We know her face, her hair, hell, even her handbags. But what about her mind? Terri White meets an Alexa none of us have met before...
Yesterday, Alexa Chung gave herself a good old talking-to. Sitting in the make-up chair backstage at her daily TV show Fuse News in New York, she just wasn’t feeling it. “I was like, ‘I’m tired, I don’t really want to do the show today.’ Then I thought, ‘Shut the f**k up! You’re so lucky to be given the opportunity to have a voice. For ages, you didn’t, and no-one wanted to listen to you’.”
This is the Alexa Stylist meets on a crisp autumn afternoon in Soho House in the city’s Meatpacking District: one who has found her voice. Yes, even the bad words. Dubbed a “phenomenon” by Anna Wintour, Alexa has been broadly known as two things in her career: a generation’s style icon and a face. That face. While she’s clearly both of these things (we’d probably also throw in The Hair), a world which often struggles with the co-existence of beauty and brains has – at times – believed this to be the sum of her parts.
Ferociously hardworking and incredibly bright, Alexa, 30, has toiled to kick off each somewhat clichéd tag – or at least acquire a few new ones to nestle alongside them that aren’t about the skirt she wears or the parties she attends.
Her latest venture is something she does behind closed doors, away from prying eyes. Something which accounts for the boxes of products piled up in her East Village apartment and the countless pictures of Debbie Harry stuck to her kitchen wall. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Alexa Chung: The Businesswoman.
Before the cynical eyebrow-raising takes hold, Alexa’s job as creative consultant of hot Brit beauty brand Eyeko is not one of those celebrity gigs. And that’s precisely the reason Alexa signed on the dotted line when she’s rejected so many other approaches. “Often brands will want you to front them, but there’s no room to actually have creative input,” she admits. “This is something that really appeals to me, especially as I get older.”
Previously, she has been the face of several high-profile brands including Maje, Vero Moda, DKNY Jeans, New Look, Pepe Jeans, Lacoste and L’Oréal. She’s also given her name to others – most notably 2010’s £750 Alexa bag for Mulberry, which was credited with helping the company buck the recession. The bag was inspired by a photo of Alexa carrying an Elkington, Mulberry’s classic men’s briefcase – and while the company had a tradition of naming bags after ‘it’ girls including Lana Del Rey, one had never flown off the shelves in quite the same way. In October 2010, Mulberry announced that its UK sales over the previous 10 weeks had risen by 57% when compared with the same period in 2009. And though she loved the tribute – and was often photographed carrying her namesake satchel – Alexa began to feel she wanted to be more than a muse.
She recounts how often over the years, she would arrive on-set for a photoshoot and wish that a certain photographer was shooting, an art director she loved was involved or the looks were being styled in a specific way. It became increasingly odd that her input was, officially at least, being limited to in front of the camera; her image being used to sell a product she had no role in creating.
“For me, it was a missed opportunity,” she explains. “So now I think, I’m going to filter it; make sure it’s something I create.” Enter Eyeko (the eyeliner she already wore with a flourish), whose founders – Max and Nina Leykind –convinced her one hungover morning in London 18 months ago that what they really wanted was the stuff inside her head.
Alexa describes their collaboration as “very organic” and “born out of [her previous] frustration”. But as she’s only too aware, it remains a double-edged sword: “There are plenty of celebrities that ‘design’ collections. It’s hard to prove that you’re really doing it.”
She, for one, is determined to do it properly. Taking her new responsibilities seriously, Alexa’s currently juggling commitments with Eyeko with her TV presenting day job, plus DJ-ing and writing gigs. She just wrote her first book too, a collection of inspirations and musings simply called It. It’s a project she describes as something she “had to do” even though she got some “really “c**ty reviews”.
All of this means using every minute wisely – including her downtime – whether that’s taking conference calls during breaks at the studio or brainstorming ideas for packaging when in the midst of another gig. “One night when I was DJing a benefit for a friend, I was also designing a poster,” she says.
“Sending images back and forth, piecing it together”. This is one of the ideas she seems most proud of – the Sixties mod-inspired cat-eye how-to poster that comes inside the over-sized tube that holds her first make-up set, the Eye Do Liquid Eyeliner and Eye Do Mascara. With her focus on the aesthetics, she’s “interested in making sure their artwork reflects what the product is and how it should be used.”
She contributes not just on packaging (her sister, who is a packaging designer, also takes a peek), but ideas for concepts and artwork, suggesting artists, models and directors and personally roadtests products. “I’ll ask for it to be a couple of shades darker – or be like, ‘Can the brush be thinner?’” She finds inspiration in famous frontwomen – Stevie Nicks, Debbie Harry, Marianne Faithful – and describes the collage that dominates the kitchen of her apartment. “I didn’t have any Blu-Tack, so I stuck loads of pictures on the wall using gaffer tape. Postcards, pictures of the Eiffel Tower, smiley faces, my friend Valentine pregnant in a photoshoot, my friend Matt Hick against a pink colourama… it’s very student.”
Switching lanes and diversifying is nothing new to Alexa – “It’s maybe something that came out of not going to university,” she reflects of turning down offers to read English at King’s College London and do an art foundation course at Chelsea College of Art and Design. “I didn’t have a chance to figure it out [then]. So I’m figuring it out in front of everyone.”
Alexa had been spotted by a model scout at just 16, and within a few years was already eyeing up her first career change. She wanted to be a stylist – and was certainly well placed to make it happen – but was too intimidated to ask the same magazines she appeared in for work experience. “Eugh, I’m useless, I’m rubbish, I’m stupid!” is how she describes her mindset back then.
Psych 101 would dictate that a combination of skipping university and several years doing a job in which you’re judged on looks would fill anyone with the overwhelming need to prove something. “No,” she says firmly. “It was all in my head, it wasn’t real. It was just about self esteem and how I felt about myself – or how I let other people make me feel.”
Now she’s hit 30, most of those insecurities are gone, though she admits that when she began to develop more of a voice in the business world, there were “moments of self doubt”. Being so successful in her 20s certainly helped – though so, presumably, did one major failure; when she first moved to America to present It’s On for MTV, a show which didn’t survive past its first series. She ponders whether this made her return to the US for her second – more successful – stint, admitting that “maybe I didn’t want to be defeated by a city.”
The last decade has been a rollercoaster, but Alexa wouldn’t change it: “I’m like, ‘F**k, you never know where things are going to take you. It’s made me much more of an advocate of the ‘I’ll give it a go’ attitude.”
But as she is plunging herself into a brand-new role in an industry full of seasoned experts, moments of panic in the small wee hours would be perfectly understandable. Normal, even. Was she worried about a backlash? “I tend not to focus on other people’s opinions,” she insists.
“I’m happy doing it, so I don’t really mind what others think. That’s not something that scares me that much… The dark and frogs do. I hate frogs.” And there’s the trademark Alexa Chung joke, often interchangeable with her deadpan self-deprecation – both of which can feel like a shield against critics. “Well, you can’t f**king win if you’re famous,” she laughs. “If you say, ‘Yes, I’m sooo great at that’, everyone hates you. Or if you’re the beautiful actress who says you’re nothing to look at it’s, ‘Oh, f**k off!’.
You really can’t get it right. I’d like to give anyone else a go at being scrutinised. Daily. It’s not easy.” Frogs aside, Alexa is scared of one other thing. “I live in fear of it disappearing again, all the time. I think ‘I could so easily still be just a catalogue model. But I’m not, I’m in a studio giving opinions on music!” she says, before checking herself with a grateful: “Which is nice”.
Part of her verve and business zeal can be attributed to living in the US – the land of unashamed ambition – for the last four years. “America definitely trains you to be more vocal about it,” she admits. Not that she’s yet taken on their habit of blatant self-promotion. “Yeah, my friends found out that I was writing a book on Twitter,” she admits. “It didn’t seem worth mentioning over dinner. They’re all so successful themselves”. She talks with awe about the “amazing power women” she surrounds herself with. Close friends like Tennessee Thomas, the drummer in The Like who has just opened her own pop-up shop and Brianna Lance, head designer for Reformation.
She passionately believes that networks of strong, creative women are vital. “To have role models and peers that are trying as hard as you – and failing as hard as you. To not be competitors, but to be inclusive and cheer for each other,” she enthuses, pointing to Lauren Laverne and Caitlin Moran, who are vocal in their support of other women on Twitter.
“I think you achieve a lot more through love than negativity.” Realising how American that sounds, Alexa slaps her hand across her head. Alexa’s female-centric philosophy sounds a lot like feminism. Is she a feminist? “Yes,” she says without hesitation. I ask her what it means to her. “To be equal, to stand up for yourself and not be objectified. Whoever it is who’s filtering stuff makes it seem like women want to be more than men. My understanding… is that we’re asking to be treated the same,” she answers, though rejects that her own brand of feminism may be part of the reason she wanted to move into the business world and away from modelling. “I don’t think I’ve thought about it in those deep terms.”
So what does 30-plus look like for Alexa Chung? “I never got that far in my dream plans!” she laughs. “What the f**k! I’m not meant to get past 30!” After a few more moments of quiet consideration and a bit of prompting, she says: “Well, yes I’d love to design more, do photography. Maybe look after myself and learn to relax a bit.” It all gets serious for a moment. But only for a moment. “I’d quite like to live somewhere that’s not the size of a tent! And I’m quite ambitious about getting more sleep. Really nailing it.”
Other than the big lie-in, we don’t know what’s next for Alexa. We’re not entirely sure she does either. But we’re watching with interest, and still listening.