Billboard Hot 100 Fest
Billboard Cover: Fifth Harmony on Surviving Pop-Star Fame and 'Finally Having a Damn Voice'
Girl groups were supposed to have been kaput when 'The X Factor' threw together five young women sharing little more than hard-knock childhoods and inexhaustible zest.
At 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in late March, the face of sisterhood is not made up with bold hues, framed by perfect tendrils of teased hair or complemented by faux furs and glittery fabric. Here in the living room-like cafe of a boutique hotel on a quiet street in West Hollywood, the women of Fifth Harmony gather in various states of self-styled and still-sleepy. Despite living out of suitcases for much of the past two years, when they're with each other, they seem at home. And as confident as their photo shoots would have you believe.
Dinah Jane Hansen, who is 18 and wears a baseball cap that reads "HOT SAUCE" and a crewneck sporting 2Pac's face, sums up the group's current mood by quoting her hero, UFC champ Ronda Rousey: "I'm not a do-nothing bitch!" It's a message the others are eager to get behind as they enter what may prove to be the most hard-fought phase of their collective career. "We finally have a damn voice," says Hansen. "We feel like actual artists. We were little babies in the beginning. Now we're becoming big girls."
That's a handy narrative as Fifth Harmony prepares to release its second album, 7/27, on May 27 through Epic and Syco. But it happens to be true. The lead single, "Work From Home," is the first girl group song to break into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in eight years. (The last one: "When I Grow Up" by The Pussycat Dolls, which hit No. 9 in July 2008.) It's a pop-R&B confection that siphons off the same tropically tinted EDM pool that made Justin Bieber a grown-person concern, and it's the group's steamiest song too, with MC Ty Dolla Sign promising to "put in overtime on your body." The album's other guests include Missy Elliott -- on would-be "Uptown Funk!" sequel "Not That Kinda Girl" -- and rap crooner Fetty Wap, over the bubbly reggae-trap of "All in My Head."
"I did the song because my 11-year-old daughter always plays them," says Ty Dolla Sign, 31, over the phone from Europe. "But the other night on tour out here, we had all these girls in the hotel room. Usually we put on Future or something more turnt, but they all just wanted to hear Fifth Harmony. That's the first time that ever happened."
Fifth Harmony's very existence is an anomaly in 2016. Boy bands have it relatively easy -- a seemingly endless supply of grade-school and tweenage girls feasting at the smorgasbord of fantasy boyfriends branded according to personality: the bad boy, the saint, the jokester, the enigma. 5H's most recent forebears were all founded in the 1990s: Destiny's Child, TLC, Spice Girls and The Pussycat Dolls. And the group's British peers Little Mix have yet to land an international hit.
Meanwhile, 5H's 2015 debut album, Reflection, bowed at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and its biggest song, "Worth It," only just fell out of the Hot 100, after a No. 12 peak, in November 2015. The group's other accomplishments include having Barbies made in their own non-blonde images, performing at the White House (twice) after name-checking Michelle Obama in 2014 female empowerment anthem "Bo$$," teaming with Taylor Swift for a live version of "Worth It" on Swift's 1989 Tour, a Sesame Street cameo and kicking off April's WrestleMania 32 with a solemn rendition of "America the Beautiful."
The new album's title, 7/27, is a nod to the date, in 2012, that these five went from being complete strangers to a pop powerhouse. Like One Direction before them, each teen came to The X Factor seeking solo stardom, washed out of the preshow boot camp and wound up in an arranged group. If you think it's a bit soon for that kind of nostalgia, Fifth Harmony sure doesn't. When I express my skepticism, I get a chorus of dissent: five voices fervently cooing "Noooo" and "Yeeeears."
Camila Cabello, 19, answers for the group with the utmost sincerity: "That's a really long time in a young person's life." SpongeBob SquarePants peeks from the gap between her Nike sneakers and black leggings -- socks at perfect odds with her big pearl earrings. "This is our rebirth," says Lauren Jauregui, 19, in loosely laced black leather combat boots and a paisley summer dress. "Also, 727 is a jet," she adds with mock cockiness, "and we're about to take flight, know what I mean?" She gets a bunch of "Ayyyys!" in return. They're always laughing at each other's jokes, building each other up.
"By design, it shouldn't work," says Epic Records chairman/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid, 59. As an X Factor judge, he and show creator Simon Cowell assembled 5H by scattering photo cards of contestants on a table and eyeballing different arrangements. "They found out in front of a live audience they were going to be an actual band, and now they're challenged to be creative, be competitive and keep a sense of humor? I'm surprised they haven't cracked up! They should be nuts by now. I would be."
Normani Kordei's upbringing sounds all the themes common to the girls' backstories: precocious talent, faith, struggle and empowerment. Raised in New Orleans, she was singing and dancing by age 4. Then Hurricane Katrina hit. Her family fled to Houston, where she would compete in pageants, picturing herself as Beyoncé to overcome her shyness. She was a Miss Texas Outstanding Teen finalist when she learned of X Factor's Austin tryouts. "I was frightened," says Kordei, who is 19 and sporting a wide-necked black tee over jean shorts. "I would've rather not auditioned than risk failing, but my mom encouraged me to do it to better myself. I took that leap, I prayed, and everything worked out."
Cabello's mom brought her to Miami from Cuba when she was 6 with a few hundred bucks and the clothes on their backs. Jauregui is from Miami, too, and says she "was taught to be an independent woman" at the all-girls Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart. Hansen grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., with 23 relatives in a four-bedroom house. Ally Brooke Hernandez, 22, was home-schooled in San Antonio, so she could look after her mother, who has severe scoliosis. She's wearing the silver purity ring her mom gave her when she turned 18, shortly before she auditioned -- or, as she puts it, "When I was ripped out of the house and thrown into X Factor."
As Cowell, 56, recalls, "It was incredible how quickly they jelled, had each other's backs and understood their roles. It was the same with One Direction. I've seen idiot managers [in other situations] try to control everything. With a group like that, you respect their talent and let them lead you." No momagers here: Maverick's Larry Rudolph (Britney Spears) and Dan Dymtrow manage the group.
Still, ever since 5H finished third on the show (also like 1D), something has been driving the machine, and not without cost. By 11 a.m. at the hotel, everyone is crying. Two of the women mentioned having a hard year, so I asked them all to share their highs and lows from 2015.
"I'll start with the low because that led to the high," says Cabello, chipper at first. "I was having terrible anxiety, nonstop. My heart would beat really fast the whole day. Two hours after I woke up, I'd need a nap because my body was so hyperactive. It was so eff -- sorry, but it was so f--ed up. I was scared of what would happen to me, of the things my brain might tell me. I realized the stuff I thought was important isn't worth my health. Now I write in a diary every day, work out and meditate."
Hernandez is usually the group's rock, but she chokes up immediately when it's her turn. She keeps the details vague, but cites "awful mental health situations" and "pain on a lot of levels." Jauregui, the most outspoken of the women, connects it all to "this industry": "They sell you this present of rainbows and butterflies, and as a 16-year-old that's what I bought. It's why I did X Factor and why I ended up in a group. But then you're working so hard, so young. [Meanwhile] my friends are in college, telling me about their days and what they're studying. You're having to put on a smile on a red carpet. It's like, 'Who am I? Am I for myself or for this?' " (The women aren't currently engaged in any academic pursuits, although eventually they would like to further their educations.)
It's when she gets to her high point that Jauregui loses it. "I rekindled a friendship I hadn't had in a long time and I was reminded" -- she begins to sob -- "of all the parts of me that had left. I was like, 'Wow, I love to paint and to write, and to be outside' ... sorry," she murmurs.
"I love touring, but the schedule traumatized me," says Hansen bitterly. "I was like, 'What kind of job are we doing?' I watched my great-grandmother be buried on FaceTime. We're all so family-oriented, and we've all lost people on the road."
In the past four months, Kordei has experienced three deaths. The last one is very fresh -- eight days ago, her dancer friend Jehlan Vaughn, 20, was shot dead in his Houston home. We actually delay our second meeting so she can fly back for a funeral. "I'm in the process of getting to my high point," she says through glassy eyes, as Hernandez wraps an arm around her.
"What's special is we've got four other girls willing to go through it," says Hansen. When Jauregui's grandmother died -- on the same day Reflection was released -- they insisted she skip promo and fly to Florida straightaway.
"You guys are the best," says Jauregui blearily. "You literally saved my life."
Two weeks later in Beverly Hills, the girls are giddy. They're flitting around a self-serve frozen yogurt shop, composing low-fat masterpieces. Cabello walks by squeezing a gummy cube. "I did not know that this is the essence of mochi," she says to no one in particular. Jauregui throws in an F-bomb to make her flavor sound edgier: "F--ing 'birthday cake.' " She's also toting a worn copy of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince under her arm. Our hang quickly becomes a salon on current issues.
Cabello is thrilled about Cuba opening up: "I went back four years ago to visit my grandma. I was obsessed with Justin Bieber and no one there had any idea who that was. Information is so controlled. My mom and I cried watching [President] Obama's [Havana] speech."
She and the others also are excited about the presidential election and being able to vote for the first time -- even if they're not of one mind on the candidates.
"Hillary!" Kordei stage-whispers while throwing up a fist, adding that Clinton is "educated, qualified and has so much experience. I don't think she could do any wrong, honestly."
Jauregui twists her face up. "She's a politician," she says dismissively. "But I do think she's very skilled. Bernie [Sanders] has incredible policies that are idealistic, obviously, but seeing as Congress will oppose him anyway, we could actually get a lot done progressively."
Are they surprised by Donald Trump's success?
"Incredibly, yes," says Jauregui. "It's such a shame so many Americans are rallying behind ignorance. It speaks volumes to the state of education in our country and the mentality of the Republican Party." Hansen isn't so sure. "It could go both ways," she says hesitantly. "If Trump becomes president, he wouldn't be afraid to step on toes. And he'll be feared by the world." Jauregui looks horrified, Kordei baffled. Cabello shrugs and cheerily says, "Politics! Moving on!"
They are united on the subject of gender, though, broaching chart wins for female musicians, the Emma Watson-backed HeForShe campaign and sexual assault statistics. They also have an earful for Kanye West and his recent "I made that bitch famous" lyric about Swift.
"I spoke to [Swift] and she did not know he was going to say that," says Cabello. "Taking credit for her success and then saying 'you owe me sex for that'? Disgusting."
The women are less chatty when it comes to romance. "We try to keep that little piece to ourselves because we share so much," says Hansen. "So ... we're all single." When Kordei adds, "I really am single," the room explodes in laughter. It's tough for them to carve out much they can call their own. They had apartments in Los Angeles for a month while making 7/27, but otherwise they live out of hotels, even in Los Angeles, where they spend most of their non-touring time. Their possessions and their pets are back in their hometowns with family.
Whether you catch the members of 5H on a good day or a bad one, they're clearly straining to prove to the world, and to themselves, that they have some say in their own damn lives. But for now, writing music remains just a hobby. "We all have our own sessions," says Hansen. When Jauregui adds, "That's something we love to do..." Kordei finishes the thought: "...in our spare time."
Cabello puts it more bluntly: "Nobody wrote on this album." She has taken the biggest step toward independence, recording a duet with Shawn Mendes ("I Know What You Did Last Summer," which peaked at No. 20 on the Hot 100) and, in a recent Q&A at Twitter HQ, saying, "I have this thing called a MIDI keyboard," when asked to describe her most prized possession. (Like Zayn Malik, she also is an avowed introvert, spending her downtime at the Billboard photo shoot sitting in corners or powwowing with her mom.)
Whatever might be on the horizon in terms of solo careers, these five are deeply loyal and caring when it comes to one another. Ask Reid what's most surprising about Fifth Harmony and he'll say, "The sisterhood. The closeness." Ask Cowell and he'll tell you something else: "That they were patient." How much longer will that last? The women of 5H acknowledge that the answer isn't "forever."
"It has been an incredible journey, and it'll continue as long as it can," says Jauregui. "But this will be that chapter that got us wherever we needed to go. We're learning the business, meeting people we need to know, getting knowledgeable about our craft. This is basically us being in college for our majors."
And as their careers together prove, a lot can happen in four years.