But when the time came, One Direction faced an age-old boy band question: What happens when they break up? Who becomes famous? For years, the pinnacle of post–boy band success had always been Justin Timberlake, crying a river all over the radio. (He also found controversy along the way. No, we will never forgive him for throwing Janet Jackson under the bus at the Super Bowl.) But who becomes the Joey Fatone? One thing was always certain: Harry Styles was a goddamn star. Styles had always been the likeliest candidate for post-One D fame. He was the most rambunctious of the group, as at home palling around on talk shows as he was crooning on the stage.
Still, no one could have predicted what he was about to unleash. Styles, on his own, somehow surpassed the prom¬ise of his early career. The individual that emerged was like the love child of David Bowie and Stevie Nicks, all flowing blouses, wide-legged pants, and funky vibes. He occupies a space in between the masculine and the feminine and is an ally without being obnoxious about it.
When he left the womb of One Direction, his goal was to write his own material. The sound that emerged was not Timberlake’s white boy soul or the radio-ready pop of his bandmate Zayn Malik. Instead, it was a throwback hybrid of folk rock and pop—not a complete copy of an era that was not his own, but more indebted to his predecessors than his contemporaries.
The narrative around Harry Styles is that he is a Very Good Boy. It starts with his devotion to his mother, with whom he is reportedly very close. More proof of his sweet¬heart status can be found in the story about how he ended up being a polite houseguest to his friend The Late Late Show with James Corden producer Ben Winston for twenty months. As his star was rising in One Direction, he was crashing with an Orthodox Jewish family. “That period of time, he was living with us in the most mundane suburban situation,” Winston once explained. “No one ever found out, really. Even when we went out for a meal, it’s such a sweet family neighborhood, no one dreamed it was actually him. But he made our house a home. And when he moved out, we were gutted.”
It’s anecdotes like this—revealed in the singer’s first Rolling Stone cover story, written by none other than Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe—that frame Styles as a superstar who is relatively down to earth, a nice person who cares about being good to those around him. I mean, one of the songs on his recent album Fine Line is titled “Treat People with Kindness.” Styles once said: “There are others. People who are successful, and still nice. It’s when you meet the people who are successful and aren’t nice, you think: What’s yer excuse? Cos I’ve met the other sort.”
Styles gives off the impression that if you were to hang out with him you’d probably have a pretty pleasant and slightly wild time. Profiles of Styles tend to include stories about parties on beaches where nudity or clothes swapping is involved. He’s spoken about how doing mushrooms influenced his latest record, Fine Line, and once led him to bite off the tip of his tongue. But even though that detail sounds like it might belong in an outtake from a seedier history of rock ’n’ roll—think: Mötley Crüe—it’s bizarrely wholesome coming from Styles, who has gone out of his way to promote a message of inclusion.
Though he’s publicly only been linked to women, he’s never exactly declared himself straight, either, and has alluded to bisexuality in his lyrics. One time, he declared, “We’re all a little bit gay, aren’t we?” Regardless of how he himself identifies, he’s made it a mission to promote a safe-for-all environment at his shows. On one tour stop, he took note of a girl in the crowd’s sign which declared she was going to come out to her parents because of him. He asked her mom’s name, quieted the room, and shouted, “Tina, she’s gay,” triumphantly. It’s an especially welcome development for someone whose early celebrity was defined by slash fiction with which some of his bandmates were openly uncomfortable.
His style started to evolve with his own fluidity as well. He took to wearing ruffles and low-cut shirts with wide-legged trousers. The effect was circus ringmaster mixed with ’70s Laurel Canyon chic. There’s a cheekiness to the look, evidenced by photo shoots in which he affects like he just told a dirty joke. He has said he dresses this way not because he’s trying to allude to anything, just because he thinks it looks cool. And, the thing is, it does.
Harry Styles may have been made in the confines of the boy band universe, but when he struck out on his own, his message became freedom. He makes the music he wants, wears the clothes he wants, and encourages everyone around him to love who they want—even if that’s just Harry Styles.