“I forgot to wear the knee pads,” Karol G says ruefully. “I’m going to have scrapes.”
She beams. For a soaking wet pop star who has just been dragged through a shallow pool, Karol looks remarkably happy.
Moments before, a group of writhing, shirtless male dancers had lifted Karol, dressed in a white bikini and transparent baggy pants, high above the water as she performed a medley of songs from her unprecedented past year in music, including material from her chart-topping February album, Mañana Será Bonito; the edgier August follow-up, Mañana Será Bonito (Bichota Season); and a small teaser of her new single with Kali Uchis, “Labios Mordidos.” Her arms knifed back-and-forth through the pool in fierce synchronicity with her platoon of dancers — all water-drenched sexiness, but a punishing physical routine nonetheless. After Karol dries off, wrings out her pants and gets her glam touched up, she’ll do it all over again.
“I want it to be spectacular,” she says matter-of-factly of the roughly four-minute Billboard Latin Music Awards performance. To that end, she enlisted renowned choreographer Parris Goebel, whose work includes Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime show performance, to continue pushing her as a dancer. “Dance doesn’t come so easy to me,” Karol admits. “To do the things I do, I have to rehearse a lot.” Earlier this year, Goebel choreographed Karol’s MTV Video Music Awards performance.
“She understands what I want to express in my movements, and also, she gets something out of me that I’m still in the process of understanding,” Karol says. “I’ve learned a lot about myself this year. Even though it would seem I’ve arrived at a point where I could relax and let things run, life keeps showing me that I’ve still got a lot of things to do, a lot of things to give.”
Twenty-four hours later, Karol is calm (and dry) in a quiet Los Angeles studio, talking with her usual expressiveness and candor in sentences punctuated by crescendos, accents and exclamations and augmented by enthusiastic gesticulations. In her many music videos, Karol usually presents one of two ways. There’s the bichota, or badass, sexy and powerful and not afraid to show it. And then there’s the smiling (or occasionally melancholy) girl next door who enjoys celebrating love and doesn’t shy from displays of vulnerability. In person, the young woman born Carolina García in Medellín, Colombia, is all those things, but she’s also warm, exuberant and disarmingly earnest, a demeanor that has remained intact through my many encounters with her over the years, even as her popularity has soared.
Her hair is pulled back in a tousled ponytail, its platinum color matching the short, clingy silk dress that shows off her sculpted physique. At 32 years old, Karol has worked hard to look like this. Earlier this year, her doctor prescribed an eating plan to alleviate a long-standing colon disorder; at the same time, after a lifetime of exercising, she upped her training regime to be able to perform for three hours in a stadium. “I wanted to be healthy, and I needed to do a ton of cardio for the shows. And my body began to change,” she says. “It was beautiful because I’d always been told certain changes took time, and it was true.”
You could say the same of Karol’s upward career trajectory. She just wrapped an extraordinary year in which she became the first Latina woman (and second artist ever) to top the Billboard 200 with an all-Spanish-language album (Mañana Será Bonito); the top female Latin artist on Billboard’s year-end charts (behind only Bad Bunny and Peso Pluma); and the winner of album of the year at November’s Latin Grammys, as well as urban album of the year — the first woman to win the latter.
Karol is also the first Latina (and still one of only a few women) to headline a global stadium tour and the highest-grossing Latin touring artist of the year by far. According to Billboard Boxscore, in 2023, she grossed $146.9 million from just 19 shows and sold 843,000 tickets through Nov. 19, almost doubling the $86.7 million the Latin runner-up, RBD, grossed from 18 shows in the same period.
Beyond her accolades — or perhaps, more accurately, behind them — is Karol’s shrewd business sense. Her long-standing recording agreement with Universal Music Latino, which signed her to her first major deal in 2016, ended after Mañana Será Bonito came out in February. Instead of re-upping or accepting any of the “incredible” deals she says other labels offered, she launched her own Bichota Records, invested in its staff and infrastructure — much of it based in her native Colombia — and inked a distribution deal with Interscope that provides her with that company’s full, multinational support and staff but lets her keep her masters moving forward, including Bichota Season’s.
“We wanted to stay in the Universal family,” says Noah Assad, who has managed Karol since 2020, now through his Habibi Management. “They’re the ones who bet on her in the beginning, and we believe in longevity. No one knows an artist more than the infrastructure who had you in the beginning.”
Even so, he adds, “She was ready to build her own label, her own structure, her own team. She was already betting on herself without getting the gain. Independence is not just being independent; she had to build this whole infrastructure. Not every artist is made for independence, but knowing that she could [be] made it the right decision.”
Landing Karol, says Interscope executive vp Nir Seroussi, came from “a very practical conversation that I had with [manager and friend] Noah, asking, ‘What do you want?’ And he said, ‘She’s a boss. She wants to feel empowered, and she’s ambitious. She wants to have a seat at the table with the Billie Eilishes and the Olivia [Rodrigos] of the world.’ ”
Karol’s message to the label, Seroussi recalls, was clear: “I’ve come this far. I want more. I want to sit next to general-market artists because that’s how I feel: Latina but with an A-league fan base.”
But as she eyes mainstream global stardom, Karol is, as usual, prepared to be patient.
“It’s a fine line,” she notes. “In that rush to go global, music can lose its essence. So we’re going step by step. Yes, they’ve brought proposals [to the table], but I’m not in a rush. It would be amazing to fill stadiums in Asia, for example, but I truly feel happy and thankful with what I’m doing today. We’ll find the way.”
In an era of ever more rapid rises to stardom for Latin artists — witness Peso Pluma and, before him, Bad Bunny — Karol G’s ascent has been steady but slow, even laborious, and compounded by being a woman in a Latin world where female-led hits historically are scant. She started as a child pop act, competing on Colombia’s X Factor at 14, and didn’t hail from the barrio but from a solid middle-class family. When reggaetón descended on her native Medellín, she got hooked, but pursuing a career in the genre presented additional hurdles: She started recording and performing it at a time when men completely dominated the genre — as they still do — and she was considered an oddity, facing a highly skeptical industry: Aside from Ivy Queen a generation before, there weren’t any other women to measure her against.
But alongside her producer/co-writer Ovy on the Drums, Karol developed a sound — melodic, lyrically conversational, sparsely arranged and open to experimentation — that was very much geared toward women, touching on themes of empowerment and vulnerability with a genuinely personal point of view and embracing sexuality without being too overtly sexual. Stars like Nicky Jam and J Balvin endorsed her and recorded with her, and in 2016, Universal signed her.
“People got ‘married’ to Karol G,” says Raymond Acosta, head of talent management for Habibi, which also represents Bad Bunny, Eladio Carrión and Mora. “Her fans, even when they disagree with her, see her as a sister. For many of them, she’s not simply an artist. She’s family.”
A prolific, and by all accounts tireless recording artist, Karol built her fan base by being sincere on social media, by constantly releasing music and by maintaining a clear, consistent vision of who she was and what she wanted. Her debut album, 2017’s Unstoppable, released when she was 26, debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart, back when she had 3.5 million Instagram followers; today, she has 70 million.
Her first big hits were collaborations with men, beginning with “Ahora Me Llama” with Bad Bunny in 2017, which peaked at No. 10 on Hot Latin Songs. Her first No. 1 was 2018’s “Dame Tu Cosita,” alongside El Chombo and Pitbull. By then, Karol had been at Universal for three years without a massive hit of her own. All around her, reggaetoneros were scoring quick Hot Latin Songs No. 1s, even as she relentlessly released music; to date, she has logged 60 entries on the multimetric chart, the most for a Latin female artist.
“I started in 2006, and now it’s 2023,” says Karol bluntly. “My first songs were 15, 16 years ago. You spend all that time working and thinking, ‘When is my time?’ People on social media always show the goal: the cars, the money, the luxury goods, and everyone at home is thinking, ‘Why doesn’t that happen to me?’ But it’s not that easy. Everything has a process. Yes, I sometimes had doubts, but if I didn’t do this, what was I going to do? I am music. Every time anything happens to me, I want to write a song. Everything for me is a song.”
Finally, in fall 2019, she released the song: “Tusa,” a track about getting over heartbreak, which she wrote with Ovy on the Drums and Keityn and recorded with Nicki Minaj. It spent four weeks at No. 1 on Hot Latin Songs, underscoring Karol’s status as a Latin artist to contend with, who could collaborate with a top American rapper, while cementing her place as a woman who could relate to other women, tell their stories, voice their concerns, vent for them. (It also established the potent trifecta of Karol, Ovy and Keityn, which has since churned out a succession of chart-topping hits including the No. 1s “Provenza” and “TQG” with Shakira.)
“As a woman, she has always had a very clear notion of her identity and what she wants to tell fans, and she has taken that female power to the next level, making women feel like bichotas,” says Ovy, referring to the title of the global Karol hit that has become synonymous with female power. “She has always been very clear about what she wants to musically show the world, and as her producer from day one, I’ve always understood every move she makes. Anything she has in her mind, I turn into music.”
There is a definite line between stardom and superstardom, and for several years, Karol G inched ever closer to the latter, yet didn’t quite reach it. She played clubs, festivals, shows throughout Latin America, anything to be seen, but never had a proper routed headlining tour. Still, her second album, 2019’s Ocean, debuted at No. 2 on Top Latin Albums, and she became the top Latin female artist on Billboard’s year-end charts, a spot she has maintained ever since. She also toured the United States for the first time as a guest on Gloria Trevi’s 21-date Diosa de la Noche trek.
In 2021, she got her first Top Latin Albums No. 1 with her intensely personal KG0516 and launched her first headlining tour, playing theaters. The Bichota Tour — named after the single but by now synonymous with Karol herself — grossed $15.4 million, sold 214,000 tickets and opened Karol’s eyes to possibilities she hadn’t seriously considered. A major catalyst was the icy blue wigs — matching Karol’s hair color on the album cover and her cold, vulnerable state of mind — that fans took to wearing to the shows, an unprecedented display of fandom for a Latin artist.
“I think it was the way each person connected more closely with me,” Karol reflects. “It wasn’t just the blue wigs. I noticed [later] so many people changing their hair color in step with me. I thought it was extraordinary how a hair color can define a moment in your life.”
More importantly, “I realized that, thank God, this Karol G thing was a family and not a moment. I felt these people were there with me and would always be there, no matter what,” she says earnestly. Reading social media comments guided her. Fans who had seen her years before in a club now wanted to see her in a theater. “I began to understand there was a connection. When someone came and said, ‘I think you’re ready to do arenas,’ I thought, ‘Why not? If 3,000 people saw me in a theater, it means there are 12,000 more people who didn’t see me. Let’s go sell arenas.’ ”
The ensuing $trip Love arena tour in 2022 grossed $72.2 million and sold 424,000 tickets. Which again made Karol and her team consider bigger venues — in this case, stadiums.
“It’s sort of mind-boggling to sit here in early November 2023 and think that in November 2021 she was starting her first headline tour of North America ever,” says UTA partner Jbeau Lewis, booking agent for Karol and Bad Bunny, among others. “The fact that she headlined predominantly theaters in 2021, then arenas in 2022, then jumped to stadiums in 2023 is unprecedented for any genre. I think it’s easy to talk about Karol as a leader in Latin music, but based on the success she has had, especially in this year, she should be spoken about in the same breath as Taylor or Beyoncé.”
A year ago, Karol and her team weren’t even contemplating a stadium tour. The plan was to finish the arena tour in 2022, release Mañana Será Bonito in February 2023 and take a break — as much for herself as for her fans, who had seen her tour two years in a row — save for three Puerto Rico stadium shows in early March.
Then, Mañana Será Bonito exploded. When Karol played the first of the three Puerto Rico dates, she included a handful of the album’s songs, accompanied by her guitarist. Fans clamored for more, and by the third date, she was performing the entire album — and fans were singing along to every word.
“At that point, I realized I had to be very, very aware of what was happening with this music,” she says. After playing three stadium dates where fans knew all her brand-new material, she felt the moment was ripe for her to hit the road again.
A Karol G concert is a bit of a spiritual experience, one that unites multiple generations of Latin women under a single roof. Grandmothers and children cry in unison; professional women let their hair down and wear different-colored wigs. And in a twist, men know the songs, too.
“The most beautiful thing about my shows is people arrive with the intention to heal,” Karol says. “Their intentions are so beautiful that when I go onstage and all that energy is directed toward me, I feel like a battery that’s recharging and filling up, and sometimes I cry a lot in my shows. I try not to, but my heart feels like it’s going to burst.”
After her arena tour, Karol had been able to summon the same energy for her Puerto Rico stadium shows. Now the challenge was to extend that into a full stadium tour.
“The first step was sitting down and making the decision to do stadiums. This was the subject of a lot of discussion with my team. Someone said, ‘You’re going to play stadiums? Beyoncé plays stadiums. Taylor Swift plays stadiums. Are you ready for that?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not ready. But I will be.’ ”
Her team crunched numbers and came up with six safe markets. Those six dates quickly became nine when New York, Los Angeles and Miami sold out and second dates had to be added. From there, the tour mushroomed to 16 dates in 13 cities.
Less than the team being resistant to the tour, Lewis says, “It just wasn’t the plan. Generally speaking, when you go out and tour in stadiums, you need 18 months to a year to execute. We made the decision in March to go out on tour in August, with a very short runway. But all of the signals were there. There was such demand. Rolling immediately into second nights in Los Angeles, Miami and New York was incredible, and that gave the team confidence to say, ‘Let’s add more cities to this tour.’ Then doing things like her headlining Lollapalooza and coming back six weeks later in Chicago and selling 52,000 tickets in Soldier Field, that’s really unprecedented.”
For Karol, the crash course of preparing to play stadiums came with intense pressure: Not only would she be performing for crowds of 50,000 or more, she would be doing it during the same summer as the Renaissance and Eras tours. “Karol G couldn’t be the one who looked like she had no business doing it,” she says.
“It was an enormous personal challenge, from how I looked, to how I thought, to how I put it together,” she continues. “I didn’t feel I was ready until I saw the videos from the first two dates. I always judge myself horribly, and nothing is exactly how I want it. But in this tour, as a woman, I played the videos and said, ‘Wow, I love what I see.’ ”
Incorporating new music presented its own challenge. Soon after announcing the tour, Karol released Mañana Será Bonito: Bichota Season, a companion set that highlighted a completely different side of her: tougher, sexier, more experimental. To explain it, she wrote a book about the two versions of herself represented in the two albums and handed it to her tour designer. “I said, ‘This is my story. This is Carolina’s book, and I want her to be a siren.’ And they found the way to put it all into the show.”
While top Latin touring acts have long played stadium dates in Latin America, the notion of a conceptual tour is still relatively rare, and in the United States, only a few Latin artists have done multicity stadium tours. Karol benefited from the expertise of her team, including Assad and Lewis, which had already put together Bad Bunny’s two stadium tours, as well as the rock-solid family foundation that’s an intrinsic part of her business structure. In addition to Acosta, who handles her day-to-day at Habibi, since at least 2019, her sister, Jessica Giraldo, has also functioned as a “360,” overseeing all aspects of Karol’s career, including the growing Bichota Records and its staff; her Medellín office, Girl Power, which runs her merchandise business, among other projects; and her philanthropic Con Cora (“With Heart”) Foundation.
“Strategically, we have a great structure, and there are many, many people focused on massifying Karol’s vision,” says Giraldo, an attorney. “The big change Noah brought when he came on was globalizing the project. He opened the door to big mainstream festivals and big deals, for example. Raymond is his right hand in this project. And I’m the connection between the artist and everything else. I know Karol perfectly well; she’s my sister. But on the professional side, I’ve learned to understand her vision and execute it.”
While families and musical careers don’t always mesh, Karol’s has been an organic part of her structure from the very outset of her journey. Her father, a musician, fostered Karol’s ambitions, managed her until she signed with Universal and was the only person to join her onstage when she won the Latin Grammy for best new artist in 2018. Today, he isn’t part of her actual business, but he is part of her personal support network and, along with her mother, a constant presence at her shows and milestone moments, including this year’s Latin Grammys and Billboard Latin Music Awards, where he sat by her side.
“My family is everything to me,” Karol says. “[Fame] conditions real friendships and real relationships. Having my family — the most real and pure thing — around me makes me feel I’m not living in an ephemeral world where everything is transitory. Having them around me is also my way of thanking them for everything they did for me.”
That backbone will be essential come February, when Karol kicks off her 20-date Latin American stadium tour before an expected European run — all told, a seven-month trek, her longest time on the road yet. As ever, while on tour, she’ll link up with Ovy on the Drums and other writers for sessions to maintain a constant output of singles.
But at this point in her life, she’s ready to handle it all.
“If you ask me what I’m most proud of in the past year, it’s the independence we accomplished,” Assad says. “But I’m very proud of how hard she worked during the pandemic, going from the pandemic to theaters to arenas to stadiums. That all happened from 2020 to 2023, and that’s just amazing.”
Beyond music, Karol will make her acting debut on the Netflix scripted drama series Griselda alongside Sofía Vergara in January. And her Con Cora Foundation for women, launched this year, already has ongoing projects in sports, education and rehabilitation, including a program with the Houston Space Center to send Colombian teens to visit NASA.
“I’m bummed this era will end because definitely it’s the time I reaped what I sowed,” Karol says. “All these years working for something, and finally, that something is working for me. All these things I thought could happen, I trusted they would, and they did.”
When asked what comes next, Karol hesitates for a moment, as if wanting even more would seem too greedy for someone who already has so much.
“I’d love for my music to be heard everywhere, and, truthfully, I’d like my name to be heard all over the world,” she finally says. “Last year, we went to Santorini [Greece], to Kenya, to Dubai [United Arab Emirates], on holiday. And when people asked us where we were from and I said, ‘Colombia,’ the reaction always was, “Oh, Shakira, Shakira.’ ”
And then, in typical, demonstrative Karol G fashion, she holds up her arm to me. “See? I get goose bumps just thinking about it because that must be the ultimate. To have everyone in the world know your name.”
This story will appear in the Dec. 9, 2023, issue of Billboard.