10 Years of One Direction: Was Zayn Malik really the ‘villain’ behind the rift that broke the band apart?

Ten years ago, the world was introduced to One Direction, a boy band consisting of five boys who would inadvertently change the face of pop/rock music and the nature of fandoms. But just five years into their remarkable career, one of its members, Zayn Malik, called it quits and walked away. And the following year, the group went into a hiatus that they stated would last only 18  months, but they haven’t returned from it yet.

As fans celebrate their tenth anniversary by taking a walk down memory lane and reliving some of their favorite One Direction moments, many wonder: was Zayn’s departure truly the reason for the group falling apart? Was there really so much bad blood between them that they completely cut ties with Zayn, as was reported back in 2015?

One Direction was riding high in 2015 following the success of their 2013 album ‘Midnight Memories’, which included their smash hit ‘Best Song Ever’. They had embarked on the ‘Where We Are’ Tour beginning in April 2014 and followed that up with the ‘One Direction: Where We Are – The Concert Film’ which documented parts of the tour. They then dropped the song ‘Fireproof’ and announced their fourth album, ‘Four’, due late in 2014. The album would go on to be a huge success, earning One Direction the distinction of being the only group in the 58-year history of the Billboard 200 albums chart to have their first four albums debut at number one. When 2015 rolled around, no one could have expected that a group that was at the top of its game would suddenly have it all come crashing down.

Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson and Zayn Malik of One Direction perform at Rumsey Playfield on November 26, 2013, in New York City (Getty Images)

In February 2015, One Direction embarked on the ‘On the Road Again’ Tour, which would go on to be the second highest-grossing tour of 2015. Only a month later, the group announced that Zayn would be leaving. In their statement, the band shared, “After five incredible years Zayn Malik has decided to leave One Direction. Niall, Harry, Liam and Louis will continue as a four-piece and look forward to the forthcoming concerts of their world tour and recording their fifth album, due to be released later this year.”

The news shocked One Directioners everywhere. While it seemed amicable at first with Malik even helping promote the band’s first song without him titled ‘Drag Me Down’, the split soon turned into an ugly rift that pitted the remaining four members against Malik.

Reports soon surfaced that Malik’s departure stemmed from internal strife, leading many to place blame on the singer. Malik shared a close bond with bandmate Louis Tomlinson, and their falling out would turn into a spectacle, including publicly tweeting each other in the following months. On one such occasion, Tomlinson tweeted, “Remember when you were 12 and you used to think those Mac filters for your pictures were cool haha! Some people still do HA!” to which Malik replied, “Remember when you had a life and stopped making b***hy comments about mine?”

Malik, who initially stated he left to pursue a solo career as well as have more time for himself, would go on to share in an interview with Fader, “There was never any room for me to experiment creatively in the band. If I would sing a hook or a verse slightly R&B, or slightly myself, it would always be recorded 50 times until there was a straight version that was pop, generic as f**k, so they could use that version. Whenever I would suggest something, it was like it didn’t fit us.” He also added he never wanted to be in the band in the first place, saying a solo career was always the goal.

Zayn Malik performs onstage at ZAYN Album Release Party On The Honda Stage at the iHeartRadio Theater on March 25, 2016, in New York City (Getty Images)

Soon, One Direction announced they would go on a hiatus in 2016, and more rumors began flying about Malik being the cause behind it. In 2019, Liam Payne and Harry Styles revealed that Malik’s departure hurt them deeply. “We haven’t really heard from him since he left,” Payne stated to GQ. “He didn’t even say goodbye.” Styles shared in an interview with New Music Daily, “We were sad, obviously, that someone had left, but also sad that he was not enjoying it so much that he had to leave.”

Tomlinson, for his part, shared in an interview with Capital FM that he was still angry with Malik. In an episode of ‘The Dan Wootton Interview’, the singer also pointed out that Malik choosing not to be present at Louis’ mother’s funeral was what truly sealed the end of their friendship, which until that point was shattered, but not entirely broken. Malik, for his part, alleged that the rift stemmed from unsavory things the band members had said to him.

Cut to 2020, and it appears not all fans believe this version of events was what really happened. For one, hawk-eyed fans noticed that all four members of the band are following Malik on Twitter again. Apart from that, a few screenshots of a conversation began doing the rounds online that seemingly implied the rift was nothing more than a ploy by the group’s management to ensure that the remaining members would not deal with the fallout of the split, and instead, Malik would take the bulk of the blame.

One part of the conversation alleged that Malik breaking his contract was illegal, but despite that, he didn’t face a lawsuit owing to him agreeing to terms that stated he would take the fall so the group wouldn’t have to. It further alleged that the rift between Malik and Tomlinson was entirely made up to generate sympathy for the latter, further adding they never stopped being the best of friends. These allegations surfacing now is interesting given that with Tomlinson and Simon Cowell both departing Syco this year, no one associated with One Direction has any ties to the company that launched them anymore, indicating they can no longer be forced to comply with restrictions on what they can say or do publicly.

Recording artists Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson of One Direction perform onstage during 102.7 KIIS FM’s Jingle Ball 2015 Presented by Capital One at STAPLES CENTER on December 4, 2015, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Overall, it does seem odd that their friendship was seemingly decimated by Malik not being there for Tomlinson as he grieved, since the singer tweeted at the time, “Love you bro! All of your family is in my prayers. Proud of your strength and know your mum is too.” Where it gets even odder is that the boys were seemingly on good terms and mending the rift by 2017, as evidenced by a 2017 interview with The Sun in which Tomlinson confirmed he had reconnected with Malik and they were “mates again,” only to once again reiterate that they were definitely not friends with Malik in 2019.

For fans, the entire situation is horrifying, owing both to the split being a traumatic experience for them as well as the realization that these once-friends could turn on one another and not speak again.

But if it turns out their feud was portrayed as being much worse than it truly was, that would probably be an even greater shock than the split itself. As one fan notes, “IDK if the Zouis fight was fake but if it was I hate the world for making us go thru that.” And that, ultimately, is what makes the rift and Malik being painted as the villain so painful for fans.

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