Robyn Vinter 16th March 2018
Imagine you’re a sad, dishevelled American man, stuck in a rut, perhaps out for tex mex at your local diner in your home state of Georgia, when suddenly five handsome guys blast into the room and, in a manic whirl, pull apart your appearance, home decor, what you eat and how you present yourself to the world.
Once they’ve ripped your humble existence to shreds, they build you back up as a more refined and sophisticated person with a lot more self-esteem, helping you learn how to take pride in your appearance, smartening up your home, teaching you to cook and helping you learn a valuable skill like dancing or boxing.
Netflix’s Queer Eye has already become the unexpected hit of 2018, with the “Fab Five” — Tan France, Antoni Porowski, Jonathan Van Ness, Bobby Berk and Karamo Brown — who were mostly unknowns before the show first aired, becoming instant household names.
Tan, who now lives in Utah, chatted to The Overtake about his Doncaster roots, being recognised by lots of straight guys and why there’s never going to be any romance with any of his co-stars. Ever.
What’s the weather like there?
Gorgeous. How is it there? Is it raining right now?
Er, yeah. It’s dark and raining — obviously.
Oh sorry, I don’t mean to sound so smug when I ask that but I do that with my family — every time I call my family I’m like, “Is it raining back home?” and they’re like, “Yep! It is!”
It is though! We’re based in Leeds-
I love Leeds! I’m in Leeds all the time, literally my best friends live in Harehills!
As I was watching Queer Eye, within a few minutes I heard your voice and I was like that’s an accent I know. I googled you and saw you were from Donny.
Yeah, I’m from dirty Donny!
What was it like growing up there for you?
I don’t talk too in depth about family life but I’ll give you all I can. I’m from a Pakistani household, my parents were born and raised in Pakistan but I was born and raised in the UK and they moved over when they were very young. So I’m very much British.
I went to school in Doncaster and moved over to London when I was 17 for a year and then went back to Doncaster and started fashion college there. I continued on there until I was 19, when I moved over to Manchester and that’s where I was for a few years before I finally went back to London. I’m just giving you a rundown — which is why my accent is so confused.
So yeah I was in London for a few years before I finally moved over to Utah. So the way it was, was that I was living in America for three months and then in England for six. Three months America, England for six. Until I finally got my green card. And that only happened three and a half years ago. So actually for the last 10 years, I’ve spent half of my time in the US and half of my time in the UK.
You’ve been married a long time, so was it just the complexities of being in a same-sex marriage that made it difficult for you to get a green card?
Yes. So for the first five years of our relationship, I was living in between the UK and the US because I couldn’t get a green card. Gay marriage wasn’t recognised. So it was only three and a half years ago when something called DOMA (the Defence of Marriage Act) was struck down and therefore it made it legal for me to apply for a green card. So that’s why I’ve only lived here for the last three and a half years.
Have you felt conflicted about being gay and Pakistani Muslim?
That’s a hard one. I think it doesn’t matter what background you come from, you’re going to feel conflicted because being gay [isn’t always] culturally acceptable so I don’t think it matters where one is from, I think it’s the case of you’re having to tell your parents you’re not like most other children, or what they expected you to be.
I think it’s always a complex process when you’re coming out to your family
Obviously, when you layer on the cultural responsibilities of being Pakistani, I think that adds to that, it amplifies the situation, but honestly, on the whole, I don’t think it makes a huge difference whether you’re Caucasian, or black or middle-eastern. I think it’s always a complex process when you’re coming out to your family because you’re telling them that the life they had planned for you isn’t the life that you will be able to provide for them.
How does it feel being one of the most visible northern-born people on TV at the moment?
I have a great sense of pride, most importantly. We’re underrepresented on global television — and I don’t know if you know, this is a fully global show. And it’s becoming a phenomenon so it’s really empowering to know that I am — here they’d call me middle-eastern, I know that’s not what we’d call me back home — but middle-eastern and being northern and being in a position to be able to represent both of those communities on a global platform feels incredible and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Let’s get to the serious stuff — there’s a fan theory that Antoni can’t actually cook. What do you think about that?
(Laughs) Let me tell you – literally every interview I’ve done over the last two weeks has asked that same question.
I love to be able to answer that because I can probably answer it better than anybody on the show. Because Antoni and I are the only ones who don’t drink on the show. We all lived in the same building and our apartments were next to each other so when the others would go out most evenings, Antoni and I were eating together in our apartments and he would cook most evenings. Every now and then I’d cook Indian food for him and he’d cook other food for me.
He’s an incredible cook. I did an Instagram post a few weeks ago about this, trying to explain to the audience — this is a 47-minute show and so Antoni’s scene at the end of the episode is three minutes long, it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to cook a three-course meal.
It’s not about Antoni’s agenda showing people how much of a great cook he is, it’s about what is appropriate for that man
Also, it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to cook something super bougie for the heroes [the makeover participants] that we’re helping. The majority of them do not cook, they don’t even know their way around their kitchen so for them, making guacamole is a really big deal, because they’ve never seen the inside of an avocado before. So he makes things that are appropriate for the hero and that’s what I love about what Antoni does. It’s not about his agenda showing people how much of a great cook he is, it’s about what is appropriate for that man and what is he truly going to be able to use going forward. So I can absolutely speak on that!
Definitively, he can cook.
He can cook! I don’t know if you saw, but something I mentioned on my Instagram story was that if anyone follows Antoni — and he has more followers at this point than any of us, his following blew up — he cooks almost every day and he shows you how to make those things, that are incredible. It’s not just beans on toast. Really, it does something to me so that every time I’m watching I’m like: “Screw you, bitch. I can’t handle this! I can’t be eating that food right now, I need to be eating a salad!” But yeah, he creates the most incredible stuff.
Do you secretly covet any of the Fab Five’s roles?
Yes, Antoni’s! (Laughs.) Just because that’s the only thing out of the other boys that I can actually do. I mean I did design my own home and I’m very very happy with it but it isn’t something that I really enjoy, whereas I love to cook.
You guys are so pure. Each individual person, you’re truly yourselves.
And sometimes that means being vulnerable. How hard is it to be yourself when you know that some people are haters?
That’s a good question, I like that. What I will say is I’m not a very good actor. Antoni takes acting classes, he’s a very good actor so maybe he can hide it, however he’s feeling. All I have is who I am and I know that’s definitely the case with Jonathan too — we don’t know how to be anybody else, so when we are on the show that is the only version we know, so even if somebody’s not loving what I’m saying, tough shit.
Thankfully there haven’t been a lot of haters yet
And that’s why I was cast. I was cast because at the audition, I was very much the one who spoke his mind constantly so whenever you see me on the show, it’s not something I’ve been told to say, we don’t reshoot, we don’t do a second camera angle if they missed the first one. We don’t do that. Whatever I say on the show is truly how I feel. So I wouldn’t know how to do another version of me, even if there are haters out there, if they hate you, they hate you for what you truly feel, and that’s OK, because that’s what I truly feel. Thankfully there haven’t been a lot of haters yet. I’m waiting for the really disgusting messages to come through but thankfully I’ve not had one and I’m so fucking relieved.
Is that because the kind of people who are really with you and on your side are the kind of people who watch it, and the kind of people who wouldn’t be probably–
Aren’t watching. Exactly. But the ones who are watching who aren’t the ones who ordinarily would watch, are at least open to the idea of what this might be.
It’s usually straight men who say, ‘I didn’t want to watch the show, I had no interest in a show called Queer Eye, but it’s amazing what effect it’s had on my life’
So the amount of straight men who come up to me at the gym now — actually everywhere we go, it doesn’t matter where we go — we didn’t realise how quickly this would blow up and become a thing, we can’t go anywhere without people stopping us at this point, which is lovely. But it’s usually straight men who say: “I didn’t want to watch the show, I had no interest in a show called Queer Eye, but it’s amazing what effect it’s had on my life.”
That’s a lovely feeling. And actually that’s what I wanted more than anything, so not for the people who ordinarily would watch the show, I want people who ordinarily would never tune into a show like this to watch and start to treat people differently.
I don’t want to say mainstream, but it’s kind of a mainstream thing now.
No, it really is.
Like cishet men who normally wouldn’t watch this kind of thing — everybody’s talking about it, so everybody’s watching it.
Thankfully, everybody is giving it a shot, so even straight Republican men in the south are willing to give it a shot, at least one episode, and that’s the thing. When they come up and say hello, they say: “I didn’t want to watch, I watched one episode and I was hooked, because it’s like nothing else you see on TV,” and I love that.
When you were pulled over on the way to meet Cory in episode three — I’ve read a lot about it and obviously it wasn’t meant to be set up as a race thing, it was just a coincidence that the black guy, Karamo, was the one who was driving at the time.
Actually, me and Karamo were fighting about who was going to drive. He won that day, he doesn’t often win but he won that day. But yeah, that part wasn’t produced at all.
Obviously, it was a shock to everyone at the time but it all turned out fine, it was just a joke, but did you have conversations afterwards about whether it was right that you were put in that situation?
Yes, we did, absolutely.
It would have been a different situation if it was one of the Caucasian boys who were driving
Me, Karamo and the producers did, and they were saying: “We never expected that you would drive, Karamo.” It would have been a different situation if it was one of the Caucasian boys who were driving. But they wanted to do it because they thought it was going to be fun and funny, and as you know we always go into the start of an episode with something we’re hoping is lighthearted and fun. I don’t think they ever even thought of what could be from this. I mean we knew we would be talking about a subject with me, Karamo and Cory because he’s a cop and he’s Republican, and we represent everything that on the whole, Republicans are against.
But I don’t think they were expecting for that scene to be the way it turned out to be. I don’t want to call it an oversight because our showrunner is fantastic, but I’m glad that they didn’t think of that because it could have been a lot more staged and therefore you wouldn’t have had the organic reaction that you did.
We definitely were concerned afterwards saying, ‘that was a strange situation to set up’
So yeah, that’s a tough question to answer — we definitely were concerned afterwards saying, “that was a strange situation to set up,” and they just said, “look, we didn’t even think for a second that Karamo was going to drive and once we realised that you guys were fighting this out and Karamo was the one driving, we all felt nervous.” So I think they all felt just as nervous as we did.
White people can be dumb about this kind of stuff sometimes.
It’s not dumb! It’s just a case that you guys don’t have to worry about this stuff — I’m jealous quite honestly that you don’t have to worry about it. Whereas as a person of colour it’s definitely at the forefront of our minds most days when we’re out — who is going to say something to us? And when we get home at the end of the day and somebody hasn’t said something, we chalk that up as a win.
That time aside, were you ever afraid while filming?
I felt afraid on your behalf sometimes with Georgia being the non-traditionally LGBT-friendly state that it is. Clearly, you’re grown men and you’ve dealt with everything between you, but I felt so protective over you.
Thank you! That’s why, going back to your point, we’re five men who have dealt with pretty much everything at this point. Any abuse that people could throw at us we’ve heard before, so we know how to handle that situation, so thankfully we weren’t overly nervous. Also, yes it was Georgia, but I actually live in a state called Utah, which is one of the most republican states in the country, so I know these people very well and I know how to engage with them to the point where they at least will hear my side and they won’t be negative towards me.
I’ve never had racist abuse in the US, I’ve only ever had it in the UK
[We’ve all] experienced something in the past that has taught us how to respond to this. But I will say that we didn’t come across any issues whatsoever from anyone — no homophobia, no racism. People treated us great. I couldn’t have felt more comfortable and happy in Georgia. I actually get more racist abuse, it’s not homophobia — I don’t get any of that thank god — it’s more racist abuse that I’ve had in the past and actually I’ve never had it in the US, I’ve only ever had it in the UK.
I know there are occasions — and you see them on the show — that you’ve had to educate people, some of the heroes more than others. It feels like everybody leaves on the same page.
They learn so much — we spend a whole week with them. And I think this is the best way to change people’s minds is to show [you can spend] just a couple of days with us, and you won’t have those negative opinions that you had at the start. Because you just realise that we are really nice guys, we truly want to help and we’re loving and we’re everything that your straight counterparts are.
That’s the main objective for me of the show is to show people that, spend some time with us, get to know us and you’ll realise that your negative opinions of us, the gay community, the black community the middle-eastern community, they’re completely unfounded.
You guys are sat on the sofa, you’re having a few drinks and you’re watching them go on the date or whatever and you’re watching them pick out their outfit and sometimes they just don’t get it — do you find that stressful to watch?
Yes! It’s so stressful because I just think, I need to know that I’ve done my job, that you’ve actually learnt from me. And on the whole they do a really good job. There are a couple that I just think, “OK, OK I definitely wasn’t planning on that,” but on the whole they do a really good job.
When they don’t [choose their outfit well] it’s super frustrating thinking, ‘I spent a week with you and you’re still going to wear that basic thing, come on!’
However, watching that back, when you see us on the show interacting or commenting, that is truly how we’re feeling. We’re on the whole freaked out the majority of the time, thinking, “please, just please don’t do this, don’t do that”. Bobby’s and Karamo’s categories are already done so that’s for me, Antoni and JVN. We’re like, “please, just pretend you paid attention for like five minutes, pretend you paid attention and do what we told you to do,” so when they don’t it’s super frustrating thinking, “I spent a week with you and you’re still going to wear that basic thing, come on!”
I think most of them though, it seems like they try really hard.
Like you can see them agonising — they’ve got the outfit laid out and they’re looking in their wardrobe trying to get it right.
It’s really sweet. It’s really sweet to watch. That’s the thing about these guys, they’re the nicest guys, even if they don’t start out that way, by the end of the week you realise they’re such sweethearts. So I feel really bad for them when they’re put under that pressure.
We know how it is, come on. Even in regular life, when you’re getting dressed up to go somewhere — and these guys are going to be seen by literally millions of people — you do feel the pressure! I mean, I feel the pressure when I go out on a night out, let alone being seen by millions of people, so I understand why they’re nervous.
Do you worry about them lapsing, like going back to their old ways?
No. I was, gosh yeah I was worried about that. At the start, I just thought give it two or three weeks, they’re never going to look at these clothes I got them again. And I really take my time to choose things that I think are appropriate for those guys. We give them a whole wardrobe and that doesn’t happen in 20 minutes.
So when it gets to the time that we leave I think, “I don’t know if you’re going to put in the effort to keep up this look” but what’s been most surprising though is — I don’t know if you’ve seen any of them on social media, some of them have been on things like BuzzFeed. They kept it up — every single one.
So Tom –
Did you see him — he’s back with Abby?
Yes! And he was dressed so nice!
Yes, I know, so that shirt. So I did get him patterned button up shirts because I said, “show your fun side”, but I didn’t buy him that shirt, he purchased that shirt himself from somewhere, god knows where. And I love that. That shows me that the job was done. I think it’s a Topman shirt, I don’t know when he went to Topman!
I know, little sweetheart. He looks pretty cool. You saw that picture, he looks pretty great. He’s got a great tee under that. He’s got a cap on. For a 50-something-year-old, he looks great.
Sometimes when we first meet them, I do freak out thinking, “oh crap”, I don’t know what to do. Yeah, I mean Neal, episode 2 — when I first saw him, thankfully they edited it out of the episode but you just see me looking towards the camera like, “Oh shit, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” because it was a lot of luck. Because I was like, if Jonathan doesn’t cut that beard down, if he doesn’t cut that hair a lot, no matter what I put him in, this is not going to look great.
Even AJ! I had no idea how beautiful AJ was, until we did the makeover. And the first time he put that polo on in the scene in Lacoste, he wasn’t wearing anything fitted before then, that was the first time I went, “oh shit, you are stacked, totally ripped”. Then when we cut his hair, trimmed his beard, it’s amazing how attractive he got and it’s amazing what a little bit of maintenance can do for a person, so yeah sometimes honestly I don’t think even the producers realise what could be achieved.
Something you should know — the producers don’t tell us what we have to do. The five of us sit in a room with producers a week or two before we start filming that episode. They give us ideas but we decide what we want to do with that person, based on when we meet them. We plan what the episode will be, what kind of things we want to talk about, where we want to take them, but then when we meet them, we’ll go for another meeting that same day and go OK, now that I’ve met them, this is what I wanna do with that look. So that’s all decided by us — so even the producers don’t realise what can be until we get to Friday, once we do the reveal. And they’re just as shocked as we are.
Is there sexual tension between you?
Between the Fab Five? (Laughs… for a long time.) Oh my god. No.
Not even some of you getting a bit close sometimes…
Are you kidding me? No! Not even… that couldn’t be more gross! Legit, we are like brothers. People keep asking if me and Antoni are having an affair, which is fucking hilarious, because he’s always sat on my lap, or I’m always sat on his lap, but he’s literally like a brother. My husband and his partner are the closest of friends, we’ve become the closest of friends and he’s just become like a brother. I couldn’t think of anything more gross! The answer is 100% no. I think if there was sexual tension, we couldn’t do what we do. And we wouldn’t be as close as we all are.
It’s not going to stop fans hoping something’s going to happen…
No, everybody needs to not ever ever want that to happen! I would be devastated. [If anyone got together] I would be so angry!
When is season 2 coming out?
Actually we don’t know. We don’t know if it’s even coming out. So we will find out round about the start of April, to mid-April. Netflix doesn’t give any information, even to us. So we don’t know until they make the official announcement. So we’re praying. The show has become successful obviously and the response has been insane so we assume they’ll pick us up for season 2 but truly we don’t know.
They definitely will though…
We feel quietly confident.
Robyn Vinter 16th March 2018