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Camila Cabello’s new normal

Photographed by Christine Hahn
Photographed by Christine Hahn

Between a starring role in Cinderella, live performances, and a forthcoming album, it would appear things are business as usual for Camila Cabello. But there’s a difference: Before the pandemic, her work was leaving her drained, anxious, and insecure. Now she’s found a way to be a pop star on her own terms, and everything—from the music to her relationship with her body—has fallen into place.

Interview by Christopher Rosa

By mid-September, Camila Cabello was feeling burnt out. In the span of three days, she had performed at the MTV Video Music Awards, attended the Met gala with boyfriend Shawn Mendes, and shot the first-ever global cover for Glamour. So, when she finally returned home to Miami, rest wasn’t just desired—it was essential.

But rehearsals for New York’s Global Citizen Festival loomed. Before jumping back into pop star mode, Cabello put on a yellow bikini and headed to the beach for two hours of blissfully uninterrupted downtime. She sank into a chair and cracked open a book, her favorite pastime. The salty air enveloped her; waves crashed in the distance. This is why she lives in Miami, her hometown, as opposed to a showbiz hub like Los Angeles: more privacy.

Or so she thought. Somehow the paparazzi found out where she was for those 120 minutes. She didn’t see them at first, but there they were, snapping away.

“I didn’t consent to those pictures,” she tells me over Zoom, camera off as she drives in Miami. (At one point she says to someone on the road, “Why are you honking at me, bro?”) “I got my period on the beach. I’m in a bikini and on my period, so I don’t know if I have a fucking period stain and that’s going to be everywhere. I didn’t sign up for anybody to be taking pictures of me in a bikini.”

Cabello has developed methods for dealing with invasive situations like this. She’s had to. The 24-year-old—born in Cuba, raised in Miami—has been in the public eye since 2012, when she competed on The X-Factor. She auditioned as a solo artist but was later matched with four other girls to form the pop group Fifth Harmony. They released two albums before Cabello embarked on her own—and achieved mind-boggling fame. Her singles “Havana” and “Señorita” (with Mendes) topped the charts worldwide. She’s earned three Grammy nominations, become a face of L’Oréal, and tried her hand at not just acting but starring in a feature film: this year’s Cinderella remake on Amazon Prime. Her third studio album, Familia, is due out this fall.

By all accounts it’s a lot. Career-wise it’s the closest things have felt to prepandemic times, when she was working constantly, arguably to an exhausting degree. As COVID-19 shutdowns went into effect last March, Cabello was able to realize just how tired she was.

“I by no means am trying to complain…but it was such a thing of, ‘I have to get on stage tomorrow and I’m performing at this big thing,’ or whatever. ‘I want to do a good job. How do I do that when I feel nervous?’ I did this without being like, ‘Am I even happy right now? Do I even feel healthy?’ I didn’t have the space to ask myself those questions. I’m still working a ton now, but after quarantine I’m able to be like, ‘You know what? Right now, I’m just not happy. I need to change something.’”

Therapy helped her see the changes she needed to make. Cabello tells me she’d experimented with therapy before the pandemic, but it was always situation focused—quick fixes to help her tackle the next performance or songwriting session. But with time at home, she dug deeper: “Because I wasn’t stressed about all the things, I needed to do the next day, I was able to slow down and have enough stability to look at my stuff.”

Cabello doesn’t expand on what that “stuff” is. She does, however, explain why she decided to switch therapists as her internal work continued. “I wasn’t feeling like I was progressing in the areas I wanted to progress,” she says. “But when I switched, I found I was able to apply what they said in a way that benefited my mental health.”

One lesson she’s learned is the power of saying no. Two hit albums under her belt give Cabello the freedom to do things her way. Now she always has one day off a week, minimum. And when time came to start work on Familia, she forwent the standard pop music factory for a more intimate approach. The new album was made with just a handful of collaborators she could be open with. If Cabello was feeling anxious or nervous in a session, she had the space to address it. As a result, she says, it’s her best work yet.

“It’s the most grounded and calm I’ve ever been making an album,” she says. “I worked with people I wanted to have dinner with, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to write every single day for months, but write a few days a week and have time to gather experiences and be a human being.’”

Shawn Mendes is one of the people she’s gathering experiences with. The two singers confirmed their relationship in September 2019, and they’ve been tabloid magnets ever since. Everything from their laughably slow pandemic walks to their kissing style is dissected with a fine-tooth comb. A clip of them getting ready for the Met gala went instantly viral.

Cabello tells me she and Mendes try to avoid the social media chatter about their relationship, but it inevitably seeps in. “When stuff that’s negative is out there, it’s going to get to you,” she says. “So yeah, that’s very, very challenging. I feel like it’s another thing therapy has been really helpful for.”

Mendes goes to therapy too. While Cabello says she and Mendes haven’t done couples therapy—though she’d be open to it—they very much work on their mental health together.

“For better, for worse, we’re very transparent with each other. I think that’s why we can trust each other so much, because it’s a very 3D human relationship,” she says. “I’ll be venting or ranting about something, and he’ll be like, ‘Have you talked to X about it?’ And I’ll be like, ‘No. I’ve got to do a session.’ And he’ll do the same thing to me. I think even just the language of being like, ‘Hey, I’m sorry that I’ve been distant with you or snappy with you. I’m just struggling and I’m feeling kind of anxious.’ That level of transparency really helps a lot.”

Mendes echoes Cabello’s thoughts. “Camila and I give each other an extreme amount of patience and understanding,” he tells me via email. “I think the truth is that when you’re struggling with mental health, it turns you sometimes into the version of yourself that you don’t like to be—and kind of loving and accepting your person through that, and being there for them through that, is life-changing. We give each other so much space and understanding and patience.”

A behind-the-scenes VMAs story perfectly illustrates this. When Cabello was nervous meeting new people at an after-party, she caught herself leaning on a habit she’s trying to break. Mendes helped her through it.

“I have this pattern of eating a lot when I’m anxious or uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s a comfort thing for me. I’ll just kind of become unconscious and zombie-eat a lot, and then I’ll feel sick. I’ve told Shawn about that. So at the VMAs party, I was like, ‘I’m doing it.’ And he was like, ‘It’s okay. You’re doing it. That’s okay. Let’s just take a breath and not do that.’ It’s really good for me to be able to talk about my patterns with someone.”

Food and body image are two things that have really been on Cabello’s mind this year. A July TikTok she posted shutting down body-shamers racked up 4.8 million likes. “Being at war with your body is so last season,” she says in the video, which she posted after photos of her running in Los Angeles made the rounds online.

That mantra is true, sure, but it’s easier said than done. Even Cabello has difficulty following it. She braced herself for what she might feel when those aforementioned bikini pics went live: “I need to work out. I need to eat better.” “Not that those things are bad,” she says. “But maybe I wouldn’t think about them as much if there weren’t people taking pictures of me.”

It’s not just the paparazzi who ignite moments of self-doubt. Cabello tells me about a time she was exercising with her trainer, Jenna Willis—who’s great, she says—and feeling insecure. “She’s the same height as me, and I was kind of comparing myself to her, because she is a lot skinnier than I am,” she recalls. “I was just like, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been working out and I look better, right? I look better, right?’”

It’s Willis who helped silence those voices in Cabello’s head, reminding her that how she feels is more important than appearances; that life is about balance and enjoying food. These are health philosophies we’ve all heard—but when you’re Camila Cabello and millions are picking apart your beach photos, it’s hard to tune out the noise. Now when she’s feeling down on herself, she just turns her phone off and goes outside.

“When I’m having negative thoughts about my body, that’s actually when I’ll want to binge-eat cookies, and then I have a stomachache,” she says. “It’s this weird psychology: The more I love my body, the more I actually want to take care of it…. As long as I’m healthy and working out and feel good, that’s the best I can do. There’s no point in trying to have another kind of body.”

By this point in our conversation, Cabello’s made it to her destination. When I ask if she’ll have time to chill and decompress, she says, “To be honest, not yet, but I will after this weekend.” There’s a calmness in her voice when she says this—a stillness, a readiness. She seems perfectly prepared for what lies ahead: album promo, performances, and undoubtedly more scrutiny about her body, her relationship, her everything. But she’ll be fine, because just around the corner is a day off. That’s nonnegotiable.

“It’s important to be on top of not just what’s making you sad or anxious, but also what’s giving you joy,” she says. “I want to be happy and enjoy my life. That’s kind of it.”

Credits:

Photographer: Christine Hahn

Stylist: Ryan Young

Hair: Dmitris

Makeup: Patrick Ta

Manicure: Julie Kandalec

Props: Dead Flowers

Dog handler: All Creatures Great & Small

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