Model, teen TV presenter, fashion icon – Alexa Chung is Britain’s coolest new export to the US. She talks about love, her Arctic Monkey and why olives are evil
A tweet from Alexa Chung. It is 7am in New York City. “Gross. Keep being sick. It’s the worst,” she says. “Food poisoning?”
It’s plausible – though I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, to consider her final tweet the previous evening. “Seasick drunk. Bad vibes.”
So our interview is postponed. We meet a day later, when naturally my first job is to determine the cause of this illness. Was food or booze to blame? Both, it turns out. “I got up at 6.30am, did the show, then I had to wait around and go to a screening of this awful film,” she says. “Then everyone wanted to go for a drink. And I hadn’t eaten all day, and I was so hungry by the time I got to the bar I just ate my weight in olives. Then I had whisky. I think something happened with the two and they turned to poison. I didn’t stop puking until 2pm yesterday. Disgusting. Olives stuck in my nose,” she announces, brightly. “I was, like, ‘Wow! I was really swallowing those things down whole?’”
It’s not the sort of thing you get from Fern Britton. But it is why MTV has whisked Chung – 25, TV presenter, model, style hero to a generation, girlfriend to Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner and one half of Britain’s coolest couple – off to America. Noted for her cheerfully irreverent interview technique, first seen on Channel 4’s Popworld (where she’d ask Gwen Stefani if her new scent stank of bacon, and get Paul McCartney to sing a song about shoes), Chung now has her own show. Mixing celebrity interviews, live music and comedy sketches, It’s On with Alexa Chung launched on June 15.
Broadcast live from Times Square each day at noon, it’s a big deal for MTV. Replacing hoary old flagship show Total Request Live, it signals a channel-wide overhaul that, the network says, “marks a directional shift geared toward the millennium generation”. Chung is hardly the first TV Brit to cross the Atlantic, but this one won’t be coming home with her tail between her legs. Audience figures have tripled in the first month, It’s On… is moving to an early evening time slot and guests are now of the Cameron Diaz/Adam Sandler calibre. Rolling Stone has noted approvingly her role “as a madcap inquisitor” with “an attitude”, and Chung herself has been a guest on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon – big news. She’s even got her own office overlooking Times Square. That’s pretty serious, I say. “It’s really serious. It’s kind of surreal. Um, they gave it to me, but I don’t actually go in there.”
Last seen here not being recommissioned as the roving reporter on Gok’s Fashion Fix, and probably wishing Vanity Lair, The Wall and Frock Me, all doomed comedy/lifestyle vehicles, hadn’t been commissioned at all, no one is more surprised than Chung. “I thought I’d get to go home in November,” she says. “Usually I have one season of everything. Now they’re talking about 2011.”
We meet in a restaurant in Williamsburg, the hipster enclave across the East River from Manhattan where, Chung notes, “Everyone walks around looking rad all day, drinking coffee and working on a script.” Her apartment – “which is huge, but has nothing in it” – is here; she moved with Turner and “80 per cent of my clothes” (four wardrobes-worth flown over in crates marked, semi-cryptically, A. Chung, “in case someone liked clothes and wanted to nick them”). Turner’s lyrics for Fire and the Thud, on the imminent Arctic Monkeys album, refer to their relocation – “If it’s true you’re gonna run away/ Tell me where, I’ll meet you there” – and New York is very much the couple’s home now.
Chung is immediately likeable. Smart (two A’s and a B at A level, and “still p***** off about the B in history”), more serious than a career spent asking McFly, “Where’s the strangest place you’ve put your finger?” would have you expect, she’s decked out in her idiosyncratic take on high-end meets high street – floaty Topshop frock, Chanel patent heels, plus quilted shoulder bag and necklaces everywhere. It’s a look that, as Vogue puts it, has seen her take “prime position in most best-dressed lists”.
She unpacks her 34in legs, and double-crosses them. She’s such a permanent fixture of “Get the Look” articles even this simple act of human comfort has been deemed worthy of deconstruction. “The Alexa Chung exaggerated leg cross,” raved one journalist, “it’s all in the twist. Always accompany with acres of tanned and toned bare leg.” “Who wrote that?” she hoots. “What a boring thing to have written about you. I trod on your shoe earlier – here, I’ll try to stick them under the table.”
She attacks the menu. That Alexa Chung brunch order in full: “Some baked eggs, no meat; leek on the side.” The waitress asks if she’d like sugar in her cappuccino. “Oh yeah!” she enthuses. “Lovely.”
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The art of conversation
Why did MTV want her? It is, after all, hugely American. And she’s very British.
“I don’t know. I think they just wanted a Brit girl. I think they thought that was quite a cool idea. I don’t think they fully knew what I was like, to be honest.”
“We realised she was the one after five minutes,” says Tony DiBari, MTV America’s senior VP of production. “She’s witty, intelligent, loves music and seems to connect with our audience. She’s also as much fun in the office as she is on air.”
Given we’re talking youth TV here, she’s off to a heroic start: concurring with Gossip Girl actress Leighton Meester that Lady Gaga is like Alice in Wonderland (“Yeah – crazy on opium”) and, in apparently inquiring after her pedigree pet, asking tattoo artist Kat Von D, “So, Kat, you’ve got a hairless pussy?”
“Yeah!” she says. “I said it in the meeting the day before, and I thought they’d say, ‘No.’ I thought the team would be very different to Channel 4. But it’s just the same here.” Doesn’t she struggle with the guests? Who exactly is Leighton Meester, for example? “It’s impossible. They had to spell her name out for me, like I was Anchorman. ‘Lay-ton Mee-ster.’”
It’s On… makes plenty of room for “audience-generated content” via Twitter and Facebook – platforms Chung is a huge fan of herself. Given the youth station has been chided for not latching on to the social networking craze sooner, surely this helped swing the gig – she is effectively her audience. “Yeah!” she says. “That’s the answer to your question, ‘Why did MTV choose me?’ ’Cos I’m like the audience. ‘Dunno’ is not the answer.”
Chung can sound both older and younger than her 25 years. Invited to write a “letter from America” by one British newspaper, presumably hoping for a weekly dispatch filled with glitzy parties, she instead filed a broadside on how Christmas “provides yet another opportunity for girls to dress slutty”, and another bemoaning “the kind of language now slung in the direction of young women”. “I just feel something’s been lost,” she states. “No one wants to act in a dignified manner any more. Having sex on Big Brother… I’m quite an old lady when it comes to that.” On the other hand, there was this recent tweet: “Had a dream I was friends with tigers. Gutted to be awake.” “Yeah,” she says, agreeing wholeheartedly. “The other day I was doing tricks to the camera with this Pocahontas doll, and the producer was, ‘OK, you’re the child today. I get it.’”
It’s perhaps this mix that has won Chung her most loyal fanbase: teenage girls. She refuses to undress for men’s mags, promoting instead a tomboy, throw-it-on-and-go look that’s secured a legion of young imitators, kitted out in her penny loafers, knee socks, cable knits and Barbours. “I feel like I have no need to be sexy for anyone other than my boyfriend. It feels a bit cheap. I didn’t want to be the token presenter that pandered to a male demographic.”
She’s been refreshingly circumspect about her modelling years too, noting that jobs like riding a donkey backwards for sofa company DFS were hardly the height of glamour, and arguing “modelling erodes self-confidence”, though it can’t be doing Alexa’s any harm to be fronting the new DKNY Jeans campaign.
“I’m glad it worked out that young girls can identify with me. But I’m surprised, ’cos I’ve always thought I’m quite spiky. And they’re the hardest people to win over.” There may be one harder-to-please group: the devout Arctic Monkeys fans who were surprised Turner… “That he would go out with me? Yeah. Yeah.”
You can perhaps see why. Songs such as Teddy Picker and Fake Tales of San Francisco featured Turner’s sharp Sheffield tongue lacerating celebrities and scenesters. On paper, Chung seems more the sort he’d write about, not move in with.
“What, to be irritated by, rather than infatuated with? Yeah, I can see that. I don’t know what happened with that. It is weird, isn’t it?” Weird that it happened, or weird fans might say that?
“Weird that’s what they might think. People are very protective of Arctic Monkeys though, aren’t they? They think they’re a very specific thing, whereas, if you met Alex, he’s kind of probably not. I think when we met, we recognised we were both a bit uncomfortable about where we were. That was one of our first conversations. And, er, we’ve maintained that situation well.”
Every era has its celebrity couple, and they are more suited than it might appear: hip without seeming overdone, hard-working while appearing effortless. With Turner’s long hair, he now looks quite feminine, while Chung has her tomboy thing. Alex, Alexa… And Turner famously has an old head atop young shoulders. Perhaps the “old lady” in Chung is the key.
“He’s so wise, it’s ridiculous. I don’t know where it comes from,” she says. “Especially when he hasn’t even experienced some of the situations he writes about. He just knows…” Yes, he’s amazing, I enthuse – a song such as Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured still has you nodding along in recognition, such is his ability to conjure up very specific situations. Chung looks blank. Oh dear, more fuel for the haters: she doesn’t know it.
“What’s that? I don’t know… I haven’t listened to music for so long. ’Cos it’s really hard when you live with someone who’s written it. ‘Oh, I’m just going to play your album, hope you don’t mind. I do love this one. I always liked it before I met you.’ Ha ha! It’s really awkward.”
A very English childhood
Chung grew up in Privett, Hampshire: “One of those places that looks like they’re from a Richard Curtis movie,” as she tells America. Her “bubbly, always smiling” English mum was a housewife; her Chinese graphic designer dad “took more of a back seat, always analysing people”. The smell that reminds her most of childhood, she says, “is horse-s***. From 6 to 14, horses were, like, my life.”
She was discovered at 16 by a model scout at Reading Festival. After running the gamut of Westlife videos and Tampax adverts, she’d had enough and applied for the Popworld job – “I was a massive fan of it.” She and co-host Alex Zane lasted a year. When it came to an end, she cried. “I genuinely thought I would never present again. I was getting a false moustache put on me in the make-up chair when I heard.”
She’s under no illusion that all her post-Popworld work has been TV gold. “You know it’s s*** before it’s going to happen. You want to say to everyone, ‘Hey, I know this is s***, but I’m contracted to do it.’”
Did she fall out with Gok Wan? “No. I guess they wanted the show to go in a different direction. More about how to dress for your shape. I think it would have been a bit much to hear from me, ‘Oh, darling, your boobs are too big.’”
Ironically, she became a fashion icon as soon as she stopped being a model. “If I had been confident enough to do my own thing as a model, maybe I would have been recognised sooner. Long hair, cowboy boots, denim skirt – remember that look? Oh, it stinks. Such a bad look. We all wore it.”
She remains close friends with many of the celebrity set she’s picked up along the way – Agyness Deyn, Kelly Osbourne, Daisy Lowe – a gang she’s dubbed “Team Evil”. (Several appear to be in the process of joining her in Williamsburg.) “No one’s a dick, and everyone knows it’s a laugh.” She considers this. “I didn’t realise it was a clique until I moved here. Then I was, like, ‘Wow, that’s weird. Everyone’s in Grazia.’ I never even thought about it.”
As if by magic, Daisy Lowe then walks past the café window with her dog. “Daisy!” Chung bellows and rushes out to say hello. (The dog bites her.) “See, Daisy can get her tits out. She does it successfully, ’cos she always looks cool.”
Chung knows “there’s only a short space of time available” for youth presenting, and is already making plans for the future. Going to university is a possibility – “I’d really love to study literature” – and she’s started contributing stories to Vogue. “But they might want to sack me now, ’cos my deadline was last week.”
“I was struck by Alexa’s writing,” Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman says. “It’s so rare to find somebody who writes well about their life, without sounding too self-regarding or trite. The fact that she has a great look was a bonus.”
How ambitious is Chung? “Very, I think,” she says. “I’m not a lazy person. Even when I was modelling, I took it seriously. I’m quite a geek. I get worried if I let people down.”
Marriage isn’t on the cards yet. She has three siblings; would she like a big family herself? She looks horrified. “No… I’m not as kind as my mum. Or patient.”
To finish, I suggest asking her some of the questions she once put to guests on Popworld. “Yeah!” she beams. “No one’s done that.”
When was the last time you looked at yourself and went: “You’re the business, girl?” (The Duchess of York) “Not for a while. I hate the mornings more than anything, so every time I wake up I’m not that interested.”
Can you tell us a truth about yourself? (Moby) “I’m really scared of frogs.”
Now, you do a lot of things mediocrely, but what are you worst at? (Pussycat Dolls) “Ha, ha! Who was that to? I can’t believe we asked someone that. Er, I’m bad at singing. Although I love it. And bowling. I’m f****** awful. And swearing. Bad at not swearing.”
Do you own any Arctic Monkeys material? (Basement Jaxx) “Cos that means you’re cool? Oh, these are funny. Oh, that’s so embarrassing. Well…
I had to download I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor the other day for a Burberry DJ event ’cos [creative director] Christopher Bailey likes indie. I texted Alex and I was, like, ‘I want my 79p back, you bastard.’”
What do you dream about? (Sophie Ellis-Bextor) “I had a lovely dream last night. I was walking around. There was definitely a horse involved. Alex was here and it was nice. Everything was good.”
Another tweet from Alexa Chung. It’s two weeks later. We exchange messages while she’s en route to a photo shoot. Diddy was on the show today: “He played the game.” Hugh Dancy and Emile Hirsch are on soon.
I ask what fashions she’s been enjoying. “I’m wearing flesh-coloured nipple covers under my T-shirt, rather than a bra,” she replies. “Pretty strong look.” Has she stayed off the olives?
“I’ll never be able to look one in the face again.”