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Camila Cabello Defends Taylor Swift, Slams Trump and Makes Peace With Fifth Harmony

Camila Cabello has a look of absolute terror on her face. “I’m shocked,” she says, slumping into her living room couch’s womb-like pillows and putting a hand to her forehead. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Change” in Chanel-like type, she’s one ab crunch away from fetal position. “It’s tragic. I can’t believe he’d say something so disgusting.”

It’s a perfect summer day in the Hollywood Hills, and while the 22-year-old Cabello is typically as upbeat and bubbly as her Latin-flavored pop hits, this afternoon, news headlines are weighing on her. Specifically, President Trump’s racist taunting of four congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — telling them to “go back to where you came from.”

It’s worth noting that three of the representatives are American-born and one a naturalized citizen, and none had to immigrate to the U.S. illegally — like Cabello’s family did upon escaping Cuba in 2003. “That could have been me,” she says matter-of-factly. “That’s also what I was thinking as I was looking at the images of kids being held against their will. I was, like, there is literally no difference between these people and my mom.”

It’s easy to see why Cabello’s passion for the issue hits close to home. She and her mom, Sinuhe, entered the country in 2003, arriving in Florida on the heels of another immigration controversy: the debated return of 7-year-old Cuban-born Elián González to his birth country. While waiting for Cabello’s father, Alejandro, to join them in Miami, they scraped by on her mother’s modest income. (She’s an architect by trade but found herself working in retail.)

Cabello didn’t speak any English when she enrolled in elementary school. Still, she wowed her teacher with her unflappable confidence. As Sinuhe recalls, “The teacher came to me and said, ‘She’s not gonna have any problem.’”

“Basically my strategy in life,” cracks Camila. “Fake it ’til you make it.”

And make it she did. Cabello’s debut album, “Camila,” was one of the top sellers of 2018 — and Sony Music’s second-biggest mover for the fiscal year ending March 31. It yielded the hits “Havana” and “Never Be the Same” — the former a sexy ode to Cuban culture, the latter a timeless ballad that conquered the pop charts. This string of streaming and radio smashes followed guest turns on songs with Machine Gun Kelly (“Bad Things”) and Shawn Mendes (“I Know What You Did Last Summer”) and a coveted opening slot on Taylor Swift’s Reputation stadium tour. Cabello boasts major brand partnerships (Guess) and commercial endorsements (L’Oréal). Indeed, she’s come so far, you almost forget her start in Fifth Harmony, perhaps the only breakout act to emerge from the short-lived U.S. edition of “The X Factor.” Cabello exited the group in 2016 to pursue a solo career, sparking debate over whether her co-members were blindsided by the move, the drama of which played out on social media.

These days Cabello, who counts Ed Sheeran, Mark Ronson and Billie Eilish’s brother-producer, Finneas O’Connell, among her recent collaborators, doesn’t fret about former friends and even expresses her admiration for “Love Lies,” the Khalid hit with 5H’s Normani. She hasn’t kept in touch with her former group mates but says it’s “not because there’s any animosity left — just the courses of our lives have drifted. But if I saw any of them at an awards show, I would say hi and it would be totally cool. It feels like there’s been a reset just because of the amount of time that’s passed.”

Camila Cabello Variety Power of Young Hollywood

It also helps to have far and away the most wins out of a very active and ambitious bunch. Many who’ve worked with Cabello compliment her musical skills, especially her flair for words and ear for melody. Producer Frank Dukes says that in collaborating with her on creating “Havana,” a five-month process, he “saw a great writer and a great artist, not a vessel to push out other people’s songs. She has something to say.”

Simon Cowell, who ostensibly picked a 15-year-old Cabello out of a crowd during “X Factor” auditions in 2012, and whose Syco label releases Cabello’s albums, in tandem with Epic Records, commends the singer’s “taste.” He tells Variety: “She always relies on her instinct; she doesn’t panic; she does things her way, and that’s the perfect artist.”

Adds Roger Gold, Cabello’s manager of five years, who co-founded 300 Entertainment (home to rappers Young Thug and Megan Thee Stallion) and spent years in the major label system: “She’s a very real, very relatable person, both in terms of who she is and also who she is in the music. She’s able to put her emotions very deeply into her songs, and fans feel her in the lyrics.”

So what’s Cabello trying to convey on her as-yet-untitled, highly anticipated, imminently-forthcoming sophomore album? “I’m trying to say yes more,” she reveals, borrowing an analogy from “Sex and the City.” “I can be a little bit Miranda, but I’m trying to be Carrie in the sense that I love experiences; I’m a romantic; I’m emotional. But I think through stuff a lot.  … It’s like there’s two Camilas: the one that’s a scared, little hermit crab, and, if left her own devices, will just stay home. And there’s the other who’s, like, ‘No, we’re going out.’ And she takes the other Camilla by the hand and just f–king drags her. That’s what I’m trying to do, and I think it’s what I did these past two years.”

“As a songwriter, I grew a lot. It’s a million times better than my first album.”
Camila Cabello

The drive to challenge herself also led Cabello to take on her first movie role in the remake of “Cinderella,” set for a February 2021 release from Sony Pictures. Cabello has been studying acting with Anthony Meindl, praising his method — “the art of listening,” she calls it — as advice she also applies to her day-to-day choices. And there are a lot of those choices, but segueing to the screen, she says, “was the opposite of a business decision.” Considering that her music career was on the rise, “I overthought it so much,” Cabello says. “I was like looking up TED Talks [on] how to make difficult decisions — it’s a good one, by the way — and decided that this is a life experience I can’t miss out on.”

What also attracted her to “Cinderella” was that “it was a new, more empowered version” of the classic tale about a neglected teen and her evil stepsisters — the sort of update young women her age hail, á la the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s latest adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.”

Says Cabello, who’s of half-Mexican descent: “I’m really happy that we’re at a point now in culture where little girls can see themselves being represented in ‘Aladdin’ or ‘The Little Mermaid.’ I think that is so important. Plus, Halle actually resembles a real-life princess!”

There’s also her belief in love and wonderment and positivity that drew her to the role. Cabello is at a different place emotionally from where she was when her first album was coming together, having progressed from what she calls “crushes from afar.” In her writing (she’s worked with such hitmakers as Amy Allen, the Monsters & Strangerz, Mattman & Robin, Ali Tamposi and frequent collaborator Dukes on songs in contention to make the next album), she’s no longer focusing on the past or an imaginary future but rather, “now,” she says. “Falling in love is like an infinite amount of levels and layers and angles. I fell in love and just opened up. Everything was written in present moment.” She stops short of offering a name.

Camila Cabello Variety Power of Young Hollywood

Before you cry “Mercy,” it should be noted, for those who don’t keep up with internet gossip, that rumors persist — as they have for years — that Cabello and Mendes are together together. Mendes has denied it, Cabello has evaded answering and paparazzi photos of the two engaging in classic canoodling have become a regular occurrence in the summer of 2019. Asked how their sultry duet “Señorita” came about, Cabello says the eight-month process of ping-ponging the song back and forth yielded a certain comfort in the end. “I’ve known Shawn for such a long time, and it’s so much fun getting to work and do things with somebody who means a lot to you.”

The intrusiveness bothers Cabello. Her new life in L.A. — she bought the Spanish charmer in the Hollywood Hills after growing tired of “going from one s—-y Airbnb to another s—-y Airbnb” — brings other unfamiliar challenges. “Because I’ve been doing this for such a long time, I forget that I am quote-unquote famous or that people are looking at me,” she says. “It makes me insanely uncomfortable to see pictures of me that I didn’t know were taken. I honestly hate it. I don’t want to live like a celebrity and have to look perfect every time I step out of my house. I ignore it as much as possible. If I’m going to look like s— that day and cameras are in my face, I don’t care because I choose being human and normal.”

Cabello has only lately come around to the concept of letting go — or surrendering, to use her acting coach’s term. Her method: to dim the noise. That’s meant rationing her social media usage too. As Cabello explains it: “I’m really conscious about my intention. Am I trying to connect with my fans or trying to see what people think about me? If it’s the second, it always ends up with hurt feelings. And if there are things going on in my personal life, I totally avoid social media because I feel like I have to go into protecting-myself-being-normal state.”

This applies to making music, too, where the echoes of many peoples’ opinions never fade out. “I’m still working on that,” says Cabello. “Before, if I was unsure about something, I’d send it to everybody I knew. And I’ve learned that when you’re unsure, that’s your time to really look inward and, as Oprah says, ‘get quiet.’ The answer is always waiting for you. But if it’s too loud in your head or you’re running around f–ing flailing asking other people, you’re never gonna hear it.”

Camila Cabello Variety Power of Young Hollywood

However, Cabello did recently use her voice loudly —  along with an army of 45 million Twitter and Instagram followers —  to defend her friend Taylor Swift. At issue: the sale of Swift’s former label, Big Machine, to Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun, a purchase that came with ownership to master rights of Swift’s first six albums. Why speak now? “Because she is my friend,” Cabello says. “And someone in her position — which is, like, on another level — I can’t imagine how many times she’s been let down by people, or gotten disappointed by friends who were just using her, or people who just wanted to be friends with Taylor Swift or whatever. I’m happy to be there for her as a person. Like, ‘Even when it’s not popular, I’ve got you. I’m, like, your real friend.’ With the Scooter thing, I one-hundred-percent feel her frustration. An artist of her caliber just being F–ed over like that, and not being able to have her masters? That sucks. It’s heartbreaking for her. And I do believe a lot of the systems in place for the music industry are kind of … messed up. When you think about how artists have to slave to make these things, and then you don’t own them, that is kind of a ridiculous concept.”

Cabello would know: She was in a similar situation coming into “The X Factor” as a teenager. The Fox show was notorious for its oppressive contract, which required contestants — or their parents — to sign away a wide array of rights long before the first episode had aired. Fortunately, Cabello says, gloating, her manager is a lawyer by trade. “He renegotiated my contracts to the point where it’s, like, incredible,” she says. “I’m really lucky to have that. Because the thing that’s worth the most is the art.”

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