Lately, too much of Ciara’s press has been bound to her acrimonious breakup with Future, a troublingly hot-cause-he-knows-it rapper born Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn. They also have a baby together—also named Future. But Ciara has no interest in talking about her past relationship, because she isn’t one to dwell. And why should she? She cut things off romantically with Future in 2014 and moved on; within two years she was married and pregnant with a new man. Her husband, Russell Wilson, is a quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, and, at 28, is three years younger than his wife.
When talking about Wilson, Ciara’s elocution is dotted with ellipses and hyperbole. Their relationship is, «even greater… just… so… amazing… awesome… It really is.» One of the greatest things about Russell, Ciara shares, is how he supports her: «When you know they’re going to be your champion, always in the corner…» I joke that her quarterback is a cheerleader, and she agrees. It’s too rare to have straight men back us up, I say. «If someone’s not supporting you and your vision and your dreams,» Ciara agrees, «—whether it’s your relationship partner, your friend, whomever, then you’ve got to make sure to keep it moving. If people aren’t lifting you up, even if you’re the strongest person in the world, eventually it does chip away at you. You don’t even realize that you’re losing yourself. And that’s the scariest place to be in life… I don’t want to lose myself. I love myself too much. I love life too much.»
«Once you’re able to really be truly truthful with yourself, it’s life changing.»
Ciara calls herself tough, but admits her definition of tough has changed: «Before, tough was kind of like, if something happened that was wrong, I’d just keep moving.» It’s something she learned early on, as an army brat. Born in Texas, Ciara lived in Germany, Utah, Arizona, New York, Nevada, and a trailer home in Monterey California, before settling in Georgia as a young teen. «It was a bit of a challenge,» she says, «you would build friendships, then you’d have to say goodbye.» She recalls singing «I’m Going Up a Yonder» (she starts singing it to me: If somebody asks me where I’m going, going…) as a farewell to friends at 7 or 8 years old. «I do think part of that made me kind of tough,» she admits. «Emotionally tough. The truth of it is, it helped me with being able to accept cutting things off… Which I think is a good thing, maybe it could be a bad thing, because it can make you cold in that way.»
Today, she’s come to realize that being vulnerable is a form of strength. «Once you’re able to really be truly truthful with yourself, it’s life changing,» she says. «You have way more compassion than you imagine, you’re sensitive to the right things.» Ciara learned the strength in vulnerability, she tells me, through the birth of her first son. Baby Future taught her patience, «above all.»
When Ciara quotes her son, she puts on a helium high staccato that pops on puckered lips. Her default voice is brandy warm and slightly Southern, thanks to her childhood in Atlanta. She has a cold though, and she keeps apologizing for having to blow her nose. «It’s hard when you’re pregnant because you can’t take any medicine,» she says. She’s been craving oranges and ice water, and for a touch of caffeine, she drinks green Japanese tea—a pot of which is served while we wait for our lunch. She asks the waiter if he speaks any Japanese, in Japanese. He’s from Oaxaca, so she switches to Spanish. Ciara speaks a little Chinese and Swahili, too. «I made this deal with myself,» she goes, «that whenever I travel, and there’s a foreign language, I must pick something up. I love learning languages. It’s also a way of paying respect to my international fans.» Ciara has been world touring since her first album—released in 2004 when she was just 19—went triple platinum.
Backed by major labels and producers, Ciara’s career had momentum from the go. (It’s like her hip flexors were made for music videos.) There’s one thing she feels she missed out on though: «I didn’t get to go to college because of my career,» Ciara says. «That’s the one thing I fantasize about sometimes.»
The day before we met, Ciara was on campus at the University of Southern California. She volunteers with I Am That Girl, an organization that helps girls to turn self-doubt in to self-love. Her role is to facilitate consciousness-raising groups wherein up to 40 girls, freshman through senior year, «talk about what they’re going through—it’s kind of like a circle of trust amongst women, you share the good and the bad.» Ciara will share from her own life experiences (the circle is founded in confidentiality). One message she tries to impart is, «that they’re not alone in their journey, and that we all essentially experience the same things, we just have a different way to tell the story.»
If you only know Ciara from her music videos, she can come across as hard. Her dance moves tend toward flamenco severity or a miming of masculine sexual prowess, but behind that chiseled bod is a softness that catches you unexpectedly. And now, she’s spelling out the very not-so-bad word I’d have labeled her with. «I don’t like cursing,» Ciara goes, «so I always spell it out. ‘I’m Ciara, and I’m a bad A-S-S.'» (This is how you’re supposed to introduce yourself in I Am That Girl circles.)
This article originally appeared on Haaper Bazaar.