Three years ago at an Embassy Suites in Glendale, Calif., Antoni Porowski spotted his soon-to-be co-star Tan France in the hotel’s gym. Mr. France was wearing tailored gym shorts and a crisp Nike shirt tucked neatly into his waistband. His hair was perfectly coifed and he was smiling as he StairMastered without breaking a sweat.
An hour later, Mr. France locked eyes with Mr. Porowski, who was wearing a robe in the hotel’s dining room.
“It was a chic robe,” Mr. Porowski said. “But Tan came down in those gym clothes, and he made a comment: ‘Oh, showing up to breakfast wearing a bathrobe.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m in a hotel. It’s what you’re supposed to do.’ He was sweet about it, but there was also a hint of judgment.”
That delicate balance led Mr. France, 37, to be cast alongside Mr. Porowski, Karamo Brown, Bobby Berk and Jonathan Van Ness as the style expert on Netflix’s “Queer Eye.” The show, which released its fifth season in June, follows the experts as they travel in search of “heroes” whose lives could be improved by simple tips, a haircut, some positive self-talk, major home renovations and, of course, shopping.
Mr. France has spun his newfound fame into ample opportunity — a 2019 memoir (“Naturally Tan”), a Netflix competition series co-hosted by Alexa Chung (“Next in Fashion”), and a web series in which he styles famous comedians (“Dressing Funny”) — and now, the debut of his MasterClass. The subscription service allows viewers access to a collection of talks hosted by a high-caliber roster of celebrities and notable public figures, at a price point of $180 per year.
When organizers came calling nine months ago, Mr. France balked. “Initially I thought, ‘Oh, no, I can’t, because what on earth am I going to talk about?’” he said. “I had never considered myself a master at anything.” But he realized teaching a class could spare him the “nearly 800 daily” DMs he gets on Instagram asking for style advice from fans and celebrities. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just say: Watch my MasterClass?’”
Mr. France’s lessons are for all genders, body types and degrees of interest in personal style. The course introduces the idea of a capsule wardrobe meant for every closet, including (mostly neutral) items like a leather jacket, a suit, knitwear, white sneakers and simple T-shirts. It advises on the fit of clothing (skinny jeans: not just for the societally agreed-upon “skinny” among us!). And from there, Mr. France said, you’ve opened up the door to thousands of combinations; anything beyond the initial wardrobe (brighter colors, “trendier” designs) are personalized sprinkles on top of your newfound sense of style.
‘Don’t Do This. I Don’t Like That.’
Growing up the youngest of five siblings in northern England, Mr. France first developed a love for style while visiting his grandfather’s denim factory, where he’d press patterns of Minnie Mouse onto jean jackets and wear them around the house.
“I’m from a Muslim family, and we wear modest clothing,” he said. “We do not show much of our bodies. We don’t wear tight clothes. But I wanted to feel sexy and desirable. I was sick of blending in and feeling invisible. So I started dressing the way I wanted to dress.”
He worked for companies like Zara and Selfridges, where he learned how to properly order product and run department stores, before creating his own line of stylish but modest clothing geared toward Mormon women at age 26. Quickly, fast-fashion brands started knocking off his designs, so Mr. France decided to beat them to the punch, starting a second line that buoyed his business. “I’ve seen the reward,” he said. “I’ve seen that the way I put an outfit together dictates my mood and the way people view me.”
Though he was living out of a West Hollywood hotel when we connected this month, Mr. France normally splits his time between Utah (where he met his husband, Rob France, on vacation in Salt Lake City in 2008) and, soon, a nearly-refurbished home in the Hollywood Hills he purchased earlier this year.
But moving to Tinseltown doesn’t mean he’s comfortably settled into fame. Before “Queer Eye,” he’d planned to retire from his apparel brands to focus on his family. If anything, even when he’s out getting coffee, “I feel the pressure to make sure I look like a style star,” he said. “And nobody can keep up with that all day, every day.”
In his memoir, Mr. France details a hectic, high-stakes stretch of his life — five years ago, at the apex of his design work — during which he nearly overworked himself into the ground. “I began to feel suicidal,” he wrote. “Every day on my drive to or from work, I would start to fantasize about driving into oncoming traffic. I cried in my car every day, thinking I just wanted to take the easy way out.”
Instead, with his husband’s help, he sold his share in his businesses, planning to rely on his savings and consulting work to provide for their future children. Shortly thereafter, “Queer Eye” producers asked him to audition for the show. After several rounds of casting calls and chemistry tests, Mr. France was hired, and quickly decamped to Atlanta for a 16-episode, two-season shoot.
His role is also one of the most clearly defined, based less on platitudes and more on replicable tips and visible transformations. Audiences have, perhaps unfairly, over-distilled Mr. France to his onscreen love of patterned shirts (“out of 20 outfits, only four of them were floral” he wrote last year) and, of course, the often imitated, never properly duplicated French tuck. “I don’t do anything just because the audience might love it,” he said. “I’m doing it because I want the hero to love it.”
In his five seasons on “Queer Eye,” his candor and warmth have made him a favorite among fans and the show’s heroes alike. “He’s a little judgmental, like all of us are, but not in a way that would make anybody feel bad,” Mr. Porowski said. “If he thinks something is ridiculous — like wearing sweatpants with holes — he’s going to tell you. He’s not the type who’s going to be like, ‘OK, well if that works for you.’ It’s like, ‘No, do better. You can do better. You have a responsibility to do better.’”
“He’s just a caring, loving sweetheart of a human being,” Pete Davidson said. He’s given the “Saturday Night Live” star confidence in what to wear. “I’m a shy person,” Mr. Davidson said, “and Tan has helped me try things out of my comfort zone.”
Mr. France is quick to dismantle any preconceived notions about success and stardom for anyone who asks. “I’m very Asian — we don’t know how to filter the things that we desperately want to say,” he said with a laugh. “The things I say are very frank: ‘Don’t do this. I don’t like that. Do this instead.’ If you don’t agree, so be it. This is just my opinion.”
But when filming the first season of “Queer Eye,” he feared that any missteps — a hero mis-measuring him or herself before the shoot, a store refusing to permit filming at the last-minute, a tailor not altering quickly enough for the final reveal — would reflect poorly on him.
“Season 1 and 2 were really hard because I was so new,” he said. “Then the show took off, and it gave me more power. Now I’m very happy saying, ‘If I don’t want to do something, I’m not doing it.’”
With five seasons under his belt and a 2020 Emmy nomination for outstanding host (an honor he shares with his four co-stars), Mr. France said his power and opinion are both respected on the show and off. That newfound sense of authority has also allowed him to publicly engage in the political conversation for the first time as a celebrity, joining Jill Biden with his castmates for a fund-raiser for a Joseph R. Biden Jr. in late August.
“I am a representative of so many things that have been so negatively portrayed over the last three and half years,” he said during the event. “We want to be respected. Muslims want to be respected, people of color want to be respected, the Black community wants to be respected, gay people want to be respected, trans people want to be respected.”
It’s not that he hadn’t wanted to speak up before this summer; he very much did. But he couldn’t. When “Queer Eye” took off, Mr. France had just begun the process of getting his U.S. citizenship. “I really struggled,” he said. “Because people from the L.G.B.T.Q. community to people from the Muslim community and the South Asian community were frustrated, saying, ‘Why aren’t you using your platform for more than just styling tips?’”
“We have a person in power who is a monster and vindictive — the most vindictive leader I’ve ever known in the free world,” he said. “But I was warned by my attorney: ‘I know that you have things to say, but do not risk your citizenship by saying something stupid, publicly or aggressively.’”
For someone paid to offer their opinion necessary, self-preservative silence stung. “So, so much was at stake and nobody seemed to understand. It was a constant question of, ‘Aren’t you going to use your voice?’ I can’t use my voice,” he said. “I’m not willing to lose everything I’ve worked for.”
Three months ago, Mr. France officially became a U.S. citizen (he maintains dual citizenship with his native England) and began making up for lost time, encouraging his nearly four million Instagram followers to vote while supporting Mr. Biden’s candidacy. That came at a cost. “I had a mass unfollowing,” he said. Thousands of followers (16,000 to be exact) fled within hours. “It was smart that they left,” he said, “because now I’m getting more involved.”
“Queer Eye” was one week into filming a new season in Texas when the pandemic caused production to shut down in March, forcing Mr. France and his husband to return home, where he estimates he only spent a combined 20 days total between press commitments and shooting last year.
“For me, having an opportunity to reset has been shockingly beautiful,” he said of the unexpected time off. “I thought I could just keep going and it didn’t matter because I loved work. That wasn’t sustainable long-term, so this has actually shown me that my life will change after this.”
What that change looks like is yet unknown. But Mr. France also knows he can walk away from it all like he did once before. “I didn’t get into show business for the money,” he said. “I took this job because I had an agenda. I needed people to see my people — Muslims, gays, Pakistanis, immigrants — as real people, not just characters on a TV show.”
“So I’m in a very unique position, whereas long as it’s great and as long as it’s fun, I will continue,” Mr. France said. “But as soon as I stop enjoying this, I’m more than happy to go and get back to my life.”