The Netflix show star was keynote speaker for a GW combined celebration of heritage of South Asians and Asian Pacific Islanders.
By B.L. Wilson
A bit camp, Tan France came bounding on the stage at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, outrageous and naughty, dropping expletives and yet earnest, in his own words, “a brown British gay Muslim immigrant.”
It is enough to “make you feel like you are so alone,” he said, since there was no one like him in the Pakistani community in South Yorkshire, England, where he was raised.
Tan France (at birth Tanweer Safdar) is the fashion designer and a star of “Queer Eye,” the Netflix hit that helps repair sagging images and broken spirits across America one episode at a time.
In opening remarks, GW Sophomore Vishal Nyayapathi, a member of the South Asian Society who helped organize and moderate the sold out conversation with Tan France Sunday night, said Tan France represents much more than celebrity, especially for young people “learning to embrace the intersections of gay and Asian identities.”
The South Asian Heritage Celebration and Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Celebration hosted the event that coincides with month-long campus observances in collaboration with the Multicultural Student Service Center.
MSSC Director Michael Tapscott noted “it has taken decades of advocacy, tact and persistence to recognize” the contributions of South Asians, Asians, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to the growth of the United States.
Mr. Nyayapathi, who moderated the conversation, asked Tan France what he meant on the second episode of “Queer Eye” when he said that as a Pakistani “I understand what it means for a mother to say I’m proud of you.”
Tan France said that as an Asian parent, his mother expected him to become a lawyer, a teacher or an engineer. He tried, studying psychology for a year but dropped out, pursuing instead a degree in fashion without telling his mother until he graduated.
“If you just do what your parents want you do, that’s not the only way to make them proud,” he said. “That’s the easy way.”
He said he promised his mother, “No matter what happens with this fashion degree I have I will be your most successful child….”
As it turned out, Tan France was so successful, he sold his business, retired at age 33 and moved to the United States to marry his partner in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same sex marriage constitutional.
His interest in fashion came from working summers in his grandfather’s denim factory in England. “I could make a denim jacket from start to finish at the age of 13,” he said.
He gave the audience the inside scoop on the personality of each of his gay co-stars on “Queer Eye,” which has evolved into a global phenomenon, with episodes coming that feature Japan.
In explaining why after some coaxing he decided to do the show, Tan France talked about feeling undesirable from not seeing Asians represented in a culture.
“We were never the heroes. We were never the romance in the movie,” he said. “We were the taxi driver or the terrorist or a doctor or the kooky friend. That really got to me as a kid.”
He said he wanted to direct a narrative that presented Asian gays as normal.
During a Q & A, an audience member asked for advice about coming out. Tan France said to expect shock from parents and not to feel rushed to come out.
“There are no stories on TV,” he said, “that guide the conversations in the home…. We have to accept that our families don’t have that,” so they should “afford them the time” to come to terms with the identities they are discovering even while insisting on respect.
Hopping into the audience from the stage, he gave students the full Tan France treatment, hugs and selfies to audience shrieks, shouts and screams.
Comforting a student in a now familiar “Queer Eye” embrace after she said she fell into a depression every morning preparing to face the world “cute and complicated,” he quietly suggested a kind of “cheesy” routine.
“I take two minutes to brush my teeth—and if it does not take two minutes, you’re not doing it right—I look at myself and talk about the things I love about myself,” he said, before blowing kisses and exiting stage left.