Totally unfiltered, relentlessly productive, and obsessed-about by millions—the supernova-hot Rihanna is readying a new studio album and living a mile-a-minute life.
Backstage at the “MTV Video Music Awards” in Los Angeles plays like a very expensive and absurdist version of high school. In a lower corridor of the Staples Center, musical cliques rush between dressing rooms, looking like underclassmen scrambling from homeroom to algebra. Popular girl Taylor Swift floats by in a cream-colored suit, pale, silent, almost an apparition. A Nashville twang rebounds along the hallway concrete—Miley Cyrus, greeting a friend and showing off her newly buzzed, blonde hair. There’s Katy Perry in a plunging black floral dress. There are the teen crushes One Direction. There’s the United States Olympic women’s gymnastics team, here to introduce Alicia Keys. Emma Watson, the actress. Pink, the person. At one point, there’s a commotion, and suddenly Lil Wayne spins by on a green-wheeled skateboard. He’s as tiny as a coxswain, a pair of red headphones clamped over his ears.
Then, through a silver set of doors, Rihanna appears. She’s wearing a sheer red Adam Selman dress with matching leather Balenciaga leggings, and as she steps into the hall, a thick crowd begins to part around her. Her entourage is about ten deep, and Rihanna steps to the front, scanning faces from behind an outrageous pair of Jeremy Scott sunglasses, the temples of which are miniature gold machine guns. Dictator sunglasses. Just days ago, Rihanna cut her hair pixie-short, like Audrey Hepburn’s in Sabrina, but to the public this is still just a rumor, and given the manner in which her stylistic evolutions are breathlessly followed, actually seeing the new ’do feels like a sneak preview of a yet-to-be-unveiled iPhone.
“Spur of the moment,” Rihanna will tell me later. “My hair was supposed to be down to my ass tonight.”
She keeps walking, one Air Jordan sneaker in front of the other. Rihanna passes the dressing rooms for Swift and Perry as well as Frank Ocean, the ascendant R&B star. Later that night she will bump into the actor Robert Pattinson, who is here to promote the final Twilight film, unaccompanied by his costar Kristen Stewart, with whom Pattinson has endured a terribly awkward breakup. Recently there were tabloid reports that Rihanna was flirting by text with Pattinson. When I relayed this rumor to Rihanna before the VMAs, she expressed horror and pronounced it “the most bullshit ever,” but she also seemed amused. No two private lives in the universe are subjected to as much daily rumormongering as Rihanna’s and Pattinson’s, and watching their encounter in the hallway is like witnessing the collision of gossip planets. Pattinson lowers his head and smiles. Rihanna gives him an innocent hug and pushes on. The exchange is shorter than three seconds.
Rihanna opens the VMAs with a pair of songs—the frisky “Cockiness (Love It)” and her pulsating monster hit with DJ Calvin Harris, “We Found Love”. Stage left, Rihanna’s team huddles around a TV monitor, bouncing excitedly at every one of her dance steps and hip grinds. Halfway into the song, Rihanna flings off the machine-gun sunglasses and winks into the camera, and everyone standing at the monitor explodes like they’ve just won the Super Bowl. This is Rihanna at her irresistible essence: a dirty-cute blend of raw and naughty with a precise eyedropper of adorable. When her medley is complete, Rihanna whooshes back to the dressing room and changes into another Adam Selman dress, this one white with a plunging back that exposes the constellation of star tattoos running from her neck to her right shoulder blade. She’s about to take her seat in the front row, where she’ll join a childhood friend from Barbados, Melissa Forde, as well as Katy Perry, one of her closest showbiz pals. “We just people-watch,” Rihanna explains. There’s also drama surrounding the arrival of her ex, Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to brutally assaulting Rihanna in 2009 and was for a time slapped with a restraining order. Not far from him will be Drake, who was involved in a bottle-smashing nightclub melee with Brown in New York a few months ago. Dozens of presenters and multiple performers are due to appear, but the evening already feels as if it is orbiting around Rihanna. Everyone wants to be near her, see what she’s doing. If the 2012 VMAs are indeed high school, she is undoubtedly the queen bee.
I meet her for the first time at “Giorgio Baldi”, an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, not far from the Pacific Ocean, that serves as Rihanna’s unofficial kitchen when she is home in Los Angeles. Jay-Z, who signed Rihanna when she was a sixteen-year-old named Robyn Rihanna Fenty, introduced her to the place. (Beyoncé told her to try the calamari.) Rihanna walks in, on time, at 9:00 p.m. She is dressed in a black leather pleated Alexander Wang top and crepe pants, a Lanvin cameo necklace, and a pair of chain sandals designed by Tom Ford. You can feel the room almost tip over, as diners at other tables try not to gawk. This is the Rihanna effect, Ford explains to me later. “She makes my knees go weak… seriously,” he says.
It’s late summer, a couple of weeks before the VMAs, and Rihanna’s hair is still curly and long, wrapped into a ponytail. She orders the calamari plus a bottle of Pinot Noir, which appear with comical haste, as if a chef and sommelier are hiding under the table.
“If I am in town six days, I’m here six days a week,” she says of the restaurant. “But I’m never in town.”
Just days ago, Rihanna was in Japan. Before that, Barbados. Before that, the Amalfi coast, vacationing with friends on a luxury yacht. Soon Rihanna will be in London. Then Paris, then back to L.A., then London again. These days she moves around the planet so much she sometimes can’t remember her location. Rihanna says she found herself one morning in a hotel room in Tokyo and had no idea where she was.
“Jen, my assistant, was waking me up, and I was like, ‘whose room am I in? Why am I in this room?’ “
She admits she can lose track of time.
“I never know what day it is,” she says. “Never, ever, ever.”
What day is today? Rihanna pauses. Her lips curl, and she begins to make an “S” sound.
“Ooh, I went to say Saturday.” She laughs and corrects herself. “It’s Wednesday. Wednesday.”
It is Wednesday. Spaghetti arrives. Wine is poured. On the sidewalk, photographers have already gathered, waiting for her departure. Last night one of them asked her if she was texting Robert Pattinson. She says she is single.
“I have not been on a date in forever,” she says. “Like two years. Haven’t gone to the movies, to dinner. Zero.”
Come on. If someone wanted to go on a date with you.
“I would love to go on a date,” she says. “You don’t think that? I’m a woman. A young woman, vibrant, and I love to have fun. And I have too many vaginas around me at this point.”
She takes a sip of wine.
“Seriously, all I want is a guy to take me out and make me laugh for a good hour and take my ass back home. He doesn’t even have to come up. All I want is a conversation for an hour.”
So what gives?
“No one asks. Trust me on that. I’m waiting for the man who’s ballsy enough to deal with me. I’m going to wait, though. You always find the wrong shit when you go looking.”
Rihanna’s iPhone sits on the table, politely turned upside down and ignored. It may not be bursting with gentlemen callers, but great power lurks inside it. At the moment Rihanna has almost 26 million Twitter followers. That is nearly six million more than Barack Obama, more than “CNN”, “MTV”, and “ESPN” combined. This is hilarious to her. She had to be persuaded to tweet for the first time. “I just thought, ‘who cares?’ Do I say, ‘getting in the car. Getting on the plane’? I was so distraught by the whole idea.”
Now she cannot be stopped. Rihanna’s Twitter feed is a real-time portal into her sometimes wild life. There are inspirational phrases and in-jokes to fans and a constant string of Instagram photos from strange cities and hotel rooms under the title “badgalriri.” Her language isn’t G-rated, though she tries to clean it up. She types the word phuck a lot.
Occasionally she overshares. Rihanna sparked a brief controversy last spring when she sent out a photograph of herself sitting on her bodyguard’s shoulders at the Coachella music festival, rolling what appeared to be a marijuana cigarette on his head. Rihanna’s affection for pot is not a closely guarded state secret—a few days after the VMAs she will tweet out a photograph of a hand holding what appears to be a joint in front of a photo of Audrey Hepburn, with the caption “My boo A. Hepburn chillin wit Miss Jane.” But she was upset by printed insinuations that the photo from Coachella might have depicted harder stuff, possibly cocaine.
“They knew what it was,” she says now. “They knew it was marijuana. It was completely clear to them. I just thought it was uncalled for. I don’t do cocaine. I don’t like being associated with anything that’s untrue.”
In the past, a celebrity would have to sit back and take the bad press, issue a bland statement, duck behind a publicist. Rihanna used Twitter to go on the offensive. When MTV zinged her (tweeting “Yikes”) for the Coachella pictures, she zapped them right back, telling the network she “ran out of fucks to give.” MTV, admonished, quickly took down its comment. “I got over it,” Rihanna says of her tiff with the music network. “We’re friends again.”
You would think that Rihanna’s outsize social-media personality would make the people in the Rihanna business nervous, but the opposite is true. Her unvarnished side only seems to make her bigger, fuels her fan base.
“It’s the rawest form of freedom of expression, right?” says her manager, Jay Brown. “She has the right to express herself, and I know she’s being playful. I know when she’s being serious and when she’s just having fun.”
There is also this: Rihanna is a rock star. Something happened in music over the past decade—with the industry in turmoil, labels began focusing extra energy on consumers who were still buying (and not stealing) music, and many of these were preteen kids and their parents. Pop music got Disneyfied and airbrushed, full of performers whose story lines were virginal and choreographed and safe for minivan rides. But in between the High School Musicals and Hannah Montanas and cutesy pop idols, we forgot what a good old-fashioned rock star was. Rock stars are messy. They say bad words and make mistakes and don’t try to impress your parents. This may not have been Rihanna’s motivation for putting her life online, but it’s possible to see the wisdom in her honesty, because if the implosions of squeaky pop idols have taught us anything, it’s that trying to be someone you’re not is the worst kind of trap. “I’m crazy, and I don’t pretend to be anything else,” Rihanna wrote during the Coachella dustup.
“What were you doing when you were 24?” Jay Brown asks me.
I tell him I was drinking beer in the woods.
Brown laughs. “I mean, you’ve got to have fun,” he says. “She’s having fun. She’s having so much fun.”
When Rihanna steps out of the restaurant, it’s the usual barrage of paparazzi flashbulbs. Then she is into her SUV, and a short while later, we reconvene at a recording studio in West Hollywood, where she is working to select tracks for her next album. She plays me a few, including “Diamonds,” which will become the album’s first single. They are incomplete songs, in the demo phase, sung by someone else, but Rihanna is already imagining herself on them.
I am asked if I like them. I say that I like them. But what do I know? My iPod is full of Fleetwood Mac and cats singing Christmas carols. They sound like decent pop songs to me, but there’s no way to judge until Rihanna herself is on the cut, adding that secret ingredient, that unmistakable Bajan second-soprano that defined diverse hits like “Pon de Replay” and “Love the Way You Lie” (her haunting collaboration with Eminem) and the buoyant Eurodisco of “We Found Love.” There’s also “Umbrella,” which is going to live forever. Thirty years from now you are going to be driving your car—maybe your space car, taking your grandkids to space school—and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is going to come on the radio and you are going to be singing it at the top of your lungs.
Under my umbrella/Ella, ella, ey, ey, ey
The statistics are bonkers. Rihanna has sold 37 million albums worldwide. She’s had eleven number-one singles. Her videos have been watched 2.7 billion times on YouTube. Six Grammy awards. She recently migrated into movies, like this past summer’s Battleship and next year’s The End of the World, a doomsday ensemble comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen.
What’s uncommon about Rihanna’s career is just the relentlessness of it. There used to be a standard formula for popular musicians—record, promote, tour, go away, hide. The belief was too much music would overexpose the artist, squish the golden goose. But Rihanna and Brown, her manager, think differently. She has released six albums in seven years. And here comes another.
“If you have a new iPhone every year, why can’t we give them new content?” Brown asks. “But I don’t think she’s thinking of it like that. She’s thinking, I love to make music. I want to keep going.”
She is not a quarter-century old and she is already an industry. Forbes magazine estimated her income last year at $53 million, placing her fourth on its list of most-powerful celebrities, behind only Jennifer Lopez, Oprah Winfrey, and Justin Bieber. “We are just at the beginning of what Rihanna can achieve,” says her friend designer Stella McCartney. Rihanna’s mother, Monica Braithwaite, believes her daughter has found a proper balance. “She’s a very shrewd businesswoman, but she’s still the same Robyn, a good heart,” she says.
And yet, no matter what Rihanna does as an artist, her story always winds its way back to February 2009, when she was assaulted by Chris Brown. The abuse was shocking, and Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault. Though a cloud lingers over his name, Brown and Rihanna have become friendly. Controversially, she collaborated with him on a remix of a raunchy track from her last album called “Birthday Cake.” Over the summer, she did a tearful interview with Winfrey in which she said she still loved Brown and hoped he “finds peace.”
At dinner I ask her if she thinks she’s going to be talking about Brown for the rest of her life. “To the world, I feel like there’s no closure,” she says. “There’s some obsession that’s continued even throughout when we weren’t friends or couldn’t be friends at all. Hated each other. The world hasn’t let go. They haven’t seen any progress in our friendship, because they don’t see anything, really, besides the song.”
She says the “Birthday Cake” remix was her idea. “I didn’t think it could be anything detrimental to my career,” she says. “I was on a tour bus ride between two cities, listening to my album, thinking, Oooh, maybe I should make this into a duet. And I started coming up with a bunch of people, and his name crossed my mind. I thought, We haven’t made a song in so long together . . . it could be a little shocking.”
It was shocking, and there was blowback. “So now it’s a bit of a fascination, I guess,” she says. “I don’t know if people will stop soon, but I feel like as soon as they have closure to it, they will.” She doesn’t expect she will win everyone’s understanding. “But they’re not on the inside. They can’t see what I see, unless they’re sitting in my point of view. I guess I’ll learn to accept that.”
It goes on and on. After the VMAs, a video is released of Rihanna giving a quick peck and hug to Brown as she walks back to her seat. It’s the kind of innocuous exchange that happens a thousand times at awards shows, but because of the terrible history, the Internet blows up. The next week, Brown is photographed with a bizarre new neck tattoo of a damaged woman’s face that his spokesperson is forced to deny is Rihanna. (It’s a M.A.C. Cosmetics design based on a Day of the Dead skull, the spokesperson says.) The story doesn’t stop.
There’s only about a half hour left in tonight’s VMAs show, and inside Rihanna’s dressing room, we’re treated to balloons and food and an open bar. The scene is relaxed. No Jäger shots, no setting couches on fire—the truth is my niece’s seventh-birthday party may have been more off the chain. Mostly the stylists and friends and record-company people just watch the VMAs on a TV. At one point Rihanna appears to use the ladies’ room and admonishes all of us for standing there and staring at the monitor screen.
“Why y’all look like you’re high on mushrooms?” she asks.
Then she wins, the last and biggest prize of the night, Video of the Year. It is the second time she’s won it (the first was for “Umbrella,” in 2007, when she was nineteen). After comedian emcee Kevin Hart reads her name, the camera catches Rihanna standing and brushing some imaginary dirt off her shoulder, a signal of negativity left behind. A few minutes later, she’s back in the dressing room, arms raised, waving the winning envelope in her hand. The room erupts. Now it’s a party. The iconic Moonman trophy is located. She poses for victory photographs.
A rep for Rihanna’s record label holds up a business card. “This man made the hologram Tupac!” he says. “He wants to make a hologram Rihanna.”
She does not party into the California night. A few hours later, Rihanna is at an airport in Van Nuys, boarding a private Gulfstream IV jet. The group includes Jay Brown, Rihanna’s assistant Jen, her friend Leandra, her cousin Noella, and her brothers, Rorrey, 23, and Rajad, sixteen. A flight attendant has assembled a bed for Rihanna at the front of the plane, stacking two pillows neatly against the cabin wall. Settling in, Rihanna eats a quick meal and spends a few minutes on her iPhone sending out a few thank-you tweets before falling asleep.
A couple of hours later, I’m summoned to Rihanna’s bed. The plane is dark, but she is awake and sitting up. Her legs are crossed under the covers, an Isabel Marant jacket pulled tight around her shoulders. Her Air Jordans are off and on the floor. There’s not a lot of room, so I take a seat on the bed. She looks sleepy. I feel like I should read her Goodnight Moon.
“Fun night,” she says of the VMAs.
Then she talks a little about the first time she went to an awards show like that, how intimidating the room felt, how nervous she felt being around the seasoned pros. She says the nerves never really go away. She talks about spending time at the show with Katy Perry, how the two of them understand what it means to “go through personal things in a very public way” and “genuinely care if each other are OK.” She says the presence of Brown and Drake wasn’t a big deal. “It was easy. No problems.” As for their nightclub fight—and the suggestion the two men were feuding over her—she brushes it off. “I wasn’t even there. It had nothing to do with me.”
She looks around the sleek interior of the plane, where the people she loves are in deep sleep. “Every time we come on one of these things, it’s unreal,” she says. The perks of her young life are abundant, even if its demands can get overwhelming. “I’m in a positive space, but I do have my days,” she says. “Everybody has their days.”
She can still escape. Sometimes when Rihanna wants to stop being Rihanna, she and her friends will just go off together. They’ll leave her bodyguard behind and Rihanna will dress simple, nothing too crazy or recognizable. They’ll get in a taxicab and go shopping, and for a few hours, she can be Robyn again. “Definitely not as much as before, but we still have those moments,” her friend Melissa tells me later. “For her to feel normal.”
The plane starts to descend. We are due to land in Minot, North Dakota, for a refueling stop. This is where I get out. In an hour I will catch a commuter flight to Minneapolis, and then another one on to New York. Rihanna is going on to London, where she will perform at the closing ceremonies for the Paralympic Games with Coldplay and Jay-Z. She will also get an elaborate tattoo underneath her breasts, a rendering of the goddess Isis she says is a tribute to her grandmother, who died in July. She engages in a Twitter fight with CNN interviewer Piers Morgan, who has the temerity to suggest that Rihanna should “grow her hair back. Fast.” Rihanna snaps at Morgan: “Grow a dick . . . FAST,” and you can’t help imagining Morgan’s stomach twisting in embarrassment. (Or maybe not. He and Rihanna soon are making up in public and arranging an interview.) Her world tour is announced, the biggest of her career. No matter where you live, Rihanna is probably coming to a city near you.
That all happens in the next 72 hours.
It’s true. Rihanna is having so much fun.