I’ve only asked Tan France and Alexa Chung how they first met, but they’re both very excited to reveal the answer. ‘Can I tell the story please? Honestly, I think it’s the most beautiful meet-cute,’ says Tan. ‘Yes, but tell it right,’ replies Alexa.
Picture the scene. It’s a party in London: Tan is co-star of the relatively new hit show Queer Eye, but he’s not really a party person and he’s nervous. ‘I’d already called my driver saying, “I’m going to be five more minutes. Nobody’s wanting to talk to me – I’m just going to try one more lap.” And as I was taking my lap, she gasped.’
‘I screamed!’ corrects Alexa, while demonstrating. ‘I hid behind the DJ booth and went, “Oh my god, how embarrassing – I just screamed at Tan France.” He was really famous to me because I’d just been watching Queer Eye. You know when you see someone from TV in real life and you freak out?’
WATCH NOW: 'I don’t care that you think I’m boujee.' Tan France and Alexa Chung get candid
The truth is, Tan adds, he’d seen her name on the guest list, and she was the one person he’d been hoping to talk to. ‘I had called my husband saying, “I really want to meet this girl Alexa Chung.”’ He’d been a fan since back in her Popworld days. ‘I was obsessed! I had the biggest crush on this idiot.’
The rest is history. Tan, who was already signed up to present Netflix’s new show Next In Fashion (I’d describe it as a fresh take on Project Runway, though they maintain it’s very different), texted the producers that night to suggest Alexa as co-host. They have great chemistry and I don’t think they’re faking it – last spring they spent six weeks filming together in LA from 6am to 9pm, and that’s a lot of time to tolerate someone if you don’t hit it off.
Posing for our photographer, they’ve been jokingly calling this an ‘engagement shoot’, with Alexa snuggling up to Tan and pointing mock-romantically at her ring finger.
But back to the show. ‘It’s a fashion competition with a very well-curated cast of immensely talented designers who have worked in fashion previously, but haven’t had the opportunity to start their own labels on an international level,’ explains Alexa. She’s right that the contestants are impressive; it’s not just ‘big personalities’ (although there are plenty of those), but designers who’ve already worked with the likes of Stella McCartney, Louis Vuitton and Alexander Wang.
‘We partner them up to simulate a real- life creative experience, which is that you always have to work with a team, so a lot of things are about compromise or limitation or overcoming challenges,’ she says. There’s a $250,000 prize at stake. ‘And then Tan and I kind of dick around in the background.’
They do a bit more than that, hosting the show and being part of the judging panel, and they make a good team: Tan brings the empathy we’ve seen on Queer Eye, while Alexa brings her signature coolness and a lot of clowning around. She tells me she feels lucky to be paired with him, because he’s more comfortable than her when emotional storylines emerge. ‘I’m very British, stiff-upper-lip; if someone wants to talk about a family problem, I’m immediately like, “Aargh...” So I’m just very grateful that he’s around to do those bits.’
They may get on well, but they’re joining Next In Fashion from very different places in their lives. Tan has lived in the US for 14 years, is married to the illustrator Rob France, and only shot into our consciousness in 2018 when Queer Eye launched. Alexa, meanwhile, has been in the public eye since 2006, but points out that she hasn’t done a serious stint on TV for around a decade. She’s rumoured to be dating the 23-year-old musician Orson Fry, but her main focus is her fashion brand.
During filming, they spent eight hours a day on the studio floor with the designers, and both say they found that very inspiring. ‘In the lunch hour, I’d Skype my office in London, and it was informing decisions I was making,’ says Alexa. ‘The collection I’ve got out now was made during that process, and it’s one of my favourite ones we’ve done, and I think it’s because I was learning so much on set about how you have to be really potent with an idea. Don’t worry about anything else; just make it as much of you as you possibly can.’
Pre-Queer Eye, Tan was a designer, too. I ask him whether he’s put that on hold for the time being. ‘Not just for the time being,’ he replies. ‘I’m trying to avoid that for the rest of my life. It is the most stressful thing – I think people think you’re just off with the fairies playing dress-up. It’s so high-pressure.’
Alexa is nodding vigorously. ‘When I read in the paper, “So-and-so’s launching a fashion line,” I’m always like, “Ha!”’ she says. ‘“Come on in, the water’s... freezing cold!”’ ‘I’m like, “Your life is about to become hellacious,”’ agrees Tan.
This show, then, prepares designers for the harder realities of the industry. ‘It’s how to survive as a business in the modern market,’ says Alexa. ‘We have great guest judges, like Phillip Lim and Christopher Kane, and they give really worthwhile advice to these designers about how to run a business in this day and age.’
Both hosts praise the tone of the show: it’s mostly unscripted, so they can be themselves, and the contestants tend to be supportive of each other rather than bitchy (Tan compares it to Bake Off in this respect). I ask Alexa, who used to work on Channel 4’s T4, about a recent comment from Jameela Jamil, who tweeted, ‘I was a little dick when I was on T4. That was our “thing”: smug, snide, privileged hipster wankers.’ How does Alexa feel about the tone of those shows, looking back?
She hesitates, then laughs and admits,‘I don’t regret it! Jameela lives in America now, so it’s different and she’s obviously found her voice – I mean, she’s amazing. I haven’t actually watched it lately, so it’s hard to know how it would sound now, but any of the ones I have watched from Popworld, where we’re ribbing American pop artists, I have no regrets about. Those are really funny interviews. Interviewing Paul McCartney, asking if the smell of wee was emanating from the concert hall, is a funny question. I can’t speak for her experience.’
While this may not be the most PR- polished answer, there’s something refreshing – and confident – about Alexa’s honesty. She’s got better at that as she’s got older, she says later. ‘I consistently was interviewed from 22 onwards... So I didn’t ever really have a chance to actually consider what I thought about something; I was saying what I thought sounded right. Now it’s like, “No, fuck it, I’m just going to tell you the truth.”’
Tan, too, since releasing his memoir last year, has embraced honesty. ‘In interviews before, when people would say, “Would you ever move back to the UK?” I’d say, “Yeah, maybe.”’ Now, though, he explains, ‘It’s a solid no. I suffered so much racism here and it’s just not something I want to put myself through. I love this country, I love what it potentially represents, but I just think that until they solve this problem or move forward with it, where you just are not attacked every day, I’m not willing to be here.’ Does he find the US easier? ‘I’ve never been called anything racist in the US. It’s not once happened.’
And, of course, it’s in the US that he met his husband – not to mention his four work husbands. The next series of Queer Eye has already been filmed; the boys also make a guest appearance on Next In Fashion and, when they’re not working together, they’re in touch frequently. Tan sees Jonathan Van Ness and Antoni Porowski when he goes to New York, and says he now wears a dark wig and a cap when he goes out with them, as they used to complain that his grey hair made them too recognisable as a group.
‘But what’s their disguise?’ asks Alexa, and Tan shrugs. ‘Once Jonathan puts a hat on, a lot of people don’t notice him, and Antoni’s just another hot white guy in New York.’ Alexa looks sceptical. ‘I mean, Antoni doesn’t seem like a blender to me.’
Unlike Tan, she’s had her entire adult life to get used to being recognised. I ask what she’s learned about being in the public eye, and she’s thoughtful. ‘Just to remember to be nice to people who address you on the street,’ she says. ‘To always give that person the time of day, because you’re very lucky that they even want to talk to you. In the beginning, I can’t say that I always did that, but the older I’ve got, the more I’ve learned to appreciate it.’ After all, sometimes even Alexa Chung is just a screaming fan at a celebrity party.
Next In Fashion is available on Netflix now.