English R&B star Ella Mai's song "Boo'd Up" is one of the biggest hits of the year. But she was almost a professional soccer player!

By Janine Rubenstein
November 02, 2018 11:00 AM
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When it comes to 2018’s song of the summer, Ella Mai‘s silky smooth ear-worm “Boo’d Up” nearly gave Drake‘s smash hit “In My Feelings” a run for its money.

The newcomer followed up the song with another chart-climbing R&B tune “Trip” along with a self-titled album that just went gold. Now everyone wants to know more about the soulful star who’s earning major Grammy buzz.

“It’s definitely been crazy,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue of her meteoric rise. “It’s hard to put into words because it’s the stuff you always dreamed about. When it starts actually happening you’re like ‘Wow, is this reality?'”

That it is. Here are five things to know about breakout R&B star Ella Mai:

Ella Mai

1. Born Ella Mai Howell, she hails from London and got her start on Instagram.

You can’t tell from her singing voice, but get her talking and it’s clear Ella Mai is a Londoner through and through. Named after Ella Fitzgerald, she attended high school in New York City and upon graduating returned home to South London in 2012 where she studied music and joined a girl group that had a short run on London’s X Factor.

But in 2015 she took a leap of faith, crossing the pond again to pursue music.

“I started doing Instagram covers about three years ago which was when I got discovered,” says Mai, 23, who’s been singing since she was a kid. After getting the attention of hitmaker DJ Mustard, she moved to L.A. and began writing alongside in-demand songwriters like Joelle James and Sam Hook. “It all happened pretty quickly,” she says. “Sometimes it doesn’t feel like three years is quick, but in hindsight, it really is.”

Ella Mai
Frederick M. Brown/Getty

2. She had considered playing professional soccer.

Aside from music, “The only other thing was I used to play soccer,” says Mai. “I really wanted to be a professional soccer player but for women it’s not as big and a lot of the professional soccer players have to work a second job because they don’t get paid anything near what male soccer players get paid…I stopped playing in 2012. I never wanted to be a nurse or a doctor or anything like that. I loved Bend It Like Beckham!”

Ella Mai
Steve Granitz/WireImage

3. She never imagined “Boo’d Up” would be such a hit.

The young star is still in shock that her single, about a girl falling hard and fast in love, has gone triple platinum, catapulting her to stardom.

“I recorded ‘Boo’d Up’ at the very start of 2017,” she explains. “I don’t think anyone could have imagined that it would do what it’s done or what it’s doing. Especially an R&B song from a new artist, it’s kind of unheard of.”

The biggest surprise: the tune’s devout male fans. “Obviously I love that women love it as well,” says Mai, “but I think just seeing all of the different men like not caring how they look singing this lovey-dovey song, was something that I definitely didn’t expect.”

4. She hasn’t fully adjusted to being famous.

If you’re lucky, you might just catch Ella Mai at your neighborhood laundry mat.

“I’m on tour with Bruno [Mars] right now and we had to stop to go to the laundry mat and I did the laundry myself because that’s just what I’m used to. My day-to-day manager took a picture of me and said, ‘I’m going to show you this in two years and be like, “Remember when you used to do laundry yourself?”‘” Mai tells PEOPLE with a laugh. “I’m just super grateful to be the position that I’m in.”

Nick Delaney/Twentieth Century Fox

5. If a Grammy nomination is in the cards, she has a big decision to make.

With Grammy nominations soon to come, Mai’s garnered a lot of buzz, but has no idea what she’d wear.

“I hadn’t thought about it until recently,” she says. “Everyone’s been asking me and I’m like, ‘Damn, this could really be a possibility!’ Someone asked me if I’d wear a statement piece or go with something safe, but I have no clue.”

In the meantime, she’s trying to soak up some down-time over of the holidays, entertaining visiting family as she eagerly awaits the return of her favorite shows Insecure and Atypical. “I start my tour in January,” she says, “so for Christmas, I’m just going to chill and relax.”