Oscar Holland, CNN
“Queer Eye” star Tan France has opened up about bleaching his skin when he was 9 years old, saying that he wanted to appear “as non-Asian as possible.”
Discussing his childhood for a new documentary, the fashion guru detailed how he stole bleaching cream from his cousin before applying it in secret.
“(My skin color) is something I thought of every day when I woke up,” he said in the documentary, “Tan France: Beauty and the Bleach,” which aired in the UK on Wednesday. “I thought: ‘What trouble is my skin going to get me into today?’ And so, at 9, I was already making grand plans to bleach — to do what I could to be as non-Asian as possible.
“I did it behind a locked door,” he recalled. “I put on a generous amount — it stung. Over the next half an hour (or) hour, it starts to feel like you’ve got actual sunburn.”
Although the discomfort deterred him from re-using the cream, France revealed that he again used a skin-lightening product when he was 16, as he hoped to start dating.
France said he was driven to bleaching not only by racism in his English hometown of Doncaster, South Yorkshire, but because of colorism — a preference for lighter skin tones — within his own Pakistani family and the Asian community.
“We used to have horrible names for some of our extended family members who were darker-skinned,” he admitted, saying that skin tone — and its influence over people’s marriage and job prospects — was an “ever-present” topic of discussion growing up.
“It’s our own people saying we are not worthy unless we’re light-skinned,” he said.
The BBC documentary sees the 39-year-old, who now lives in the US, travel back to Britain to explore the history and impact of colorism. The TV star eventually decides against returning to Doncaster, where he was subjected to racial abuse and “a lot of traumatic experiences.”
“Just because some people might consider me light-skinned does not mean that I don’t have a lot of experience with colorism.
“I’ve been surrounded by colorism my entire life. I felt so determined to change my skin color when I was a kid,” he said, later adding that he has always “blamed myself and beat myself up” about using bleaching cream.
In the hour-long documentary, France discusses colorism with school children, experts and a former long-term user of bleaching products. He also interviews various high-profile figures, including British actor Bunmi Mojekwu and former Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland.
Recounting how she “always” heard people describing her as the band’s darkest member, Rowland traces her experiences of colorism back to an early relationship.
“(My boyfriend’s) grandmother compared me to the color of a paper bag and said that I was too dark chocolate for him and he couldn’t date me,” she tells France, adding: “It affected me in a way where I was just always uncertain of how I looked. It started to define what beauty was to me.”
Top image caption: Tan France arrives at the 2021 InStyle Awards at The Getty Center on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021 in Los Angeles.
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To read more stories about the issue of skin whitening, visit CNN’s As Equals’ investigative series “White lies,” which looks to expose the underlying drivers of colorism, the industry that profits from it and the cost to individuals and communities globally.