Zayn Malik’s eyelashes are epic. They ought to have their own Twitter account, like Cara Delevingne’s eyebrows. They are long, matt and untouched by mascara, as I can report with authority from my seat next to this delicately beautiful man on a sofa in a cavernous photo studio just outside Paris. He appeared on set half an hour early and full of enthusiasm (“This coat is sick, man, I love the tailoring”) and pursued, as ever, by paparazzi who had followed him from his hotel, the Four Seasons George V, where he and Gigi Hadid are slumming it during Paris fashion week.
“Zigi” are the pop/fashion power couple of the moment. She has just appeared on her 19th Vogue cover, the inaugural Vogue Arabia (a nod to her father’s Palestinian heritage); he is currently finishing his second solo album and was in the recording studio till 5am this morning. The stakes are high because his first solo single, Pillowtalk, was No 1 in 68 countries. But after his years in One Direction, slogging away at the coalface of teeny pop, he is now his own man and enjoying it. Does he consider Paris fashion week, which he’s ostensibly here for (he sat front row at Balmain to watch Gigi walk), work or pleasure? “I don’t see any difference. I do my work and I have fun while I’m doing it.”
He flew to Paris to surprise Gigi as a romantic gesture. “She didn’t know I was coming,” he says. “I went up to the suite to knock on the door…” Pretending to be room service? “Exactly. But my number had changed to European on her phone, so it wasn’t much of a surprise in the end. She played along with it, though.” Ah, Gigi, such a good sport. “It’s been amazing spending time here with my girlfriend,” he says. “The food is always great here. Steak and mashed potatoes.” Living in LA, he’s missed the carbs. “In LA, you get your fresh fruit and your kale smoothies, but you don’t get yer potatoes.”
He hasn’t lost his Bradford accent, and it makes everything he says sound droll and unpretentious. “Bit raunchy, bit romantic, Titanic-like,” is how he gruffly describes his Fifty Shades Darker song with Taylor Swift, I Don’t Wanna Live Forever, currently in the charts. He grew up in East Bowling, where his mum, Trisha, who is Anglo-Irish, worked as a school chef, while his British-Pakistani dad, Yaser, stayed at home looking after the four children. Has he taken Gigi home yet? “I’ve never took her to Bradford, not yet. She’s met my family in London a few times, though.”
After he left One Direction in March 2015, breaking a million teenage hearts and ending a hugely lucrative mini industry (the band is now on hiatus), he lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for six months, eating room-service chicken wings, feeling the vibes of all the musicians who had to stay at the hotel, such as Frank Sinatra, and doodling lyrics for his solo album, Mind of Mine, on the headed notepaper. Then he bought a home in Bel Air. “Gigi’s been living with me this past year,” he says. I notice that he pronounces “Gigi” not as a Gallic caress, but like a northerner going to the races: Gee-Gee. “I call her Gee, she calls me Zee,” he says. “There’s some other nicknames too, but I’ll keep those private.” He smiles.
They’re a hugely visible couple, who have been together since late 2015, and play out their love affair in fashion magazine shoots and the sexy video they filmed together for Pillowtalk — in which Zayn sings a passionate chorus that “f****** and fighting on is our paradise and it’s our war zone”. Why a war zone? “I don’t actually mean it’s a war zone,” he says slowly. “It’s a… metaphor for different things.” I pull a face. Zayn. I think we can do a little better than that. He takes the hint, draws breath and digs a bit deeper. “Love hurts,” he says. “Love is hard. Maybe my experiences of love up to writing that album were new and hard.”
He was previously engaged to Perrie Edwards of Little Mix, but they split in 2015. “I think there’s a strength in expressing emotion. If you were a guy, you used to have to be really masculine, but now expressing emotion is accepted and respected.”
When he published his autobiography last year, at the age of 23 no less, he came out as having suffered from an eating disorder, sometimes going for several days without eating at all. Headlines followed, such as “How Zayn Malik Is Shifting the Narrative of Men with Eating Disorders” in the Huffington Post. “It wasn’t specifically an eating disorder,” he says. “It was a control thing. Every area of my life was so regimented and controlled [the boys in 1D would sometimes have to go straight from playing a stadium to recording new material in the evening], it was the one area where I could say, ‘No, I’m not eating that.’ Once I got over the control, the eating just came back into place, super naturally.” He corrects himself. “Not supernaturally! Just really naturally. I came back to the UK and spent some time with my mum and got some TLC, and she cooked me food and I got back in touch, mentally, with a lot of the things I’d lost.”
How is his second album, due later this year, coming along? “They always say the second album is difficult, but so far I’m really happy with this one. There are real signs of growth and development. Hopefully, as a human being, I’m growing too, in my knowledge and perception.” Still, like so many, he gets “too wrapped up” in his social media. “I’m scrolling and scrolling and I’m, like, ‘I have to stop’, but I can’t, so I delete the app from my phone. And download it again the next day or whatever.”
He has deliberately surrounded himself with a music management team of strong, middle-aged women. Coming from a matriarchal family, he likes it that way. He seems in good hands. “I now have no problem with anxiety. It was something I was dealing with in the band,” he says. Did sharing his eating problem help? “Yes. People saw strength in that, and they didn’t seem to expect it from a guy, but they expect it from a female, which to me is crazy. We’re all human. People are often afraid to admit difficulties, but I don’t believe that there should be a struggle with anything that’s the truth.”
In One Direction he was tagged “the mysterious one”. “I have no idea why,” he says. “It was obviously a marketing strategy to appeal to different areas of female personalities and wants and needs. ‘I might want a cute one’, ‘I might want a cheeky one’, ‘I might want a mysterious one’, that’s all it was.” He’s smiling — he doesn’t seem bitter about having been a pick’n’mix pop puppet. “It’s cool, that’s life, I guess. I don’t really think of myself as mysterious, but maybe I am.”
He has a naughty, clever, playful side. He enjoys pretending to be his own evil twin, Rodger Malik. It’s a bit like Eminem’s Slim Shady. “Maybe it’s a psychological thing, or I’m creating an alter ego, but it’s fun to banter with your evil twin,” he says, rolling up his trouser leg to show me a tattoo on his calf that says “Rodger” in scrawled letters, near a tattoo of Jack Nicholson as The Joker. “He’s quite influential, that Rodger. He’s done a couple of songs on the new album. He’s off fishing today.”
Mysterious, possibly. Complicated, for sure. But Zayn seems at ease with himself. He’s pursuing new projects, including designing for Giuseppe Zanotti and some “regal, but street-inspired” looks for Versace Versus. “Actually, Gee helped me design for Zanotti. She’s a really good artist, really creative.” Donatella Versace commissioned Gigi to photograph Zayn and the British model Adwoa Aboah for a Versus campaign. “We shot it at the Chateau Marmont. It was just me, her and Adwoa. We got on a good vibe with it. There’s a dingy, rock’n’roll look to it.” How did Gigi take to being on the other side of the camera? “She didn’t have any problems taking photos,” he says. “There were no tantrums. She’s a really chilled person — she fell right into it.”
Donatella is more effusive, summing up their love affair: “They define the mood of their generation with their honesty, energy and love.” She’s got it. That’s Zee and Gee for you.