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‘If You’re Five Boys, You Can Do Anything’: An Oral History Of One Direction

In 2010, X Factor judge Simon Cowell formed five teenaged contestants into a boy band to compete on the show as a group. Within two years, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, and Louis Tomlinson, together as One Direction, had become the biggest band on Earth, playing sold-out arenas from Japan to Mexico for legions of dedicated fans. But just a few years later, 1D broke up at the height of its fame.

This is the story of how five lads from the U.K. conquered the world and then walked away. This is the oral history of One Direction.

Part 1: Little Things

Simon Cowell (X Factor judge and SyCo Music founder): In 2010, I was still reeling from failure. I’d signed Extremely Chaste Joseph to my record label a few years before and invested all our resources trying to make him into the next big thing. It was a disaster.

Cheryl Cole (X Factor judge): It was definitely impressive how chaste Extremely Chaste Joseph was, but he didn’t connect with audiences. All of his songs were him bragging about the incredible powers that total abstinence gave him, like prehensile hair and sideways levitation. It just wasn’t relatable.

Simon Cowell: Our last-ditch effort to get him to take off was Extremely Chaste Joseph’s Sexless Christmas Spectacular And Silent Auction. But he barely got halfway through his opener, “(Abstinence Lets Me Drown Much Faster Than A) Defiled Man,” before he couldn’t hold it in any longer.

Cheryl Cole: Extremely Chaste Joseph broke his chastity onstage with a microphone stand he mistook for a microphone stand in a wig. His incredible powers and marketing hook were both gone in a career-ending instant. They even had to cancel the silent auction.

Simon Cowell: With Extremely Chaste Joseph, I’d gambled on a pop star who just had one main thing. What I realized when he crashed and burned was, when it comes to pop acts, one just isn’t enough things. So I set my sights much higher, to five things. With One Direction, it turned out I was exactly right.

Harry Styles (One Direction vocalist): My whole life, I’d dreamed of stardom, and I didn’t care how it would happen. For years, I auditioned for X Factor by chugging a thermos of boiling water, but I just kept badly scalding my whole mouth and throat, forcing them to halt filming for the day. Finally, my doctor told me I’d burn my neck open if I tried again, so for my next audition, I sang. It worked.

Simon Cowell: All the boys wanted to be superstars in their own right, but I could tell none of them could make it on their own back then. They needed each other.

Zayn Malik (One Direction vocalist): I think I stretched myself too thin in those early auditions. I tried to impress the judges by doing cool detachable arm tricks while I sang. Unfortunately, my arm wasn’t detachable, so by the time I’d gotten it most of the way off, I’d totally lost the audience. I did much better when I was just singing.

Liam Payne (One Direction vocalist): I actually auditioned as a nearsighted butler. I polished silver, struggled to tell the difference between a pastry fork and a terrapin fork, and chased a pesky mouse around the stage with a candlestick. It was only when I cried, “Master Gabriel, pudding is served!” in a high, sing-song voice that the judges took any interest in me.

Louis Tomlinson (One Direction vocalist): The first thing I remember is the lights. Blinding me. Looking out through eyes I’d never used before onto the faces of strangers. The noise, the roar. I tried to remember something, anything, but it all fled from my grasp like rats from a burning house. Who was I? Who were they? Then the man, Simon, spoke, and I replied in a voice I’d never heard, with words I didn’t choose; they came from a locked place inside me, the same place that my song then burst from, clawing its way out of my throat. Lyrics I didn’t know, a melody I’d never learned. I’d been hollowed out, made a vessel. But by who? And who had I been before?

Simon Cowell: I got the five of them together, and right away, there was chemistry.

Niall Horan (One Direction vocalist and guitarist): They put us together in a studio, and you could just feel we were on the same wavelength. Harry started running, and without missing a beat, Liam started running, and then me and Zayn and Louis were all running, too. We ran and ran for what must’ve been hours, but it felt like nothing. By the time we were all done running, we’d made it all the way to Guildford.

Zayn Malik: You couldn’t stop us in those early days. Get even two of us in the same room and we’d take off running. We’d never take the same route either, but we’d always head southwest. They tried locking us in, but we were very strong, and so fast.

Liam Payne: I miss those early days, just running and running. That was before they trained us to stay.

Caroline Watson (stylist): From the start, I knew the boys needed looks that could evolve as the band did, so I covered them in five years’ worth of outfits, starting with boyish prep school outfits on the outside that they’d strip off over time to reveal a more high-fashion rocker look at the center, which would hopefully not be too sweaty by that point. I alternated some pajamas in there, too, and finished with a funeral suit.

Liam Payne: Caroline absolutely hooked us up. I could barely dress myself back then, and all of a sudden, I’m in a wad of outfits that’ll last me years.

Niall Horan: Being swaddled in hundreds of outfits made complex choreography impossible, which was fine with us. We weren’t that kind of boy band.

Simon Cowell: The best idea I ever had was that each band member should have his own distinct public persona. Past boy bands were too hung up on the Chinese concept of tianxia (天下), or “all under heaven,” so they strove for unity and assimilation to better be in harmonic alignment with the Emperor. Sure, it worked for the Backstreet Boys, but the teens of 2010 just weren’t interested in Neo-Confucianism anymore.

Niall Horan: We all had our thing. Harry was the enormous one, Zayn was the aquatic one, Louis was the spinning one, Liam was the silent one, and I was the other enormous one.

Harry Styles: Louis was the Anglican one, Liam was the Protestant one, Niall was the Lutheran one, Zayn was the Unitarian Universalist one, and I was the one who was really into snake handling.

Liam Payne: Zayn was the Prince of the New Dawn, Niall was his beloved horse Founderhoof, Harry was fair Alanna of the Great Valley, his shade-cursed bride-to-be, Louis was the crusty old master-at-arms Gilbert Gorm, and I was the great black jackal who was destined to devour him during the Battle of Ten Doves.

Louis Tomlinson: I was whoever they needed me to be. I was a blank canvas. I watched. I learned. At night I’d watch my reflection in the hotel room mirror, touching my face, running fingertips with strange whorls over the invisible scars where I’d been reformed, remade. Blank inside, blank outside. Certain sounds, certain scents, they’d trigger a flash of memory, but nothing more. A backfiring cab sparks a glimpse of a dark woman against a cold sky. She’s looking down at me with compassion, or is it pity? When I reached for her name, pain like a chisel split my mind. But I’d get stronger, I swore. I’d remember.

Zayn Malik: I think what made it work was that these weren’t fake roles. They came naturally from who we already were.

Part 2: Best Song Ever

With their hit single “What Makes You Beautiful” dominating the airwaves and a massive and growing social media following, One Direction was poised for the world tour that would make them superstars. International fame, though, came with its own set of challenges.

Simon Cowell: The hook of the band was simple, but it connected with audiences. Every teen girl wants a boyfriend, but what if they could have five boyfriends competing to be the one to impregnate her? I wanted every fan to be able to imagine Harry Styles was singing right to them, while behind him, Zayn and Liam are wrestling and crying, “My seed is the purest!” and “The fruit MUST be mine!”

Niall Horan: The first time we walked out of the studio to a crowd of screaming fans chanting, “Fight for my womb!” I knew we’d made something that really connected with people.

Liam Payne: Harry loved the attention, and Louis and Niall would always ham it up for the fans, pretending to castrate each other or blast each other sterile with radiation. Zayn, not so much. He’s a sensitive guy, and I think he wanted people to demand his semen on its own merits as good, powerful semen, not because he’d bested four other boys.

Zayn Malik: It’s not that I didn’t love the fans, because I did. I just have awful Chernobyl sperm. They’re all spirals and right angles and flat ribbons. I wasn’t comfortable trying to put my Barilla pasta–shaped sperm front and center, but there’s no way to say that when you’re in the limelight.

Harry Styles: “What Makes You Beautiful” was a huge hit. Everyone wanted to know what made them beautiful, and when they found out they were beautiful because they didn’t know they were beautiful, their brains would kind of seize up, they’d bang their head on something sharp, and forget the whole thing. Then they’d listen all over again.

Niall Horan: We needed a follow-up album that would show we were growing up with our fans. The label wouldn’t let us package albums with nude photos that showcased our maturing bodies, so we brought in Ed Sheeran to help.

Ed Sheeran (songwriter): With the second One Direction album, we wanted the songs to have a new, sexy edge, but they also couldn’t be too threatening or mature. Our way around that was to have every song imply that the boys were really unclear on what sex was or how it worked.

Harry Styles: I think lyrics like “I can’t wait to get you alone / Turn off the lights and turn off our phones / Lean against different walls and put on more belts / Clip each other’s nails and see how they smell” from “Alone In The Dark” or “Something’s up with my crotch / Got no idea what’s up with my crotch / Gonna dip it in wax and see if that helps” from “Problem Groin” really helped us appeal to young audiences without their parents getting worried.

Liam Payne: I don’t think that ever sat well with Zayn. It was important to him that people knew he knew how sex worked. Sometimes, when we were onstage, he’d pull out an anatomy book during parts he wasn’t singing on to flip through it and shout, “I already know this!” or “Tell me something I don’t know!” into his mic.

Caroline Watson: As the band matured, I tried to craft a look for them that reflected that. Fewer elbowpads and kneepads. A second pair of suspenders. War medals. Deep, baggy crotches for their fully ripened, pendulous genitals. Plus, I stitched each boy’s last will and testament into his clothes, just in case.

Zayn Malik: We’d quickly become friends, but touring together got us to see new sides of each other. Like Liam: We realized he was this really reliable, dependable guy. Any time you’d turn around, there was Liam, smiling and ready to help out. Then you’d turn around the other way, and he’d somehow be on your other side, smiling even bigger, and a little bit closer than before. To find Liam, all you needed to do was turn around, and he’d be there, even if you weren’t looking for him.

Liam Payne: Niall had this fun-loving side we really came to appreciate. He was always pulling pranks. He’d get this mischievous glint in his eye, and before you knew it, he’d thrown himself down a flight of stairs, or darted right in front of a moving car. It was hilarious! He’d be sprawled unconscious, and we’d be losing our minds, like, “Niall, you absolute madman, you can’t keep doing this!” But a few months later, he’d get the pins out of his leg and be right back at it. Our security guys hated it, which only made it funnier.

Niall Horan: Harry was the glue that held One Direction together. If he knew you were feeling down, he’d take you aside and go, “I’ve got a surprise for you.” And then, out of nowhere, you’d get a visit from world-famous pop music sensation Harry Styles! It was incredible. He’d autograph anything you wanted, let you get a picture together, and even chat with you for a bit! You’d think a star like that would be totally checked out, but he was always so, so personable and down-to-earth. To this day, I don’t know how Harry pulled it off.

Harry Styles: Louis is a great guy, but it always felt like there was a side of himself he was keeping from us. Every now and then you’d see him alone in the green room and he’d just be staring at himself in the mirror. Not doing anything, just staring. Then he’d realize you were there and kind of switch on the Louis we knew.

Louis Tomlinson: They thought I was Louis, so I was Louis. And why not? Whoever I was had been dissolved like a stain in bleach or locked away in that locked place inside me, where things I couldn’t have known crept from in the day, and dreams of white rooms billowed from in the night. I let my mask replace the face I’d lost. I sang, I danced, I did the interviews. I found notes I didn’t remember writing on hotel stationary, found keys scratched with cryptic glyphs in my pockets. Maybe I was biding my time for something. Maybe I was hiding in plain sight.

Part 3: Drag Me Down

Even as they were climbing to the peak of their fame, internal tensions in One Direction were reaching their breaking points. The band hid things as best it could, but in May of 2015, Zayn Malik left One Direction for a solo career, leaving it with only four members.

Simon Cowell: It was important to me that the boys had a family in each other, because superstardom can be pretty demanding, especially when it comes to the fans.

Niall Horan: Our fans were a little intense. They kept coming up with new conspiracy theories about who in the band was secretly in love. They called it “’shipping.” First it was Louis and Harry they were ’shipping. Then Liam and the tour bus were in love. Then it was my dad and Zayn’s dad, then Liam’s dad and all of Zayn’s uncles.

Zayn Malik: I once tried clicking around a fan board, but I logged right off after finding a multipage comic about one of my uncles making love with Liam’s dad on a mountain of all my other uncles under a sultry Mediterranean moon. How did they know where my uncles’ birthmarks were?

Harry Styles: It got to the point where you couldn’t go out in public without being engulfed in a mob of fans who’d graft your flesh together with whoever in the band they thought you’d be cutest with. I admired their passion, but it really made it hard to tour. It once took a team of a dozen surgeons more than 36 hours to separate Zayn from Liam, and they were thinking each other’s thoughts for days after.

Liam Payne: I didn’t mind the ’shipping, but the Balled Up Wad fan community was a lot to deal with. They believed all of One Direction should be balled up into a wad, and they were absolutely vicious toward anyone who disagreed. They made great fan art, though.

Zayn Malik: The fans were incredible, but they’d wear you out. They’d track down what hotel you were staying at and pile on top of each other to pound the window of your 30th-story room. Sometimes they’d even form themselves into the hotel before you got there and then collapse around you while you were trying to check in.

Harry Styles: You could always tell who the truly dedicated fans were, because they’d show up in your dreams, even though you’d never seen them before.

Simon Cowell: One Direction brought people together. It formed these incredible fan communities who did incredible things together, like secede from their home countries.

Zayn Malik: Immediately after we announced our first international tour, there was this huge outcry from fans in countries we weren’t visiting. When those fans realized how many of them there were, they started organizing massive separatist movements to form new nations for One Direction to visit on tour.

Liam Payne: Our fans were creating massive geopolitical schisms, upending national economies, even seizing naval bases, just for a shot at bringing us to their new country’s only arena. Of course, most of those movements were brutally suppressed, but still, it’s really impressive.

Niall Horan: I think there’s still a settlement of Directioner guerrillas somewhere deep in the Amazon rainforest, and I’m pretty sure some Directioners managed to colonize a derelict oil rig in international waters and called it Zaynstown or something like that. I hope they know we broke up.

Harry Styles: We’d become a family, but at some point, we started getting sick of each other. There’s only so many times you can stay up late in another anonymous hotel room playfully making out with your bandmates before it starts to feel like a chore.

Liam Payne: We were each looking for ways to flex our individuality. Harry started really leaning into his rock star persona. In interviews and social media, he kept referring to our band as Audioslave, and he’d spend hours going through all of our tour merchandise, crossing out “One Direction” on the shirts and writing, “THE FAMOUS BAND AUDIOSLAVE” in Sharpie.

Zayn Malik: Everyone knew Harry was going to be the breakout star. He loved the spotlight, and he was always cutting deals with every old gypsy fortune-teller he could get his hands on for great fame at a terrible cost. By the time the band broke up, he must have let, like, 60 or 70 different toothless soothsayers suck a drop of blood from his finger.

Niall Horan: Harry’s not at all a bad guy, he just really, really wants to have his own The Day The Music Died. I mean, that’s a really cool name for a day. I just wish he hadn’t treated One Direction as a stepping stone to get there.

Louis Tomlinson: I knew things were coming to a close when I realized I was being hunted. I saw them in our stadium crowds: lean men in clothes that fit too well, with eyes that didn’t reflect the light quite right. When fans mobbed us in airports, I saw them at the fringes, moving with uncanny grace. I’d lie awake listening to footfalls in the hotel room above mine, slow and deliberate, coming and going, watching the thread of light at the base of my door, waiting for the night it broke. Were they coming for who I’d been or who I was now? And in the end, did it matter?

Niall Horan: I think things hit their low point during the On The Road Again tour. Zayn had been chafing in the band for a while, but on that tour, he went totally AWOL.

Zayn Malik: I spent the entire U.S. leg of the tour trapped under the tour bus. I had crawled under it to grab the phone I’d dropped, when the bus started moving. The machinery hooked my outfit, and my arms got pinned behind my back. I had to keep my neck rigid for hours or my head would scrape the road at full speed.

Liam Payne: Zayn stopped showing up for rehearsals. He stopped showing up for wardrobe. Worst of all, he wouldn’t even come out onstage. It was totally disrespectful to us and our fans.

Zayn Malik: When we parked, the radiator would drip enough water that a puddle would form by my head and I could lick it up. Every now and then a squirrel or rat would scurry under the bus, and I’d try and bite off a chunk of it. Otherwise, I’d have to grab roadkill with my teeth while we were in motion and hope I got a big enough mouthful before the road tore it away again. That’s how I survived.

Harry Styles: We all knew Zayn was getting restless and anxious to move on to his next project, but none of us expected him to just disappear on us like that. After all, we were a family, weren’t we?

Zayn Malik: After weeks of gnawing at my sleeve, I finally managed to chew one of my arms loose and free myself in Los Angeles. At that point, I was furious that the rest of the band had never come looking for me. I may also have had mild rabies from the roadkill, but I still stand by the decision I made then to leave the band. I checked myself into a hospital and never looked back.

Caroline Watson: I take full responsibility for what happened to Zayn. I never should have tried to make full-sized parachutes the next big fashion trend.

Part 4: Live While We’re Young

Although One Direction continued without Zayn for another tour and album, the band members had their sights set on the future. Now that each member has struck out on his own solo career, One Direction’s legacy—and future—is still being written.

Liam Payne: Without Zayn, the energy in the band was off. We’d stand silently onstage during entire verses he normally sang, and when an interviewer asked him a question, we’d have to just look at the empty chair where he was supposed to be and wait roughly as long as we thought his answer would have been. It wasn’t sustainable.

Niall Horan: Zayn leaving knocked out huge chunks of our back catalog. We couldn’t perform “Zayn’s Lament,” “A Zayn Will Rise (The Cycle Of Zayn Part II),” or even “A Trial And A Reckoning (The Cycle Of Zayn Part VII).” We were sending fans home disappointed every night.

Liam Payne: Even among ourselves, without Zayn, the dynamic was totally off. Our five-boy sleeping hammock was way out of balance, and our five-boy paddleboat just went in circles. Even our regular 4-on-1 pickup basketball games now felt totally one-sided.

Harry Styles: It was just time. I knew it, the rest of the band knew it, all the gypsy fortune-tellers had predicted it. One Direction was done.

Zayn Malik: I don’t regret leaving One Direction at all; working as a solo artist has been incredibly fulfilling. My only regret is accidentally breaking off one of Niall’s ears, which meant I couldn’t get my £75 One Direction safety deposit back.

Liam Payne: We’ve each been able to spread our wings since going our separate ways. I’ve finally been able to learn to read and write, which I was told my contract didn’t allow. Plus, they reversed the vasectomy my contract required me to have, and it was completely free!

Harry Styles: I was planning to throw myself into music, but I had such a great experience shooting Dunkirk with Chris Nolan that I decided to focus on acting for a while. Then my agent recommended I take an improv class to expand my range, and I totally caught the bug. I’m in level 3 right now at the Improv Insanitarium, and they said if I complete up through level 5c, I get a shot at auditioning for a Tuesday night house team, which I really think I’d nail. Shout-out to my practice group—you guys are bonker-nanas!

Niall Horan: It’s been a little tough returning to life at Madame Taffeta’s Orphanage after being a superstar for so long. Madame Taffeta took my wallet straightaway and claimed she was putting it in safekeeping, so I’m back to getting only a couple coppers a week for my allowance. Plus, Madame assigned me to scraping the grease bins, which everyone knows is the worst chore, because she insists that haughty boys should learn their place. But I get to delight the other orphans with tales from the road, and I even coaxed a shy smile out of the good side of Little Beatrice’s mouth. God, how she’s grown!

Louis Tomlinson: I found an envelope one day, stitched inside the lining of my suitcase. No return address, no label at all. The letter’s handwriting was my own; it was addressed to me. I read the first few words and burned it. Whoever I used to be, he’s dead. Buried in that locked room. I can’t resurrect him. The band is done, so I keep moving. Something in me knows where to go, what to say, how to stay out of sight when the men with dull eyes pass. And wherever I’m going, I know someone is waiting. But it might not be me she’s waiting for.

Liam Payne: People have already started asking us if we’ve got plans for a reunion, but I think we’ve all got a lot of growing up to do first. That way, when the reunion does happen, we’ll all be a little too old and probably kind of weird, and it will be more sad than exciting, and then people will stop asking us to do a reunion.

Harry Styles: In the end, I’m just glad we meant as much to the fans as we did. I hope we showed them that if you’re five boys, you can do anything.