It’s a dark day for One Direction fans.
The boy band announced on Facebook that heartthrob Zayn Malik will be leaving the group. This news comes almost a week after Malik pulled out of One Direction’s tour, with their publicist citing “stress” as the key factor for the decision.
One Direction announced on its Facebook page that it will continue on as a four-piece, and the post was accompanied by a message from Malik that read: “My life with One Direction has been more than I could ever have imagined. But, after five years, I feel like it is now the right time for me to leave the band,” he said in the statement. “I’d like to apologise to the fans if I’ve let anyone down, but I have to do what feels right in my heart. 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. I know I have four friends for life in Louis, Liam, Harry and Niall. I know they will continue to be the best band in the world.”
Although the British boy band only finished in third place on the British singing competition The X Factor, One Direction has become one of music’s biggest powerhouses in recent years. Their single “What Makes You Beautiful” dominated the radio waves in 2011, they sell out arenas around the world, and just last year, they became the first group in the history of the Billboard charts to have their first four albums debut at No. 1. The Brit’s pack of rabid fans have also had the pleasure of watching the boys transition from boyish-adorableness to their current smoldering image replete with facial scruff and tattoos.
This isn’t the first time that Malik has made headlines. The 22-year-old British Pakistani, who was raised in the Muslim faith, found himself on the receiving end of death threats after being vocal about his political beliefs regarding the Israeli-Palestine conflict. In July 2014, he tweeted “#FreePalestine” and kept it up even after tons of angry responses from his fans in Israel.
If that weren’t enough, The Daily Show came under fire last fall when they jokingly accused the group of being a terrorist organization. Many in the Twitterverse felt it was a reference Malik’s Muslim faith, and flooded the social media network with tweets bearing the hashtag #DailyShowGoneTooFar.
He’s also faced some more minor controversies. Malik received criticism after a video of him smoking a joint surfaced. When he didn’t show up to One Direction’s appearance on the Today show, host Matt Lauer decided to pry (as is his wont) about his substance usage. Bandmate Liam Payne blamed Malik’s absence on him being sick and Malik later expressed his anger about Lauer’s questions. There were also recent, unsubstantiated rumors of him cheating on his fiance, which could have played a role in his stress and departure from the group.
One Direction’s Facebook post explains that the show must go on, with the four remaining men finishing out the current world tour and recording their fifth album. But what does Malik’s departure mean for 1D’s future? It’s unclear if a boy band can survive without a core member, especially one as big as Malik. The Los Angeles Times noted that Malik had “the best vocal chops of the group.” He also was GQ’s best-dressed man of 2013. And although the Backstreet Boys had a member leave, it was way after their pop music heyday. Destiny’s Child also survived after their first member left the group, but there’s no clear Beyoncé in One Direction doing the heavy lifting.
Perhaps this is Malik’s opportunity to launch a solo career, a la Justin Timberlake—he definitely has the singing ability and edgy image to do so. Over the years, Malik’s musical stylings have angled more towards the urban variety than pop with his sultry riffs. A rebrand doesn’t seem impossible for the young artist (perhaps a surprise collab with someone like Drake?).
And hey if music doesn’t work out, Malik could always compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race when he’s ready for his comeback.