One Direction’s Public Image: When your Portrayal to the World Is Outside of your Control
Imagine how it must feel like not to even own your own image. It must be, I guess, a little like playing a never ending role, one you do for years for hours at a time until you end up either feeling like your true self is a thing to hide or confusing what is real for what is not.
This is what a lot of boy- and girl-banders went through, and not at all a phenomenon uniquely tied to One Direction. For instance, when one of the members of the Spanish boyband Auryn, David Lafuente, accused their old management team of including “anti-gay clauses” in their contracts, another band member still working for the same management company (Carlos Marco) defended them by saying the only weird clause they were subjected to was on how to dress—and not just by assigning them a work etiquette, the standard in these cases is to decide full outfits. But hey! It ‘s no big deal! Right?
Well, in One Direction’s case, we know management went one step further. It wasn’t just about the boys’ image—which, at the end of the day, is your portrayal to the world, and allows you to feel different inside—but about their whole personalities, who they were and who they weren’t supposed to be, both internally and externally.
For example, on the outside, Zayn Malik declared they were not allowed to dye their hair. It may sound extremely superficial to care about these kinds of things, but precisely because they are such mundane and personal affairs, usually taken for granted, it is very intrusive and controlling to have them sorted for you to that extent in a professional contract.
In reality, each and every one of the boys was assigned a specific public image and personality over the years that we will discuss below. Curiously, the term personality is indeed one Sony used very often on each and every one of the boys of One Direction. This is proven by a group of leaked official documents from 2013 which found their way to the internet back in 2015. WikiLeaks was the company responsible for these leaks, in which we can see a chart for every boy with their style and their “personality”—as the band managers’ put it themselves—for the then upcoming documentary This Is Us.
But before that, you ought to have in mind that PR teams plan a celebrity’s public image as if the person was a fictional character. Remember that what you are seeing is not reality, even when the story they are telling you is based on true events (and this is not always the case), they are telling it from the angle they choose to and the conclusions you reach are those they wanted you to reach.
Niall’s personality was classified in the 2013 wikileaks as “cute, giggly, musical and sweet,” while his style consisted of “american, hoodies, polo shirts and sporty.” Of course, something omitted in this childish chart is that his hair for the very moment the band was formed had to be bright blond. Niall’s natural colour is halfway between brownish and a darker blonde, but he was forbidden to stop bleaching it. Curiously, this makes him the only member of the band who was forced to bleach it instead of not to.
Niall was labelled as the sweet, innocent boy who could do nothing wrong. Overall, this was something consistent throughout the entirety of the band, and it created false expectations for him, since he couldn’t step out of line. Of course, the forever-angel image is something plenty of bands have spoken against, the inclusion of cleanliness clauses in their contracts—the lack of which in his solo career, Niall’s bandmate Harry said, had made him cry of joy—or in other words, the prohibition to talk about sex, sexuality and other hot topics, perhaps too explicit for their teenage fans in their management’s eyes.
Even though this changed a little over time, and sex was no longer such a taboo topic artistically speaking by 2014 with the release of songs like No Control in their album Four, One Direction was not given a free pass. Even if their music could sometimes be quite explicit, everything else stayed practically the same. Consequently, this policy must have been extra hard on Niall, who was supposed to be the kid who never grew up.
Moreover, when it comes to his sentimental life, Niall has always been very private, and this personal and completely valid decision was used by management to make him “the available one.” Like in all boy bands in the 2010s, the singers were sold to the fans as “datable,” their predominantly female fanbase was supposed to develop a crush on them and spend a lot of money; and with the rest of the members in numerous pr and/or bearding relationships over the years, he was the one to sell.
Overall, Niall’s public image may have not been far from the truth in some of his personality traits back when he was a teenager (such as sweet, nice and so on), but it failed to grow up and develop at the same time he did, and it turned out to be completely ridiculous in many other aspects nobody would have been able to live up to. In This Is Us, Niall was described as the younger brother even though he wasn’t. He became this sweet boy in need of protection who could do no wrong, and it is this way that his bandmates described him at the time as well, contributing with the innocent and adorable narrative.
Like Niall, Liam had his own chart in the 2013 wikileaks, describing him as “caring, driven, kind and sensible,” while his style was reduced to “blazers, smart, plain shirts and chequered shirts.” It is important to notice each of the boys’ outfits was out of limits for the rest of the band: if Liam had the checkers, no one else could wear them. It may sound silly, but it shows the level of control they were subjected to and it almost seems to me that they were creating fictional characters—these files, as a matter of fact, look like a very simplistic version of character charts many writers use to create our protagonists and side-kicks before starting to write the actual novel.
Now we know that Liam was set out to be the head of the band in the X Factor—which makes sense, since his audition was arguably the best—and later on Harry took the lead. This made him become the father figure or the responsible one, he was supposed to keep the rest of the boys in line (a weird responsibility to give to a seventeen year old when his friends were around the same age).
As a matter of fact, Liam spoke about this when he was asked what advice he would give his younger self in an interview: “I think just have more fun and relax a little bit. I think I was a very serious child, one of those man-childs, I was a man in a child’s body pretty early on. And I think I would have avoided that stage, to be honest with you. To enter One Direction as that was difficult, because it just meant that I got a completely different job to everybody else.”
“You were the grown up one?” The interviewer guessed. “That was it. And it was boring. I should have just larked around and thrown plates out the window and stuff!” he confirmed.
The issue here is not that that particular trait of Liam’s personality was false, but that, like in Niall’s case, they took one specific trait he may have exhibited at seventeen and made it his whole persona, leaving no room for growth. For example, later in life, while in the band, Liam struggled with alcoholism and with his mental health, and while this is something he now speaks about openly, those kinds of topics were, for many years, kept hush-hush.
On the romantic side, things were even less accurate: Liam was always linked to one woman or another. According to his public image, he was a bit of a ladies’ man, and this was set up from the very moment the band was formed, as it was for many of his former bandmates.
Unfortunately, some of the narratives attributed to him during the years have been very perjudicial, and this is very strange—or should be, ideally—because the whole point of creating a public narrative for someone is hiding certain facts about their life or themselves that could appal the public and cost the label a lot of money and promote others worth admiring or attractive for the public (for example, if your artist is racist, misogynistic, homophobic or something along the lines, you do not say that), and so, for instance, when Liam tweets in support of a very homophobic band in his public twitter account—managed by his team, not only by himself—the normal thing if this was really his move and not yours would be to immediately erase the tweet and say he was hacked (it would not be the first time a member of the band or one of the boys’ family members is apparently hacked, after all).
Likewise, if your artist cheats on his girlfriend, what you are not supposed to do is get him papped with this third person immediately after (unless it is all stunted and you are pushing that story for some other reason, of course). It definitely shows managers’ moral values are questionable at best.
It is what they did for the years he was in the band with his problem with alcohol, they kept it a secret, because they considered it was dangerous for the brand, but for some reasons we can very well figure out if we pay attention, other stories were fed instead of quietened down (although he gave an explanation about the particular twitter incident back then), and Liam was not the only one to have a flawed or perjudicial public image pushed into him at some point.
Zayn was described as “the dark horse, the poser, a player and vulnerable.” And this image of the bad boy that Zayn was assigned fed some racist stereotypes against him that he would have to put up with while in the band.
If we look at this particular issue, it is very easy for us to see how management teams create a public image which may differ a lot from reality. For example, we were told his quietness meant he was a player and a bad boy; when he was actually a seventeen year old who became famous all of a sudden and sometimes was shy towards the cameras. Can you really blame him?
As a matter of fact, Zayn has spoken on this matter and how it made him feel before: “In terms of me being described as the mysterious one,” he declared in an interview with Complex in 2016, “that was put on me as a stigma because I didn’t get the chance to speak as much.”
Another issue with the treatment Zayn was given was on how they handled his ethnicity. The racism he was subjected to in the band never went away, he was not protected by those who were paid to do so and had to bear awful attacks in concerts by their so called fans. Instead of support, the band’s managers had strict rules regarding Zayn’s image such as not to speak his native language (Urdu) in public, not even when he was with family. Management also had a problem with Zayn’s English accent, which they considered had no place in the band. They already had a member with an accent (Niall, who is Irish), and his middle-eastern accent did not correspond to his assigned personality.
Lastly, when it comes to his dating life, Zayn’s first public relationship is to this day considered controversial not only because of the age difference, but because the other person involved hinted last September that it was staged or at least arranged by management.
The X Factor, as a marketing stunt and the beginning of Zayn’s public image, heavily publicised the alleged romance between seventeen years old Zayn and fellow contestant twenty four years old Rebecca Ferguson. Years later, Rebecca has become a famous advocator against the exploitation and abuse in the music industry on social media, she talks about her experience and her own trauma, and about her dating life while being under Syco she had to say: “I was only allowed to be in certain relationships or have certain relationships (…) and my chief security was threatened with his job and they were told ‘you need to ruin Rebecca’s relationships, and if you don’t, you’ll be fired’ (…). My whole life was managed down to the finest detail, down to who I’m allowed to date.”
Thus, if Rebecca’s public partners were being chosen for her, the possibilities of her relationship with Zayn being a pr stunt are high enough for us to consider if this was being done to other contestants and how many of One Direction’s public relationships were just as staged, just as fake. But aside from the nature of the relationship, the fact that any type relationship—real or staged—attracts media attention and there is content specially created about it is obviously a huge part of a celebrity’s public image, and Zayn’s was plagued.
In the present, Zayn has finally gotten to live happily and away from the celebrity world while also making music, but unfortunately, the racist stereotypes imposed onto him in One Direction have been fed more than once over the years and the most recent controversy in 2021 stirred up this narrative once again.
Harry was described by management as “witty, beautiful, cheeky and adorably ‘slow,’” he soon became the leader of the band and, in 2010, one of his most characteristic physical traits was his hair, which at the time he was forbidden to change no matter what. It is important to say that these kinds of details do not even begin to sum up what Harry’s public image was and is like, because it would get so much worse than the adorable, beautiful and cheeky boy from One Direction, because the repercussions were such that, today, it is something he bears like a curse, it means oversexualization, it means being reduced to a body, it means not being able to have friends without some newspaper speculating about a new romance and having every gesture you do to show yourself to the world labelled as attention-seeking.
This aspect of Harry’s public image was born when he was just sixteen, a sixteen year old boy who, according to the X Factor and all the headlines they paid for, was supposed to be dating one of the judges, a woman in her thirties. The modus-operandi of this relationship was extremely similar to Zayn and Rebecca’s, a proof of its inveracity, and the consequences would be long-lasting: from that moment on, Harry became this ‘womaniser’ who liked older women.
Anyone with a functional mind should have understood that if this were true, Harry wasn’t a womaniser, and instead he was a victim of pedophilia; but of course not many people did back in the day. How could they when the X Factor showed Harry was someone who flirted with contestants of old ages restlessly? Now we know that these little X Factor videos were always scripted, but it wasn’t quite like that a decade ago, and the knowledge we hold on inappropriate, abusive and toxic relationships or on pr stunts in the music industry was not remotely the same.
To be fair, what could we expect in an industry where the big fish have codes for the age of the little girls and boys they would like to sexually abuse in their parties? Pedophilia in the entertainment industry is so strong, it has such long roots that of course no one saw anything wrong with having young Harry papped getting out of an adult woman’s home early in the morning.
Before the fans followed, Harry was already sexualised by interviewers, by the press and practically everyone in charge of his public image. We have interviews where adult interviewers ask a sixteen year old how many women he has ever slept with and have no trouble keeping a straight face. And the fact that almost every pr stunt Harry has done over the years has been with an older woman—sometimes just barely, others notably older—hasn’t helped.
In fact, in his latest, he was portrayed as a home-breaker by the press, and right now he is being linked to every friend he is ever pictured with while on tour, and it is a tragedy, it is a tragedy because going to a show is enough to realise Harry is one of the kindest persons you will ever see, because he is openly queer and has always spoken about possible partners with gender-neutral language, because he sings songs about men and about his identity on stage, because his whole discography is about a long-term relationship and he doesn’t hide his queerness, and yet, the media circus is enough to blind eyes and plug ears.
Management described Louis as “funny, random, cool and sweet,” while his style was “chinos, stripes, sailor, braces.” Like Zayn’s, Louis’ northern English accent was considered inappropriate and he had to tone it down for many years, both when singing and when he was merely speaking. Clearly, there were some stereotypes against accents like Zayn’s and Louis’ that management acted upon.
There are many adjectives to actually describe Louis at that age: he was the goofy one, and he was loud, funny, sweet and a joker. The one he chose to use on himself in 2012, however, was “flamboyant.” There were rumours about his queerness, and Louis’ public image shifted in response to them.
In 2011, he was given a long-term girlfriend, by 2013 he was no longer the sweet, loud and funny one. He was still a prankster, but you could tell the difference just by his clothes. In 2010, Louis was dressed with stripes, pants of shocking colours, his usual suspenders and other clothes representing well his loud personality back then and, I would say that, until 2011, his public image was pretty accurate with his real self—although I somehow doubt his outfits were completely of his liking. However, two years later he was dressed in loose shirts, tracking suits, jeans and so on; and this gave him the appearance of any young man in his twenties.
I would say that, when it comes to Louis’ assigned personality during the years of the band, there is a big difference with his bandmates’: it changed, it was not stuck in time, it developed. The problem? These changes were so extreme and, sometimes, occurred so suddenly that they make no sense with the natural growth and development of a human being. In 2010 and 2011, Louis’ body language was very expressive, he gestured a lot, for example, and those are the type of things that do not change with age (or shouldn’t, in any case). Whereas by 2013, his body language was significantly toned down, he was still the guy in a stable, straight relationship and would be so for many years, his public persona had stopped matching his true self a long time ago by then, and just like with Liam, Zayn and Harry, management created false and very perjudicial storylines.
For example, there was an incident after he supported Apple’s new gay Ceo with a shirt of the Apple logo covered in the pride flag colours: there was an article written about it, praising Louis for his support, and then he answered the journalists via Twitter saying quite harmful things and acting all defensive about his straightness. But as you can imagine, after Louis tweeted “I love you” to his alleged girlfriend while he was asleep on a plane once, one can’t help but feel very sceptical about this.
Why would anyone in their right mind want people to believe the celebrity whose public image is in their responsibility is homophobic? Because the only thing that article said was that Louis was an extremely compromised ally who cared about the LGBT community, nothing else. I will let you make up your own mind. Now, bringing back the sudden personality shifts Louis went through, we have to look back to 2015 and the time after he broke up with said long-term girlfriend.
According to Louis’ public image, he was the guy of the long relationships, he had always been like that, and he was no more into parties than any of the other boys that we knew of. But from one day to the next, he was a party-boy, he went to the club every night and was always papped with girls by companies you usually call purposefully.
This party boy image is still present in our times, Louis is always seen in pubs, drinking and so on. It does not have to be exactly a lie, nor am I saying there is anything wrong with an adult man making his own choices, but it is something Louis’ team puts a lot of focus on (when, before 2015, they did not), so much so that he is even asked what his favourite drink is repeatedly in interviews.
About his dating life, he did another personality shift and went back to the guy in stable relationships in 2017. Now this era is over, what the future holds for him is yet to be seen. Hopefully though, this future will be named Louis Tomlinson and not BMG or Seven 7 Management.
In conclusion, no one deserves to be dehumanised and turned into a product to the extent of having an entire personality forced onto them because it has been considered it is far more marketable than their real one. This treatment is by all means abusive and can be very damaging on anyone’s mental health. Why force anyone to play pretend instead of marketing that person to a group of people you already know they would be very successful with? So what if Zayn was shy? That is such a relatable thing as a teenager, fans would have loved it if they were told he was just like them. So what if this was a queer boyband? Maybe if they had been marketing towards queer teenagers who at the time had little and poor representation, it would have been the blessing it deserved to be.
Pr teams should be in charge of finding appropriate fans who may be interested in the artists they represent for who they are instead of changing real human beings to appeal to the safest option, a public—teenage girls, often misjudged by misogynistic ideas and vastly underestimated—you already know is going to respond well to certain marketing strategies. But of course, for that, you have to be a good professional with moral values and a working etiquette which doesn’t violate human rights, and you have to be brave enough to break a pattern as old as time itself and try to make a difference—something very rare, unfortunately, in today’s entertainment industry.