Words by Mark Ellen.
It’s 11pm in Paris. The cover shoot is over, the interview still to come. This wasn’t the schedule, but, as ever, we’re on Rihanna Time. I’m asked over to her hotel in Place Vendôme, where her director of international marketing is wondering if the bar downstairs might have the right sort of ‘vibe’. Ri and I can sit in the corner, she decides, the security guy keeping intruders at bay, and the rest of the entourage can have a drink nearby – which they do, apart from one who stays within earshot pretending to read emails and leaps up to deliver throat-cutting arm signals every time she hears the words ‘Chris’ or ‘Brown’.
Rihanna floats in at two in the morning and floats out just after three. As you’d imagine, she is charm personified – huge, huge liquid eyes and a west-coast accent with echoes of her Bajan background. A bottle of chilled Chablis shows up and we’re poured a big glass each.
To begin with, I ask her about music. And why not? Auditioned in Barbados, she signed a deal with Jay-Z’s Def Jam Recordings at the age of 16. Her first single, Pon de Replay, was a worldwide hit and she’s now made seven albums, Unapologetic the latest, and sold 200 million records in 74 different countries, assisted by 3.2 billion YouTube hits and over 65 million friends on Facebook. She has had 75 official Number Ones. It’s an astonishing trajectory on every level, and she only turned 25 this February. I’d be happy with just her Air Miles.
I’m fascinated by the way her songs come about, I tell her, as she doesn’t write them. She commissions them. Does she suggest subjects to her songwriters or do they compose them and hope they’ll get recorded?
‘I spend a lot of time with them so they know my story by the time they write, and it’s always the truth. At times I won’t be rebellious or edgy, sometimes it’ll be vulnerable and really innocent but you don’t know what bad things that girl might do to get to the vulnerable state! Sometimes bad girls are tired of bad s***,’ she says.
Songs like Pour it Up and Cheers (Drink to That)… are they warnings about the way men can behave?
‘Not necessarily warnings, it’s just the truth. I happen to think like a man, too, and do certain things guys like to do. I grew up around boys. There was just me and one female cousin in this group of family and friends, so I went to school and I automatically had guy friends and when I came to this industry all my friends happened to be guys. When I was a teenager I wasn’t [romantically] interested in guys at all ’cos I thought I was one of them! They didn’t seem exciting to me, they were more like a pain in my ass. Our conversations were like we were brothers, we would talk all the time. I go to strip clubs – sometimes with men, sometimes on my own. Why? ’Cos I enjoy the music they play there. It has a certain vibe and I watch the girls pole dancing. Even now I will go to, like, an industry event and all the ladies will be over here and all the guys over here and I will go to the guys’ table and sit because I just feel I can have a much better conversation over there. And that’s automatic, it’s not prejudice.’
I tell her I admire her for saying that: it’s not what her record label would want her to say.
‘I said that one time and LA Reid [who signed her to Def Jam] said, “You have to say you’re a girls’ girl because girls are your fans!” He was mad at me,’ she shrugs. ‘But it’s the truth. I’m a tomboy. My best friend Melissa [Forde], she was the one who girled me up. I would go to clubs with her and she’d be dressed up and I’d be wearing, like, sneakers and a bandana and I didn’t find anything wrong with it until she started showing me magazines. And we’d just sort of stare at them, these craaazy fashion stories and these craaazy sex stories! I learned a lot hanging out with Melissa.’
Rihanna’s interest in fashion has grown to the extent that she launches her first collection, with British high-street label River Island, this month.
‘She came to us,’ River Island’s marketing director Josie Roscop tells me, in Paris for the shoot. ‘She loved the fact we were a family-owned British business. Every item in the range has her contribution. We’re not just pulling pieces out of her wardrobe and copying that line. We helped to realise her vision, a nice mix of femininity and a tomboy twist, very chic but with an edge to it.’
‘I love the high-street shops,’ Rihanna tells me when I ask her about the project. ‘The stylish kids on the street, they’re the ones that set the trends. The designers see what they’re doing and go and design their line and sell it back to the same kids and it’s like, why not go directly to the source? High-street shops pay more attention to the kids on the street than to the runways, so in a way I like to mix both. I love a high-end bag or jacket with a simple dress.
I just thought, I’m going to make something for everybody – every personality, every body type.’
Today, I saw for myself what Rihanna-style means. The shoot took place in Montparnasse. The effervescent photographer Mariano Vivanco and crew were at the studio at ten, the talent due at eleven. He set up his cameras and papered the walls with references, shots of Edie Sedgwick, Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page, Brigitte Nielsen, Twiggy and Linda Evangelista. There were 10 set-ups planned, among them the cover, and various pieces from the River Island collaboration. A tented make-up and hair salon had been erected on the terrace outside, and a changing-room stocked with a range of exotic drinks.
She arrived – and only three hours late!
And out of hair and make-up Rihanna eventually came, even taller than her 5ft 8in on her perilous heels, which immediately tore two gashes in the backdrop and sparked a fit of hand-on-mouth giggles. I watched from 10ft away, fascinated by the ease of her movements, her luminous skin and the shower of blue stars tattooed down her neck and back. A thin gold chain hung across her navel; there’s another, I’m told, between the rings on her nipples. She made sinuous little moves to the music – Gotye, Bowie, Pet Shop Boys, Pointer Sisters – softly mouthing the words ‘You be the match, I will be your fuse,’ to Miguel’s Sure Thing. She draped a long arm around the shoulders of anyone who wanted a picture with her.
This was not my first encounter with the hurricane-level impact of Rihanna. Back in November, around 1,000 people – including me – were packed into a tropically hot dancehall near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Seven camera crews were trained on the stage; a DJ was playing thunderous tunes. They’d all arrived at eight in the evening and it was now well past eleven o’clock.
I had a magical ‘all-areas’ pass so I wandered through security and down into a maze of corridors that led to an underground bunker containing six band members and their technicians, the choreographers, a creative director, the ‘Glam Squad’ (costume designers, hair and make-up), a chef, a masseuse, the management and a host of tour and record-company personnel. At the far end was a room that looked nothing like the rest of this concrete rave palace. It had fur rugs, black curtains, soft furniture and ‘accents of pink’ – pink scented candles, pink lilies, embroidered lengths of pink Chinese silk – specially customised by the hospitality liaison manager to create ‘a comfortable environment’ for the star of the show.
There was an air of expectancy, a sense of calm before the storm. All of us – the band, the entourage, the audience upstairs – were doing the same thing. We were waiting for Rihanna.
We’d spent a lot of that week waiting for Rihanna.
I was on her now-legendary seven-day 777 tour. She had played five shows in five different countries – Mexico, Canada, Sweden, France and now Germany, with England and the States to come – and she’d been late onstage every night. Mention her time-keeping to any member of Team Rihanna and they’d roll their eyes fondly and tell you tales that made your hair curl: long hold-ups in huge arenas, or the time she made it to the wings just seconds before cruising onstage to sing on a live prime-time US TV show.
Crew members called her plane ‘Air Force One’, the name for the presidential jet, and the girl herself gave the glorious impression that life was just one big party with herself at the centre of it. ‘This is my rock’n’roll fantasy and it’s sure to be a wild ride,’ she’d announced before we took off and, bang on message, she’d grabbed the intercom between LA and Mexico City and shouted, ‘This is an emergency! Welcome to 777! Make some noise and let’s get drunk!’ Minutes later an air hostess was distributing glasses, Rihanna right behind her tipping out gold bottles of Ace of Spades champagne. ‘And if you really want to black out,’ her PA shouted, ‘we’ve got Cognac!’
This is the most over-the-top, all-hours event I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve travelled round America in U2’s private jet, but it was the very model of calm and efficiency. I was on a Rod Stewart tour, but that seems cut-price in comparison. I spent a week in Italy with hard-living Frankie Goes to Hollywood but at least we got some sleep at nights. But the Rihanna tour… I haven’t had so much fun for years.
When she eventually rolled up backstage in Berlin, everything clicked into the quietly controlled overdrive that indicates the queen has arrived at the hive. She was shepherded to her ‘Rihanna-ised’ dressing-room compound and the sweet scent of marijuana drifted over the curtains. Then she emerged to join the nightly ritual known as ‘The Prayer’, the signal that she’s finally ready to perform. The band locked arms in a huddle and the chant began, led by teetotal, God-fearing bassist Adam Blackstone (Ri’s musical director): ‘Dear Lord, bless this band, bless every beat of its drum, every note it sings. Bless every instrument and the sound it makes. We love you, God. Seven-Seven-Seven! BERRRLIIIIIIN!!’
When Rihanna (finally) arrives anywhere you get the same strange mix of emotions: a sense of relief that whatever was waiting to start can begin, and an overwhelming sensation – terrible but true – that you want to forgive her for everything because she’s just so fantastically pretty. There’s a loud, collective sigh all around you – men, women, teenage kids. She’s so beautiful it’s overpowering, the sort of mesmerising looks that can melt a room simply by entering it. Her huge lips and feline hazel eyes radiate a frailty and innocence known only to the impossibly cute heroines of Disney cartoons. But the rolling rhythm of her walk, the occasional narrow glance and the handgun tattooed below her right shoulder send off a whole different set of signals. It’s the same with the way she dances – one minute it’s little tottering high-heeled steps, sexy and vulnerable; next it’s the lascivious self-stroking moves of a high-class hooker.
How incredible to be that good-looking. To be able to raise the sum of human happiness just by turning up. How wonderful that would feel. Wonderful – and maybe slightly corrupting.
What do you think you represent for women? ‘I think women want freedom, they want to be empowered, they want hope, they want love, they want all the things that I want and I’m not afraid to say those things and act on them, and I think that’s why they identify with me. Women want to be fearless and sometimes all it takes is to see that it’s possible. Once you see it can be done, you think “I could do it, too.” That’s all I could ever hope for, to have a positive effect on women. ’Cos women are powerful, powerful beings. But they’re also the most doubtful beings. They’ll never know – we’ll never know – how powerful we are.’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the way society has trained us…’ she says, trailing off. ‘Women never know their full worth. Or sometimes they’re in denial about it. Or sometimes they’re afraid to have the right to it. That’s just a thing about us. But I find that men know their worth and their limits and they stick to that, it’s very simple.’
But you’ve had a lot of inspirational women in your life.
‘I’ve had incredible women – my mum, my grandmum, my best friends! I’ve got this Isis tattoo [on her ribcage] to symbolise my grandmother. Isis was an Egyptian goddess who taught women to be complete women – how to cook, how to clean, how to wash clothes, how to survive and not be slaves to men. She taught them to be independent women and to make things happen by themselves. And that’s the attitude of all the women in my family, and my grandmother was the one who first really taught me that. My mum, though, was exposed to certain things in life and that made her a little harder and maybe a little colder than other women. And I’m very much like her.’
This is the break-up with your father, right?
‘Yes. He wasn’t the best husband in the world but he was an amazing father. And that’s what he is to me, not my husband but my father. It was a relief when he was gone but I guess I loved him.’
Did their bitter divorce change the way you thought about relationships with men?
‘Well my mum never had to tell me anything. I figured it out by watching and sensing. Children know. People think children are stupid. Kids are not stupid. If my parents were angry with each other I could feel the energy in the room, whether they were arguing or not. It’s painful to watch your mum go through certain things. I learned a lot, you know.’
You might know this part of the story already. The middle-class Lady Gaga may have brought misfortune upon herself, but Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born into it. When she was 16, her mother divorced her crack-addicted father and had to work round the clock to support the family, leaving Ri to look after her younger brother, Rajad; ‘Probably the best summer I ever had,’ she tells me with touching maternal pride. ‘He’s growing so fast now,’ and she shakes her head. ‘Heeey, slow doooooown!’
She was obsessed with Madonna – ‘I loved the way she reinvented herself, like an actress always playing a different role’ – and was ‘sucked in by the tone and angelic sound’ of Whitney Houston. She also idolised the local hero Bob Marley and began singing pop and reggae (her single Man Down is pure Jamaican dancehall).
But in February 2009, an event occurred that was – in the light of her hard-living bravado, her apparent confidence, and first-hand experience – hard to understand, and impossible to overlook. When a Los Angeles Police Department photograph was leaked to the TMZ website, the world was horrified to discover that she’d been badly beaten up. The R&B artist Chris Brown, her boyfriend, was charged with assault and placed under a restraining order that forbade him to be within 50 yards of her, reduced – in a bizarre legal twist – to 10 yards if the two of them had to appear at the same industry awards.
The bleak mystery of this miserable tale still casts a long shadow. The girl who could have everything – a symbol of strength, independence and opportunity – appeared to be in the worst relationship imaginable. With the nearby minder leaping in repeatedly to say the interview’s ending if the subject doesn’t change, it takes four attempts and a fair amount of subterfuge to piece together the conversation that follows. Twice, curiously, she moves back to the topic herself, talking in an intense low whisper, clearly wanting to make a point. The song Stay on the new album must be about Chris Brown, I suggest.
‘Stay is a story about having love that close and wanting it to last forever. You don’t have that feeling with everybody so when you have it you don’t want to let go of it. I would definitely say that he is the one I have that kind of relationship with.’
You must want us to know that relationship is back on as you keep tweeting pictures of you both lying on beds.
‘Well I Instagram everything about my life, whether it’s smoking pot, in a strip club, reading a Bible verse – how crazy, I know! – or hanging out with my best friend, who happens to be Chris. And right now that’s just what we want, a great friendship that’s unbreakable. Now that we’re adults we can do this right. We got a fresh start and I’m thankful for that.’
It must be strange having the whole world telling you how to run your life.
‘I know, but I got used to it. And I understand it. Everybody has an opinion about everything. But an opinion is just an opinion – I can only respect it but I can’t do anything to change their minds or to change the way I feel. Nothing is going to change because of their opinion. Everybody wanted to know what was happening in my life. Is she a drug addict? No. Is she an alcoholic? No. Is she a victim? No. That’s when I got the gun,’ she points to her handgun tattoo. ‘It was a symbol of strength – it was “I’ll never be a victim!” I had all these eyes on me, critic after critic after critic! I’d heard so many things I was kind of numb to it. When I had my breaking point – my turning point, sorry – I got enough s*** where I had to make a decision. I was like, who am I trying to please? None of these motherf***ers know me! Why do I care about what they think? I started thinking, what if I went my whole life trying to please everybody? You will never please everybody. And you haven’t pleased yourself ’cos you’ve been so busy trying to please everybody and then it’s too late. I had to have that breakthrough, to tap into who I really was. And the truth. And trusting myself again.’
So you thought you were deceiving people?
‘Yeah. I think I came to a point where I started lying to myself. And it’s so hard to live a lie,’ she shakes her head. ‘It’s just too hard. It’s too difficult. It’s too much to think about. That’s why I’m posting pictures of myself smoking pot, to tell the truth about myself. I’ve got so much to think about, why bring all this extra s*** by being dishonest? When somebody else lies to you, you don’t trust them. Trying lying to yourself, that’s even worse. You can’t paint a fake picture for too long before the truth comes out and then it’s hard that it doesn’t match up.’
So your new policy is all about honesty?
‘It’s all about honesty. This is not failure, it’s lessons. It’s not the end. If you learn from mistakes it’s not failure. If you go and do the exact same f***ing thing then that’s the stupidest thing ever and it probably won’t work the second time.’
But that violence of 2009 still seems unacceptable to an outsider. Your father had an abusive relationship with your mother – did that make you more accepting of Chris Brown’s behaviour than others might have been?
‘No, I didn’t “accept” anything! I’m not accepting anything that’s wrong! What’s wrong is wrong, no matter who it’s coming from and that’s just that.’
But you’ve obviously forgiven him.
‘I have my own reasons, very very private reasons. Very personal.’ She’s speaking very quietly. ‘A lot of things. Bottom line – I know him. I had a lot to think about and I had a lot of time to think about it. I was trying to do this for myself. I did not notice how many women were going through the same thing as I was. I didn’t notice how many women were in a limbo of love, a dilemma. And with every aspect there was a different crowd of women who identified with different things.’
Everyone in your entourage seems slightly afraid of you and it’s probably been that way since you first had hits aged 16. Does that make it attractive to meet someone like Chris, someone you might be slightly afraid of yourself?
‘Ooh, you don’t know my mother!’ she laughs loudly, cleverly switching tack. ‘She’s the scariest person I know. I’m not afraid of any person in this world but her. I’m terrified of her! She called me two days ago and reeled me in about two naked pictures Melissa put up on Instagram – a sneak-peek from a photo book she’s making about me. My mom, she went crazy on me. I was like embarrassed. I felt like I got my ass whupped in front of my class in school!’
What did she say?
‘She said, “This was like a private moment and you’re just parading this around.” Mummy, first of all this is a book and… “You’re just excluding all your younger fans!” Mummy, then they’re not fans. You’re either a fan or you’re not. I’m not excluding anybody, you have to be yourself. She was yelling at me. She humbled the f*** out of me!’
Frantic gesticulations from the next table insist there’s time for only one more question. So I go for this and it’s strangely revealing: Rihanna, where would you like to be in five years’ time?
‘Shall I say this?’ She glances at her minders and leans in. ‘I will probably have a kid,’ she says, softly. ‘And I’m praying I can go on vacation for a good month. And I’ll have set up some things so I don’t have to tour for the rest of my life, even though I love touring. I want health and happiness in five years. I want to be healthy and happy.’
And who’ll be the father of this child?
‘Now who the hell would that be!’ she shouts theatrically to anyone still left in the bar, then gives me a smile that seems to me to be unambiguous. It’s the man we’ve just been talking about.
She affects an air of mystery. ‘I can’t tell you that,’ she says. ‘It’s not my business. It’s God’s business!’