Cabello kicked off her solo career and her band sisters in Fifth Harmony unexpectedly denounced her for it. Now she’s got a top five single, a much-anticipated album coming and zero second thoughts: “You have to honor that inner voice”
Camila Cabello is late for brunch. But not sullen, rock-star, hiding-behind-shades late. More like 19-year-old, mixed-up-the-address late. She’s running through the dining room of Versailles, a Cuban restaurant deep in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, lush black hair streaming, apologies pouring forth, having just rushed from the other Versailles, in the city’s center. As soon as she sits on this mid-January Sunday morning, flashing that disarmingly broad smile, the singer — who was born in Cuba, resides in Miami and is staying in an Airbnb here in town — says, “I’ve got you on what we’re going to eat.” She then proceeds to order, in rapid-fire Spanish, a bounty of food: lemonades, steaks, rice, beans, plantains, croquettes, flan.
Confusion, stress, the promise of a splendid feast: That has pretty much been the story of Cabello’s recent life. It was only a month before this weekend that she was still a member of Fifth Harmony, the most successful girl group since Destiny's Child, with more than 7 million digital songs sold, according to Nielsen Music. Before the year was out, she was a solo artist weathering accusations from her bandmates (namely, that she quit through her representatives after dodging a series of label interventions and therapy sessions) and even hate-tweets from zealous fans (see: #CamilaIsOverParty).
But that’s the confusion and stress. During that same time, Cabello had plenty to celebrate. The singer, who had collaborated outside of 5H for some time, released the darkly sexy rap-romp single “Bad Things” with Machine Gun Kelly last October, and it climbed the charts. (It’s now No. 1 on the Mainstream Top 40 Chart.) And that’s not even her first hit: “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” her 2015 duet with Shawn Mendes, peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. She has social numbers to rival the band’s (3.4 million to 5H’s 3.8 million on Twitter and 8.8 million to 8.2 million on Instagram), a guest turn on a Major Lazer song banked and enough studio time booked to successfully capitalize on what seems, in retrospect, like an inevitable transition to solo stardom. “It would take a big force to stop her from taking over the world,” says her friend Mendes, adding, “She was such a great writing partner. I barely had to speak and she knew exactly what I meant.”
Cabello wears a Valentino dress.
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But Cabello, whose album is due this fall, already had fame, fortune and obsessive fans. The true gift, after five years of nonstop touring, recording and meet-and-greets with 5H, is the taste of freedom. “You know that quote, ‘In the silence, you find God?’ ” asks Cabello, who — in her lace choker, a holey white tee and a black marching band coat — looks like the petite (she’s 5-foot-2) commander of some fun and fashionable army. “I felt like I could hear everything my heart was telling me.”
The heart, of course, can be an unreliable guide, and by going solo Cabello is risking more than the slings and arrows of unhappy Harmonizers. (5H fans — who easily overrun fan polls, like the one for the MTV Video Music Awards’ 2016 Song of the Summer contest, in which “Work From Home” crushed massive songs by Calvin Harris and Drake — are not to be underestimated.) Only one woman has recently left a girl group for a colossal solo career, and she’s not an ordinary human: She’s Beyoncé. The closer models for Cabello may be her fellow talent-show contestants in One Direction. But none of their trajectories will quite work for a woman who has to, as it seems all young female pop stars must, thread the wholesome-and-sexy needle. Zayn Malik disavowed his past, graffitied his home, cloistered himself in a weed cloud and took his sweet time on an album, all of which only made him cooler. Niall Horan took a backpacking trip, rediscovered the ’70s folk-rock of his youth and launched a career as a troubadour, which just made him dreamier. Harry Styles is already considered a rock star without having sung a solo note.
“The easiest route would be to shut my mouth, sing the songs, wear the clothes and keep going. We were at the peak of our career. It’s not the safe option.”
Cabello, lest she be judged, must be seductive but pure of heart, strong but vulnerable, self-possessed but not selfish. In a way, girl-group rules still apply. But that hasn’t stopped her from building on her momentum, and not just by hitting the studio and bringing “Bad Things” to The Ellen DeGeneres Show with Machine Gun Kelly in January (her first post-5H TV appearance, a month after Fifth Harmony’s final televised performance). She has also carefully cultivated her public voice, telling Lena Dunham in a Lenny interview before Donald Trump’s inauguration: “I’m going to stick up for immigrants, and I’m going to stick up for Hispanic people and their rights.” After Trump issued his immigration order, she tweeted, “the #MuslimBan is dehumanizing beyond words... im in shock. THIS IS NOT WHO WE ARE.”
“The easiest route would be to shut my mouth, sing the songs, wear the clothes and keep going, you know?” says Cabello with a jittery laugh, weighing life in 5H against going it alone. “I mean, [we were] at the peak of our career. It’s definitely not the safe option.” But, she says, “I have it in my DNA. The way my mom raised me, it has always been: Don’t settle. Jump and hope you grow wings on the way down.” She flings her arms like she’s on a roller coaster. “I feel alive!”
”When anybody does something different, it can be scary and uncomfortable for everyone,” says Cabello, photographed Jan. 12 in Los Angeles. Styling by Karla Welch. Cabello wears a Norma Kamali dress.
The lyrics analysis site Genius recently determined that Cabello sang on nearly 45 percent of all the lines in Fifth Harmony’s songs. Even when she was doing the most inside the group, Cabello was doing the most outside it, too. She started writing on her own early in 5H’s career, despite the grueling schedule. Her friend Taylor Swift’s Red inspired her to make “sonic photographs” of her changing life, so when she wasn’t cutting parts for 5H’s 2013 Better Together EP at Hollywood’s Record Plant, she would be in the studio’s gym, writing lyrics over other artists’ melodies about things like “my first kiss and my first boyfriend.” Then she got GarageBand and a MIDI keyboard, and began churning out “shitty demos” while touring malls and, in time, arenas.
“I would wake up super early,” says Cabello, “get off the bus, go to the hotel, put the TV on super loud — I didn’t want people to hear me f—ing yelling — then go into the bathroom, put my laptop on the toilet and sit on the floor and write all day.” So she was basically singing into the toilet? “Yep.”
“She has done her 10,000 hours,” says Cabello’s manager Roger Gold, co-founder of 300 Entertainment. “Fifth Harmony worked incredibly hard 11-and-a-half months of the year. It was an incredible school.”
But when it finally came time for Cabello to go solo, bitter, previously unhinted-at feelings erupted in a shockingly public way. When I ask her about it, Cabello doesn’t shy away from discussing the drama of late December 2016, although she clearly means to take the high road:
When did the relationship between you and the group start to change?
I don’t know. I was always super open [that] I couldn’t just sing other people’s words and be totally happy with that. You have to follow and honor that inner voice. I always encouraged the girls to do the same.
Do you feel like that changed the relationship, your asserting that?
I think that in a group there is always going to be tension, whether it’s because of this thing or [another] thing. Obviously, I think that rocked the boat.
Have you been in touch with anyone in 5H since all that went down?
Have you reached out directly?
I did, yeah. I don’t want to get into the details of that, because it was really intense and it’s hard for me to talk about. It makes me sad.
When I first heard you were going solo, I was like, “I’m sure there are no hard feelings because this isn’t a surprise.” Then I was like, “What’s happening?”
I had the same reaction. I hoped that it would be a peaceful turning of the page and we would root for each other. But I only got love for them.
Cabello took her first vacation in five years on Christmas, after her mother, Sinuhe, insisted she unplug with the family (including her dad, Alejandro, and 9-year-old sister, Sofia) for three weeks in Cancún. “The first four days were trippy,” says Cabello. “I was stressing about not stressing about something. Sometimes you’re afraid of the quiet. Like, go, go, go!”
Cabello was raised in Havana and, later, Mexico City. When she was 6, her folks told her they were going to Disney World. Instead, Camila and Sinu (as she’s called) emigrated legally from Mexico, spent a day in holding, took a 36-hour bus ride to Miami and moved in with a friend. Alejandro was forced to stay behind, but after a year-and-a-half of heartache, he got fed up and took the risk of crossing over. Sinu was an architect in Cuba but found work at a Marshalls, stocking shoes. Alejandro, when he arrived, washed cars at the mall. Today, they have a successful contracting company.
“My parents worked really hard,” says Cabello. “We always had periods where my dad would be out of a job. It was a constant flow of having money, losing everything and then finding a way to get it again. If we had food to eat, a roof over our heads and I was going to school, that was enough.” (Alejandro finally got his visa in 2016, and Cabello sent her parents to Jamaica on the honeymoon they had never had.)
Cabello wears a Valentino dress and Jennifer Meyer necklace.
See more photos from Camila's cover shoot
Cabello’s Florida friends, who all predate her appearance on The X Factor, reconnected for “Friendsgiving” in 2016 and FaceTimed an eighth-grade theater teacher who encouraged Cabello when she first got into acting and singing. She’s not much for going out: “I had a phase in Miami where I was like, ‘I’m going to do all the things I would do if I were 19,’ ” which she is. “I went [to clubs], and I was like, ‘I don’t love this.’ ” After our brunch in Los Angeles, she plans to meet Troye Sivan for coffee and then have him and Swift over to her Silver Lake Airbnb for some “chill stuff.”
Mainly, Cabello’s focused on making music. Even her hobbies serve the cause. For song ideas she mines poetry (the book Milk and Honey, by young feminist Rupi Kaur, made her cry), novels (currently: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez), movies (her favorites include The Notebook, Titanic, Romeo + Juliet and, above all, the 2001 rom-com Serendipity) and inspirational quotes she finds on Tumblr. She also enjoys practicing guitar — 5H player and “super close friend” Ashlee Juno gave her daily lessons on the group’s 7/27 Tour in 2016.
Romantically speaking, says Cabello, “I don’t have anything going on right now,” although she does let slip that “literally every boy I’ve liked has been a Scorpio.” (Rumormongers, take note: Mendes is a Leo.) And when we start talking about La La Land, she winds up telling an unbelievable story: “I love the movie because I’m such a hopeless romantic. It made me feel like I could meet anybody anywhere. Like, yesterday I asked my Uber driver for his number. Because we were actually talking about the movie and he was like, ‘I just came out of a relationship.’ He just sounded like he was a hopeless romantic. And I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll get his number.’ He never texted me back.” What? “I don’t know. Maybe it didn’t go through.”
“I had to [start writing songs] to prove I was the person I wanted to become,” says Cabello, who wears a Gucci dress.
A few weeks after our brunch, in early February, Cabello’s in the booth at Sphere Studios in Los Angeles, laptop out and Notes app open, singing from a file called “It’s Only Natural” using her achiest coo and a slight patois: “It’s only natural, I need some love from you/I might pull up on you/It’s only human to, wanna do da tings we do.” The vocal is balmy and bright over steel drums and Jack Ü-style edited vocal samples.
“I never underestimated her talent, but I was not expecting her to have such a powerful vision,” says Andrew “Pop” Wansel, who’s known for his work with Kehlani and Alessia Cara, from the control room. “It’s a real collaboration,” chimes in co-producer Frank Dukes, who has worked with Drake and Travis Scott. “Sometimes it’s like a band just jamming.”
Cabello wears a Francesco Scognamiglio dress.
See more photos from Camila's cover shoot
The trio has been honing a handful of songs that skillfully blend Cabello’s love for Rihanna’s ANTI (“I can loop it forever,” she says), the era of R&B-pop that includes Alicia Keys’ 2007 song “No One,” all things Shakira and, of course, Cuban music. They want to open the LP with a dusty, piano-clanging cut called “Havana” and preview an upbeat Caribbean heater that sounds like Sia planting a flag in “One Dance.” “Camila is an incredible songwriter,” says Epic Records chairman/CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who (with Simon Cowell) assembled 5H for The X Factor and still has Cabello on his roster. “She is working overtime.”
Cabello’s mom pops into the studio to remind her she has a call in 15 minutes. Sinu isn’t a momager so much as her daughter’s right hand and confidante. Along with the other members of 5H, she has been by Cabello’s side the entire time, and now she’s the only one left who has seen it all. Fifth Harmony, meanwhile, is soldiering on without Cabello. Epic plans to release an album from the group in 2017, too, and 5H’s People’s Choice Awards performance of “Work From Home” in January was an unmistakable shoulder-brush, as Fifth Harmony changed the “I” to “We” in Cabello’s opening line, “I ain’t worried about nothing,” and punctuated it with a full stop.
“I know people will try and turn this into, ‘Is she going to be more successful outside the group?’ If I’m growing as an artist, that’s success.”
In April 2016, I interviewed the members of Fifth Harmony for a Billboard cover story, and the chat quickly turned into a tear-drenched airing of grievances about the group’s toll on their private lives. The only one who didn’t cry was Cabello. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.’ I’m sorry about that,” she tells me this time around. Cabello wasn’t immune to the pressures, just on the mend, fighting anxiety with journaling, exercise, meditation and music. I remind her what she told me then — that she had recently been afraid of the things her brain might tell her.
“It’s so hard to hear that,” says Cabello, lowering her head. “It breaks my heart. It’s like I’m watching myself from another person’s perspective, like, ‘Damn, poor girl.’ ” She did finally cry after the turmoil with the group, in Miami with her parents and sister. And then, she says, “I went to the beach a lot. I listened only to Latin music. It reminds me of where I come from and that this [conflict] doesn’t have to be World War III. In Cuba, people are literally making rafts out of tires and sticks, throwing themselves into the ocean to find opportunity. That’s real shit. Not this.
“I know people will try and turn this into, ‘Is she going to be more successful outside the group?’ ” continues Cabello. “To me, if I’m in the studio every day and I’m growing as an artist and I’m speaking from my heart, that’s success. The results don’t matter. I mean, isn’t that the goal?”
If Cabello is anxious now, it doesn’t show. She seems proud of what 5H was — “We represented all different kinds of women coming together,” she says fondly — but is candid about what it wasn’t: “We didn’t write our records. We were interpreting somebody else’s story. Fifth Harmony is an entity or identity outside all of us, and I don’t think anybody felt individually represented by the sound — we didn’t make it.”