"Do you mind if I smoke?"
Louis Tomlinson is waving an unlit menthol cigarette in one hand and a mug of cheap coffee in the other. As soon as I say no, he gets up from the wooden stool he's been sitting on, opens the window that's next to us and lights up, blowing minty smoke out onto the street below, little droplets of rain occasionally falling in from outside and landing on his face.
Of all the places I'd expect to encounter one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, a cold, near-empty warehouse in north London is not one of them. But this is where we'd decided to do the interview and photoshoot, and when he'd arrived—moments before in baggy jeans and a hoodie swamping his surprisingly long limbs—his presence hadn't felt too incongruous. "Y'alright, love?" he'd greeted me, his Doncaster accent still strong, despite having spent the last seven years rarely touching UK soil, "nice ta meet you." His mate, a brown-haired boy with freckles holding a sausage roll wrapped in Greggs paper, had smiled and nodded at the people in the room. Standing there, the two of them looked like boys you might have known from school who had somehow grown up overnight. For a second, it had been easy to forget why we were all here.
In the summer of 2010, Louis auditioned for the UK version of The X Factor for the third year in a row. He'd recently turned 18, and after having to retake his A-Level exams and flit between a string of minimum wage hospitality jobs, he figured he had nothing to lose. "I was never what you'd call 'book smart,'" he tells me now, stubbing his cigarette out in a nearby carved ivory ashtray and settling back onto his stool, his face relaxed but impassive. "What used to piss my mum off is that I could have been. I was that classic one from school who everyone said wasn't going to reach their full potential because they lark about too much. That was just who I was at the time."
He didn't really consider himself a "singer," either, but he knew he was confident enough to pull it off. His early teenage years had been spent dancing around his room to pop punk bands like Green Day ("I was given a DVD of Bullet in a Bible live as a gift and I became completely obsessed with it") so he used to emulate the American accent when he sang—something he says he still finds himself doing today. Aptly, the first band he played in was a Green Day tribute band when he was 14, but the other members kicked him out after a new boy came to the school and decided he wanted to replace him as singer. "Then I was like, 'I'm going to go on The X Factor now and fuck you all!'" he says, his face crinkling up with laughter for a moment, before turning serious again. "But I do remember that band as the first feeling of being… a performer, I suppose. I'd never really done anything like that before, and I was getting a bit of attention from it afterwards, so I was like OK, this is alright. This is cool. I can do this.'"
Watching his very first televised X Factor audition back today—a rendition of "Hey There Delilah" by Plain White T's—feels remarkable, purely for the fact it is so unremarkable. He can barely hit the notes, and even the judges look as if they're more interested in their next cigarette break than the guy singing right in front of them. With his combed asymmetrical haircut, Topman cardigan and hopeful expression, he looks like every other British teenager you could have found in any suburban town in the mid 2000s; the kind of contestant that might get through the first couple of rounds, but would have a hard time making a stand-out impression. However, it didn't exactly pan out that way—because mere months later, he would become one of the most idolized pop stars in the world; a human canvas onto which a whole generation of teenagers would project their fantasies. These days, he's reportedly worth a clean $50 million.
On the surface, his quick ascent as part of One Direction looks fortuitous, or even unlikely—but take a closer look, and it actually makes perfect sense. Around the time Louis auditioned for The X Factor, boy bands had been on the steady decline in the UK since their golden age in the late 90s and early 2000s. Young pop fans had seemingly grown tired of manufactured bands with slick dance routines, formulaic songs and clinical sound bites—it had become cheesy and outdated. The fact that Louis' background was so average, so relatable, was already inherently part of his appeal. Rather than trying to shrug off his working class Northern roots, he vehemently embraced them. There was nothing about Louis that screamed "showbiz." He didn't come from money. He hadn't been to Brit School. One Direction weren't your typical boy band—and so they flew.
Even today, seven years later, when he couldn't live a life further from what he grew up knowing, he clings onto his background with an almost commendable stubbornness. While the others from the band—particularly Harry Styles and Zayn Malik, and even Liam Payne to a certain degree—seem to revel in the starry sheen of pop fame by dating other high-profile figures, being seen on the front row at fashion shows or stumbling out of A-list parties and having the sort of meticulously crafted marketing campaigns that are designed to create intrigue, Louis has always appeared to shy away from that side of things; with one foot cautiously dipped into the lifestyle, and the other firmly on the ground.
"Yeah, well, Doncaster is the opposite of showbiz," Louis says, cackling when I point this out to him. "But really, I've got two sides to me when it comes to that kind of thing. What I really can't ever get used to, or really enjoy, are these super geared-up celebrity parties—where he's there, she's there—and everyone pretends to be friends like they've known each other for years, like"—he puts on a faux smoozy LA accent—"'oh, how are the kids?!' but no one actually cares. You see people who are beyond self-absorbed, and that's why it can be a dangerous place. For me, I much prefer messy nights out with my friends from home."
Louis tells me it's these friends from home who have kept him from getting too wrapped up in himself. In an industry that is notoriously superficial, he says, it can be hard to find an honest opinion when everyone that surrounds you is so agreeable. "I often treat that as a type of marketing," he explains. "As in, how would my friends from Doncaster—who know nothing about music and fashion—interpret an outfit or a song or whatever. That has always really helped me. I like to think that if I came out in some awful tracksuit, they'd all tell me about it on WhatsApp, and in three months time I'd be like, 'thank you for telling me, I looked like a right dick!' Because if you get to a stage where you disconnect from those friends from home, other people don't really dare go there… You can surround yourself with super successful celebrities, but you can get swallowed up in the glitz and the glam of it all."
This isn't to say he doesn't ever go out and have fun with the rest of them—he's done a lot of that too, over the years. "During the last year of One Direction, in particular, I definitely went a little bit… west," he tells me now, raising one eyebrow before taking a sip of coffee and lighting another menthol. "I kind of realized we were going on this hiatus and I thought 'I've been very sensible for this whole time' and that's not really me, so for a year or so we definitely had a good 'party stint' and I got it out my system, in a way. There were definitely those days when it felt as if touring was relentless, and if you want to tackle it from a party point of view it can be really fun, but it does make the whole thing even more draining. It's just such a difficult feeling to come off stage and have this amazing buzz and then be like…'so what now?' You can't just sit on the tour bus and chill."
Louis has spent a large portion of his life being extremely famous, but his identity presents a strange duality. On the one hand, he is every bloke you've ever met on a Saturday night in a high street club sipping neon cocktails and chirpsing girls. He loves watching British reality shows like Geordie Shore ("You could have a fun night out with the birds, but the lads are disgusting") and having quiet nights in with his girlfriend and one-year-old son, Freddy. But there's also something inherently poised about him, in that way that only comes from years working under the glare of a spotlight. Every sentence he speaks feels considered, and he sits with such casual ease in front of a camera that he barely needs any direction from the photographer at all. He already instinctively knows what angle to turn his face so that the light reflects off his jaw, and he can change into a fresh outfit in the time it takes to adjust a camera lens. He never complains, he just seems to do it without thinking. It's quite remarkable to witness.
This duality is also present in the way he keeps ominously referring to joining One Direction as "the change", which goes to show just how much his previous life was pulled out from under him, like a rug. "I had a great upbringing. I had a great childhood. I was very lucky," he explains. "And my school life… I absolutely loved it. That's what I found hard about the change; it was such a massive jump. It was something I knew that I wanted, but in hindsight… I wouldn't change anything, but you never know what you're getting into. You don't really know one percent of what that means."
But what does it mean? I tell him that I can't begin to imagine being in a band like One Direction, who have sold 7.6 million albums around the world, whose five faces are burned onto the retina of pop culture forever, whose every move was – and is – scrutinised from every angle. Amidst all of this, what was his favourite era? He finds it a difficult question to answer, and flounders a little. "I think during the early days, we just had this pure naïvety," he begins. "We were being hauled around the world to all these crazy places and it was such a whirlwind. And when I say naïve, it's not like we were naïve to all the awful things, it's just that when you're a bit older, you've seen it and you've been through it, whereas back in the day… especially for someone like Niall who is the most happy-go-lucky Irishman in the world. He's so happy and smiley…"
He stops for a second, drawing himself back in again as if to gather his thoughts. "But I think it was obvious to everyone that we were always five best mates on the road; it was real nice. And as time went on, we all began to understand each other. There are often misconceptions, but we're all such good mates. If you look at the X Factor final, when I performed my song with Steve [Aoki], all the boys came to support me, and I didn't know until a couple of hours beforehand" – by this, he is referring to his first solo single, an EDM track with Steve Aoki called "Just Hold On", which he performed on the show last year. He continues: "It wasn't one of those stupid fucking celebrity things where it's like, 'lets all get in a picture and put it on Instagram and show everyone that we're best mates' – we didn't even put it online. There are always those little things that people don't hear about."
After five best-selling albums that spanned six years, One Direction announced their "hiatus" at the tail-end of 2015. At first, it was supposed to last around 18 months. But as time went on, it became increasingly clear that they had no immediate plans to get back together. They all went their separate ways with hopes to blossom individually—as boy bands tend to—and Louis found himself at a loose end, unsure of what to do next. "It kind of happened by accident," he says, explaining his decision to release solo material. "There was a six-month period where I was just writing. I wasn't writing for me—I was writing for other people—and then we got the Steve song and everything started happening quickly. Before long, I'd got a call saying I could play the X Factor final, which was such a big fucking deal for me. I felt a real sense of fulfillment doing that."
His next single, "Back to You" featuring the singer Bebe Rexha, is a minimal electro-pop track and it suits him. The stripped-back production gives his voice space to shine, and it sounds stronger than it ever has done before. So far, the output of each former member of One Direction has admittedly been a bit hit and miss, but I'd vouch for this one being a hit. "You think it sounds good? And not predictable?" Louis asks, leaning forward, putting me on the spot. I tell him that it's super catchy, that I'd probably listen to it out of choice and not just because I have to ahead of an interview. "Good, good," he leans back, seeming satisfied with my answer, "because it's so melodically different to what I was used to, I wasn't 100 percent sure on the song initially. But after playing it like three times, I became really excited about it. I think it's really cool."
As our interview draws to a close, we start chatting about his latest project, a girl band he's spent the past two years working on with Simon Cowell. "I wanted to put this girl band together so I pitched it to Simon. Off the back of that, he offered me my own imprint label through Syco," he says, suddenly sitting up in his seat and looking more animated, cigarette ash falling into his lap as he flails his arms around. "The most important thing for me was that they have to be undeniably great musicians. To me, there's nothing cooler than seeing a girl own an instrument. It originally started when I was following Little Mix and I thought they'd go down a more guitar-led route. But that whole Paramore vibe in America is so huge, and we found this unbelievably amazing lead singer and a great bassist who were in a band together already, and then we found a guitarist and drummer. It's early days with the label stuff, but the girls are my first major project and I'm super invested in them."
When I tell Louis I've only got one more question, a subtle but palpable sense of relief briefly dances across his face. Earlier on, he'd told me that he's still not used to speaking so openly about himself, for such a long period of time, and he finds it a bit self-indulgent. When he was in One Direction, he could easily just blend into the background when he wanted to. "I'd just chip in with the odd joke here and there, and if I fancied speaking seriously then I'd do that, but I'd know that on other days Liam would chip in," he'd told me. "This is like starting again. Everything feels different."
So. The final question. What's next? "I feel like I've got a message in my music and how I carry myself. I feel like the least celebrity person in a very 'celebrity' environment, so with that comes a unique mindset…" he trails off. "You know, we all have the same problems, that's the bottom line—they just look a lot different. Those fundamental things that make you feel upset, they're the same. I think you tend to think that you're going to be famous, you're going to be in a band, and then life's complete. But no, I think it's about having perspective over the whole thing… even when you're on top of the world, you have to keep thinking about the next step."
"In ten years time, the most important thing for me is that I'll deliver a good album that people connect with, and then after that… who knows? I'll set myself a new target. As soon as you start to feel comfortable, it's a dangerous place to be in. That keeps my drive up, that keeps me going."
(All photography by Phil Sharp, all styling by Lola Chatterton)