Lauren Jauregui and Chika Are the Role Models They Never Had

Lauren Jauregui and Chika Are the Role Models They Never Had

Story by Stephanie Smith-Strickland / Photography by Bryan Huynh

One of pop stardom's most fascinating elements is its historical acceptance of metamorphosis as a natural part of any artist's career arc. In fact, it has arguably been a requirement of the model. From Madonna to Lady Gaga to Katy Perry or even Miley Cyrus, it's easy to isolate and identify distinctive eras. Often, these transformations happen in conjunction with shifting trends in popular music and, even at times, changing schools of thought.

In the past, such choices rarely read as a point of critique for audiences determined to separate an artist's musical persona from their personal politics. But the onset of the hyper-connected internet generation, and with it, a more native understanding of the importance of diversity and representation, has lead to conversation around what it means to co-opt marginalized identities as costumes. This has often been a by-product of these artistic rebrands. We saw it in Miley Cyrus' Bangerz era; Katy Perry's Bon Appetit era (and before that the arguably queer trivializing single "I Kissed a Girl"); and Madonna's Vogue era, which appropriated a creation of the Black and Latino LGBTQ community without ever truly providing context or substantial credit.

The heightened visibility of non-cis, non-hetero and non-white acts has also been instrumental in creating greater accountability, but also opening dialogues about the realities of existing in a space where lived experiences as a marginalized person are frequently commodified with no benefit to the communities of inspiration. For 23-year-old Lauren Jauregui, recognizing that she has been on both sides of this coin has been part of an internal process of learning and unlearning that she's recently started to communicate in her music.

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Born to Cuban immigrants in Miami, the singer entered the public consciousness through Fifth Harmony, which eventually dissolved as all its members went solo. In 2016, the same year the group parted ways, Jauregui revealed that she was bisexual — a part of herself she felt she had to conceal in order to have a successful career, but also to avoid rocking the boat in her deeply Catholic Cuban-American community.

Unfortunately, the singer's revelation wasn't entirely a celebratory victory lap of striking out on her own and finally getting to live authentically. Jauregui was outed on social media after a photo of her kissing another woman began circulating. She took it as an opportunity to pen an open letter that not only communicated the harm of outing, but also acknowledged the fluid nature of sexual identity and the privilege of being a white-passing Latinx person in her chosen industry.

Having parted ways with the group that once defined her musical trajectory and embraced the parts of herself she once kept hidden, Jauregui's solo offerings are an exploration of a new state of liberation. Her first official single, "Lento" was released March of this year and sets the singer's svelte, honeyed rasp over a sexy mid-tempo beat from reggaeton producer and former collaborator Tainy. Flowing between Spanish and English with ease, Jauregui becomes one with the night, all while silkily dismissing any overtures of negativity, over-familiarity or possessiveness to effectively center autonomy at the heart of the irresistible dance track. Her latest release, "50ft," features an accompanying music video shot with family and close friends while in quarantine in her hometown of Miami. The markedly more down-tempo tune revisits the same themes of choosing self and growing away from situations and relationships that breed negativity or discomfort.

Over the course of an hour-long conversation with friend and industry peer, Nigerian-American musician Chika — whose own path to self-discovery has bloomed in conjunction with her music — Jauregui opened up about her journey to embracing queerness, mental health and learning to listen and be an ally.

Chika: First of all, I'm just going to go ahead and ask a holistic question: How are you? How are you feeling? Where is your head at? The world is crazy right now.

Lauren Jauregui: Things are quite overwhelming. We are all experiencing what's happening in the world at large, and in our country at large, but then, you know, that doesn't take away all of the personal and interpersonal shifts going on. I think I'm overwhelmed, but I'm blessed and I'm so aware of that.

Chika: I can fully understand that. I, too, am overwhelmed. I think everyone who experiences intersection in the world, they can identify with the feeling of being overwhelmed right now. I'm trying to remain hopeful and trying to celebrate small wins that happen while continuing to fight for what's important.

I've seen that you're super active and super vocal. You have been before it was trending and before it became, "Oh my god, the world's on fire." A. I commend you and B. I just wanted to know — I clearly know that it stems from a place of empathy and also a place of experience and knowing what certain discrimination looks like — but what actually keeps that fire burning? Because we're tired. We can just put it out there. Everyone knows everyone is tired. What reinvigorates you? What reinvigorates me is seeing all the stories and knowing this can't continue.

Lauren: I feel like I speak for a lot of people on the planet right now when I say it's always been in me. This understanding, this vision of a world beyond the world that we grew up in, and beyond the world our parents were susceptive to. That fire has been in my heart for a long while and it's kind of just been stoked at different times by meeting different people and hearing different stories. Like you said, the stories that are just so available to us and so constant. I think I'm in a constant state of heartbreak, you know what I mean? I'm an empath as a gift, and I feel the whole world and I feel it to the point where I cry every day... not to make it about me at all, because it's the way that I'm able to feel what everyone is going through on a collective level.

Chika: I don't want you to think that it's selfish to be able to note how it personally affects you, because it's so not selfish. If there weren't people in the world who were empaths, nobody would care beyond the surface level. Most of us have sympathy, but empathy is something that runs a lot deeper, and being an empath means having that section of your heart completely dilated and wide open so that when things like social injustices happen, or when it's time to actually get up and fight, empaths are the ones who kind of keep everyone else going.

Lauren: Thank you, I receive that and I appreciate that a lot. Sometimes I do get caught up thinking about, "Oh shit, am I making this about me?" Obviously I do not want to be centered in these conversations, especially being that I'm a white-presenting celebrity. I might be Latinx, but I am white-looking. I feel sometimes voices get centered in spaces that aren't necessarily their spaces to dominate.

But then, like you said, I'm very passionate. I believe in the divinity of each sentient being. I see myself when I look into people's eyes, no matter who they are. That's what drives me: Every time I see a new hashtag, or a new name, or a new face, or a new picture. And again, I want to make it clear that this has been happening. Ever since I became aware of the disparity of experiences in America, I've tried to keep this line of knowing my place in the situation, but also being adamant about amplifying and being an ally. I'm imperfect so I'm constantly treading that energy of not knowing how many mistakes I've made in my past. We're all unlearning right now. Even people who are part of communities that are hurt are having to unlearn certain things.

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Chika: Exactly. We're saying Black Lives Matter, which they do, and that's a sentiment I think everyone should be able to agree on without any qualifiers or putting a "too" afterward or anything like that, but one thing I've seen in our community is that a lot of people have had to unlearn and relearn rhetoric around being queer and Black, and what that means about how Black queer lives matter within the community.

How many trans women are being murdered, not even just by police, but in our community itself? One thing I saw that I thought was incredibly moving is the sentiment that there is no reform without healing. So even in those little small intricacies of you acknowledging the things that you've probably said to hurt other people is important. I know I've said some wild shit. I'm 23 and I'm lucky to be getting wiser as the days go on, but I'm sure I had a reckless ass mouth. There are things that I never took as importantly as I should have. And then you see how many of us are dying and going missing and being completely thrown to the wolves and you realize unlearning is really urgent.

In your process of learning and unlearning, how have you navigated finding resources without putting the labor on others, but then also leaning in or having others do the labor of teaching when it makes sense?

Lauren: To be honest I've been blessed to have a lot of Black femmes in my life who have taught me. Whether that be through friends or mentors or books I have encountered, Black women have educated the shit out of me. Every time that I have slipped up or have been ill-informed or have come from a place of unconsciousness, I again have been blessed enough to have Black femmes in my life who get me the fuck together. And who are like, "you want to be an ally, here's how you be an ally." I'm grateful for that, and again, no one is required to do that for you. I have been blessed with the gift of having people in my life that know me and my heart and have helped guide me towards my truth and to who I really am as a person.

"I see myself when I look into people's eyes, no matter who they are. That's what drives me." —Lauren Jauregui

And granted, that was not an easy slope. I was born and raised in Miami so there was a lot of indoctrinated anti-Blackness inside of me that thought process-wise and ideology-wise I hadn't reckoned with or even seen in myself. The real reason I've been able to grow in my allyship — and grow in the intention and integrity of my allyship — is by listening when I'm told that I'm not correct. I know it's not about arguing or defending my character in that circumstance. Because if I know myself, nothing that anybody else can tell me about my character can define who I am. It might be painful for other people to view me a different way than I see myself but at the end of the day, if I'm not willing to take responsibility for how I've harmed somebody, then there's no room for growth.

Chika: That's a huge learning curve for people, though.

Lauren: It's hard. It's hard to be told that you're not as amazing as you think you are or as amazing as your mom told you you are. It sucks to wake up to knowing that you're kind of a piece of shit and you're definitely saying problematic shit. The real growth, though, is how you choose to react, how you choose to absorb a lesson or spit it back in someone's face. When you spit a lesson back in someone's face, you have to be willing and able to deal with those consequences.

Chika: How is it that you've been able to sustain the spirit and heart of Pride, and like be joyful right now? This year we've kind of put our, not pride aside, but had to put our selfish need to shout out in the streets and twerk aside, while also fighting for people. How have you been able to balance that?

Lauren: I would be remiss to say that I feel the same way this Pride that I have in previous years of Pride. I think that would be a lie to say I'm in the same spirit of cheeriness and unapologetic energy. No, that's a lie, that part's still there. I think that's how I keep my Pride.

Chika: It's like a tiny bubble inside of you.

Lauren: Yeah, it's the lens through which I see the world, it's the lens through which I'm able to have the empathy that I have. So, for me, I'm celebrating Pride this month by celebrating Black trans folks and by donating to Black trans folks. I'm celebrating by acknowledging that our focus this month should be queer Black people and not just because it happens to coincide with the Black Lives Matter movement. All of these things that we talk about as movements and moments are things that define people's daily lives. We're having these conversations because we have continued to look at whiteness and white supremacy as the default setting for everything.

You guys have talked about how white supremacy and patriarchy sort of impact everything, that obviously applies even in communities of color where queerness is celebrated. Can you talk to me a little about that?

Lauren: I've been talking about this a lot, actually. I feel like for a lot of us there's this little tyrant in our bodies that white supremacy put there. I personally was indoctrinated with Catholicism, too. I went to a private Catholic school so I had homophobia deeply ingrained into my system. To the point where I was 100% in love with my best friend for seven years without telling her shit. We would make out. We would hook up at parties; we were in love with each other but both of us were completely unable to admit that to ourselves, much less to each other. It caused so much pain between us. The girls in my social realm, if they even thought you were gay (you didn't have to prove it in any way, shape, or form), you were ridiculed beyond belief. I went through a lot and I still have some internalized issues that I have to get over as far as my attraction to women.

"The real reason I've been able to grow in my allyship — and grow in the intention and integrity of my allyship — is by listening when I'm told that I'm not correct." —Lauren Jauregui

I also have this feeling inside of me when I am attracted to a woman where I'm a little scared to hit on her because I don't want to be too aggressive or too scary or to make her feel the way that men make me feel when I'm hit on unsolicited, you know?

Chika: Thinking of the way men can be with queer women speaks to how there isn't yet an overarching respect for queer relationships, especially queer women's relationships. When two men are attracted to one another, they're dating. People with homophobia kind of keep the fuck out of it, they stay away. But that homophobia, that same homophobia isn't enough to keep them from seeing a loving relationship with two women, two femmes, two queer-presenting people without being like this is something that I can infiltrate and be a part of.

In conquering some of the internalized homophobia you talked about and getting to the point where you felt comfortable and safe dating women, has that impacted your dating men at all? I know I often struggle with feeling as though men attempt to erase my queerness if it isn't perceived as directly beneficial to their pleasure.

Lauren: I agree. Definitely in my experience of dating, cis-het men I've felt that erasure. I've felt that if we were to engage in anything "queer" it would be for his pleasure and from his perspective because if it's for my pleasure, then I'm cheating. There's also the fact that I did not choose to come out to the world, which was in its own way such a violent experience. I wasn't even ready to accept it all the way about myself and then I had to explain to the world why it was part of me. I'm not looking for Prince Charming. I'm just looking for a genuine connection. I'm looking for genuine love. I'm looking for genuine respect. I've been single since my last breakup by choice because I'm at a point in my life where I'm not investing all of my essence into anything that doesn't feed back into me.

Chika: I just wrote a song — literally no self-plug because I don't even know what it's called yet — but a line in there is like, "I don't need a hero, I'm looking for an equal." I think that's something that is lost in not just relationships across the board, but also in queer relationships. I think that many of our experiences are rooted in a lot of having to learn ourselves; a lot of trauma; a lot of things that we're having to come to terms with so we get into relationships, especially the joke about girls, we move fast.

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U-Hauls, man.

Chika: It's true, we move fast, but the reason for that is we are constantly seeking someone who can make us feel seen and I guess feel comfortable, and who we can share our experiences with. Although that could be a great foundation for a relationship, when it's rooted in trauma and having to unlearn, it becomes a proxy situation at a certain point. I think for a lot of queer people, we weren't really allowed to be young and gay and to have those frivolous moments; We didn't get that. I didn't get that, especially growing up in the South. How many of us got the opportunity to actually become mature in the way that we handle relationships and the way that we are able to see ourselves? I'm someone who one day can be dressed like a dude and the next day I might feel like wearing makeup, feminine-type shit.

I date everyone. I'm pansexual. It's weird for me as someone who, for the most part, people consider masc-presenting. I date men, and I also date women; I date gender non-conforming and non-binary people. Right now, I'm single and I'm staying single, but when I get into those situations, I'm always having to really re-route what my brain does, because again, we weren't afforded a lot of the opportunities that our cis-het counterparts were, in terms of getting to know ourselves in dating. Trial and error.

"I don't need a hero, I'm looking for an equal." —Chika

And when you're dating a cis-het person, you can only imagine the layers that you have to fucking unpack to even get to like a common ground of understanding one another within a relationship because all the layers of trauma that you have, just by having to put yourself in a position of: Who am I? I have to tell everyone. That's like trauma itself, just think about the fact that we have to literally be like, something I am, I need to announce, which is something that no one else has to do.

Yeah, or people just ask you without you announcing it because you walked in the room with someone.

Chika: She's wearing a yellow beanie, she's gay. Is that your girlfriend? I'm like, that's fucked up, thank you so much. But I am gay! Like it's so wild. All those layers, we carry them into our relationships as well. Being queer is not simply being like, "Aye, I like girls, I'm a girl. And I'm proud of that." The pride in it, I think, has to do with the fact that there's so much work we continuously every single day have to do. That's, I think, where Pride is rooted. And that goes back to literally Marsha P. Johnson. It goes back to trans Black women. It goes back to those leaders and those torch carriers for us to even be able to say half of the shit that we can possibly say right now without literally being arrested because it used to be fucking illegal. We carry all of that on a daily basis.

Lauren: It's still illegal in a lot of places.

Chika: I'm Nigerian and in Nigeria it's still illegal. And I know Nigerian artists who are clearly queer, not even to assume and be like presumptuous, but they're clearly queer, who will never be able to say that. And so for us, having Pride in the States, and, of course, globally, I think that a lot of times, Pride is misconstrued by people who don't understand it. Of course, it's never by us, but there's some people who don't know the history of it, but they're young, and we'll get them there.

But in terms of the outside look at Pride, it's always like, "Oh, okay, who cares? I'm straight, I can be out. Let's have a straight Pride parade." They don't understand that there there's no obstacle internally for you to have to educate yourself on your history, your present, the systems that are in place to bring you down. Not only as a queer person but some of us as women, as trans people, as people of color. The intersectionality of a lot of queer people's experiences is why the word Pride, I think, was even chosen to discuss who we are. Because the shame in it wasn't, "Oh my god, you're gay."

Lauren: I agree 1,000% and I feel like that's what it is. It's about visibility. It's about standing in that visibility and in the strength of being able to walk with full power in who you are, who you truly are, not who the world wants to see you as.

How are some ways that you found role models? I know I didn't always feel like I had them.

Lauren: I didn't have any good role models, unfortunately. For me, what helped me, coincidentally was my best friend to this day, my absolute sister. Her name is Brittany. She happens to be queer, as well, and we went to the same school. We had parallel lives that we did not tell each other about, even about being in love with our best friends! We would tell each other about our relationship to these best friends, but we wouldn't tell each other about the intimate details. So we both knew that we each had a kind of unhealthy relationship. But we didn't admit that to each other until we were 19 and in a completely different city together at a completely different point in our lives.

Ever since we admitted that to each other, she's been my guide and role model because she's so fucking unapologetic. She has always been a little more queer than me, a little more aware of it and a little more ready to declare it. I didn't get to explore my queerness at all, to be honest, and to this day, I'm scared to explore it because of the fame quality of things. It's a little harder for me to be open about attraction to someone because I'm always like, "Okay, am I reading this wrong? Does she like me or does she just...?" We are taught to be polite and girls are also really touchy and lovey with each other. So, at any moment I could really misinterpret and I don't want to be the creep.

Chika: It's a hot mess. It is a canonical logical mess. It is a conundrum. I agree, I never had a role model.

I struggle with that shit too. Like, are you attracted to me? Or do you just want to be my friend?

Chika: It's wild!

Lauren: Are you flirting with me, bitch? Or was that a friend flirt?

Chika: Your eyes kind of twinkled in the moonlight and I noticed. I had peeped it. I'm just noticing it, but if that's something you want to explore, we can... [laughs]. But yes, I fully agree, I didn't really have any role models either and that was largely because of education. I didn't learn about the queer leaders who got us here until very far into my big age of 20, 21 maybe, and that's when I began to actually understand. Literally, I never got the opportunity to know that because in Alabama nobody was teaching that shit. If anything, they were trying to disparage us and tell us that we were going to burn in hell if we even so much as held hands with a girl. No one educated me on that. Something that I had to learn, even via spiritual work now and therapy and things like that, is the ideal thing that I never saw I had to become. It has fucked up my boundaries a lot, meaning — I'm bad at saying no to people, because I never saw people being forgiving and open and able to be abundantly giving in their resources so I became the person who's like, "I can do it, I can do that."

Lauren: Chika, I feel you!

Chika: Literally as a kid, I didn't see that. And so like, it's very cute, but it's also so sad —because I didn't see it, I became it. In terms of a queer person to look up to, it literally got to a point that since I didn't see it, I became fully cerebral and conscious of who I was as a person. It's not that I adopted this role of wanting to be a hero or someone to look up to, but I fully rejected everything that would tell me that queerness was wrong. I remember sitting in bed and asking God questions before I ever decided to come out. When nothing made sense, I was like, "Ight, bet." And it was like all bets are off. I don't give a fuck.

"It literally got to a point that since I didn't see it, I became fully cerebral and conscious of who I was as a person." —Chika

So, I began to be what I wanted to see. And so now, even in my queerness, the way that I handle myself, and I navigate it, I am unapologetic. If that's something that's true to me, then that means people like me exist. If there isn't anyone that I got to look up to, not that I want people to look up to me, but at least now they have an example. I'm someone out there who is an example of someone who looks like them, who acts like them. How many people are out here masc-presenting, but also able to talk about the fact that they date men? Me and Lauren, we're almost in weird parallel situations because I feel like as much as I talk about women, if I were to pull up with a boyfriend, everyone would look at me crazy. They would look at me wild. They would be like, "What are you doing? What's going on? Bow your head, let's pray." A lot of people, they fully ignore that side of me. Especially because I lean more towards women...The erasure of bi people, of pansexual people is real. With that erasure you can only imagine growing up there was nobody to look up to who, if they said they were bisexual, it wasn't just like, "Oh, they're curious and they like to kiss girls at parties."

Lauren: Oh my god, even growing up, the songs that I had to hear, they were super, super written through the lens of men watching women be together. Honestly, Syd changed my life, because when I heard Syd sing for the first time and not change the pronoun, I was like, "Holy shit." The first and only cover I've done, oh no, now, I've done another cover. But for a long time, the only cover that I ever did was "Special Affair." I heard that song, and I was like, "Yes, this is it."

She gets it.

Lauren: She really gets it, I love her, and she's a dear friend, too. That's the type of visibility we need. I feel like, and I'm going to be real, I feel like that is our generation. There's a lot of us that are queer and proud and loud about it.

Chika: And different in our queerness. There's usually a caricature of what it means to be queer, even for gay men. For the longest time the only representation you saw were flamboyant, effeminate men. Yes, they exist and they're valid and fucking dope. However, for masculine, gay men, there is still to this day, especially in the Black community, a fear to come out because they are pigeon-holed into one lens of what it means to be gay. Our generation is genuinely showing so many different sides of the coin, and it's beautiful to me because we no longer have to be like, "Oh, you're a lesbian? This is what it means to be a lesbian, so if you like girls you need to drive a pickup and you need to cut your hair, and you need to X, Y and Z." You have so many different people who identify as so many different things and are able to express that and talk to you about why what they identify as is not a problem. We have so many people who are educated enough because, again, even though we learned later in life, we learned.

I also want to point out that both of you being kids of immigrants is an important aspect too because often we forget that although it's not necessarily safe to be queer in America, there are places in the world where it is much more dangerous.

Chika: So many African queer people DM me on a regular basis and are like, "How the fuck did you come out?"

Lauren: I come from a Cuban family and always felt that queerness was such a taboo topic in the Latinx community. I've noticed that in who has gravitated towards me, as well, in my fandom. A lot of queer Latinx people come to me, especially femme-presenting, especially people who are bi or pansexual. I think it's what you're saying, Chika, we are the people that we never saw. We're trying our best to embody our truth in a way that's accessible for other people to see themselves in us. And even if they don't see themselves in who I am, they see me being myself and therefore, they can be themselves as a vicarious thing.

Chika: They see another human being a human, without apology.

Lauren: Exactly.

Photography: Bryan Huynh
Fashion editing: Matthew Josephs
3D art lead: Rodolfo Hernandez
Art direction: Jonathan Conrad
3D Clothing design: Jiyoon Myung
3D Accessories design: Joohee Jeon, Yousun Hong
3D Face art: Joaquin Cossio
Hamzah Amin