Camila Cabello’s mother and I are on chichi watch. It’s a blistering day in Los Angeles, and Sinuhe Estrabao has invited me to join her under the refuge of the oversized umbrella where she is supervising her daughter’s Bustle photo shoot. Estrabao clutches an iPad that instantly displays each image captured of Cabello posing against various vintage cars. When Estrabao likes a picture, she’ll take a photo of the iPad screen with her iPhone. When she really likes one, she’ll cheer, “Camilita!” But after Cabello changes into a second look, Estrabao encounters a problem: There’s too much chichi. When I first hear the bit of Spanish slang — mother and daughter converse primarily in their first language — I assume it’s a euphemism for vagina. (In fairness, Cabello’s legs are spread apart when the phrase is initially uttered. Plus, I took French.) But I soon learn that it’s a colloquialism for breasts. Estrabao and I spend the rest of the day poring over the photos, scanning for signs of cleavage.
The Cuban-Mexican-American singer, who is known for earworms inspired by her roots, like the chart-topping “Havana” and “Señorita” — and has been nominated for three Grammys — is, at 24, one of pop’s most reliable hit-makers. Growing up, Cabello also frequently visited her father’s native Mexico. On one such stay, Estrabao packed their things and boarded a bus with her daughter; as it crossed the border, Estrabao told Cabello they were going to Disney World. They had just immigrated to the United States. They settled in Miami, where Cabello’s father, Alejandro Cabello, joined them 18 months later. Sister Sofia Cabello was born stateside.
Cabello and her mom have been nearly inseparable ever since, with Cabello calling Estrabao “ the better half of my brain.” During the video segment of the shoot, their shared mind is on full display. When asked to share a few little-known facts about herself, Cabello sometimes draws a blank, but it’s OK because Estrabao pantomimes suggestions from behind the camera. (After Estrabao touches her lips, Cabello admits that she kisses her Golden Retriever puppy, Tarzan, “on the mouth, hard.”) In the same sitting, Cabello reveals that she has just one tattoo, on her pinky finger: “it’s a mystery.” The quote is from one of Cabello’s all-time favorite movies, Shakespeare in Love, inked in her mother’s handwriting. (“I asked my mom to write to me a promise she’d want me to make to her that she thought i would need for the rest of my life,” Cabello wrote on Instagram in 2019. “It’s a pinky swear to her to remember, no matter what happens, everything is gonna turn out well. There’s no telling how, but it always does.”)
Cabello is very close to the rest of her family, too. (Who can forget her serenading the visibly verklempt Alejandro with “First Man” at the 2020 Grammys?) Her upcoming third studio album— which features the recently released single, “Don’t Go Yet” — is fittingly called Familia. But as she teased on social media, the title isn’t just an homage to her nuclear unit: “This whole album to me was inspired by two things: family and food. Your family by blood, but also your chosen family. Who you want to break bread with. Who you want to sit at the dinner table with, cook a meal for, get wine-drunk with, and dance in the living room with.” (Cabello’s metaphors are a smorgasbord of the last 20 years of American pop culture: a little ’90s historical drama, a little Mamma Mia!, a little Under the Tuscan Sun.)
Yet when I ask Cabello who comprises this “chosen family,” she points to her choreographers, Calvit Hodge Jr. and Sara Bivens, as well as her team at large. Friendship beyond work hasn’t always come easily to Cabello. “I’ve been [working] since I was 15. I’ve been traveling so much, and it’s been really hard for me to water the soil for friendships,” Cabello tells me while eating a banana in her trailer. (She reportedly eats one at every meal. Her boyfriend, Shawn Mendes, has said she’ll even order the fruit at sushi restaurants.) “It’s hard for me to get close to people,” she says.
That incessant travel was, in part, due to her role in the former girl group Fifth Harmony. In 2012, Cabello auditioned for The X Factor. After being eliminated during the “bootcamp” portion of the series, she was called back and asked to team up with her future bandmates: Ally Brooke, Normani, Lauren Jauregui, and Dinah Jane. Fifth Harmony went on to record two albums, earn three MTV Video Music Awards, and complete six headlining tours before Cabello’s contentious exit from the band in 2016.
I probably have a nurturing attitude because I also like being nurtured. I’m lucky that my partner is the same way.
But even when Fifth Harmony was intact, Cabello spent her downtime with her mom. “[My mom and I] would always, after work, go to dinner. Go get sushi together, go for a walk,” Cabello says. “It was always me and my mom. Probably to the extreme. Because I never had any friends.”
It was only after leaving the group — while opening for Taylor Swift on her 2018 Reputation tour — that Cabello found the model for friendship that she hopes to emulate. “Taylor has always been so kind and supportive and also goes out of her way to give you artist advice. [She’s] really about making friendships and relationships the most important thing. She is so brave at watering those seeds of friendships and relationships,” Cabello says of Swift, who is known for her tight-knit cadre of A-list besties, including Selena Gomez, Gigi Hadid, and Blake Lively. “She always answers my texts and she’s so busy. I don’t even answer texts because I’m just worse at it. It takes intention to be like, ‘Let me write all my friends back.’”
Though close friendship is something Cabello believes is “probably even more important” than romantic love, she has the latter in spades. She’s been in a relationship with her “Señorita” collaborator, Shawn Mendes, since 2019. Unlike other famous people in mega-famous relationships, Cabello is refreshingly unguarded about being so publicly in love. A cursory glance through her Insta grid reveals a mix of promotional materials alongside unfiltered glimpses into their romance. Recently, Cabello shared a TikTok of her “farting” after Mendes walked out of her bedroom with the caption, “That first phase of dating when u can’t fart or Poo or be a human.” (“Shawn loves the fart and poop jokes,” she says.) The two share an Instagram account, @tarzandadog, where they write notes to one another in Tarzan’s voice. (“Happy mOThers day MAmI. Thank you for giving me kisses on the mouth. Human mouths are VEry soft and carry a lot of lovE.”) In a culture full of carefully curated displays of coupledom, many don’t know what to make of Cabello and Mendes’ decision to live their life together in earnest. They’ve been mocked on Twitter for “kissing like fish.” (In response, Mendes shared a video of them going at it like blind lizards.) After the paparazzi caught on to their propensity for pandemic walks in Miami — Cabello primarily resides in Florida because, she says, LA is “weird” and “messes with your psyche”— a rumor spread that the empty coffee mugs they were photographed with were mere props. (This was ultimately debunked.)
Last November, Mendes released the Netflix documentary Shawn Mendes: In Wonder. The film chronicles Mendes’ internal strife: his obsession with perfection, his fear of failure. If you watch it with an eye toward Cabello, it also captures quite a bit about their relationship. When Mendes seems off during a rehearsal, Cabello pulls him aside to remind him how much she loves him. Later, she sits on his lap as he pages through his manifestation journal, reassuring him as he recites choice entries. This caretaking dynamic isn’t just present in the doc: Earlier this summer, the paps caught Mendes gently brushing dirt off Cabello’s tush while on a walk with her and Estrabao.
“I probably have a nurturing attitude because I also like being nurtured. I’m lucky that my partner is the same way,” Cabello says, curled up cozily in a pair of leggings on a not-very-cozy bench in the trailer, her face freshly scrubbed of all makeup. Outside, Estrabao patiently waits for her daughter in her car. After braving the heat all day — in a black lace, long-sleeved blouse, at that — she’s earned a reprieve. “There’s a lot of sweetness and tenderness,” between Mendes and herself, Cabello adds. “I think we’re both sensitive. I’m really lucky to be able to surround myself with tenderness; it’s really important to me.”
One of the ways Cabello has nurtured Mendes is helping him overcome his anxiety about maintaining his much-lauded physique. In a 2020 interview with British GQ, Mendes revealed that at times he’d only get three hours of sleep a night in order to spend more time in the gym. He was worried that he would lose fans otherwise. Then he saw how Cabello responded to critics of her shape: “So strong, so clear and confident with her [body] and so articulate and empathetic about other people’s… It really changed my view of mine,” he told the magazine.
“[He] would tell me like, ‘Dang, I have these kinds of thoughts or whatever.’ I think that him talking about it has been a really big step in transforming that relationship with his body,” she remembers, and she could empathize. “I certainly feel obsessive, [like] I need to go to the gym, I need to do this, I need to lose weight quickly. I’ve felt like that. That’s the societal voice in your head.”
These days, Cabello has a new mantra: “Being at war with your body is so last season.” After photos surfaced of a day she spent on the beach with Mendes, Cabello was subject to a round of rampant body shaming. Though she doesn’t typically read the tabloids, Cabello accidentally stumbled upon the backlash while clicking around on social media. “‘This hurts so bad,’” she remembers thinking. “The whole day I felt insecure. I felt like it was changing how I was thinking about food and eating... really messing me up.” Another body shaming later, she decided to address the hate head-on in a now-viral TikTok. “I actually felt so liberated when I posted that. After that, I went to the airport and so many women were coming up to me like, ‘I saw that TikTok and it resonated with me so much,’” she says. “I actually feel my body insecurities went down after I posted that because I was like, ‘No matter what pictures come out or what people say, I’m now controlling the narrative.’”
Therapy has gotten her to a place where she’s realized, “You can work out a few hours a day and never eat carbs and whatever, but that’s just not a balanced life. That’s not what I want… I can’t change to fit that mold.” A lover of eclectic ensembles, Cabello also refuses to dress for her critics: “I’m going to wear whatever, and if there’s paparazzi around, that sucks, but I’m not going to completely reroute who I am for that.”
It’s become the norm for celebrities to “open up” about their mental health, and like many of her peers, Cabello often talks in the therapy-speak of the moment, pointing fans to resources for handling childhood trauma and anxiety, exhorting them to “do the work.” But unlike other outspoken pop stars, Cabello doesn’t share the details of her own traumatic experiences, though she references them in passing. Instead, she says that she experienced “toxic stress for years” that impacted her mental health later on. “OCD and anxiety was really hard for me,” she explains. “So many times, I was like, ‘There must be something wrong with me. I must be inadequate in some way, because just functioning is hard for me right now.’”
For Cabello, 2020 ended up offering a respite. Instead of hunkering down at home the whole time, she spent months in the village of Iver Heath, England, filming a jukebox musical retelling of Cinderella. On Amazon next month, she stars as the titular character who the internet has been quick to deem the “Girlboss Cinderella.” In this iteration, she’s a fashion designer with her own “Dresses by Ella” label. She has Meghan Markle-like thoughts on the monarchy. (“I don’t want a life stuck waving from a royal box,” she declares in the trailer.) When her “Fab G” shows up — a modern reimagining of the “fairy godmother” played by none other than Billy Porter, for whom the part was written — he outfits her in a sheEO-worthy pantsuit for the ball. (“This is… different,” she says, clearly disappointed. Swapping out his inspired creation for a more traditional gown, Porter snaps, “You said you wanted to be a businesswoman.”)
Cabello says her time on location was like summer camp. Of course, Estrabao joined her daughter for the entirety of filming. But being sequestered in a single remote location for months with castmates her age allowed Cabello to actually grow close to some of them. Nicholas Galitzine, who plays love interest Prince Robert, and Charlotte Spencer, cast as her evil stepsister Drizella, have become actual friends. Unlike when she’s in concert or promoting an album, working on a film involves company. “I don’t want it to be just me alone on stage or in a video,” when she can avoid it, she says. “I read this article in The New York Times about collective joy. I just want it to be like that collective joy where I’m not alone.” Cabello also bonded with her Fab G. “I was so intimidated by [Billy] because I was like, ‘You’re so talented, you have such a big soul, a big energy about you,’” Cabello says. “I told him that. And he was so vulnerable, so sweet, and just a very real person. By the end of it, we really connected. He was like, ‘I want to be your [Fab G] in real life.’”
Having somebody that’s real, that’s not ever going to let you get out of line, has been so important to me.
Cabello’s Cinderella experience has her contemplating her other ambitions. She has a lot of goals, she says. “I love information. I feel I would have had so much fun in college. Maybe I would have also been crushed under homework, but I do love learning. I love reading… I’d love to go to NYU in person and study some cool things.”
But for now, it’s Cabello — and her mother — against the world. After the shoot, Cabello heads to a surprise birthday party in Malibu where she’ll meet Mendes, who’s been tasked with transporting her party dress. Cabello’s management offered to order a car to drive her the 40-plus miles at the height of hellish LA rush-hour traffic, but Estrabao dismissed the suggestion. She’ll drive.
“Imagine if I was out here, since 16, on my own? That would have been dramatic for me,” Cabello says, calling me back from the car as Estrabao ferries her down the Pacific Coast Highway. “Having somebody that’s real, that’s not ever going to let you get out of line, has been so important to me. I think that’s why I never really got lost in the industry. I had challenges with my mental health, but I was never lost.”
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Top Image Credits: Gucci clothing and boots, Jennifer Fisher earrings, Bulgari rings
Photographer: Emman Montalvan
Stylist: Sarah Schussheim
Hair: Dimitris Giannetos
Makeup: Anthony Nguyen
Manicure: Alex Jachno
Bookings: Special Projects
Videographer: Sam Miron