Maluma Is Going Into Orbit

01 March 2020
Cover Story, Music, Colombian, Celebrity, Bottega Veneta, CARTIER, Salvatore Ferragamo, Dunhill, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Versace
Images: Prod Antzoulis
Nobody ever said it was going to be easy – the hit records, the awards, the respect, but Maluma gets it, and he’s putting in the hard yards towards being the biggest pop star on the planet

At a conservative guess, Maluma’s heels must be three inches. Big, topply, wobbly – if you’re a novice – but the Colombian handles them with ease.

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Combined with silk, wide-legged trousers and a fitted orange tank, the look speaks not just of the no-rules fashion moment we’re enjoying right now, but of the man himself.

As it stands, the biggest male pop star in the world is almost out for the count. Right now, he’s jet-lagged to heck thanks to an 11-month, 79-gig, 76-city world tour that still has another two months to run. He wakes at three, six, eight am on the regular: another hotel room, another show… where are we tonight? Don’t worry about it, just look into the camera and do your stuff. Onto the next one.

Coat, turtleneck, shorts, bracelet, rings, shoes, prices on request, Bottega Veneta

In the week or so after his GQ cover shoot, Maluma will have left Dubai – where he played to 17,000 at the Coca-Cola Arena – for sell-out shows in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland, clocking up about 11,520km in travel in the process. It’s the type of behaviour that can turn you inside out if you’re not careful.

But there’s something about the man formerly – and occasionally, still – known as Juan Luis Londoño Arias that tells a different story. Maybe it’s just his slouchy, post-shoot Adidas fit, but there’s a serenity about him. A calm, level-headed, I-got-this vibe that floats around the corner of Dubai’s 8th Street Studios. In truth, the wire has been reached and breached several times en route to this point, but whichever way you slice it, Maluma is levelling out.

“My mentality has grown,” he says with a lazy scratch of his bleached blonde hair. “I’m not the little kid that started out when he was 16 anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still young, it’s only been 10 years, but now I feel like... like, an adult. I try to control what I can, but understand that I can’t control everything. This is all part of the job.”

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It’s the sort of reply that you’d expect from a guy pushing the numbers the Colombian megastar is pushing. It’s a steely-eyed game face masking the expectations of 49.2 million Instagram followers (Zayn’s currently on 31m, Harry Styles on 26… Paul McCartney on 2.8) and around five billion YouTube views.

The ride hasn’t always been comfortable, at least from the outside looking in. Ever since he started performing at 16, Maluma doubled-down on his heartthrob credentials, something that gets occasional kick-backs from his reggaeton peers.

Even his first ever show at his high school in Medellín – which he performed in uniform – had backing dancers and the air of something approaching the Latino superstars he saw on TV.

Ring, prices on request, Cartier. Vest, $455, Salvatore Ferragamo. Trousers, $1005, Dunhill. Boots, $1700, Gucci

If J. Balvin and Bad Bunny are the wavy disruptors, then Maluma is the unstoppable force beloved by all – even the ones that don’t admit it. And if there ever was any bad blood (at one point, the industry seemed desperate to pit Maluma against fellow Medellín boy-done-good, J. Balvin) that’s all been squashed. For now there’s a common ground and a mutual respect behind the riffs.

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Not that he could really be preoccupied by infantile spats created by the media. Since that showy high school performance, Grammys have followed, Madison Square Garden followed, Shakira followed, Madonna followed… licked toes in that video followed... now tell me, how’s that for the Maluma Flow?

“Look, I’m not going to say it’s always been easy,” he says. “So many shows, so many hours in the studio. This is not a normal job where you spend eight hours in the office and then go home to your family. There was a time when I just really wanted to have a normal life… to go out with friends, to go to a club – basically be just like any other teenager. But this is the life that I’ve chosen. I have to deal with it.”

On the face of it, the trappings of Maluma’s fame look like a deal reasonably struck. The all-black private jet, the insane watch collection –  currently being rebuilt following a heist at the 2018 World Cup in Russia – and the beautifully curated life that pulls in anywhere between 900k and 2.5 million likes per Insta post.

Truth is, none of this was really meant to be. Growing up in Colombia, football was the aim. Just as it was for the millions brought up with names such as Asprilla, Valderama and Higuita ringing in their ears, the legends from the Los Cafeteros side that almost touched greatness before falling into tragedy via the narcos narrative of Pablo Escobar.

Even though that side of Medellín wasn’t Maluma’s childhood story (“I used to play football, ride bicycles, eat hot-dogs”), an academy side at local favourites, Atlético Nacional, was as far as it ever got. That’s when things became complicated.

“When I was 12 or 13, my father lost everything, he says. “It was tough. We had to sell the cars, the apartment, all of that stuff. But we still had food. In a funny sort of way it made me feel even more blessed, you know? Despite everything that was happening around me, we still had food on the table, still had family. That was the most important thing.”

Rings, prices on request, Cartier. Shirt, shorts, prices on request, Louis Vuitton

It was his sliding doors moment. It was the time when his life would split and take one version of himself away from the pitch and into the studio.

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“I had a friend who’d already recorded a couple of tracks, so when it came to the high school show [Maluma’s first ever performance] he was like, ‘Bro, you should try it, you have some talent.’ I was like, ‘No man, I’m going to be a football player, why would I do all that?’ But he persuaded me, and everyone was kind of surprised. Of course there were haters even then... people saying, ‘Oh my god, who’s that loser?’ But that was ok, too.

“It got to the point when I had to make a decision between football, school and music, though. When my father had his trouble and we went broke, music was the escape. Music was the opportunity to help my family.”

Family is Maluma’s super power and Achilles heel. It’s what he yearns for most on the road, but is what keeps him out there in the first place. It’s the literal identity of everything he’s doing. ‘Maluma’ is an amalgamation of the names of his family members: his mother Marlli, his father Luis, and his sister, Manuela. He has ‘Maluma’ tattooed on his left foot, and usually has a necklace with his family around his neck. Speak to him and you quickly learn, his family are the heartbeat of his career. Keep working, keep hustling, keep his mom in her beautiful apartment just outside Medellín... “She’s the princess... no, she’s the queen! – I want her to have anything she wants.” But at the beginning, the goal was a little simpler: put food on the table. It brought out a ruthless desire to succeed.

“Originally, I was going to be part of a duo,” he explains. “I had a studio booked but the guy was 30 minutes late. I decided to record a few tracks without him… then I decided that I didn’t need him at all. When he finally got there I told him, ‘Bro, you gotta be ON POINT, you gotta be sharp. He said something about bad traffic, but I was done, ‘I don’t care!’ That was the day I quit football.”

The transition from nowhere to everywhere was rapid. While first album Magia didn’t really trouble the charts, it served as an early pilot of reggaeton’s dirty beats funnelling towards something a little more commercial. And while many die-hards weren’t into that, the next three albums proved that the house always wins. Pretty Boy, Dirty Boy, F.A.M.E, and 11:11 all crashed in at number one on the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart.

Ring, sweater, shorts, prices on request, Bottega Veneta

Maluma took risks, too. He doesn’t really get credit for that. It would have been easy to stay in his lane, to stick to what worked and just spit out the radio-friendly beats until it all became fat and bloated. But what started out as reggaeton developed into something new. Trap, hip-hop, R&B, all thrown into the type of package that rattles a core audience but can lead to global greatness. And for something approaching world domination to be achieved by an artist that doesn’t even sing in English, well, that’s quite a thing indeed. Maluma is probably more surprised by this particular outcome than anybody else.

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“I guess it’s just because, well...” he says, starting to trail off. “In the town that I come from, it’s just not normal to see this type of success.”

Success away from the private jets and the number one albums is different, too. Something a little less tangible. It’s everything, it’s anything, it’s every little temptation thrown at your feet. How your life develops from there depends on what you choose to pick up.

“To be honest,” he smiles widely, “You can get whatever you want, whenever you want it. But I’m not really the guy that goes crazy partying, it’s just not me. People say I’m an old soul, or that I’m like an old guy already, because I don’t really like to go out. But it’s my family that helps me most, here. They keep me grounded.”

There are times talking to Maluma that you see the 26-year-old lurking beneath. The guy that craves the lost years – the years that fame has pinched, the years with his family. But they’re there, they’re invested – his father works with him on new business opportunities and his sister is the president of his foundation, the Art of Dreams.

“They feel proud of my success but, really, they just want to take care of me,” he says. “We all know that this industry is kind of heavy, this world is heavy. You can lose your mind with all the pressure. Truly, I thank god that I have them and they have my back. I want to give them everything, but it’ll never be enough. They gave me life – how can I repay that?”

And when he does go a little too far, it’s his sister Manuela – or, the final ‘ma’ in Ma-lu-ma, to you and me – that keeps him in check. Often brutally. “She’s super honest,” he says. “Way more than my mum and dad. I don’t know why she’s always like that with me, but that’s her role in the family. Do I always listen? Yes, always. But I’m like, ‘Thanks, I appreciate it, but can you say it to me in a different way, a little bit softer maybe?’”

Sunglasses, $570, sneakers, $965, Gucci. Necklace, price on request, Cartier. Jacket, $2710, shirt, $1080, shorts, $755, Versace

To watch Maluma in action for a few days is an exhausting pursuit. Flight, concert, shoot, interview, repeat. It’s hella tough and he often wishes his fans could spend a week with him, just to see what the life is really like. But he wants it, too. He craves it. When things go back to normal and he’s kicking his heels at home for a few days, the frustration builds. “Why aren’t I doing anything?”

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It’s on those days that his mind invariably wanders back home. Any interview with Maluma will usually feature a mention of the need for Colombia to shed its often fearful image. And while the Art of Dreams foundation he helped set up might sound a little fluffy, it’s how he feels he can best give back to the people who put him where he is right now.

“We’re in Colombia working with children from small towns there,” he says. “People in those places often have no hope. All they know is drugs and guns... they don’t go to school, they don’t have that support network. So, we have different teachers spread around the city ready to give them singing lessons, dancing lessons... quality time.

“Everything started for me there in Medellín. Everything started in my little home town with all these people who listened to my music. The best way I can say thank you is to try and help them make their dreams come true too.”

This year also sees his movie debut in Kat Coiro’s Marry Me starring Jennifer Lopez. It included an intensive ‘how to act in your first movie’ boot camp courtesy of Lopez (“this many cameras, that many takes, stand here, look there, do it again,”) and a lesson in the subtle art of Owen Wilson-ness by Owen Wilson.

“I was very nervous with him,” he admits “When I said hello, he seemed almost exactly like his movie persona... just like him. I was like, ‘Bro, are you acting?’ He’s so calm and relaxed. In my first scene I had to tell him to go to hell, but he liked it. He came straight up to me afterwards and told me he really felt the scene. As he was talking, I was just thinking, ‘Holy s***, this is Owen Wilson.’”

Maybe movies will be it, maybe this is where things change a little and the package morphs into something else. But it’s unlikely. It doesn’t take long in his company to get the impression that music will always be the first – well, second – love that just sticks. And as it stands, Maluma is doing the most Maluma thing ever for album number five.

“I want this to be my masterpiece,” he says without relinquishing eye contact. “I want my next album to be a gift to the public – this is Maluma 2.0 (Baby!)”

Vest, stylist’s own. Coat, necklace, trousers, sneakers, prices on request, Bottega Veneta

It’s a record that will bring with it more pressure, more fame, more incessant touring, more everything. But until that point of crazy, Maluma reads, he goes to the gym, he sits in his garden – replete with football pitch – he meditates. This is how he claims back his life. This is how he achieves balance. That this most elusive element will likely remain out of reach until the fame ebbs away isn’t lost on Maluma. But in the lost moments, that’s something that he thinks about.

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“Sometimes I feel that people don’t really consider what happens off-stage,” he says, as the shoot packs up around him. “They only see the colourful things, the fun things. Of course, why should they look for anything else? This is the life I show on my social media, too. But there’s a dark side to fame. A grey space you constantly inhabit that’s filled with confusion. Sometimes you don’t know if you’re doing the right thing. Sometimes you really want more time with your family. You’re a human being, you get sad, too. Sometimes you want to fall in love like everybody else but you just don’t have the time. I have dreams for my personal life as much as my career. I want a wife, a family, I want a normal life. But now’s not the right time. My priority is music. Everything else will happen when it’s meant to.”

While Maluma is prepared to hit pause on his personal life in pursuit of world domination, if you look hard enough you can see slivers of real life forcing their way through the pedal-to-the-floor career plan. Two or three hours into his GQ cover shoot, there’s a gentle pause – a set is tweaked, a prop placement finessed. As the crew fusses around him, Maluma tunes back into the soundtrack that comes through the speakers. It’s “Cuando Parará La Lluvia” – a salsa ballad that swells and grooves. It’s wholesome. Maluma puts a hand to his chest, moving back and forth on the spot, closing his eyes as he works through the chorus with Johnny Rivera. When everything stops for a second, and he idly sings along to the tune – not for a camera, not for a crowd, just for him – well, in these moments Maluma is free. And right now, that’s good enough.

Photographer: Prod Antzoulis

Styling: Keanoush Zargham

Producer: Malaika Naik

Executive Producer: Cezar Greif

Set Designer: Samantha Francis (Aces Of Space)

Makeup Artist: Toni Malt At Thingsbypeople

Hair Stylist: Freddie At Mk Barbershop UAE

Fashion Assistants: Elham Safieddine And Zeyad Elkady

Assistant Producer: Anisha Lachhwani

Photography Assistant: Mary Lilenova

Set Design Assistants: Nicole Dou-nen And Sakina Ibrahim

Floristry: Mayflower Flower Shop