How Fifth Harmony is Taking on Girl-Group Norms, Patriarchy and Rude Exes

Ramona Rosales
Fifth Harmony photographed Jan. 21, 2015 at The Orlando Hotel in Los Angeles.

It's noon on a Thursday and the five members of Fifth Harmony are destroying a half-dozen bags of Mexican takeout. The girl group earned it, working up a sweat with its choreographer at a dance studio in North Hollywood. Both in rehearsal and out, the members are a whirlwind of hair, giggles and shouts. "They have a lot of energy," their instructor says with a wink. A small mountain of luggage is stacked by the door, and outside, a couple of black SUV limos wait to ferry the quintet away to the airport. The former X Factor stars' three-person management crew hovers over laptops and smartphones in the break room, buzzing about scheduling and travel plans.

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"You know that saying, 'It takes a village?' " asks Fifth Harmony's Camila Cabello, 17, the previous night at The Orlando Hotel in Los Angeles. Lauren Jauregui, 18, finishes the thought: "Well, we literally have a village."

 

 

In 2012, these five arrived at Simon Cowell's neon podium as competitors. During the elimination boot camp, they were made into a group by Cowell, and clicked. A few episodes in, viewers renamed them Fifth Harmony: First choice LYLAS (Love You Like a Sister) was already taken by Bruno Mars' aspiring-pop-star siblings, and 1432 (pager code for "I love you, too") was, as Cowell put it, "just crappy." The quintet ranked third on The X Factor's second season, but its first single, "Miss Movin' On," reached No. 76 on the Billboard Hot 100, and 2013's Better Together EP debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200. A spate of awards and nominations followed -- Radio Disney, Teen Choice, People's Choice and MTV's Video Music Awards -- and now the group is finally releasing its full-length debut, Reflection, which arrives Feb. 3 on RCA with a less poppy, harder-edged hip-hop/R&B sound.

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"The whole girl-power thing wasn't as heavily intertwined before -- we're more aware of it now," says Cabello. Reflection is preceded by the brash single "Boss," a female empowerment anthem that shouts out the first lady in its hook: "Michelle Obama/Purse all heavy, getting Oprah dollars." The track not only hit No. 43 on the Hot 100, it also scored the girls an invitation to the White House last December.

"When we walked in, Michelle was singing the song," says Dinah Jane Hansen, 17. "She acted like we had been friends for years." Normani Kordei, 19, whispers, "I was blown away."

The moment had extra significance that would have been lost on the girls' overseas X Factor cousins in One Direction. "We're all minorities doing a major thing," says Cabello. She was born in Cojimar, Cuba, and is now part of a musical melting pot of Latina, African-American and Polynesian heritage.

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"We like that when girls look at us, they don't see perfect little blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbie dolls," says Jauregui. "We all have different body types and different skin."

"We have different Barbie dolls, too!" adds Cabello, referring to the line of dolls made in their likeness that Mattel released in 2014.

"We couldn't afford Barbies when I was little," she continues. The others go quiet for a beat, until Jauregui breaks the silence: "That's amazing, then, that now your face is on one." They all high-five each other.

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Despite the group's made-for-TV start, the members show convincing chemistry, channeling the power of the strong women they say they admire: Beyoncé, for her embrace of feminism; Taylor Swift, for reclaiming her dating rep with "Shake It Off"; and Meghan Trainor, for encouraging positive body image on "All About That Bass." (The lattermost contributed to Reflection, co-writing second single "Sledgehammer.") Those influences have inspired Fifth Harmony to adopt more mature lyrics, too. But do they worry about losing their Disney-weaned listeners?

"Have you heard mainstream pop?" asks Jauregui. "A lot of people are really exploring their sexuality. And, honestly, we're 17 to 21 -- so that's a realistic topic for us."

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For better and worse, it also is a public topic. The next morning at rehearsal, Jauregui is bleary-eyed. The bandmates of a recent ex, The Vamps' Brad Simpson -- whom she dated for eight months, until December -- implied that they had all "had a bit of a go" with her in an interview. But her own comrades quickly struck back, standing up for Jauregui on Twitter: "The amount of sexism and immaturity is astounding," wrote Cabello.

A couple of hours later, problem addressed and online drama simmered, the members of Fifth Harmony look fierce as they run through their new album's self-affirming title track, singing at their own reflections: "Mirror mirror on the wall, should I even return his call?"

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of Billboard.