When Tan France released his autobiography in 2019, it wasn’t the accounts of the constant racism he experienced growing up in Doncaster in the 1980s that caught the media’s attention, nor was it his glitzy tales of recent fame as one of the stars of the Netflix makeover show Queer Eye. Instead, what hit the headlines was the confession that he used skin-bleaching cream as a nine-year-old that hit.
“Back in the UK, if I went a week without being called a P-word on the street, that was really something,” France says over a video call from his current home in Salt Lake City, Utah. “When I was five I was chased and beaten up by a group of white men on my way to school. But it was this one account of me trying to lighten my skin as a child that the press made an unexpectedly huge deal of.
“I was just a child and I felt so much pressure to be lighter,” he says. “The shame about my skin I experienced outside the house followed me home, and so I put on the cream.” It is an uncomfortable revelation from someone best known for his relentless optimism and perfectly coiffed aesthetic. It is a new, introspective side of France, one that forms a key part of his revealing new BBC Two documentary on colourism.
Defined as a form of discrimination based on the shade of a person of colour’s skin tone – rather than just their skin colour – colourism has in recent years become a high-profile topic of discussion. In 2021, the Little Mix singer Leigh-Anne Pinnock fronted a BBC Three documentary that addressed the issue within the music industry. The Guardian launched its own series of first-hand accounts in 2019; while 2018 research from Vanderbilt University found that US immigrants with a darker skin tone were paid as much as 25% less than their lighter-skinned counterparts.
“Colourism is everywhere and it’s not the same as racism,” France says. “It’s often within communities of colour themselves that people are discriminated against based on the darkness of their skin, and it has lifelong effects of internalised shame.” During his film, France recounts how family members would jokingly refer to darker relatives as “Coco Pops”, or would say that only lighter-skinned youngsters would end up getting married. These comments, coupled with an entertainment landscape that only ever placed lighter-skinned people of colour on screen, are what France believes have contributed to his ongoing struggles with colourism. He says in the documentary that he still feels uncomfortable coming back to the UK when he’s not in London; there is a scene where he tries to revisit Doncaster to confront his past, but he can’t bring himself to actually go.
“When we announced this documentary, people were asking: ‘Why is light-skinned Tan France the one hosting it?’ But I want them to understand that every person of colour – no matter what shade you are – experiences this discrimination in some form,” France says. “I was always conditioned to think that white is right and lighter is better through the prevalence of the light-skinned imagery I grew up seeing.” It has had such an effect that when he returned from a recent holiday in Hawaii, he was surprised by the amount he had tanned. “I saw myself in my bathroom mirror and I immediately thought: ‘Oh gosh, I got a bit too brown,’” he says, then pauses. “For a second, I allowed myself to believe that was a problem again.”
France has built a thriving TV career over the past four years, primarily on the back of the heartfelt encouragement he offers along with his fashion expertise. Yet he is affectingly honest in admitting the lack of self-acceptance he still has towards his own skin tone. In the film, he recounts for the first time how he used skin-bleaching cream again when he was 16. “It wasn’t until we started filming and we spoke to adults who still felt this pressure that I realised I had to admit to doing it again at 16 … I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t, but I still carry shame about it because I was old enough to understand better.” Rather than stop after a first attempt – as he did at nine when he pilfered a bottle from his cousin – France bought the cream and used it multiple times.
“We shot over 100 hours of interviews and I went to see a psychotherapist twice, but there was no ‘A-ha!’ moment,” he says. “We could have kept on filming for three years but I still don’t think I would rid myself of the guilt for bleaching again. I don’t want to fake it, or for people to think that you can get over these huge cultural and societal pressures just because you’ve done some self-exploration.” Rather than trying to exorcise the guilt entirely, he says he compartmentalised it. “It’s one of my greatest skills in life, where the things that troubled me, I can push aside and focus on the things that I can really build on.”
Skin bleaching is a pervasive phenomenon and one that is part of a growing worldwide industry. Global sales of skin lightening cream are expected to reach $11.8bn by 2026, up from $8bn in 2020, with the Asia-Pacific region accounting for the most revenue. Clearly, colourism is a discrimination that has yet to go away. “We interviewed high-school kids and I was shocked and saddened to hear them saying the same things I was hearing 30 years ago,” France says. “It’s like nothing has changed.”
Perhaps the biggest revelation in the film comes from France realising that he is now the same age as the elders who would make disparaging comments about skin tone when he was younger. “People of my generation are the aunties and uncles now, so how the fuck did we not learn?” he says, incredulously. “We’re still saying the same things to our kids, and that makes me far less hopeful that colourism will be eradicated in my lifetime.”
It was, in fact, the birth of his first child in July 2021 that made France want to readdress the traumatic incidents of his past. “Lots of people are rightfully concerned about having kids in the midst of the climate crisis, but what scared me most about being a dad was my son feeling the same things that scared me,” he says. France says he plans to homeschool his children, in part, to allow him greater control over the people and ideas his son encounters growing up. “As a parent, it’s made me determined to make sure he understands that the colour of his skin will not hinder him at all … It was thinking about how difficult his life might be because of his skin colour. That’s when I knew this documentary had to happen.”
Now that he has excavated his childhood trauma for the world to see, is he worried about how it might be received? “It would be really naive of me to think that a documentary is enough to change something we’ve been conditioned to feel our entire lives, but I want communities of colour to understand what they are doing to the younger generation,” France says. “I want the aunties and uncles to realise that they can be just as damaging as those white men who beat up five-year-old Tan. And perhaps even more so, since I find colourism harder to deal with now than I do racism.”
For white audiences, France hopes the film will have a positive impact on the entertainment industry, too. “The UK does a really bad job of representing marginalised groups, so I want the white people watching to understand the importance of having different skin tones on screen,” he says, gesturing with renewed determination. “I know that I speak with an English accent and I know I’m lighter than many south Asians, but having me on Queer Eye is radical. It’s sad that four years on, I’m still one of the very, very few people of colour authentically represented on screen.”
Now that he holds this power of representation, if he could go back and speak to nine-year-old Tan again, that little boy who was so shamed into trying to change the colour of his skin, what would he say? “I would want him to feel like his experiences of the world won’t always have to be hindered by the colour of his skin …” He pauses. “That there are many differences between us, but we should all be treated equally and we are all capable of being loved.”
Tan France: Beauty & the Bleach airs at 9pm on 27 April, BBC Two.