Fifth Harmony: girls from US X Factor have been to hell and back, and now they’re ready to shine

Brought together for reality TV show in 2012, the four remaining members of the girl group, having struggled to break free from being ‘virtual slaves’ with no artistic control, have just released a self-written eponymous album

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 8:00pm

Inside a California rehearsal studio, the women of Fifth Harmony – surrounded by the thousands of album booklets they’ve autographed for fans, the most dedicated of whom are known as “Harmonisers” – are having an emoji debate.

They want to use the digital icons to accompany the online reveal of the track list for their new self-titled album, which was released last Friday. Dinah Jane Hansen, 20, suggested a finger pointing downward as a clue for the album’s lead single, Down, but the rest weren’t as easy.

“We need to go quicker, guys,” Ally Brooke Hernandez, 24, instructs as they struggle to stifle their giggles.

After all, there’s other, more important business for Fifth Harmony to convey in 2017.

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“We should mention we wrote most of these,” says Normani Kordei, 21.

Co-writing and ownership of records is a first for these women – since being put together on the US edition of the televised singing competition The X Factor, the members of Fifth Harmony, which also includes Lauren Jauregui, 21, have struggled to assert their independence and prove they’re singular artists who are not just a made-for-TV creation.

That Fifth Harmony album even made it to No 3 is something of a feat. Just a few months ago, the group were parting ways – acrimoniously – with one of its founding members as rumours of conflict hit fever pitch.

And yet in recent weeks, the band have filmed two music videos – including a sexy, lo-fi clip for Angel, their new single that was produced by dance music DJ/producer Skrillex and carries hip-hop-inflections – and are rehearsing for a new tour. They visited Hong Kong’s AsiaWorld-Expo in March this year.

“It’s the most monumental moment of our careers,” Kordei says. And the turnaround couldn’t have come quicker. Although the act seemed to be coming into their own with last year’s well-received release 7/27, there was enough behind-the-scenes drama to fill another reality show.

In December, the group appeared to be in crisis when they announced that singer Camila Cabello had exited just hours after a performance. The group claims Cabello informed them via her representatives that she was out, something Cabello has rebutted.

And then things got messier. Soon after news of Cabello’s departure broke, a recording was leaked of Jauregui tearfully telling Hernandez that the group was being treated like “literal slaves”.

They were exhausted from touring – a period in which more than one member lost loved ones – and frustrated by a lack of creative fulfilment. From the beginning, Fifth Harmony have said that they have zero say in collaborators or the creation of their music, often receiving songs the day before studio sessions.

Often, the members say, the anxiety was crippling, and they started to resent performing. The dream of being the pre-eminent girl group of their generation was proving to be anything but. “We lost the magic of it all,” Hansen adds. “We were doing songs just to do songs.”

The magic, such as it was, began in 2012 when the then teens entered the short-lived US edition of The X Factor as solo contestants. They fizzled out but were then packaged as a group by Simon Cowell and then-Epic Records chairman L.A. Reid.

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Fifth Harmony took third place in the competition, scoring a joint deal with Epic Records and Cowell’s Syco Music. Though a wave of boy bands had found recent success – including One Direction (assembled on the British version of X Factor – no girl group had managed to hit it big the way Danity Kane, Pussycat Dolls, Destiny’s Child, the Spice Girls or TLC did in their prime.

Today’s pop is dominated by assertive solo female artists, and Fifth Harmony risked looking like a relic from another era. And that doesn’t even consider the simple challenge of cultivating chemistry among a group of teenage girls who met on a TV show.

Epic worked heavily to sell Fifth Harmony, keeping the group on the road constantly, often booking concerts at malls. “Every season, for 4½ years ... I was a zombie,” Jauregui recalls.

From the outside, there was much to celebrate. Fifth Harmony’s 2015 debut, Reflection, saw the group pick up where Destiny’s Child and TLC had left off, with an album full of slinky dance-pop and R&B/hip-hop-informed girl power anthems – with breakout single Worth It becoming one of the year’s biggest earworms.

Yet the women in Fifth Harmony say they felt burned out and controlled by the label – like “puppets”, they say. The women pushed though teary onstage breakdowns, infighting and family feuding.

“It came to a point where I’d catch myself onstage and realise, ‘I’m not feeling this’,” Kordei says. “It scared me, because this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

“It’s overwhelming to have your whole life planned for something you don’t feel passionate about. You’re not seeing your family, your friends. You’re not doing anything for yourself. It was depressing, draining and sad. Now, it’s a whole different thing.”

But the members of Fifth Harmony had long been fighting for the autonomy and respect that they are only now receiving. In late 2015, Hernandez contacted outspoken LA music lawyer Dina LaPolt, who helped the group clean house.

LaPolt got them new management with the powerhouse firm Maverick and helped transfer the Fifth Harmony trademark from Cowell to the band members, giving them complete ownership of the brand. A more favourable contact with Epic was then negotiated, but the women still weren’t in the driver’s seat when it came to music.

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“We were 15, 16 and 19 when we started,” Jauregui says. “We didn’t have any basic understanding of business, and we’re being thrown into this world of wolves where they really screw you over with contracts.”

After Cabello’s departure, the women realised they wanted to work on repairing the group’s dynamic as well as their relationship with the label to become more vocal about their career ambitions. “We all got on the same page ... and fought for our say,” Hansen says.

“It finally feels like we are living our lives. We’ve taken ownership,” Kordei says. “It’s been there all along, but maybe we weren’t confident enough or bold enough. This time, we’ve got the extra fire ... and we don’t care what anyone else has to say.

“I kinda wish it could have been like this all along,” Kordei says with a sigh.

Jauregui, unarguably Fifth Harmony’s most outspoken member – she’s the first to admit group members barely listen to their earlier work – takes a bolder stance.

“We would have freaking dominated,” she says.