New York City is a special place for Carolina Giraldo Navarro, better known as Karol G, the open-hearted Colombian superstar with a penchant for breaking barriers. Eleven years ago, disillusioned with the music business, Karol came to the city to study English and start over. She had spent six years struggling to break out as a singer in her hometown of Medellín with the help of her father, Juan Guillermo Giraldo Ramírez, a local musician, who saw her potential for stardom when no one else did. Few in the Latin music industry thought audiences wanted to hear a woman sing reggaeton, the dance-friendly genre dominating the airwaves with a multicultural combination of hip-hop, reggae, and dembow beats. When she packed her bags for New York, Karol was ready to say goodbye to music.
But that stint turned out to just be a detour along the way to what came next—a major record deal, global hit singles with Nicki Minaj and Shakira, and headlining tours across Latin America and the U.S., including a main-stage performance at Coachella. These days, Karol’s signature waist-length, vibrantly dyed hair has become something of a liability, thwarting her anonymity in New York City and Paris. After so many years of pushing forward against all odds, Karol can still catch herself surprised by her own success. When the singer, now 32, tucked into a late lunch in the quiet café at her Tribeca hotel on a recent spring afternoon, news had just come through that her fourth album, Mañana Será Bonito, the first all-Spanish-language album from a female artist to ever debut at number one in the U.S. on the Billboard 200 chart, was holding its position as the most-played album in the world on Spotify for the fifth week in a row. “We never sat down and said, ‘Okay, let’s think of an album concept que rompe, that will be number one,’” Karol tells me, speaking Spanish in her melodic paisa accent. “I was just singing about my life. How can that be meaningful for people? If people are connecting with the album, they are connecting directly, literally, with me. Because that is the album: stories from my life, in songs.”
Recently, the stories in Karol’s life have involved healing from personal struggles amid professional triumphs. In 2021, her two-and-a-half-year relationship with fiancé Anuel AA, a Puerto Rican rapper, ended. Around the same time, her third album, KG0516, became her first to debut atop Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart, driven by her megahits “Tusa” (with Nicki Minaj) and “Bichota,” the blustering female anthem that became synonymous with the singer as she embarked on her first headlining U.S. tour in the fall of 2021.
In the aftermath of the breakup, Karol learned to project confidence publicly, despite her private heartache and the scrutiny that came with her rising fame. She channeled the experience into Mañana Será Bonito, a perreo-ready dance album with melancholic undertones. Karol, working with her longtime producer Ovy on the Drums, experimented with more musical influences than ever before, weaving in traditional Mexican banda sounds, electric guitars, Afrobeats, and electronic music. She named the record after a mantra that got her through that time: “Tomorrow will be beautiful.” “I could never have imagined that such a dark period in my life would transform me into the person I am today,” Karol says. “The situation challenged me to learn, to appreciate what I had, to find happiness within myself, not in someone else.…I think that is really the soul of the album and what has made it so successful.”
On Mañana Será Bonito, Karol also collaborated with one of her idols, Shakira, on the kiss-off hit “TQG,” short for Te Quedó Grande, loosely translated as “I’m Out of Your League.” The two Colombian stars had been eyeing a partnership for some time before Karol sent her the track last year. Riding a catchy chorus and sultry music video—and public interest in Shakira’s high-profile split from soccer star Gerard Piqué—“TQG” debuted at the top of both Billboard Global charts (Billboard Global 200 and Billboard Global Excl. US) in February and landed Karol her first top 10 hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. “When we were filming the video, and [Shakira] was shooting her scenes, I was sitting and watching, and my life flashed before my eyes,” Karol says. “I was thinking about the World Cups she performed in; I watched Wizards of Waverly Place, and she was in an episode. I couldn’t believe it.”
Karol is venturing onscreen this year, too. A few years ago, she was considered for the role of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (a role for which Ariana DeBose went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). Now Karol is making her acting debut as a drug mule on a new Netflix series, Griselda, which stars Sofía Vergara as the head of a powerful Colombian cartel, due out later this year. She’s setting aside time to explore new business ventures and has big plans for her nascent company, Girl Power, including brand deals and investments. (The company recently opened an office in Medellín.) She also appeared in her first luxury campaign this year, for Loewe.
But mostly, she is itching to perform Mañana Será Bonito in front of more audiences after seeing its reception. While she initially planned to take a break from her relentless touring schedule this year, she changed track in late April, announcing half a dozen stadium shows in the U.S. in August and September. She will also be a headliner at Lollapalooza this August. And, naturally, Karol is already thinking ahead to her next album. An English-language project probably isn’t coming anytime soon. She is more excited about playing around with different genres. “If tomorrow I make a song that sounds like it should be a tango, I will do it as a tango,” she explains. “I’m not afraid of experimenting.”
Karol was born in Medellín in 1991, the youngest of three sisters. Her father, Juan Guillermo, always knew he had a talent for music but found few opportunities to pursue it as a career. When his daughters were young, he performed in a band in his free time, singing music from the 1960s, ranchera, rock, and salsa. The family often came along to his shows, and when Karol was only five years old, her father noticed she had rhythm and a strong voice. Soon she was joining him on some of his performances, singing duets by the popular Argentinian duo Pimpinela, and performing at all manner of events, even her grandmother’s wake. “That’s when I fell in love with singing,” says Karol, who grew up listening to Colombian folk music, reggaeton, salsa, and American music like the Backstreet Boys.
When Karol’s father showed her the 1997 film Selena, about the unlikely rise of the Mexican American singer Selena Quintanilla Pérez, “there was no turning back,” Karol says. “That movie made me believe I could do something huge.” Her father believed it, too. In 2006, when Karol was 15, Juan Guillermo suggested she audition for a Colombian spin-off of The X Factor. She made it through the initial stages but was cut before the final rounds of competition. The experience gave her confidence and emboldened her to pursue a career in music. Karol’s resolve would be thoroughly tested over the next 10 years. She faced rejections from music executives and radio deejays who were not interested in hearing women sing what was quickly becoming Latin music’s most popular genre, reggaeton. The Puerto Rican singer Ivy Queen, who broke through in the mid-2000s, was the rare exception. Juan Guillermo was undeterred. “[It was like] cutting a path through a jungle with a machete,” he says, describing the Latin music industry as machista, or prejudiced against women.
A contract Karol signed with a label in 2006 proved to be a dead end, and her father eventually bought her out of the deal. She continued to perform anywhere she could—nearby schools, radio stations, city fairs—and handed out her CDs to passersby on buses and trains. By 2008, Karol had landed a meeting with Universal Music Latino, but the record label only wanted her as a songwriter, not a performer. Her father insisted she decline, and she did. “I saw her as a well-rounded artist,” he says. “I wanted her to sing her own music.”
“I was discouraged,” Karol says. “The industry is so difficult, truly.” In 2012, she went to New York, resolving to leave music behind, to learn English, and to study marketing or business. But during her long train commute to the city from her aunt’s house on Long Island, Karol was confronted by an advertisement for a music business conference. After much deliberation, she attended the conference. It was a turning point. “She came away totally changed, ready to work and with an amazing motivation—even I was impressed,” Juan Guillermo says.
Karol credits the support of her parents for getting her through these years. “My father, always, even when I didn’t want to, he would say, ‘Yes, let’s go, we are going to make it,’” she says. “For so many years—not one, not two, not three, many years—everyone thought my goal of becoming a singer was a joke. It was a challenge to keep believing in myself. And if it wasn’t for my parents convincing me that I could make it, I would have felt ashamed and abandoned the whole thing.”
When Karol returned from New York in 2013, Medellín was emerging as the center of a new form of pop-oriented reggaeton. The genre became more poetic and romantic, and more likely to incorporate different sounds, like electronic music and acoustic guitar. Karol was determined to be a part of it, and got her first taste when Nicky Jam, a reggaeton star who had relocated to Colombia from Puerto Rico, put her on a track. “Amor de Dos” was her first breakout song. Her Colombian fan base grew, and Universal came calling again.
Karol signed a record deal with the label in 2016 and started making the music that truly represented her, incorporating reggaeton, trap, and pop. In 2018, her song “Mi Cama,” which samples a beat that imitates the sound of a squeaky bed frame, became an instant hit that drew some controversy from Latin media for its suggestive lyrics. The song proved Karol was not afraid to speak frankly about sex from a woman’s perspective, now one of the hallmarks of her music. “All my life we had listened to music from men,” she says. “But really, we as women say things differently, and we feel things and think about things differently. I was talking about it as a woman without taboos, without obscuring it.”
In 2018, after becoming one of the first women to collaborate with reggaeton stars, including J Balvin, Ozuna, and Bad Bunny, Karol won Best New Artist at the Latin Grammys, cementing her arrival in the industry. She accepted the award onstage with her father. Even today, whenever Karol calls him with another update about her career, she asks him if he is standing or sitting, because he gets emotional about how far she has come. “He says, ‘Bebé, I told you so,’” Karol says.
How did Karol come to dominate a Latin music industry that is notoriously difficult for women? Part of her success is due to timing; she ascended in the U.S. just after streaming broke barriers for Latin artists, who had struggled to get airtime on American radio stations or distribute their CDs in mainstream record stores. Latin stars once needed English lyrics to find success here. Shakira’s breakthrough 2001 album Laundry Service, for example, featured her first fully English-language songs, and some of the tracks were released in both English and Spanish. Today, American listeners are more receptive to listening to music in a foreign language, particularly Spanish. As of 2020, Latinos represented 19 percent of the U.S. population, up from 13 percent in 2000. Another part of the answer is Karol’s resilience, and the years she spent honing her rich voice and confidence onstage. She is also meticulous, according to her sister Jessica Giraldo Navarro, a lawyer who joined her management team full-time in 2019. “Everything you see onstage, in a video, in a commercial—she was involved in every detail,” Jessica says. Her dad describes Karol as a perfectionist, especially on her latest album, for which she wrote 40 extra songs.
But what really differentiates Karol from other artists, especially in Latin music, is her approachability. “Her superpower is being so real and authentic that it makes people fall in love with her,” says J Balvin. He and Karol first met when he performed at her cousin’s quinceañera in 2008, and they later became close friends. Karol’s vulnerability is never more apparent than on Mañana Será Bonito. “This was a moment when I wanted to say we’ve already taught women how beautiful it is to be self-confident and empowered,” she says. “But it is also beautiful to reach this point, to use a platform as global as mine, and tell people that it is okay not to feel good. It’s normal….That’s my personal experience.” As she sings on arguably its most personal track, “Mientras Me Curo del Cora,” “Está bien no sentirse bien”—it’s okay to not be okay.
Karol brings a similar honesty to social media, where she wants her fans to see what she really looks like and acknowledges her appearance can change if she’s on a strenuous tour schedule or on vacation. “That’s why, sometimes, you might see me más rondita or más flaquita,” she says. “I have my cycles.”
Jessica says she is surprised by how little Karol has changed as her career has escalated. “I don’t know how to explain it, but as her sister, I see it,” she says. “When you see her speaking to the audience at her concerts, and see people connecting with her, it’s because the person who is speaking is not Karol G, but Carolina.”
The Latin star Becky G, Karol’s collaborator on the 2022 smash song “Mamiii,” noticed a similar phenomenon. “Karol is Karol—no matter the color of her hair, her heart stays the same,” she says. “I think that that’s really what resonates with her audience and with her peers. I know I’ve experienced it.” Leila Cobo, who oversees all of Billboard’s Latin music coverage, said she recognized Karol’s unique influence during her first headlining tour in the U.S. in 2021. Many fans wore bright blue wigs to match her look at the time. In the U.S., fans of other major artists like Taylor Swift frequently attend concerts dressed like the artist, but this is less common in the Latin music space, Cobo notes. “I think the Taylor Swift parallel is a good one,” she says. “Karol has been able to build that kind of rapport, where the fans really relate to her. They think she’s talking to them. And I think she is.” Karol feels that bond with her audience, too. “I’ve gone onstage crying because of personal things,” she says. “I leave the stage and I know the problem hasn’t gone away, but I feel so much joy. And that infusion of joy is something I’m really missing when I’m not on tour.”
Even fans who cannot speak Spanish are finding ways to connect with Karol, who says she can easily spot her English-speaking audience members during her concerts by how they dance and sing. She grew up doing the same, as a recontra fanática, or superfan, of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. “I could sing a Britney song without singing the correct words, but just how it sounded,” Karol explains. “It’s crazy to see that happening now with our music, and not just in the U.S., but across the world.”
As Karol’s fame grows, she is also learning to be more protective of her privacy. She declined to talk about her relationship status, often the subject of speculation and rumors, and says she wants to keep more of her personal life off the internet. “As time goes on, I share less on social media….Before, I was being too accessible,” she says. “There are things that I can save for myself and enjoy without anyone’s opinions.” Social media can also make her feel like she should never take a break—something of a problem for a workaholic. “If I’m not on social media, I’m more focused on me, my things, my work, my ideas, my creativity,” she says. “That, right now, is gold.”
In March, just three weeks after Mañana Será Bonito was released, Karol performed in Puerto Rico’s largest outdoor stadium, Hiram Bithorn, where she became the first female artist to sell out three consecutive shows. On the first night, she only planned to perform four new songs, since the album was still so new. But the crowd requested more songs by name, including “Amargura” and “Carolina.” Karol made a last-minute decision to sing parts of them, mostly a cappella. As the crowd sang along to every word, she looked on in disbelief and joy, her smile filling the jumbo screen behind her as she let out one of her favorite phrases—Colombian slang that describes something amazing, never more apt than in that moment: “Qué chimba!”
Hair by Evanie Frausto for Bumble and Bumble; makeup by Yumi Lee for Chanel Beauté; manicure by Dawn Sterling at E.D.M.A.; set Design by Jenny Correa; produced by Crawford & Co Productions and Curt Weber.
This article appears in the June/July 2023 issue of ELLE.
Chantal Fernandez is a fashion writer living in New York City.