Heartache, struggle and a billion streams: How a 21-year-old Cuban immigrant became pop's new superstar
Heartache, struggle and a billion streams: How a 21-year-old Cuban immigrant became pop's new superstar
Suffice it to say that Camila Cabello is a hugger. The hugs she bestows include, but are in no way limited to: waiters, nail technicians, music managers, daughters of music managers, moms of daughters of music managers, her mom, her choreographer, her dancers, fans who've paid to hug her, and fans who haven't but are deeply desirous of hugging her nonetheless. When she runs into her drummer on the streets of Los Gatos, California, the idyllic town where she stayed between her two Santa Clara performances opening for Taylor Swift's Reputation tour, she hugs him and then hugs his lady friend, and then she recommends the shrimp and grits and the apple-cinnamon French toast at a place called Southern Kitchen and (paradoxically) a subsequent visit to a bikini store nearby. When, during lunch at an Italian joint the day before, a fan had sent over a peach sorbet and a request for a selfie, he got said selfie and a hug as well. ("I'm freaking out," he said, panting. "I met Obama on Monday. I'm like, ‘Who's next week? Oprah?' ")
This hugging seems sincere, not merely the ploy of a pop star who was forged in the popularity contest of Simon Cowell's The X Factor, as Cabello was back in 2012, when, rather than a quinceañera celebration for her 15th birthday, she asked to be taken to audition for the producers of the show, and mom, dad, kid sister and grandma loaded into the family minivan for the 12-hour ride from Miami to North Carolina. Cabello was chosen as an alternate, then reportedly sent home some weeks later, only – in a fabulous deus ex machina moment ripe for reality TV – to be brought back by Cowell, who re-envisioned her and four other castaways as a girl group that went on to come in third in the competition and, lo and behold, land a record deal. Fifth Harmony, as the group was named (by viewers), were seen as the sister group to One Direction, which Cowell had formed in precisely the same way. Mall tours ensued, then arenas. The breadth and depth of passion residing in the teenage heart cannot be overstated.
But if that can be said of fans, it can also be said of performers. Cabello doesn't seem to have balked at sharing the spotlight, but she wanted to share her soul, to be laid bare. And so, in the bathrooms of hotel rooms ("Acoustics are good in bathrooms"), with her laptop resting on the toilet seat, she began feeling her way toward a form of self-expression far removed from any A&R machine. The ultimate result, four years after she began writing, is Camila, a debut album that hit a billion streams in barely a month, topped the iTunes chart in 100 countries and gave the world "Havana," a smash single that plays on her Latin heritage and is so catchy that it may be the one Latin thing that even Trump can't resist (note: "DON'T VOTE FOR TRUMP!!!!!!" she tweeted in 2016). In January, Cabello topped the album and singles charts at the same time, the first solo artist to pull this off since Beyoncé in 2003, in part because she appeals to tweens, their moms and their grandmoms ("Ooh, I actually like this," pronounced my own mother upon first listen). If she isn't yet Generation Z's biggest pop star, then it seems like a fair bet that she will be. Meanwhile, like any barely-21-year-old trying to figure shit out, she's made a lot of friends. And, certainly, she's lost some others along the way.
On a recent Saturday, Cabello wakes up between the crisp white sheets of the Toll House Hotel in Los Gatos, hair mussed, mascara smudged and heart aflutter from a bad dream she can't remember. "Oh, it's not real. Yay!" she says to herself before asking her mom what time it is. "Nine-thirty," Sinuhé Estrabao responds from the other side of the bed, which means that Cabello, who doesn't like to sleep alone, has slumbered a blessed 10 hours. The day before, she'd taken a 4 a.m. flight from Miami, where she'd gone to see her 11-year-old sister in a production of Seussical ("My family's just like that. We go hard for each other"). She'd gotten to Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium in time to toss her hair dramatically and shimmy around the stage, her dolphin-cry falsetto ringing out as the sun set behind the stands. Then she'd joined fellow opener Charli XCX for a girl-power rendition of "Shake It Off" with Swift, whom she befriended through mutual friend Hailee Steinfeld when Cabello was going through her first breakup – classic Swift terrain if there ever were such. "She sent me a breakup playlist and said, ‘Come over. Let's talk about it,' " says Cabello. "I think the Haim girls were there. It was, like, a girls-night thing." Anyway, by the time she got to the hotel after "Shake It Off," she was so exhausted she almost dozed off in the bath.
Today, she doesn't have a soundcheck for the second Santa Clara show until evening. There's time to read in bed (1945's The Egyptian, by Mika Waltari) and to venture out of the small suite where suitcases and orphaned socks and books are strewn like some opulent version of a college dorm. In fact, strolling now through the lobby in velour pants, Nikes and a nubby teddy-bear hoodie she found at a vintage store, Cabello (whose name is pronounced "Cam-EEL-a Ca-BAY-o") looks more like the coed in line behind you in the freshman cafeteria than an international pop sensation. "I'm a short brunette," she says with a shrug. "Without heels and extensions, I blend in."
Blending in, however, was certainly not true of her tenure with Fifth Harmony. Charisma is funny like that. In a line of twerkers, hers was the backside one's eye gravitated to. In a chorus of voices, hers – sometimes smoky and low, sometimes wispy and high – was the voice that stood out. Genius, a website that annotates lyrics, found that 45 percent of the lines in Fifth Harmony songs were sung by Cabello. She eventually had more Instagram followers than her group did.
And, naturally, there was only so much of this that any of them could take. Fifth Harmony were the most successful girl group since Destiny's Child, but after months of brewing rumors and a slew of canceled concerts in the summer of 2016, the group's Twitter announced on December 19th that "After 4 and a half years of being together, we have been informed via her representatives that Camila has decided to leave Fifth Harmony." The hitch? Cabello didn't know they were sending that tweet.
Which doesn't mean that she didn't want to leave, wasn't planning on it and hadn't made her plans clear. Or that the stress of it all wasn't exacerbating a form of OCD where harmful, illogical thoughts would play on a loop in her head. She'd already had studio sessions with producers Benny Blanco and Frank Dukes as early as Election Day in November ("We had a TV on in the studio and were just so bummed. We didn't make any good songs that week"). And she hired Roger Gold to be her manager, sending him dozens of GarageBand tracks that kept him up all night. "I literally didn't sleep," Gold tells me. "I didn't assume that a girl from a manufactured pop group was going to have this level of talent. I couldn't believe what I was hearing."
Cabello had started writing songs at 16, around the time she had her first kiss. At first, shackled as she was to Fifth Harmony, in which "other people wrote songs for us and we recorded albums in, like, two weeks, just bang, bang, bang," she figured maybe other artists might want to sing her creations, which she recorded over instrumentals that she found online. But eventually, "I was like, ‘I don't want to give this to any other people because this is about my first kiss. This is about this guy that I have a crush on. This is my story.' "
Now, basking in the California sun a safe distance, emotionally and temporally and geographically, from where things went down, Cabello implies that it was made clear to her – though she won't say by whom or in what capacity – that continuing to pursue a solo career was not compatible with remaining a member of Fifth Harmony. And that she would have preferred to set the terms of her leaving rather than having those terms foisted upon her. "I don't think there was ever a point where I was like, ‘I want to leave because I'm the breakout star,' " she tells me. "We were just really young. If we were in the same situation now, it would probably be fine for everyone to make their own music while being in the group, because I think everyone understands now that you can't limit people. That's why people break free." (A representative for Fifth Harmony did not respond to requests for comment to this story.)
In losing Cabello, it seemed clear that Fifth Harmony had more to lose than Cabello herself did in leaving, as implied by the group's public gripes about her – accusations that she bailed out of various come-to-Jesus meetings, and an MTV Video Music Awards stunt in which in the opening moments of the newly minted foursome's number, a fifth body was thrust violently off the stage. "It was as painful as a breakup, a five-year breakup," Cabello says, referring more than once to the group as her ex. Meanwhile, in the collective mourning over the group's potential demise (they did announce a "hiatus" in March), people on Twitter helpfully advised that she kill herself.
Songwriting had been Cabello's way of processing things. "There were so many songs that didn't make my album that were just me getting it out," she says, echoing advice that Swift has given her to "just write it out." Somewhere along the way she changed the title from the laborious The Hurting, the Healing, the Loving to simply Camila. That was, after all, who and what it was about. It was a good new beginning.
The first time cabello started her life over, she was six years old. The details are sketchy, but she remembers a gas station late at night, her head resting on her mother's shoulder as Estrabao asked for milk in halting English. Having gotten permission to legally emigrate, they'd traveled from Cabello's hometown of Havana to Mexico, crossed into Texas, and were now on a 36-hour bus ride to Miami, where they would stay with family friends until Estrabao could find work. They'd started the trip with a backpack of possessions and $500; the bus tickets cost $200. Cabello had been told she was going to Disney World.
"Her goal was always to end up in the United States," Cabello says of her mother. "When she got pregnant with me, she wanted me to be in a place where there was no ceiling to whatever I wanted to do." Estrabao had been an architect in Cuba but worked at Marshalls in the U.S., using a fake address from an affluent neighborhood so her daughter could attend a top-notch public school an hour and a half away from where they lived. More than a year after Cabello immigrated, her Mexican father swam the Rio Grande to join his family (he finally got his green card in 2016); he earned money by washing cars at a mall.
Cabello suspected she had a good voice, though she'd wait until her parents were away from home to crank up the karaoke machine in her basement. After auditioning for her school musical with Beyoncé's "Listen," she asked her teacher not to give her the main part. Her shyness made her question whether she was cut out for a musician's life. "You hear a lot of artists that are like, ‘I would put on shows for my family, and I would make everybody watch me sing in the living room.' I was so not that."
Nor was her mother a stage mom. "I didn't want this life for her," Estrabao tells me. "It's such a lonely life. But at the end of the day, it's her decision. It's her passion." When she auditioned for The X Factor, Cabello never thought of it as singing for millions of people; she thought of it as one of very few pathways into the music industry for someone with limited privilege and no connections at all.
It was also a chance to reinvent herself. In school, she'd gone by her first name, Karla. On X Factor, she saw herself as Camila. And Camila wasn't timid. Camila was charming and goofy and super-duper-relatable. "You know when somebody's really shy, then all of a sudden, they're surrounded by a bunch of strangers and they get to be the person they want to be? That's kind of what happened for me on X Factor."
In the winter of 2017, it was time to reinvent herself again, to figure out who she might be as a solo artist. She embarked on a series of writing sessions, working off a list of producers she admired that she'd given her manager. "I remember when I first worked with Frank [Dukes], when I first worked with Pharrell, when I first went into Max Martin's studio, I was just so nervous," she tells me. "I would have to just go to the bathroom and take deep breaths." Not that anyone had expected her to be intimately involved in the songwriting process. "I was just coming out of a group whose songs were all written by other people," she says. "So people would be like, ‘Oh, here's this idea for you today. You're going to cut this song.' And I'd be like, ‘Well, I have this concept that I really wanted to write about today,' and I'd pull out my laptop, and I would have lyrics and things. When I had input, they were surprised."
The first track she wrote that made the album was "Havana," born of a title plucked from a list she'd been keeping and a beat that Dukes played for her during their first week of sessions. The first 15 seconds seemed like a revelation. But for the rest, "we reworked it and reworked it and reworked it. I would go to a studio session and get another person I really vibed with and try to come up with something, and nothing worked." Then she and Dukes had a session with Pharrell. It was her birthday. They played him "Havana" – what they had of it, anyway – and said, "We feel this is really special, but we need help." By the end of the day, the song was basically written.
After that, it seemed like it would languish. "Nobody wanted to make it a single," Cabello says. "They said that radio would never play it, that it was too slow, too chill." Cabello pushed back, and "Havana" went on to top the charts in 23 countries. "It just taught me a huge lesson: Screw whatever's ‘going to work' – you just have to go with the thing that you feel is the most you."
"Havana" works, in part, because it plays with Cabello's past. Without comment or fanfare, Cabello places her Latin roots squarely in the heart of American pop culture – a move that feels almost subversive in today's political climate. She does the same on "Inside Out." And again on "She Loves Control," in which a dancehall rhythm is used in a song about a woman seizing power. "That was something that we were aware of making the record," says Dukes. "And it is a statement without trying to be like, ‘Ooh, look at me, I'm making a statement.' "
It's subtle, but it's there throughout, this sonic pushing of buttons. During her headlining-tour performance of "Something's Gotta Give," a song originally about toxic love, she broadcast images from the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. Forty-five seconds into her album, she's singing "nicotine, heroin, morphine" and comparing being strung out on love to an overdose. Which means that in the Kane Brown remix of this song, she's using a country singer – a mixed-race country singer! – to sing to people about addiction. "We fought for that lyric," says Dukes. "Just with all the labels, all the management, how young her fan base is. We were like, ‘No, we believe in this.' That's been the recurring theme in making this record." That and the need to relate: "I think a common theme in my album is me writing about needing a real connection with people," says Cabello. The subversion of expectations, that assertion of a unique voice, it all helps keep it real.
"Oh, my god, were you changing?" asks Roger Gold, having poked his head into one of several nondescript rooms in the bowels of Levi's Stadium, where Cabello was getting ready pre-show. She wasn't, but Gold's brief, bumbling-dad horror at the thought that she might be says something about the vibe in these quarters, which is playful and familial – in part because a number of Cabello's team are actually traveling with their families and in part because that's just how Cabello is. She doesn't love Hollywood parties. She doesn't like going to clubs. She spent her 21st birthday at home, eating Domino's by the pool. She says that her vices are "Oreos, movies and baths – if I take a shower, I like to sit on the floor." Her vibe is so communal, in fact, that at the Italian restaurant the day before, she'd absent-mindedly begun to eat off my plate before realizing what she was doing ("Sorry! Oh, my God, that was so rude!").
Now, sitting in her makeup artist's chair backstage – and inspired by a few of the more unexpected questions I'd asked her – she does a search for "quirky questions" on Google and starts posing them to herself. What's the most embarrassing thing you've ever worn? "Feather earrings." What's the most ridiculous fact you know? "Dolphins gangbang other dolphins. I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think that's a fact?"
Cabello still lives with her parents in Miami, in a house she bought them close to the school she once attended, and where her sister now goes, minus the hour-and-a-half commute. She goes home as often as she can, though it's infrequent enough that Thunder, the German shepherd her family recently got, treats her like a stranger. "He bit my nipple," she says. "It's OK, it's still intact. Thank God, because I need that thing."
Recently, at a retreat hosted by her boyfriend (she won't say who he is, only that "I'm the happiest I've ever been"), she was asked to do a visualization exercise in which "the people you love are standing outside a building, and you try to talk to them, but they can't hear you because you're dead." The idea was to give you a sense of what you would regret not doing, the life you would regret not having lived. Cabello decided she needed to call her grandparents more, that whenever she had at least two days off she would fly home. "That's life," she says, waving her hand as if the rest of this were all a dream, albeit an American one.
And the dream must go on. Cabello wraps her hair into a messy bun and walks down the stadium's echoing hallway to an area where a camera is set up for a meet-and-greet. Lining the hall are her fans, trembling with anticipation. She hits her mark, and they sidle up next to her, one by one, flushed from the excitement of being in her presence for a matter of seconds. Without hesitation, Cabello smiles broadly, opens her arms and goes in for the hug.