Whatever happened to the It Girl?
The reign of celebs like Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne is officially over – but the It Girl is still about. You just have to look a little harder for her.
What place does the It Girl have in 2022, if she has a place at all? Certainly, the UK has always had a particular fondness for the label. It gave the world some of its best supermodels in the form of Kate Moss, Jean Shrimpton and Naomi Campbell. Later, in the 2010s, fashion darling Alexa Chung gave us the original vibe shift in the form of her culture bible, It, while Cara Delevingne single-handedly abolished the Mossian razor-thin eyebrow. But this type of celebrity, that flourished so much in the ‘90s and the age of twee, has all but vanished.
The It Girl started life as a beacon of glamour and charm, shorthand for a woman in the public eye who could make effort look effortless. In the 1920s, writer Elinor Glyn popularised the term when she ascribed it to silent movie star Clara Bow in the 1927 film It. In the near-century since, the phrase has been used to hold up a mirror to successive decades of culture and ask: who do we consider to be our tastemakers in society? Who do we consider to have “It”? It’s sad, then, that the It Girl has entered something of a fallow period in the last decade. In 2022, it feels just a little simplistic, ill-fitting – patronising, even – as a label. The It Girl might never recover.
The idea of the It Girl has always been compelling because having some kind of leading cultural guru is a fundamentally sexy concept. Love Island’s Ekin-Su showed this summer there’s still a place for Princess Di-ish mania in 2022, while the sartorial exploits of Julia Fox have inspired a legion of followers. Ditto Bella Hadid, who has come light-years from “homeboy’s gonna, like, get it” to eclipsing her sister’s stratospheric level of clout. But it’s now impossible to determine what separates It Girls from other celebrities. Are they socialites? Influencers? Nepotism babies? Or all of the above?
For a while the It Girl became synonymous with the early ‘00s “famous for being famous” trend and was clouded by whiteness and wealth. The nature of UK high society meant that the British It Girl was part of a members’ club and her chief examples, like Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, Lady Victoria Hervey and Amanda de Cadenet, were only known for coming fresh off the aristocracy’s assembly line. Meanwhile, their US celebrity royalty equivalents, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, managed to spin their presence on the scene into media careers.
But our changing attitudes to class have meant that Britain has become gradually less enamoured with aristocrats-as-celebrities and more eager to turn the Bimini Bon Boulashes of the world into modern celeb royalty.
Last year, Tatler unveiled a list of modern It Girls. Among the ranks were Romeo Beckham’s ex-girlfriend Mia Regan, Mick Jones’ daughter Stella, and Fry’s Chocolate Cream heiress March Fry. It’s easy to imagine a 2010s redux populated by these twenty-somethings, but it’s significant that they haven’t made much of an impact outside of glossy mags. Likewise, Nicola Peltz-Beckham and her photographer/chef/model/designer husband, Brooklyn, seem like a dream power couple on paper but not in execution. There’s just not an appetite anymore for this particular strain of celebrity.
The reason the It Girl tag has felt so increasingly redundant is that the previously narrow path to celebrity has been bust wide open by the internet. Once upon a time, It Girls were anointed by the media – she was something rare and exclusive, only to be glimpsed via paparazzi shots – yet now, the explosion of online personal branding has made it difficult to determine who actually fits the title. Just existing in the spotlight, whether projected there by a Netflix show or a meme, can now be enough to catapult a figure to stardom. An It Girl isn’t someone who dominates headlines or even has hordes of loyal followers, like Sadie Sink, Zendaya, Rosalía or Keke Palmer, but something a bit more, well, indefinable. A lot of on-paper It Girls are simply too good at their particular calling, be it acting, singing or modelling, and already too well-known to fit the nicheness the It Girl possesses.
The It Girl was once more layered and complex than simply just being a tabloid mainstay. When Jay McInerney encountered a 19-year-old Chloë Sevigny and christened her “the It Girl with a street-smart style and a down-low attitude”, it became career-defining for her, with McInerney’s words cited in almost every subsequent interview. What is often overlooked in his New Yorker profile is that the US novelist emphasises Sevigny’s galaxy brain of fashion knowledge. She’s positioned not just as another scene girl but as wise beyond her years; Sevigny lists off designers, alternately slating and praising them (“Helmut Lang is my absolute favourite … God, Armani is so old-ladyish… Lagerfeld ruined the house of Chanel”); she’s approached by girls on the street who love her jelly sandals. The It Girl, as McInerney’s “Chloe’s Scene” profile laid out, is esoteric and knows her stuff.
You could say, then, that the It Girl is someone we’re naturally drawn to – something that is, unfortunately for PR teams, impossible to manufacture. McInerney presciently noted that “this seeming indifference to marketing herself may be [Sevigny’s] most attractive quality. It may also be canny.” Would Chloë Sevigny have appeared on Chicken Shop Date? Absolutely not. It Girls wait for the world to come to them.
If the It Girl doesn’t exist in a neat category any more, it’s partly because the field has become too crowded. Nepo baby discourse and accusing everyone and their granny of being an industry plant has made the It Girl a difficult trend to recoup. There’s no guide for what constitutes an It Girl – throughout history it has meant very different things – but there are more compelling examples than others. McInerney’s interview with Sevigny is often cited when discussing the It Girl because of its cultural impact, but it’s also the most precise example of what an It Girl should be. It’s a fun little label that doesn’t have much point unless it can be meaningfully applied.
If you can find them online, today’s It Girls are the ones creating intrigue. Bodies Bodies Bodies star Rachel Sennott and Ziwe, who finessed lockdown-era Instagram Lives into becoming a Christiane Amanpour for the 2020s, are the kind of “if you know, you know” figures. Hari Nef fits the bill; she pops up everywhere, smartly leaving you wanting more, and with her incoming Candy Darling biopic, roles in The Idol and as one of the many Barbies in Barbie, she’s set to be huge. Then there’s Ethel Cain, who you’ve probably heard of but don’t know all that much about – true It Girl behaviour. Laura Harrier has already shown that she can do it all. Chloe Cherry, too, is camp and going places.
But there’s no correct answer for who an It Girl is now. The glory days of organically rising to prominence are long behind us – think Elizabeth Hurley wearing one Versace dress in 1994 and becoming a global name overnight. But the It Girl is too fun a concept for us to leave behind. She still exists, it’s just up to you to determine who that is.