A handshake can quell political unrest and stifle impending war. It can, with a bit of spit, validate a gentleman’s agreement, end a years-long romantic relationship or send a young heart racing. But it all depends on the two parties involved.
Daisy, 21, felt a seismic jolt when Harry Styles, 25, wearing a striped jumper and rings on three of his five fingers, clutched her hand two days after this year’s Met Gala in New York, when she served him gelato at the shop where she worked.
“He decided on a small mint chocolate gelato and I made his and the one for his friend and I said, ‘Can I just say I absolutely loved your Met Gala look’ and he said ‘Thank you very much! What’s your name?’ And I said, ‘Daisy’ AND HE FUCKING EXTENDED HIS HAND AND REACHED TO SHAKE MY HAND AND I ACTUALLY FUCKING SHOOK HIS HAND WHAT THE FUCK,” she wrote on Instagram after The Shakening. “Like I didn’t even say anything to gas him up besides ‘I loved your met gala look’ and his fine ass went and shook my hand! WHAT A BEAUTIFUL FUCKING HUMAN BEING THAT HE IS GOD BLESS HIM AND I HOPE HW [sic] LIVES FOREVER.”
For Harry Styles, a handshake can be a romantic gesture, conjuring a potent reverence in its recipient, like the time he met Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele. “He was as attractive as James Dean and as persuasive as Greta Garbo. He was like a Luchino Visconti character, like an Apollo: at the same time sexy as a woman, as a kid, as a man,” Michele told me, hastening to add: “Of course, Harry is not aware of this.”
No, Styles has no idea the power he wields. In person, he’s towering, like someone who is not that much taller but whose reputation adds four inches. Styles has a sedative baritone, spoken in a rummy northern English accent, that tumbles out so slowly you forget the name of your first born, a swagger that has been nursed and perfected in mythical places with names like Paisley Park, or Abbey Road, or Graceland. Makes complete sense that he would be up for the role of Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming biopic. He was primed, nay, born to shake his hips, all but one button on his shirt clinging for dear life around his torso. Then the part was awarded to another actor, Austin Butler.
“[Elvis] was such an icon for me growing up,” Styles tells me. “There was something almost sacred about him, almost like I didn’t want to touch him. Then I ended up getting into [his life] a bit and I wasn’t disappointed,” he adds of his initial research and preparations to play The King. He seems relaxed about losing the part to Butler. “I feel like if I’m not the right person for the thing, then it’s best for both of us that I don’t do it, you know?”
Styles released his self-titled debut solo album in May 2017. The boyband grad was clearly uninterested in hollowing out the charts with more formulaic meme pop. Instead, to the surprise of many, he dug his heels into retro-fetishist West Coast ’70s rock. Some of the One Direction fan-hordes might have been confused, but no matter: Harry Styles sold one million copies.
Despite its commercial and critical success, he didn’t tour the album right away. He wanted to act in the Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk. To his credit, his portrayal of a British soldier cowering in a moored boat on the French beaches as the Nazis advanced wasn’t skewered in the press like the movie debuts of, say, Madonna or Justin Timberlake. Perhaps he was following advice given by Elton John, who had urged him to diversify. “He was brilliant in Dunkirk, which took a lot of people by surprise,” John writes in an email. “I love how he takes chances and risks.” Acting, unlike music, is a release for Styles; it’s the one time he can be not himself.
“Why do I want to act? It’s so different to music for me,” he says, suddenly animated. “They’re almost opposite for me. Music, you try and put so much of yourself into it; acting, you’re trying to totally disappear in whoever you’re being.”
Following the news that he missed out on Presley, his name was floated for the role of Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. However, fans will have to wait a bit longer to see Styles on the big screen as that idea, too, has sunk. He won’t be The King or the Prince. “It was discussed,” he acknowledges before swiftly changing the subject. “I want to put music out and focus on that for a while. But everyone involved in it was amazing, so I think it’s going to be great. I’ll enjoy watching it, I’m sure.”
The new album is wrapped and the single is decided upon. “It’s not like his last album,” his friend, rock ‘n’ roll legend Stevie Nicks, told me recently over the phone. “It’s not like anything One Direction ever did. It’s pure Harry, as Harry would say. He’s made a very different record and it’s spectacular.”
Beyond that, Styles is keeping his cards close to his chest as to his next musical move. However, the air is thick with rumours that his main wingman for HS2 is Kid Harpoon, aka Tom Hull, who co-wrote debut album track Sweet Creature. No less an authority than Liam Gallagher told us that both big band escapees were in the same studio – RAK in north-west London – at the same time making their second solo albums. Styles played him a couple of tracks, “and I tell you what, they’re good,” Gallagher enthused. “A bit like that Bon Iver. Is that his name?”
Harry Styles met Nicks at a Fleetwood Mac concert in Los Angeles in April 2015. Something about him felt authentic to the legendary frontwoman: grounded, like she’d known him forever, blessed with a winning moonshot grin. A month later, they met backstage at another Mac gig, this time at the O2 in London. Styles brought a carrot cake for Nicks’ birthday, her name piped in icing on top. By her own admission, Nicks doesn’t even celebrate birthdays, so this was a surprise. “He was personally responsible for me actually having to celebrate my birthday, which was very sweet,” she says.
Styles’ relationship with Nicks is hard to define. Inducting her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York as a solo artist earlier this year, his speech hymned her as a “magical gypsy godmother who occupies the in-between”. She’s called him her “lovechild” with Mick Fleetwood and the “son I never had”. Both have moved past the preliminary chat acknowledging each other’s unquantifiable talents and smoothly accelerated towards playful cut-and-thrust banter of a witch mom and her naughty child.
They perform together – he sings The Chain and Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around; she sings the one allegedly written about Taylor Swift, Two Ghosts. One of those performances was at the Gucci Cruise afterparty in Rome in May, for “a lot of money”, Nicks tells me, in a “big kind of castle place”. She has become his de facto mentor – one phone call is all it takes to reach the Queen of Rock’n’Roll for advice on sequencing (“She is really good at track listing,” Styles admits) or just to hear each other’s voices… because, well, wouldn’t you?
Following another Fleetwood Mac concert, at London’s Wembley Stadium, in June, Nicks met Styles for a late (Indian) dinner. He then invited her back to his semi-detached Georgian mansion in north London for a listening party at midnight. The album – HS2or whatever it’ll be called – was finished. Nicks, her assistant Karen, her make-up artist and her friends Jess and Mary crammed onto Styles’ living-room couch. They listened to it once through in silence like a “bunch of educated monks or something in this dark room”. Then once again, 15 or 16 tracks, this time each of his guests offering live feedback. It wrapped at 5am, just as the sun was bleeding through the curtains.
Even for a pop star of Styles’ stature, pressing “play” on a deeply personal work for your hero to digest, watching her face react in real time to your new music, must be… what?
“It’s a double-edged thing,” he replies. “You’re always nervous when you are playing people music for the first time. You’ve heard it so much by this point, you forget that people haven’t heard it before. It’s hard to not feel like you’ve done what you’ve set out to do. You are happy with something and then someone who you respect so much and look up to is, like: ‘I really like this.’ It feels like a large stamp [of approval]. It’s a big step towards feeling very comfortable with whatever else happens to it.”
Wading through Styles’ background info is exhausting, since he was spanked by fame in the social media era where every goddam blink of a kohl-rimmed eye has been documented from six angles. (And yes, he does sometimes wear guyliner.)
Deep breath: born in Redditch, Worcestershire, to parents Des and Anne, who divorced when he was seven. Grew up in Holmes Chapel in Cheshire with his sister Gemma, mum and stepdad Robin Twist. Rode horses at a nearby stable for free (“I was a bad rider, but I was a rider”). Stopped riding, “got into different stuff”. Formed a band, White Eskimo, with schoolmates. Aged 16, tried out for the 2010 run of The X Factorwith a stirring but average rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely. Cut from the show and put into a boy band with four others, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Niall Horan and Zayn Malik, and called One Direction. Became internationally famous, toured the globe. Zayn quit to go solo. Toured some more. Dated but maybe didn’t date Caroline Flack, Rita Ora and Taylor Swift – whom he reportedly dumped in the British Virgin Islands. (This relationship, if nothing else, yielded an iconic, candid shot of Swift looking dejected, being motored back to shore on the back of a boat called the Flying Ray.) One Direction discussed disbanding in 2014, actually dissolved in 2015. They remain friendly, and Styles officially went solo in 2016.
It’s been two years since his eponymous debut and lead single, Sign of the Times, shocked the world and Elton John with its swaggering, soft rock sound. “It came out of left field and I loved it,” John says.
After 89 arena-packed shows across five continents grossed him, the label, whomever, over $61 million, Styles had all but disappeared. He has emerged only intermittently for public-facing events – a Gucci afterparty performance here, a Met Gala co-chairing there. He relocated from Los Angeles back to London, selling his Hollywood Hills house for $6 million and shipping his Jaguar E-type across the Atlantic so he could take joyrides on the M25.
“I’m not over LA,” he insists when I ask about the move. “My relationship with LA changed a lot. What I wanted from LA changed.”
A great escape, he would agree, is sometimes necessary. He was in Tokyo for most of January, having nearly finished his album. “I needed time to get out of that album frame-of-mind of: ‘Is it finished? Where am I at? What’s happening?’ I really needed that time away from everyone. I was kind of just in Tokyo by myself.” His sabbatical mostly involved reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, singing Nirvana at karaoke, writing alone in his hotel room, listening to music and eavesdropping on strangers in alien conversation. “It was just a positive time for my head and I think that impacted the album in a big way.”
During this break he watched a lot of films, read a lot of books. Sometimes he texts these recommendations to his pal Michele at Gucci. He told Michele to watch the Ali Macgraw film, Love Story. “We text what friends text about. He is the same [as me] in terms of he lives in his own world and he does his own thing. I love dressing up and he loves dressing up.”
Because he loves dressing up, Michele chose Styles to be the face of three Gucci Tailoring campaigns and of its new genderless fragrance, Mémoire d’une Odeur.
“The moment I met him, I immediately understood there was something strong around him,” Michele tells me. “I realised he was much more than a young singer. He was a young man, dressed in a thoughtful way, with uncombed hair and a beautiful voice. I thought he gathered within himself the feminine and the masculine.”
Fashion, for Styles, is a playground. Something he doesn’t take too seriously. A couple of years ago Harry Lambert, his stylist since 2015, acquired for him a pair of pink metallic Saint Laurent boots that he has never been photographed wearing. They are exceedingly rare – few pairs exist. Styles wears them “to get milk”. They are, in his words, “super-fun”. He’s not sure, but he has, ballpark, 50 pairs of shoes, as well as full closets in at least three postcodes. He settles on an outfit fairly quickly, maybe changes his T-shirt once before heading out, but mostly knows what he likes.
What he may not fully comprehend is that simply by being photographed in a garment he can spur the career of a designer, as he has with Harris Reed, Palomo Spain, Charles Jeffrey, Alled-Martínez and a new favourite, Bode. Styles wore a SS16 Gucci floral suit to the 2015 American Music Awards. When he was asked who made his suit on the red carpet, Gucci began trending worldwide on Twitter.
“It was one of the first times a male wore Alessandro’s runway designs and, at the time, men were not taking too many red carpet risks,” says Lambert. “Who knows if it influenced others, but it was a special moment. Plus, it was fun seeing the fans dress up in suits to come see Harry’s shows.”
Yet traditional gender codes of dress still have the minds of middle America in a chokehold. Men can’t wear women’s clothes, say the online whingers, who have labelled him “tragic”, “a clown” and a Bowie wannabe. Styles doesn’t care. “What’s feminine and what’s masculine, what men are wearing and what women are wearing – it’s like there are no lines any more.”
Elton John agrees: “It worked for Marc Bolan, Bowie and Mick. Harry has the same qualities.”
Then there is the question of Styles’ sexuality, something he has admittedly “never really started to label”, which will plague him until he does. Perhaps it’s part of his allure. He’s brandished a pride flag that read “Make America Gay Again” on stage, and planted a stake somewhere left of centre on sexuality’s rainbow spectrum.
“In the position that he’s in, he can’t really say a lot, but he chose a queer girl band to open for him and I think that speaks volumes,” Josette Maskin of the queer band MUNA told The Face earlier this year.
“I get a lot of…” Styles trails off, wheels turning on how he can discuss sexuality without really answering. “I’m not always super-outspoken. But I think it’s very clear from choices that I make that I feel a certain way about lots of things. I don’t know how to describe it. I guess I’m not…” He pauses again, pivots. “I want everyone to feel welcome at shows and online. They want to be loved and equal, you know? I’m never unsupported, so it feels weird for me to overthink it for someone else.”
Sexuality aside, he must acknowledge that he has sex appeal. “The word ‘sexy’ sounds so strange coming out of my mouth. So I would say that that’s probably why I would not consider myself sexy.”
Harry Styles has emerged fully-formed, an anachronistic rock star, vague in sensibility but destined to impress with a disarming smile and a warm but firm handshake.
I recite to him a quote from Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders about her time atop rock’s throne: “I never got into this for the money or because I wanted to join in the superstar sex around the swimming pools. I did it because the offer of a record contract came along and it seemed like it might be more fun than being a waitress. Now, I’m not so sure.”
Styles – who worked in a bakery in a small northern town some time before playing to 40,000 screaming fans in South American arenas – must have witnessed some shit, been invited to a few poolside sex parties, in his time.
“I’ve seen a couple of things,” he nods in agreement. “But I’m still young. I feel like there’s still stuff to see.”
Hair Holli Smith at Art Partner, Make-up Dotti at Statement Artists, Manicurist Maki at The Wall Group, Personal stylist Harry Lambert, Photography assistance Max Dworkin, Styling assistance Malcolm Hall and Borys Korban, Hair assistance Michiko Yoshida, Production Mary Clancey Pace, Production assistance Kirk Campbell and Luis Jaramillo, Retouching Two Three Two