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Olly Alexander on style, sexuality and self-expression

·7-min read
Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies Alice Cowling
Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies Alice Cowling

There’s a scene in Olly Alexander’s 2017 BBC3 documentary Growing Up Gay where he’s backstage at Mighty Hoopla Festival wearing a pair of gold hot pants, having his body painted in glitter.

“I had this bright idea that I’d like to be in my underwear covered in gold glitter,” he tells the camera as he prepares to go on stage. “Everyone thought I was joking, but I wasn’t.”

This is still very much Alexander’s attitude to dressing himself now. “I love anything that provokes a reaction,” he explains when we catch up over Zoom. “I want people to think, ‘Oh wow! What’s he wearing?”’

Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies
Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies

The Years & Years singer is a little more low-key today as he sips a smoothie in his London flat, in a Nike cap and hoodie. “I’ve just been for a run, so I’m a bit gross,” he laughs. “Please forgive my current state, it’s not stylish at all.”

It’s been a big year for Alexander, 30. In January, he appeared as Ritchie Tozer in Russell T Davies’ Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin. The country was captivated (and heartbroken) by the story of five friends in London during the 1980s AIDS crisis. It broke TV records, becoming
All 4’s most binged series to date.

He’s also just gone solo – continuing under the Years & Years banner – after his bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen decided to leave the band. “The three of us have grown apart musically,” Alexander explains. “The pandemic gave us this opportunity to reflect on where we were at. We had some really honest conversations with each other.”

His first solo single, Starstruck, is out now, and climbed to Number 1 on The Official Big Top 40 last week. We caught up with him on the eve of its release...

Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies
Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies

How did Starstruck come about?

We wrote it towards the end of last year in a studio outside of London before restrictions came in. It was stunning, in the countryside, and there were horses I got to speak to every day. I stayed there for a week. It sounds so corny but when you live in London you don’t see the stars at night. I remember being so overwhelmed and blown away by all the stars in the sky and it was one of those moments. Starstruck came together really late one night after we’d tried a couple of other ideas. We just wanted to put as much fun energy into it as possible.

Photo credit: Photography: Kaj Jefferies | Motion: Alice Cowling
Photo credit: Photography: Kaj Jefferies | Motion: Alice Cowling

You've got a very unique sense of style. How has it evolved?

As a teenager I had a goth phase, then I wore scarves tied round my head. In my twenties I wore sportswear. As a performer, it gives you so much space to experiment and express yourself. I didn’t come straight out of the gate serving high-concept fashion looks. I’ve had a lot of help.

What part has fashion played in your coming-out story?

I was 19 when I came out. I was wearing button-down shirts done all the way to the top, tortoiseshell glasses and big curly hair. I didn’t know how to express myself. As soon as I came out, it was like a process to undo those buttons on my shirt, bit by bit.

Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies
Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies

Who inspires your style?

There are so many people from Lil' Kim to David Bowie, and even the energy of George Michael, and Rihanna. I’ve definitely taken fashion inspiration from lots of different people.

Have you ever felt pressure to dress a certain way?

There have been questions from people (not on my team) going, “That might not be appropriate.” I had an occasion where I was wearing a pair of chevron trousers on a TV show. In rehearsals, a comment came back, saying, “We think the chevrons are highlighting Olly’s crotch. Does he have a different pair?” Nobody would ever think that about this pair of trousers. We blew up and they backed down. So the chevrons went on TV and nobody said a fucking thing. It makes me angry. I’m a gay guy and I want people to know that, but it’s interesting to see how quickly people become uncomfortable when you want to assert your own sexuality.

Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies
Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies

Everyone was talking about Harry Styles’ feather boa at The Grammys. What do you think of his style?

He just looks so good. It’s undeniable. I really respect his commitment to having fun, being playful and not caring what “a traditional man” should wear. Gender-fluid fashion has been around forever, but seeing it in a more mainstream context is cool. I’m all for guys getting to express themselves, no matter what their sexuality.

Has anyone surprising reached out to you about It’s A Sin?

Elton John... that was surreal. He phoned everyone in the cast. It was really sweet. It was hard to have a conversation with him because in my head I was going, “You’re Elton John.” He said he loved the show and could see himself in Ritchie.

Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies
Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies

How did you find filming the sex scenes?

Nerve-racking. I went into it thinking I’d be fine, and confident with my body. But then I got more nervous. We had intimacy coordinators working on the project and they were revolutionary. You choreograph it like a dance and go through everything with the other performer before you get to set. It’s crazy that, in the past, you’d just show up to shoot a scene and figure it out...

Has your mum seen it all?

Yes, I spoke to her and said, “There are some intimate scenes.” She didn’t bat an eyelid and said, “Because you told me, I knew what to expect.” She’s the best.

Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies
Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies

Have you and Lydia West remained good friends?

Yes! I’m so excited for Lydia (who played Richie's best friend Jill). She is such a phenomenal actress. I’m really excited for more people to get to know her and see her. I had so much fun working with her, we just giggled the whole time. We had dance parties in her trailer every morning. She would put on '80s tunes, and we would all go in after we’d put our costumes on and have a little dance. Lydia brought joy to set every day. That is such a special energy.

Were you surprised by how few young people in the LGBTQ+ community knew the extent of the AIDS crisis?

I’ve seen a lot of different responses. Quite a few from younger people that had no idea - 18-year-olds that had no idea that this happened to a community not that long ago. It set me aback because I hadn't thought about that response, but it totally makes sense. You're watching a show set not that long ago. And so there are some people who are shocked and can't believe it. But I've also had that response from older people who were there at the time who didn't know what was going on.

So much of this happened in silence and was brushed under the carpet. And this isn't taught in schools. It would make everybody's lives better, and help understand each other better, if queer history [was covered]. How HIV first appeared and what happened in the '80s is a really important part of that. If there’s something you can do to help all the kids, why wouldn’t you do it?

Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies
Photo credit: Kaj Jefferies

You’ve spoken about your struggles with mental health. How have you coped during the pandemic?

The first lockdown took a real toll on my mental health. I live alone and was in a flat without outside space. I felt depressed. I didn’t want to put music out. I have a mental-health checklist. One of those is medication – I still take anti-depressants. The other is therapy, but then I have exercise, drinking enough water and eating three meals a day. When my mental health starts to decline – or jump off a cliff – I stop doing a lot of those things. But because I’ve got this checklist and an amazing support network, it was just a couple of days instead of a month, like I might have had in the past. It passed.

Fashion Director: Natalie Michaelides; Hair: Ryo Narushima, using Oribe;
Make-Up: Porsche Poon, using RéVive; Fashion Assistant: Zuli Alao; Photo Assistant: Andrew Rankin; Bookings Editor: Sophie Leen; Flowers: Mahal Kita Flowers.

Cosmopolitan UK's June issue is on sale on 6th May and available for purchase online and via Readly. You can also SUBSCRIBE HERE or read on Apple News+.

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