The Years & Years frontman talks to Chris Mandle about sexuality, masculinity and mental health
Olly Alexander used his advance from his Years & Years record deal to do something he never could when he was a jobbing actor; he paid a man to make a small cut behind his left ear and pin it back with the help of a slender piece of metal. He’d had his eye on the procedure for years and only wanted the one ear pinned back because it stuck out more, and that reduced roughly 50 per cent of the cost. The pinnaplasty took 15 minutes and made him feel two things simultaneously.
“I was almost embarrassed by how overwhelmingly confident I was afterwards,” he says, looking up at the sun. “I thought, ‘God, is it really that simple?’”
The other thing he felt was a curious shame. “I had this weird moment… did I not love myself enough to just keep the face I was given?” He strokes the steely inside of his ear absent-mindedly. “Then I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll fix my teeth next.’”
If you’ve seen Olly smile, which he does often, you’ll have noticed he never got that procedure to ‘fix’ his teeth. At some point, the 27-year-old realised that certain things, even if they seem imperfect to you, don’t need fixing. Now he wants the rest of the male population to have the same realisation.
Alexander’s first big break came as an actor – a small role in Skins followed by a part in posh-boy drama The Riot Club in 2014. When he was still in school, he loved practising photoshoots and posing in front of his mirror at home, acting as if he was on America’s Next Top Model:
“I wanted to capture the glamour; it looked so cool.” His early experiences doing actual photoshoots, however, shattered the illusion. “I had such low self-esteem back then,” he says, citing a shoot he did when he was 17 for Teen Vogue’s ‘Young Hollywood’ issue. “The people were lovely but it was sort of traumatising,” he says.
“I was with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kaya Scodelario, Matthew Beard. Everyone went on to be massive. Anyway, it was weird. Having your picture taken when the onus is on you looking hot. That’s quite… stressful when you’re someone who doesn’t…”
He trails off and swirls his Aperol Spritz, which has been served in a goblet so thick and round it could happily accommodate a goldfish. Following his ShortList shoot, we’ve walked to a beer garden in southwest London. “It’s taken me almost 10 years to feel like I know the process isn’t about me. I can take myself out of the equation regarding whether I look good or not. It’s never been about that.”
If ‘Young Hollywood’ felt vapid and hollow to Alexander, his fortunes reversed as a pop star; he has thrived in a conventionally conservative pop landscape (Sam Smith, Shawn Mendes) and become a Technicolour, power-clashing, maximalist cannonball in the process.
The campaign to promote Years & Years’ second album, Palo Santo, focuses on a dystopian future ruled by androids, where a human (Alexander) is made to perform for their entertainment. As such, he dyed his hair a striking blood red and has spent this year serving Camden-cybergoth meets Berlin-sex-palace looks. He’s a young gay pop star, treading new ground within his industry – there’s not really a blueprint for what that looks like. That’s a lot of pressure for him to carry on his slight frame.
He thinks for a moment.
“I haven’t even considered that.”
Years & Years’ arrival was hard to miss. Alexander, with bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen, won the BBC’s Sound of 2015 poll, voted for by industry insiders and critics. Their first album, Communion – filled with throbbing, sinewy bangers about lust and desire, bruised hearts and man-on-man emotional power-plays – debuted at number one.
Two years later, Alexander fronted a documentary for BBC Three, Growing Up Gay, exploring the intersection between his sexuality and his mental health that felt instrumental in getting more men to discuss their own wellbeing. Alexander says he had identified his own concerns with the state of his mental health by the age of 13 and has always been vocal about it. He is an open book, frank and forthcoming. Whether it’s his sexuality, the changing nature of masculinity, or the state of austerity in the UK, Olly Alexander will always have something to say.
I ask him how his seismic rise has impacted his self-esteem. Does being adored on social media help pave over your insecurities, or does it amplify them?
“That all felt terrifying, to be honest,” he says. “It felt entirely possible that my real self would be a huge disappointment to all these people who were putting me on a pedestal. And if I met anyone who knew me online… it would be so horrifying. They think you’re one thing but you feel so far away from that. And then I would have these thoughts about people making judgements on me or my personal life, who my ex-boyfriends were. I had a negative reaction to it.”
Does it still bother you? “I’ve made peace with it. Our recent success… I had been planning it for so long,” he says. “I feel like I’ve gotten away with something. The lyrics, the short film, the costumes… it all felt like it was too weird to happen. Sometimes I think I have to be more ‘extra’ to get this kind of thing through [to people]. You have no idea how many conversations happen where the utterance, ‘Is it too gay, though?’ comes up. Nobody would say it to my face because they know I’d flip out. But it happens.”
He says he’s baffled by the way that queerness and sexuality is associated with being inappropriate for children. At last month’s BBC Radio 1’s Biggest Weekend, where he dressed in a bejewelled green one-piece that shimmered in the sun, he says he was criticised for his performance because it was “too erotic and too saucy”.
He agreed. “But it’s no different to Demi Lovato or Stefflon Don or Liam Payne. They all simulate sex on stage and they say things in their songs that are very erotic, they gyrate and wear revealing outfits. People don’t bat an eyelid, but as soon as I go on stage it’s a case of [he adopts a shrill, Helen Lovejoy tone]: ‘Think of the children!’’’ He pauses for a second. “I am thinking of the children. Young people need to see a queer person being comfortable in their body.”
In a New York Times profile earlier this year, country star KD Lang said that queer people were welcomed by the wider world only until their eroticism posed a threat. Keeping your head down, neutralising your sexuality and blending in is what LGBTQ people need to do to garner acceptance, or so goes the theory.
Alexander says that if his queerness feels more obtuse and radicalised, then it’s just a by-product of growing more comfortable with himself. “It’s less conscious, or direct,” he says. “There was never a moment when I said, ‘This is what I’m going to set out to do.’”
But with age comes a bit of stubbornness – and that’s a good thing.
“I get a real thrill for being ‘overtly queer’ in my aesthetic. I used to be scared of people thinking I was gay but now I’d be shocked if they didn’t. I’d hesitate to say I had a more developed sense of self, though, because how I look doesn’t take into account my mind, or how I develop internally.”
The first single from Palo Santo was ‘Sanctify’, a seductive paean to male sexuality, with a thumpy, rumbly drum beat that sounds like Britney Spears’ ‘Slave 4 U’ if it was appropriated by robots in the near future. It’s about the fallacy of lust and the fleetingness of human contact; unashamedly sexy and confrontational.
It’s also about straight men, many of whom Alexander has collided with at various points in his twenties.
It was something that always happened to him, he says – guys who identify as straight hooking up with him – and he always writes about what he knows. I tell him I always found it flattering.
“Yeah,” he says. “You’re touching on a complicated area for a lot of gay men. And I suppose for everyone else involved. It’s good to interrogate your desires, to unpack why people feel drawn to one another. You’re attracted to who you’re attracted to at the end of the day.”
If he had to guess, he says those straight men found him “alluring”. And he’s interested that some men who don’t identify as gay might be happy to sleep with men who are.
“We’re talking about how men express desire for one another. I find the exchange fascinating – what each person gets out of it, or what it makes each person feel. With ‘Sanctify’, I wanted to write something about the journey of coming out. It’s so drawn out. You come out to your friends, family, then the world, again and again, in hotels and on holiday and to cab drivers. And that can be painful. Sometimes I wonder about the guys I’d had these… sexcapades with, who identified as straight, and I wonder where they are now, in their own journey to understanding their sexuality.”
But he also believes you can identify as straight and still hook up with guys. “At the end of the day, these are just words we use to try to best describe ourselves. They’re not perfect.”
It’s late afternoon, and the sun is casting long shadows across the beer garden. Alexander is reflecting on how lucky he feels to have addressed his mental health at such a young age; it has left him with a toolbox full of ways to cope in all kinds of situations. “I believe we all encounter these problems,” he says. “Some people get to their fifties or sixties and realise there are aspects of their mental health they’ve never addressed.”
His control over his own mental health came in degrees; at school he was in and out of counselling due to an eating disorder, and was bullied by his peers because of his sexuality. Due to his early acting career he had enough disposable income by the age of 20 to fund a private therapist, and he admits he wouldn’t have been able to rely on the support offered by the NHS.
“It’s overbooked and slow, you can wait 12 weeks to see someone on the NHS, and that’s failing people. If you’re at crisis point, you need help urgently.” His own budget allowed for his private therapist for about six months.
“The situation is quite dire,” he says. “Who knows what will change? We have a government that has implemented austerity for the past eight years and has cut services for mental-health provision.” What about public campaigns aiming to de-stigmatise talking about mental health? Everyone from Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to Prince William has begun conversations about theirs.
“Talking is a great place to start,” he says. “But if there’s nowhere else to go after that, then the development of dealing with your mental health will stall.
“You feel a bit raw and exposed from [talking about] this kind of thing,” Alexander says, shrugging. “But I’ve arrived at a place where I feel pretty on top of my mental health. I get asked about it a lot. I’ve had moments recently where it almost felt like I was on a runaway train, and the train’s left the station and it’s hurtling towards hell, and I can’t get off, I’ve said too much, and I think, ‘Oh God, oh God,’ and I panic.”
He thinks for a minute. Maybe it’s the sun but we both feel exhausted.
“But this is relaxed and I feel in control. Sometimes I wish I’d kept that Pandora’s box shut, but not today.”
Palo Santo is released on 6 July
(Photography: Jay Brooks)