It’s a sun-drenched afternoon high in the lush hills of San Diego, where Ciara Princess Harris, the R&B queen who launched her career nearly two decades ago, calls home. Much has changed in the music industry — and the world at large — since I last interviewed her in the mid-aughts. Twitter had just been born, YouTube and Facebook were toddlers, and Instagram wasn’t even in utero. The word “viral” still had a negative connotation, It girls favored Juicy Couture velour sweat suits, Motorola Razr phones were de rigueur, and crunk music — hip-hop’s bass-heavy Southern cousin — was king. Ciara had already cemented her place as a pop-culture phenom thanks to platinum-record sales and her signature choreography that was equal parts studio and street.
Fast-forward to the beginning of 2018, however, and Ciara was experiencing a career lull and a rare moment of self-doubt. Before releasing her infectious, chart-topping ode to self-actualization, “Level Up,” last July, she hadn’t delivered any original material in three years — an eternity in the business. “I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t wonder what the fans would think, being that I hadn’t released new music in a while,” she says.
VIDEO: Ciara Can Dance to Anything
She needn’t have worried. The video alone generated more than 151 million views on YouTube and launched a viral dance craze that swept the globe. Google “Level Up Challenge” and prepare to go down a rabbit hole of everyone from preternaturally poised tweens to adorable geriatrics twerking to the song’s frenetic beat. Naysayers at her former label thought the track would flop. “I was told that it wasn’t going to be very successful,” says Ciara, 33. “That people wouldn’t believe in it.” Her fans, however, devoured it. “I put it out, and as soon as I opened my eyes the next morning, people were re-creating the video,” she says. “I get goose bumps just thinking about it.”
While most of her peers who entered the music biz around the same time have become fodder for “Where are they now?” specials, Ciara remains a force. She kicked off 2019 by co-hosting Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest. The steamy video for her latest single, “Greatest Love,” was viewed almost two million times in two days, which is not surprising given the way Ciara unabashedly flaunts her flawless physique while crooning adoration for her husband of two years, Russell Wilson, the 30-year-old star quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks. In January the mother of two — son Future is 4, and daughter Sienna is 2 — also realized a lifelong dream by launching Beauty Marks Entertainment (BME), a company that houses all her various projects including a new record label. “There are so many learning curves that I’m going through with having my own company, but it’s so fun,” she says. “I feel like I’m growing, and I feel free.”
The years have been kind to Ciara, who appears to be pulling a Benjamin Button and aging in reverse. Over a lunch of mahi-mahi tacos, the singer is somehow aglow despite wearing no makeup and being casually dressed in black jeans and a matching fitted sweater, her long raven-colored hair cascading over one shoulder. She smiles often, speaks softly, and laces her conversation with faith-based declarations that celebrate hard work, determination, and the power of positivity. “I truly believe that no one can close the door that God has opened for you,” she says. The only telltale sign of her fabulous life is the colossal glacier that envelops her left ring finger. She bursts into giggles when I suggest that I could ice-skate across her diamond, but she demurs when asked how many carats make up her rock. “They are carats of love,” she says, dodging the question like a seasoned pro. (The answer, reportedly, is 16 carats.) She’s far more willing to talk at length about her commitment to healthy living, breezily discussing body-mass indexes, VO2 maxes, and fat-to-muscle ratios. Ciara isn’t the type who pretends to be effortlessly thin. Her killer body is hard-earned. She credits a strict diet, gallons of water, and intense exercise — as many as three workouts a day — with helping her snap back from two pregnancies that each caused her to pack on more than 60 pounds. “I ate so much,” she admits before bursting into laughter. “Fries, mac and cheese, corn bread. I wanted stuffing when it wasn’t even Thanksgiving … I’m a Southern girl. We like to eat!”
Celebrity body sculptor Gunnar Peterson designed a calorie-massacring regimen to help her get back into fighting shape. Mornings consisted of weight lifting. Afternoons were dedicated to high-intensity treadmill workouts that alternated with lung-crushing sprints and light jogs. Evenings were spent riding her Peloton bike for 30 to 45 minutes. All the while she continued to nurse newborn Sienna. “I would wake up in the morning, breastfeed, eat a small meal, go train, come back home, pump, eat a small meal, breastfeed, eat lunch, and then go train again.” Having reclaimed her pre-baby waistline, she now has daily 90-minute workouts with trainer-to-the stars Decker Davis that are scaled back in intensity and primarily for maintenance. “I truly believe that self-love is key,” she says. “And my definition of self-love is taking care of myself.”
When mutual friends introduced Ciara to Wilson, their connection was immediate and undeniable. She knew she’d found the one. “We both knew,” she says, wistfully recalling their first date in March 2015. “We both had that light-bulb moment.” A year after their momentous dinner, the two married in a fairy-tale ceremony at a castle in Cheshire, England. The bride wore an elaborate, heavily embellished lace gown that took former Roberto Cavalli creative director Peter Dundas months to make. Afterward, the couple honeymooned at a private game reserve in Botswana.
During our interview Ciara takes a FaceTime call from her husband, who just so happens to be shirtless. His muscles appear to have muscles. If this call was staged for my benefit, I appreciate it. Citing religious reasons, the Wilsons famously abstained from premarital sex during their whirlwind courtship, which was definitely a challenge, she admits. “That took a lot of prayer,” the singer says only half-jokingly. “It was hard. I can’t lie.”
After her relationship with rapper Future, the father of her son, crashed spectacularly in 2014, Ciara decided it was time for some serious introspection. She prayed for answers, searched for lessons in the wreckage of her tumultuous breakup, and focused exclusively on taking care of her child and “getting myself right,” she says. “If you want to get somewhere in life, you’ve got to have a compass. You’ve got to know where you really want to get to. And my heart, soul, spirit, and mind just desired to be loved. To be truly loved the right way.” Knowing what she wanted was as important as discovering what she could no longer tolerate. “I knew I didn’t want to cry tears of hurt anymore,” she says. “I didn’t want to keep going around in circles.”
In Wilson, she says, she’s found the unconditional, drama-free love that had eluded her for so many years. The word “safe” repeatedly crops up when she discusses their union. “He’s my sounding board for pretty much everything I do in my life,” she says. “He doesn’t want to see me fail. He’s got my back. That’s an awesome feeling.”
This, of course, includes her new venture with BME, which she founded in part because she’d grown weary of the bureaucracy — the “20 different steps of approval” — and gender inequity in the music industry. While the #MeToo movement has helped address the issue in the film world, women are still severely underrepresented in the music realm. According to a recent report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a global think tank studying diversity across the entertainment industry, in 2017, 83 percent of recording artists were male, 98 percent of music producers were male, and 88 percent of songwriters were male. And of the nearly 900 people nominated for Grammy Awards from 2013 to 2018, 90 percent were — drumroll, please — male. Girls may run the world and reign on radio, but they’re still not the key decision-makers.
Nevertheless, from the early days of her career, Ciara has insisted on being hands-on. “I’ve been very vocal in the creative process, even down to my first song, ‘Goodies.’ I co-wrote that record and was up-front about what I wanted to say,” she says. The song celebrated chastity — “looking for the goodies/keep on lookin’ ’cause they stay in the jar” — and raced to the top of the charts. Hits like “1, 2 Step,” “Oh,” and “Body Party” followed, and since her auspicious début, she has sold more than 23 million albums, been nominated for five Grammys (and won once, in 2005, for best short-form music video for “Lose Control” ), and proved resilient after cycling through a number of labels. But a gal has her limits. “Being signed to a major label and then having to reaudition because that label folds or the rep leaves was draining,” she says.
When I ask how she and her husband manage high-wattage professions and parenthood, she says that they believe in “organized chaos.” What does that look like, exactly? Consistent sleep schedules for their kids, morning drop-offs at school, bedtime stories, visits to dance recitals, and lots of FaceTime. “I feel unbalanced if I’m not around them for a decent amount of time,” Ciara says, “and I can’t function to the best of my ability.” She also steadfastly refuses to sign autographs or pose for photos when she’s in “mommy mode” with her children. “I want that time to be as normal as possible for them.” As if she needed any more fuel for her unbridled ambition, Ciara, a fan of detailed goal lists, says that motherhood has only increased her drive. In watching Mommy work, she believes, her children will learn that “in order to make things happen, you really gotta make things happen.” Expect the Wilson clan to grow in the coming years. “I want to have as many kids as I can,” she reveals. “My kids keep me young. They keep me active. They give me purpose. They just make it all make sense.”
Even so, Ciara is putting procreation on the back burner while she focuses on her philanthropic work with her husband’s Why Not You Foundation and her fledgling label. New singles will be released in the next few months, and her seventh album should arrive sometime this year, though she reminds me that she’s no longer beholden to imposed timelines or deadlines. Going forward, her movements will be guided solely by “what feels right to my creative heart,” she says.
As she readies herself to leave for an afternoon with her daughter, Ciara says she’s under no illusion about the challenges she’ll inevitably face as an entrepreneur. “I’ve heard a lot of noes, and I still hear them to this day,” she says, “but I’m not taking my eyes off the goal. I always say, ‘I am a woman of ambition on a mission, and I’m gonna get it.’ ”
Photographed by Phil Poynter. Styling: Karla Welch. Hair: César DeLeön Ramirêz. Makeup: Yolanda Frederick-Thompson. Manicure: Miho Okawara. Set design: Daniel Horowitz. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download on Mar. 22.