Tan France: ‘I thought if I had whiter skin I wouldn’t be called a p*** every day’

TV review: Beauty and the Bleach explores a bias towards lighter skin

As a star of Queer Eye, Tan France is one of the most positive personalities on our screens. So it is a surprise to discover the bubbly fashion expert is stalked by ghosts, as made clear when he breaks down during Tan France: Beauty and the Bleach (BBC Two, Wednesday).

“I used to wake up thinking, ‘What trouble is my skin going to get me into today?’,” he says, fighting tears. “It was about survival. Being able to get home without being attacked.”

He is recalling an incident which occurred as he was walking to school aged 5 in his home town of Doncaster, when two men assaulted him while yelling racial slurs. He ran and ran. Now living in Utah, he is, in a sense, running still.

'My boyfriend's gran compared the colour of my skin to a paper bag and said I was too chocolate,' says Kelly Rowland

Such experiences were routine for the Asian community in South Yorkshire in the 1980s and 1990s. In France’s case, the generational trauma led to an obsession over the shade of his skin – a prejudice known as “colourism”.

“Growing up in Doncaster I always felt unsafe,” he explains. “I thought if I had whiter skin I wouldn’t be called a p*** every day.”

France is an emphatic and likeable presence – larger than life yet thoroughly unstarry despite his near 20 years in the US. And in this moving and provocative documentary, he is the perfect guide as he explores his own unprocessed pain and the bias towards lighter skin in the wider culture but also within minority communities.

In Asia, he says, skin-whitening treatments occupy the same place in beauty care as anti-wrinkle creams in the west. And among communities in both Britain and the United States there is a long-standing belief those with pale skin will go further.

He meets singer Kelly Rowland, who was constantly reminded she was the darkest member of Destiny’s Child. “My boyfriend’s gran compared the colour of my skin to a paper bag and said I was too chocolate,” she says. “I was always described as the darkest one in the group. I wanted to be desired for my beauty. I wanted to be Mariah [Carey’s] shade. I have been pushed to the brink by colourism.”

'I have had to struggle with my own self image. You're not only judged by the colour of your skin but by the shade of it'

His journey later leads to Manchester, where he talks to a young black man who became addicted to skin whitening, to the point of peeling away layer after layer. “Any deeper and it’s bone,” gasps France.

The obsession with whiteness comes both from outside and within. In India it was part of the caste system so that when the British arrived, they found it easier to impose colonialism. And today the obsession with skin tone is perpetuated by the fashion industry – as he learns talking to a model who has been told she is “too black” for high-fashion and “too white” for commercial work.

The heart of the documentary is Tan’s personal journey. On the drive to Doncaster, he becomes overwrought as memories of verbal and physical abuse come rushing back. In the end he is too upset and zooms by the motorway exit.

He also grapples with guilt over bleaching his skin as a child. He wasn’t to know better, of course. And this thoughtful film brings him closer to a kind of closure. As he jets back to Utah, it is clear, moreover, that what we’ve just sat through is the story of a young man who had to get away from the racism of provincial Britain. It’s about colourism – but also about so much more than that.

“I have had to struggle with my own self image,” he says. “You’re not only judged by the colour of your skin but by the shade of it.”

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics