I think it's humanly impossible not to love Alexa Chung, but I’m biased. The first time our paths crossed in 2009, she valiantly defended me — a stranger — against a particularly rude British paparazzo who had pushed me out of the way to steal the photo of Alexa I was taking. So, as her stardom has risen over the past few years, I’ve watched her like I was watching an old friend who I wasn’t in touch with but had really, really good will toward.
But, I’m certainly not the only person who feels connected to Alexa in this way. She's got a huge, cool cult following that's composed of a community that thinks she’s just the bee's knees, with incredible style, wit, and a certain je ne sais quoi.
Despite her many accolades — she's a host on Fuse, a contributing editor at British Vogue, a model, a DJ, and an Anna Wintour-dubbed “phenomenon" — the only achievement she gloats about in her new book, It, is making the wall on her local karaoke spot. And that’s one of her magical abilities: making things look effortless despite the fact that she’s clearly working hard. So, it was with absolute glee (and slight terror) that I accepted a sit-down with the style icon for the launch of her new book. Watch the video, and then scroll down to read the full transcription of the evening.
It by Alexa Chung, $30, available at Penguin.
Alexa: Hello! How can you follow a beat box? It’s tough!
Piera: I can’t!
Alexa: I know. I’m sorry, I really fucked it up.
Piera: You set me up for failure.
Alexa: I did, sorry.
Piera: It’s okay. I forgive you. So, I wanted to start by telling a story that I don’t know if you will remember, but the first time our paths crossed, we were in London, and I was there and you were there! And that’s the story!
Alexa: That sounds about right. Fucking great story. You should write a book!
Piera: Thank you! Should I tell it again? I was in London, and it was the very beginning of Refinery29, my company. And, I was there, and I was wearing a lot of different hats because it was the very start of things and I was photographing for the site, I was writing, I was attending shows…and I was having a lot of fun, but I was also feeling a little bit alone in the world. I was there by myself, all alone in a foreign city. And I went to the Twenty Eight Twelve show, it was actually more of a party, and I remember there was this huge line to get in. And, I got there, and I was shooting people and attending all by myself, and I saw you — you looked amazing, as always — and I asked if I could take your picture, and you said no.
Alexa: Whoa, shit!
Piera: No, I’m just kidding — you said yes!
Alexa: Okay, good, thank god. It’s not like me to turn down a photo op.
Piera: You said yes, and I went to take the picture and then this really aggro paparazzi pushed me out of the way, and I was completely horrified and humiliated, and you looked at him and you said, “You can’t push her!” And in that moment I was just like, “That’s my girl!”
Alexa: Oh, good, I’m pleased it ended like that. Jesus!
Piera: I know you were on the edge of your seat!
Alexa: Oh, well, that’s me. I defend ladies.
Piera: A hero. A knight in shining armor. So I think one chapter that I read in the book that I really thought…I guess it’s not really a chapter, it was so short…
Alexa: I know, I’m sorry about that. The book is kind of elaborate bullet points with some Instagrams in between.
Piera: Well, one of my favorite…
Alexa: Elaborate bullet points…
Piera: ...Elaborate bullet points was the one about how much effort it takes to look effortless. It’s basically the idea that this morning I washed my hair and then I had to put all this stuff in it and mess it up to make it look like I didn’t wash my hair.
Alexa: It’s crazy, isn’t it? But there’s industries built on that. Like, Toni & Guy. Bedhead!
Piera: I think to me one of the things that really struck me about that chapter was also the fact that you simultaneously have all these different successful careers: You’re a host on Fuse, an editor at British Vogue, a style champion from the British Style Awards three times over — is it three? is it more than that? Am I getting the number wrong? Anyway, you’ve got a lot of hatch marks in your belt, but you sort of give off this slacker vibe, and you make it seem so easy.
Alexa: I do a lot of jobs. I do work quite hard, but I think most of my jobs I find really fun, so it doesn’t feel like work. So, that might be why I’m giving off a vibe as if it’s not hard work. It’s not that the hours aren’t intense or I’m not trying my best at something. It’s just that it’s genuinely fun for me, so it’s not tricky.
Piera: Well, I think it’s really obvious when you look at all these accolades that obviously a lot of hard work and effort and thought went into them, but somehow it just…
Alexa: I can’t really tell you my secrets, though, because then it wouldn’t look haphazard and cool.
Piera: I think it’s magic…
Alexa: If you actually knew that I was spending hours toiling on one bit of hair and then backcombing it, you’d be like, “Oh, not as cool. Thought it was real, live bedhead. Thought she’d been in a cabin all night.” But, really, I’ve been in bed since eight.
Piera: That’s very sneaky. I think the book is this really amazing mix of your extended bullet points, a.k.a. writing. I think you have a really unique voice, and then there’s your photography and your drawings, and overall, it's this incredible mix of an autobiography, a scrapbook, and a manual to style. When you were planning it out, what was your process for deciding how to encapsulate yourself into a book?
Alexa: Imagery is the most important thing for me, and it’s something that I really kind of enjoy exploring, so initially it was about doing an edit of photographs. Unfortunately, a lot of them were in my loft in my house in England, so I actually had to fly to London and crawl up into an attic. It seemed like a really good idea in my brain. It was like, “Oh, I’ll just go to England and get them!” But then I was sitting in my car and climbing the actual ladder into my thing, and then finding this moldy box of photographs in a corner, and I was like, "This seems like a lot of effort because I have to get back to work by Monday." And I called it…one of them was called the Terror Box of Bad Memories, so I got my friend Tom House to come up to the loft with me, and we sorted through photographs, and he had to look at them first. And, if anything looked a bit dodgy, like it might be upsetting or bad, he’d be like “Oh no, Terror Box! Terror Box!” And I was like “Oh, God!” So, I did a photo edit first and then a lot of the ideas for the bits I’d write in between were just things that I was interested in. So I think there was a loose concept that it would be around style and how my own personal style had evolved, and so naturally I was kind of reminiscing about fashion moments as I was growing up, and it started sort of with the Spice Girls because that seemed like an obvious…Can I just stop and say if I’m red it’s not because I’m perpetually embarrassed — it’s because I’m half Asian, and if I drink whiskey I can’t actually breathe out of my nose…any Asian people in here?... So, it’s tough. So, I’m not embarrassed, I’m actually just slightly drunk but not fully. I’m still fine at the moment, but in about 37 minutes, I’m gonna hit the deck.
Piera: From where I’m sitting, you don’t look red.
Alexa: Thanks! So, I had an amazing editor, Helen Conford from Penguin, who was just really lovely and an amazing cheerleader and someone that I had correspondence with every single day. I think a lot of the time I was quite insecure and scared about how to do this, and I hadn’t really told many of my friends that I was trying to write this. It just seemed like a really daunting task. It was something that I really wanted to create, but equally I had no fucking idea about how to…I don’t know how to write a book. So, she really was amazing at making sure that I was streamlining my thoughts and helping me come up with what it would be about. But, like, “What are your favorite bands?" And then these ideas would come out of these conversations.
Piera: So, was it quite loose? I read somewhere that you e-mailed a lot of the chapters directly to your publisher, versus writing it all out.
Alexa: It was a bit of both. Again, that’s me trying to pretend that I’m cooler and less involved than I am…I just wrote it in an e-mail…But, actually, no, I did try very hard. Just because I didn’t have Microsoft Word didn’t mean I wasn’t putting a lot of time and thought into it…
Piera: Sticky notes...
Alexa: A lot of it was on the back of my script! So I’d be in a script meeting at work at Fuse talking about which bands we’d be interviewing, and an idea would come out of something, and I’d start writing about — you know — karaoke. And, then my producer would be like, “You are writing questions for Kim Gordon right now, aren’t you?” and I’d be like “Yes, absolutely.” Sonic Youth, good karaoke band!
Piera: In terms of going through that Terror Box, I think the photography in the book has a really nostalgic feel to it, but it’s also really contemporary and feels in the moment. What are you looking for when you’re taking pictures? Do you always have your camera with you?
Alexa: Yeah, I tend to lug it around with me. This last year I’ve really been quite lazy about it. When I first started being on television, at the tail end of modeling, I started seeing things from a more journalistic perspective because I felt kind of not as engaged as a model as I did at the beginning. I was observing. From that moment, I felt slightly out of the thing. And, then when I was getting invited to festivals or fashion parties, I never felt like I was meant to be there. I was like, "Oh, I’m so lucky to be backstage at this bit." So I started taking pictures. Just because I’m quite fatalist. I always think it’s about to end. I'm morose. I’m like, "Oh, I’d better capture that now because I’d like to remember…"
Piera: For the grandkids…
Alexa: Yeah. So, it really is just trying to capture those moments to make sure I can remember them more than anything else. It was quite handy.
Piera: When did you start working on the book?
Alexa: A year and a half ago. It was an idea…I think we started talking about it in the winter two years ago, and then I think Helen e-mailed me and was like, “Start writing something!” And, then they have very strict deadlines with books because there’s a printing moment that happens that you can’t miss. So, the closer it got, the more I stayed in.
Piera: We’re actually working on a book at Refinery, and when we saw the deadlines we were so confused. We work online, so we do stories today that go up in ten minutes, so when we saw those deadline…
Alexa: You were mocking, you were laughing in the face of those deadlines…
Piera: Yeah, we were like, “Oh, yeah, we can change those. We can put this book out in five minutes.”
Alexa: There’s a lot of options as well with books. Literally, you have to decide on paper. You get sent options and you’re like, "Hmm," and you’re like feeling paper. It’s very strange. It’s nice, though.
Piera: What was the best feeling paper? Was it the one in the book?
Alexa: I wanted something that was thick and would make prints look good.
Piera: How did you decide on the cover?
Alexa: I was going into bookshops and looking at what was available on the shelves. A lot of covers are amazing, but they’re really busy, and I just wanted something that looked different from everything else. So, if it was with a lot of other colored things with loads of text on it, I wanted mine to be different. I wanted to be the unique thing standing there. So then the pale pink and then just the eye because I’m looking back at everyone else. I get eyeballed quite a lot.
Piera: And then with the simplest cover, I meant the simplest title ever.
Alexa: Yeah. It.
Alexa: The art of what’s it called...I had a joke…oh, yeah, The Guide To Urban Moonshining had already been taken, unfortunately. Otherwise it would be that. But I settled on It, and I’m quite happy with it. And it makes It fun to say in sentences like this. How did It first happen.
Piera: It is good.
Piera: In the book, one of the photos that struck me is a picture that you took of all these photographers taking your picture or doing peace signs at you all at once, and I thought that it was simultaneously this really amazing and funny photo, but also slightly terrifying.
Alexa: There’s two images in the book, and I think that’s one and there’s another one where it’s the centerfold, but it’s a picture that I took in Paris in the Ritz with all these doors. And, it’s like this amazing location, but I’m completely alone. And, it’s this similar story to the one where I’m standing in front of a slew of paparazzi. It’s everything, but it’s nothing. That’s quite deep, isn’t it? Sorry, everyone. They’re both quite emo images. They’re like, yes, riches. It’s amazing, but it’s also slightly depressing somehow.
Piera: It made me feel like a lot of pressure.
Alexa: That’s why I think I’m making them do the peace sign. Because it’s like you’re all scary, and I don’t know you, let’s all just do this for a second. And they’re all looking a bit baffled. Later on that night — that was in South Korea — later on that night, I asked if I could go for karaoke, and they took me to this weird place, and then they set up a banquet of weird food, and then they ordered me strippers.
Piera: Male or female?
Alexa: Lady strippers! I was very baffled. I came in for karaoke, and next thing I know there’s girls dancing to "Single Ladies" and getting their jugs out. I was like, “Something’s gone horribly wrong!” Or right for someone else, but I’m not the guy. It was really weird. Very odd. I had fun, though, but it was just a bit like, "Wow, okay, cool, thanks, South Korea. It’s been emotional." There’s not really anything you can follow that up with ‘cause it’s weird. I’m sorry. It’s another cul de sac I’ve led you down.
Piera: Yeah, what do I say after that?
Piera: Karaoke! You’re on the wall at your favorite East Village spot. What’s your go-to song right now?
Alexa: I don’t know that I have one at the moment. Two of my regular karaoke pals are sitting up there, and I often annoy them by singing the same song over and over. Nelly's “Hot In Herre” is kind of my thing. And my other friends over there whose name is Dr. Stupid, nickname not official, we do a good Lana Del Rey. We’re quite good at the “Louder!” I don’t know why I love karaoke so much. It’s like I can’t last a full day without having a microphone in my hand. I think I need therapy for it.
Piera: Maybe. Maybe you should just always carry a microphone. It’ll be just be a thing. You’ll be like the log lady, but you’ll be the mic lady.
Alexa: Yeah, that’ll be my thing. I grew up in a town called Winchester, and there was a woman who had a wheelbarrow and just loads of encyclopedias in it, and we’d be like, “Oh my god, what happened to her?” And, now I worry that I’m going to end up in a similar way, but maybe just a load of microphones — a wheelbarrow of microphones."
Piera: Or singing on the corner.
Alexa: Yeah, although that sounds quite nice. A life of busking.
Piera: In the book, when you talk about karaoke, and you talk about getting that spot on your local karaoke wall that was actually one of the only parts where I really felt like, "Wow, she’s so proud of that particular accomplishment…"
Alexa: I think I have a skewed idea of achievement. I did a collection for Madewell I was quite happy with… but it sort of pales in comparison to reading the heady heights of being slapped on an East Village wall for being someone that frequents a dive bar that has microphones at hand. Suddenly that meant more to me. I was like, “Yes! Take that, Lohan!”
Piera: You’ve obviously had a lot of different accomplishments. Is that the pinnacle?
Alexa: No...this book’s quite good.
Piera: I think so!
Alexa: I feel quite happy about the book. No, the pink book is probably the pinnacle, I think.
Piera: I love the drawings in the book. They kind of remind me of Andy Warhol’s drawings, actually. I think you’re really a master at drawing hair. You have a lot of variety in your hair-drawing style. What’s your… how did you get into drawing? Are you a doodler? Or do you carve out time?
Alexa: It’s more doodling at this point just because I don’t have much time to sit and do some painting. I just have a very low attention span. So, if I’m at work and we’re going through a script meeting, I’ll just start drawing on things. I’ve always done that. By the end of my first TV job, I’d covered the walls of Channel 4 in London with these annoying sketches everywhere. It’s just a way to pass the time. But, I do enjoy it. And, also, I think it just reminds me of being a kid. That’s the thing I used to do with my dad. We used to just sit down and draw. So, I just think it takes me to some weird safe place or something. Everything’s okay now.
Piera: So, you were the Hamburglar recently. Any other epic costumes? What do you think takes a costume to the Hamburglar level of awesomeness?
Alexa: That was quite a rash decision, actually. I was in Ricky’s on Broadway…
Piera: It was a Ricky’s costume?! It looked more quality than that to me...
Alexa: Well, the burger… it was high-low, actually. The burger was Ricky’s, but a lot of the other elements were other things I put together. What takes things…I don’t know, I texted someone today, and my friend texted me, and she said, “I want to be a ‘60s nun.” And, I said, “I want to be a sequin cat.” And, we had this argument about…and it was really stupid…
Piera: Can’t she be a '60s nun, and you be a sequin cat?
Alexa: That’s what I was fucking saying. She said no, nuns don’t just travel alone. And I was like, well…
Piera: That’s not true.
Alexa: Too bad, sequin cats do. ‘Cause they’re just jazzed to be there. So, I don’t know how this is going to be resolved.
Piera: Cat fight.
Alexa: She said she’d already made the habits. I also quite like this idea of going as this nun thing because I could make all these “habit” puns that night.
Piera: It’s always good to have a pun.
Alexa: Yeah. Well, what makes a good costume? I don’t know. Something that’s funny, I guess. I was going to say something disparaging about a friend’s costume, but then I realized that was really mean. Ones where I have to guess what it is…where there’s a word and then a word…I can’t…I don’t have time. Just be the thing you are! Don’t be like, “I’m the Bucket Man!” It’s like, "What? I don’t even fucking…"
Piera: What’s the Bucket Man?
Alexa: Just be a ghost! That’s more effective. I don’t want to have a conversation about what you’re going to be. Be the fireman. It’s fine. So, that’s how I feel about Halloween. Don’t you dare be a pun costume.
Piera: Okay, busted.
Alexa: What are you going to be?
Piera: Well, I’ve already been something, but it’s kind of complicated, actually.
Alexa: If you need to explain what you are, it’s not obvious. It’s already not funny.
Piera: I did go as tap-dancing pizza once. Is that too complicated for you?
Alexa: No, that’s good. That’s just funny. That’s great. “I’ve got pizza on tap!” Is that what you were saying all night?
Piera: I had moves. And I ate pizza. I was a cannibal that night. Before we go to Q & A, is there anything that the audience would want to know about you that they don’t know that you want them to know? This is a complicated question…
Alexa: I secretly enjoyed the strippers that night. No, I don’t know. No.
Piera: So, do you guys have questions?
Audience Member: You do so many different things, you’re kind of a Renaissance woman. Would you ever see yourself kind of picking a thing?
Alexa: It’s so funny that you should say this because earlier on I was in my apartment with my friend Tama, who also does my makeup, and we were talking about boys. And, she was like, “Just fucking pick one!” And, I realized it extends to every bit of my life. Food, I order too many things because I want a little bit of everything. I’ll drink half a coffee, and then I want a bit of orange juice. It’s probably in my nature to be indecisive. Unfortunately. I would like to pick a thing. But, I don’t think I excel at any one thing enough. That’s why I’ve tried to confuse everything by dipping into this and that.
Piera is wearing Sandro.