Fletcher Talks 'Beautiful' Friendship with Kelsea Ballerini, Harnessing Heartbreak on Debut Album
Fletcher Instagram Kelsea Ballerini and Fletcher
These days, Fletcher and Kelsea Ballerini are the duo of everyone's dreams.
The New Jersey-born pop singer famous for Billboard Hot 100 track "Undrunk" and her latest album Girl of My Dreams (Deluxe) and the Knoxville, Tennessee, native who's busy putting her "heart first" recently teamed up for song "Better Version" — and their real-life friendship has fans begging for more.
"Oh, I've seen all the shipping," says Fletcher, 28. "I think Kelsea and I have always just said that when special people come into your life at times during your healing process, people can make whatever they want out of a dynamic. We've seen all the comments, and it's a funny thing."
"Better Version" tells the story of growth that inevitably happens after a breakup, from two different female perspectives.
And, while a romantic relationship between Fletcher and Ballerini, 29, may not be as real as many fans are hoping for, the friendship that the two women share is about as real as it gets: it started over a tequila shot.
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"She came to one of my shows on tour this year in March. And we just very much hit it off, and [we] went on vacation and hang out. We're just real-life friends. She's somebody that if I'm having a panic attack about something, we're actually humans that can pick up the phone and call each other."
"That's just really special to have somebody else be like, 'Hey, are you feeling these things? I'm feeling these things,' and to lean on each other in those ways is super beautiful," Fletcher says, adding, "Kelsea's the best."
Fletcher Instagram Kelsea Ballerini and Fletcher
Fletcher, born Cari Elise Fletcher, is busy enjoying one of the biggest moments of her career ("This year, I have never seen more theories about me, more rumors about me, and it's quite an entertaining situation. And it's also been good for songwriting inspiration, too!" she teases) with the release of her EP, a New Year's Eve performance with Miley Cyrus on NBC and a GLAAD Media Award nomination constituting just a few of her defining moments of late.
Still, Fletcher's definition of success is rather rooted in her unapologetic self-expression— a significant part of which includes embracing her sexuality.
"It was scary at first because I remember receiving some sort of feedback that was like, 'Are you sure you want to be open about this? What if it ruins your career?'" she recalls. "And it's quite literally been the thing that my career has been based off of, being my honest, authentic self. And that's been such a beautiful gift for me."
Carlos de la Reina Fletcher
For Fletcher, growing up in a "very small, conservative town" where she regularly attended church made developing her own sense of self — never mind embracing it — really "confusing" at first.
"It was super conflicting for me, trying to develop my identity and where I fit in the world," she says of looking back at her inner "little queer kid."
"I felt like I didn't really have that many examples growing up of women specifically in pop music that were creating that [safe] space and doing it in a way that felt like it was relatable and that I could connect to. And so from a really young age, I was like, 'This has to be my mission. I need to see this, so that means someone else does too.'"
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"Being queer has definitely been something that's been a really big piece of my journey, and my childhood, and my self-discovery, and who I've developed into as a person, which has wildly informed my art," she explains.
Her sexuality continues to influence her art now, in overt ways as she belts out the lyrics to one of her songs called "Becky's So Hot," but in even quieter ways, too.
In what she calls a "big flex" moment, Fletcher was asked to guest star as herself on Showtime's The L Word, which focuses on the lives of various lesbian and bisexual women in Los Angeles.
"Being on that show as myself was such an ode to my little queer inner child who was just so lost and sneaking into my bedroom and Googling girls kissing on YouTube," she admits. "And to play a song of mine? It was a big part of my year last year and my career. It was most definitely sapphic chaos."
While she's undoubtedly a "queer icon" in her own right, Fletcher credits Madonna and Lady Gaga as her own big influences, having watched them "being empowered by sexuality, pushing boundaries and rebelling."
"It is a literal, lifelong dream to just look at them both in the eyes and be like, 'What you have done for me as a queer little kid in a small town in New Jersey and also just as an artist is far past what I could ever put words to,'" Fletcher says of her two role-models.
"It's just so cool now to be in a world where there's just so much queerness, and for there to be so many other artists that are living in their honest expressions, and I am in such good company."
That company also includes, yes, pal Ballerini, but also Taylor Swift — in fact, Fletcher and Ballerini most recently enjoyed a Girl's Night Out at Swift's Grammy afterparty — which serves as a full circle moment for Fletcher, who "obviously" listens to Swift's music, but also used to be a Taylor Swift impersonator.
"I was a Disney princess impersonator for little kids' birthday parties, and with that job, I was also a Taylor Swift and Hannah Montana impersonator," she reveals.
She even copped to listening to a "dramatic" Swift song as she mulled over the concept for her "Better Version" duet with Ballerini on the way to the studio.
Still, the importance of Hannah Montana in every millennial girl's life cannot be forgotten, either, as Fletcher circles back to the power of speaking things into existence.
"The amount of times that I've dressed up as Hannah Montana... see, this goes back to our conversation about manifesting coming to life!" she says, referring to her very real New Year's Eve performance with Cyrus.
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"That was such a dream. I've grown up with Miley in so many ways. When I was in middle school and I first discovered that I could sing, people would be like, 'Cari, sing something, sing something,' and my immediate go-to was 'If We Were a Movie,'" she says of the popular Hannah Montana song.
"Miley's so incredible and such a rockstar and an amazing artist, an even more grounded human being, and to close out my year on the stage with her was really surreal for me."
And, despite the jam-packed last year she's had, Fletcher shows no signs of slowing down. Even mid-interview, she's multitasking like the best of 'em.
"Well, right now, as we're speaking on the phone, I'm coloring," she says. "I bought some watercolors and some paint. I'm trying to find my hobbies. 2023 I feel like is the year of: we're still on a self-discovery journey and we're on a healing journey."
And, when they aren't busy shipping Fletcher and Ballerini, Fletcher's fans, too, are always looking out for their favorite star.
"They've been making me laugh because they're like, 'Cari, please rest, please rest.' And I'm like, 'Guys, I'm an overly emotional Pisces with too many feelings that I don't know what to do with. I can't rest. I have to be writing all of the time,'" she says. "I'm already writing things, and there's just a lot more coming this year that I can't wait to share with them."
Fear not, though, fans of Fletcher. She does "hike a lot. I just love to be outside, go to the beach, be in the water. It's not that exciting," she adds of how she spends her time when she's not working.
"My downtime is not really doing cool girl s—," she jokes.
But, maybe as true to form as Fletcher can get — "I sign boobs 99% of the time," she says, "and then nap the other 1%."
For more from Fletcher, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.