The group, which also includes South Yorkshire’s own Louis Tomlinson, said they would continue as a four-piece for their world tour and record another album - their fifth - later this year.
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Malik, from Bradford, said: “My life 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. I’d like to apologise 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. I know I have four friends for life in Louis, Liam, Harry and Niall. I know they will continue to be the best band in the world.”
Malik quit the boyband’s world tour last week after being “signed off with stress” and returned to the UK after he was forced to defend himself online and declare his love for fiancee Perrie Edwards when pictures emerged of him apparently close to another woman.
In a statement, the rest of the group, including Louis from Doncaster, said: “W e’re really sad to see Zayn go, but we totally respect his decision and send him all our love for the future.
“The past five years have been beyond amazing - we’ve gone through so much together, so we will always be friends.
“The four of us will now continue. We’re looking forward to recording the new album and seeing all the fans on the next stage of the world tour.”
Simon Cowell, who discovered the boyband on talent show The X Factor, said: “ I would like to say thank you to Zayn for everything he has done for One Direction.
“Since I first met Zayn in 2010, I have grown very, very fond - and immensely proud - of him. I have seen him grow in confidence and I am truly sorry to see him leave.
“As for One Direction, fans can rest assured that Niall, Liam, Harry and Louis are hugely excited about the future of the band.”
Social media went into overdrive as tearful Directioners digested the news of Zayn Malik’s departure.
1D Updates (@1dwwgossipgirls) wrote: “I DONT KNOW WHAT TO DO OR SAY IM SHAKING AND CRYING AND I DONT WANT THIS TO BE REAL”.
Courtney Boerner (@CourtneyBoerner) tweeted: “You know your life is pathetic when you start crying over a member of One Direction leaving the band....IM SO SAD”.
But some Twitter users were more positive about the announcement.
Jaclyn Forbes (@jaclynforbes) wrote: “@zaynmalik im not gunna say I won’t miss you but im glad that you’re putting yourself first. :) it’s not gunna be the same without you”.
Meanwhile, some reacted to the news with hope that they might be able to fill Zayn’s place in the line-up.
Frankie Cocozza (@FrankieCocozza), who was a contestant on The X Factor in 2011, wrote: “Dear @SimonCowell Now Zayn has gone, how about a call up?”
Within 45 minutes of the announcement, One Direction’s official statement on Twitter had been re-tweeted 57,000 times and favourited 50,000 times. On Facebook the statement received more than 100,000 likes and 48,000 comments.
Almost an hour after the announcement, the news was still dominating social media.
More than 4,600 tweets per minute were talking about Malik, with more than 75% of those tweets from women, according to Twitter’s own tracking tools.
Worldwide, the hashtags #AlwaysInOurHeartsZaynMalik and #PleaseZaynBackForUs were trending among Twitter users.
Despite Malik’s departure, One Direction’s fan base continued to swell on Twitter and Facebook, adding approximately a thousand new followers and fans every two minutes since the announcement.
The departure of Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear just before Malik’s exit led some to connect the two.
Comedian Dom Joly tweeted: “*BREAKING NEWS* Clarkson to replace Zayn Malik in One Direction “It’ll take some training but we are determined to make it work”.”
And the Department for Work and Pensions offered its services, Tweeting: “Hi @zaynmalik, heard your news. Around 735,000 vacancies available at any time.”