Maya Henry Was Engaged to Pop Star Liam Payne. But Their Relationship Was No Fairytale: 'I Was Very Naïve' (Exclusive)

In an exclusive interview, Maya Henry discusses her new novel 'Looking Forward,' as well as her "painful" abortion experience

<p>James Martinez/Courtesy of Mars Books</p> Maya Henry

James Martinez/Courtesy of Mars Books

Maya Henry
  • Maya Henry's new novel Looking Forward was released on Wednesday

  • The book is about a girl who falls in love with a charming pop star, and Henry says it's "definitely inspired by true events"

  • The author was previously engaged to One Direction alum Liam Payne

Maya Henry’s Instagram page is typically a place for the former model to share the most glamorous aspects of her life with her nearly 700,000 followers.

But on Feb. 29, Henry’s page offered something different: the cover of a new novel called Looking Forward, a project she said was inspired by personal journals written during the pandemic, when she was in the midst of a relationship with former One Direction singer Liam Payne.

Though fans of the singer, to whom Henry was engaged until 2022, may have expected a romantic page-turner that reflected the couple’s seemingly picture-perfect life together, a content warning that alerted readers to sensitive material like abortion, abuse, violence, self-harm, substance abuse and eating disorders told a different story.

“Obviously the book is fiction,” Henry tells PEOPLE, but it's "definitely inspired by true events... [The main character] Mallory is very similar to me, and that’s why it was very easy for me to write her character and put the emotion in there. I’m just grateful that I have this opportunity and platform to really help be a voice for women.”

One in three women have experienced some form of physical violence by a partner — and though Henry, 23, does not accuse the musician of abusing her, it’s a topic she explores in Looking Forward via her main character Mallory, an aspiring young model smitten by a sweet-talking British pop star. The book chronicles Mallory’s whirlwind romance with the charming Oliver — and her devastation with her unraveling fairytale as he grows frustrated with his stalled career.

Oliver, who like Payne rose to fame as a member of a boy band formed on a television show, turns increasingly to substances, culminating in a terrifying climax of Oliver punching a hole in a wall in a "rage." Henry’s book also features an emotional sequence in which Oliver gives Mallory an ultimatum: get an abortion or lose me.

When asked how closely her fictionalized novel tracks her actual experiences with Payne, Henry is circumspect.

“I drew inspiration [from my real life], and I wanted to include a scene like that in the book because while not everyone dates a pop star, I feel like everyone dates someone like Oliver,” she says of a moment in which Oliver shatters a light fixture, sending shards of glass into Mallory’s arm. “I feel like it was just important for women to be seen in that way, and can relate and not feel like they’re alone in whatever they’re going through.”

PEOPLE was unsuccessful in reaching Payne for comment.

Henry was born and raised in a close-knit family in Texas, the daughter of a high-profile attorney. Just like for the character in her book, the early stages of her romance with Payne were glamorous and exciting. (The pair confirmed their relationship in September 2019, when Henry was 18 and Payne was 26.)

“Every time I would tell people the story [of how we met], they would always say, ‘Oh my God, it’s like a fairytale, it’s like a movie,’” she says. “I feel like I had to put that in the book and take that inspiration, because it just doesn’t seem real.”

<p>Thomas Warming</p> An illustration featured in Maya Henry's book 'Looking Forward.'

Thomas Warming

An illustration featured in Maya Henry's book 'Looking Forward.'

Initially, she found the musician, now 30, “very charming and sweet and nice.” They moved quickly and announced their engagement in August 2020, though Payne had actually popped the question months earlier. Henry says they kept the proposal quiet for fear of judgment, and that the time when only they knew allowed them to soak in the joy without having the world offering input.

Though the author says now that she didn’t think much of the pair’s eight-year age gap while they were together, she acknowledges that her inexperience when it came to relationships complicated things.

“I was very mature for my age and could live on my own, but I think I was very naïve in relationships because I hadn’t been in a real adult relationship,” she says. “And then to be engaged in your first real adult relationship was a lot. I don’t know if it was a power imbalance, [but] I feel like maybe my love was taken advantage of in a way.”

Henry is careful when she speaks about her relationship with Payne, who rose to fame as a member of the boy band One Direction and released his debut solo album LP1 in 2019. But Looking Forward does plenty of talking about Oliver, the character seemingly based on the musician.

<p>Jamie McCarthy/Getty</p> Liam Payne and Maya Henry in West Hollywood in March 2022

Jamie McCarthy/Getty

Liam Payne and Maya Henry in West Hollywood in March 2022

In the book, Oliver makes the slow and painful descent from clean-cut, wholesome pop star to an unpredictable addict with a career in flux and a stable of verbal insults at the ready for Mallory, his girlfriend turned fiancée turned caretaker. (For his part, Payne has been open about his issues with substance abuse, and in July 2023, said he was six months sober after spending 100 days in a rehab facility in Louisiana.)

“I definitely chose to forgive a lot of things,” she says, referring to her own relationship. “When you love someone so much, you have those rose-colored glasses. You’re in denial, so you think those things will stop, and they don’t, and that just becomes an issue among other issues.”

Still, the realization that her relationship with Payne was in fact too good to be true wasn’t something that came to her suddenly, but over time. (Henry and Payne broke up in June 2021, though they rekindled months later and ended things for good in April 2022.)

“When you’re in those situations, they kind of become normal to you. These things start happening, and it just becomes normalized in your head,” she says. “I just became so desensitized to everything going on that I was like, ‘OK, this is my relationship, and this is how it’s going to be.’ And I feel like once you get out of [it], you're really like, ‘Oh my gosh, what was I doing, and why was I there?’”

<p>James Martinez/Courtesy of Mars Books</p> Maya Henry

James Martinez/Courtesy of Mars Books

Maya Henry

In Looking Forward, Mallory deals with multiple instances of domestic abuse, including verbal insults and violence when Oliver chases her down the hallway. In a pivotal scene, Mallory learns she’s pregnant — and while she’s excited about the prospect of becoming a young mother, Oliver is not and warns that he will walk away from the relationship if she chooses to keep the baby.

Mallory eventually goes through with the abortion but suffers severe complications and ultimately is forced to drag herself to the hospital to treat hemorrhaging.

“What I went through in real life is very similar to what Mallory went through in the book. I definitely did have some complications, and I did have to go to the hospital alone,” she says of her own medical abortion. “It was very lonely, having these men tell you, ‘Oh, it’s going to feel like a heavy period, it’s not going to be that painful, it’s going to be easy.’ But I’m like, you’ve never even gone through anything like [this], so how would you know to tell me? That’s why I wanted to include it in the book, because I’ve seen so many people online talk about taking the abortion pill and it was the most painful thing for them. It’s just mind-boggling to me that you could tell a woman how they’re going to feel.”

<p>James Martinez/Courtesy of Mars Books</p> Maya Henry

James Martinez/Courtesy of Mars Books

Maya Henry

She continues: “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have done it. But then also, if I were to have made a different decision, then I would’ve lost the person that I loved. There were definitely difficult conversations about it. But looking back now, things happen for a reason.”

A source close to the author tells PEOPLE that Henry called them upset about the abortion amid its aftermath, and that the ordeal was both “physically and mentally” draining.

“It broke my heart seeing her like that when she’s usually always so happy and positive,” the source says. “That was hands down the lowest point of her life, and it didn’t have to be that way.”

Though Henry and Payne remained together after the abortion experience, they eventually ended their relationship for good in the spring of 2022. Henry doesn’t offer specifics as to what prompted her to say goodbye; Mallory in Looking Forward ultimately breaks things off with Oliver after she discovers he sent explicit messages to other people, then berates her after she confronts him.

“There’s other things I won’t speak about that were too much for someone to deal with,” she says of reaching her own breaking point. “I think at that point I’d grown so much that I was like, ‘I don’t deserve this.’ It just got to the point where I just couldn’t handle those types of things anymore. I feel like when you’re disrespected so much, you’re just done. You’ve had enough.”

<p>James Martinez/Courtesy of Mars Books</p> Maya Henry

James Martinez/Courtesy of Mars Books

Maya Henry

Henry has moved on in the years since and says that looking back, the relationship remains a defining touchstone of her life, one that’s influenced her relationships moving forward.

It wasn’t until lockdown that she realized her story was not necessarily unique, as she saw women sharing personal stories on TikTok that resonated with her and, for the first time, made her feel less alone. Coming to that realization inspired her to write a book, which she’s self-publishing, in the hopes that her story might reach someone else.

“At first I was hard on myself, because I would also blame myself. And I’m like, well, I put myself in this situation, and I didn’t leave. I had family, I had the financial means to leave and get out, and I didn’t,” she says. “But I also think that goes to show it doesn’t matter [your] background, sometimes these things happen. You just have to learn from them.”

<p>Thomas Warming</p> An illustration from "Looking Forward" by Maya Henry.

Thomas Warming

An illustration from "Looking Forward" by Maya Henry.

Henry is currently a full-time student at New York University studying creative writing and is set to graduate at the end of the year. She hopes to continue writing and has a few children’s books up her sleeve set for release in the coming months. (Looking Forward includes a handful of illustrations by illustrator Thomas Warming.)

She’s not sure if Payne — whom she says “regularly reaches out” to her — will read her book but isn’t bothered either way, saying she’s proud of her work, and there’s “nothing I can do about it” if he chooses to read it.

“When you see these types of relationships, it’s very easy to think a certain way about them. But you never know what goes on behind closed doors,” she says. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking and scary, but we need to have difficult conversations about these topics to help women not feel alone and to speak up about things. That’s ultimately why I wanted to put this book out there.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please contact the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

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