Newsmaker: Zayn Malik

The multimillion-selling pop heart-throb this week cancelled his planned Dubai gig because of anxiety. We ponder what’s next for the troubled former member of chart-toppers One Direction.
Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

On one level, the news this week that 23-year-old British pop star Zayn Malik has pulled out of a concert in Dubai next month, citing anxiety, can be seen as a welcome sign of how far society has come in terms of attitudes to mental illness.

As recently as 2011, when Amy Winehouse, haunted by manic depression, drank herself to death, the troubled singer was remembered in one obituary as a “victim of mental illness in a society that doesn’t understand or respond to mental illness with great effectiveness”.

That Malik can share his anxieties so openly with his fans, therefore, can only be a good thing, though revelations about his mental health do cast doubt on the wisdom of his website domain name –

Born Zain Javadd Malik on January 12, 1993, in Bradford, England, the pop sensation owes his good looks to his British-Pakistani father, Yaser, and his white English mother, Tricia, who converted to Islam when the couple married.

“Whenever I took him out as a toddler, little old ladies would say: ‘Oh, he’s cute, he’s going to break a few hearts,’” his mother told the BBC in 2013.

Though music played a part in his young life, until 2010, Malik was planning only to study English at university. It was only a push from his mother that sent him off to The X Factor auditions in summer 2010. “On the morning … Zayn didn’t want to go,” she recalled. “He chickened out, saying: ‘Can’t I just leave it?’”

But Tricia was having none of it, and the rest is pop history.

Though rattled by nerves, Malik, then 17, auditioned for the show as a solo artist, but appeared to sabotage himself when he couldn’t face appearing on stage for a dance routine with other contestants at one of the show’s televised “boot camps”. “I seriously don’t want to do it,” he said. “I just feel like an idiot.”

The X Factor impresario Simon Cowell spotted Malik was missing from the line-up of two dozen hopefuls and tracked him down backstage. “You can’t just bottle it,” Cowell told him sternly, on camera. “You’re ruining this for yourself.”

Cowell had clearly seen something in the nerve-wracked, fresh-faced Malik, who before long would be known simply as Zayn.

Malik did as he was told. He failed to make it through The X Factor sing-offs as a solo artist, but Cowell bundled him together with four other solo “failures” – Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson – to manufacture the hugely successful boy band One Direction, with Malik cast in the role of the requisite “bad boy”.

Though One Direction finished only third in the 2010 British series of The X Factor, Cowell signed his new creation to his record label, Syco. Propelled by clever social-media marketing and a series of carefully crafted songs by seasoned writers and producers, One Direction were pitched perfectly at their target demographic of young girls.

They quickly became a phenomenon. Between 2011 and 2014, the band released four albums – Up All Night, Take Me Home, Midnight Memories and Four. After the release of Four in 2014, they became the first band ever to have their first four albums debut at the top of the Billboard 200 chart in the United States.

Syco, and the five band members, were awash with cash. In 2014, Forbes ranked One Direction as the world’s fourth-highest-paid celebrities; by last year, they had risen to second, behind Taylor Swift, with combined earnings of US$110 million (Dh404m).

But then, in March last year, at the height of One Direction’s fan worship, world tours and celebrity girlfriends, working-class Bradford lad-turned-multimillionaire Malik quit. He had just turned 22 and was worth close to $50m.

“I’d like to apologise to the fans if I’ve let anyone down,” he said in a statement posted on the band’s Facebook page, “but I have to do what feels right in my heart.”

He was leaving, he said, “because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight”.

A week earlier, he had walked off the band’s world tour, citing “stress”. But the band toured on, playing a show in Dubai without him less than two weeks after his departure. Days after performing with them for the last time, Malik was already being repositioned by Syco as a solo act.

According to Billboard magazine, Malik “had been withdrawn from the band for months, suffering from what one source calls ‘terrible anxiety’, for which he allegedly took medication”.

Regardless, Malik was quickly signed to RCA Records, owned by Cowell’s Syco partner Sony. Cowell’s part in the deal was clear. “We have been working on this for a while,” he tweeted on July 29 last year, the day the deal was signed.

One Direction’s loyal fan-base stuck with Malik, and when his first solo album, Mind of Mine, followed on March 25 this year, he became the first male British artist ever to see their debut album and single (Pillowtalk) go straight to No 1 in the British and American charts.

Gone was the fresh-faced boy whose ambition had once been to go to university. In his place, NME magazine noted, stood a “pouting pop rebel”, sporting a buzz-cut, tightly trimmed beard and “supermodel” girlfriend. His 21-year-old American celebrity girlfriend Gigi Hadid is another product of reality TV; along with her mother, she has regularly appeared in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Her father, Mohamed, is Palestinian-American.

As for the music, said NME, “the One Direction escapee lives up to his new image with a raunchy and credible pop-R&B album [and] the dark days of scripted horseplay with Harry Styles seem a long way in the past”.

One thing not in the past, however, is Malik’s obvious discomfort with what he has become. One of his growing collection of tattoos, written in Arabic, is believed to say: “Be true to who you are.” But exactly who Malik now is seems uncertain. As a global pop star, you would imagine that enjoying the process of performing in front of crowds of worshipping fans should be a key strand of his DNA.

Not so, however, as the open letter he wrote this week to disappointed fans in Dubai attests. “I have been working over the last three months to overcome my extreme anxiety around major live solo performances,” he said.

“I feel I am making progress, but I have today acknowledged that I do not feel sufficiently confident to move forward with the planned show in Dubai in October.”

Suffering “anxiety, panic attacks and depression”, Malik told Elle magazine in July: “I just don’t have it in me to feel fully secure in anything I do. I’m stressed out trying to control how I’m perceived.”

Unfortunately, cancelled appearances have become par for the course: Malik bailed minutes before the Summertime Ball in London in June, and risked the ire of influential media figures by failing to show for planned interviews and TV appearances.

Last month, presenters on British TV programme Good Morning Britain told viewers the young star was “rude” for having cancelled an interview. Sneering media personality Piers Morgan dismissed him as “surly” and said: “If you don’t want to be a pop star, go and do something else – go and clean drains.”

And, as the West’s “most prominent Muslim celebrity”, as music-and-culture magazine Fader put it in January, “Zayn has faced misunderstanding to an unimaginable degree.” As his mother told the BBC in 2013, having converted to her husband’s religion, she made sure her four children all went to the mosque and read the Quran, but Malik’s pop-star lifestyle has divided the Muslim community.

During the past five years, said Fader, Malik had been “accused, both seriously and satirically, of causing 9/11, joining ISIS, and recruiting fans to wage jihad”. In 2014, after he tweeted the hashtag #FreePalestine, he received death threats.

Online music magazine Noisey wrote last year that “Zayn’s … struggle with fame as a British-Pakistani Muslim is unique”. On the one hand, as “the first Muslim artist to reach such wild levels of global popularity … his presence in the entertainment industry has set new precedents”. But “although he has not been particularly vocal about his faith, both people who celebrate his Muslim identity and those who reject it have tried to forge their own image of him as a spokesperson for Islam”.

It is, admittedly, hard to feel too sorry for a young multimillionaire playboy pop star. But it’s also easy to lose sight of the real-life human behind the image, and in this case, that person is clearly a fragile young man trying to figure out exactly who he is.

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Published: September 8, 2016 04:00 AM


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