By Jill Lawless
LONDON — And then there were four: Zayn Malik said Wednesday he is leaving chart-topping boy band One Direction “to be a normal 22-year-old.”
In an announcement that broke teenage hearts and sent social media into a tizzy, Malik’s bandmates said they were sad to see him go “but we totally respect his decision and send him all our love for the future.”
Malik, who quit the band’s world tour last week citing stress, said in a statement that his time with One Direction “has been more than I could ever have imagined.”
“But, after five years, I feel like it is now the right time for me to leave the band,” he said. “I’d like to apologize to the fans if I’ve let anyone down, but I have to do what feels right in my heart.
“I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.”
Although rumors had swirled that Malik was unhappy in the band, fans expressed surprise at the news.
“I’m a bit shocked as to why he’s leaving,” said 19-year-old student Sophia Staite.
“It seems strange. It seems they could have gone on for much, much longer, they do have the best fan base of any group or singer. It’s quite sad because they have always been quite a close band.”
One Direction, which is currently on a world tour, said it would continue with the four remaining members and would record a new album later this year.
Last week Malik flew home from a tour stop in the Philippines, citing stress.
Malik’s departure from the tour came after he hit back at rumors of trouble in his relationship with fiancee Perrie Edwards of the band Little Mix.
Before his departure authorities in the Philippines imposed a $5,000 “weed bond” on Malik and fellow band member Louis Tomlinson, with the money to be forfeited if either was caught using or promoting illegal drugs.
A video that circulated online last year appeared to show Malik and Tomlinson smoking cannabis and joking about drug use.
The next scheduled date on One Direction’s “On the Road Again” tour is in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Saturday.
One Direction formed in 2010 after five teenagers — Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Tomlinson and Malik — auditioned individually for the British TV talent show “The X Factor.” Simon Cowell had the idea of putting them together as a boy band.
They didn’t win the competition, but they went on to top charts and win young hearts around the world with their cheeky personalities and perky pop.
Cowell said he had grown “very, very fond — and immensely proud” of Malik over the years.
“As for One Direction, fans can rest assured that Niall, Liam, Harry and Louis are hugely excited about the future of the band,” he said.
But music industry watchers, and fans, expressed uncertainty about whether the band could continue without Malik.
“It’s just changing everything in their dynamics,” said student Alia Alhaddad, who had been glad to see a handsome performer with Pakistani heritage in a successful band.
“It’s nice to see someone familiar in a band like that,” she said. “His voice is different from the rest of them, he makes a difference to the group. In terms of their separate careers, it’s hit or miss.”
Associated Press Writer Gregory Katz contributed to this report.