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Fashion icon and ‘Queer Eye’ star Tan France speaks at Smith College

‘I start off the day knowing I love myself’

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Fashion icon and ‘Queer Eye’ star Tan France speaks at Smith College

Alvin Buyinza/Collegian

Alvin Buyinza/Collegian

Alvin Buyinza/Collegian

Alvin Buyinza/Collegian

By Kathrine Esten and Victoria Ferrara-Lawlor

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Over 2,000 people, many well-dressed in hopes of meeting the fashion icon’s expectations, crowded into Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall on Thursday night to watch a discussion with “Queer Eye” star Tan France.

Hosted by the Student Events Committee, the discussion was moderated by Jennifer DeClue, an assistant professor the study of women and gender who previously worked in film production. Alison Schoen, the advisor for SEC, said France is an “inspiration for a lot of Smith students” and a “really great representation of what Smith is about.”

When France entered the hall – introduced as the “epitome of style and class” by SEC co-chairs Alli Bergeron and Ali Meneghetti – the crowd exploded into applause and France began blowing air kisses as he walked across the stage.

When France entered the hall, introduced as “the epitome of style and class” by SEC co-chairs Alli Bergeron and Ali Meneghetti, he began blowing kisses to the cheering crowd. Asking DeClue to switch seats because he has “a side,” France set the humorous tone of the conversation immediately.

The first question, on France’s unique hairstyle – “it’s killer, I know it is,” he said – led to France explaining how someone’s teens and early 20s are “the time to experiment,” but finding one’s look is empowering.

“If you found your look, you found your look,” France said.

Currently, France is the fashion expert on Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” a reboot of the 2003-2007 Bravo “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Paying tribute to the original cast, France said the Bravo show was “so different from everything else on TV” and “without them, we wouldn’t be here.”

However, France added his show is different because he and the other experts – collectively known as the “Fab Five” – are a “bunch of stubborn b*tches” and want to be as open and honest about their personal lives as gay men, something the original show limited.

“I will talk about my husband, I will talk about the fact I want to have kids, the fact I’m Pakistani,” France said.

The third season, which France said is the best so far, will premiere on March 15.

France’s willingness to talk about difficult issues in a humorous way connects with his fans; Meneghetti said after finding out France was coming, she sent an email with only the words “He said yes!” Organizing the event helped her figure out what she wanted to do after graduation, producing.

“This organization [SEC] really helped me find out what I want to do with my life.”

Annaka Paradis and Lily Pearl, 2018 graduates of Smith, said they appreciated seeing a discussion about LGBTQ, people of color and other marginalized groups.

“He’s a very honest and genuine person,” Pearl said. “It’s a real, honest conversation.”

France, born and raised in England with Pakistani parents, spoke about his life and the ability to control his narrative as a reality show star. “You know I’m gay. You know I’m brown. You know I like a print,” France laughed.  

Concerned about his story being reduced to a soundbyte, France turned to writing as an opportunity to share his truth and “control” it. His upcoming autobiography, “Naturally Tan” opens readers to learning more about his experience growing up in a small northern English town as a Pakistani gay man. France originally chose the title “The Unruly One” to represent how he challenged a lot of expectations in his community.  

“I grew up in a really strict Asian household,” he said; his parents expected him to be a doctor or lawyer. “I wasn’t smart enough to do that. What I did know is how to make people look fabulous.”

Telling his family he was going to school for psychology, France instead studied fashion design, a secret he kept until graduation. While the first years were “so, so, so long,” France said “sh*t got good” after his designs were purchased by Forever 21. At 33, France sold his brands and retired successfully.

“You show me somebody else who’s hustling that hard.”

While France tries to share his private life, he still chooses to keep some things to himself, “I still keep a part that’s for me and my husband.”

Much of the talk was dominated by questions on France’s role on “Queer Eye” and his relationship with the Fab Five.

“Not a lot of people know this, but I didn’t want to do ‘Queer Eye,’” France explained. “I said no.”

His husband convinced him to attend auditions and France figured he’d at least “make some gay friends” in the waiting room. He ended up leaving with gay friends and a global show.

“I get to see my boys all the time and I f*cking love them so much,” France complimented the casting directors for choosing five complete strangers who became best friends two and a half years later.

Much to the excitement of the audience, France went into stories about on-set antics, including the presence of a “talent wrangler” to keep the cast focused.  

“It’s somebody who has to shout, ‘Tan, get your hand out of Jonathan’s shirt!’” France explained.

France also spoke about his initial impressions and relationships with the rest of the Fab Five.

Karamo Brown was the first person to speak to France at the audition; France had “the biggest crush” on the 6’2” culture expert. After working with him, France believes Brown has never had water, seeing him drink three to four Coca Colas every day.

France said he didn’t care if someone from Coca Cola was listening, because their drinks were so sugary. “You are killing the world! You are killing Karamo!”

Bobby Berk, interior designer,  is “one of the most vulgar people,” making crude parodies of France’s favorite songs as a joke. “He’s ruined every song I’ve liked.”

Next, France spoke about grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness, inciting cheers from the audience, to which France said, “he does not need anymore love from you guys!”

“I’ve been married for over 10 years.” France continued, “Jonathan often forgets I’m married.”

Early on, Van Ness FaceTimed France 10-15 times a day, but France just didn’t have the time, saying his only free time was when he took a shower.

“I had a shelf built for Jonathan,” France laughed, “We FaceTime in the shower.”

While France didn’t feel like he could be friends with food and wine expert Antoni Porowski after first meeting him, he found they were incredibly alike after talking with him over tea for an entire night.

“If I’m not with him every few days, I feel like my arm has been ripped off,” France said.

Moving into more serious topics, France emphasized that “Queer Eye” is “so much more than let’s put them in pretty clothes,” and provides a medium to talk about self-confidence, race and other important issues.

A first season episode, which won three Emmy awards, saw the Fab 5 help their hero, A.J., come out as gay to his stepmother. “It should be required viewing,” France said, as it shows diversity within the LGBTQ community.

“Coming out is so difficult,” France said. “It’s fine to take your time.”

Another early episode took an unexpected turn when Brown, the other person of color in the cast, was driving the Fab Five and got pulled over by the police.

“It was never meant to be a Black Lives Matter episode,” but France was glad the conversation was had, because “it’s an important thing to talk about.”

DeClue asked about “the moment” in episodes as the hero’s “masculinity begins to crumble.” France, who always asks for permission before he hugs someone, said it was important to show a straight man he could be affectionate with him, despite his sexuality.

“You don’t have to hide away and pretend you’re a big strong man,” France continued, “If you ever hear someone say to man up, tell them to go f- themselves real quick.”

“My goal is to make sure every person on that show knows there is no difference between me and them,” France said, noting the LGBTQ community and people of color needs allies. “You need to learn about marginalized communities.”

Later in the show, France jumped off the stage to interact with the audience, answering questions on topics from who he wanted to design an outfit for – either Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City” or the Spice Girls [“I’m obsessed!”] – to his favorite movie.

After France said “Dirty Dancing,” audience members from Mt. Holyoke College cheered, as the film’s main character plans to attend that school. His favorite LGBTQ movie? “Brokeback Mountain,” which reminds him of his husband, who is from a small town in Wyoming.

France also bantered frequently with the audience, saying that “there is not one printed shirt in Season 3.”

“I’m so sick of those memes, you b*tches,” France shouted.

France, well-known for his dislike of crocs, was incited after an audience member yelled the shoe was comfortable. Walking towards the edge of the stage, he told the woman to stand up and tell him her name.

“Julia. If you choose to wear crocs, nobody is going to sleep with you,” France told her. After the woman pulled up her significant other, France laughed and said, “Well played.”

One student asked how to improve low self-esteem, which France said everyone struggles with. While there isn’t a “quick fix,” he explained that in his own life, he takes two minutes to brush his teeth in his underwear.

“I want to see the things that people might knock me down for,” but he spends the time thinking about what he likes about himself. “I start off the day knowing I love myself.”

As the event drew to a close, France looked across the hall and asked everyone to listen carefully.

“Just remember too, if you’re straight and not in a marginalized community, please be an ally.”

Victoria Ferrara-Lawlor can be reached a [email protected] Kathrine Esten can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @KathrineEsten.

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