She’s responsible for two of the biggest hits of the last two years – the globe-conquering Latin bop ‘Havana’ and ‘Señorita’, a bang-on-trend duet with boyfriend Shawn Mendes – but who is the real Camila Cabello?
At 22, the Cuban-American singer-songwriter has already put in seven years of service to pop music: in 2012, she auditioned for the short-lived American incarnation of The X Factor as a solo artist, but ended up being shoe-horned into a girl-group called Fifth Harmony. They had some absolute bangers, but never gelled as convincingly as their UK contemporaries Little Mix. Since going solo four years later, Cabello has shown herself to be a smart and playful operator – after some pop fans mocked her and Mendes for failing to kiss “properly” during their performance at this year’s VMAs, they posted an – ahem – tongue-in-cheek Instagram video in which they demonstrated how they “really kiss”.
But, as I discover during my time with Cabello, she has a pretty visceral disdain for the social media platform, which has become an integral (and perhaps inevitable) part of modern-day pop stardom.
“I’m the most emo person ever,” Cabello says when I compliment the intensity of ‘Shameless’, a gutsy, guitar-driven single from her excellent new album ‘Romance’. “Right now, I’m shameless,” the Cuban-American pop queen sings in something approaching a wail, “screamin’ my lungs out for ya!” Like ‘Never Be The Same’, the brilliant hit from Cabello’s 2018 debut ‘Camila’ on which she rhymes “nicotine”, “heroin” and “morphine”, ‘Shameless’ sounds contemporary, but also a little darker than most stuff in the charts.
Today Cabello is wearing a beaded black choker that wouldn’t look out of place at an emo gig, but we’re not exactly in the most emo place ever. She’s flown to the UK for a whistlestop publicity trip and we meet in a tasteful meeting room at her record label’s west London HQ – it’s the sort of greige space where the plants look fake even though they’re real. A camera crew from ITV’s Lorraine has just packed up after filming an interview in which the 22-year-old says sweetly that Mendes “feels like home” to her.
Perhaps because her schedule sounds as intense as her music, Cabello is initially brisk and businesslike, but in a way that feels focused, not unfriendly. She’s super-polite, fully engaged and, later in the interview, surprisingly candid. When I bring up Billie Eilish’s timely initiatives to make her world tour “as green as possible” by banning plastic straws and allowing fans to take in refillable water bottles, Cabello is clearly impressed.
“That is so awesome,” she says as she processes the information. “I’ve been really aware of what’s been happening for years with climate change but I hadn’t thought of that.” Cabello says she’s been passionate about green issues since elementary school and is now speaking to her manager about partnering with a charity which advocates for the planet – it’s just a case of “finding the right one”.
Cabello worked with Eilish’s brother Finneas O’Connell, the producer of Eilish’s entire ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ album, on a ‘Romance’ track entitled ‘Used To This’. It was Cabello who reached out to him. “I’d heard the stuff that he did with Billie, and I was just like, ‘Wow,'” she says. “He’s such a different kind of producer. Just the sounds he chooses, the way he thinks about music, and the way he thinks about making a song – it’s very rare and unlike most people. We actually worked together a couple of times.”
Surely a duet with Eilish is the logical next step? “I would absolutely love that,” Cabello says with enthusiasm, but without giving too much away. “That’s a good idea because I love her voice – she has a beautiful voice – and I think she’s so talented.”
The 13-track ‘Romance’ only has two featured artists: North Carolina rapper DaBaby cameos on ‘My Oh My’ and Mendes obviously shares vocal duties on ‘Señorita’. Cabello says the latter, which spent six weeks at Number One this summer, “is totally different” from much of the album because it “felt like it came about as a one-off”. At the same time, it had to make ‘Romance’’s final cut because it’s “become part of the story now”.
She doesn’t believe in collaborations for the sake of it, which is pretty refreshing at a time when the charts are packed with team-ups that seem designed to satisfy a Spotify algorithm. “I think you just know on a song-by-song basis,” Cabello says matter-of-factly. “Either a song just screams for somebody [to feature on it], or it doesn’t.”
I suggest that the enormous success of ‘Señorita’ must come as kind of a relief. After all, her 2018 debut ‘Camila’ spawned ‘Havana’, which became Spotify’s most-streamed song of all time from a female artist. It confirmed Cabello as a legitimate solo star after her stint in Fifth Harmony, which ended when she quit the group in December 2016, around 18 months before the remaining band members decided to go on hiatus. Now Cabello also has ‘Señorita’ in her arsenal, no one can claim ‘Havana’ was just a one-off.
“I don’t feel that,” she counters. “I guess… everyone’s told me that, but I don’t feel like that. Because you wanna make something great as many times as possible, you know?”
Did she realise she’d struck pop gold with ‘Havana’ and ‘Señorita’?
“No,” she admits. “I think with both of them, I knew there was something special. But I don’t think you know the magnitude of that. You’d drive yourself crazy trying to predict that – that’s other people’s jobs!”
Cabello demoed more than 80 songs for ‘Romance’, but bats away my rather clichéd suggestion that she experienced any kind of ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. “I think both albums were difficult!” she says with a knowing laugh. “Every album comes with its challenges, its mountains, but I had more confidence with this one.”
She also had the album concept locked down from the start. “I always knew this album was going to be called ‘Romance’, and I always knew it was going to be about being in love,” she explains. “I knew I wanted it to sound really intense and to make people want to fall in love. I had, like, this whole manifesto of how I wanted it to make people feel and how I wanted to feel making it.”
She also wanted to make ‘Romance’ more bombastic than ‘Camila’, which makes sense when you consider she’ll be touring the UK’s most cavernous arenas – including London’s 20,000-capacity O2 – next summer. “One of the things I was really conscious of when making this album was my live show,” she explains. “I wanted the songs to sonically fill up the room better because on my first album, I had a lot of songs that were quieter. So with this one, I wanted songs that worked really well for live performances.”
She says different tracks on the album have “different kinds of intensity”, which is completely accurate – the ska-flecked single ‘Liar’ even features a loping sample from Ace of Base‘s Eurodance banger ‘All That She Wants’. “But they all have this certain vibe, which is just how I am, which is very dramatic,” Cabello adds. “Because I am very dramatic!”
She’s also happy to be perceived as a role model – something many of us would baulk at, especially at the age of 22. “I feel like I am [one], and honestly, I want to be,” Cabello says earnestly. “I don’t really shy away from that term, and I think it’s because I have a little sister who’s 12. So I’m like, always thinking ‘I hope I’m making her proud and talking about the right things’. But I think it’s also very my personality, too. Whatever my values are, I hold onto them really strongly.”
Cabello displayed her staunch core values in August when she used her Instagram Stories to call out body-shaming trolls who’d made comments about her having cellulite in paparazzi photos. When I ask what compelled her to “clap back” (as various news sites reported the time), she replies candidly: “Well, I think I just had my feelings really hurt at first. And then I was like, ‘Wait a second, I’m being body-shamed for having cellulite. That’s just the most normal thing in the world – that’s just a woman’s body.’”
Cabello says she then had another realisation. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, people just Photoshop and Airbrush everything now so it’s become the new normal. But that’s just not realistic and people need to remember that. Nobody, unless they’ve spent thousands of dollars on treatments, doesn’t have cellulite. Especially if, you know, you’re not stick-thin.”
Does it bother her when she sees Photoshopped images of herself? “Um, I don’t really think about it, to be honest. It’s not like I think Photoshopping or retouching… it’s not that I’m super-opposed to people doing it on me in magazines. But obviously, I don’t mind not being retouched either. I just think it’s important to be like: ‘That was retouched, guys. Cellulite is okay and it’s normal.’ You know what I mean?”
Cabello was widely – and rightly – praised for her honesty about the prevalence of Photoshopped images in celebrity magazines. But, perhaps surprisingly, she says she didn’t read any comments left on her Instagram afterwards. She may have 44m followers, but this doesn’t mean she’s a fan of the platform. “I try not to [read comments] as much as possible,” she says. “Actually, when I feel myself going on Instagram, I feel gross. I feel sick. Like, I wanna delete it because it makes me too self-conscious and it makes me have this weird feeling. I’m like, eugh. It’s like [there’s] something in me that’s like: ‘That’s not how I want you to live your life’, you know?”
She says that, for a time, she didn’t even have Instagram on her phone – someone else would post for her. “It was a good mental health choice,” she says, “but it wasn’t a good career choice. So now I have Instagram again. Like, I post stories and stuff for my fans – just to be more connected with them. But I don’t go on Twitter, and I try not to go on my [hash]tags.”
During an album campaign, Cabello says it’s “impossible” for her to switch off her phone for very long, but when she does, it feels “incredible”. She describes taking care of herself mentally and physically as “the most important part of my job – because, otherwise, everything else I do will just fall apart”. How does she make sure she’s taking care of herself?
“I have to really be mindful of my mental health and do a lot of meditation and read positive affirmations and read inspiring things. I have to check on myself – like, ‘ugh, I feel really negative’, or, ‘Ugh, I feel really like I’m not being kind to myself today’. I think you have to be really aware of what your thoughts are because it affects everything.”
She may have been praised for her body-shaming “clap-back”, but it sounds as though Cabello is naturally cautious when it comes to extinguishing any online negativity. “I’m always like, ‘Where is this coming from? Like, what do I want from responding to this?’” she says. “Like, if it’s just coming out of anger, or because somebody pissed me off, then I won’t do it. But if it’s coming out of a great opportunity to turn something bad into something that’s important for people to hear, then I’ll do it.” Like with the body-shaming? “Exactly.”
This isn’t simply another manifestation of Cabello’s Inst-aversion – she says she’s the same in real life. “I’m always like, ‘What do you want from this?’ If it’s just because you’re pissed [off] or feeling insecure or whatever, I’m always like: Just wait, take a breather, make sure [what you want to say] comes from the right place.”
I end the interview by asking if Cabello, with her 44m Instagram followers and international mega-hits, can still fly under the radar. Like, could she just pop out to the shops now on Kensington High Street and not get spotted by fans?
“The least number of people recognise me when I’m just wearing sneakers and sweatpants and, like, no makeup,” she says. And the number one place for her to avoid “is a normal coffee shop or a mall where there’s a lot of teenagers”. Anywhere where there’s “a lot of older people” is better because “they wouldn’t care – I could run around naked and they wouldn’t even look”. The gym is also an unlikely sanctuary because, Cabello says wittily, “no one cares about me at the gym – they’re fighting their own battles!”
Shortly before she says goodbye, Cabello says she’s heading home for a day tomorrow and might be able to switch off her phone for a bit. She’s hoping to digitally detox by reading some of her favourite poets: Charles Bukowski, Anaïs Nin and Rupi Kaur.
“I love poetry – it makes me feel the most connected with myself,” she explains. Pop music is a notoriously fickle and emotionally exhausting business, but I’m fully convinced that Cabello has the seriously cool head (as well as the seriously good tunes) to last the distance.
Camila Cabello’s new album ‘Romance’ is out now