Fresh off the UK release of Amazon Studios’ reimagined 'Cinderella', pop icon Camila Cabello talks to Nick Levine about her starring role in the film and her next chapter.
Camila Cabello is in a very good place right now. The utterly joyous video for “Don’t Go Yet”, the lead single from her forthcoming album Familia, shows her dancing around a dinner table surrounded by family, friends and RuPaul’s Drag Race star Valentina. An eyepopping colour palette definitely complements the song: a bright and buoyant Latin bop banger that hits like musical serotonin. In the comments beneath the YouTube video, the singer has added a sweet message: “Hope you guys love this and that it inspires many wine drunk kitchen dance parties for you and your familia.”
The video may be a visual feast, but it’s no fantasy. Cabello says it reflects a recent healing period during which she focused on “collective joy and community and really growing the seeds of my relationships”. The casual dinner parties she threw with partner Shawn Mendes became a nourishing ritual as she stepped off the pop star treadmill for the first time in nearly a decade. This breather was long overdue given that Cabello’s career has maintained an upward trajectory ever since she entered the US version of The X Factor in 2012. Though she auditioned as a solo artist, she ended up landing a record deal as a member of Fifth Harmony, a girl group formed One Direction-style on the show. Four years later, she went solo and cemented her A-list status with “Havana”, one of the bestselling digital songs of all time. She now has more than a dozen platinum singles to her name, including 2016’s collaboration with Machine Gun Kelly, “Bad Things”, and 2019’s “South of the Border” with Ed Sheeran and Cardi B.
Still, Cabello’s pace of life slowed down last year for one reason only: the pandemic. “It’s been an absolutely traumatic thing that’s happened to the world,” she says today, speaking on the phone shortly before she records Spanish overdubs for her movie debut in a feminist reimagining of Cinderella. “But in terms of my mental health, before that particular moment, I was really approaching… ” The 24-year-old pauses, then corrects herself. “I mean, I don’t think I was even approaching, I think I was burned out. And I feel like that necessary forced pause [caused by the pandemic] just allowed me to look at my life differently. It allowed me to recalibrate what makes me happy and what is important to me. I feel like it saved me in a lot of ways.”
Cabello has spoken candidly in the past about her struggles with anxiety, which in turn led to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Today, she likens managing this anxiety to a “constant ebb and flow”, which is made easier by her new therapist, but says the pandemic let her rethink her attitude towards work. “I’m fortunate enough to choose what I say yes and no to,” she explains. “That’s what’s really important to me this time around. If it’s affecting my mental health in a negative way, I’ll say no and do it another way.”
“I feel like the public and the media could almost have become a third person in our relationship.”
A project she’s clearly fully invested in is Cinderella, a new film version of the familiar fairy tale, directed by Pitch Perfect’s Kay Cannon. Cabello stars as the title character opposite Broadway legend Idina Menzel as her non-wicked stepmother and Pose actor Billy Porter as her fairy godparent. According to Cabello, these reimagined characters are just two of the film’s progressive elements. “Those classic fairy tales were all written by men. That’s why the story [of Cinderella] is that of a woman who’s saved by a prince,” Cabello says. “But in our version, which is written and directed by a woman, she’s saved herself and is trying to build her own life. It’s a much more empowering version of the story.”
In fact, Cabello’s Cinderella story has “no evil people in it at all”, because it places the focus firmly on the heroine’s self-actualisation. “Cinderella’s dream is to live an independent life at a time when women aren’t allowed to have careers,” she explains. “So she’s seeing something that’s wrong in the world and not waiting for someone else to correct it for her – she’s doing it herself. I think that’s a really necessary, positive update.”
Cabello has also been using her formidable social media presence – 54.5 million followers on Instagram, 11.9 million on TikTok – to spread some very necessary positivity. After being papped on a run in mid-July wearing “a top that shows my belly”, Cabello told her TikTok followers she thought “Damn!” before remembering that “being at war with your body is so last season”. Today, she says she experiences much less body insecurity since sharing this post. “I felt like I was not alone in feeling that or alone in my frustration,” she says. “And so next time there are pictures of me where my belly is out, there’s gonna be a community of women who have heard me talk about the way that makes me feel and who support me. And that is honestly so liberating.”
She has even used TikTok to break down a human rights issue that is close to her heart. In July, Cabello shared a well-received video explaining that recent protests in Cuba aren’t “about lack of Covid resources and medicine”, but are really “the latest layer in a 62-year-old story of a communist regime and a dictatorship”. She says speaking out in this way was a matter of moral obligation for her. “You know, I’m Cuban and I still have family on the island,” she says – Cabello was born in Havana, then moved to Miami with her parents when she was six. “And so much of what I do is Cuban culture. I mean, ‘Havana’ is one of my most successful songs so far,” she adds. “So when I’m in the United States, showing the beautiful part of Cuban culture, I feel like I also have to be there for the hard part, for the people there who are struggling.”
“If it’s affecting my mental health in a negative way, I’ll say no and do it another way.”
“Havana”, a sultry and infectious celebration of the Cuban capital, was so huge that it could easily have overshadowed her debut album. But thankfully, 2018’s Camila was a cool and cohesive affair that also spawned the brilliant angsty banger “Never Be the Same”. Then in 2019 Cabello launched her second album, Romance, with “Señorita”, a massively successful duet with Mendes that has now racked up 1.9 billion Spotify streams. When Cabello and Mendes confirmed they were dating shortly after its release, they became gossip-site staples – something they remain today – and were accused of faking the relationship for publicity. The impact of this negative coverage on their mental health was barely even mentioned.
Still, more than two years later, Cabello says she and Mendes have managed to maintain their privacy. “I feel like the public and the media could almost have become a third person in our relationship,” she says. “But that’s not been a thing for us because Shawn and I don’t even look at social media like that. Even though we know it’s there, it’s almost like it doesn’t exist for us. And that’s why we don’t live in LA. We live in Miami or Toronto, where there’s less paparazzi and that kind of attention is less of a thing.”
Looking ahead, Cabello says she’s excited for fans to hear Familia, which she feels has greater “intimacy” than her previous albums because she worked so closely with core collaborators Scott Harris, Ricky Reed and Mike Sabath. Because she trusted them implicitly, Cabello says she was able to “freestyle” during recording sessions and really pour her heart out. “You know, there’s one song [I’ve recorded for the album] where I’m talking about my mental health and anxiety without [specifically] saying it’s about anxiety,” she says. “But it’s about what anxiety looks and feels like for me in my body and in my mind. And that wasn’t something I came into the room intending to write about. Ricky just showed me a piece of music he had and it all came out of me.”
Cabello says this “stream of consciousness” songwriting style “never would have happened” when she was recording Camila and Romance because, for her, there was still too much “tension” in the room. But this time around, she felt comfortable enough to be truly vulnerable. In this respect, Cabello draws a comparison between her own creative evolution and that of Billie Eilish, who recently released her acclaimed second album, Happier Than Ever. “I saw this quote from Billie where she said, ‘I wasn’t scared, it wasn’t forced, there was no pressure, it was just really nice.’ And I feel the same way about this album’s process for me,” she says. The message is clear: in both her personal and professional lives, Camila Cabello is in a very good place.
This interview is taken from our Taking Back Control issue. Order your copy here.