Since being swept from relative obscurity as a designer for British brands to international fame as a stylist on the Netflix makeover series weird eye, Tan France had a good trip. The show took him across the US, to Australia and Japan.
Today, he’s jet lagged in London, where he’s arrived to promote his upcoming role as the UK’s new host. Say yes to the dressas well as your soul documentary Tan France: The beauty and the bleachon the discrimination of skin tones, known as “colorism”.
But he will not stay in the country of his birth. He can’t even face visiting his childhood home in Doncaster, Yorkshire, so deeply is he scarred by the racism he suffered growing up as a Pakistani Muslim there.
“England has a long way to go when it comes to changing ideas of race and belonging and who is worthy of that respect and attention. I’m talking about the government more than the average person,” he says. “I don’t see my people well represented in entertainment when I scroll through the channels on television. I know my family is still called horrible names on the street. So I can’t imagine that much has changed since I left 14 years ago.”
In her foster home in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she lives with her husband, artist Rob France, and their 15-month-old son Isaiah, France experiences almost no racism. “Being a South Asian in America is not really a problem for me… The target seems to be the [African-American] black community more than other people of color.”
But colorism, it seems, is as common as it is in Britain. In the film, France hears from American singer Kelly Rowland how she was subjected to the historically offensive “paper bag test”, where people were discriminated against if their skin was darker than a brown paper bag. In the United Kingdom, EastEnders Actress Bunmi Mojekwu reads insults from a colorist she received on social media. In both cases, the discrimination came from within their own communities.
“I feel [the film] it’s a betrayal of a dirty little secret. But it also feels like a betrayal of everything we know when it comes to how we present ourselves. There are so many people who desperately believe they need [skin bleaching] to succeed, have a good marriage, get a job. Well, what if bleach wasn’t an option and we had to be grateful for the skin we have? I wonder what that would lead to.”
France was nine years old when she first tried skin bleach. He used it again as a teenager. It was and remains a source of confused shame. Fatherhood pushed him to face the problem.