Rihanna is ELLE's October Cover Star | ELLE UK

The Real Real Rihanna

Singer, actor, fashion designer and now beauty entrepreneur, Rihanna is a true pop-culture polymath. Here, ELLE investigates her diverse power and influence.

The first time I met Rihanna, in November 2005, it seemed distinctly possible – to me, anyway – that she might go down as a one-hit wonder. The year she turned 17, Robyn Rihanna Fenty released her first single, a reggae and dancehall-tinged pop song called Pon de Replay. It did well, reaching number 2 on both the Official Singles Chart and the Billboard Hot 100.

But the album from whence it came, Music of the Sun, made less of an impression, peaking at number 35 in the UK and number 10 in the US. But she wasn't worried: 'This is just the beginning,' she told me towards the end of a brief interview at a Manhattan photo studio. 'My dream hasn't come true yet. It's not about having five seconds of fame: I want to become a very successful artist.'

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I'll admit, I didn't take her words especially seriously. Back then, I was writing for Teen Vogue, and I spoke to at least a few would-be 'very successful artists' every month; needless to say, a not-insignificant percentage of them were never heard from again.

Rihanna, I soon learned, was different. Less than three months after the release of her debut album, she had started working on another. SOS, the first single from A Girl Like Me – and her first song to go to number 1 – came out in February 2006, less than a week before her 18th birthday.

From there, the hits kept coming. Unfaithful, an over-the-top ballad in which she lamented, somewhat absurdly, 'I don't wanna be...a murderer,' was followed the next year by Umbrella, the exuberant, plainly unstoppable first single from her third LP, Good Girl Gone Bad. By the time we met again, in July 2007, the young woman from Saint Michael Parish, Barbados (whose neighbours, she'd told me, used to complain about her loud singing), was fully a star, with a silver-glitter manicure she'd had done in Japan and a glowing collection of tattoos of similarly far-flung provenance.

I remember she'd arrived to the shoot more than an hour late, but she didn't seem particularly contrite. Nor did I expect her to be; I think we both knew by then that her time was far more valuable than mine. As we began talking, neither of us pointed out, in so many words, that her dreams had come true.

Instead, we talked about all the ways in which she'd learned to dream even bigger. She was hoping to try acting, she said, ideally in an action movie: 'I love that kind of stuff,' she told me. 'It's just cooler to me.' Asked what else she might want to do, she didn't hesitate: 'I want to start some of my own businesses,' she answered, including 'some clothing lines'. A few minutes later, when I raised the subject of her then-current gig as a face of the cosmetics line CoverGirl, she ignored the opportunity to talk up the brand. 'I also want to bring out a make-up line of my own,' she said.

Even for the singer who'd recorded the undisputed song of the summer – even for a 19-year-old who'd released an album that would ultimately go platinum in 19 countries – her plans were ambitious. But, almost exactly a decade later, Rihanna has done it all.

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As well as recording five more best-selling albums (bringing her total to eight, and counting), she began designing clothes for Armani in 2011, and then for River Island in 2012. Later that year, she made her big- screen debut in, as promised, an action flick (director Peter Berg's Battleship). By 2015, she was the first ever black face of Dior and the creative director of sportswear brand Puma, a title she still holds.

This year, she's appeared on the American TV show Bates Motel, in the space-set adventure movie Valerian, collaborated on two jewellery lines with Chopard (one haute, one merely very expensive), put out her third collection of high heels with Manolo Blahnik, and, oh yes, hit a number 1 again, this time as a featured artist on DJ Khaled's irresistible Santana-sampling single Wild Thoughts.

Now, with the much-anticipated debut of her eponymous make-up line, the 29-year-old mogul is finally checking off the last item on her long to-do list. Contrary to what many expected, the first batch of Fenty Beauty products includes just one lip colour and zero eyeshadows, liners or mascaras. Instead, Rihanna opted to focus on creating a truly inclusive complexion collection, with 40 shades of foundation (her own colour, #340, is near the middle of the range) and 20 concealer/contour sticks.

She's not exactly being altruistic: plenty of money has been left on the table by brands that insist on starting at Alabaster and ending at Almond, and her products, produced in partnership with the luxury conglomerate LVMH, aren't cheap. But the move still feels somehow sweet, as well as smart; like she's doing a favour for her millions of diverse, devoted fans.

Rihanna told ELLE US beauty editor April Long: 'One of the things that was most important to me [when designing her beauty range] was to make sure everyone was included. Foundation was the first product I ever owned; it was like magic, and I've been in love with make-up ever since.'

Avidly hands-on throughout the collection's development, Rihanna led everything from the playful name selection (there's a gold powder highlighter, for instance, called Trophy Wife) to the packaging, which, like its creator, is multifaceted, with tough, graffiti-inspired outer boxes opening onto sleek, streamlined, sweetly pretty individual products. 'There are plenty of options out there when it comes to make-up,' Rihanna said. 'My approach with Fenty Beauty was just to do things my way.'

Nobody's entirely sure when the star's biggest fans began calling themselves the RihannaNavy; some have traced the name back to a lyric from the star's 2009 album, Rated R. But their loyalty is well known – should anyone, celeb or civilian, dare to criticise their leader, the Navy will be quick to challenge them. Of course, Rihanna's own clap backs are legendary: in 2011, when Ciara complained on TV that, during a recent run-in at a party, Riri 'wasn't the nicest', Rihanna promptly tweeted, 'My bad, Ci, did I forget to tip you?'

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But, as the above anecdote illustrates, it wasn't only Rihanna's music that converted casual admirers into acolytes. Her fans were also responding to a change in her approach that came about during the years she was racking up smash after smash.

'Before,' she told me during our 2007 interview, 'I was a different way in my career than I was in person. But I've had enough of putting a face on. I just want to be me now. What you see is what you get.'

At the time, I wasn't sure what she meant; she'd been polite but low-key during both our conversations, displaying little of the wicked sense of humour that she'd eventually become known for. Her signature D.G.A.F. demeanour was newly apparent when she explained, 'It kind of trips me out that people put so much energy into saying negative things about me – I think they'd feel really stupid if they knew how much I don't care. I'm still breathing. Nothing they say can faze me at all.'

It was only when she gained greater control over her sound and her videos, and when Myspace gave way to Twitter, Instagram and, eventually, Snapchat, that the real Rihanna truly emerged. Her style choices, too, grew increasingly interesting, as she ditched the going-out tops and sparkly minidresses in favour of couture gowns and avant-garde streetwear.

'It's always very astonishing, the things she puts together,' says Chopard creative director and co-president Caroline Scheufele. Manolo Blahnik CEO Kristina Blahnik agrees, noting that the star's inventiveness is key to her outsize impact on the fashion world. 'She lives by her own rules, and that's so refreshing... I think a lot of people aspire to have that kind of freedom.'

Today, she's both a veritable meme machine – fans love to post pictures of her many hilariously eloquent expressions along- side comments such as, 'When yall beefn n he txt u first', or 'When u explained something for the 3rd time & the person still doesn't get it' – and, it seems, a woman living her best-possible life. Not only is she having fun – whether she's heckling NBA basketball players, making out with a hot Saudi billionaire or dancing at Barbados's annual Crop Over festival in a barely-there jewel-encrusted bikini and matching thigh-high gladiators – it appears that there's no limit to what she might accomplish.

Consider her recent sit-down with the president of France, to discuss funding for international education (Rihanna is a global ambassador for the Global Partnership for Education).

As the writer/director Gary Ross, who cast her alongside Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway in next year's all-female Ocean's Eleven spin- off Ocean's Eight, puts it: 'She has so many incredible gifts, it's just a question of how many hours there are in a day.' A decade ago, I didn't think she'd do even half of what she said she would. Now I, like millions of people, can't wait to see what she'll do next.

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