Inside Shakira’s ‘darkest hour’

The Waka Waka has opened up about her private life - AFP
The Waka Waka has opened up about her private life – AFP

In 2010, 33-year-old Shakira was a global superstar of a decade standing – a clutch of Grammys already under her belt as she filmed the video for the official World Cup anthem, Waka Waka (This Time for Africa). On set in Madrid, she met footballer Gerard Piqué, and “suddenly,” she said, “the sun comes out.”

Twelve years on, and recent months have been a different story; the singer is now mired in what she calls her “darkest hour.” News of her first album in five years has been overshadowed by Spanish authorities ordering her to stand trial for tax evasion amounting to £12.9 million, while she and Piqué split in June and are now wrangling over custody of their children. “Everything is so raw and new,” the 45-year-old told US Elle magazine last week, amplified thousand-fold by the paparazzi following her family’s every step. “It’s just a total circus.”

This fraught period is the first to openly crack “the Queen of Latin Music’s” perma-positive public mien. Her Instagram account remains a mix of cheery images from her current TV show, Dancing With Myself, and family snaps, but last week she admitted she’s been “fighting on different fronts”. As well as the dissolution of her personal life and the tax evasion claims – which she dismisses, but carry a possible eight-year sentence – her father has been seriously unwell in hospital, requiring brain surgery. She has been “shredded into pieces” she says, perhaps conservatively.

The Colombian mononym has been in the public eye since her first Spanish-language album was released in 1991, later immortalised in the English-language charts with the acknowledgment that she’s “lucky that my breasts are small and humble, so you don’t confuse them with mountains” in 2001’s Whenever, Wherever. There have been 16 Grammys (three US ones, 13 Latin American awards), collaborations with Beyoncé, Rihanna and Wyclef Jean, over one billion streams on Spotify, and her World Cup anthem has been viewed on YouTube over three billion times. In spite of producing only two UK number ones (and just one in the US) in the past two decades, her star has only travelled upwards, leading her to co-headline the Superbowl halftime show with Jennifer Lopez in 2020, and become worth a reported £278 million.

Born Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll to a Lebanese father and Colombian mother, she has always been a different kind of megastar, commanding stages with hip-shaking belly dances (perfected at her convent school aged four) and a mound of blonde (then brown, then red) curls. With what one interviewer described as a “feminine allure at once limiting and critical to her power,” the girl from Barranquilla with a voice like a “goat” spent her teens gigging around mining towns after being rejected from the school choir, “because the music teacher didn’t like my voice.” At 13, a local theatre producer helped her to get in front of a Sony Music Colombia executive and she was given a record deal, releasing four Spanish-language albums throughout her teens before her debut English-language record in 2001. Laundry Service – partially translated from Spanish by Gloria Estefan, as Shakira didn’t speak English at the time – sold 13 million copies.

English lessons via the works of Leonard Cohen and Walt Whitman, Pulp and the Police led to a string of mainstream chart hits including 2006’s Hips Don’t Lie, Beautiful Liar the following year, and She Wolf in 2009.

But by 2010, at the height of her Waka Waka fame, personal turmoil was afoot: she split from her partner and manager of a decade, Antonio de la Rúa – the son of a former Argentine president who subsequently tried to sue her for $100 million and have her assets frozen (he did not succeed). A Catholic, “I had even lost my faith for a while… I started to think there was no God,” she thought then. That changed when she met Piqué. Once filming for the music video ended, the then 23-year-old wrote to Shakira, telling her that his team “would have to get to the World Cup final to see her again.” Spain’s win meant his promise came good; a photo of them embracing on the pitch, gripping the trophy, marking a new beginning.

The Spanish-speaking equivalent to the Beckhams announced their relationship the following year via a Facebook post she captioned “les presento a mi sol” (I present to you my sunshine). In late 2012, a picture of them both smiling, her pregnant stomach exposed, reads “I could have another 9 months of this.” Born on the same day, exactly 10 years apart (she is the elder), the pair seemed to defy other celebrity super-couples in spite of their different yet equally rigid schedules – his, football, hers touring and appearing as a judge on The Voice.

“I would love to have eight or nine kids with Gerard – my own football team,” she said in 2014 and their second son was born a year later. She released Me Enamoré (I Fell in Love) in 2017 and the lyrics go: “With you I’d have 10 children / Let’s start with two / I only tell you / In case you want to practice.”  Keeping the heat in their relationship was vital, she said in 2020, when she and Piqué had been together a decade. “To tell you the truth, marriage scares the s— out of me. I don’t want him to see me as the wife,” she told 60 Minutes; better to remain “his lover, his girlfriend. It’s like a little forbidden fruit, you know? I wanna keep him on his toes.”

Her lyrics are somewhat different now. In April, she released Te Felicito (I Congratulate You), in which she sings: “To make you whole / I broke myself in pieces… Don’t tell me you’re sorry / I know you well and you’re lying.” Two months later, she and Piqué announced their split, kicking off a paparazzi maelstrom, and speculation about the reason for their parting (flames fanned by his reported infidelity, and recently being pictured with the 23-year-old he is now said to be dating).

Shakira and her ex-partner Gerard Piqué - AP
Shakira and her ex-partner Gerard Piqué – AP

She has spent months hoping that “this is all a bad dream and that I’m going to wake up at some point.” While waiting for “that hole in my chest to close,” she has turned back to songwriting – “like going to the shrink, only cheaper.” It remains “one of the few tools I have for survival in extreme conditions… music is a life raft. There have been days when I had to pick up the pieces of me from the floor.”

In spite of what led her to create it, she is “really, really thrilled” about her new music. The process has been “gratifying,” she says, as well as “reconstructive” – a way to glue together what has been broken apart. Te Felicito was the 15th most-streamed song globally on Spotify this summer, and reached the top of the Billboard Latin Airplay chart, boosting her already-held status as having the most number ones of any Latin female artist.

Elle describes Shakira as Latin America’s “most authentic superstar” . It’s a buzzword that can’t be bought for modern celebrities, whose ability to appear ‘real’ now directly impacts their net worth. Perhaps it has come via the crossover effect (she became famous with Spanish-language albums first, unlike J. Lo or Gloria Estefan), or her early not-so-showbiz barefoot performances, or the fact she lives in Spain rather than LA, but she is an “icon” for her community, according to Spanish Vogue.

Shakira performed barefoot at the 2010 FIFA World Cup - Getty
Shakira performed barefoot at the 2010 FIFA World Cup – Getty

In 2002, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez described national affection for the singer as a “craze that has gripped masses of children,” who on hearing her songs would throw “themselves into the music, dancing and singing, demanding Shakira and Shakira only for the whole evening.” Shakiramania was “a phenomenon worthy of a doctoral dissertation” he wrote. “Primary schoolgirls of every social class have become clones of Shakira.” In Colombia, local markets would sell enough hair dye wholesale so that girls could change their look at the same pace as their idol; from Peru to Venezuela, legions of mini-Shakiras were all around. A 16ft statue of the singer stands outside a Barranquilla stadium; a testament to her success, and the extensive charity work she has carried out both in the country and across South America.

Bringing the language of her home onto the global stage – her performance of La Tortura in 2005 was the MTV Awards’ first sung entirely in Spanish – has also been credited with opening the door for others. Artists including Bad Bunny, Rosalía, Camila Cabello and J Balvin regularly pepper the charts; Spanish is now a common fixture in mainstream music. Just as she has tried to help others in the industry, so too has she felt support in kind, particularly now, she says. will.i.am and Chris Martin have been a particular comfort, the latter “always checking in and telling me that he’s there for me, anything I need. Dear friends who have become people who I believe don’t just care about me as an artist, but as a person, a human.”

Beneath her megawatt smile and pocket-rocket pop star status lies someone “intelligent, insecure, demure, sweet, evasive, intense,” Marquez wrote. Like most artists, her pain will – indeed has already – become art. “I might be alone, but I am not lonely,” she said last week. “Sometimes a woman can be enough.” As her fourth decade in music begins, Shakira will likely be a lot more.

Published by anthonyhayble

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