Tan France Goes Deep on Racism and When He Almost Quit ‘Queer Eye’ - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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By Eugene S. Robinson

Queer Eye star and multi-hyphenate Tan France sat for a revealing hourlong interview with OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson on a recent episode of The Carlos Watson Show. You can watch the episode here. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation.

Race in the US vs. the UK

Carlos Watson: Tan, tell me a little bit about being Pakistani in the U.K., because it’s so interesting when I talk to friends across the water. What was it like growing up Pakistani in the U.K.?

Tan France: Not easy. I really wanted to make this lighthearted and fun, because that’s what we’re known for, from the show I’m on. However, to be honest, it wasn’t great. I love England. I love England so much and there are wonderful, wonderful people there. However, racism was ever present. It’s the one thing I knew was the constant, from when I first stepped out of the house as a very young child until the time I left England. There are reasons why I don’t keep England as my home anymore, and the main reason is racism. I chose to move to America a long, long, long time ago. I decided, at 17, that America was going to be my home, not the U.K., because I was so sick of the racism. So being Pakistani, being seen as basically a second-class citizen in the U.K., is definitely not a position I enjoyed being in.

Watson: It’s so interesting, as someone who’s also experienced racism and race here in the States. I don’t know why, but I was always surprised and didn’t know the history of it in the U.K. And in some ways it almost seems sometimes, and not to do one of those weird comparison things, but, Tan, it almost seemed like in the U.K. being Pakistani or South Asian, sometimes was almost … I don’t even know what to call it. I don’t quite want to use the phrase a tougher nut than being Black there, but it definitely … I was surprised at the weight of it. It certainly is not the same here in the States, or at least it’s not my experience that it’s the same here.

France: I actually do agree with you. And I hate putting that kind of comparison out there, because our experiences of racism are so different. They really are. However, I do find that being Black in the U.S. is a much different beast from being Black in the U.K. And that’s the case for me, too. Being South Asian in the U.K. is so incredibly hard. Being South Asian in America, actually really not a problem at all. In America, somebody referred to me very recently as a model minority, and I literally scoffed at the thought. I can’t ever imagine somebody calling me that from where I’m from. That definitely wasn’t the case. I think that there are much greater trials for a person of South Asian descent in the U.K., and a lot of it isn’t just the color of our skin. It’s based on our religion. It’s Islamophobia that runs so deep.

Watson: That is so interesting. I don’t want to put something on you that you don’t embrace. But I think I’m ultimately an optimist, even though things haven’t always gone the way I wanted them to and they’re not always even now the way I want them to, but I’m hopeful. And it has been interesting to see people take it into different contexts. I’ve got friends who are white and Eastern European, from places like Belarus, and so on, and in many parts of Europe, as you know, they are “looked down upon.” And I think when they come to the States, there’s a little bit of a dichotomy for them, and they struggle. Because in the States — I don’t know how else to say it — they’re regarded as white, and yet there’s an experience they’ve had of not exactly being treated as a first-class citizen.

France: I have a story.… This is going to sound really offensive and probably not appropriate to say, but I’m going to say it. There was a time before 9/11 — 9/11 changed obviously so much for so many places, and for so many countries, and for so many people. But before 9/11, there was that weird sweet spot between like the early ’90s to the early 2000s. It’s when the Polish people started to come to the U.K. and they were seen as second-class citizens compared to us. 

So for the first time we were offered a reprieve and we were so grateful when we found out Poles are moving into a neighborhood. We’re like, “Yay. The heat’s off us for a minute.” And then 9/11 happened; we’re like, “Oh, we’re back again,” but truly we make fun of the fact that there were like 10 years there where we were no longer the target. It was somebody else. It’s horrible to say, I know, but it felt so nice that the heat was off us for a while. But you’re right, if you’re from Eastern Europe in England, you’re not seen as white, you’re just seen as foreign. And that’s good enough for somebody to be really angry at you.

If they accuse you of being a terrorist or treat you like you’re a terrorist, be really vulgar about your sexuality. It freaks them out.

Tan France on airport security

Entrepreneur Lessons

Watson: If you talk to young entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurship has become wildly popular, and who knows, maybe during this recession, maybe it will even go to yet another level. What are two or three of the smartest things, Tan, that you did as an entrepreneur that led to some of the early success that you had?

France: OK. This is a really hard one for most people. I’m Muslim. I was raised in a Muslim household with quite strict Muslim rules and Islamic rules, and one of them is that we don’t do interest. So we can’t get credit cards or overdrafts. You don’t borrow money, we don’t do mortgages. So you build your business on money that you have, and so that puts you in a really strong position, where your business has no debt. So if you want to start a business, wonderful, but save up, sacrifice, save up, and then try and start your business with your own money. And then it puts you in a much better position when you’re ready to sell those businesses to really sell for the highest price, because there aren’t that many businesses out there that have zero debt. So that is the best piece of advice I can give you.

The second one is something I learned from my dad. And he used to say, when I was a kid, and it used to drive me insane because the child doesn’t understand that, but, “Learn everything, do everything.” He was a business owner also, and it really did work, all the jobs I had that I was terrible at — well, no, it wasn’t that I’m terrible at, that I was angry at because I wasn’t getting the management I needed. I chose them to learn every facet of my own business so that when I started my own business, I didn’t need to hire anyone for the first few years. I knew every job myself. And so that is something I really do encourage people to do.

I have a show right now with Facebook Watch called Boost My Business, and it’s where I encourage people to really think differently about how they run their businesses and use social media marketing. Don’t just rely on a bank to save you.

When He Almost Quit ‘Queer Eye’

Watson: How did Queer Eye happen? Because in many ways that feels like the ultimate dream, it almost feels like a fairy tale, honestly. How did you end up on Queer Eye?

France: It was a dream, and it is a dream, and it happened in the most unusual way. And so many people fight for this, but that wasn’t for me. I retired and somebody found out that I had retired, I was free; I was a designer, I worked with clothing and therefore I was probably going to be available to shoot a show. And they’d seen me on social media, for my business, I would post things on my social media. I was very loud. I was very opinionated. I was very jolly. And so they asked a friend of a friend, who is now my manager, who was a manager at the time, and called and said, “Would you be interested in auditioning for this show? I’m helping them cast the show called Queer Eye,” and I was like, absolutely not. I’m a businessman first and foremost, and I am done with my career, I’m chilling.

And then I got a couple more calls over the next few weeks and I agreed to at least take a meeting. And so I did, and then I went to an audition and I was offered the job, and I tried to turn it down. And then I started working on Queer Eye, and I tried to quit three weeks later, because I didn’t think it was the life for me. I wasn’t an entertainer. I like to entertain in my personal life. I’m a great host, but I didn’t think it was the world for me. And quite honestly, I was really scared of the pressure. Really, if I’m really honest with you, the main reason I didn’t want the job, the main reason I tried to quit, is because the pressure was super, super intense.

Watson: And when you say pressure, what kind of pressures?

France: Oh, sorry. I should’ve made that clear. The pressure of being one of the first to do something is not a position I think anyone should want to be in, and if you do, be careful what you wish for. When you’re the first of a community to do something, especially something that’s off the beaten path, people will come for you in the harshest way. And I knew that that was going to happen, and there’s no preparing for it.

I thought I knew what some of the response would be, but if you’re the one who is representing a lot of people, when you are one of the first openly gay South Asian people, or one of the only South Asian people on a global show, you are no longer just Tan France, you are the couple of billion people who are South Asian, or Asian. And when you speak, you no longer speak for yourself, you have to be perfect. You have to be infallible, and if you’re not, people will have a lot of nasty things to say. And that couldn’t have been more true. I knew what I was letting myself in for. The positives outweigh the negatives, but you can’t possibly be the first and think that it’s going to go swimmingly for you. 

Relationship Tips

France: One major component of our relationship [Tan is married to illustrator Rob France] that I believe is the reason we lasted this long is because we did long distance. I lived in England, he lived in America. I would see him for three months, and then I would not see him for three months. And all we would have is FaceTime or whatever other video call we could use. And when you take physical intimacy out of the equation, all you have is emotion.

I’m going to give you one example real quick. I don’t know your dating situation, but let’s pretend you’re single. You start dating somebody. You have six months where passion is great, and then six months later, you realize, I hate this person. I was so blinded by how beautiful they were, how great bedtime was. All those other things that confuse your mind into thinking this is a good relationship, when really, you know it’s terrible and your friends know it. When all you have is this, you get to know somebody real well. Real, real well.

TSA Tips

Watson: What’s your best trick for navigating Customs?

France: If they accuse you of being a terrorist or treat you like you’re a terrorist, be really vulgar about your sexuality. It freaks them out.

Watson: Wait, say more about that. Say more. Go with that.

France: I used to get detained a lot. Twenty-four times I got stopped, and they take you into a different room for questioning. And I started to get really sick of it after the 10th time, and so I’d pack things that aren’t actually things that I would carry, like a vibrator or gay porn. And then they’d open my bags up. I’m like, “How many gay terrorists do you know? Of course I’m not a terrorist.” And so, be really vulgar about your sex life. It really worked. Really worked.

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