How Liam Payne’s high cringe factor made him One Direction’s most sympathetic export

Adam White
Ten years after he found fame as part of One Direction, Payne still feels like a jumble of different personas: Gareth Cattermole/Getty

Liam Payne began the decade like many of us did – spotty and sheepish with a Justin Bieber haircut. And then he got famous, had a baby with Cheryl Cole, and now collects large sums of money for posing in his Y-fronts. Few were anticipating such a trajectory. But Payne’s journey, by far the oddest of his former One Direction bandmates, has also mirrored the wavering fortunes of the world around him over the past 10 years – a decade that once felt exciting and filled with potential, but which rapidly turned to mulch.

Payne is currently on the promotional trail for his debut solo album, LP1, with a grab-bag of wares on offer. There are his aforementioned underwear photos for Hugo Boss, full of piercing glares and Ken Doll bulges. There’s his recent Number 84 hit “Stack It Up”, an Ed Sheeran rip-off that would be worthy of a lawsuit if it wasn’t co-written by Sheeran himself. He’s got a syrupy Christmas single, too – “All I Want (For Christmas)”. It isn’t a cover of Mariah Carey’s legendary festive hit, but is potentially titled so as to confuse the voice-controlled virtual assistants in your life.

It’s all very directionless, no pun intended, with Payne dabbling in a number of different personas all at once. From their formation on The X Factor in 2010 to the aftermath of their indefinite hiatus in 2016, One Direction have always experimented with how they wish to present themselves to the world. But it’s been Payne’s public persona that has always felt the most uncomfortable.

“You can only get jet lag from a jet,” he captioned an Instagram photo in 2018, while reclining with a gold chain around his neck and with his middle-finger up. “The rest of y’all have got plane lag #NOF****.” The picture was swiftly deleted, not because it was offensive or ignorant, but because it was just too cringeworthy.

Payne’s post-1D transition period was full of this kind of thing – try-hard hip-hop buzzwords straight out of the Justin Timberlake playbook, a gold chain that had its own name (“The Payne Chain”), and appearances on Cheryl Cole remixes under his DJ alias “Big Payno”. It was something of a trainwreck, a brand shift that didn’t convince then, and has only worsened with time.

But there’s always been an odd appeal to Payne’s star-image uncertainty – perhaps because so much of his life in the past decade has read like the end result of a Mad Libs game. Remember when he was rumoured to have been dating Naomi Campbell earlier this year? Or the time he and Cheryl, the woman who discovered him on The X Factor when he was a skittish 16-year-old, were outed as a couple while doing a grocery shop in Tesco?

Such weirdness has also, inadvertently, made him the most relatable out of One Direction, primarily because nothing has ever seemed to go to plan. Of his former bandmates, Harry Styles and Zayn Malik always felt like natural superstars, the former a smooth and confident industry operator (who has his own, far more hyped album out a week after Payne’s), and the latter magnetic enough that he could be one of the biggest names in the world… if he left his house a bit more. Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson were slight outliers, both obvious second-tier band members despite their individual fanbases, but both have found their own rich musical niches – Horan in acoustic pop-rock, and Tomlinson in Noughties-era indie.

‘#NOF****’: Payne’s infamous deleted Instagram in 2018

Payne, even back then, felt different. Framed as the group’s stabiliser, potentially because he had middle-aged dad energy when he was still very much in his teens, he would release the statements apologising for Tomlinson and Malik’s drug use, and talk up his decision to stay teetotal. He was uncool and whiny on social media rather than endearingly weird like his bandmates – admonishing fans, declaring that he was “100 per cent not homophobic” but “also 100 per cent not gay”, and having to apologise for “sparking suicide fears” after dangling off a tall ledge in an Instagram photo. He always seemed like the 1D boy most likely to vote Tory, as if he had been formed in a pop laboratory using bits of Gary Barlow’s hair.

Even though his solo career has felt like the longest in gestation, Payne is still figuring things out: what kind of artist he wants to be, sure, but also how best to exist as an aggressively ordinary person who was suddenly granted access to fame and riches, personal trainers, and friends and lovers who may not have his best interests at heart. By now, we’re used to the narrative of individuals struggling with instant reality-show fame, but often assume they eventually get used to it – the invasion, the adulation, or the recognition of how to “be”. Payne, 10 years in, remains a jumble of different personas.

It’s meant that in all his cringe, he’s also remained incredibly human. Haven’t we all crafted a desperately embarrassing internet persona? And tweeted things that, in hindsight, were entirely tragic? Or wanted to make ourselves over – to bulk up or slim down, and exhibit the results with slightly too-pleased glee?

As the 2010s come to a close with the world teetering on a terrifying cliff edge, we are all Liam Payne: cold, melancholy and posing in our pants, impatiently waiting for our mums to pick us up and give us a cuddle.