Alexa Chung is perched on the second floor of an upmarket London department store, surrounded by racks of designer clothes, a coterie of fashionably attired assistants, and a stack of pale pink hardcover books.
To her right waits a line of excited young women, mostly aged in their late teens and early twenties. As each one approaches, she hands her smartphone to one of the assistants, who has been designated with the task of taking photos bound for Instagram and Facebook, while a smiling Alexa – all tousled dark hair, high cheekbones and colt-like limbs – signs a freshly minted book with a heart and a trio of kisses.
They are here because they have watched Alexa banter with film stars on America’s MTV and the UK’s T4, and because they have seen her image – a hybrid of girlish glamour and boyish cool – plastered over women’s magazines and style blogs.
But mostly, they are here because the 29-year-old model turned style icon has “It”: that indefinable, fame producing substance that relies not on artistic talent or even a well-timed sex tape, but on a heady mix of personal style and magnetic personality. “She’s really cool and stylish,” explains Beth, a bubbly 18-year-old university student with long blonde hair and a cheeky sense of humour. “I like the way she dresses. I like her legs,” she jokes. Her friend Freya, 17, agrees. “She doesn’t try to prove herself too much,” she says.
“It” is the also the title emblazoned on the aforementioned stack of pale pink books; a Tumblr-style amalgam of sketches, personal photographs and musings on horses, hot pants, and Karl Lagerfeld, and Chung’s first real foray into the world of words.
“I called it It to be funny,” Chung explains over email. “When I was growing up there was a column in the Sunday Times magazine, called ‘It Girl,’ by [British socialites] Tara Palmer Tomkinson and Tamara Beckwith. I used to read it as a child and think their lives seemed pretty fabulous.” But they had famous, rich fathers and Chung was middle-class, raised in a small village in the south of England. “I don’t know,” she says. “It’s funny to me that I’ve inherited a title that shouldn’t really belong to me.”
But if it is a title that doesn’t belong to her, it is one she has come to exemplify. Alexa Chung is the early 2000s It girl par excellence.
“It” first emerged in the 1920s, coined by the romance writer Elinor Glynn, who defined it as “a strange magnetism that attracts both sexes.” Men and women who had “It,” Glynn wrote, were “entirely unselfconscious… full of self-confidence … [and] uninfluenced by others.” The first recipient of the title was the silent film actress Clara Bow, famed for her youthful insouciance, flame coloured hair, and succession of romantic scandals. F. Scott Fitzgerald called her, “The girl of the year… someone to stir every pulse in the nation.” But her period at the top was short lived. Bow suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931, commenting years later that “[being] a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.”
Where Bow’s “It” was grounded in her sex appeal, later It girls such as Edie Sedgwick and Jane Birkin weren’t famed for their carnal allure (although both were conventionally beautiful) so much as for their embodiment of a particular time and scene. But whether her primary appeal is to women or to men, the It girl trades primarily in image, less an artist than she is a muse. If she does have a vocation or talent, it plays second fiddle to her persona. Nineties it girl Chloe Sevigny has proved to be a gifted actress, but rose to fame not for her abilities, but because a fashion editor at alt-teen magazine Sassy spotted her at a newsstand on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue, thought she looked cool, and invited her to intern for the magazine.
It is a conundrum Chung has commented on herself, lamenting in Elle magazine in 2012 how a friend had recently informed her that she hadn’t realised Chung was a TV presenter, exclaiming instead, “I thought you were some rich bitch whose Dad paid for her to stay here!” In our email exchange, she expands on her comments, explaining, “Being an It girl is all surface-y aspects. I don’t think anyone is like ‘wow, look at that ‘it’ girl’s brain.” It is the reason she has rebuked the term in the past, she says, as well as her motivation for transitioning from model to TV presenter in the first place: so that she could have a voice. “I feel like I’m always trying to prove that I’m not dumb,” she says. “But maybe I am. I should just embrace it!”
At its best, Chung's book It is oddly soothing; all filtered photographs and context-free vignettes, like scrolling through a stranger’s inspiration boards on Pinterest. Chung’s dispatches from the fashion world are pithy and quick witted, offering a glimpse at the dry, lightly self-effacing woman behind them. But readers hoping for something a little meatier – what Chung really thinks of her It girl title, or what she might be seeking instead when she hints frustration at being condescended to – will be disappointed.
But perhaps that desire for depth misses the point. If “It” is defined by its effortlessness, by the complete lack of self-consciousness of its bearer, then reflection would be counterproductive. An “It” girl cannot think too much about the nature of her position, or she risks losing the quality that got her there in the first place.
Waiting outside the book signing, I meet Allie, Kendall and Olivia, a trio of American college students newly arrived in London on exchange. They have been following Chung since her MTV days. “I like her cool, carefree attitude,” Allie says. “I don’t think you could be an It girl if you try too hard.”
As the line crawls forward, we ponder who Alexa’s successors might be. Like many of the other young women here today, the three are fans of Cara Delevingne, the high society born, hard partying model whose striking eyebrows have seen her touted as the next Kate Moss. “Cara justifies our bad behaviour,” opines Olivia, making reference to the recent paparazzi shots of Delevingne and best pal, pop star Rita Ora, carrying giant bags of McDonalds following the GQ Men of The Year Awards. “It’s okay if we eat McDonalds, because Cara does it too.”
I share with them my theory that It girls are defined by their skill for “appearing” rather than doing. Girls star Lena Dunham, I explain, is a media darling, but she isn’t an It girl because she is famous for writing a television show, not because people aspire to look and dress like her.
Is her co-star Allison Williams an It girl, they wonder? “She does those skin care ads now,” Kendall says. “And she has a famous dad.” No, replies Olivia. Allison is too boring to be an it girl.
Isn’t it interesting, I say, that Allison Williams – who is a talented singer and stars on a popular TV show – is considered too boring have It, but Cara Delevingne, who is famous for her eyebrows, is interesting. Yeah, it is a bit weird, Kendall agrees.
“It” may be innate, but it also entails labour, my fashion illustrator friend Danielle Meder has pointed out. Turn through a history of images of any street style star or socialite and you will see an evolution; a slow refinement of poses, make-up and outfit decisions, as they transform from pretty girl on the street to bona fide style icon.
In our email exchange, Alexa tells me she doesn’t put much thought into her outfit choices. “I don’t craft an appearance,” she writes, “I just wear shit I like.” But It suggests a decidedly more intentional aesthetic, with pages given over to Chung’s style icons (Wednesday Adams, Margot Tenenbaum, Lolita), her make-up routine (“If eyeliner is your thing, Anna Karina owns that look”), and the art of the selfie (“delete the process”). “Looking effortless takes a lot of effort,” she writes at one point.
Danielle has warned me not to dismiss the power of images; telling me how they transcend language, education and cultural barriers and can be so much more persuasive than words. It’s the reason that, as an author friend wrote to me in an email last week, her publishing house’s PR team report getting hundreds of social media “likes” when they post a picture of a smiling teenage girl in a ball gown, and virtual silence when they share a link comprised of their actual stock in trade: words. Not to mention that playing with image can be a pleasure, a chance to experiment with who you are or who you might be.
Still, I can’t help but think that there is something corrosive about the way in which we elevate women like Chung and Delevingne. “It” may be innate, but it is also manufactured, amplified by fawning fashion editors, free clothes, artful photography and a media buzz that eventually overpowers the subject that inspired it. And the decision to amplify the magnetism of this particular type of woman over other, equally magnetic, types – the charismatic orator, the political crusader, the entrepreneurial arse kicker, the selfless healer – sends the message that women’s success is defined by what we look like, rather than what we do or create.
The obsession with “It” teaches us that our interestingness is something elemental, which is measured and evaluated for us by others, rather than something we forge and determine for ourselves over time. It says that even if our power is not tied up in our appeal to men, it is still tied up in the way we look. And it reduces women like Chung and Delevingne to their appearances, until the woman behind the wardrobe – or the Instagram account – is all but irrelevant.
These messages aren’t exclusive to would-be socialites and fashionistas. They are equally applicable to the orator, the arse kicker, the crusader. In an essay for The New Inquiry last year, the British political writer Laurie Penny noted the prominence of “makeover scenes” in the Anglo-American political biopics The Iron Lady, about Margaret Thatcher, and Game Change, about Sarah Palin – both women who, whatever you might think of their politics, possess “it” in spades, and both of whom were encouraged to transform in dress, voice and carriage before they took on leadership roles.
“Before they could change the world,” Penny writes, “these conservative women had to change themselves.” In order to take power, they had to first take on the appearance of a “powerful woman.”
Not everyone is enthralled by “it.” When I told my friends I would be writing about Chung, one told me to ask her what she does all day, while another wondered what it would be like to lie on your deathbed “knowing that you were known for your shoes and handbags and hair.” The North American gossip blog Celebitchy described Chung as “like a less talented Blake Lively,” with one commenter opining of It, “This looks to be the Pippa Middleton book of the fashion crowd.”
But this too seems unjust; like telling a thin woman that “real women have curves” instead of questioning the culture that demands that we be thin at the exclusion to everything else. Alexa may profit for her “it,” but it’s not her fault that “it” is profitable. She may be a beneficiary of a system that tells us that “cool” can be achieved through messy eyeliner, slim limbs and the consumption of designer goods, but she is not the person who made it so. And by focusing our anger on the cog, we ignore the structures that allow the machine to keep on turning.
When I finally reach the front of the queue, I am told that Alexa will not be signing my book – it is a store event, and only for people who purchased copies that evening. She signs it anyway, scrunching up her nose and surreptitiously scrawling the standard heart and kisses when no one is looking. She is in person as she appears in her photographs: doe-eyed, down to earth, and utterly unaffected. Utterly, well, “It.”
I can’t dislike her. But I can dislike the system that tells me she is all a woman should want to be.
Don’t hate the It girl, hate the game.