Kate Elliott

Having started in comedy with his group Dutch West, Sam Reich was later hired as director of original content at CollegeHumor, an Internet comedy company. Responsible for boosting the content team, Reich produced shows for TV and online that include Adam Ruins Everything; Rhett and Link’s Buddy System and Badman starring Pete Holmes.

In 2018, CollegeHumor launched a subscription-based streaming platform called Dropout. According to Reich, who was CollegeHumor’s chief creative officer at the time, this was in response to the “difficulty in receiving advertising dollars on traditional media platforms for mature content”.

Then, the bottom dropped out. In 2020, CollegeHumor’s parent company InterActiveCorp (IAC) withdrew funding, which laid off all but seven employees. Still able to see the potential, Reich bought CollegeHumor. With the newly-minted title of CEO, Reich placed more focus on unscripted productions like Um, Actually, Dimension 20 and Game Changer; rebranded CollegeHumor to Dropout; and rode out the pandemic and SAG-AFTRA strike. At the tail-end of 2023, Reich announced that Dropout subscriptions had grown to a point where it was profitable enough to go into profit-sharing with its employees.

On the wave of a new season of shows, we talk to Sam Reich about Dropout, puzzles and the joys and trials of Game Changer.


SAM REICH: I can't believe it's 1:30 in the morning over there. I can't guarantee you're not dreaming up this interview.

ESQUIRE SINGAPORE: [laughs] Oh no, not again. Do you guys work from home?

SR: We do for the most part. We have a studio space and there are a couple of people who come in for post-production. For the most part, we just come in for shoots and the full-time staff works from home.

ESQ: Let's get this interview started. Sam... where are you from?

SR: [laughs] The fact that this joke has travelled internationally is really annoying.

Where is Sam Reich from?

ESQ: But are you surprised that Dropout is known outside of the United States?

SR: Are you kidding? I’m super surprised. And flattered. We went to the Edinburgh Fringe [last year] for the first time and had an amazing time. I was shocked by how many Scots knew about Dropout. It’s really cool to see our work getting out there.

ESQ: What’s the ratio of American subscribers versus the rest of the world?

SR: It’s predominantly US. I want to say... something like 60 per cent US. And then, there’s the second tier, which would be English-speaking countries. So, a fair portion of Europe, Australia, Canada... we’re popular in Germany for some reason. That ranks high on the list. Germany and India. I think that English is spoken in enough places now, for better or worse, that we have more international fans than I could ever imagine.

Kate Elliott

ESQ: You’ve mentioned before that you were hesitant to be in front of the camera. But you dropped out of school to be an actor.

SR: Yeah, originally I got into this business to be an actor... a dramatic actor. I took an acting class where the teacher said that I should act based on the first impression I gave when I walked into a room. For instance, Sam is short so he should do comedy. And that was the beginning of my comedy career.

I found a lot of warmth in comedy but not a whole lot of work in show business. It’s just really hard to make a living at this. The farther I stepped away from acting, the more money I made. I became a director, then a producer and then an executive... by the time, I became an executive, I worried that casting myself in things would be an abuse of power. I wanted to put myself in a position where I was supporting the careers of other people, who wanted to do what I wanted to do originally. It wasn’t until Game Changer came along. This was a show that no one really wanted to make. I kinda pitched it and got a lukewarm response. No one could wrap their heads around the idea and no one wanted to host it. I said, all right, I’ll take this particular bullet and now I am a gameshow host-CEO, which is a hyphenate I don’t think I share with a lot of people.

ESQ: The title will look great on your LinkedIn profile.

SR: [laughs] Exactly. It’d be a good business card where it says CEO on one side and gameshow host on the other.

ESQ: We discovered Dropout by chance with a Breaking News episode on YouTube—"True Facts About Grant Anthony O’Brien"—where embarrassing facts about Grant (a Dropout writer and performer) were revealed. And that led me down a rabbit hole of other Dropout content and I decided to buy a [Dropout] subscription.

"Is that Slenderman?"

SR: I love hearing about people's different entry points into Dropout. Game Changer and Dimension 20 are usually the popular ones.

ESQ: You’re also a presence on your social media. It’s a little endearing... that someone of your bearing is doing TikTok and [Instagram] Reels.

SR: [laughs] Yeah, I get made fun of for this a lot. Just before signing on to this call, I posted another sketch that I made in my spare time on Instagram. I didn’t have time to do TikTok but I’ll go back and upload to it afterwards. I think I’m one of the few people who loves what’s happening to comedy, thanks to platforms like this. I love how democratic they are. By the way, the House just passed [a bill] to ban TikTok in the US this morning; I’m very sceptical that that will happen.

Anyway, my interpretation of what happened is that TikTok was the first platform that you leaned into this idea of discoverability. So, what you were presented with, first and foremost on the platform, was people you didn’t know. Then given its rise in popularity, Instagram followed suit and created Reels; YouTube followed suit and created YouTube Shorts... TikTok created an opportunity to get seen. That hasn’t existed in our space for a long time. It’s really hard to find an audience doing this, it’s really hard. So, I love it and I want to participate in it. Even though... [laughs] the other day, one of my cast members/writers asked me, so what are you getting out of this financially? The answer is, less than nothing. I’m wasting money doing this. Money and time.

Kate Elliott

ESQ: You’re one of the rare exceptions as an independent streaming subscription platform to crawl out of a hole and find success. Do you have any advice for people trying to do what you do? Or were your circumstances akin to a perfect storm that will never happen again?

SR: If somebody wants to become a CEO/gameshow host of a niche subscription platform, I probably can offer a lot of advice. I think how we’ve ended up here is pretty niche and unique, and lucky, in terms of breaking into the business in general. This, at least, holds true in the United States. I don’t know whether it’s the same over [in Singapore] but it is still very hard and very privileged [that I get to] do this for a living.

I think that our industry has—that is the same in so many other industries—a kind of hollowing out of the middle class that’s occurred, where it’s just harder for folks to float to the top. It’s a system that right now, especially with all the consolidation we’re seeing, is rewarding people who are already at the top way more than it’s providing an avenue for younger and aspirational folks. On the other hand, the Internet has afforded young and hungry entrepreneurial creators better opportunities than ever before. So, if I was just starting, I’d focus on how I get attention online.

ESQ: How different are you from your Game Changer host persona? Is that the real you on camera?

SR: I mean, it is. You know, I think that there’s a very nuanced distinction between Sam on stage and Sam in real life. I do think when I’m in presenter mode, and then I break because one of my players does something funny and I laugh, that’s sort of a quick jump from one Sam to the other. But I was raised on Monty Python and there’s something about comedy in a suit that’s always resonated with me. I love stuff that’s formal and a little surreal. There are a few episodes of Game Changer that require me to be a little bit more of a “straight man”. For those episodes, I do try to unnerve my players with my common confidence, my stoic-ness. In this last episode of Game Changer, I say, Sam says “Don’t flinch” and a body falls from the ceiling... I have to play that straight or the joke doesn’t land. But inside I’m giddy all the time. [laughs]

SAM REICH

ESQ: One of your more famous catchphrases is "I've been here the whole time". It's something that you utter at the start of every Game Changer episode. Is there more to the statement?

SR: You know, there's a very pragmatic reason I say that. The original reason is because as the other players take the stage, I'm announcing the show as well and you wouldn't normally know that the announcer and the host were the same person. So, when the camera cuts to me, I'd say, "I've been here the whole time" as a sort of welcome.

But it has taken on a kind of a different quality as the show's gone on. I've introduced the idea of my great-grandfather magician counterpart, Samuel Dalton [from the "Escape the Green Room" episode], who exists somewhere deep in the lore of Game Changer. There's a Loki, god of mischief, quality to the phrase, "I've been here the whole time". I'm always watching. So I embrace it, even though it's not what I meant.

ESQ: But as the seasons go on—and I wish longevity for the show—is it getting harder to come up with themes for the show? Because one of the factors for Game Changer is, you know, the element of surprise.

SR: You’ve just encapsulated the stress of the show. Every season we back ourselves further and further into a corner where it’s harder to be original. And for a show called Game Changer, that’s the pressure. How do we keep reinventing the wheel? And every season we have to step a little further outside the box to find ideas that feel like they’re going to surprise, not only the cast but, also the audience of the show. And, by the way, remain true to, what I feel is, the show’s character.

Kate Elliott

ESQ: And what is that?

SR: For instance, I’m not super inclined to leave the set altogether. There’s more and more reason to do so [as demonstrated in] our two-part season finale, where we leave the studio for a completely different location. But it’s almost like when someone gives you a cardboard box and you have to put something wildly different in that cardboard box every episode but the box doesn’t change its shape so how do you do that? Every season we say, how are we going to top the next season? And every season we say, that’s next season’s problem.

ESQ: I can't wait to see the new season and what you have in the years to come. And also how you're going to get yourself out of the corner you painted yourself into.

SR: [laughs] You and me both. I think this next episode of Game Changer—the one that airs in two weeks—is a good one. And the one that airs two weeks from now is also one of my favourites we've ever done.

ESQ: It sounds like every episode that's coming out is the best one you've ever done.

SR: [laughs] The one coming out that I'm excited about is called "Bingo". You'll know when you see it.

ESQ: I’d assume the writing room for Game Changer is small.

SR: It’s small. Really small. It’s myself; my creative writing partner and head of development, Paul Robalino; it’s a writer whom I love and trust a lot, Ryan Creamer; it’s our head of production, Kyle Rohrbach, and my production designer, Chloe Badner. Recently, we brought in my director and editor, Sam Geer, early into that process.

Except for Ryan, the people who work on Game Changer lead departments on the show. That conversation is more of a production. It’s one part creative and another part logistical. I want those meetings to be practical. What’s the point of having a room full of creative folks if the moment I present my ideas to production we can’t do them?

What I did this past season is that I have 10 folks that I go out to for pitches. Then I take those pitches to the group. With them, we mull the pitches over; beat them up; cut ideas in half; sew two ideas together... that’s how we write a season. As the seasons wear on, I lean less and less on comedians and more and more on game designers. Now, the folks pitching the ideas are those with backgrounds in escape rooms and interactive experiences. I find their backgrounds are better suited to where the show is going.

ESQ: You're also a magician.

SR: Sure. But an aspiring one.

ESQ: Was magic something you took up during the pandemic or when you were young?

SR: It's funny, I was just reviewing some home VHS footage from when I was two and three years old and it was my first ever magic show. I've been into magic for almost my whole life. My school assignment was to create a coat of arms for myself. We had to come up with a sort of a [motto]; mine was "Imagination. Illusion. Humour. Art." I was seven at the time, just to give you a sense of how long this kind of stuff has been in my DNA.

During the pandemic, I found a magician offering lessons—Jason Ladanye on TikTok—and I started two years of training and some sleight of hand with him. It was really fun and really humbling because you learn fast that the stuff is not at all easy. It takes years and years to get good at. Jason is one of the best there is.

ESQ: What's your forte? Cards? Coins?

SR: Cards. I love the elegance of a simple Bicycle deck and this notion of portable magic, you know? Magic that you can take with you. Magic that you can do with someone else's deck of cards. Mentalism is interesting to me. I find it very intimidating and big stage magic like David Copperfield's kind of magic, I've no interest in at all.

ESQ: There's this weird crossroad with magic and humour that magicians often get made fun of by comedians. Do you get to perform for your peers?

SR: I do and people ask, for sure. I also think because they run in the same circle of performers, you'd be surprised about how little I get made fun of for magic as a hobby. It's like all of us here on the east side of Los Angeles are nerds and geeks. You have to be a particular kind of person to love and learn that kind of stuff.

I think it was Teller from Penn and Teller, who said, "Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect." And that's how I feel towards Game Changer, where we put so much effort into creating the fun and surprises of it.

Do you know the Dimension 20 e-art puzzle in "Escape the Green Room"? Took me hours to figure that out. But the whole time, I was just thinking, oh, they'll love this. It's like a little gift for your friends.

ESQ: By the way, I loved that episode because I thought it was going to be a normal escape room. But then you added lore to it. There’s a storyline. I was like, Oh my God, he went that extra mile.

SR: Yeah. It’s pretty high. My creative partner on that episode was Tommy Honton an escape room designer and I learnt a lot from him. Tommy has a terrific escape room here in Los Angeles called Stash House and he told me that the most exciting escape rooms are the ones with background. So, that’s where the seed started.

And then he said, the biggest advantage we have going into this episode, is that it only needs to happen once. As opposed to a traditional escape room, which you can reset over and over again. At that point, it became, Oh, we can put breakables in the room. A breakable clock, a breakable guitar and then it all started to fall into place.

"You didn't count on ingenuity, did you, motherfucker?"

ESQ: It just shows the kind of mind to conjure up themes for Game Changer. It's almost akin to a supervillain's mindset where they set up elaborate death traps and schemes.

SR: If you go back and watch season one of the show, we were still figuring out its identity. [We only figured it out] until season four. If you were to describe the show as a cocktail, it's one part improv comedy; one part British panel show; one part prank; one part magic trick and one part avant-garde art project.

Part of this for me is education. As I'm out in the real world, I'm doing escape rooms or playing social deduction games or seeing theatre. I'm taking notes, Oh that's a really interesting fact. I bet that could be incorporated into the show at some point.

ESQ: What are you watching and reading? Do you even have time for that?

SR: I do. I read a lot of fiction. My favourite book last year was Sea of Tranquility. It's this perfect little time travel book. I watch a lot of mystery. I've been watching The Tourist on Netflix. It's awesome. Amazing performances, an engrossing mystery. The show manages to spin three plates at the same time. It's really good.

I'm also watching shows at the Magic Castle. I'm playing games... I've started playing Blood on the Clock Tower. Again, awesome. I've been seeing a lot of theatre shows again like last year's Fringe. Now that was instructive because people were putting up shows that I'd never considered. It blew my mind. I went to a show called Temping, where only one person can be in the room at a time. You sit in a cubicle and there's a computer in front of you. The "show" centred around the e-mails and the phone calls that you were getting as you temped for this actuary office. Totally outside-the-box stuff... that gets me so excited.

ESQ: Would you like to bring Game Changer to the Fringe?

SR: I would love to if I can convince my business partners that there's any good business reason to do that. And—spoiler alert—there isn't. It would be pure joy if I could. We're toying around with more live stuff in general.

ESQ: Do you watch Taskmaster?

SR: Of course, I do. Alex Horne (creator of Taskmaster) is actually a new buddy of mine. It's funny, I was afraid to watch Taskmaster because it was during the pandemic season of Game Changer and folks started telling me that I should watch it as the shows have so much in common. I didn't want to watch it because I was afraid to derive too much inspiration from it. I didn't want people to feel like I was ripping it off.

But I watched a few episodes, got totally hooked and now I've watched every single one of them.

ESQ: Can we talk about the pandemic? I know, it’s a period that many would want to forget-

SR: It’s still happening.

ESQ: I’d always thought that the pandemic started in 2020 and I realised that it’s called COVID-19... so it started a year earlier. We saw the smoke but we didn’t think the fire would reach us. Your Game Changer season set during the pandemic was amazing. The ingenuity that came out from doing episodes with everybody remotely working from their homes. Did you just want to pause the series during the pandemic or did you feel like doing something...?

SR: We needed to do something. We had a season of Game Changer and a season of Dimension 20 in the can but the clock was ticking and [these episodes] were going to run out and we needed to produce content. We’ve signed a deal with IAC to take over [Dropout] two days before lockdown in Los Angeles and we needed to satisfy these subscribers. In a way, coming up with that season was [brought to a bear] but, in another way, I’m a firm believer that restrictions help assist with creativity.

It’s easier to write poetry that rhymes than poetry that doesn’t. So, the restriction helps. We did episodes that we would have never done in the studio. Not nearly as many people have watched the remote seasons, I get it. Even when I go back to watch the stuff that was filmed over Zoom. It’s... triggering. Thank god, we’re not doing this any more but I am proud of it. There are a few of those episodes that are some of my favourites.

SAM REICH

ESQ: You managed to get people like Tony Hawk and Giancarlo Esposito to guest on that season.

SR: That was a really rare situation insofar as no one had anything to do during the pandemic [laughs]. We have some higher-profile guests on next season's Make Some Noise, which is a short-form improv show that I'm excited about. Our experience has been that once people get a flavour of working with us, they will be excited to work with us again. Case in point, the drag queens from [Dimension 20's "Dungeons and Drag Queens" episodes] have been back a bunch. Paul F Tompkins recently started to play with us and he's been back a bunch. It's really fun to have the family expand in that way.

ESQ: You’ve cultivated a nurturing workspace. Your staff and performers look like they genuinely like one another. More family than workmates. In Singapore, it’s rare to see that sort of camaraderie in the workplace, let alone a CEO of a company putting his employees’ welfare before profits.

SR: I can’t take sole credit for this. This new version of the company meant that we could, sort of, start over. And we think long and hard about the kind of people that we want to work with at every level. Especially in a corporate environment, where there are many invisible powers, where [at Dropout,] it’s just us and that’s humbling. And I think that’s something people respond to; they are watching people who make that stuff.

There isn’t some sort of mysterious force behind us or the people who own the company that aren’t us... we are it. When you boil it down that way, we’re just human beings trying to make something and trying to get other people excited to make something with us. To do that, we need to show them—not only kindness and respect—but also reverence for their talent. And talent is really what powers the platform. The reason why Dropout is successful—and you can point to a lot of things like “the organic marketing strategy is clever” or “we’re making good decisions about finances” or “the P&L is well balanced... but the real reason why Dropout is successful is that someone comes out on stage and does something amazing. And for that to happen, you better respect it and have reverence for it.

I think it could be—and maybe it’s a little cynical of me—that in our industry, there are a lot of folks who get into content creation, they aren’t creatives. When you have too many people who get into our business from non-creative positions, meaning they were promoted through [fields that] aren’t like writing, directing, acting, etcetera. They don’t have quite enough respect for what it actually takes to make the product. I think that’s maybe the biggest difference in terms of our company’s DNA or how it’s set up: all of us at a high level are creative folks and we care deeply about other creative folks.

ESQ: We wanna keep to the theme of our discussion and incorporate a puzzle within this interview. Maybe readers who have come this far can figure out how to finish the rest of this url (http://esquiresg.com/_ _ _-_ _ _ _-_ _ _ _-_ _ _-_ _ _ _ _-_ _ _ _ ) and win a prize.

SR: Wow, very cool. You’ve permission to rewrite my responses [to fit the puzzle].

Sam Reich met his wife, Elaine Carroll, at summer camp in 2000. They remain the best thing about relationships in the entertainment industry.
SAM REICH

ESQ: Is there any point in Game Changer that you’d want to be a contestant instead of being a host?

SR: You know, truthfully, no. I know fans are so eager to see it happen. I’m nervous for whoever has to host instead of me. But I’m the show’s quality controller. If you take me out of that part of the creative process, it just wouldn’t be very hard for that episode to live up to the others. Forgive me if that statement is a little bit self-aggrandising but I feel so badly for the person who has to take on the stress of trying to come up with a Game Changer episode instead of me. It’s hard at this point. It is hard to come up with this stuff so I wouldn’t necessarily wish it on them.

ESQ: Hypothetically, if you could have someone to fill in as host, who'd it be?

SR: Folks have talked about who'd take on that mantle. Most specifically Brennan [Lee Mulligan]. A lot of people on Reddit want me to play in an episode and have my wife, Elaine, host it. But never say never. Maybe one day.

ESQ: I feel that the closest thing to you being a participant and getting pranked is on Breaking News.

SR: Breaking News has become where Grant [O’Brien] and the cast get their revenge on me. The next season of Breaking News, there are no less than three episodes targeting me. It is [starts laughing] wild. What they will do, I left to their own devices.

"Brennan, please tell me we met when you were a writer for Um, Actually."
"We met
five years before that."

ESQ: One last question, how has your wife, Elaine [Carroll] contributed to the Sam Reich of today?

SR: This is an amazing question that I’m so glad I got the opportunity to answer. So, thank you. Being in a loving secure relationship for as long as I have has allowed me to focus on work and creative output in a way that’s extremely privileged. Elaine is unbelievably supportive and our relationship is so profoundly uncomplicated compared to what I often see in the world.

Because we live in a [time] of dating apps and the huge amount of choices they bring, I can’t recommend enough for falling in love and marrying young. [laughs] I think it allowed us to start building a life early, which contributed hugely to what I’ve managed to do now in my 30s—I’ll be 40 this year—yeah... it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Game Changer, other originals and more are streaming at Dropout

Louis Vuitton

Famed Le Chocolat Maxime Frédéric at Louis Vuitton arrives on our shores. Marking their debut outside of their French homeland, the chocolates at Le Chocolat Maxime Frédéric at Louis Vuitton are handcrafted with high-quality ingredients. From the Filled Heart Saint Valentine to the intricate moving Vivienne on Malle, these concoctions are inspired by the fashion house and is only made possible through the deft hands of Chef Maxime Frédéric, the award-winning chef pâtissier of the Cheval Blanc Paris. Chef Frédéric answers a few questions about what goes into his chocolate-making, Louis Vuitton, and what fans can expect in the near future.

ESQUIRE: Tell us about your chocolate-making. What makes it special?

MAXIME FRÉDÉRIC: I think that what makes our chocolates unique is the savoir-faire and manual technique, as well as the art of the raw materials and the story we’re continuing to write with Louis Vuitton. These are incredible encounters and I believe that’s what gives our chocolates that undefinable “something extra”. It’s not just about the raw materials or just about the taste—it’s actually an entire ecosystem and story of sourcing, passion and people that have taken shape, and I see that as unique and precious.

ESQ: Can you tell us about a few of the chocolates specifically? Their flavours, ingredients, etc?

MF: Our chocolates are very diverse and our goal is to please as many people as possible and for everyone to find their own happiness and satisfaction, their own little delicious moment. As a result, we have flavours that are very simple, down-to-earth. We work with very pure cocoas and cocoa origins [from] Madagascar, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, [where] each [country has] a specific, incredible aromatic bouquet. But we also work with very French flavours. We use caramel—Breton caramel—or speculoos biscuit flavours.

Then we’ll create this duality between the richness of the ingredients and the flavours from incredible terroirs around the world, as well as the French terroir. This is the magical combination that makes me so happy to be part of it all. So, there will be a lot of technical prowess in play. And that singularity typically comes in the Vivienne, which will rotate with its chocolate mechanism, but it is also in the skill behind our moulds, the Louis Vuitton Monogram, obviously. All these things taken together make me happy and it really makes this chocolate-making very precious to me.

ESQ: How does Louis Vuitton as a maison inspire you? How is this shown in your chocolates?

MF: Louis Vuitton inspires me by virtue of its history and the people who brought the company to life and keep it alive and thriving today. That’s a trait that I also see with my great-great-grandparents who were agricultures [sic] and our family farm today. Now we’re lucky to produce the eggs and hazelnuts that l use in our chocolate-making. I find this same idea of legacy at Louis Vuitton.

There’s an entire history there that has been forged and composed over the years, over time, and which has created this incredible maison’s richness and diversity. And today, that’s what we’re humbly trying to do with our chocolate-making: respecting the heritage and work of those before us, while adding our own uniqueness, our personality, our humanity, the richness of the land and of our ingredients. This human aspect is very important to me and it’s what inspires me at Louis Vuitton. At Maison Louis Vuitton, there’s a wealth created by the people, there’s a history. And these two inspire me and guide us greatly in making our chocolates.

ESQ: What’s next?

MF: The idea is still to enrich and cultivate the diversity of this chocolate-making, to be even more creative, to add even more surprising things, to bring in a fruity dimension, which is very rare in chocolate-making today—we have a little bit of that, but we plan to develop it even more and to bring our orchards into our chocolate-making as well, combining all that and enriching it, through this global gastronomic variety and culture, and French savoir-faire.

The local chapter of Le Chocolat Maxime Frédéric at Louis Vuitton is located at 2 Bayfront Ave, B1-38/39 Louis Vuitton Island Store

Alex Da Corte

Annie Clark, who records under the name St. Vincent, is one of pop’s originals.

The missing link between Kate Bush and Jimi Hendrix, she is noted for her mezzo-soprano voice and her virtuoso musicianship.

A multi-instrumentalist of Prince-like ambition, Rolling Stone magazine once named her the 26th Greatest Guitarist of All Time.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Clark began her career as a member of sprawling Noughties’ oddities The Polyphonic Spree, before joining Sufjan Stevens’ touring band.

She released her first solo album, the excellently-titled Marry Me, to critical acclaim in 2007, and has not stopped since.

Each release is significant both for its handbrake-turn in music styles and for Clark’s accompanying new visual direction, sometimes provocative, sometimes demure, but always fascinating.

She has won shelves-full of awards, including a trio of Grammys – most recently for her 2021 album, the 1970s-influenced Daddy’s Home. If all that sounds a bit like hard work, she also knows how to write a hit.

St. Vincent’s seventh album All Born Screaming is a big, noisy, crunchy record, heavy on fat 1980s synthesisers and a growling industrial menace that has already seen it compared to Nine Inch Nails.

We met in a central London hotel to discuss it recently. As celebrity cliché dictates, Clark is a big presence on stage but tiny in real life.

Dressed exclusively in black and red she was dwarfed by a suite-sized sofa as she waxed lyrical about her love for a UK restaurant that doesn’t get enough love from visiting global superstars: Pret A Manger. (Formidable porridge, apparently.)

Impossible to credit with being 41-years-old, Clark chose her words with care, weighing up each question before answering.

Alex Da Corte

Is it weird doing interviews when you’ve finished a record? A succession of complete strangers meeting you for 30 minutes to tell you their opinion on something you’ve made

I don’t mind. I feel like anything that helps bring this little cow to market is okay. [Laughs] I’m bringing my prize pig to market.

And what a pig it is

Some pig! I mean, anything that helps get this music that I love and care about out there….

Somehow, this is your seventh album. They all sound very different. When does a collection of songs start to become ‘an album’?

Making albums to me is sort of like polishing perfect little puzzle pieces. Toiling away on these intricate little puzzle pieces. But you don’t know what the big picture they make is. Until the end. Everything on this record was, like, ‘Does every song go deep enough? Does every song take a big enough swing?’

I can hear echoes of Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie…

Oh, I love all those things!

but then the press release mentions Steve Albini and Nine Inch Nails. Who’s right?

Everyone’s right. You’re right, too! I love all those people. Yeah. But it’s missing The Specials.

Two-tone ‘done wrong’ on the track ‘So Many Planets’, apparently

Two-tone done wrong, yeah.

Is there a more satisfactory way to talk about new music than comparing it to old music? That Elvis Costello quote: ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s a really stupid thing to do’

To me, this music is black and white and all the colours in a fire. That’s the best way I can think to describe it. And ‘This is the sound of the inside of my head’.

All Born Screaming is the sound of the inside of your head?

Like, ‘Let’s just get into it’, you know? Like, life is impossible. But we get to live it. We’re all born screaming. If you’re screaming when you’re born, that’s a great sign because that means you’re alive. It’s miraculous! The baby’s alive. But we’re all born in protest in some way. It’s just… heaven and hell. And everything in between.

Where does the title come from?

Actually, that line has been with me since I was 22. I’ve been trying to write a song with that in mind since I was 22. [Archly] So, you know, three years ago.

Does it still mean what it meant to you when you were 22?

I don’t know. I think it was always, like, [what-are-ya-gonna-do? voice] ‘Well, we’re all born screaming!’ It’s just: ‘Here we are’.

Haven’t you described this as your ‘least funnest’ record?

No! I think it’s so fun. Or, at least, funny. I meant: it’s not ‘winky’. You know I spent a few records, for sure, dissecting the idea of persona. And dissecting the idea of a ‘pop idol’ and using certain kinds of iconography. In this case there’s not a persona. I’m not really playing with the idea of persona. This is just what the sound of my head sounds like.

What’s ‘the look’ going to be for this one?

Black and white and all the colours of the fire.

Okay! You’ve had some good dressing up moments in the past. Daddy’s Home came with a dishevelled 1970s nightlife vibe

That was so great. It was exactly what I need to do at the time.

Is your job fun?

Which part?

The whole thing

Oh, my God. Playing music for people? Best job in the world. I mean, it’s so miraculous and it’s so rare that anybody gets to make a living doing the thing that they love the most. It’s crazy. I’m so lucky. I’m so fucking lucky.

Alex Da Corte

You’ve also said you want to ‘fuck people up’ with this record. What have we done?

Don’t you sometimes go to a show and you just want to be pummelled? Like, you just want to be thrashed. If artists are a weather vane for culture, or, like, a psychic mirror to what’s happening in our collective unconscious [then right now everything feels] violent, chaotic. And the great thing about music is that, even in the process of making this music, it was using modular synths, which are chaos machines, to create a little bit of release and transcendence. But I just want to be pummelled. I want to hear something that makes me want to go ‘Fuck!’ That’s what I want.

Does that mean you want to shake people out of their complacency?

I mean – any reaction people have to this is totally fine by me. Because that’s for them. And I don’t prescribe to [the idea of wanting] to know what that reaction will be. But for me making it was raw. I just wanted to make something that to me felt dangerous.

There are some fantastic jarring sounds. What’s your favourite noise on this album?

I love noise. Like [the sound of] a snare or something – [makes snare sound ] pchzch! pchzsch! – so there’s some of those. Like, in ‘Broken Man’. The snare in ‘Broken Man’ makes me happy. There’s Two-Tone dub-gone-wrong, running Josh Freese’s [Devo/ Foo Fighters drummer] drums through a Hawk Japanese tape machine [vintage reel-to-reel contraption], playing with the speed of that, so it sounds like absolutely melted. Another of my favourite sounds on the record is Cate LeBon playing the baseline in ‘The Power’s Out’ on an A2 fretless [bass guitar noted for its melodic sound], Cate’s playing it left-handed and my engineer is holding the e-bow. [imitates sound] Raow! Raow! Raow! Raow! And it’s ugly. It’s ugly in something that is otherwise quite sonically beautiful. I would say another of my favourite moments in the record is the way the chorus in ‘Hell Is Near’ just sort of blooms…

You’re a bit of a musical gear-head, right?

I’ve got a lot of gear. But I also went to my friend Justin Meldal-Johnsen [Beck, Nine Inch Nails, Air], who played bass on the record, and he had all the synths. So I would go over to his. He’s got quite an impressive collection. I’ve got a solid collection. Maybe 20 drum machines. And synths… a bunch of them.

Do those jarring sounds originate from, for want of a better expression, ‘mucking about’?

Most of the music-making was me going in, syncing up all the drum machines, syncing up the modulars [synthesisers] and then running them through my board and just making 8am dance parties for myself, on a little bit of mushrooms. Just entertaining myself, for hours and hours.

That’s quite a strong start to the day

Yeah! But you gotta do what you gotta do.

Dave Grohl plays drums on some of the songs. You can tell

Yeah, he was the most fun. I sent him the songs and he comes over to my studio and he drinks a bunch of coffee, he smokes Parliments and he tells the best stories and we have a laugh. We trade war stories. And then he’s, like, [brightly] ‘Alright’. And then he goes in and he plays the song perfectly. Every hit. Every turnaround. He just nails it.

This is the first album you’ve produced yourself

I mean, I’ve co-produced everything that I’ve done. But it’s a lot longer of a process because you just don’t have somebody going ‘Yeah, alright, that was good’. [ie: ‘We got it now. Let’s move on’.] But I think I knew on this record that sonically there were places that I wanted to go that I just had to do alone.

Would another producer have stopped you going there?

No. That’s never the kind of producer I’ve worked with. It’s more like there’s a different energy to a room when you’re with someone. And that’s the beauty of it. I love collaboration. There’s just a different energy to the workflow, to the amount of – I sang some of these songs 100 times to get any ounce of falseness out of it, to make it exactly what was happening here in my chest. But that’s not something I would ever put another person through. That’s sadistic at a certain point. I’m fine being masochistic. But I’m not a sadist!

How much of making a record is inspiration, and how much is perspiration?

It’s never a straight line, is it? You just go in there until you know that if you spent five more minutes on it, you’d make it worse. It’s just knowing the point of diminishing returns.

The other thing that’s mentioned in the press release is the influence of your first band, The Skull Fuckers

That was a noise band I played in, in college. We were very inspired by [challenging US noise/ ‘math rock’ band] Polvo.

I found a photo of The Skull Fuckers on Reddit. You don’t look quite as intimidating as the name suggests. You’re wearing a brown felt hat and a scarf, playing acoustic guitar, sat on a chair

I know! I remember that. Yeah, that’s really unfortunate.

Was that not representative of The Skull Fuckers?

No. For some reason we played a gig when the drummer couldn’t come. And we were, like, ‘Okay, I guess we could still do a noisy set with the three of us’. The early 2000s were not a great time for fashion.

When we spoke in 2021, I asked you how we should best listen to Daddy’s Home. You said ‘Put it on a turntable. Pour yourself a glass of tequila or bourbon and smoke a joint. That’s the vibe’. How should we listen to All Born Screaming?

Like, on what drugs?

Just ‘How should we listen to it’?

Listen to it loud! Listen to it loud, wherever you listen to it.

So would you advise drugs, too?

You know, I think the end of ‘All Born Screaming’ [a wild instrumental section, seeing out a seven-minute song] – I think that’s where the ecstasy is peaking. Before any gurning starts.

For the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and for other tribute performances, you have variously stood in for Kurt Cobain, Kate Bush, David Bowie and Prince. Is there anyone you can’t do?

You’ve just named four of them.

That is some list

That’s wild. I don’t know… they asked me.

What’s your reaction when they ask?

Usually terror. And then I cycle through that and then just practise a lot.

I rewatched your performance of ‘Lithium’, with the surviving members of Nirvana, for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, last night. It’s astonishing. What was going through your head on stage?

It’s genuinely indescribable. I mean, that’s the first music I heard that was like ‘This is mine. This isn’t something my parents played me. This is mine. This speaks to some resonating frequency in me and some experience that I’m gonna have’. It was like a premonition of a whole life when you heard that music.

Presumably people now have a similar reaction to the music you make

It blows me away. Especially when young artists come up, and they’re, like, ‘Your art has helped me making more art’. That’s the generative spirit. That’s the multitudes.

What do you look for in a good stage outfit?

I need to be able to jump into the crowd if I want to. And I also need to be able to be as active as possible in my footwear. So I require ankle support. So I can jump and move and run around. If it’s constricting, it’s because I’m constricting myself intentionally. For [2017 album] Masseduction I was in latex. I was making myself as uncomfortable as possible because it would give me something to fight against in a performance, you know? Daddy’s Home was a lot more comfortable. Easy-breezy. Got to move those hips. And this [album] I just need to be as kinetic as possible.

You did a MasterClass, one of those multipart online tutorial guides. Yours was on ‘Creativity And Songwriting’. Did people find it useful?

I don’t think I gave them any practical theory. Except to say ‘Try to get out of your own way. Let yourself throw it at the wall and then judge it, or be critical of it, later’. You can’t be critical of it as it’s coming out. Or else it just won’t come out. I hope that was helpful. But I don’t think I was, like, ‘Well, here’s how to write the perfect bridge!’ I wouldn’t necessarily know how to do that.

Let’s talk about your contribution to the Minions: The Rise of Gru soundtrack

Lipps Inc. ‘Funky Town’. Lipps with two ‘p’s. I love that song! It changes keys. It’s so weird. This was before the pandemic. I was working on Daddy’s Home. And [pop music’s current favourite producer] Jack Antonoff was working on the Minions soundtrack. And he just said ‘Okay, you want to do something?’ And I said ‘Can I do ‘Funky Town?’’

Another highlight of your CV: you co-wrote ‘Cruel Summer’ with Taylor Swift. It went to Number One this year, four years after being released

I mean, it’s very cool and it’s very indicative of the way people consume music now. Like, it wasn’t a single from that record [the album, Lover]. The fans just decided it was a hit – four records later. It’s crazy. I’ve never experienced anything like it, first-hand. But also I’ve never actually seen it happen before [ever] – except maybe with ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ when it was in Stranger Things [Kate Bush’s 1985 song, finding wild new popularity on the back of a pivotal role in the Netflix series]. The fans just decided it was a hit.

Hurray for the fans

Yeah, hurray for the fans.

Where does Taylor Swift’s insane work ethic come from?

You’ll have to ask Taylor Swift.

Taylor can’t come to the phone right now

I think she’s just tapped like that. She’s just built for it.

Are you planning to tour this record?

Yeah, of course.

Can you tell us more?

I think it will be a pummelling. A pummelling, plus making sure the beat don’t stop. Like with Daddy’s Home where I took catalogue material and reinvented it in [a new] style with that band. I’ll do similar. With shows your job is to surprise, shock, delight, console, surprise, shock, delight, console, disgust, console. Not necessarily in that order. So sometimes you need to give people a kick in the teeth. And sometimes you need to tell people that everything is going to be okay. And then sometimes you need to dance together in ecstasy. And that’s what I imagine the show will be.

Who’s missing from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

Let’s go Throbbing Gristle.

What do you like about ‘noise bands’?

The nerdier answer is that I like that there were these [music] scenes that existed because people lived in a place and a time and everyone was in communication with one another and people were cross-pollinating in a very organic way. I mean, that’s why you have Two-Tone, right? The UN couldn’t have made a better cultural collaboration. And I like that. Because it’s genuinely the thing that music does which is to bring people together and give people a voice. It’s also fucked-off people just expressing the violence and the chaos of the wolrd. And it’s ugly.

Peter Gabriel. Lipps Inc. Taylor Swift. Throbbing Gristle. Polvo. Is there any sort of music you don’t like?

Coffee shop singer-songwriters aren't for me. You know – [sound of an acoustic guitar being strummed] - ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. I don’t begrudge anyone their taste. But that’s not for me.

All Born Screaming is out on 26 April

Originally published on Esquire UK

For the longest time Bassem Youssef was motivated by revenge. Not exactly of the arch kind—there were no cunning plans or dastardly schemes—this vengeance was career motivation, plain and simple. The way he looked at it, if he could succeed as an Egyptian stand-up comedian in the US—after everything he’d been through—he would prove everybody wrong. There was only one problem: He wasn’t actually very good.

“I started five or six years ago and, like anything new that you try, in the beginning you’re not good. So, yeah, I sucked big-time,” confirms Youssef via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “The problem was that I had come from a point of high expectations, especially from an Arab audience who had seen me on Al Bernameg. Many people would come to my show and be disappointed. I got it—I was disappointed too. I was in my mid-40s competing with kids in their 20s doing shitty open mics and stand-up comedy clubs. To be honest, it was a little bit humiliating.”

The move to stand up was meant to be Youssef’s big pivot. Well, his second one if you count the initial transition from cardiac surgeon to TV show host in 2011 (and you really should). But in 2014 he had cancelled Al Bernameg—his groundbreaking Egyptian show that dared take a satirical sideswipe at the country’s elite—as the pressure had simply become too great. The show had been a staggering success, regularly attracting 30 million viewers across a three-season run, but the country’s Mohamed Morsi-ran government was fragile in ego. In March 2013 a warrant was issued for Youssef’s arrest, claiming he had ‘insulted Islam’ as well as the current president. Four months later Morsi was deposed by military coup, but Youssef believed that his own fate was written, too. In 2014, for the safety of his family, he left Egypt for good.

Key Necklace, by FENDI. Merino Wool Turtleneck, by CH by CAROLINA HERRERA

When it came to stand up, Youssef got better. “Bit by bit things improved,” he says. “I became more comfortable with the material, and the nuance of doing the show in English.” But while the Arab audience was where his fame lay, there was a time when he refused to perform in Arabic at all. That choice feels like it stems from somewhere raw. Perhaps a subconscious kickback to the treatment he received on leaving his homeland.

“What happened to me in Egypt, when I quit for the safety of my family,” he explains. “I didn’t want to do it anymore because it was just too much pressure. But I was called a coward, a sell-out. The epitome of love [from the people] had turned into the depths of hate.”

But of course you can only deny self for so long, and eventually Youssef began performing in Arabic again. Now he tours two shows at the same time, one in English, one in Arabic. “It was hard to begin with,” he admits. “A couple of times they [the Arabic shows] didn’t go so well, but eventually I found my voice. But they are totally different, the Arabic show has nothing to do with the English one. Doing this is difficult.”

There’s a tension that often lies beneath the surface of the best comedians. A dark that fuels the light. You sense it in Youssef, too—and not just because he’s under the weather today and with a big show at the weekend. The experience with Al Bernameg almost broke him, being labelled the ‘Voice of The Arab Spring’ could do that for you. You still feel that a big part of him wants to speak out on issues surrounding the Middle East—his actions tell you that—but he hates it too. The pressure, the expectation. That kind of weight can be debilitating.

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On October 18, 2023, Youssef was interviewed about the Israel-Gaza war on Piers Morgan: Uncensored. It would have seismic results.

“The producers at Piers Morgan: Uncensored had actually approached me to discuss [the situation in Gaza] twice, but at that moment it just felt like any comment would have been career suicide,” he says wearily. Youssef had appeared on the show some months earlier, speaking out on the Afrocentrism row that surrounded the Netflix docu-drama Queen Cleopatra, and had put in a typically indefatigable performance.

“But at that point it just seemed impossible to speak out against the narrative that was being told [on Palestine]. That changed when I saw Ben Shapiro’s comments going out on his show. I got very upset. When the producers called me a third time I said ‘yes’.”

The interview currently sits with 21 million views on YouTube (the most-watched Piers Morgan: Uncensored episode of all-time) and saw Youssef engage with a typically satirical approach, exaggerating all the points made before him. It was a tactical strategy that took guts.

This is how the conversation with his wife, Hala—herself half-Palestinian—went prior to his appearance on the show.

Bassem: “Hey, I’m going on the Piers Morgan show tomorrow to talk about Palestine.”
Hala: “Are you sure—what are you going to say?”
Bassem: “I don’t know.”
Hala: “Good luck.”

And then after the show (after he had joked how Hala, as Palestinian, was indeed ‘difficult to kill’)…

Hala: “Don’t do a second one.”
Bassem: “I’ll just do one more.”
Hala: “OK, do what you want.”

“This is why our marriage works,” he smiles. “We give each other the space to be ourselves.”

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Youssef’s strategy was something approaching shock and awe. A first, slightly-over-the-top exaggerated first interview that would lead to something deeper; a face-to-face with Morgan which duly came on October 31.

“To be honest, the whole thing really felt like a lose-lose situation to me,” he admits. “I thought, ‘If I do well I could lose my whole career, and if I do badly I could be cancelled by my own people’. But I took a chance. For the first interview I wanted to make a splash. But for the second I worked with some amazing people around the world to educate myself further on the situation. There were so many nuances we don’t know, even though we’re Arabs.

"The first [interview] was sensation, the second was education. This approach was risky from beginning to end and I can’t sit here and say that I planned it all. I could have lost everything; but I got lucky. If you look at the videos, the first is on 21 million views while the second has 11 million, but the second has more clips being cut from it, and has been viewed far more.”

The fallout from the interviews has been mixed. “It’s been mostly positive from my people,” he says. “I’ve actually been selling-out shows because people saw it. But I’ve had to tell them that one has nothing to do with the other. On the negative side, I lost a couple of jobs in Hollywood. Movie roles that got cancelled, I’m still working out whether I want to make a fuss about that yet. On a personal level, people have been extremely nice. Although I did have a couple of incidents where some comedians I had worked with were a little nasty about me. I didn’t respond. Why give them any fuel?”

There were also other issues at play here. Since leaving Egypt in 2014, Youssef had made LA his home and is now officially a US citizen—something that he remains positive about the situation. “I haven’t really worried about my position here,” he says. “I’m an American citizen and I do believe in this country. Of course, like anywhere, there are problems. But I would rather live here than any other country. I think that the people growing up in the US can make positive changes. I still believe in the idea of America.”


“I’m not a news agency, I’m not a politician, I’m not an activist. I’m just a comedian that was in a position to serve a cause in some way.” BASSEM YOUSSEF


Inevitably, since the interview, there has been the inclination to push Youssef to the forefront of the conversation when it comes to Palestine. And to an extent, he has continued to highlight the plight of the people. Things like Instagram live check-ins with Palestinian photojournalist Motaz Azaiza, for example, show his desire to do something. But there’s a level of unease you see on his face when he discusses it. The shadow of that Al Bernameg pressure creeping back into his life.

“I’m not exactly sure what I will do next. It would really be up to people like Motaz—he has to figure out that risk,” he says before trailing off… “I don’t know if it’s even helpful.”

There’s a real internal struggle at play here. In our social media age, any perceived missteps are publicly called out. And the pressure heaped on high profile accounts can be unbearable for anyone. For Youssef it’s a frustration.

“I don’t like doom scrolling or posting. If you look at my feed I don’t really put ho­rrific images there. Because, at the end of the day—and this is a problem with Arabs especially—we just want to be doom, doom, doom [mimics scrolling on a phone] and then we cry with each other. I’m not saying that people should stop doing this, maybe it is effective.

"But from my point of view, if people started unfollowing me because of that then it doesn’t matter what I’m posting, because it’s not going to be seen. I want to continue working, to become more successful, more vocal, so I will be invited and asked to talk at higher profile shows and opportunities… Piers Morgan, Joe Rogan… suddenly your message can reach a lot more people. But right now I have people cursing me, and judging me if I post about my upcoming shows. ‘You didn’t post about Gaza today’. But they forget that this is my livelihood.”

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So the internal conflict continues. The desire to simply be himself, a comedian, and not have the pressures of a people, versus the knowledge that sometimes he cannot remain silent.

“I do what I do because you feel it’s the right thing,” he says. But then it comes: ‘you are our voice’. Basically you are putting all your expectations on a human being and, at a certain point, maybe they won’t be able to speak up. Maybe they’re tired, maybe they’re afraid. But people are so frustrated by politicians that they come to comedians, actors, footballers. There is a weight on us because people follow our work. But really, we don’t have the solution.

“At a certain point you start to become erased for it, too. For the cause. You’re suddenly responsible for talking only about this subject. I’m not a news agency, I’m not a politician, I’m not an activist. I’m just a comedian that was in a position to serve the cause in some way. Maybe I will do it again. This is life. Life is variable.”

The variable of Youssef’s life has certainly been evident since leaving Egypt; from Netflix documentaries to appearing twice last month in the UAE at COP28, to working his way up to become a successful—as he puts it—‘mid-level’ comedian in the US. But that profile has suddenly gone stratospheric. It’s an uneasy career boost, in all honesty. But he has too many years on the clock to take it all too seriously.

“Before Piers’ show I was doing well. I was filling theatres, shows in Europe, the Middle East, which is great, a good life. Then that show catapults you to a totally different level. But you remain humble. You don’t take this world too seriously. It’s better to enjoy what you have right now, and not to get too hung up about your achievements. Nothing stays forever.”

The sheer exhaustion felt by Bassem Youssef when he left Egypt for the safety of himself and his family over a show that would, anywhere else in the world, have presumably seen him honoured. How do you come back from that? The frustratingly simple answer is: with time. But the years only attach a band aid, they don’t erase. If you’re lucky, however, those scars can take you someplace else.

On November 17, 2023, Bassem Youssef’s stand-up show sold out the Sydney Opera House. Nine years, pretty much, to the day that he had left his homeland. It was a groundbreaking experience that followed a wildly popular extended tour of Australia. In those moments, when we actually get what we dream about, we’re often drawn into introspection and reflection. But when you ask Youssef if he misses Egypt you get a quick-fire “no.” Almost as if he’s trying to say the word before anything else slips out (although he does caveat it with Red Sea beaches and Egyptian mangoes). As for the haters, well those nine years have brought perspective.

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“I’ve been on a lot of rollercoasters,” he says before quickly adding the word “emotional” to ensure we don’t think he’s been obsessing over theme parks all this time. “I think when I left Egypt there was a lot of bitterness and a lot of anger. I felt that I was treated unfairly, that I had done something spectacular for the Egyptian media and was punished for it. So, you want to succeed to show the people back home who doubted you, who celebrated your failure, that you’ve still got it. But you know what I found when I did it? Nothing. When you get to that good place, you really don’t care anymore.”

At the Sydney Opera House Youssef had once again done his research. He had spoken to the Arab community and was sad to hear that they felt the Palestinian flag was becoming synonymous with terrorism. Determined to do something special in their honour, he promptly learned a traditional Dabke dance; something to perform on the night at the end of his show. And so, he duly danced with Palestinian dancers in a rare moment of hope. “It was a way of humanising Arabs,” he explains, before pausing. “Maybe if they see some of our culture (before they steal it) they might actually respect us as humans and, hopefully, allow us to live.”

And there you have the complex realities of Bassem Youssef wrapped up in just a few lines. The funny and the fundamental, the gag with a sting in its tail, his art and identity combined. It’s an internal struggle that you feel could play out for some time. Ultimately, the man from Cairo might not want to be a hero. The truth is that he looks set to play the role for the foreseeable future.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY Amina Zaher
STYLING BY Laura Jane Brown
PRODUCTION BY Steff Hawker
SET DESIGN BY Yehia Bedier
H&MU BY Kasia Domanska
STYLING ASSISTANCE BY Christina Leighton
LIGHT ASSISTANCE BY Mostafa Adbu
PRODUCTION ASSISTANCE BY Sarah Kuleib

Originally published on Esquire Middle East

Top, trousers, belt, bracelet and boots, SAINT LAURENT

Some people are just born performers.

As a viewer, you can, somewhat, get the sense when the on-stage persona vastly differs from their IRL personality. The unapologetically magnetic stage presence versus a modest, amiable character is often a duality afforded by those who revere their craft. TEN undoubtedly falls under the category.

Naturally introducing himself without pretension, TEN carries himself unlike someone with a celebrity status. The answers issued come across as gentle and sincere, regardless of how accomplished he is in his respective fields and regions.

Even the unprompted birthday surprise when, during the photo shoot, the crew comes out with a cake, the chorus of “Happy Birthday” sounds with equanimity. His birthday, if you must know, is 27 February; a recent entrant into a new turning around the sun.

Suit, top and boots, SAINT LAURENT

TEN is talented, clearly. You can’t help but buy into the calling that as he had shared about knowing that this is what he wanted to do since the early age of 14. Since his days as a trainee finding foundations in South Korea, the goal was to release his own solo album. Now, years of practice have culminated into one multi-faceted articulation of who he is as an artist.

But is that an accurate depiction?

This is different from his past solo singles. The elation of presenting a full album is real, but so is the pressure. And that’s the thing about high-contrast performers; you just know the level of perfection they demand of themselves is far from the average. But perhaps attributing it to being in his late 20s, lacking no tenure in the industry, or simply personal ethos, TEN’s perspective on what matters to him now has changed a little.

Somewhere between the hopes of acting in a thriller and winding down with a cold one after a busy schedule that typically ends at midnight... somewhere amid album preparation and promotion, quiet self-reflection, and newfound inspiration... There, at the nexus of passion and creativity, is where you’ll find him, charting along an ongoing passage of growth and expression.

T-shirt, trousers, belt and boots, SAINT LAURENT

ESQUIRE: You’ve been part of NCT, WayV, and SuperM; how do you navigate your identity among the different groups versus as a soloist?

TEN: When I work in a team, I try to adapt to the style that was given to me. Whereas as a soloist, you get to represent yourself and do what is right for you. You’re behind the wheel now; you’re the one creating the concept with your team, so I try to understand more about myself to better represent myself.

ESQ: Is there any belief that you feel is essential to your success?

TEN: (ponders) I think I have the mindset of “Being Humble”. If you think you know too much, you will stop growing. So knowing how to educate yourself is very important for me. If I feel like I’m not being humble today, I sit down to reset my mind. You have to [tell yourself], “Don’t be arrogant. You’re assuming but there are so many things you don’t know, you have to learn more. You’re not perfect right now.” So I’ve always had this like... good negative thoughts? It helps me feel grounded again.

ESQ: Is it hard to know where you stand in terms of humility with all that surrounds you?

TEN: Since young, my mom told me to be humble. Be kind. If you’re kind and have positive thoughts, good things will come your way. I’d always keep that at the back of my mind all the time. These days, I’m more into a positive working environment. I feel that if you’re in a good environment, the outcome is way better than when you’re not in a good mood.

ESQ: Could you talk us through your creative process?

TEN: For this album [TEN - The 1st Mini Album] my team and I sat down to share ideas, photos and listen to multiple tracks of various genres. Then I’ll add my two cents and we’ll put these songs up for a vote. This process is more accurate than me saying, this is a good song. It’s interesting to see how everyone has their take and different talking points on why certain songs should be the title track or part of the tracklist.

For the dance, we received demos internationally but we took the good bits and improved on them. So there was a lot of discussion about this album.

ESQ: You’ve been in the scene for close to 10 years now, how much input do you have in what you wear for performances and appearances?

TEN: I always give my opinion on the outfit because I need to feel comfortable to perform. If I don’t feel relaxed about the things I wear, I’m not representing myself on stage. But I do listen to other people’s [feedback], I think that’s very important.

Shirt, trousers and belt, SAINT LAURENT

ESQ: What do you look out for when it comes to fashion?

TEN: Fashion! Nowadays, I want to see something new because when I go shopping online or offline, there’s this standard where everything kinda looks the same. I want something that can be very simple, yet stands out. Saint Laurent for example, any of its suits may have the same look as every suit but there are little details that make it look unique.

ESQ: What’s your earliest memory of the Maison?

TEN: Oh, since my debut in 2016, my stylist always gave me Saint Laurent outfits to wear for performances and music videos. I just want to stress that this isn’t scripted or anything. I’m not paid to say this; this is as real as it gets. It’s fun to see how Saint Laurent’s styling has changed since then.

For Spring/Summer 2024, all the colours and materials are very simple, but how they are used and the way they are worn just make the clothes stand out. I’ve attended two Saint Laurent shows and the collections look totally different.

Top, SAINT LAURENT

ESQ: What about your relationship with art? Is there a chance your artwork can be shown to the public one day?

TEN: Art really helped me express the side of me that I couldn’t really show at work or to my peers. Since my trainee days, I would express myself through drawing whenever I felt depressed or stressed out. If someone were to ask me why I haven’t been drawing lately, it’s mainly because I don’t feel any stress currently. But I also draw when something inspires me, like a quote from a movie. I’d start drawing what could represent it. Yes, when the time is right, I want to open my own gallery and welcome all my fans to come see it. I want to be sincere and tell them the true meaning of every piece of my artwork.

ESQ: Aside from being an artist, is there anything that you were always interested in developing but did not have the time to pursue?

TEN: Ah, to go to university (laughs). I want to know how university life feels like because that’s once in a lifetime. Ok, you can enrol into university when you’re 30, but the feeling is different. It’s not regret... just curious as to [what it’s like] going wild in your early 20s in university as opposed to attending university when you’re 30.

Trench coat, trousers, scarf, sunglasses and boots, SAINT LAURENT

ESQ: If you could go to university now, what course would you take up? And do you think it’d be easier or harder to cope when you’ve been in the spotlight?

TEN: Business or art. I think it’s going to be ok. I don’t think I’ll feel the difficulty in enrolling into university because of my fame because I’m always up to meeting new people.

ESQ: Is there anything you’re grateful for in your career?

TEN: When I debuted, I had a leg injury. I went to get my operation after and had to rest for two years, [which is when] I started to focus more on my vocals. The doctor told me I might not be able to dance again, and that picture got me fired up. Like, ok TEN, if you can’t dance, what could you do in this career? Let’s try developing my singing skills. So during the recovery, I went to the practice room every day practising my vocals and the result came out very nicely for me. And those two years just made TEN become who he is right now.

ESQ: Do you ever think about legacy?

TEN: I’m a person who doesn’t think too far into the future. I’ll just focus on the present. Right now, I just want to have fun. The reason I wanted to do a solo album was that I wanted to open up that part of me that I couldn’t show when I was in a group or too afraid to when I was younger. It’s about time that I get up to face my fears on stage, understand the person I am and feel free.

Top, trousers and bracelets, SAINT LAURENT

ESQ: Is it easier now or is it always frightening?

TEN: I’m still learning, right? It’s not easy. I had my first solo fan-con [fan concert] and it was very nerve-wracking at first. I may seem fluent but I worry all the time about what I’m going to say or whether my fans would enjoy watching my performance; do the songs sound good?

But... I figured I’d just... go with it (chuckle). Don’t think about it too much. Because the fans love you just as you are. They don’t want to see perfection; they just want to see the artist and his story. I feel like I tried too much to be perfect in the past but [ultimately] you just need to be real with yourself. Just take it slow and people will end up loving you.

ESQ: Do you feel put in a box as an idol, regarding people’s perception of you?

TEN: For now, I won’t say everybody knows who TEN is. As a soloist, this is the year when I’m representing myself as TEN. There will be more things to reveal in the future. I must keep a little suspense, otherwise, it won’t be fun to watch, right? I’m going to slowly reveal myself [bit by bit]. It’s like reading a novel or playing a video game; if you complete the game in an hour, it’s boring; you don’t want to know the climax. You have to walk one step at a time; you’d want to be on the journey of that character.

Photography: Jungwook Mok
Fashion Direction: Asri Jasman
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Styling: Sihyuk Ryu
Hair: Daeun Nam
Makeup: Hyebeen Kim
Producer: Daniel Teo

For international orders of the Esquire Singapore April 2024 issue with TEN, email ordersg@heart-media.com.

ESQUIRE: Coldplay is in town for the next few days. Have you adjusted to the time zone?

GUY BERRYMAN: Not quite. Getting there. We were in Manila prior and were stuck in crazy Manila traffic. I’ve never seen anything like it. Have you been there?

ESQ: Once. A long time ago. You’ll need to frame your appointments around how bad the traffic is. But having the concert held across several days must be great for you.

GB: So many people want to buy tickets, which is amazing. So, if we only do one show, a lot of people will be pissed-off. From a business point of view, it’s better to be in one spot for many shows because it saves on all the transportation and setup costs.

ESQ: I’d assume that it’s enough time to get acclimatised.

GB: It’s nice not having to move. I like coming to a place, unpacking my stuff in a hotel room and staying there for a week as opposed to flying into a city, doing a show and flying to the next place, y’know? That’s way harder.

ESQ: You have outfits that you have collected over the years. What is that one piece that you’re amazed by?

GB: I’ve got so many garments that I’m completely in love with. Quite often, they’re 50 or 70 years old, something like that. There’s one jacket that I have, which is a Royal Air Force Ventile parka from the 1950s that I think is just one of the greatest pieces of menswear ever designed.

ESQ: Why is that?

GB: It’s hard to say initially... but it’s the details, really. The Ventile fabric, the fit, the lining... what’s particularly nice about the jacket is that it’s 70 years old. It’s faded and got little holes in it; there’s a certain patina to it that brands try to recreate with their products. These days, you can buy new jeans that are full of holes, that’s been faded... it’s all fake. What I love about the [Royal Air Force] jacket is the way it looks, it’s old and really beautiful. I wear vintage pieces all the time. I love them because they look a certain way that you can only get from a vintage piece.

ESQ: Do you think, in this day and age, that it’s easier to buy vintage pieces or harder due to fast fashion?

GB: I’m somebody who buys mostly old clothes. When I go to a different city, I don’t head to the luxury retail experiences. I go for the flea markets, the antique shops and the charity outlets. That’s where I’d find the things that I like. I do shop from Dover Street Market but I’ve no issue with wearing secondhand clothes at all.

ESQ: Was your T-shirt, “Love is the Drug” inspired by one of Roxy Music’s songs of the same name?

GB: Actually, that was just a coincidence. The phrase has nothing to do with Roxy Music. So, we do all of our own screenprinting by hand at our [Applied Art Forms] studio. Somebody in the team said since Valentine’s Day is coming up, we should make a special Valentine’s Day T-shirt. I was thinking about what can we do that isn’t super cheesy like a heart or the kind of typical imagery associated with Valentine’s Day. I kinda thought that “love is the drug”. It kinda had that slightly edgier feel to it. I wrote “Love is the drug” on a piece of cardboard with a pink marker. I let the paint run down a little so that it looked cool. We photographed it, screenprinted about, I think, 50 T-shirts and put it up for sale the next day. When it was sold out, we kept getting e-mails from people wanting to buy it. After a while, we kept printing and making more of them. Then, Chris [Martin] wore it, which led to more people wanting it. So, here we are two years later still with “Love is the Drug”. (shows a T-shirt from the rack) We have a version only for Singapore. This is a black on black T-shirt. But, yeah, “Love is the Drug” has nothing to do with Roxy Music.

ESQ: Has Roxy Music contacted you about the phrase though?

GB: No they didn’t. I mean, I don’t know what the IP rules on this are like. I’m not sure. Actually, the phrase I meant to write was “Love is a Drug” and I wrote it wrong. The “just say yes” portion of it has to do with this 1980s anti-drug campaign in the UK... no, wait, it was an American campaign to stop kids from taking drugs and the campaign slogan was “just say no”. So when I wrote, “Love is the Drug”. I changed and added “just say yes” to it. So, that’s how it came about.

ESQ: Will you do more slogan T-shirts?

GB: For me, my real passion for the brand is outerwear jackets. So whenever we launch a new collection, it’s always built around my ideas for the jackets that I want to make. Most of the time I just wear plain T-shirts... that’s just how I like to style myself. But, of course, graphic T-shirts are what the public wants so we always offer a few different graphic T-shirts. Some are sometimes photographic-based. We do a lot of handwriting or stencilling. “Love is the Drug” is a nice phrase and I don’t think I’m going to introduce another kind of slogan anytime soon.

ESQ: You have a studio in Amsterdam. What does that do for you, creatively as an artist?

GB: My partner, Keishia [Gerrits] is Dutch and so I was spending more and more time over there visiting her family. I fell in love with Amsterdam. It’s just such a wonderful city and it made sense to move there. I’m now a full-time resident of Amsterdam. As a city, culturally, it’s very diverse. The centre of the city looks the same now as it did hundreds of years ago. I always think that it’s very beautiful. But there are a lot of creatives in Amsterdam. Many talented people, like musicians and designers. There are incredible restaurant tours there. The city changed a lot even in the last five years since I’ve been there.

ESQ: Hannah Martin is your partner for your jewellery line, A Vanitas and your meeting with her was serendipitous. Do you like collaborating with other people?

GB: I do. Collaboration is such a big thing these days. I feel almost every day you’re looking on social media or whatever and you’re presented with news of a new collaborative product. When the idea of collaborations first started happening, it was interesting but now I kinda see it for what it is... which is just a big marketing exercise. where big brands are saying, you take some of our customers and we take some of yours. That’s what collaboration these days are like. But the collaboration between Hannah and I was not about that. It was just this very chance meeting. We’re two small brands so our collaboration isn’t gonna move the dial for either of our businesses. Our partnership came about with a focus just purely on the product and the designs that we came up with.

ESQ: What’s next on the collaboration front?

GB: The most sensible collaboration would be with a footwear brand. Applied Art Forms don’t do footwear. For a small brand like us to go into footwear is quite challenging because the minimums on shoes are very high and you have a range of sizes for them. What would make more sense for us, is partnering with an established like-minded footwear brand for shoes. That would probably be my next logical step for any kind of collaboration.

ESQ: You mentioned there was a steep learning curve when you first created Applied Art Forms. Is it easier now? Or do you still find it challenging to sustain it?

GB: No, I love it. I’m very passionate, very driven about design. I’m always full of ideas so it is never an issue to realise them. I mean, we did launch the brand at the start of the pandemic; I was living in the UK at the time and the studio was in Amsterdam. So when the lockdown happened suddenly, I couldn’t go to the studio to work. Very quickly, we had to come up with a new way of working, which was, as you know, would be Zoom calls.

I’d be at home talking through the screen with the team in Amsterdam. We’d have an open Zoom meeting for half a day. If a prototype came in, they would hold it up and try it on. I’d look at them saying, no, the shoulders need to be wider, that needs to be longer, y’know? It’s not ideal but it works. Now, I’m on tour and it allows me to come to places like Singapore and speak to you. That’s helpful for the brand. But I can jump in on a Zoom meeting any time because we have the remote working method really dialled in. Eventually, when I move to Amsterdam, it’ll be fantastic because then I can cycle to the studio every morning and be together with the team. This would be much more productive.

ESQ: What about scalability? How do you navigate that and try to stay true to what you’re doing?

GB: We’re always going to stay true to what we’re doing. Of course, we needed to grow and we needed to scale a bit but I definitely don’t want to turn [Applied Art Forms] into a huge mega brand. It’s always about product quality. It’s about building a community around the brand who understands where I’m coming from. And for me, that’s all it needs to be.

ESQ: We’re curious. Your jewellery line with Hannah is about the memento mori trope (“remember that you’ll die so do all you can in this limited lifetime”). Whereas Applied Art Forms is about the longevity of clothes. What does time mean to you?

GB: It all stems down to trying to leave your mark on the world. If you make something which isn’t very good, or if it doesn’t last a long time, it will disappear. I guess it’s kinda the same way when you make music: you’re trying to make songs that will have an impression on the world. And it’ll still be playing after you’re done. For instance, (points to a jacket) that denim chore jacket there... it’s a beautiful Japanese selvedge denim and this is fantastic in the way it’s put together. Somebody like me could go to a vintage store and find this jacket because it lasted that long. But not only that, it will look so beautiful. It will have faded and there might be some holes in it but it’s going to look beautiful. I always want to make meaningful things whether that be music or clothes or jewellery. It has to be something which will stand the test of time.

Photography: Jaya Khidir

Parka, overshirt, trousers and sneakers, HERMÈS

_It’s hard writing about a celebrity who [sic] international press dub “Accidental K-pop Star” and Korean media affectionately call “Nation’s Boyfriend” without rehashing facts.

These nicknames alone encompass what you need to know about the singer-songwriter. The former clues you in on his professional trajectory; from getting scouted off YouTube to placing in the finals of a Korean singing competition, subsequently kickstarting his presence in the music industry. The latter tells of his personality that has earned the collective good sentiment of fans, no doubt thanks to his bright and humorous disposition.

_What could I tell you about his recent headspace that his song “House on A Hill” doesn’t already express?

The very lyrics centred by a chorus of “what ifs” spell out his apprehensions about the pursuit of happiness. Taking after a potential property he was eyeing, the title represents the existential crisis it sparked in him about why we were taught that buying a home, among other relative “necessities”, were qualifiers for our happiness. As well as the unreliable metrics behind a sense of accomplishment, or even the motivations driving our daily grind.

“For me, it’s been as long as I’m healthy, feeling challenged and finding fulfilment in the work I’m doing, being respected and surrounded by people I love. What more do we need?” he asks rhetorically.

Sweater and denim jeans, LOEWE

“Am I exhausted? Yes. Do I want to take a break? Yes. But that doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. I’m not Oh-my-god-life-is-wonderful-this-is-the-best-thing-ever overjoyed. It would be a little bit weird to be consistently like that. I might have taken some time but I’m getting to the point where on average, I’m always like, I’m good.”

One thing he fluctuates with, though, is his ADHD. An adversity his parents always regarded as a youth’s excuse rather than an actual condition. “It’s something I’m always trying to get a better grasp on. And I wish I had known better earlier. I wish I had sought help earlier. Cause when your parents say it’s not real, you think, oh maybe I’m just lazy. But I literally cannot focus on things. I cannot do very simple tasks sometimes. Many times. Very often,” he laughs.

He acknowledges that it didn’t necessarily exist the same way for a generation that survived war, absolute poverty, and making ends meet with backbreaking jobs. There’s no resentment, but it’s only at this point in his life that he can have that discussion with them on the realities of mental health.

_So is there diving deeper when the Atlanta-born artist has already shared similar, immensely personal stories on his mental health app, Mindset?

Tunic, trousers, scarf and loafers, BOTTEGA VENETA. Socks worn throughout, stylist’s own

The platform he founded tackles difficult topics by celebrities in a real and open way, encouraging listeners to take heart in kindred struggles and normalise what would otherwise be taboo conversations. He leads by example with his own experiences of feeling vastly displaced twice in his lifetime.

Once as a child of immigrants in America, who spoke no English and was bullied for being different. The second time returning to Korea as a foreigner, navigating its culture when he had since lost his native language. You can hear the slight weariness in his voice as he recounts becoming an outsider yet again after having tried so hard to fit in.

This social-cultural recalibration, on top of attempting to carve out a living on unfamiliar ground, marked a murky season. Oddly, seeking help was not an option. It all came down to optics. Should the public find out, he was told, they’ll think he’s lost it, and his career would be over.

“That was such a weird perspective to wrap my head around,” he exhales, expounding on mental health in a way that echoes his fervent speech at the TIME 100 Impact Awards last year. “It is at our core. It is the beginning of who we are and how we react and how we socialise and how we love and how we are. So it’s something that everybody has to deal with.”

Jacket, shirt and shorts, LOUIS VUITTON

“And there is no one right answer. It’s finding what works for you as an individual,” he explains, raising how it’s not easy to find a good therapist, plus the cost doesn’t exactly make it a service accessible to all.

“It’s more than saying get therapy, be on this medication, meditate. I immediately fall asleep when I do meditations, so it doesn’t benefit me. But if I talk to a trusted advisor, friend or family, walking it through with them is my form of therapy. And every song that I write now. It comes from real-life encounters and what I’m going through.”

_Where do I begin mapping out the evolution of the 35-year-old’s over decade-long vocation?

He went from mimicking sounds because he barely understood the language he was singing, to finding his voice and colour as a musician. He describes it as an eye-opening process where he has witnessed growth, especially in lyrical content.

“Where it was previously young and playful, or I may not even fully know what I’m saying, everything now very much has intention,” he affirms. “Also, the confidence in my approach. Because the hardest thing about being a creative is that you’re creating stuff that’s not there, there aren’t really guardrails on what’s good or bad. Everything’s very subjective. And it’s always been nerve-wracking.”

The next steps will probably put him in a comparable situation. Having hosted/podcasted at the helm of DIVE Studios with his brothers, he foresees the next chunk on time going into acting, writing and producing. While something may or may not already be in the works, releasing a consumer product (maybe skincare, maybe wellness) is another venture he often ponders.

Jacket and shirt, LORO PIANA

_I could perhaps tell you how Eric Nam is like on a Zoom interview at 6pm LA time instead.

How he’s casually in a green hoodie and his house is in disarray because he’s leaving on a flight to his ensuing world tour spot the next day. But his skin looks amazing (so yeah, he should drop that skincare line).

How he gets a little more serious than what you had expected from prior appearances. How he considers each question sincerely, with no qualms leaving pockets of silence to reflect before commenting. How these responses run long, and how he apologises for them midway. How words are chosen carefully when broaching delicate subjects, not out of distrust but in acquiescence that positions can always be misconstrued. How these spiels ultimately return to what was asked, and how he peppers endings checking if they make sense.

How he lately enjoyed a film called Didi because it made him feel seen. And amid the excess entertainment we’re inundated with, properly demonstrated what good content is supposed to do. How while it was fun, poignant, and made him laugh; its quality also served as a sobering reminder to do everything with purpose.

Jacket, shirt, trousers and loafers, ZEGNA

“I’m thankful that I’m able to do what I do right now, but honestly, there are moments I don’t know how much longer I’m going to do this,” he admits. “So we really have to enjoy what we do. We’ve been conditioned to be hypercritical so that we don’t receive criticism, and so when we see something we don’t like in or about ourselves, we tend to be very mean to ourselves, which is unfortunate.”

“There should be a practice of being grateful and complimentary of yourself. Not arrogant, not complacent. Just recognising effort and when there are things that you cannot control. Having a good head on my shoulders is something I strive for, and when I do make a mistake or something doesn’t work out, it’s fair to be disappointed.”

“There are several other factors beyond my resolve that determine whether something is successful or not. There’s timing, luck, trend; with all that’s going on in the world, anything can happen. It’s now about holding myself accountable to make the best possible decision and put my best foot forward. Whatever comes after, I must live with and have grace for myself because there’s no point in beating myself up over things I cannot control.”

_Perhaps I could explore why Eric Nam still wants to do what he does.

Why despite counting himself blessed with the opportunities he’s had, it doesn’t mean that they came freely. Why some may think everything was handed to him because they are not privy to the hurdles and the way he had to grapple behind the scenes to get to where he is today.

Vest, shorts and loafers, DIOR MEN

“Those who know, know that I was one of the first tours to go to these markets and open them up. I’ve seen people who literally do exactly what I do, and I’m more than happy to help guide them when they hit us up, but being that first one to do it was so tough,” he shares.

“So even if I don’t become the number one artist in the world who has a bajillion streams, it doesn’t matter. It’s about being as trailblazer-y as possible. To be bold and make something that seems incredibly impossible happen.”

“That’s what I want my legacy to be. It could change completely because this tour, these acting gigs and start-ups, there’s so much going on that I’m like, how do I do this? So that’s kind of where I’m at now. I hope that giving it as much as I have with the intent of doing things right, it will be to people a point of empowerment and inspiration.”

There’s a split-second Nam seems to be at peace with his answer, before he characteristically goes, “Does that make sense?”

Photography: Shawn Paul Tan
Styling: Asri Jasman
Hair: Christvian Wu using KEUNE HAIRCOSMETICS
Makeup: Kenneth Chia using YSL BEAUTY
Photography Assistant: Xie Feng Mao
Styling Assistant: Chua Xin Xuan

The independent watch brand, NORQAIN, has been making waves with its presence and its watches. To understand what makes NORQAIN tick, we turn to its founder and CEO, Ben Küffer, and its ambassador and animal sanctuary founder, Dean Schneider. During the conversation, we find out about the brand's ethos and what keeps them relevant in a saturated watch market.

NORQAIN's founder and CEO, Ben Küffer

ESQUIRE SINGAPORE: Given the needs and presence of Norman, what’s the strategy when you are up against bigger and much more established brands out there?

BEN KÜFFER: Since the beginning, the strategy of NORQAIN was to be different. We looked at the watch market and there were hardly any independent brands left below 10,000 Swiss francs. And then when we decided to do it, we wanted to be totally different. We can't buy an existing brand. We have to write our own story, be 100 per cent credible and be true to our values in showing customers why Norqain is necessary in the market. That's really the strength. It's our story. One that's independent, family-owned so we don't have pressure from shareholders. We can do whatever we want and the customers felt that.

ESQ: What is this "story" that's different from the other big market players? 

BEN: Looking at the market, there were two things that we saw. One was the evolution of pricing, where prices have increased in the past years so our goal was to go back to our Swiss suppliers to tell them that we want to offer the best quality to attract younger clientele into mechanical watches. But we need to return to a pricing where we were in the past. And of course, with lower quantities. It was a big challenge but we made them understand our mission and what we are in the market. Norqain’s one big differentiation is that we went back to the past. In terms of pricing, in terms of quality; this was really important.

Then, as a new brand, you need innovation. I think innovation, we have that in everything that we do daily. Our motto is "Your life, your way." Every time we make decisions, we ask, ‘Is this different’? With regards to watch designs, in terms of how we build the community. We talked with Dean about NORQAIN's strengths and he said that the brand had a community that was with them from the start. We're doing things that are important to us but these are things that other people would care about. The outdoors; animals; being animal cruelty-free; sustainability... all these are who we are as a brand. You feel close to the brand and that's a big strength.

Dean Schneider, NORQAIN's ambassador

ESQ: How does that translate to your product? How do you associate a watch with a lifestyle?

DEAN SCHNEIDER: It's the values behind it. What Ben said is that the brand is very accessible. The values speak for themselves. We talk about animal cruelty-free products, about sustainably sourced products. We talk about shock resistance and (shows his watch), I literally wear this almost every day of my life. And it still looks and works perfectly. And that was the goal. Two years ago when I joined Norqain, everything I've seen so far, that's just pure innovation, let's be honest. In all the meetings we had, we made sure that we reached a level of innovation which hasn't been seen before.

We spoke about roaming through the malls where you see all those different brands and what's missing are the stories behind the products. What does it stand for? What does it present? Where is the message? You don't see it enough. But walk into any NORQAIN store and you'll see an image or quotes and sentences, which hints at our ethos. I’m all about messaging and stories, about inspiration and education. And so is NORQAIN.

ESQ: I think what's interesting is it inspires loyalty. 

BEN: Yeah, absolutely. True. 

ESQ: And you definitely stand for it. 

BEN: From the beginning, when we put our team together, there weren't many people. There were about three of us, maybe. I met Dean a couple of months later and we instantly clicked because I told him why NORQAIN has an opportunity in the watch market and Dean brought into the brand. It was very clear what type of product we had to produce if it was for Dean. It needed to be ultra-robust, shock-resistant. You can see [Dean] with the lions and I'd imagine that this watch needed to be strong.

So we developed NORTEQ (a special material made especially for the brand). It's super-hard material and well-suited for someone like Dean. NORTEQ helped us as a brand, in terms of how we came up with a product that hasn't been produced yet. There are no books to copy from. We had to start from scratch, to create the Wild ONE watch.

DEAN: Yeah, I think the biggest value in that is the ability to adapt and create something from scratch. Not just copy something, change it slightly and then put it on the market. NORQAIN has proven with this collaboration and we have the Wild ONE range. If you can do it for that, you can do it for anything. Imagine that future, one with different possibilities and platforms.

BEN: It was a bit easier with [Dean] because the story is very clear.

ESQ: What are the challenges for NORQAIN?

BEN: Building a brand from scratch means that you have zero customers. So you'll need to know how to make the public fall in love with what we're doing. We don't have a lot of marketing budget, to begin with. You're starting with a story that you'll have difficulty in spreading.

The game-changing moment was when I realised that the combination of NORQAIN being a hybrid brand is that everybody expected us to be only online. But we started to have our retailer network and that gave us a lot of different methods on how to spread our story. I think we did pretty well with our social media. We had digital marketing but where we excelled was our relationship with retailers. The brand was in 12 countries at the time and we did all we could to activate and reach out to local ambassadors. I realised that there's a formula. I won't reveal what it is but it's something we do whenever we enter a market.

COVID was challenging but it gave us an opportunity to stand out. In the beginning, our tendency was to put NORQAIN as the brand first. I want the brand to talk and I'm here if somebody wants to talk to me. But when COVID happened, I, in my capacity as the founder and CEO of NORQAIN, had to go out and get people to understand our message better. We were like a speedboat in a storm where every time things changed we adapted to it quickly.

NORQAIN Wild ONE All Black timepiece

ESQ: How about challenges in building the community here? The Singapore market might not be that easy as our GDP is based mainly on tourism. 

BEN: Yeah, I heard your national sport is shopping, right? [laughs] We did this across many markets and we feel that communities can share values if they have the same interests. For example in Singapore, we talked to the organisers of the Sundown Marathon; we talked to the people behind Spartan Race. People who like sports, who like to be outdoors, who like to be active, they automatically relate to us; that's how we've built our community; by reaching out to local events sponsors that fit our brand. Once you do that, you can mix the community with the brand. That was the strategy. 

DEAN: NORQAIN is special because the values they stand for are so universal. When you talk about adventure, about freedom... these are universal concepts. If you stay true to your values like NORQAIN does, regardless of the ambassadors, whatever actions they take or the things they support, they will always remind us of the same values over and over again.

BEN: That's a very small example but it's understandable. When I started in Singapore, I was told that there is a national hockey team here. So, we reached out to them. I expected maybe 20 people to be in the team and I was told, that they have 600 members. I said, okay, what are these members doing? They say they have women who play. They have Singaporeans and expats. I said, great. Let's make an event. And we did two events in a row with 50 people each. Great fun.

Here we are talking about a sport that's very niche in Singapore. But everyone gathered because they had the same interests.

Martina Bonci, Gucci Giardino 25's bar manager

As the birthplace of Renaissance art and culture, even after the rolling decades, Florence still retains its ancient beauty. The creative place is made livelier with the presence of Gucci Giardino 25, the latest addition to the Gucci House.

In a nod to the flower shop that used to occupy the spot and Gucci’s former CD’s favourite number, the venue embodies the House’s codes while luxuriating in Florence’s vivacity. From dawn till dusk, it offers an all-day menu created according to the ever-changing seasons and inspired by Tuscany’s verdant lands. But it is the cocktails that are the focus here. Bar manager of Gucci Giardino 25, Martina Bonci, hails from the picturesque Umbria. Having taken up the position during the pandemic, Bonci has steered the ship towards safe harbour buoyed by her signature cocktails. We pulled Bonci over for a quick chat about mixology and Gucci Giardino 25.

ESQUIRE SINGAPORE: We have yet to get to Gucci Giardino 25. What can we expect when we visit?

MARTINA BONCI: You’ll be welcomed by a young and smiley team. Expect to have a unique experience in a unique location. It’s not just about having a good cocktail but rather you’ll have an experience you will remember fondly.

ESQ: When people visit Gucci Giardino 25, what should they order?

MB: Our best seller Mémoire di Negroni, of course. It’s the first signature drink I’ve ever made, which also became a bottled drink. I’d recommend the Mémoire di Negroni if they like a ‘dry’ drink. Or if they prefer a sour, [I can point to the] Chi si Ferma è Perduto, which is a twist on Margarita with tequila mint bergamot and spirulina salt.

The signature Mémoire di Negroni

ESQ: How did the Mémoire di Negroni come to be?

MB: I had just joined the Gucci Giardino 25 team. The bar was about to open and I was so nervous and so excited at the same time. I was walking the streets of Florence and I saw a shop selling Fiorentina (the Associazione Calcio Firenze Fiorentina, Florence’s football team) T-shirt merch in its official colour: purple. That’s where I got the inspiration. And since Negroni started in Florence as well, the drink is also a tribute to the city.

ESQ: I’m curious, what was your first drink?

MB: Long Island Iced Tea. It was a bit of a shock, tasting it, to say the least! At the time, I expected it to be more of a tea than an actual alcoholic drink. But I still have it from time to time when I want to have something less “nerdy” than my usual orders.

ESQ: Do you think that there can ever be a “terrible drink”?

MB: One thing I love about mixology is that there’s no such thing as “bad for everyone” or “good for everyone”. There may be some technical errors in [making] a drink, but ultimately, it all boils down to what you’d like to drink. 

Antony Lindsay, CEO of Fabergé

On a warm afternoon in the middle of nowhere, Antony Lindsay, the newly-appointed CEO of Fabergé sits before us as the ice in a glass next to an unopened can of Coke, tinkles as it melts. As the CEO of a storied brand like Fabergé, Lindsay’s task is to spread the word (and work) of the Romanov’s favourite jewellery house. With Sincere Watch Limited as its official retailer in Singapore, Fabergé continues to make its presence known. And yes, Fabergé is synonymous with the gem-encrusted eggs but the house has other achievements like jewelled boxes; animals carved out of precious stones and other ornamental objects.

In 2007, the brand underwent a revival. Taking inspiration from its storied past, Fabergé created original pieces like the Vissionnaire watches, where a Chronograph model displays two time zones at once, and the Altruist line, which has a clean and simple-to-read dial, with a crown that’s reminiscent of winding up a traditional clock. The collection that secured Fabergé’s footing in the hard jewellery world is the Compliquée models, which won the 2015 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève award.

As water pool at the bottom of the glass, Lindsay talks to us. About his history, where Fabergé is at and the future.

ESQUIRE: Did Sean Gilbertson (Fabergé’s last CEO) leave you with any wisdom when you took over?

ANTONY LINDSAY: [laughs] There’s been many over the years. I’ve known Sean, coming up to almost 14 years, and we shared some moments, both good and challenging. Nothing springs to mind... except for this Winston Churchill quote, “If you ever find yourself going through hell, keep walking.”

ESQ: What’s your journey been like?

AL: I come from a family of jewellers and had an interest in gemmology at a young age. I’ve been neurolinguistically programmed to appreciate jewellery, timepieces and objets d’art just by hanging out at my dad’s atelier on the weekends. I’d look at the gemstones handled by the craftspeople. I have an appreciation for hard luxury and completed my apprenticeship as a bench jeweller. I’m proud of having played such an important role within Fabergé for about 14 years. I’ve worn different hats as well. Proud when I was appointed MD and was invited to join the board of Gemfields UK Limited. As well as becoming CEO this year.

I feel privileged and fortunate to be part of a team to write the next chapter of one of the most celebrated names in luxury. I see that as an honour. It’s the revival of the coloured gemstones on one hand and it’s also the revival of Fabergé on the other. It’s what keeps us very busy.

ESQ: What sets Fabergé apart from the rest of your competition?

AL: I’d say that Fabergé’s reputation for unrivalled craftsmanship and design is globally recognised. I’d say Fabergé’s diverse use of techniques like the guilloché enamel with the use of hard stone or visible setting. In keeping with tradition, we seek to work with the finest ateliers. Because we don’t have our own workshop, we seek out workmasters all around the world. That’s quite unique to us.

ESQ: Speaking of tradition, how do you maintain that heritage while courting the newer generation?

AL: That’s a good question. It’s important to us that we pay homage and recognise what was done in the past. We draw inspiration from Peter Carl Fabergé, whether that be through his philosophies, values or craftsmanship. To apply it in a modern and contemporary and relevant way; we like to consider ourselves as a forward-thinking brand.

ESQ: How did your partnership with Sincere come about?

AL: I’d say that we are actively looking to partner with the finest retailers in existence. We don’t profess to understand every market on the planet. So, we believe that by partnering with the best of the best, who understands how to represent a brand like Fabergé; and how to offer first-class customer service... that’s very important to us. Sincere Watch Group is the perfect fit for Fabergé and we’re delighted that they are representing us here in Singapore and soon in other parts of South East Asia.

Compliquée Peacock Emerald Watch

ESQ: What would you introduce to someone new to Fabergé?

AL: I would introduce the Compliquée Peacock watch, which is quintessentially Fabergé. We took inspiration from the Imperial Peacock Egg and, in keeping with the Fabergé tradition, we sought out the finest watch movement manufacturer and that led us to Jean-Marc Wiederrecht of Agenhor and now his two sons, Nicolas and Laurent, who run the business on a day-to-day basis. Throughout the discussions with them, we made the Peacock watch that has a special retrograde movement, that functions off four gears, and that allows us to add a feature for the peacock’s tail to unfurl.

ESQ: Peacocks, playing cards; are there other motifs that will utilise that movement in the future?

AL: There are some plans and they are confidential. [laughs]

ESQ: You talked about Fabergé as a book that you’re proud to be part of. What is the next chapter?

AL: To continue this revival and personally—and I know I speak on behalf of my co-workers—it’s about ensuring that the Fabergé story can still be told. What Fabergé symbolises is more than simply luxury and decadence. For us, it’s about creating prized possessions that can stand the test of time and be passed down through the generations. That’s important to us and runs through our DNA. You can scour through Christie’s and see that Fabergé is one of the highly sought-after hard luxury names in existence. 

Something’s off, but you can’t quite name it. It’s the moment you get home after staying with friends and an influencer using their exact coffeemaker pops up on your Instagram feed. There's the split-second after an actor delivers a quippy line on a streaming series and you try to parse whether this scene has already become a meme or if it’s just written to court them. It’s the new song you’ve been hearing everywhere, only to discover it’s an ‘80s deep cut, inexplicably trending on TikTok.

There is a name for this uneasiness. It’s called “algorithmic anxiety,” and it’s one of the main subjects of Kyle Chayka’s new book, Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. A staff writer for The New Yorker, Chayka charts the rise of algorithmic recommendations and decision-making. He shows how culture has slowly started effacing itself to fit more neatly within our social media platforms' parameters

Algorithms, Chayka reminds us, don’t spring from the machine fully-formed. They’re written by humans—in this case, humans employed by the world's biggest tech conglomerates—and their goal is simple: to prioritise content that keeps us scrolling, keeps us tapping and does not, under any circumstances, divert us from the feed.

Filterworld shows us all the ways this can manifest, both online and IRL, into a kind of contentless content. Songs are getting shorter, because it only takes 30 seconds to rack up a listen on Spotify. Poetry has enjoyed an unexpected revival on Instagram. But mostly when it is universal, aphoristic and neatly formatted to work as image as well as text.

There’s the phenomenon of the “fake movie” on streaming services like Netflix. These cultural artefacts have actors, plots, settings—all the makings of a real film. But it still seem slickly artificial, crowd-sourced and focus-grouped down to nothing.

If our old tech anxiety amounted to well-founded paranoia (“Are they tracking me? Of course they are.”), the new fear in Filterworld is more existential: “Do I really like this? Am I really like this?” Is the algorithm feeding us the next video, the next song, tailored to our unique taste? Or is it serving us the agglomerated preferences of a billion other users? Users who, like us, may just want something facile and forgettable to help us wind down at the end of the day.

Chayka doesn’t give us easy answers at the end of Filterworld. He does, however, offer an alternative to the numbing flow of the feed: taste! Remember taste? We still have it. Although the muscles may have atrophied after so many of us have ceded our decision-making abilities to the machines.

Rediscovering our personal taste doesn’t have to be an exercise in high culture or indie elitism. But it does require what Chayka calls the conscientious consumption of culture. In seeking out trusted curators, seeking out culture that challenges us and taking the time to share with others what we love.

To go deeper, Esquire sat down with Chayka to talk about the cultural equivalent of junk food, the difference between human and algorithmic gatekeepers, and why “tastemaker” doesn’t need to be a dirty word. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: Let me start with a slightly provocative question. Is there anyone with a bigger grudge against algorithms than journalists?

KYLE CHAYKA: Well, journalists are known to have a grudge against algorithms. I can speak to my own dislike of them. Just because they’ve taken away this filtering, tastemaking function that journalists have had for so long. But through the course of the book, I talk to all sorts of creators who hate algorithms just as much.

It’s the illustrator who got trapped into doing one bit on Instagram because it succeeded all the time. Or the influencer whose hot selfies get tons of likes but their actually earnest, artistic posts don’t get any attention. In the book, I interview coffee shop founders around the world, and even they are like, “I hate the algorithm because I have to engage with all these peoples’ photos of my cappuccinos.” Everyone feels kind of terrorised.

Maybe journalists were just part of the first wave to realise this?

I think journalists are often canaries in the coal mine, partly because we complain the loudest about everything. But you could see the impact of algorithmic feeds in the media really early on. We moved from consuming news on cable TV or in a newspaper or even on a website homepage to consuming stories the majority of the time through social media feeds. And that just takes away so much control.

A newspaper front page or a website homepage is a human-curated, thought-through intentional thing that highlights important stuff, along with fun stuff, along with goofy stuff. There was an intention and a knowledge to that, which algorithmic feeds have just totally automated away.

Let’s take it from news to culture, which is really the focus of your book. Filterworld explains that the algorithms driving social media exist to keep us engaged as long as possible.The result is a kind of flattening of culture. Our social feeds privilege content that’s easily digestible so we can keep on grazing. What happens to us when all the culture we consume is flattened like that? And we’re not pushed to seek out new things, or to just try something that makes us uncomfortable? What happens to us when we aren’t getting any nutrients, you could say, from the feed?

It makes me think of the cultural equivalent of junk food. It’s engineered to appeal to you. To engage your senses in ways you might not even like, per se, but it’s just so chemically perfect. I talk a lot about how creators feel pressure to conform in certain ways to the feed. Consumers also have to conform in a way. Algorithmic feeds push us to become more passive consumers. That we don't really think about what we’re consuming. We float along on the feed and not think about our own taste too much. I feel like that makes us into more boring people. It makes the cultural landscape less interesting. But it also takes away this opportunity for us to encounter art that is really shocking or surprising or ambiguous.

Take the example of a Spotify playlist. You start by listening to something that you choose. Then Spotify pushes you along on this lazy river of music that is similar to what you put on and is not going to disrupt your experience but it’s also not going to push you anywhere new. It’s not going to try to disrupt you; it’s not going to try to challenge your taste. In the book I contrast that with an indie radio DJ who is making these intentional choices to put songs next to each other that don’t really fit but have some kind of implied meaning based on their proximity. Algorithmic feeds fundamentally can’t create meaning by putting things next to each other. There’s no meaning inherent in that choice because it’s purely automated, machine choice. There’s no consciousness behind it.

You talk a lot about curators in Filterworld. What else can a curator do for us that an algorithm cannot do? Why should we trust them more than an algorithm?

Curating as a word has this very long history dating back to Ancient Rome to the Catholic priesthood. It always had this meaning of taking responsibility for something. I feel like curators now take responsibility for culture. They take responsibility for providing the background to something, providing a context, telling you about the creator of something, putting one object next to others that build more meaning for it. So curating isn’t just about putting one thing next to another, it's all this background research and labour and thought that goes into presenting something in the right way.

That’s true of a museum curator who puts together an art exhibition. It’s true for a radio DJ who assembles a complicated playlist. It’s true for a librarian who chooses which books to buy for a library. But it’s not true for a Spotify algorithmic playlist. The Twitter feed is not trying to contextualise things for you with what it feeds to you. It’s just trying to spark your engagement. TikTok is maybe the worst offender because it’s constantly trying to engage your attention in a shallow way. But it’s absolutely not pushing you to find out anything more about something. There’s no depth there, there’s no context. It actively erases context, actually. It makes it even harder to find.

But we know curators can have their own agendas. What’s the difference between, say, a magazine editor who needs to please their advertisers and a tech company looking after their bottom line? Is there a difference?

There’s this transition that I write about in the book from human gatekeepers to algorithmic gatekeepers, so moving from the magazine editors and the record label executives to the kind of brute mathematics of the TikTok ‘For You’ feed. I think they both have their flaws. The human gatekeepers were biased. They were also beholden to advertisers; they had their own preferences and probably prioritised the people that they knew in their social circles. Whereas the flaw of the algorithmic feed is that while anyone can get their stuff out there, the only metric by which they’re judged is: How much engagement does it get? How much promotion does it merit based on the algorithmic feed?

So they’re both flawed. The question is: which flaws do we prefer? Or which flaws do we want to take with their benefits? The ability of the human gatekeeper was to highlight some voice that would be totally surprising or shocking—to highlight some new and strange thing that totally doesn’t fit with your preconceived notions of what art or music or writing is. The algorithmic feed can’t really do that because it’s only able to measure how much other people already consider it popular.

The advertiser thing—another hobbyhorse of mine is Monocle magazine, which has existed for a decade or two now. It’s a print magazine with a very nice mix of shopping and international news and culture and profiles. That magazine does really well selling print ads because they put print advertising in a good context with good articles. The advertisers appreciate the quality of the content that surrounds it. So that’s a net positive for everyone. Whereas with the internet now, the advertisers are almost in a war with the platforms just as much as the users are. Advertisers don’t want their content appearing willy-nilly, messily next to the crappy content the algorithmic feeds promote, which at this point might be snuff videos or videos of bombings in Gaza. That’s not serving either users or advertisers.

The other night, I was scrolling through this beautiful, curated interiors account and then there was an ad for Ex-Lax, just dropped in the middle of this very aspirational stuff.

That collision to me is the case and point. It’s so useless, and so not productive for either party, that it just feels like a glitch, you know? And that’s because of algorithmic targeting. It’s because these feeds don’t prioritise anything besides engagement.

Places like Monocle, for instance, cater to a relatively small readership. It’s not for everybody; it’s for this smaller subset of people who consider themselves clued-in. We’re getting into a sticky discussion about taste and tastemaking here, but: how do these more niche platforms react against the algorithm?

Tastemaking is a really complicated topic. I think it strikes a lot of people as elitist because you're talking about what people should like and why they should like it, and why I know something that you don’t. “I’m going to tell you something, and it's going to heighten your sensibilities or lead you somewhere different.” That can be intimidating, it can be pretentious, it can be alienating, it can be very biased in class ways, identity ways, all sorts of ways.

But I almost feel like it has to be defended at this point, just because we’re all so immersed in automated feeds. We’re consuming so much through different platforms that we’ve kind of lost touch with the human tastemaker. We all have voices we love following on Twitter or Instagram or TikTok but those voices get lost in the feed. We sometimes lose track of them and we sometimes don’t see their content. Those feeds are also not serving those creators particularly well because the business models are all based on advertising and the creators don’t get access to the bulk of that revenue. Through the book, I propose that one answer to Filterworld, to the dominance of these algorithmic feeds, is to find those human voices. Find tastemakers who you like and really follow them and support them and build a connection with those people.

Thinking about your own taste doesn’t have to be elitist. Fundamentally it’s just about creating a human connection around a piece of culture that you enjoy, and that should be open to anyone. It’s literally telling a friend why you like this specific song, or saying, “We should go see this movie, because I like the director because of XYZ reasons.”

Tastemaking is almost just being more conscientious about cultural consumption, being more intentional in the way that we’ve become totally intentional about food, right? Food is such a source of identity and community, and we take pride in what we eat, what restaurants we go to, what we cook. I would love it if people took more pride in going to a gallery, going to a library, going to a concert series at a concert hall. I think those are all acts of human tastemaking that can be really positive.

And all the things you mentioned are also things outside the house.

Yes. You’re coming together with other people in appreciation of the kind of culture you like to consume. And that’s really good. That helps everyone.

I want to finish by talking about the idea of ambient culture. You clearly appreciate ambient music, and in Filterworld you describe genres like lofi hiphop and Japanese City Pop as music that feels almost designed for the algorithm. Our feeds seem to push us toward ambient content: stuff that’s frictionless and easy to ignore. So I’m wondering, is that always a bad thing? When is ambience necessary and when is it detrimental?

I do really enjoy ambient content. My first book was about minimalism, which has a kind of ambient quality. I wrote an essay about Emily in Paris and ambient TV. I've written about Brian Eno a lot, the musician who coined the term ambient music. That kind of art fulfills a function: to put your brain at rest. It provides a pleasant background at a technological moment when we have a lot of distractions. Ambient TV is maybe the perfect TV to look at your phone in front of. It relies on the presence of that second screen to complement it. The TV show doesn’t have to be that interesting because your phone is interesting.

The problem becomes that through algorithmic recommendations, so much content is pushed towards ambience, and you never want all of your stuff to be ambient. You don’t only want to consume ambient art because then what are you actually paying attention to? If everything exists as a soothing background, what’s actually provoking you? What’s leading you somewhere new?

I think the critique goes back to Brian Eno’s definition of ambient music, which was that the music has to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” You have to be able to ignore it. It can be in the background, but you should also be able to pay attention to it and be rewarded by your attention to it. I feel like a lot of culture now only falls into that former category. You’re only able to ignore it. Once you start paying attention, there’s nothing really gripping there. Certainly with TikTok and Spotify playlists, there’s this prioritisation of the soothing, numbing quality of ambient content. Functional stimulus in the form of culture is so big these days, whether it’s ambient music or ASMR videos.

Sleep sounds…

So now sometimes, culture exists in a functional context rather than an artistic context. You’re like, “Oh I watch The Office to fall asleep,” or, “I listen to this track while I run because it sustains my exercise.” I personally always want to make an argument for culture for its own sake and for thinking deeply about artistic process and ideas.

Originally published on Esquire US

Jacket, DANIEL FLETCHER. Cardigan, LOEWE. Jumper, LA GRANNI. Trousers, VOAAOV. Necklace, CARTIER. Shoes, GRENSON

Archie Madekwe doesn’t get enough sleep. A self-professed night owl, he will get up at dawn if work dictates. Like today, for this interview. “Also,” Madekwe adds, “if I do wake up late, I’d feel gross [for wasting the day]. I often don’t but I’m working on getting better at it.”

We caught up with him at his London home, in his bedroom, possibly. He’s attired in a long-sleeved sweater and light blue denim jeans. A five o’clock shadow does little to weather his boyish looks.

His parents named him “Archie” after Archie Bell & The Drells. “My mom and dad are big Motown fans,” Madekwe says. “My mom got really set on that name. If not ‘Archie’, it would have been ‘Art’, and I’m glad that wasn’t the case.

“‘Archie’ is more subtle.”

Jacket and trousers, Y PROJECT. Shoes, GRENSON

Subtlety seems to be the theme of Archie Madekwe’s acting career. His roles, at least the ones that matter, seem to be carefully curated. He may not be a household name but he’s slowly becoming a familiar face on the screens, big and small.

In the early days, his UK agents, Olivia Woodward and Alex Sedgley, worked with Madekwe to be deliberate about the roles he took on. “Our aim was to make sure I’d be considered for the everyman part.

“I’ve been really lucky in that a lot of those initial jobs I took fell under that last category,” Madekwe says. “They could have easily cast a white actor for [Edward Albee’s play, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?], I was in Les Misérables, which could have had an all-white cast.”

It was The Secret Life of Bees that informed him that it was possible for a person of colour to grace the screen. More specifically, Sophie Okonedo. “[She] was so unbelievable in it,” Madekwe had said in a conversation with fellow thespian Josh O’Connor, “I remember looking her up, seeing that she was from London and that she was mixed race—she was a North Star for me. In my mind, she was the validation that I could do it, that there were people like me doing it.”

Years later, Madekwe would join the cast of Albee’s The Goat. Okonedo was in it as well and she played his mom. He told her about how inspirational she was in his formative years. “Sophie remains a really good friend and we actually just worked together again so I remind her about that a lot,” Madekwe says with a smile on his face. “It’s important to remind people of the impact they’ve had on you. Especially in this industry, where it is so easy to feel dismissed. And that happens to some of the biggest actors I’ve worked with.”

Jacket, shirt, jeans and shoes, GIVENCHY. Bracelet, CARTIER

His West End tenure was also where Madekwe cut his teeth. It was an education that years at the BRIT School or The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art could not impart. What drama schools taught him was confidence, especially when auditioning in a room full of strangers. But does that assurance spill over into other aspects of his life? “It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” he says, “but I do try to apply it to most situations. It’s definitely something that I had to learn throughout my career and try to appear confident even in situations where I don’t feel it. You kinda need to trick yourself into feeling that courage.”

He still finds it hard to watch himself in films. By the time we spoke, he’d only recently watched the finished version of Saltburn at a premiere. “I think there was maybe 2,000 in attendance and it was one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to put myself through,” Madekwe says, cringing at the memory. “You become so attuned to the audience’s reaction. ‘Why didn’t they laugh at that? Was that bit not funny? Well, I thought it was funny.’ You become hypercritical and now you’re contesting with your own thoughts as opposed to just watching it with the audience.”

Madekwe is jealous of any actor who can watch something of theirs without feeling judgmental. “Must be a lovely feeling.” He did, however, come close to that. He was privy to an early cut of Saltburn and he lost himself, carried away by the story. “At least for a little bit. There were still a couple of clips of myself that I couldn’t get past, but it was the closest I’d come to feeling like an outsider watching my own work.”


Coat and trousers, LOUIS VUITTON

Madekwe and Ari Aster became friends during the making of Midsommar. In this horror-in-the-daylight film, Madewke plays Simon, one of the unwitting victims of a Scandinavian folk ritual. Madewke subsequently made an appearance in Aster’s follow-up, Beau is Afraid.

“[Ari and I] became really good friends after Midsommar and we’d been talking about working together again in some capacity. I was filming in Canada and Ari was shooting Beau. I’d asked to meet so we could discuss a potential project. That’s when Ari said, ‘Dude, we should just get you into one of these scenes’.”

That scene is something of a chef’s kiss, an Aster egg (sorry, not sorry). Context is needed: In Midsommar, Madekwe’s Simon was frantically screaming for an elderly couple not to leap off a cliff but in Beau is Afraid, Madekwe’s character (the credit lists him simply as “Laughing Man”) is encouraging a man to jump to his death. Other than having fun on the set with Aster and his producers Tyler Campellone and Lars Knudsen, Madekwe even got to watch Joaquin Phoenix act. “Even if it was for a short moment. I mean, it was so cool.”

Shirt and trousers, GUCCI. T-shirt, RAEY. Ring and bracelet, CHOPARD. Shoes, TOGA

Social media is a love-hate affair for him. On one hand, it’s a way to connect with his friends and family; it’s an exposure to other cultures, fashion and art. On the other, he doesn’t like the hold it has on him.

“I hate that I’m not in control of when and how I use it. It’s like muscle memory. I’ve deleted the app before and I’ve found myself tapping my finger on the space where the app used to be.”

Madekwe wishes he had spent less time on it but confesses to enjoying a “weird validation” when people send messages and like his posts. These little interactions become a serotonin boost. “I wish I didn’t rely on that so much. I’m trying to strike a healthy balance with it.”

Being memed is another thing that Madekwe is trying to get used to. The recent one was a Tik-Tok clip of his character, Farleigh Smart, singing Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent” during a karaoke session. It was only six seconds long but it took social media by storm; with fans wanting to see Madekwe sing a cover of it (there won’t be one, Madekwe has confirmed in a separate interview).

“It’s the character Farleigh singing it, so it feels strange when people ask me to sing it again, because I can’t see a context in which recording that would make sense,” Madekwe explains. “I’m still working out my feelings with going viral. There’s something really fun about it and I love that film can have a life of its own, but the exposure is on another level on social media. I’ve really felt that. You feel more eyes on you or people coming over asking for pictures. That’s something that comes with the job, I suppose. No one really teaches you on how to deal with that. It’s something that you had to learn very quickly on your own.”

But Madekwe does have some pipes on him. He loves singing and will be doing so in his next project. “I’m not Ben Platt or an actor that can carry a Broadway show… but singing is something that I’ve always enjoyed.”

Art is another endeavour that Madekwe enjoys as well. Other than the ceramics classes he is taking, Madekwe showcases artists and their work on his Instagram account.

“I have an immense appreciation for art. I love the stories that jump out at me; I love the craft. Over the years, I’ve grown to love it more and I’m excited for it to occupy a larger part of my time.”

He’ll be curating an art show in Atlanta, a project that he’s excited about. As acting can be an all-encompassing force, it sometimes leads Madekwe to neglect and forget about the things that inspire him. “At the end of the day, all those things will feed into the work to make you a better actor, let alone human being.”

There is one particular artwork that left a mark on the actor: Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death”. Created in 2016, the seven-minute video essay depicts scenes of the Black Experience. From the elation of Obama singing “Amazing Grace” to the low of police brutality; it’s a kaleidoscope of emotions felt as Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” plays.

“After I first saw it, I went back, maybe 20 more times,” Madekwe says. “I’d constantly bring friends and force them to watch. It’s one of the most impactful pieces of art I’ve ever seen.”

To hammer the point home, he takes out a slim black hardback book that a friend gifted him recently. He opens to the front cover and points to the inscription on it: it’s addressed to Madekwe and signed by Arthur Jafa.


Sweater, LOEWE

Madekwe's 1.95cm height has become an identifying trait for the actor in articles and interviews. “[My height] has always been an anxiety for me,” Madekwe says. “When I was younger, somebody warned me that my height would get in the way of my acting career and I thought, ‘How the hell can I control how tall I grow?’” His disquietude ballooned until he was consumed with Googling ways to stunt his growth, including but not limited to height reduction surgery.

There have been one or two instances in his life where a casting director explained a lead actor didn’t want to be captured with someone as tall as him. “But overall, I’ve never found a lack of work because of my height.”

However, a lack of work did occur during the SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) strike. When the SAG-AFTRA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) couldn’t agree on labour, IP rights and compensation, actors working on American productions were asked to refrain from working on or promoting any finished films or TV shows.

“With every kind of fibre of my being, I was in support of the strike,” Madekwe says. “And yet… personally and selfishly, [Gran Turismo] was supposed to be one of the most exciting moments of my career and I was unable to talk about the project at all.”

It was frustrating as this was his first leading role. “If I’m honest, the worst part of it was not being able to laude the crew and cast that worked so hard on the film,” Madekwe says. “But, in the end, it’s a small sacrifice to pay when you’re working towards fair compensation.”


In 2023, Perri Nemiroff, a senior producer for the online entertainment site, Collider, remarked that Madekwe was having the best year with Gran Turismo and Saltburn. And she’s right. To lead a major studio film and be part of an exceptional ensemble, all within the span of a year, that is no small feat.

He’s in the zone now; a flow state. With a slate of projects in development, a new film in the pipeline and exciting forays into fashion and art, it seems that the actor has “miles to go before [he sleeps again]”.

He stands at the threshold, between the past and what-will-happen; a place of possibilities.

Photography: Charlie Gray
Fashion Direction: Asri Jasman
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Styling: Adele Cany
Grooming: Maya Man at STELLA CREATIVE ARTISTS using CURLSMITH and 111SKIN
Styling Assistant: Zoe Glanville

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