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Tan France finds his joy

JP Mangalindan   

Tan France finds his joy

Tan France is holding his smartphone out at eye level, scrolling and tapping through it to retrieve a photo.

"He's shockingly gorgeous," France says. "Look how handsome he is."

France is referring to his son, Ismail, who was born last July. Ismail's face is a rare sight, as France and his husband, Rob, choose to cover it on social media. But now, the "Queer Eye" and "Next in Fashion" star leans toward me on a gray velvet sofa in the corner of the Bar Room at The Beekman, a hotel ensconced in a 19th-century building in Manhattan's Financial District, eager to show him off.

"He's beautiful," I murmur, taking in the baby's warm beige skin and tufts of chestnut-colored hair.

"He's a fucking joy," France says, adding that fatherhood has put him more in touch with his feelings. "I've got a few siblings, and I send them pictures and videos every day."

France's decision to protect his son's identity felt natural. But the need to do so in the first place took him by surprise. "I thought that 'Queer Eye' wasn't going to be successful and that it would be a flop — we'd do one season, then it'd be over," he tells me. "We never planned on having the child of known people, recognizable people, and how that could affect them."

"I see so many celebrity kids, and they feel so much pressure," France adds. "They're constantly scrutinized."

France understands how bright the spotlight can be. Starring in Netflix shows like "Queer Eye" has made the 39-year-old fashion guru, known for his style tips and gravity-defying coif, a cultural fixture. These days he's more settled in that identity — and he's beginning to transcend it. As he expands beyond "Queer Eye" with "Next in Fashion" and Was Him, his genderless clothing line, France has also expanded his sense of self, having his first child and grappling with what it means to raise a family in this beautiful, horrible, complicated world.

As a fan of France's since the February 2018 debut of "Queer Eye," I've watched with pleasure as the Fab Five's most fashion-forward member enters this brave new world, balancing assertiveness with empathy. It's a philosophy he applies to all of his work; he has no problem, for instance, telling "Queer Eye" producers how he prefers to be seen onscreen. During his photo shoot with Insider in late May, he instructed photographer Martin Schoeller to make sure the lighting would complement his brown skin.

"If anybody ever asked if I would play a terrorist, a taxicab driver, or a grocery store owner, the answer is, 'Go fuck yourself,'" France says. "I would like to believe I'm very, very kind, but if you insult me, I will be the first one to tell you: 'Go fuck yourself.'"

If anybody ever asked if I would play a terrorist, a taxicab driver, or a grocery store owner, the answer is, 'Go fuck yourself, Tan France

Raised by Pakistani Muslim immigrants in South Yorkshire, England, France has always had a taste for fashion. As a child, France mixed and matched outfits and wore multiple looks throughout the day, inspired by his grandfather, who owned a factory that produced denim products for Disney. After working at Zara and several other clothing retailers, he founded Kingdom & State, a women's swimwear line, which he sold when he was 33, as well as a women's fashion brand he created with blogger Rachel Parcell.

France was vacationing with Rob in Las Vegas when a talent manager called him about the audition for Netflix's "Queer Eye" reboot. The fashion designer thought the odds of being cast were remote, but after several rounds of auditions, he wowed producers with his snappy attitude and sartorial sense.

The original "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was a trailblazer when it premiered on Bravo in 2003, helping to normalize the LGBTQ community in the eyes of America at a time when meaningful queer representation on TV was scarce. The reboot debuted in 2018 at a more progressive, if more turbulent, time for the country.

The show took off thanks to its joyful, compassionate tone and its willingness to address intersectional issues head-on. The reboot's Fab Five — France, Jonathan Van Ness, Karamo Brown, Bobby Berk, and Antoni Porowski — have drawn on their expertise in fashion, beauty, self-care, design, and food, respectively, to transform the lives of willing participants who run the gamut from a shy manga illustrator in Naka-ku, Yokohama, to a transgender powerlifter from San Antonio, Texas. By the end of its first season, the show had nabbed three Emmys, including one for outstanding structured reality program. Over the years, it has racked up six more.

When "Queer Eye" first premiered, it felt like a safe haven for those of us wringing our hands over what the country might become. As I wondered what the Trump administration's colossal incompetence would yield next, I retreated to my couch and a show whose every episode brimmed with charm, exuberance, and messages of inclusivity. For roughly 45 minutes at a time, the world felt less angry and polarizing.

For France, the show was an unimaginable gift. "We get to be our queer selves, unabashedly," he says. "I've never felt like I've had a space like that before where I can be 100% comfortable to say: This is who I am. Like it or lump it."

He became particularly close with one of his cohosts, food expert Porowski, after the first week of filming "Queer Eye." Porowski describes their relationship as intimate in a playful yet deeply significant way. "We hold hands, we sit in each other's laps, and we're two grown-ass men," Porowski says of France, adding that he didn't have many queer friends growing up. "I think part of me is reliving the childhood that I never really had where I was able to be free like that, where I had a friend who was like him. It's the joy of the chosen family."

France's family expanded again with the addition of Ismail, who was carried by a surrogate — a process that he says was shockingly expensive and stressful. (A surrogacy can cost between $90,000 and $130,000.) Ismail arrived seven weeks early and spent the first three weeks of his life in the newborn intensive care unit. Still, France says that he's ready to do the whole thing over again — he and his husband Rob plan on trying for another child within the next two years — though he'll make a few adjustments.

"With the job that I have, and my husband's a full-time artist, we needed help," France says. "We should have done that sooner." He and Rob didn't have additional help with childcare for four months after they brought Ismail home; France describes that period as one of the most beautiful but "most difficult" times of his life. They eventually hired a night nurse for nearly two months to sleep train Ismail; now they employ a part-time nanny whom France calls a "life saver" and considers part of the family.

The couple is currently building a new home, with a schoolroom, in Salt Lake City. They plan to host a community school with their friends' children and homeschool Ismail, motivated by incidents like the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two adults dead.

France says he's horrified by the violent trend. "I don't know if it's happened in my lifetime, a school shooting in England, so for me, it's completely shocking," he says. "Yes, I've lived here for almost 15 years, but I'm still shocked that this has been allowed to keep happening. So those were the main conversations I would have with Rob: How do we keep our children safe?"

He is also concerned about the looming anti-trans and so-called "Don't Say Gay" bills that threaten to further infringe upon the rights of LGBTQ people — and children — in over a dozen states. "I don't understand how we got here," he tells me. "It does worry me seeing just how hard people are fighting to take rights away from people when they're just minding their own business. They're just trying to live their lives. They're not doing anything to anyone. It is wildly frustrating."

But there are some aspects of the US that he prefers to the UK. For instance, he believes his home country is "massively behind" when it comes to representation of brown people. France points to shows like "Never Have I Ever" and "The Sex Lives of College Girls" with brown actors in their casts, and entertainers like Mindy Kaling, Kumail Nanjiani, Hasan Minhaj, and fellow British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed — high-profile South Asians in Hollywood who have become mainstream pop-culture fixtures in the past five years.

In the UK, meanwhile, France says his community remains largely invisible on big and small screens. "I think that the people in power don't believe our value," France adds. "They don't understand our value. I don't know what more we can do to show that we can be entertainers. I'm on a big show for Netflix. We have won countless Emmys — if we win one more, we've broken the record for the most Emmys of any unscripted show in history. Yet I'm still not seen as bookable in the UK for a prime-time show. That's an issue."

Stateside, France's career is thriving. He hosted the "Selling Sunset" reunion, which aired on Netflix in early May — an opportunity that came knocking just two weeks before the taping of the episode. France doesn't watch reality TV but believes he was tapped to host because he "can be a little more aggressive" than some of his "Queer Eye" counterparts. To prepare, he watched all five seasons of "Selling Sunset" over the course of two days on flights to and from London.

"I don't understand a filter, or I don't care about a filter," France explains. "I don't care about the weather. I want to know, 'Why did you get a divorce? Tell me about your relationship.' I don't do small talk. But I like to balance it out by truly caring about people and truly wanting to discover who they are and why they behave the way they behave."

France also recently wrapped season two of Netflix's reality show, "Next in Fashion." Filmed in Brooklyn over the course of five weeks — a shoot that Rob and Ismail visited from time to time — France doesn't know exactly when it will air. (Netflix, he tells me, can take months to edit and review a season's episodes, leaving even a show's stars in the dark about a release date.)

He is, however, willing to drop tantalizing hints about what exactly the season will entail. "For season one, it was all based on themes, like universal clothing that you would find pretty much in every closet around the world," he says. "This time that's not the case. I think it's more difficult. I think we pushed the designers to be even more creative."

Another change to the program: France is cohosting this season with supermodel Gigi Hadid instead of British designer Alexa Chung. The swap seems like a logical one, given France and Hadid have been close friends since they met more than four years ago through a FaceTime call facilitated by Instagram's director of fashion partnerships, Eva Chen. When France and Rob initially learned their surrogate was pregnant, Hadid was the first friend he told. Hadid, in turn, has given France parenting tips on baby supplies, sleep training, and schooling.

"You've got to know how to work with somebody where you match your energy," France says. "So when you're on, you are down to play, you are a child, and that's what I am." When the cameras are off, he says, he and Hadid take mutual advantage of the downtime; they usually sit side by side watching TikTok videos or calling their respective babies. "There's a level of respect for how we work together like I've never understood before," he says.

Hadid says she learned a lot from France while shooting "Next in Fashion," from handling technical aspects of a show to softer skills like keeping conversations going with contestants while the cameras are rolling. There's a synergy between the cohosts, she says. "You never really know, you can be friends with someone, respect someone, and then be put in a work environment with them — and it's why a lot of boy bands don't work out," she says. "It was such a blessing that my and Tan's work styles are very similar. We have a similar need for companionship. We got lucky."

France is most excited to expand further into unscripted series, though at this point, it's unclear whether "Queer Eye" and "Next in Fashion" will come back for subsequent seasons. The former is getting a little long in the tooth by Netflix standards, particularly as the streamer has become choosier about which shows to renew. But all signs suggest Netflix is content to let the series continue its run: France and the rest of the Fab Five started filming the seventh season of "Queer Eye," set in New Orleans, earlier this month. (Netflix's longest-running show, "Grace and Frankie," with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, wrapped its run after seven seasons earlier this year.)

"We're all knocking on a bit," France acknowledges, referring to the cast getting older. "I don't know how much people will care about our opinion on fashion and hair and whatever when we go into the middle-aged period of our life. I'm sure that they'll want somebody younger and hipper to advise them."

Photography by Martin Schoeller

Creative Direction by Liane Radel
Production by Very Rare Productions, NYC
Styling by Joseph Turla
Grooming by Andrew Karrick
Prop Styling by Anna Holmes Hurely
Prop Styling Assistance by Brent Wingen
Photographic Assistance by Jan Erting and Sarah Keum
Video by Emily Christian, Kiran Chitanvis, and Marisa Frey
Design and Development by Kazi Awal and Skye Gould
Booking by Carl Leibowitz
Editing by Claire Landsbaum, Joi-Marie McKenzie, Julie Zeveloff West, and Jonann Brady
Social by Tanita Gaither, Elizabeth Morales, Victoria Gracie, and Tyler Murphy

Special thanks:
Keisha James at Thompson Hotels
Thompson Suite courtesy of The Beekman, a Thompson Hotel


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