Recently, Alexa Chung , was reading interviews she gave when she was just starting out, to see whether she’d changed in the past few years. She came across a stand-out quote: “I don’t want to be known for floating around and just going to parties,” the Alexa of yesteryear stated.
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“And yet,” says Alexa today, with an awkward laugh, “that’s kind of what’s happened.”
We are sitting in the garden of a large house in Dalston, east London, a few minutes from Chung’s own home. She is relaxing with coffee and cigarettes after a long day of modelling and is about to head off to a red carpet party. So, yes, it does look as though Chung has become famous for floating around and going to parties.
But that is not fair. Or not wholly fair, anyway. And it’s still not what Chung wants, she says. Sure, it was fun when she first appeared on TV in 2006, at 22, as a presenter on Channel 4’s Popworld. She started getting invites to parties “and all this free stuff”, but even the most dazzling novelties wane.
“I’m terrified of being bored and not learning,” she says. “I love designing things, so maybe [I’ll go into] that. I never wanted all this.”
Chung’s PR pops her head around the corner to tell her the Chanel handbag she will wear to tonight’s GQ Man of the Year Awards party has arrived. “Aw, sick!” Chung replies with a big grin. (Note to older readers: “sick” is good.)
According to Chung, she is “just a TV presenter”. According to US Vogue, she is “a style bombshell who flattens the best efforts of any American counterpart with the indescribable force of her courageous chic”. And according to the hundreds of blogs dedicated to photographing her every outfit, and the countless women who try to copy her style, she is the fashion icon of this generation.
Partly this has been a matter of fortuitous timing. Just as Kate Moss‘s wardrobe was starting to get a bit “rock’n’roll mum who spends too much time in All Saints”, along came Chung, with her endearing tomboy style (dungaree dresses, shorts, duffle coats, Converse), feminine flourishes (pink coats, Peter Pan collars) and classic details (quilted jackets, Chanel bags). Her look is often described as “quirky”, which is shorthand for “not dressing like a Kardashian”. In a world of female celebrities stumbling around in six-inch stilettos and Hervé Léger bandage dresses, Chung is a refreshing dose of accessible prettiness, as opposed to aggressive sexuality. If you wondered why teens and twentysomethings wear tiny denim shorts instead of the once ubiquitous denim skirts and peasant skirts, it’s because of Alexa. Barbour jackets? Satchel bags? One-piece swimsuits? Alexa, Alexa, Alexa.
Chung looks awkward at the suggestion that people copy her. “Being British, I don’t want to be all paranoid and arrogant and think people are looking at me because, really, I’m nothing.”
“Awkward” is an adjective that often comes to mind when talking to Chung: in person, she has none of the confidence one might expect of someone dubbed by Grazia as “the coolest girl in London with the coolest friends” (her close circle includes models Pixie Geldof and Daisy Lowe, and Radio 1 DJ Nick Grimshaw). She’s not uncomfortable in her skin – during our photoshoot, she knows how to pose and what will look good on her – but there’s a goofy nerviness about her, conveyed through occasional ramblings, frequent self-deprecation and a belief that others know better. When I ask what her future plans are, she replies, “Umm, I don’t know. What do you think I should do?”
At one point she says casually, “I have never lived in a time when people haven’t told me what I look like. Since I was 15 [when she started modelling], people were telling me, ‘You’re the girl next door, you look like this, you should have your hair like that.'” But when I ask how she would describe her look, she appears baffled: “Er, oh God, what do you think it is?”
Quite tomboyish and individual, I suggest.
“Yeah, that’s good. Well, hopefully if people are responding to my look, it’s because I dress for myself.” And this is true. For our shoot, she has chosen her favourite outfits from the autumn high street, but the one piece she decides to take home (“I always do my shopping on fashion shoots!” she singsongs) is an A-line skirt from Topshop that looks – and I’m using technical fashion terms, so bear with me – like a black bin bag. Of course, on Chung it looks marvellous, but a woman who chooses to wear a bin bag is not trying to impress the boys. In 2010, at the Met Gala in New York, the glitziest night in the fashion year, instead of wearing a backless gown like everyone else, she wore a tuxedo with braces.
“If I know something’s expected of me, I won’t wear it or do it,” she says. “It just seems boring.” And that is as detailed as she gets when describing her style because, as with anyone to whom looking good comes naturally, she finds it impossible to articulate her approach to fashion. “I know what I like and think, yeah, that’s cool,” is as much as she can muster. This is charming but somewhat problematic when it comes to the book she has written, largely about her personal style.
The book, It, is not her take on Stephen King’s classic novel but rather a glimpse into her It girl-ness. While it can read like a hipster version of Pippa Middleton’s much-maligned Celebrate, with tips on how to take a selfie and paeans to denim hotpants, it also captures Chung’s nature, in that it is very sweet, at times dryly funny and somewhat scattershot. It will enchant those who get her appeal and befuddle those who don’t.
On the day we meet, a review of the book in the London Evening Standard has taken delight in breaking this delicate butterfly upon the hard wheel of a middle-aged male critic’s sarcasm. But, as Chung rightly says, it is written for 15-year-old girls, not “old men reviewing it, and I think [the 15-year-olds] will like it”. Yet she is “completely terrified” about the book’s publication. When she was writing it, she kept imagining the reviews and sending them to her editor: “I’d be writing, ‘Oh dear, style over substance.’ And then I thought, if I spent as much time on the book as I do on concocting reviews, it might actually be good.”
Writing a book was never, she says, “a lifetime dream”. Writing itself “can be annoying, but I like how I feel after I’ve written something, so it’s worth it for that”. She wrote it in a series of emails to her editor, usually wearing a One Direction onesie (“It’s the thing I wear most”), and is pleased with the result. “But is it OK? Am I going to be rinsed?” she asks anxiously (further note to older readers: “rinsed” is bad). She had been approached to write books before, usually style tomes or a tell-all (“I was like, meh”), and she readily admits that the book is in part a send-up of that former genre, with its non-tips on how to get dressed (“Is the outfit clean – is it though?”) and how to apply eyeliner (“I cannot help you”).
The longest section is about how to cope with heartbreak. So, I say, shall we talk about heartbreak?
“I’m not heartbroken any more, but I definitely was when I wrote it [last year],” she says hastily.
Who caused the heartbreak?
“It was various people. There was one big thing, and then there were various ill-advised flings I had to get over him, so yeah,” she replies.
“Him”, as all Alexa fans know, is Alex Turner, lead singer of Arctic Monkeys and Chung’s boyfriend for four years until their split in 2011.
I tell her my theory about heartbreak: that it takes half the amount of time you were with someone to get over them, and she nods a little sadly. “Yeah, I’d agree with that. But is this gross to talk about? I feel he wouldn’t talk about it. I don’t know how relevant it is now, whereas if you asked me at the time, ‘How you doing?’ No one even asked… But I don’t know whether to be open and vulnerable about it and say, ‘I had a shit time’, or to be quiet. What do you think?”
It’s up to you, I say. But I guess it might be healthy for your younger female fans to know that your life is not always perfect, despite what the photos suggest.
She barks with laughter at the suggestion that her life might be perfect. “But I don’t want to imply he broke my heart. I was grieving for the loss of something.” She later elaborates on her reluctance to talk about the relationship saying, “I know how the media does that whole ‘poor her’ thing, like they did with Jennifer Aniston – not that I’m comparing myself to her, of course – but do you see what I mean?”
Yet, typically, Chung can’t help herself and carries on. “I’m grateful for the experience of that shit time, and for being on my own. I’d never really been on my own before – I’d always gone from one relationship to the next – so I had to learn all this stupid stuff. Like, how do I work my fucking TV? And now there isn’t a dude to tell me how to put up the blinds. But it’s good to learn how to work your way round a drill.”
She and “Al”, as she calls him, are still friends. “Oh yeah, he’s my best friend,” she says quietly.
Chung is currently single, she says proudly, and feels much calmer for it. For how long, I ask.
“About a month,” she replies, and looks a little confused when I laugh.
Chung was born and raised in Hampshire, the pony-loving youngest of six. Her father is Chinese and her mother English; while many have compared her style to Jane Birkin and Françoise Hardy, she says it “totally comes from my mum, the Breton tops and Barbours”. She did well at school, but turned down the offer to study English at King’s College, London, because her modelling career was taking off. She was offered her first TV job at 22, and has been presenting ever since in the UK and the US, where she has been living for the past four years, though she keeps her house in London.
Chung has said in the past that modelling gave her “low self-esteem” and required her “to strip in front of creepy men”, so it seems a little ironic that, if she used her success as a model to get out of the profession and into TV, her success on TV has returned her to modelling. “Yeah, it’s weird,” she agrees. “I’m not sure how that happened.”
And now her body is scrutinised more closely than ever. Last year, she was criticised when it was discovered that photos of her were being used as “thinspiration” by the diet-conscious and those prone to eating disorders.
When I bring this up, her shoulders hunch up defensively for the only time during our interview, and she leans forward a little, almost rocking herself: “I don’t think it’s fair, but I guess everyone compares themselves. I understand how, if you don’t know me and I just represent something, yeah [my body shape] might be annoying, but when people were going on about how thin I was, I thought, You don’t know what’s going on in my life, or how I react to things.”
So was she feeling self-conscious because of the speculation and perhaps eating less as a result?
“No, no, because, if anything, I went through that self-consciousness when I was modelling. So I’m like, ‘Guys, are you still talking about this?'”
Chung is, clearly, naturally very slim. But the truth is, to my eyes, in the past few years, since I started seeing her at fashion shows, she has become notably thinner. To castigate her for this, however, as many magazines and blogs have done, is to miss the point. It is the industry, not any one individual, that should be the focus of criticism. And it would be hard for any young woman not to feel self-conscious if they were suddenly being stared at by millions.
Chung insists that the only effect the attention has had on her eating habits was that she briefly considered eating more at supper, in order to try to put on weight and stop the criticism. “But that would be a shit message to send to young girls, too: that you should change your body shape for public opinion.” The truth is, she says, “I’m just really good at dressing my body’s proportions.”
It must be hard, though, I say, to be surrounded by people speculating on your body and staring at you. She shrugs: “I think as long as you have a good group of friends who don’t say yes to everything, you’re fine.”
Chung’s circle of friends are all celebrities, so they understand the public speculation. “It’s fodder for us to laugh at. When we’re having a roast and Grimmy’s on the cover of the Guardian, we’re all like, wahey! That’s hilarious.”
Interview done, we go inside to inspect the bag Chung will take to tonight’s party. It’s Perspex and in the shape of a giant Chanel No 5 bottle. “It’s brilliant!” Chung gasps.
“It is brilliant,” her PR echoes.
“But, like, totally ridiculous,” Chung adds.
“Yeah, ridiculous, but also brilliant. But definitely ridiculous,” her PR agrees immediately. Bag settled, Chung heads over to the clothing rail to look at her dress for the evening: it’s a shimmery, long-sleeved shift by her current favourite label, Carven. It’s more elegant-elderly-woman-who-lunches than GQ babe.
“I do have this other dress, black velvet with a leather bustier, which I should wear tonight, but…” But that, of course, would be expected, and therefore boring.
A few hours later, there are already pictures online of Chung on the red carpet, clowning around with Lowe, who is wearing a black dress slit down to her naval and up to her thigh. Chung stands out prettily, looking a little like a grand dowager who has somehow wandered into a Vegas show. But she also looks wholly at home, groping Lowe’s bosom for the camera and giving Grimshaw a kiss. She looks like she’s having a grand old time.
• It, by Alexa Chung, is published by Penguin Books, £16.99.