When Tan France released her autobiography in 2019, it wasn’t the stories of constant racism she endured growing up at Doncaster in the 1980s that caught the attention of the media, nor was it her lavish account of her recent fame as one of the stars of Netflix’s revamp show, Queer Eye. Instead, what made the headlines was the admission that she used a skin whitening cream when she was nine.
“Back in England, if I go a week without being called P-word on the street, that’s really something,” France said via video call from her current home in Salt Lake City, Utah. “When I was five years old, I was chased and beaten by a group of white men on my way to school. But it was my account of trying to lighten my skin as a child that made the press an unexpectedly big deal.
“I was just a kid and I felt so much pressure to be lighter,” she said. “The embarrassment about my skin that I experienced outdoors followed me home, so I put on the cream.” It’s an uncomfortable revelation from someone renowned for his relentless optimism and flawlessly styled aesthetic. It’s this introspective new side of France that forms a key part of her new BBC Two documentary on color.
Defined as a form of discrimination based on the color of a person’s skin – not just the color of their skin – colorism has in recent years become a hot topic of discussion. In 2021, Little Mix singer Leigh-Anne Pinnock leads a BBC Three documentary that explores issues in the music industry. The Guardian launched its own first-hand account series in 2019; while a 2018 study from Vanderbilt University found that US immigrants with darker skin color were paid 25% less than their lighter-skinned counterparts.
“Colorism is everywhere and that’s not the same as racism,” France said. “Often within communities of color themselves people are discriminated against based on the darkness of their skin, and that has a lifelong internalized shame effect.” During the film, France recounts how family members jokingly refer to darker relatives as “Coco Pops”, or would say that only light-skinned children end up getting married. These comments, coupled with an entertainment landscape that has only ever put lighter people of color on screen, is what France believes has contributed to its ongoing struggle with color. He says in the documentary that he still feels uncomfortable returning to England when he is not in London; there’s a scene where he tries to revisit Doncaster to confront his past, but he can’t really leave.
“When we announced this documentary, people asked: ‘Why is light-skinned Tan France hosting the show?’ But I want them to understand that everyone of color – no matter what color you are – experiences this discrimination in some form,” France said. “I was always conditioned to think that white was right and lighter was better through the prevalence of light-skinned imagery I saw growing up.” It had such an effect that when she returned from a recent vacation in Hawaii, she was surprised by the amount of tan. “I looked at myself in my bathroom mirror and I immediately thought: ‘Oh my, I’m a bit too tan,’” she said, then paused. “For a moment, I allowed myself to believe that it was a problem again.”
France has built a thriving TV career over the past four years, mainly on the back of the genuine encouragement she offers along with her fashion skills. Yet she has been very honest in acknowledging the lack of self-acceptance she still has towards the color of her own skin. In the film, she tells for the first time how she used a skin whitening cream again when she was 16 years old. did it again at 16… I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t, but I’m still ashamed because I’m old enough to understand better.” Instead of quitting after the first try – as she did at nine o’clock when she stole a bottle from her cousin – France bought the cream and used it several times.
“We did more than 100 hours of interviews and I went to see a psychotherapist twice, but there was no ‘A-ha!’ moment,” he said. “We could have continued filming for three years, but I still don’t think I’d rid myself of the guilt of bleaching again. I don’t want to fake it, or people think that you can handle this huge cultural and social pressure just because you’ve done some self-exploration.” Instead of trying to shake off the guilt completely, he said he shared it. “It’s one of my greatest skills in life, where things are bothering me, I can put them aside and focus on the things that I can really build on.”
Skin whitening is a widespread phenomenon and is part of a growing industry all over the world. Global sales of skin lightening creams are expected to reach $11.8 billion by 2026, up from $8 billion in 2020, with the Asia-Pacific region accounting for the largest revenue. Obviously, color is a discrimination that hasn’t gone away. “We interviewed high school kids and I was shocked and saddened to hear them say the same thing I heard 30 years ago,” France said. “It seems nothing has changed.”
Perhaps the biggest reveal in the film comes from France realizing she is now the same age as the elders who would have made disparaging comments about skin color when she was younger. “The people of my generation are aunts and uncles now, so how can we not learn?” he said in disbelief. “We still say the same thing to our children, and it makes me less hopeful that skin color will be eradicated in my life.”
In fact, it was the birth of their first child in July 2021 that made France want to fix a traumatic incident in its past. “Many people have a right to be concerned about having children in the midst of the climate crisis, but what scares me the most as a father is that my son feels the same way that scares me,” he said. France says she plans to home-school her children, in part, to give her more control over the people and ideas her son encounters growing up. “As a parent, it makes me determined to make sure she understands that the color of her skin isn’t going to get in her way at all… It’s thinking about how difficult her life is because of the color of her skin. That’s when I knew this documentary had to happen.”
Now that he had dug up his childhood trauma for the world to see, was he worried about how it would be received? “It would be naive for me to think that a documentary is enough to change something we have felt throughout our lives, but I want the community of color to understand what they are doing to the younger generation,” France said. “I want aunts and uncles to realize that they can be just as destructive as the white man who beat up five-year-old Tan. And maybe even more so, because I find skin color harder to deal with now than racism.”
For white audiences, France hopes this film will also have a positive impact on the entertainment industry. “The UK does a really bad job of representing marginalized groups, so I wanted white people watching to understand the importance of having a different skin color on screen,” he said, gesturing with renewed determination. “I know that I speak with a British accent and I know I’m lighter than a lot of South Asians, but having me on Queer Eye is radical. It is sad that four years later, I am still one of the very few people of color authentically represented on screen.”
Now that he wielded this power of representation, if he could go back and talk to another nine year old Tan, the boy who was so embarrassed to try to change the color of his skin, what would he say? “I want him to feel that his experience of the world doesn’t always have to be hindered by the color of his skin…” He paused. “That there are many differences between us, but that we should all be treated equally and we are all capable of being loved.”
Tan France: Beauty & the Bleach airs 9pm at 2April 7BBC Two.