Sitting down to lunch with Chace Crawford is enough to make any red-blooded male feel woefully inadequate. If you happen to be meeting on Manhattan's fashionable Upper East Side, where he's filming the second season of Gossip Girl, the red-hot TV series that's turned him into one of America's most lusted-after young stars, prepare for the ego-blowing experience of being well and truly upstaged.
Here's how it works. First, Crawford will bound into the coffee shop fashionably (but not rudely) late, and light up the room with a megawatt smile. Then you will notice an audible frisson of excitement from the adolescent girls who have been nursing coffees at adjacent tables. Finally, he'll engage in some casual flirtation with your smitten waitress, before ordering a ham sandwich.
Crawford is an old-fashioned teen pin-up with a dazzling smile, solidly suburban manners and a Texan accent that's as soft as melting honey. To the skinny-jean-wearing youth of today, the 23-year-old also represents a walking embodiment of the American dream – or at least the moneyed and sometimes promiscuous version made flesh by his TV alter ego, Nate Archibald, Gossip Girl's leading heart-throb and occasional moral compass.
It's a wonderful life, the existence of a young actor on the brink of major stardom. Last month, Crawford wore a white suit and smouldered dutifully in a Vanity Fair photo-shoot profiling "Hollywood's new wave". In October, he hits cinemas in the US atop the credits of a horror film titled The Haunting of Molly Hartley. And every day, he has to cope with the adulation of female admirers. As lunch progresses, the sound of frantic text-messaging fills the café (Via Quadronno, on 73rd and Madison, in case you're wondering), with a gaggle of hormonal girls fluttering eyelashes in his general direction.
"Fame can be a double-edged sword, but right now, I couldn't ask for more, and I certainly never complain about it," he says, with practised humility. "Actually, I genuinely like meeting people out and about, and making relationships. I find I have a natural affinity for people. With Gossip Girl, there are a lot of blogs out there, and some of them are genuine breeding grounds for hate. But I never read those things, because the negative stuff you take to your grave, and the positive things are never good enough, so I try to experience only the good side of getting recognised."
Today, Crawford is in costume, which requires him to wear a preppy uniform of chinos, boat shoes and a polo shirt (an outfit he makes look elegant rather than camp). It soon emerges that he's awfully, awfully nice, deceptively ambitious, and naturally attractive – with big brown eyes and the easy confidence of someone who has never really had to work at looking good. (It later transpires that he can maintain an aura of cool even while choking on a baguette.)
We talk Gossip Girl. The zeitgeisty hit show, to which Crawford is contracted for several years, is filmed "on location", which involves slapping the paraphernalia of a major film-making project into the chaotic heart of Manhattan. One moment they'll shoot a scene in the local branch of Ralph Lauren (where the management dole out free clobber for the stars to wear to an upcoming polo tournament in the Hamptons). The next, superstar producer Josh Schwartz will snatch a "take" in the few seconds New York's traffic lights will allow Crawford's co-star Blake Lively to wander across a street.
This must pose serious continuity problems. It also affords the waiting paparazzi continual opportunities to intrude on filming. They circle the set like wasps around a summer picnic – and on the day I visit, they succeed in bothering the comely Lively (who plays the vampish Serena Van Der Woodsen, and in real life dates co-star Penn Badgeley) to the extent that she begins crying and calls security.
Gossip Girl is a slick but slightly trashy sitcom about the lives, loves and frequent catfights of moneyed private schoolkids from Manhattan's exclusive Upper East Side. It was developed from a series of books by Cecily von Ziegesar, and features characters with surnames such as Waldorf and Humphrey, who move between New York's trendy shops, restaurants and nightclubs in a sort of teenage Sex and the City.
Since its launch in the US this spring, and in the UK a few months later, Gossip Girl has been the subject of heated debate. Fans treat it as a guilty pleasure. Many re-watch the show online, and discuss its plot twists on a super-slick official website where one can even purchase replicas of the characters' outfits. It is also lauded by television's power- 'brokers, who admire its ability to reach the all-important teenage demographic. Many believe the way the programme is sold and marketed represents the future of their industry.
Yet at the heart of the show, there lies an emptiness. Watching it can feel like scoffing fast-food: it may serve a purpose, and will certainly tickle your tastebuds, but you can't help worrying if it's all that healthy. Some of the show's fruitier scenes, many involving a half-naked Crawford, feel superfluous. And the storylines and values espoused by its sex-obsessed, often selfish and materialistic stars are what curmudgeons might call a sad reflection of the youth of today.
"Is that a weight on my conscience?" asks Crawford. "Well, yes, I think it is. I come from a moral background, and I can see the power of the show, and imagine my old school-teachers cringing, or my grandparents thinking 'Oh my God' when they see me, say, having sex on a barstool. But you have to remember, this is not a reality show. It's supposed to be pure entertainment.
"I don't actually think people give enough credit to teenagers who watch the show," he adds. "They're not stupid, and it's not like we're making an instruction manual telling them how to drink and do drugs, or have sex. We're just laying out how it is. My character is very conflicted, and even in the episodes where he's having sex then dumping girls, there's often regret. You know, there are repercussions to certain sorts of behaviour that come full circle."
More of a weight on his mind may be the manner in which Gossip Girl is marketed. The show has achieved hit status by turning its young stars, all of whom were previously unknown, into bona- fide minor celebrities. They have been encouraged to work red carpets, appear on chat shows, and jollify supermarket magazines. Their private lives have become public property, their haunts and habits instantly fashionable.
This has its downside. Last year, Crawford was photographed outside a nightclub with the former American Idol winner Carrie Underwood, with whom he had been on a couple of dates. Within days, they were being billed as a full-blown celebrity couple. In March, the end of what sources close to both parties say was never a proper relationship was relayed to the American public in fairly tawdry detail.
More recently, just as public interest in Gossip Girl needed stoking in advance of its second series, the celebrity blogger Perez Hilton informed readers that Crawford had begun a homosexual affair with his close friend, co-star, and New York flatmate Ed Westwick. The entirely unsubstantiated rumour, denied by both parties, nonetheless remains what you might call "hot gossip"; when I ask about it, the actor's aura very briefly cracks. "You know what? Ed and I laugh about it. It's kind of funny. But it's like, you know, I guess some people assume there's a seed of truth to it. People think where there's smoke, there's fire. People think that, but they don't realise that, er, it's obviously, er, it's just so amazing the way something can be... just a complete fabrication, yet it gets twisted."
As to whether the story was originally circulated by someone with an interest in generating headlines for Gossip Girl: "I just don't even want to speculate on that. It's just one of those things that rolls off my back. There's not one seed of truth to it, so it'll just go away in the end. I have actually met Perez Hilton a couple of times. He's normally very nice. But if he covers an untrue rumour, then I have to accept that it will become one of those things people will speculate about."
All of which must be an irritation. Crawford has been sold to the world as a clean-cut, well-educated, walking embodiment of the perfect heterosexual Texan male. He was born and brought up near Dallas, where his father was a dermatologist and mother a teacher. Childhood sounds like a picket-fence suburban cliché. ("We had a truck when I was growing up, the whole nine yards.") His sister Candice is the reigning Miss Missouri, and he played golf (to a handicap of six) and American football (as quarterback, naturally) in high school.
Crawford began acting after dropping out from university in California, where he'd been studying broadcast journalism; his very understanding parents told him to "take a semester to give it a shot", and after a summer spent valet- parking cars in Malibu, he took acting lessons, worked hard and got noticed in a small independent film made in 2005 called The Covenant. After signing to the swanky ICM agency around Christmas 2006, Crawford was auditioned and jumped through the requisite hoops to be selected to play Nate Archibald by the bigwigs at CBS, who had appointed Schwartz (creator of The OC) to produce a drama series for its new channel CW, which caters to the "tween" market.
Since then, Gossip Girl has more or less been his life; filming it takes up six months of the year, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, Crawford enjoys life on set. The show's actors get a degree of creative input that reflects their closeness to the market they serve; in one celebrated incident, Crawford even persuaded the producers to allow him to put some clothes on, in what had been scripted as a topless scene. "The press made a big deal out of that, saying I hate being shirtless," he recalls. "I never actually said I disliked having my top off; it was just that on that occasion it didn't make sense. Nate was supposed to be waking up, hungover, on his buddy's couch. So why would he be in his boxer shorts? I don't actually mind taking my clothes off most of the time – it's why I go to the gym – but as an actor, you pick and choose your battles."
As for the future, Crawford is currently attached to a film project about the 2004 US presidential election called Upstate, and is keeping fingers crossed that The Haunting of Molly Hartley does solid business this autumn. Since Hollywood boasts no shortage of smart, handsome and intelligent young actors, his long-term ambitions of taking on major studio movies (with the subsequent world domination that entails) will depend in part on his ability to press the right flesh and charm the right people.
With this in mind, he's working hard at being charming, and boasts of having developed a useful ability to recall names and faces. ("You know my secret? You have to repeat someone's name in your head five times when you're speaking to them.") While he might now have more or less quit the nightclub circuit ("I went through my 'phase' at university"), he still often socialises. Or at least, he takes part in "networking," his second-favourite hobby, after going to music concerts.
So, if success looks to have come too easily to young Chace Crawford, and you think he might be leading a charmed life, it's worth reflecting that he does also have to sometimes work for that superstar status. And as this walking, talking embodiment of the American Dream mops up crumbs of his ham baguette, rises to his feet and heads out into the Manhattan sunshine, a room full of smitten females sigh inwardly.
'Gossip Girl' Season One is released on DVD on 18 August