Googling “Zayn Malik’s house” brings up dozens of blog posts that show you what it looks like: a big white box with chrome accents evoking Miami Beach, even though it’s just down the road from a 12th-century church in a bedroom community north of London where, more than a young pop phenomenon, you’d expect to find the family of a middle manager in finance gathered around the TV watching The X Factor.
Zayn, 22, just returned to the United Kingdom after three months in Los Angeles, and as he sleeps off jet lag into the late afternoon, I wander around his gated property. In the driveway he’s collected all kinds of things with wheels: two big dirt bikes and a miniature one, a go kart adorned with a Z in the style of the Superman logo, a vintage Mini Cooper, and a few cars that are simply old, which he has spray-painted all over with lime green doodles. Street art, as any fan knows, is one of Zayn’s passions, and he has a room inside where he’s painted over every available surface.
These are the hobbies of a rich young man, but entering Zayn’s backyard stirs up an eerie feeling of boyhood bumping up against something darker. Boxed on his porch is a high-powered Predator CarbonLite crossbow. A rope bridge leads past graffitied plywood reading “Fuck this life” to a garden shed that’s been converted into a pirate-themed pub. Handwritten on the door are the bar’s “hours” (it never closes) and the message “I pissed inside.” The building appears to have been shot up by paintballs. On the far side of the yard is a 25-foot Native American teepee, like something out of Neverland. And dead center, at the focal point of all this, standing with its head wrenched back, is a fighting dummy—one of those big, muscly torsos that you can practice punching or, in Zayn’s case, fire into hundreds of times with arrows.
It’s been seven months since Zayn quit One Direction, one of the biggest bands in the world and his employer for five formative years. His house is a symbol of everything he achieved during that time—and his unease about those very same achievements. So far, Zayn’s has been a story about how your life gets boxed in by other people’s perceptions of you, and how easily that can spiral out of control. This happens to everyone, but in a famous boy band, the gulf between who you are and who the rest of the world thinks you are is tenfold. As the band’s only person of color, and the West’s single most prominent Muslim celebrity, Zayn has faced misunderstanding to an unimaginable degree.