There's a moment in Morgan Spurlock's 2013 documentary One Direction: This Is Us when Harry Styles pokes at the existential dread inside every pop star that one day they might not be famous. "One of the reasons why I don't like the word famous [is] because then people use it afterwards and they go, 'He used to be famous, or he's not famous anymore,'" he says. "And it's just the weird thing of, like, I was a guy before, I was the same guy during, and I'm the same guy afterward."
After logging six years with One Direction, it's impossible Styles will ever not be famous. But until recently, it appeared his former band mate, Zayn Malik, was overshadowing him. And in the world of boy and girl bands, washing out as the second most-famous member amounts to ruin—it's being Lance Bass instead of Justin Timberlake or Kelly Rowland instead of Beyoncé.
But Styles needn't fear this fate—the 23-year-old is poised to become the new Frank Sinatra. They're both magnetic and indescribably charming, but the comparisons go beyond their preternatural charisma. They both started as teen idols. Sinatra relaunched his career as a grown-up musician with an unlikely role in a war movie—which is the exact play Styles is making this year with his part in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.
Styles' opening salvo lands today with the release of his first solo record, a self-titled album layered with classic rock influences. It will sell millions of copies, and Styles Kreminologists will parse every lyric looking for references to his love life—not least of which his short-lived relationship with Taylor Swift in 2012. That relationship amounted—publicly, at least—to a photograph of the pair walking through Central Park. It came just two years after Styles walked into an X-Factor audition, got rejected as a solo artist, and was instead teamed up with four other teenage boys who failed to advance. They formed One Direction and were signed to Simon Cowell's record label. Little more than a year later, they were international super stars.
Styles was the alpha peacock in a band of peacocks, channeling the rakish charm of Mick Jagger—he not only bears a striking resemblance to the rocker but also has a reputation for sexual proclivity—and the giddy earnestness of Paul McCartney. His foil in the group was Zayn Malik, a brooding and swarthy self-styled artist who spent his free time painting and ultimately quit the band in early 2015. While Styles has spoken glowingly of One Direction, Malik, who now dates Gigi Hadid, has turned his back on it. "That's not music I would listen to," he has said of One Direction.
In January 2016, the band went on indefinite hiatus. Styles mostly retreated from public view as Malik gavotted with Hadid and put out a successful solo record, Mind of Mine, an attempt at a kind of Frank Ocean lite that featured the sexy R&B single "Pillowtalk."
Harry Styles (far left), Zayn Malik (far right), and the rest of One Direction accept an American Music Award in 2014.
Soon the public will meet Harry Styles the serious actor. In July, Christopher Nolan's World War II epic Dunkirk hits theaters, featuring a deep bench of serious actors like Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh. Styles has somehow elbowed his way into this pack for his acting debut. It's unclear how much screen time Styles gets in Nolan's film about the historic evacuation of the Allies from the shores of France in the opening days of World War II. Gossip sites have reported that Styles was given a bigger role after impressing Nolan, but the latest trailer barely features him. One thing we do know about his role is that he drowns.
"Some of the stuff they're doing in this movie is insane," he told Rolling Stone. "And it was hard, man, physically really tough, but I love acting. I love playing someone else. I'd sleep really well at night, then get up and continue drowning."
There will be comparisons between Styles and other boy-band breakout stars like Timberlake or, given the sound of his new album, classic rockers like Rod Stewart or even Paul McCartney. Styles has sought to cultivate these comparisons with subtle references of his own. During his mini-concert on The Today Show this week, he wore a pink suit—a nod, it seems, to the Clash's Paul Simonon who once called pink "the only true rock and roll color."
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.