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Six years earlier, she had been feeling out her place in Fifth Harmony, a newly formed girl group just trying to outshine the collection of other acts on The X Factor, and desperate to set foot on the famed award show’s pink carpet. “I wanna be there SOOOOOOO bad you don’t understand,” she tweeted, “#someday.” So when no less than Madonna handed her the night’s top trophy, it was a complete out of body experience.
“YOURE NOT GONNA BELIEVE THIS SMOL CAMILA,” she responded to her old missive, “BUT: IN 2018 MADONNA IS GOING TO GIVE YOU AN AWARD FOR VIDEO OF THE YEAR AND YOUR ACNE WILL CLEAR.”
While she was certainly grateful the HD cameras were capturing a smoother visage, it was the whole pop legend honoring her bit that left her hands shaking. “Madonna, I love you so, so much. I’ve seen every single music video of yours. I’ve seen every single documentary of yours,” she said in her acceptance speech. “You’ve inspired me so much, and for that reason, this is a surreal moment. And, I love you, seriously. I can’t believe it.”
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Credit the impossibly catchy ear worm that is “Havana”, the lead single off the debut, self-titled solo album she launched last January. While Camila certainly held its own, debuting at the top of the Billboard 200 before going platinum, “Havana”, her track featuring Young Thug, hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in January and is still being streamed some 9 million times per week. With a cool 1 billion streams on Spotify, it’s the service’s most-played track by a solo female artist and you’re probably humming it to yourself right now.
“Havana, ooh na-na…”
You’re not alone, of course, shortly after its August 2017 release, President Barack Obama named it one of his favorite songs of the year. “I cried,” Cabello recalled to Billboard. “I made a video of myself crying!”
Safe to say she has few regrets about leaving Ally Brooke, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane and Lauren Jauregui behind back in December 2016—save for the drama that followed as the two sides released conflicting statements about how her exit went down. As one fifth of a girl group manufactured by Simon Cowell during their 2012 reality show run (the quintet, named through an audience vote ultimately finished third) the teen had little say in the direction of her career. Now she has an album full of songs that reflect her personality and Cuban roots and resonate with her growing audience.
“Getting to do shows where people are singing words that I wrote back to me was a completely mind-boggling new experience,” she told Billboard. “The last year was definitely the best year of my life.”
That person is the same young girl so crippled with stage fright that she turned down a chance to star in her middle school musical because she was terrified at the thought of singing in front of people she knew. She could kill a Britney Spears or Hilary Duff song if she was on the phone with a friend or belting it out through a closet door as her grandmother listened on the other side, but having to stare directly at a familiar face? Forget it.
She came alive during The X Factor process, convincing her parents to spend the money they would have used for a quinceañera to drive the family to the North Carolina audition.
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The female answer to One Direction brought her instant notoriety, with songs on the Billboard Hot 100 and a 69-city tour, but soon Cabello felt trapped, just one cog in a massive wheel. “I would try to kind of rebel in my own way and wear turtlenecks or pants—which was allowed. Nobody ever put a gun to my head and was like, ‘You have to do this.’ But it was definitely moving in a certain direction and there was a group mentality, so you have to do it.”
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Getting the chance to actually bring those words to life, was an immense relief, she shared with Cosmopolitan UK. “I loved making all the decisions, because the product was something that was fully representative of me. It’s like making your own coffee or breakfast. It tastes better because it’s yours, because you made it. That’s what it felt like for me.”
That’s not to say everything magically clicked into place when she revealed her intentions to go solo. In addition to the ensuing Fifth Harmony drama, she still had to fight to have herself heard in meetings with execs. “Havana” in particular was a labor of love. After working on the tune for five months, she was still struggling when Pharrell Williams reached out to her producer Frank Dukes and said he was interested in working with her.
A pep talk from Swift, whom Cabello befriended after having the guts to approach her and Lorde at the 2015 MTV VMAs, left her convinced to keep fighting. “She was like, ‘People on the outside are never going to think about the story that you want to leave behind,'” Cabello recalled. “‘That’s yours, so you have to always protect that, because to other people it’s a song, but for you it’s something personal.'”
Nor is she gloating about the success she’s experienced since leaving her girl group days behind. When VMAs Tiffany Haddish mentioned her five nominations, joking, “So for those of you watching at home, ‘Hi Fifth Harmony,'” Cabello responded with a vigorous head shake.
And she made the effort to make nice when she spotted Kordei at the Billboard Music Awards. “We kind of mutually came up to each other. She’d performed that night, and so I was like, ‘Oh, how was it?’ She said, ‘Oh, I was so nervous.’ And I was like, ‘By next year you’ll be totally fine. You’re killing it. I’m so happy for you. I’m so excited to see what you do with your music.'”
Really, everything is freaking fantastic in Cabello’s world, with a steady romance providing the cherry on top of her unbelievable year. She met British relationship coach Matthew Hussey when they both appeared on NBC’s Today in September 2017. By the next February, they were photographed taking their love to a Mexican beach.
Cabello is still coming to grips with the celebrity aspect of it all, the sharp uptick in her level of fame that makes people care about who she’s kissing in the Mexican sand or a Santiago, Chile airport.
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As for Hussey, 31, she’s willing to share how well they fit together. “He’s so similar to me,” she told Marie Claire. “In person, we’re just weird and silly and stupid together. He makes me the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”
She realizes she could be better at the game, but is also comfortable with the fact that she’s not. “I know that it would be a lot more interesting for people if I posted more about my private life or was involved in the gossip or whatever,” she admitted. “I just don’t like it. I just want to be a good artist. I don’t want to be a celebrity. I’m not!”
If she’s trying to avoid a place in the tabloid circuit, she’s doing all the right things. Not one for partying or going to the clubs, she marked her 21st birthday last March with cake and balloons with her family at home in Miami. And up until recently she shared a lavender-and-pink bedroom there with her little sister that was covered in Mickey Mouse paraphernalia, a nod towards her childhood desire to be a Disney star. This despite the fact that when she fled to Miami from Cuba at age six (her architect mom sold shoes at Marshalls; her dad washed cars in front of a mall) she knew precisely no English.
The Florida city is still very much home. When Cabello purchased a house there last year (complete with a pool, which felt like the ultimate indulgence), it was for both herself and her family to live in. “Every time I come here, I feel more in touch with everything that my family had to go through for me,” she shared in her Made in Miami Artist Spotlight Story. “It’s just that sense of being humbled by where you come from, and also the food here is awesome.”
Despite being on her grind since the age of 15, she still feels like a bit of a newcomer, explaining her five years in Fifth Harmony don’t necessarily count toward her pop star street cred. “I really have just been a solo artist for a year, so I can’t take an extended break….I don’t feel like I should do that, you know?” she reasoned to Billboard of hurrying home to work on her forthcoming second album.
“I think that there will be a time when I where I want to take a few months to go live in Spain or in Italy and just pig out and just not have any discipline or any responsibility. But I feel like I haven’t really earned that yet.”
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Now she’s just Camila, the girl with a handful of hit songs and perhaps the title of Grammy winner headed her way. “I know exactly who I am, and I know what I want to do,” she said of her next move, “and I’m just not ready to give up that voice for something else right now.’
Watch E! this Sunday starting at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT for our Live From the Red Carpet 2019 Grammy Awards coverage! After the ceremony, tune in to E!’s After Party: The 2019 Grammy Awards special at 11:30 p.m. And don’t miss E! News on Monday, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. for a recap of music’s biggest night.