I heard Tan France interviewed on NPR one morning, and on impulse purchased his new memoir called “Naturally Tan.” I’m a sort of fan of Queer Eye, but have only watched a handful of episodes of the first season. Tan France, a sweetly fey British guy of Pakistani heritage, is the fashion maven for the show. If you don’t know the premise of the show – rather intentionally different from the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy series – it is about five non-coastal gay men who go into middle America to make over people’s looks and lives while proving to them that LGBT folk are messengers of love and inclusion. It is not entirely my cup of tea, but virtually every episode I’ve watched has brought me to tears.
I find all five boys really attractive, and all of them could be my sons, so I guess I shouldn’t confess that. But Tan France has a special place for me, with his silvered pompadour and his British accent. His memoir is ingenuous, a bit flaky, very millennial, and generally as endearing as he is. There were moments when I felt my hackles rise, but in the end, I couldn’t help but like him.
It is very different for a young gay man these days, but (as I always remind people) not as different as you’d think. Add to this his experience growing up brown in small-city England where he was one of a tiny minority of Asians in his community, and you know there’s something to look for in a memoir. The fact that he grew up in a religious Muslim family, and ended up marrying a Mormon cowboy from Utah, makes reading such a book important for anyone tracking our progress in the world.
This is not a literary memoir. But it feels like France’s own true voice, with all his charm and his cunning innocence. And that’s part of his appeal: wide-eyed innocence coupled with a world-wise savvy that propelled him through a rather flaky early career into personal success before the people at Netflix spotted him and thought he might do something good to this show they had planned.
Television and fashion are easy industries to dismiss as shallow, but they are both cutthroat and merciless, and Tan’s survival and success in two such tricky worlds says something about his inner strength. What the book reveals further is his essential goodness as a person. France doesn’t have much patience or interest in old white people like me – even gay ones – but if he represents what his generation has accomplished (or, at least, could accomplish), then I’m more than happy to be proud of who he is.