By definition, Zayn Malik contains all the trappings of a celebrity, but the perks of fame and fortune weren’t enough to compensate his desire for creative freedom. Now, over a year since his notorious divorce from One Direction, the singer explains that while he’s enjoying his new independence, the repercussions of stardom are still a struggle.
The unremitting desire to achieve notoriety is a human sentiment that stands the test of time. While some are more adamant in their pursuits and others may be striving for it subconsciously, what remains uniform for everyone is wanting to be recognized and lauded for our achievements. Prom Queen. Employee of the Month. Most Valuable Player. Volunteer of the Year. All of these titles were invented to award someone for excelling at a particular trait or action, whether that’s spending your spare time serving up food at a soup kitchen or being the most fashionable person in your high school.
While everyone wants to be personally celebrated for something, it would be ill-advised to hastily suggest that anyone seeks to strive for “celebrity.” On paper, the term strikes nothing but the most lustful layer of the retina - global praise from complete strangers, making a living through a cherished craft and powerful access, both personally and publicly. Trying to negate the allure of this scenario is strenuous, but once the glossy sheen of the wet ink dries, more and more smudges appear the closer you look.
Exchanging personal freedom for such a lifestyle may seem trivial when taken at face value. Not being able to shop for groceries without being accosted or photographed by someone at any given moment, forced interactions with sycophantic enablers looking to leech off your success or being told how to behave and dress under contractual obligation might seem like minor payoffs when your cultural influence, relevance and affluence stand (seemingly) unconquered.
But it was the very paucity of these freedoms that lead to the demise of celebrated figures across various periods in pop culture, from Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland to Kurt Cobain and Britney Spears. The dark side of fame is certainly not a new concept, but it’s one that continues to be revisited and consumed time and again.
“I hate the word celebrity,” says Zayn Malik, a guy who knows a thing or two about living life in the public eye. “I think it’s a dangerous road to go down, thinking of yourself as a celebrity, because then you somehow automatically think that label makes you superior to other people. Some people just want to hang around you because they know your name, so they think that means they know you, and I can see through that bullshit a mile off.” As one of the most recognizable contemporary pop stars in the business, Zayn’s adroit ability to spot bullshit when he sees it could be his greatest talent - aside from his musical capabilities, of course.
The British 23-year-old’s recognition as an individual singer wasn’t always as potent. Before being acknowledged simply as Zayn, he was known as Zayn Malik, a one-fifth singing counterpart of the colossally popular UK boy band, One Direction. For over five years, Malik sang, danced, clothed and even groomed himself in accordance with the group’s brand policies. “We were literally meant to ask permission before we changed our hair or like, grew a beard,” notes Malik. “It was ridiculous.” Yet this chapter in the singer’s life would close on March 25, 2015, when he announced his permanent departure from 1D, marking the dawn of Zayn 2.0 - a move that would promote a distinct evolution in sound, attitude and facial hair for the artist.
“I don’t think you can ever be prepared for something like that,” said Malik. “I knew there would be a big reaction in the press, because there was so much attention on us at that point, but I had no idea how fans would react.” While he may not have known exactly how fans would react, it’s hard to believe that Zayn didn’t have at least an inkling of how monumental the news would be for his followers.
With the force of Leviathan, the internet was violently pummeled by a tidal wave of tweets, Facebook updates and Instagram posts from emotionally-vulnerable adolescents, most of them female, exclaiming that the day of reckoning had finally come. The hashtag #AlwaysInOurHeartsZaynMalik hovered as the number one trending topic for a full 24 hours, while a much darker hashtag, #cut4zayn, trumpeted a disturbing trend of girls carving Malik’s name into their forearms with razorblades as a means to eulogize his departure from the beloved pop group.
It was a day that claimed a fragment of countless teenage girls’ souls; an emotional apocalypse defined by gallons of tears, razed hormones and distressed parents. “I try not to take [my actions] into consideration too much because if I did, I’d never do anything,” Malik proclaims. “It’s a lot of pressure. I never claimed to be a role model, I just make music.”
It’s astounding to fathom just how grave an impact such a decision could have on literally millions of people in nearly every crevice of the world. You might’ve lost a few friends when you quit the football team to join the drama club, or had a nasty rumor spread about you after you broke up with a girlfriend to start dating her best friend, but in Zayn’s case, a personal choice holds such clout that it can puppeteer the mental stability of legions at the drop of a hat. Throw social media into the mix, and the repercussions are inescapable.
“Everyone has an opinion on social media, even though they don’t know you, and it gets exhausting.”
“It was great seeing the support I was getting from a lot of people, but there was also a lot of negativity and criticism and people talking shit about situations they knew nothing about,” said Malik. “Everyone has an opinion on social media, even though they don’t know you, and it gets exhausting. You get misquoted in the press or a bullshit rumor gets printed and it’s frustrating to watch people believe those things and form opinions on you based on what they read. I’ve learnt to ignore it for the most part, but it still pisses me off occasionally.”
Though he cited privacy as the principal reason for leaving the band, the singer’s life today couldn’t be positioned closer to the pounding rays of the media limelight. In March 2016, the one-year anniversary of his notorious divorce from One Direction, Malik released his debut album, Mind of Mine, via his new label affiliate RCA.
Following the success of the LP’s first single, “PILLOWTALK,” which broke records back in February for having the most global first-day and weekly streams for a debut artist track (and knocking fellow pop deity Justin Bieber from his glorious Billboard reign in the process), Mind of Mine bulldozed its way to number one on both the U.S. and UK charts, becoming the first solo album from a British male singer to do so.
In addition to his musical feats, post-1D Zayn would also gain acceptance from the fashion community; from sitting tête-à-tête with the industry’s front row elite at Louis Vuitton and Valentino’s SS16 shows last summer to turning heads in a metallic-sleeved Versace suit at this year’s Met Gala, and, most recently, landing a collaboration with Italian shoe designer Giuseppe Zanotti. “I like to express creativity in as many different ways as possible and I’m always exploring new things. Designing shoes was an interesting form of art for me because I was having to create something that has aesthetic value, like music or painting, but is functional at the same time.”
“You have to not give a shit what people think about you. You have to guide your own career and not follow other people’s expectations of what kind of artist they want you to be.”
Creative projects notwithstanding, the hype fueling Zayn’s popularity can perhaps only be trumped by his widely publicized love life: his girlfriend just so happens to be social media queen and ubiquitous “It Girl” Gigi Hadid, and together they form one of the most mooned-over millennial couples in Hollywood. So much for a guy who wanted a bit of privacy.
But while the ex-boy band member has all of the accoutrements of an A-lister, there’s still something very authentic about him. “It’s cynical to say, but I think to really ‘make it’ in a commercial sense, you have to be a bit of a faker. If you’re not going to be fake, then you need a really thick skin,” says the pop star. “You have to not give a shit what people think about you. You have to guide your own career and not follow other people’s expectations of what kind of artist they want you to be.”
Zayn’s dauntlessness is a clear attribute to his prosperity, but his career in entertainment thus far has served as a training period, forcing him to build up an armor thick enough to dodge the countless adversities thrown his way. It comes with the territory for every pop icon, but Malik’s cases of objectification cut a bit deeper.
Born and raised in the working class neighborhood of Bradford, West Yorkshire to a half Irish, half English mother and Pakistani father, Malik’s ethnic background has been put under fire throughout the entirety of his career. As the (former) only person of color in One Direction and quite possibly the West’s single most prominent Muslim celebrity, Zayn has faced a bevy of abuse in the form of anti-Muslim slurs and even death threats.
In June 2012, rightwing American blogger Debbie Schlussel accused him of “boy band jihad” and “pimping Islam,” while earlier this year, rapper Azealia Banks, after accusing the artist of lifting her image in the video for “Like I Would,” took shots at Malik’s race on Twitter, spitting out terms like “sand nigger,” “faggot” and “curry-scented bitch,” and even referred to Malik’s mother as a “dirty refugee.”
“Generally, I try not to comment on politics or controversial issues in public because I don’t think that it’s my place,” says Malik. “I struggle with the invasion of privacy that comes with this job. I also think one of the most negative aspects of being in the public eye is that you have no control over people’s perception of you.”
But despite the crunches, Malik has never shied away from being proud of his ethnic background, discernibly demonstrated in one of Mind of Mine’s more distinct ballads, “INTERMISSION: fLoWer,” where Malik incorporates Qawwali vocal techniques with lyrics written in Urdu. Given the record-shattering success of Malik’s career sans 1D, it seems the singer has more than conquered the odds faced against him.
So what’s next for Zayn? “I’m in the studio right now,” says the singer. “That’s all I’m saying.” For his sophomore album, it’s been confirmed that Malik will record with Malay, the LA-based beat master responsible for Mind of Mine’s lush electro-R&B production, and whose additional credits include mastering Frank Ocean’s 2012 pièce de résistance, channel ORANGE. But as far as a release date goes, well, that still remains in the shadows.
“One of the defining things about this whole experience is that there have been a lot of emotions, sometimes conflicting emotions, that I’m having to figure out,” notes Malik. “I’m curious to see where it all goes from here. The not knowing is what makes it exciting, but daunting, too. And I’m appreciative of the fact that I have this opportunity. I don’t ever let myself take this for granted.”