of you, clearly at some point, decided that you want to be a communicator in some way.

France: Yes, I wanted to be a Bollywood actor. Since I was like, three or four, I was obsessed with Bollywood movies. And it was mostly because they dance around and sing, and I really enjoyed doing that. But I never really thought it was going to happen. But when I started to become a little more mature at 15, 16, 17, I knew that that really wasn't a thing for me. However, I always was very vocal about getting my point across no matter what situation that was. I was, we call it gobby in England, which is like mouthy. I was really gobby in England with my family. I'm the youngest of my siblings, and I desperately wanted to be heard by them and for them to know that I had an opinion also. I developed that over my entire childhood. And it definitely didn't stop when I hit adulthood, and I'm glad it didn't. And so even if I wasn't in the industry that I'm in now, if I wasn't in entertainment, I was still very gung ho about what I wanted to achieve, and how I wanted to be perceived.

KCRW: You mentioned something in the book, too, that really is a big part of you, and it's evident in just watching you and then reading certainly the book as well. You, at one point, say, I was constantly so headstrong.

France: Yeah, I really was. We're all products of our environment, and I definitely was, and the amount of times I heard from people in my local community from teachers: no, well, that's not really an option for you. Look at you. I wasn't like most people in my hometown; I was a person of color. I was Muslim, quite strictly Muslim. I then came out and was very openly gay. And so I think so many people assumed that I wouldn't be able to achieve the things I wanted to achieve because those things hadn't been achieved by people like me up until that point. But I was always so strong willed. I thought, okay, no, I need you to tell me that you think I can't do this, and still, to this day, within the last week or so, this happened.

Somebody said, I just don't think this is going to happen. It was one of my representatives; this isn't gonna happen, and that kind of stuff I love because it makes me want to desperately prove them wrong. The first thing I say is: none of this was meant to happen but I did it. I will do this; whatever I want to achieve, if I think it's possible for myself, I will. You don't get to tell me what's possible for me. And I've already done so much that was not meant to be in my future, and so I don't plan on stopping anytime soon.

KCRW: I'm talking to the man who believes there is no such thing as a perfect pair of jeans. Are you going to stick to that?

France: I am. I think that’s one of the things that most people struggle with; it's very difficult to buy them online and expect them to fit beautifully. I think that you can get them tailored to fit perfectly for a short time. But they're the one thing that we really do buy that are a certain fit, and our bodies fluctuate so regularly, that they may be the perfect pair of jeans for a few weeks. They're not going to be for much longer than that. If you are getting them custom made, maybe you'll find the perfect pair of jeans. However, if you are buying them from a store, nobody is a standard size. And so they're just not going to be perfect for you. And that's my point.

KCRW: There are so many different types of jeans around now; you can get small batch salvage jeans that are very expensive. But your contention is you should never pay more than $100 for a pair of jeans.

France: Yeah, I think you've realized throughout this chat that I'm cheap, but listen if it's Kylie Jenner, who's a billionaire, fine, spend a few hundred, a few thousand on a pair of jeans if you really need to. However, for the average person spending more than $100 on a pair of jeans that inevitably aren't perfect, and the fit will go out of style within a short amount of time. Why invest that much money? It wasn't so long ago that I wasn't as wealthy, and the thought of spending more than $100 on a pair of jeans made me feel physically sick, even though I wanted to look my best. There are ways around it. There's vintage; there's much more accessible stores. Why spend that much money? I think it's ridiculous.

KCRW: I would never say you're cheap. What I would say is though, is that you are constantly evolving. I mean, just seeing you now in these really elegant double breasted suits; I'm guessing there's a time when the double breasted wasn't your go to.

France: It wasn't. It comes and goes. Double breasted makes its way back around every few years. So I used to wear double breasted a lot, and I hadn't worn them for about four or five years. And then finally about a year and a half ago, I started again, they're one of those interesting styles that I don't think will ever go away. But right now, I think they look beautiful.

KCRW: Well, I always keep one in my closet, actually a few. There's a statement in the book that really stuck with me. You can make things that serve as an extension of who you are, that seem to be not only about the way clothes come into your life, but also about the way you view life, that you can alter and change and make these extensions. That seems to be as much a personal statement as it was a style statement.

France: It is for sure. When I speak, I like to believe I choose my words carefully. And, again,  there is so much that was not meant to be the life that I'm now living. But I made enough tweaks along the way. I made enough alterations along the way to my life to make sure that I could achieve what I wanted to. 

Yeah, my wardrobe is the easiest part of my life where I get to make small tweaks that somebody else does for me; I pay a little bit of money, and it's done. It's the life tweaks that have been a lot more complicated, but rewarding. And a lot of those things come down to who am I surrounding myself with. If they don't seem to be the right fit, I will find a way to make sure that negativity is gone from my life. I'm mostly surrounded by positivity and people who really champion the success of others and not hold them back.

KCRW: Is that something people come up to you often and say that what they really like about you and find so interesting is that you do find a way to make everything a personal statement?

France: I mean, I haven't heard that before, but I appreciate that. It's not what I planned to do, necessarily, but I think the beauty of what we do on "Queer Eye" with me is I don't know how to live any other way. I'm the only one who wasn't from the entertainment world. I didn't have a load of PR training to know how to craft everything I say. What I say is very honestly what I'm feeling and what I want to convey, and so that's all I know how to do.

KCRW: Even in the audition process, as you go through in the book, you're very much being yourself, 90-percent because you thought you had no chance of getting the position but also because: why pretend to be something you are not?

France: I didn't think for a second I was gonna get it, but I wanted to make friends there. That was one of my main goals. And I just thought they may as well see me for who I am now; I don't want any surprises down the road. And so this is me warts and all.

But as far as the executives auditioning us, Netflix and Scout and ITV, I wanted them to see that if they were crazy enough to give me this job, this is exactly what they're gonna get. And I want them to know that I'm not willing to change for anyone, even them, even for the right paycheck. Thankfully, I was successful before then. I didn't need that paycheck. So if they wanted me to change, I wasn't that person, they weren't going to get me. And that put me in a really powerful position. 

Again, I know that comes from that place of real privilege. But it wasn't inherent privilege. It was something I really fought for, to get to a position where I didn't need a white savior. I didn't need somebody to say, we will give you permission to be this person. I will be whoever I want to be. And if you like it, great. If you don't, that doesn't affect my life in any way.

KCRW: I guess I will take us back to your dating rules, which really fit into that, too. Don't overdo it; convey confidence. Those are all things you talk about. In those moments where you do that, that's where things really seem to come together for you.

France: Yeah, not just for me, I think for people in general. I have such a large circle of friends whom I love so dearly, and when they are themselves and they're not trying to be something that they're not, that's when they find great relationships, the happiness in their jobs or a new job. I think that doing all you can to make sure that people see the most honest version of you could really change your life. It makes life so much easier when you're not desperately trying at every turn to be something that you're not. It's just not possible to keep it up, and it can drive you nuts. 

I learned that when I was much, much younger, when I so desperately tried to fit in between the ages of three and 17 when I was at school, thinking, Oh, if I pretend to be more westernized or if I pretend for a second that I'm white, maybe they'll let me into their group, maybe they'll be more accepting of who I am if I tone down my differences. And as I got older, I just was exhausted. I just could not be bothered to fake it anymore.    And so it makes life so much easier. Especially in dating when you're just yourself, and if they decide that they don't like you for that reason, well, you've saved yourself a heck of a lot of time and heartbreak. One date and done? Wonderful. I had so many one dates and done, and then I'd move on to somebody else thinking okay, now this is me. You like me? Nope. Okay, next. Do you like me? Nope. Okay, next. And then you try them all on for size. And finally you meet somebody who you connect with, and they like you for everything you really are, not for who you're pretending to be on that date.

KCRW: One of the things that you say in the "MasterClass" is style is about fun; fashion is stuffy. And I was thinking about this kind of rigid enforcement of what style is, basically the whole kind of Conde Nast-ization of fashion that really takes a lot of the fun out of it. And I'm glad that you say that because it's clear that for you the biggest sort of attribute to have is a sense of exuberance.

France: Yeah, actually, I know this for a fact that a lot of the fashion world doesn't respect what I do or respect me at all. I think that most of them probably see me as a joke. 

KCRW: Is that true? 

France: Yeah, the amount of mean comments I get from people who are stylists or editors, or those kinds of comments or the fact I will always get left off every list for every red carpet pretty much. Most people would think, Oh, I’ve really got to change if I really want to fit in with this world that I'm meant to be part of. It's not really that important for me to be part of the regular entertainment world. It actually makes me want to lean even further away from that I can't ever imagine being so mean to somebody just because they're not wearing this season's piece from the runway that everyone's so excited to get. That kind of stuff just turns my stomach. It drives me insane. It's the thing that I dislike the most about this industry.

I don't care if something's on trend. If it looks good on me, that's what makes me feel good. Most trends don't work for me. I'm really, really petite and sleight of frame. Most trends aren't right for my body. I don't wear them; I wear what makes me feel really good. Or I wear what is part of my culture. I will often wear Indian or Pakistani inspired things, and that's not cool. It's not trendy. I would rather do that and for people to know that I'm embracing my own style, as opposed to trying desperately to fit into what's fashionable at that moment.

KCRW: Don't tell Rick Owens that stuff isn't fashionable. But anyway, I think just the sense of pleasure that you want people to have and finding themselves is something that really, I think is more style. The style icon I think embodies all of this is A$AP Rocky.

France: Yeah, I love his sense of style. And I don't think anyone would ever accuse him of being a fashion victim.  When I wrote the book, he wasn't wearing the latest thing off the runway; he was wearing what made it feel good. Often he looked like a grandma, which I love, like I truly do love to look like a grandma. And, it brought a smile to my face, into many people's faces. He was doing his own thing, and I respect that a lot. It wasn't what the fashion industry would have expected him to do, and, I really respect that.

KCRW: I think that's a really crucial statement that you make when you say that people think that great style must be editorial, and that's just people really telling you what you should be wearing. I think, again, because those places are such sort of bastions of whiteness, we're really seeing a break from that now that I think is welcome, don't you?

France: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I can't imagine a time in my life where a Shivani suit, which is something I wore to the Emmys a couple of years ago, is seen as stylish or fashionable and the majority of American publications to embrace. But if I like it, if it represents who I am and my culture and an aspect of my life that I really do want to encourage and to maintain, then yes, I want to do it, and I don't care if that white knight isn't appreciating it. As I said earlier, I'm not looking for a white knight to save me; I'm not looking for a white knight to validate me, and that's not an attack on Caucasian people. I'm married to a white man who I love very much, but I'm talking about the ones who have so much power and seem to denounce anything other than what they deem worthy of their magazines.



Rebecca Mooney