Camila Cabello’s hair is sitting quietly on the bed when I meet the singer in her Bilbao, Spain, hotel room a few hours before the 2018 MTV European Music Awards. The array of wavy, dark brown extensions traveled all the way from London to be with her tonight, care of Cabello’s hairstylist, James Bickmore. Unfortunately, the union is strained from the beginning.
As soon as Bickmore starts placing the extensions on Cabello’s head and twisting them into a casual high ponytail for the red carpet, Cabello grimaces. “It hurts,” she says, gingerly touching the back of her head. She pulls out her phone. “I just did a high ponytail for the first time and it is literally pulling on my BRAIN ITS SO PAINFUL HOW DO YOU DO IT,” she tweets at Ariana Grande, the patron saint of this particular hairstyle. Then she slides down in her seat in an attempt to “rest” her hair on the back of her chair.
Cabello, 21, is still learning the ins and outs of pop superstardom, elaborate hairstyles included. In January, the former Fifth Harmony member released her first solo album, Camila, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and then went platinum. The lead single, “Havana,” featuring Young Thug, peaked at No. 1 on the Hot 100, in January and still feels inescapable 15 months after its release, getting nearly 9 million U.S. streams per week in late November, according to Nielsen Music. With 1 billion streams on Spotify, it’s the platform’s most-played song by a solo female artist. President Barack Obama named it one of his favorite songs of 2017. “I cried,” says Cabello, remembering the moment she found out. “I made a video of myself crying!”
This overwhelming, near-instant solo success landed Cabello a headlining world tour and a spot opening for Taylor Swift this summer alongside Charli XCX. Camila also brought lots of official recognition: In the past year, Cabello has taken home four American Music Awards, two MTV Video Music Awards and a Billboard Music Award for Chart Achievement. In December, she was nominated for two Grammys, best pop solo performance and best pop vocal album. Tonight’s EMAs promise to be something of a pre-Grammy race victory lap: She is nominated for the most trophies of any artist and is expected to win almost all of them. But first, she has to figure out what to do with this ponytail, which is slowly driving her crazy.
“How do people do this?” Cabello, who is wearing a cropped red hoodie, paisley pajama pants and half a face of shimmery, perfectly airbrushed makeup, asks the room. In addition to Bickmore, the group includes her makeup artist, Ismael Blanco; wardrobe stylist, Taryn Shumway (who works with cool-girl superstylist Karla Welch); and her mother and date for the evening, Sinuhe Estrabao, who is currently watching a Mandy Moore Christmas movie, dubbed in Spanish, on the TV. No one assembled can relate, exactly. Cabello proposes a compromise: She’ll wear the ponytail for the red carpet, but then she must take it out for the show. Everyone quickly agrees, and Bickmore starts swiping through his phone to find inspiration for the new, second look.
In the past year, Cabello has become more confident making these kinds of (modest) demands. When she started performing with Fifth Harmony at 15, she didn't have much of a say in her own career: She recorded and performed with little control over her schedule for almost five years straight, until her departure from the group in late 2016.
As a solo artist, that has all changed. She has recorded songs, like “Havana” and “Inside Out,” that feel true to her personality and Latin upbringing. (She immigrated to the United States from Cuba with her mom when she was 6 years old; her father, who is Mexican, joined the family in Miami soon after.)
“Camila’s success shows that a female performer can be multifaceted, representing many things at once, when we so often get cast in a very singular role,” says Swift, who affectionately calls her seven-years-younger friend “Baby C.”
Cabello has also developed a relationship with her fans and the public that feels right to her. “Getting to do shows where people are singing words that I wrote back to me was a completely mind-boggling new experience,” she says of touring solo this summer. “The last year was definitely the best year of my life.”
But there’s a paradox at the heart of Cabello’s current fame: Even as she has asserted authority over her career and seen it soar, she has been drawn that much deeper into the unrelenting demands of stardom, and further from the modest, family-oriented upbringing that contributed so much to her appeal in the first place. All of which is somehow encapsulated by Grande’s eventual, joking-but-not reply to Cabello’s tweet about coping with the high ponytail: “i’m in constant pain always and don’t care at all.”
Earlier, Cabello sneaks down to meet me in the hotel lobby. She is trying to avoid being spotted by an ever-expanding group of Spanish teenagers waiting just outside, iPhones at the ready. She is also hoping to avoid running into any celebrities before she gets to the awards show. They’re all staying at this hotel: Janet Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Dua Lipa, even Lindsay Lohan, for some reason. This morning, Cabello and her mom did a “sexy vixen dance cardio workout” she found on YouTube in her room, so she wouldn't have to go to the hotel gym. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to run into somebody at the gym and it’s just going to be awkward,’” she says, eyes widening.
As a kid, Cabello recalls, she was “very, very shy. When everybody would sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, my eyes would start watering and I wouldn't know what to do.” Today, despite her effortlessly cool appearance -- red-and-black striped turtleneck, ripped black jeans -- she says she still gets “kind of freaked out” when a roomful of people fixates on her. As that has been happening a lot lately, she leads me to a corner booth in the lobby, away from the windows.
The paparazzi follow Cabello everywhere, even when she is home in Miami with her family. This year, she took her 10-year-old sister, Sofia, trick-or-treating for Halloween, but wore a mask to avoid being recognized. “I can’t spend an hour in hair and makeup every day,” she says. “Some people will do that because you get photographed walking around in the street, but I just can’t, you know?”
She giggles. “I actually have to get better at this, because if I’m walking around, I look like trash,” she says. Observing her perfectly poreless, makeup-free face, I ask, “Really?” She just shrugs. Talking about herself like this makes her feel bashful.
“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 says. “I just don’t like it. I just want to be a good artist. I don’t want to be a great celebrity. I’m not!”
It was only recently that Cabello even acknowledged the existence of her boyfriend, a 31-year-old British dating coach named Matthew Hussey. She has said that they met on the set of NBC’s Today, which is, I guess, one of the only places an internationally famous pop star might come into contact with a male Cosmo “love guru” 10 years her senior. They both appeared on the program in September 2017, and they were photographed together for the first time in February, on the beach in Mexico a few weeks after Cabello released her album.
When I bring up a video of the two kissing that a fan recently posted on Instagram, she grins. In the video, taken at the Santiago, Chile, airport in October, Cabello turns to Hussey and gives him a quick kiss for fans gathered by the security line chanting, “Beso! Beso!”
“Those were my biggest, biggest, most hard-core fans,” she says, “and they know him anyway, because they know that we’re together. I thought it was really cute when they did that, and it’s like a trusted circle. ... They’re chanting my mom’s and my manager’s and my dad’s and my sister’s name, so they know a lot, so I thought it was really cute when they said that, and I was just like, ‘Let’s give them a kiss.’”
This is Cabello’s new normal: To remain accessible and relatable, she must perform her relationship for a bunch of strangers at an airport. She is hesitant, she says, to further incorporate Hussey into her public life. She doesn't plan to drag him onto the red carpet anytime soon; tonight, her mother is her date. “My mom always reminds me what’s important, and I think that’s why I don’t ever really feel like I’m a... whatever you want to call it: a celebrity, famous singer, whatever,” she says. “She’s constantly teaching me and instilling in me the right values, and how important it is to just be a good person.”
If her lifestyle is any indication, these are lessons that Cabello thinks about a lot. She doesn't party or go to clubs. For her 21st birthday, in March, she celebrated with cake and balloons at her family’s home in Miami. In her limited free time, she likes to watch Disney and Harry Potter movies (her pink iPhone case is branded with the Hogwarts insignia and fading Disney princess stickers) and add inspirational quotes and poems to her private Pinterest board, which she shows me. (Her curated boards include “skin secrets” and “romantic ideas.”) Now that she’s off tour, her big project is training her German shepherd puppy, Thunder. “I’ve been watching the Dog Whisperer,” she says seriously.
To her summer tourmates, Cabello’s wholesome nature is refreshing. “She’s bubbly, excitable, goofy, self-deprecating, loves to hang out with her mom in a onesie and talk about how cute animals are,” says Swift. “But she gets on that stage and she’ll show another side that is fiery, laser-focused, fierce, completely in control of her audience. It’s a joy to know her on- and offstage, and I think the fans feel the same way.”
“Her kindness is so prominent in everything she does,” says Charli XCX. “She’s so open and honest and is someone who always wants to converse and learn about music. It’s like she’s constantly excited about new shit. It’s really cool and inspiring to be around.” Charli XCX recalls how, every night before they joined Swift to perform “Shake It Off,” she and Cabello would “have a little dance party by the side of the stage. It was cute.”
Singing with Swift, says Cabello, was surreal. In her early days with Fifth Harmony, she would listen to Swift’s Red album and dream of solo stardom. “That was definitely what made me want to sound right, for sure,” she says. “Before that, it was One Direction and Ed [Sheeran]. I listened to Demi Lovato a lot, too. I was, like, a big Disney kid, plus I loved Taylor and the Jonas Brothers.”
By the time Swift released 1989, Fifth Harmony had become the most popular U.S. girl group since Destiny’s Child, which landed Cabello at some of the same events as her idol. At the 2015 MTV VMAs, she gathered the courage to introduce herself.
“I remember I was in my group at the time and we’d just won an award,” she says of the night she met Swift. “I was like, ‘It’s the perfect opportunity to say hi to her.’ Her and Ella [Yelich-O’Connor] -- Lorde -- were sitting next to each other, and I was like, ‘I just wanted to say I’m such a huge fan of you guys and I love your music and you’ve inspired me so much.’ They were like, ‘Thanks.’”
The story could have ended there, but then she saw Swift at the afterparty. “She was just like, ‘Hey, come sit,’” says Cabello. “We were just talking and, yeah, we became friends. I feel like we’re really similar as people. We’re both very emotional and like a lot of the same things. Even small things like poetry or the same kind of films or very girly kind of stuff.”
Looking back on the past year, “there’s definitely moments where it feels like, I don’t know, my brain is 100 percent confused,” she says. “When I was on the Reputation Tour, [Swift] would sing an old song every night from past albums, and she would just give me flashbacks of when I was 13. That’s weird, because I’m, like, right here, every night.”
Cabello makes it to the EMAs, held in the cavernous Bilbao Exhibition Centre, on time and with her ponytail intact. She dutifully proceeds to the red carpet with her mother and her security guard and her wardrobe stylist and hairstylist and makeup artist. She gamely poses, stops for all the interviews and selfies and interviews that are just a pretense for selfies, and only touches her hair a couple of times.
As soon as she finishes walking, she makes a beeline for her dressing room backstage and immediately sinks into a bright pink, glittery couch, taking some of the pressure off her head. She silently peruses red-carpet photos of herself, which have already been uploaded to Instagram, while her hairstylist heats up multiple curling irons and prepares to undo his earlier work. On a table in the dressing room, there is a fancy-looking wine, which no one opens.
Even if she wins a bunch of awards tonight, says Cabello, “I think my mom and I will just go to a Spanish restaurant.” An afterparty is just more work, and she has to take her breaks when she can get them. Tomorrow, she’ll fly back to Miami and go right back to the studio to work on her second album, which she hopes to release sometime next year. Though she has been working essentially nonstop since she was 15, there’s no time to slow down now.
“The five years that I was in the group, I don’t feel like that counts,” she says. “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?
“I think that there will be a time 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,” she continues. “But I feel like I haven’t really earned that yet. I don’t feel like I’ve earned an extended break.”
Bickmore calls her over and mercifully starts to undo her ponytail. A few minutes later, Cabello walks out to be seated for the show, her (mostly real) hair falling comfortably around her shoulders. She wins all the big awards -- best artist, best song, best video -- and goes right back to her hotel room with her mom.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2018 issue of Billboard.