Zayn Malik: 'Gigi is smart, classy and is not arrogant in any way... she's cool'
He shocked the world - and broke millions of hearts - when he left his boyband. Zayn Malik tells Charlotte Edwardes about his struggles with anxiety, overcoming racism and wooing his supermodel girlfriend Gigi Hadid with food
The photoshoot is running late, so I have a good hour to admire Zayn Malik doing mean-eyed Zoolander pouts with his collars flipped before he is disrobed, released for a "smoke" and then plonked in front of me for his real close-up.
Aside from the strong-smelling tobacco, the most noticeable thing is how distractingly pretty he is - like Aladdin but with inch-long eyelashes and a full pelt of stubble. For a while, he had a badger streak in his swept-up hair, but today it's tamed and thick.
He changes it almost daily - blond one, shaved the next - which, according to those close to him, can be read as screaming "f*** you" to his former life in One Direction, where rules on appearance were so strict that everything from hair dye to beards and earrings had to be signed off because "we had to have a certain look for the brand".
So at 23, he already has enough fodder for a slim autobiography - Zayn - that covers 2015 to 2016, the year of his liberation from bandmates Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan and Liam Payne, thrown together on The X Factor in 2010.
In that time, he's largely relocated to LA (where he has a house, as well as another in north London, and another in Bradford, where his father, mother and three sisters still live).
His girlfriend is the model Gigi Hadid, although: "We haven't officially swapped keys or anything yet, we live together wherever we are."
He's released a solo album called Mind of Mine, from which the single Pillowtalk went straight to No.1 in the US and UK (the video is basically him snogging Hadid with psychedelic effects).
Of course, his decision to quit One Direction was considered earth-shattering. It was said he'd "self-destructed" and "had a breakdown". A statement was released saying - and I read it out to him now: "I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight."
So is he normal now? He smirks and leans forward: "I'm going to ask you a question now, do you think I wrote that? Look how it's worded. I'm not a 35-year-old lawyer. I don't write like that," he sits back, satisfied.
I guess this is his point: even his exit was choreographed. There was no breakdown. He can't even cite a low point, saying it was more a consistent numbing, miserable flatlining. Management took over the minutiae. Days were structured "so that you didn't have time to think because you were concentrating so hard on work - I lost my bearings of what time it was, sometimes what day it was".
As well as the enforced pop uniform, the boys weren't supposed to have tattoos without permission, although Malik broke this because "whoops, once it's done, it's done".
There was no time to stop and think after The X Factor. The band finished third (behind Matt Cardle and Rebecca Ferguson) and were signed to Syco, Simon Cowell's record label. "I was very ignorant at 17 - blind beyond my years. I thought going on X Factor meant you won a million pounds and got a contract. And I was like, 'S***, all my problems are solved. I win a million pounds and that's it. Simple.' But you don't think about everything else that goes with it. You're only 17, your dreams are immature. You see what you want."
What advice would he give his 17-year-old self now? "Don't do it." At first, I think he's joking. "I would say, 'Do your research and be a bit more prepared about certain situations before you make a decision."
That bad? "Yeah."
Would he still have signed with the knowledge he has now? He stalls and, at first, furnishes me with platitudes, saying he's "super thankful" for everything he has as a result. "But I probably wouldn't have (signed) - I would've waited a couple more extra years. Just so I had that time to just get my head around being a famous person. I've never been able to have, what's the word? Anonymity." He repeats the word. "If I could go back, I'd have a few more years of anonymity."
Is there a place he isn't recognised? "I've tried a few remote places and you still get pictured. It's flattering - they're fans and it comes with the job - but it would be nice to know there was a country where nobody knew you at all. I'd like to find it."
He jokes about being transported into the "bubble" of One Direction. "One day, I was a chilled normal guy living at home with my parents, going to school. The next, I'm all over the world and people know who I am." He missed home "a lot - I just wanted to come home and forget about the world". But his mum told him to pull his socks up. "She said, 'Sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do.'"
The girls were hard to ignore. They mobbed his manager, his PR, his agent. What wasn't funny was the rush of One Directioners who began self-harming and using the hashtag #Cut4Zayn in response to his departure. "I never anticipated or could've planned for what the reaction was going to be," he says. "It was crazy."
One major cost of his five years in One Direction was that Malik developed an anxiety disorder. He started to live in perpetual fear of letting anyone down. In my hour with him, he displays multiple small acts of politeness - jumping up to close the door when the music gets loud, offering to refresh my tea and asking if I'd like a cigarette. I keep thinking how proud his mum must be ("She is").
"I want people to see the good side to me and, yeah, the emotional stress of maybe not fulfilling that is a lot sometimes," he says. "Anxiety is something people don't necessarily want to advertise because it's seen, in a way, like a weakness.
"I speak about it so that people understand that it doesn't matter what level of success you have, where you're from, who you are, what sex you are, what you do - you can still experience these things."
One of his great discoveries has been "talking about how I feel", not least to his mum - a therapist of sorts? "Kind of, yeah. Mixed in with my dad, and a bit of my manager."
Malik is the son of a Pakistani father, Yaser - who stayed at home to bring up the four children (he has three sisters aged 25, 17 and 13, who tell him when he's being "an idiot, which is quite frequently") and an English mother of Irish descent, Trisha, who worked as a chef. At school he was "outgoing and confident, loud and crazy". He loved comics, drawing, "and anything sci-fi, weird and alien".
He would've been eight when tensions between the Asian population and white working-class fascists erupted into race riots in 2001. Bradford had a sizeable and active National Front and the British Nationalist Party won four council seats in 2004 - not an easy place to grow up in a mixed-race family. "It was very confusing," he says, "because I'd see dad as dad and mum as mum. I didn't see colour, I didn't see religion, I didn't see race. And then as you get older, you start to develop your identity and see who you are and where you're from and which group you belong to. So that was also very confusing.
"I was lucky that my mum and dad would always explain it to me: 'This is just the way it is, this is some people's belief, this is the way that they've been brought up. You're brought up differently so you've got to respect everybody and hope that people respect you in return'."
He's very forgiving, putting some of the racism down to "just very old-fashioned views: there's a lot of old people there and they're stuck in their ways".
Was he hurt by those attitudes? "A little, yeah. I got excluded, got in fights. Nine times out of 10, the fights were due to racial things." He flicks his lighter a few times. "I never really dwelt on this in the past, but I do believe it is something that people should know - this is who I am, this is where I've come from. It's not so much that it hurts - it's what builds you as a person. What you learn from that. I have an understanding of certain issues."
For a second, he sounds annoyed: "Just because I don't dwell on those issues, doesn't mean I don't know. I am aware of what things go on. I am aware that people grow up in racially segregated communities."
"My mum brought me up as a feminist," he adds. "Three sisters, five aunties and a mum - not a hope." This means he's happy to cook for Gigi and says he makes her "steak and potato pie, Sunday roast dinner and Yorkshire pudding".
They met at a Victoria's Secret party and he recognised her "from her picture" and asked her out. They went to The Bowery Hotel's restaurant, Gemma, in New York. "It were really nice," he says. "She's a very intelligent woman. She knows how to carry herself. She's quite classy and that. She's not, like, arrogant in any way, she's confident. She carries it well. She's cool."
They've met each other's families. Hers are "cool". Although he adds that Gigi's mother, Yolanda, star of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, has Lyme disease and isn't well.
The couple spend all their spare time together - in LA or her flat in New York. And they sing together - "She's got a nice voice, I like her voice." He drinks whiskey, she likes tequila ("spicy margaritas with jalapenos - crazy").
Does he smoke weed? "Weed is also a part of my life for certain things," he admits. "I find it helps me be creative. Some people say it kills your ambition, some people say it destroys your personality. Personally, I haven't had any of them experiences yet."
I ask what their friends are like and he says the LA kids are different from the people he grew up with. "They live on beaches, they're zen and chilled. You get a moody feel in the UK and I very much embodied that personality throughout my teens. I was a moody British guy, you know, hated even walking so was dragging my feet. In LA, they are very happy and positive and it's nice to be surrounded by that sometimes. Not that I don't like coming back to earth here."
He likes having control of his life again. "Before, because I was told what to do and told where to go, I didn't feel like the reward was mine to take home. Do you know what I'm saying? Whereas this, I'm in control of. It's crazy, but it's mine, so it is rewarding and it's worth it now."
Zayn by Zayn, Penguin Random House, £18.99, is out now