THE MEN’S BATHING POND in London’s Hampstead Heath at daybreak on a gloomy September morning seemed such an unlikely locale for my first meeting with Harry Styles, music’s legendarily charm-heavy style czar, that I wondered perhaps if something had been lost in translation.
But then there is Styles, cheerily gung ho, hidden behind a festive yellow bandana mask and a sweatshirt of his own design, surprisingly printed with three portraits of his intellectual pinup, the author Alain de Botton. “I love his writing,” says Styles. “I just think he’s brilliant. I saw him give a talk about the keys to happiness, and how one of the keys is living among friends, and how real friendship stems from being vulnerable with someone.”
In turn, de Botton’s 2016 novel The Course of Love taught Styles that “when it comes to relationships, you just expect yourself to be good at it…[but] being in a real relationship with someone is a skill,” one that Styles himself has often had to hone in the unforgiving klieg light of public attention, and in the company of such high-profile paramours as Taylor Swift and—well, Styles is too much of a gentleman to name names.
Styles has been a pescatarian for three years, inspired by the vegan food that several members of his current band prepared on tour. “My body definitely feels better for it,” he says. His shapely torso is prettily inscribed with the tattoos of a Victorian sailor—a rose, a galleon, a mermaid, an anchor, and a palm tree among them, and, straddling his clavicle, the dates 1967 and 1957 (the respective birth years of his mother and father). Frankly, I rather wish I’d packed a beach muumuu.
We take the piratical gangplank that juts into the water and dive in. Let me tell you, this is not the Aegean. The glacial water is a cloudy phlegm green beneath the surface, and clammy reeds slap one’s ankles. Styles, who admits he will try any fad, has recently had a couple of cryotherapy sessions and is evidently less susceptible to the cold. By the time we have swum a full circuit, however, body temperatures have adjusted, and the ice, you might say, has been broken. Duly invigorated, we are ready to face the day. Styles has thoughtfully brought a canister of coffee and some bottles of water in his backpack, and we sit at either end of a park bench for a socially distanced chat.
It seems that he has had a productive year. At the onset of lockdown, Styles found himself in his second home, in the canyons of Los Angeles. After a few days on his own, however, he moved in with a pod of three friends (and subsequently with two band members, Mitch Rowland and Sarah Jones). They “would put names in a hat and plan the week out,” Styles explains. “If you were Monday, you would choose the movie, dinner, and the activity for that day.
I like to make soups, and there was a big array of movies; we went all over the board,” from Goodfellas to Clueless. The experience, says Styles, “has been a really good lesson in what makes me happy now. It’s such a good example of living in the moment. I honestly just like being around my friends,” he adds. “That’s been my biggest takeaway. Just being on my own the whole time, I would have been miserable.”