Tan France isn’t one to read the comments on online articles, but he did accidentally stumble across some after reading a story that he was referenced in not too long ago. "I got so much hate!" he tells Refinery29. He was being criticised for saying that he represents Asians from a global platform. "People were saying, 'what an arrogant dick', basically."
His response to it is gloriously straightforward as we chat over the phone. "Morons! That’s just a fact! Netflix is a global network and that is just a fact," he exclaims. "I am brown, and I am Asian and therefore I am one of the very, very few [TV] representatives of this community. It was really tough to read those comments because [they were] clearly not understanding what I’m saying. I’m not saying everyone on the planet knows who I am, but I do represent a version of this society that is so massively underrepresented and that comes with a certain weight."
When you’re known the world over as one fifth of the Fab Five and one of the faces of Netflix’s incredibly successful Queer Eye series, your breadth of influence is pretty undeniable. Now a household name with a signature hairdo, distinctive approach to styling and the playful undercurrent of what he notes as being "sassy" and "sarky" that runs through his every word, it would be easy to assume we all know who Tan France is and what he’s about. Though he explains that becoming a television personality was never something he actively sought out, one of the reasons he loves Queer Eye so much is having the opportunity to represent, and give the world a different perception of what being British, gay and south Asian might be.
But as Tan said, having a platform comes with a certain pressure, which is something he was very conscious of when it came to writing his first book, Naturally Tan. "I spent so many months, so many hours of every day on this book," he explains. And while it's full of everything you’d hope to read from Netflix’s most popular fashion expert – styling tips, tongue-in-cheek quips and a candid, conversational dive into his personal life – Tan’s autobiography isn’t just that.
When it came to putting it together, Tan decided that the book would be more than a 'fluff piece'. "This is the first time I’m getting to speak about stuff that really affects me and my people; that affects many people. So I’d do them an injustice if I were to just make this cutesy and really surface," he explains.
In the book and in interview, Tan decidedly refuses to pretend that his childhood was wonderful, finding work was easy and that everything’s great in the world. "That’s not the case. I couldn’t do it. That would have been a real dick move to everybody in my community, to say that things were fine and they weren’t. So yeah, the process [of writing the book] was very hard. It was hard because you are constantly thinking, How is this going to be received, what are people going to think about the things that I’m saying."
It’s hard to imagine how readers wouldn’t be touched by at least one of the many stories Tan tells, though. There’s the "Slippers" chapter, where he tells us about his first date with his husband, Rob. "Jewelry", where he talks about reluctantly agreeing to take a fateful call with Netflix. And "Crossed Legs", in which Tan describes preparing for that now-iconic appearance on Lip Sync Battle and society's conflict over what masculinity should look like. But of the entire book Tan tells me there are two chapters in particular that he feels were the most difficult, but most important to write: "Shalwar Kameez", in which he describes being chased home from school by racist bullies, and "9/11".
"These are the ones fought with most. And I read them over and over again to make sure the tone was right, and that people would feel like they connect without it feeling like people were being attacked. The first chapter [Shalwar Kameez], when I spoke about what it's like to be raised as a person of colour a smaller town." Tan pauses, seeming to find the right words for what he wants to explain. "If you've seen Queer Eye, I'm not the one who cries. I've cried once in three seasons. Writing that chapter, I cried so many times and that was really difficult for me. I gave more of myself than I ever thought I would to this book because I really had to remember what it was like – I blocked it out for so many years, I hadn't thought about what it was like being a kid in South Yorkshire. Reliving that was actually really difficult."
Tan says that he wrote the other challenging chapter, "9/11", last of all. "I was torn for so many months, thinking I don't want to talk about this because I know I'm going to get a lot of hate for it and major backlash, but I think I'm ready for that and prepared, and I think it was important to mention it." The chapter is just four pages long and speaks to a discriminatory reality that I'm sure many of us are aware of, but perhaps haven't had to think about as poignantly in recent years. "I think it's the most important as far as what I wanted to achieve with this book, which is basically to see me and all of my people as people, and not see me as this label that you have which is 'terrorist'."
The emotions that Tan had to draw on to write this book are evident as he explains what these perhaps surprisingly revealing chapters meant to him, and he seems somewhat aware that addressing these more contentious and upsetting topics of conversation about his experiences and the way society operates might not be the first thing his fans expect from his first book. But he explains: "This isn't a novel. This isn't just a story. This is who I am and my true opinion, and that makes me feel very vulnerable."