One by one, the women of Fifth Harmony settle in at a picnic table on the balcony of a mall in Santa Monica. They’ve come here on this balmy June afternoon for a cooking class, but they haven’t left their style swerves at home.
Ally Brooke Hernandez, 24, has a two-tone thing happening, with a black leather hat and skirt paired with a fuzzy pink sweater and pumps. Normani Kordei, 21, has accented herself with huge chrome hoop earrings and silver-dipped nails. Lauren Jauregui, 21, wears a lacy boho-chic blouse and carries her puppy, a rescue mutt named Leo. Then there’s Dinah Jane Hansen, 20, who peels off a trippy floral jacket to reveal a bright yellow tee that reads, in big block letters, “I’M A RAY OF FUCKING SUNSHINE.”
Fifth Harmony used to tour malls like this: shopped from town to town, crammed between kiosks for tchotchkes and lit by department store signs. That was in 2013, less than a year after its lineup was now-famously chosen by Simon Cowell and Antonio “L.A.” Reid flipping through the headshots of X Factor contestants on the verge of washing out. The teens twice tried to christen themselves, but the first name (LYLAS, for “Love You Like a Sister”) was already in use, and the judges hated the second (1432, pager code for “I love you, too”), so Cowell asked viewers to submit ideas online. Rebranded Fifth Harmony, they took third place and stepped off the show into a joint deal with Reid’s Epic Records and Cowell’s Syco Music.
But those are all tales of an earlier era, before 2016, the group’s biggest year yet -- and the one that ended in shambles when, exhausted and unfulfilled, 5H lost Camila Cabello to a solo career. Last year’s 7/27 debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, propelled by “Work From Home,” the first top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit from a girl group in nearly a decade. But the acrimonious December split made even bigger news, with 5H accusing Cabello of quitting through her reps, and Cabello denying the accusations. It was... awkward.
“Try experiencing it,” retorts Jauregui when I volunteer as much. The rest of the group, as it so often does, rushes in to complete her thought. “I was literally going to say that,” Kordei quickly adds. “I get to sleep at night knowing we did everything in our power as friends, bandmates and human beings” to make it work. Then Hernandez: “You can’t change people.” And finally, Hansen: “Let’s just say we’re in a better place now -- there are no secrets in this circle.”
Jauregui admits she nearly threw up from anxiety before the downsized 5H’s first performance, at the People’s Choice Awards in January. But today, the members are quick to (literally) high-five each other as they talk about their ongoing 7/27 Tour, the first in which they’ve built in real downtime, and a third album, due later this year on Epic. “Honestly, in this very moment, we could not be happier,” says Hernandez with more assertiveness than the Pollyanna-ish cheer that’s her trademark. Their first new single as a foursome, “Down” -- a neon-edged dancehall bubbler featuring a warmly romantic verse from Gucci Mane (“Got me showing off my [engagement] ring like I’m Jordan”) -- reached No. 42 on the Hot 100. Meanwhile, Cabello’s “Crying in the Club,” which entered the charts two weeks earlier, peaked at No. 47. Both are still active on the Mainstream Top 40 list.
“Crying in the Club” is a wide-screen, Sia-style ballad and “Down” is an airy dance track, but the two have more in common than just a chart trajectory: They’re both grown-up songs for longtime professional “girls” now expected to be seductive women. The 5H video, which racked up 21.6 million views in two weeks, even seems to offer some sly commentary on this, with the group pulling up to a seedy motel and writhing on beds in separate rooms. But the women have come up with their own narrative for the lyrics, which came to them from “Work From Home” co-creators Ammo and DallasK, and include “You the type that I could bake for/’Cause baby, you know how to take that cake” -- as well as the chorus, “Long as you’re holding me down/I’m going to keep loving you down.”
“We dedicate it to each other,” says Hansen. “We’ve been together five years, so that message is powerful to us. We’ve been there for each other through ups and downs.” Hernandez hits her with an “Amen.”
The single is only a slice of what’s to come, because for the first time, 5H is co-writing its songs -- over half, in fact, of those destined for the new album. Since January, it has been holding songwriting camps between tour stops, mostly at Windmark Recording, just two miles from here. The group typically breaks into pairs, then takes turns with that day’s writers and producers like 5H alums Monsters & Strangerz and pop and R&B producers Harmony Samuels (Ariana Grande) and Sebastian Kole (Alessia Cara).
“It’s not like they came in at the end and started riffing,” says Leah Haywood of Dreamlab, which has two songs on the album. “We sat and wrote verses together, because they’re empowered women who want to be pushing the agenda.” Justin Bieber’s go-to hook man Poo Bear, who worked with Skrillex on a 5H session, adds, “I was pretty blown away. They were hungry and excited and seemed like they had a serious new point to prove.”
Those collaborators create “safe spaces,” says Jauregui, where they can try ideas without fear of judgment. But the world outside isn’t so cushy. Plenty of popular girl groups have lost members and carried on, but none have found more success. En Vogue withered commercially without Dawn Robinson. Destiny’s Child hit peak sales just before LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson were ousted. And the one Spice Girls album that followed the departure of Geri Halliwell was an abject flop.
One Direction provides a hopeful example -- Made in the A.M. sold very well even without Zayn Malik. But the industry is perhaps kinder to boy bands. As much as its music (and videos) might be maturing, 5H is dedicating itself to an idea almost radical in its innocence: that four pop stars are better off as a single group -- albeit with a name that, at this point, feels a bit silly. “The fans,” quips Hernandez, “are our fifth member.”
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose 15-year-old daughter Simone is “pretty tight” with Hansen, says 5H is “aspirational to so many young girls around the world.” He adds, “Once the drama [of Cabello’s exit] settles, instead of looking at it as a devastating loss, I look at it as an amazing opportunity for growth.”
We’re now inside, aprons on, at The Gourmandise School of Sweets & Savories. The women chat about how much they love SZA’s Ctrl as they pioneer new ways to Snapchat themselves, chopping scallions for quesadillas, charring tandoori-style chicken wings and deep-frying homemade potato chips. Overseen by a chef named Jamie, they share kitchen duties with an almost psychic ease -- except for the cookies. The plan is for everyone to pitch in on a batch of the classic chocolate-chip variety, and that’s how it starts. But then Jauregui asks for white chocolate, Hansen requests pretzels, and Hernandez wants her Texas pecans (she’s from San Antonio). Soon one mixing bowl becomes four, and Kordei is in the pantry foraging hazelnuts, Rice Krispies and almond extract.
It’s a cute metaphor for how 5H’s members are cultivating their independence not only from their corporate minders but from one another. It’s also woefully inadequate in addressing Jauregui’s personal journey during the last few months, starting with a declaration she defiantly slid into an open letter to Trump voters, which she wrote for Billboard in November: “I am a bisexual Cuban-American woman, and I am so proud of it ... I am proud to feel the whole spectrum of my feelings, and I will gladly take the label of ‘bitch’ and ‘problematic’ for speaking my mind.”
In March, Jauregui shared photos from a November “coming-out” shoot, as photographer Nicole Cartolano characterized it to MTV, with her then-girlfriend Lucy Vives (daughter of Colombian singer Carlos Vives). Her sexual identity has since cropped up in her music. Jauregui briefly made an appearance on the Hot 100 as a guest on Halsey’s “Strangers,” which, as a duet about an it’s-complicated same-sex romance, has inspired more than a few think pieces.
Jauregui’s openness speaks not only to the accepting nature of 5H but also to the potential for a mainstream girl group in an era where many minorities feel under attack. 5H is still a place for purity rings. Hernandez is wearing a “TRUE LOVE WAITS” band. She and Kordei identify as Christian, while Hansen is Mormon. But all insist Jauregui’s expression is “supported.” And Jauregui, who believes in “the universe and a god source, like an energy,” seems content with this. But asked if she would be comfortable singing about a relationship with a woman in a 5H song, she says she doesn’t know, “because it has to do with me personally. It doesn’t speak for everyone in the group, which is its own entity as an artist. That’s the whole reason for doing your own thing.”
Kordei has recently added a new chapter to her story, too. She competed on Dancing With the Stars this past spring, returning to a childhood passion. “I grew up dancing competitively and being in pageants, and my grandma made all my costumes and dresses. I remember watching the show on the couch with her, and she’d pause the TV to create sketches based off what she saw,” she says. Kordei and her partner, Val Chmerkovskiy, finished third, which is all the more impressive when you consider that for the first three weeks she flew to the Los Angeles tapings direct from 5H’s Asia tour, popping melatonin on the plane and chugging coffee (a new habit) before doing the cha-cha.
Hernandez recently dropped a summery song with DJ duo Lost Kings and A$AP Ferg. She also clocked a writing session with Christian country-folk singer Cindy Morgan and touts the acting career she plans to launch this year. Hansen has an unreleased RedOne cut featuring Fetty Wap and French Montana, and she loves tennis and jokes about becoming a volleyball star. “I’m at a place where I’m continuing to identify myself,” she says. In other words: find her part in what could become a multidisciplinary 5H empire.
“Last year, we all learned a lesson about mental health and making sure you step away from something. It just makes this stronger,” says Jauregui. “Fifth Harmony is the home base,” offers Kordei, “where we always come back.” “Yasss,” says Hernandez.
Of course, when your break from work is more work, there isn’t much room for, like, life. They all describe their days as a “blur,” and Hansen says she doesn’t know “what vacation means.” For those who keep asking: No, Kordei still hasn’t had a chance to go on that date with DWTS’ Bonner Bolton. And in a quiet moment in the kitchen, Hernandez confesses that there’s nothing she wants more than to get married. But the women don’t even have homes apart from their families -- the houses would sit empty.
It was only 14 months ago, in the middle of my interview with the group for its first Billboard cover, that the same four sitting here broke down in tears detailing the extent of their fatigue and stress. “Jesus Christ, dark times,” recalls Jauregui, and they didn’t let up. The same day Cabello’s exit was announced, there was a leak of what seemed to be a recording of Jauregui telling Hernandez the band was treated like “literal slaves.” “I don’t know where that [audio] came from,” says Jauregui, “but that’s what the game does to you sometimes: runs you dry.” But it was a bit more than that.
“We were little girls coming off of a TV show and had a team of people trying to sculpt us into something we weren’t,” says Hansen. “They took advantage, like, ‘Get in there and record this, you thing,’ ” says Jauregui.
“If you’re told you can’t do something when there’s a creative desire to do it, that’s depressing,” says Geri Horner -- nee Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice -- who just released her first single in 12 years. “Spice Girls always wrote our own stuff, but I can relate to that.”
The long road to liberation began with 5H hiring outspoken music lawyer Dina LaPolt at the end of 2015. “I sat the girls in a hotel conference room and for five hours educated them on trademarks, copyrights and rights of publicity,” says LaPolt, who soon helped secure them new management with the preeminent firm Maverick (Madonna, U2, Miley Cyrus). “Then I educated them about every agreement they signed, which [were] the worst I’ve ever seen in the music business.”
LaPolt successfully transferred the Fifth Harmony trademark from Cowell to the group, meaning the women now own the name, along with the right to control how it is used and to profit from any deals. (The agreement -- signed in April 2016, months ahead of Cabello’s exit -- doesn’t name Cabello in the “Fifth Harmony Partnership.” “I don’t represent Camila,” is all LaPolt will say.) She then renegotiated 5H’s contract with Epic, which she characterized as “a very adversarial” process.
LaPolt and 5H stress that the group’s relationship with Epic is now good. The women count among their “saviors” the label’s senior vp A&R Chris Anokute, who came onboard near the end of making 7/27. (Reid left Epic in May amid sexual-harassment allegations.) “We raised our voices,” says Hansen, “and to have someone in our corner like Chris, who believes in us, is the most important element to make the wheels go.”
Which allows 5H to meet the challenges of being Women of Pop in the late 20-teens. Rihanna, Katy Perry, Selena Gomez and Lorde have all shown how much artistry, agency and album-building matter. Basically, the band needs to pursue the authenticity Cabello secured by going it alone. The challenge is not only doing that in a group, but also while relying on familiar themes, like girl power, diversity, body positivity and inclusion.
Jauregui is the first to admit she was scared about 5H’s future without Cabello. “We’d put blood, sweat and tears -- and birthdays and funerals we missed -- into this thing,” she says. “It’s our livelihoods and our families.’ This is the train, and now you’re like, ‘Is the conductor going to come through with the coals, or are we left here to die?’ ”
Hernandez says there were “many therapy sessions.” Hansen, at least, quit worrying when they released their first press photo as a quartet and everyone, including Ellen DeGeneres, started editing themselves into the frame, “trying to recruit themselves into the squad.” Which raises the question: Have they considered bringing in a new member? They answer in unison: “Heeeell naaaw!”
Watch 5H sing TLC and Dixie Chicks a cappella while they run down A Brief History of '90s Girl Groups (including the Spice Girls, of course) in the video below: