Zayn: The Vogue Interview
November 13, 2018
Global heart-throb. Bradford boy. Reluctant role model. Who is the real Zayn Malik, asks Giles Hattersley in the December 2018 issue of British Vogue.
He arrives, of course, trailing a thin miasma of weed fumes. “All right,” says Zayn, holding out his hand as he surveys his rain-lashed roof terrace through a half squint. We are several storeys above SoHo, Manhattan, in the penthouse where, for most of the past year, pop’s handsomest prince has been holed up like a gender-flipped 21st-century Rapunzel with a PlayStation, supermodel girlfriend and a recently acquired hairless Sphynx cat called Dobby. Why Dobby, I ask, as he pops open a couple of bottles of Stella. “Like the house elf,” he replies, chuckling at his Harry Potter reference. “We tried to make him a little sock jumper but he won’t keep it on.”
Welcome to the wonderful – if somewhat half-baked – world of Zayn Malik. Though, as per his instructions, I must dutifully point out that it’s a simple “Zayn” these days, ever since the 25-year-old boyband survivor from Bradford with perfect hair and poptastic falsetto dispensed with his surname and went fully Cher. That was a year after he fled One Direction, in March 2015, when the world’s most successful group was at the hormone-addled apex of its fame. For a brief moment, Zayn was the YouTube generation’s answer to John Lennon (or Geri Halliwell, at least), devastating millions of fans across the globe with his shotgun exit, then thrilling them a year later with a record-breaking, Billboard-topping debut album. He moved to the States, clocked up billions of streams, dueted with Taylor Swift, shot campaigns for Versus and endured the peculiar menace of having a dozen paparazzi camped outside his door every day. He also became an international figurehead for biracial success and anti-Islamophobia. And I mentioned the hair, right?
There is, however, another Zayn. “I’m domestic,” he says, dispatching his assistant to find some towels, because he wants to hang out on his roof in thick New York drizzle with only a fluoro-orange Air Jordan hoodie for protection. OK, I think. Bit odd. But he loves the view and has a young person’s pride in his fabulous property investment. As we sit in the rain drinking lagers, it becomes apparent that beyond the intense razzmatazz of his extraordinary facial symmetry is a quiet, thoughtful twentysomething man from the north of England, with flat Yorkshire vowels undiluted by fame. “No” is still “nurr”, his best friend is his cousin, he loves his mum and, between visits to the recording studio, lives in semi-isolation getting lightly buzzed and playing Fortnite. Fashion week rages away in the city below, so his girlfriend Gigi Hadid pops in between catwalk commitments to cuddle and watch cooking programmes. “Everything is great,” he says of their relationship, which weathered a brief, if very public, split and reconciliation earlier this year (side note: are Instagram break-ups ever really break-ups?). His eyes positively swim with love every time her name is mentioned. “She’s super-organised and I’m really not,” he says gratefully at one point. “It helps that she can get things together for me a little bit. I lean on her a lot.”
Yet so much of Zayn – sensitive, talented, beautiful – remains a mystery; an unusual feat when you consider that, thanks to five years in One Direction, his late-teenage life ranks among the most scrutinised in history. There was fallout, of course: anxiety, an eating disorder, as well as low-level frustration whenever he is quizzed about his former bandmates with whom relations remain… frosty. But as he hits his quarter century, Zayn says that finally things are changing. He hunches forward in his chair, and smiles. “I feel like I’m in a good place,” he says, “like I’ve grown up. My energy tank is definitely slowing down a little bit.”
His imminent second album is a reflection of this. “You get a different perspective, which is cool,” he explains of the secret tracklist he recorded with producers Saltwives and the Hannides brothers. Guest stars include Nicki Minaj and Timbaland, though the process has been a tad meandering, as it includes excess gems from his first album, Mind of Mine (he had “60-something” tracks recorded for that at the time), and a near-continual creation schedule since. “We were meant to be releasing around February, March time, but a lot of it comes down to what promotion I’m willing to do,” he says, like a naughty dauphin. “It’s a progression of my age, of my experience.”
The big news is that he’s finally in a place where he can look back on his One Direction years without a mixture of fury and panic. “I’m able to look on it as something that was an amazing experience, which I was never even able to say until just recently,” he marvels. Why not? “Because of so much other bullshit that was going on.” What bullshit? “Just bullshit,” he shrugs. With the machine or with the band? “Everything. I think back to the performances towards the end, when we were in stadiums, I wasn’t really ever able to enjoy the experience. The machine had gone too fast.”
Seriously though, what a machine. After being discovered in the salad days of The X Factor, Zayn spent the first five years of his adulthood packaged up like Shirley Temple in urban-luxe sports casual. “We went from theatres, to arenas, to stadiums – there was never any sort of bridge between. Just boom, boom, boom. I guess that kind of progression to any mind – but especially when you’re 17, 18 – it kind of affects you a little bit. People take it different ways – especially when there are five different personalities. The relationships,” he says flatly, “had broken apart.”
Some nights he would be in Brazil or South Korea, performing to 80,000 screaming teenagers, and feel nothing. Or, if not nothing exactly, then a kind of profound numbness. “There wasn’t really much there any more in terms of feeling on stage, even with the other lads.” It sounds almost chilling, actually. “All that was missed out on, the actual feeling,” he repeats. Have you had therapy? “No therapy. Maybe some long chats with the parents. I’m not into the whole idea of therapy. I understand there’s a benefit to it, but for me personally I don’t feel like I needed it.” He picks his words carefully.
“It was just an experience that I didn’t understand, that, over time and being able to analyse it with my own brain and with the people that were surrounding me – my father, my mother, my sisters, my girlfriend, her mum [he is very close to Gigi’s mother Yolanda]… whoever it was – I kind of got to a point where I could understand what that was. It was cool.”
Depressingly, he says he came away from his five years in One Direction without having made a single friend. “Yeah,” he shrugs, “I have always been a bit like that, though – always a bit of an island. I don’t like to confer with too many people.” Does he see any of the band still? “Nah. I ain’t spoke to any of them for a long time, to be honest with you. That’s just the way it is. There’s things that happen and things that were said after I left…” he pauses. “Snide things. Small things that I would never have expected.” It was no secret that even when touring together, Zayn and Harry Styles had as little to do with one another as possible, and though he was pally enough with the rest of the boys, they are no longer in touch. The love lost is minimal. “That’s just the way it is. People move on, people grow apart, people grow up.” (Cue the sound of several million Directioners’ dreams being crushed.)
His interests have matured as well. Because he was marketed as “the mysterious one”, Zayn is rarely given his due for speaking out on tough subjects. Yet no other member of the band has defined public discourse more than this Muslim-raised, mixed race working-class boy from West Yorkshire. If mental health is now an acceptable zone for celebrity interviews, Zayn can take some of the credit. He’s talked about eating disorders (movingly, he says it was about being able to control one thing in the madness of the pop years) and the occasionally crippling anxiety that means it is only now that he can contemplate going on tour by himself.
His life has, in many ways, been a bellwether for modern Britain. Raised by a dinner-lady mum, Trisha, who converted to Islam, and stay-at-home dad, Yaser, he was eight the year of the Bradford race riots in 2001. “I did see the segregation,” he says of being the son of a British-Pakistani father and mother of Irish descent. “That was confusing for people, they didn’t really understand. ‘Who’s the brown person? Is it your mum or is it your dad?’” But he’s magnanimous. “That was nobody’s fault, other than learning these things.” He sees the current chaos of the race debate as a process of mass learning, and is optimistic. “It’s natural. There are more mixed-race people around now.” If anything, he says he is as defined by being raised in a domestic matriarchy, with five aunties and three sisters, as well as Trisha. “I am soft,” he says, proudly. “I always felt that made a stronger man. My dad has always been very supportive in that manner, too. He’s a huge guy, he works out a lot, but he’s always like, ‘You’ve got to express your emotions. There’s no point in keeping shit to yourself.’ People used to not talk about emotion because they felt a sense of shame, but I feel a sense of progression with it.”
Zayn is routinely touted as Britain’s most famous Muslim. Does he count himself as especially religious? “To be honest, I’ve never spoken publicly about what my religious beliefs are. I’m not professed to be a Muslim.” Would he call himself a Muslim now? “No, I wouldn’t,” he says thoughtfully. “I believe whatever people’s religious beliefs are is between them and whoever or whatever they’re practising. For me, I have a spiritual belief of there is a god. Do I believe there’s a hell? No.”
He worries that even discussing faith “becomes a religious fucking debacle of philosophers. I just want to keep it between me and whatever I believe. I feel like that makes me move through life in a nice way. If I behave well, I will get treated well. That’s it. I don’t believe you need to eat a certain meat that’s been prayed over a certain way, I don’t believe you need to read a prayer in a certain language five times a day. I don’t believe any of it. I just believe if you’re a good person everything is going to go right for you.” Was it easy to drop his religion, with his family? “Really easy for me,” he says, nodding. “With my mum and dad, they were always there to educate us – I did go to mosque, I did study Islam – but they gave us the option so you could choose for yourself.” But he’s glad of his childhood years at the mosque. “There’s definitely beautiful parts to every religion,” he says, pleased to have built his life around the tenets of Islam.
These sentiments might sound pretty punchy, but he is speaking softly and kindly. He’s smart – certainly smarter than your average uni student on spliff number two, which makes sense. That was, in many ways, his fate. He was in his first year of A levels when One Direction came calling, studying English, which he still adores. “I did well. I got an A in my first year,” he says, touchingly proud. He keeps saying he’ll go back to study and was “recently looking up courses”. He seems more like an undergrad than an internationally swooned-over famous person. Though his small talk is a giveaway. “She was travelling around in a suitcase,” he says, eyes agog, of his pal Taylor Swift’s ability to avoid the paparazzi.
Yet he still wonders what life would have been like had his mother not shaken him awake at 4am for that X Factor audition. “It definitely wasn’t anything like this. I had kind of an idea I wanted to be a teacher,” he says, and doesn’t sound like he hates the idea. Instead he smiles, the eyes that broke a million hearts narrowing in thought as he sits quietly in the New York rain, imagining what might have been.