Agyness Deyn: Smells like Deyn spirit
Agyness Deyn is the supermodel of the moment. But her stellar career is about to take a very different direction with the release of her first single. In an exclusive interview, she explains all to Nick Duerden
Saturday 17 May 2008
Talk to people about Agyness Deyn, learned people, people who know about these things, and they will tell you that she is not like other models. She is kookier, funkier, funnier. They have a point. There are few cheekbones, after all, that can grace both the cover of Time and Grazia, which is why, though she has only been publicly recognisable for a year, a year and a half tops, she is already being talked about in terms of her iconic-ness.
"You won't find anyone to say a bad word about her," says Avril Mair, Elle magazine's fashion features editor. "Everyone loves her, and with good reason. In every era of modelling, you will have one idiosyncratic British girl that stands out, and Agyness is the one for right now. She's a single name these days. The way Kate is Kate, Agyness is Agyness. That tells you everything you need to know."
Look at the current crop of models right now, Mair continues, "and many of them are bland and blonde and really tall and really thin and 16, and it's impossible to tell them apart. Then Agyness comes down the runway and she has all this attitude, all this personality and idiosyncrasy. She's a breath of fresh air, a real one-off."
"I think she captures the imagination in a broader sense," says Susannah Frankel, fashion editor of The Independent, "because she is completely off all the usual model credentials. She looks like the kind of girl you could talk to at a bar, and have a really good chat with."
This is rather apt, actually, because that's where I am right now – a bar – and here she comes. She is late, of course, but then late is her prerogative. Before arriving here at this East Village, New York City hangout, with its exposed brick walls, Pogues soundtrack and bored-looking barmen, Deyn had worried that she might be denied access. It was an age issue, and she's had age issues before, as we shall see. So she called through to Anthony Ellis, her friend and frontman of the band Five O'Clock Heroes (with whom she has just collaborated on a single), who is already sitting upstairs here in the bar alongside me, nursing a Scotch. She explained that she'd forgotten her ID, and in a country where even 40-year-olds have to prove they are over 21 in order to gain admittance into a public place where alcohol is sold, an ID-less Deyn, who could comfortably pass for 16, faces more problems than most. But Ellis countered that it was a slow Tuesday night, no one was manning the door, and she'd likely be fine.
He was right, and so a quarter of an hour later, in she strides, all leggy and liquid, across the deserted floor, and beaming in relief. The 25-year-old is wearing a black-and-white checked coat done up to the throat, black leggings and trainers. Her bleached blonde hair is tucked up inside a cloth cap (but posh cloth), and when she sits down and unbuttons, she reveals a T-shirt whose legend reads PEACE IS COURAGEOUS.
Ellis offers her a drink, but the woman the fashion world is calling The New Kate Moss doesn't drink when she is working, and so instead she has nothing. She simply sits primly in her corner, smiling benignly, hands in lap. She looks impossibly cute up close, her Asiatic eyes alive with barely contained mischief, while the rest of her is small and compact and flawless. Until she opens her mouth, she exudes the enigmatic serenity of a geisha girl, but when she does start talking, a magnificently thick Rochdale accent comes flowing out, as sticky as Marmite.
"Christ I'm knackered," she says. "Really long photo shoot. Went on for hours."
But then, presumably, for emergent supermodels they invariably do. This one, she explains, was for an important American magazine she would prefer not to mention right now for reasons of necessary secrecy.
"They're doing this thing, right?" she confides. "Eight iconic people in the fashion industry right now – stylist, designer, things like that."
The magazine had chosen her for the iconic model, over and above every other one in the world, an accolade that can only cement her reputation further still. Agyness Deyn is now on the brink of becoming the world's biggest model, with a daily fee to match.
"Mad, innit?" she says with earthy, Rochdalean disbelief.
A decade ago, Laura Hollins, as she was back then, was a promising student living in the winningly named little borough of Littleborough, Greater Manchester. The middle child of three, she performed well enough in her GCSEs to go on to study music and drama at A level, her real hopes pinned on a place at Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Lipa). She was obsessed with actors and actresses, singers and dancers, "anyone," she says, "who was creative. I loved the idea of being creative."
The way she tells it, she only ever got halfway through filling out the Lipa application form when she was spotted by someone from a modelling agency who told her that with her jawline, she'd go far.
"And so I just thought, why not?" she says now, claiming that she'd never had any interest in modelling before.
But a little research into her past suggests that, actually, Hollins had already modelled locally, and with some success. She'd won a teen magazine modelling competition when she was just 13 and, three years later, was honoured as the Face of Rossendale, but subsequently turned down several agency offers in order to finish her exams first. It also transpires that her big break didn't in fact come while still residing at home, but once she had already relocated to London as "Agyness Deyn", a photographer spotting her loitering with intent in a hip fashion boutique in Kentish Town. (The name, incidentally, is pronounced straightforwardly as "Agnes Dean"; the bizarre spelling came courtesy of her mother Lorraine, a Reiki master and numerology enthusiast, who was convinced that an exotic pseudonym would spiritually maximise her chances of success.)
It seems clear, then, that Deyn knew precisely her potential early on. Nothing wrong with that, but she evidently likes to smokescreen the truth, perhaps convinced that crude ambition is somehow more unseemly than simple luck and fate. It has also been alleged that she would shave several years off her real age for different jobs, keen to pass herself off as younger.
"Many models start as early as 16, or 18," explains one fashion insider I speak to. "And if her agency did encourage her to suggest she was younger, then it was very probably to add legs to her career. It is exceptional for a model to be working on the catwalk over 30, and Agyness is already 25 ..."
In her own defence, here in New York, Deyn simply shrugs, and feigns confusion.
"A lot of stuff written about me is rubbish. I don't know where they get it from, sometimes."
Her first job was for Aveda beauty products, and before long she was snapped up by Burberry, the kind of label with whom models can make a very big splash.
"Burberry love young English boys and girls with attitude and unique styles," says Elle's Avril Mair, "and when a model becomes big – and Burberry models often go on to become just that – she effectively becomes a brand herself, and then all the other brands want to buy into her."
Which is precisely what happened to Deyn. Demand for her snowballed, and over the next three years, she was everywhere: shot by Mario Testino for British Vogue, then Steven Meisel for Italian Vogue. She followed up Burberry with Mulberry and Giorgio Armani, and she appeared increasingly to court celebrity. A life-long music fan – she had grown up worshipping the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays – she began dating the guitarist of an obscure indie act called The Paddingtons, and went to as many gigs as she could. She became a regular in the pages of Heat; she appeared as a guest on Jonathan Ross's BBC1 chat show. As a consequence of such ubiquity, she did what the likes of Stella Tennant, Karen Elson and Erin O'Connor never quite managed (perhaps quite happily): she became a star.
"It's because she is so very social," says Mair. "She goes out a lot, to parties, to concerts. She enjoys herself, and she epitomises that Hoxton/Camden, music/fashion cool. She does it terribly well."
Deyn herself seems blissfully unaware of her power, and becomes cowed by the very discussion of it. When her career started to take off a couple of years ago and the paparazzi began showing interest, she immediately decamped to New York.
"Here, nobody pays me any attention at all, and that's just as I like it," she says, scratching at her PEACE sign. "Despite what you may read about me, I'm not the kind of person who has a lot of friends, and I'm much happier just mixing in my small circle. I don't really go to fashion parties; they're not my scene." She catches herself, and smiles. "Well, of course they're precisely that – my scene – but I'd much prefer to go to gigs, or else hang out in the rehearsal room with Anthony. Anthony's like my big brother out here. He looked after me when I first arrived, he bought me my first guitar, and we hang out a lot in his studio space with the band. I've more fun there than I have anywhere else, pretty much."
Anthony Ellis is another Brit abroad. He settled here in New York a decade ago when he was just 19, and has been trying to make it as a musician ever since, with precious little luck. He has the look of Wham!'s Andrew Ridgeley about him, and for the past five years now has fronted Five O'Clock Heroes, an amiable indie outfit influenced by Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, but sounding more like Haircut 100's Nick Heywood thanks to Ellis's charming, slightly twee vocals. During the writing of his band's second album, Speak Your Language, he came up with a song called "Who" that required both a male and female lead. Impetuously, he asked Deyn if she fancied giving it a crack.
"She did, and she did it wonderfully," he beams, as well he might, for though he may like to downplay the suggestion that he asked the supermodel to duet simply to ensnare a little limelight for the band, it's difficult to see it any other way. "To be honest, that never even dawned on me," he insists. "Aggy's just a mate, and I asked her because she liked the idea of singing, and she clearly loves her music. I'm just thrilled she's done such a good job of it."
The song, which will be the lead single off the album, is a frothy pop confection, Deyn's voice as light as candyfloss and rather beguiling with it. But that, as she points out herself, is all it is.
"I don't want people to think I'm getting ideas above my station here," she says, giggling into a cupped hand. "And I don't want a backlash, either. I know I'm no Whitney Houston. I just had a bit of fun with a mate, that's all. Doesn't mean I'm putting my modelling career to one side just yet ..."
Though Ellis might secretly wish Deyn could stick around and help promote the song over the next month, it's lucky she has found the time to talk about it at all. The woman very rarely stays put in any one city these days. Tomorrow, she is off to Tokyo, then it's London, and then a succession of European outposts that she says she would probably be able to name for me right now were it not already well past midnight and long after her bedtime. She yawns, and confesses that the constant travelling exhausts her.
"Though I do fly first class, and that's a luxury I've no problem with," she states sunnily. Other luxuries she insists she can do without. "Agencies always want to send big fat cars to pick me up for appointments, but if it's in London or New York, I'd much rather just cycle there on my bike. I like my bikes [she keeps one on either side of the Atlantic], but people think I'm, like, eccentric for insisting on pedalling to work. But millions of people do that every day, don't they?"
Millions of people, I point out, don't have the kind of perfectly arranged bone structure that one careless taxi could destroy for ever. She is precious goods.
"Well, I can't go around thinking of myself like that, because that would just make me insane," she says.
The other thing that people most say about Agyness Deyn is that, as the cycling suggests, she remains refreshingly down-to-earth, a normal girl in a world full of Naomi Campbells and diva-like excess. A rare commodity, in other words.
"I do think there is a fine line between being a celebrity and being cool," says Susannah Frankel. "And as soon as somebody becomes really mainstream, then it can get a little risky for them to retain that cool. The exception to that rule is Kate Moss, but I do think that Agyness also manages it very well right now. And I'm glad, because Agyness is great, a really positive role model in an industry that doesn't always promote such positive ideas. The media may well have built her up into something massive, but I do believe that she is savvy enough to avoid falling into any traps. And when you are intelligent about the way you allow your career to progress, then your potential is truly limitless."
Ask Deyn about her own potential, and she'll grow self-conscious again and lose herself in one long shrug of the shoulders. Right now, all she can think about are matters closer to home. She says that she hasn't seen her boyfriend, her Paddington, for some time now. They are currently conducting a long-distance relationship as he lives 4,000 miles away, in Hull.
"It's tough," she says, "because do you have any idea how difficult it is to get from New York to Hull? You have to fly from here to Manchester, then take one train, then another. After that, it's on to the local bus, which always crawls. It's 15 hours door-to-door, and it's bloody knackering."
Presumably, she doesn't see him often enough?
She shrugs her shoulders, and forces a defeated smile.
"What do you think?" she says.
The single, 'Who', by Five O'Clock Heroes, featuring Agyness Deyn, is released on Glaze Records on 23 June
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