Belfast Telegraph

Zayn Malik: 'I was raised in the Islamic faith but I'm just me ... I don't want to be defined by religion or by my culture'

Zayn Malik has gone from One Direction teen heart-throb to Renaissance man. As his debut collection with Versus Versace launches tomorrow, he talks about power pairings and being a UK Muslim with Jane Mulkerrins

Zayn Malik has gone from One Direction teen heart-throb to Renaissance man. As his debut collection with Versus Versace launches tomorrow, he talks about power pairings and being a UK Muslim with Jane Mulkerrins

In a cavernous, sun-filled loft apartment in New York's SoHo, two members of Zayn Malik's management are planning a rooftop barbecue. "We can't exactly take him to a park," one says. "That wouldn't end well."

Because there's being famous, and then there's being Zayn, a 24-year-old from Bradford for whom few parks are now accessible without extensive security measures.

"It's a really weird world," Malik attests in his flat-vowelled Yorkshire burr, rich and thick as a well-steeped brew. "I don't think there's anywhere I could be anonymous now."

A former member of One Direction, Malik is now a megastar in his own right. His deliriously catchy first solo album, Mind of Mine, debuted at No 1 in both the UK and US charts in March 2016, and has now chalked up a mind-boggling one billion downloads on Spotify.

He's in New York finishing the final songs on his forthcoming second album, which is pretty certain to go stellar too.

And snagging the requisite supermodel girlfriend, in the form of 22-year-old Gigi Hadid, has further compounded Malik's value as prized paparazzi fodder and target of obsessive fandom.

"In New York (where Hadid is based), you can sometimes get out in the early hours of the morning for a walk," he says.

"But there's no underground parking here, no escape routes. So they're going to get pictures, they're going to find you.

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Zayn with girlfriend Gigi Hadid

In LA (his usual US base), it's more catered to these things - "you've got back entrances and that".

Having joined 1D at just 17, this somewhat predatory level of fame - Beatlemania with added iPhones - is the only adult life Malik has known, which makes it all the more remarkable how charmingly ordinary he still manages to be.

He saunters across the loft space to greet me, languid and mellow, and settles beside me on the large, low cream sofa.

I'd prepared myself for his disarming prettiness but in person it's still enormously distracting, with eyelashes that would seem to have been grown for another, much larger creature, fluttering over velvety brown eyes.

In 1D, who found fame via The X Factor and were managed by Simon Cowell, the aesthetic was tightly controlled and engineered for mass teen appeal. "My main rebellion was growing my beard and refusing to shave," Malik giggles.

Today, he describes his look as "don't-give-a-s*** aesthetic" but he's being wildly disingenuous. Clad entirely in black - jeans, boots, T-shirt - with an array of silver man-jewellery and sporting a carefully tended covering of facial fur, today his frequently changing hair is shaved at the sides and pulled into a tiny man-bun on top. If anyone can pull off a man-bun, it's Malik. His arms and hands are almost entirely covered in tattoos and an elaborate ram's skull peeks up out of the V of his T-shirt.

Now a regular feature on the front row at fashion shows, it's little surprise that he has teamed up with Versace to produce a capsule collection for the label's diffusion line Versus, released today.

"I'd wanted to do something in fashion for a while, even if it was just to bring out a couple of T-shirts so we just thought, 'why not do it with somebody that's got experience and knows what they're doing?' You can't f*** with Versace," he observes.

He reaches for a packet of cigarettes on the table, then hesitates. I urge him to carry on. "Would you like one?" he asks, hopefully. I would. "Good," he beams. "Let's 'ave a cig. A cig and a chat." My inner teen faints and falls off the sofa.

He's creative director for the collection, which comprises 10 pieces each of men's and womenswear.

"I did sketches and drawings but a lot of the looks came from what I wear every day," he explains. "It's my brand and their brand coming together."

Did Gigi, who has her own collection with Tommy Hilfiger, help him with the women's collection? He sucks on his cigarette, and twinkles. "I didn't want to say but yeah," he nods, exhaling. "She's very good and she definitely assisted me."

Cosily, Hadid's younger sister, Bella, also a model, is the face of the Zayn x Versus women's collection. Their mother, Yolanda, herself a former model, now stars in the reality show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

I suggest that having a partner so well versed in fame and celebrity must help him navigate its choppy waters.

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New direction: Zayn with his old band mates

"Oh yes, definitely - she gets it, she's very understanding," he says. "But I can understand how it can look, that you've got these two people in a 'power couple'."

He looks uncomfortable even saying the words. "That's not something I want to be a part of," he adds. "I'm with her because I like her and I hope she's with me because she likes me. When we come home, we don't really talk about that s***. We just spend time together as a normal couple, cook food, watch TV, have a laugh.

"I've got into a thing of cooking pies recently," he says, proudly. "I cook a mean chicken and sweetcorn pie, with Alfredo sauce. I make my own pastry, roll it out and everything."

Malik grew up in the working-class Bradford neighbourhood of East Bowling, where his father, Yaser, a UK Pakistani and fitness instructor turned househusband, raised their four children - Zayn and his three sisters - while his wife, Tricia, who converted to Islam when she married Yaser, worked as a chef.

Their only son is now the most high-profile UK Muslim in the entertainment industry (though actor Riz Ahmed is quickly gaining ground).

"I take a great sense of pride - and responsibility - in knowing that I am the first of my kind, from my background," he says.

"I'm not currently practising but I was raised in the Islamic faith, so it will always be with me, and I identify a lot with the culture. But I'm just me. I don't want to be defined by my religion or my cultural background."

When he travelled frequently to the US in the early days of 1D, however, he was given no such luxury, subjected to intense security checks and "further processing" simply by virtue of his name and ethnicity.

"The first time I came to America, I had three security checks before I got on the plane; first they said that I'd been randomly selected, and then they said it was something to do with my name, it was flagging something on their system…" he raises one of his lustrous eyebrows.

"Then when I landed, it was like a movie. They kept me there for three hours, questioning me about all kinds of crazy stuff. I was 17, my first time in America, jet-lagged off the plane, confused. The same thing happened the next time too."

He relates all this in his characteristic laid-back manner. "I understand the level of caution that needs to be taken, especially now, in the light of certain events at home," he says. "I don't think there's any benefit to getting angry - it's something that comes with the climate. I understand why they've got to do it."

The widespread radicalisation of young second and third-generation UK Muslims, however, baffles Malik entirely.

"I don't know how to figure out the psychology of why people do it. And I don't know the remedy for it," he sighs, lifting his long, skinny, tattooed arms skywards. "I just wish people had more love and care and compassion for other human beings."

Clearly a sensitive soul, Malik has spoken before of the crippling anxiety disorder that led him to cancel live shows.

"It's not a thing that you just get rid of overnight but it's getting to a much more manageable place," he says.

"I think it came from a lack of confidence in myself." Going solo has helped. "You have a certain sense of control, which is nice," he says. "And I'm more confident in my ability and what I want to give to my fans. I can think of people coming out to see me perform as a positive thing now, rather than dreading it."

This is good news, given that once the new album is released, he'll be touring it to death worldwide. "Or I might just enter The Great British Bake Off," he grins, before promising me a steak and potato pie the next time we meet. Sadly, I've got a feeling the baking might soon have to take a back seat for a while.

The collection is available from tomorrow at Versus Versace Westfield in London

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