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Simon Cowell Recalls Camila Cabello’s First Steps to Pop Stardom

Simon Cowell, Fifth Harmony'The X Factor'
Broadimage/Shutterstock

Camila Cabello came very close to not getting a chance to audition for “The X-Factor,” the reality competition series that catapulted the Cuba-born singer into worldwide stardom. That is, until Simon Cowell stepped in.

While it may seem that the then-15 year old first met Cowell onstage during her audition, the two had actually been acquainted backstage just moments before. The singer, who traveled to North Carolina from her hometown of Miami, Florida with her entire family, had been placed as a “reserve,” meaning that if time ran short, her audition would be cut. And on this specific day, the producers told Cabello that they were running short on time. Cabello was certain that her chances of getting on the show had been definitively shot down.

But Cowell, the show’s salty judge and co-creator, took her destiny into his own hands. As he recalls to Variety: “I went to have a cigarette in this arena and I passed this girl who was lying on the floor crying. And I thought maybe one of her brothers or sisters or whoever had auditioned, because she was so upset.”

After Cabello explained her situation, however, Cowell used his magic to squeeze in time for the aspiring performer. “’What are you talking about?’  I’ve never heard of [a reserve] before but just go on now. I’m probably back in my seat in five minutes,’” Cowell recounted telling her. “And she comes down, auditions, and she blows the roof off. Literally, I mean that was it.”

Clips of that first audition, which have since been posted on YouTube countless times by nostalgic fans, now boast upwards of 20 million views. But Cowell said he never could have anticipated the success Cabello has seen, who, at 21 years old, became one of the top five selling artists at Sony Music.

“You don’t know at that point. When you do a first audition, you can’t make that prediction,” Cowell says. “I just thought she was super talented, ambitious, very passionate. Hence, why she was upset. But when she was 15, she walked into an arena in front of 7,000 people and it was amazing.”

Shortly after that first audition, Cabello joined solo contestants Ally Brooke, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane and Lauren Jauregui to form Fifth Harmony. Cowell and fellow judges Demi Lovato, L.A. Reid, and Britney Spears helped bring the girls together, and after finishing third in the competition, the group signed a joint record deal with Cowell’s Syco Records and Reid’s Epic Records. The women went on to release two successful albums before Cabello departed in 2016 to pursue a solo career. (Of her former groupmates, Cabello told Variety: “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.”)

While Cowell says he didn’t immediately predict Cabello would mature into a solo star, he does remember one stand-out moment during Fifth Harmony’s semi-finals performance when the group sang a rendition of Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen.”

“I remember that performance and she really popped that night,” Cowell says. “From that point on it was like, whatever happens, the group’s going to be successful, but she’s gonna blow up at the end of it.”

Indeed, that’s exactly what happened. After Cabello’s 2015 hit with Shawn Mendes “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” other high-charting collaborations followed, including “Bad Things” with Machine Gun Kelly. By the time her debut album, “Camila,” came out, she was a household name thanks to smash single “Havana.”

Cowell notes that Cabello’s authenticity has played an important part in her rapid-fire success. “It’s real, it comes from her,” he says. “She always relies on her instinct and doesn’t overthink it.”

Her confidence is also why Cowell is careful to not take credit for her career, which undoubtedly has much more in store. Says Cowell: “I’ve always said this to her: ‘You don’t need me to tell you what to do. You know exactly what you what you want to do and how you’re going to do it. Any advice you want, I’m here. Any support you want, I’m here. But you’ll make it happen.’ She just does it her way, and that is the perfect artist.”