Imagine, if you can, a world without Tan France on the reboot of Queer Eye. That very nearly happened, as he reveals in a wide-ranging interview with NPR on the stress of taking on such an iconic role, the pressure to fit in, and post-9/11 racism.
One of the most remarkable details in the interview is the fact that France nearly said "no" when asked to audition. Holding him back, he said, was a fear of having to represent all gay, South Asian men. "That pressure was so hard to handle," France said. "The pressure of being one of the first to do something is massively stressful."
He added, "I was worried about the people that I know and love being attacked by people within our community. ... In our culture you don't represent yourself; you represent your family. And as far as my culture is concerned, when you are ... 'sinning' in their eyes, you are bringing shame to your community."
But what helped get him over his fear was some reflection on his past experiences with racism, whether it was as a child growing up in the U.K. and even today when he flies. Thinking back to the negative treatment he'd received, he realized that this was an opportunity to be a role model and show the world a positive depiction of Pakistanis.
He was 17 when the 9/11 attacks happened, and he recalled just how much that changed for him. As he watched the news, he predicted that Americans would wrongly blame all Muslims -- or even just all people who look non-white -- for the tragedy.
Sure enough, that's exactly what happened.
Struggling with the surge in racism that would follow, France found himself spiraling into a depression over the pressures of work and proving himself. It was his husband who came to his aid, talking him out of feeling as though he owed it to the world to be a model minority.
France says he feels much more free after being on the show. That's particularly thanks to Jonathan Van Ness, whose uninhibited style has helped France be more open.
"I was quite guarded before," he said. "I set my intentions with people very clearly, very quickly, very early on. And that's something that's quite rare for Americans, I think. ... British culture, we were a lot more open about what we will accept or not accept from our friends and family, and so I think that's quite jarring for the boys."
"So I've taught them my boundaries," he added, "but they've also pushed them, and the parts that have been pushed are for the better, as far as I'm concerned."