At nine fifteen, Rihanna’s black Escalade pulls up in front of “Emilio’s Ballato”, Andy Warhol’s “Nolita” Italian restaurant of choice, a circus in tow. Her army of bodyguards surveys the scene. Then one of Rihanna’s long legs hits the pavement and it’s madness. There are paparazzi everywhere, all at once, perching on bicycles and European motorbikes, firing out of Mercedes-Benz windows and SUV sunroofs, pushing in on every square foot of sidewalk. The cameras strobe around her like a Ferris wheel.
Rihanna glides through the melee and into the foyer, where her signed photograph hangs. She’s sporting skintight black jeans, black shades, a black cutoff designer sweatshirt with oversize gold letters. (ORIGINAL, it says). With her dahlia-shade lips, big anime eyes, and slow-motion strut, she looks like some neo-noir femme fatale en route to her next hit.
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“That was intense,” I stammer, emerging from the whiteout of flashes and the theatrics of Rihanna arrives at dinner.
“I guess you’re used to it by now. But my heart kind of…”
“You’re never used to it,” she says. “It’s chaos.”
Rihanna rides swells of chaos and controversy and celebrity with the nerve and control of a champion big-wave surfer. When we meet in October, she’s on the verge of releasing “Unapologetic”, her seventh studio album in seven years. (The last six have sold more than a million copies each.) She’s been named the most downloaded artist ever, the most popular star on Facebook, the sexiest woman alive; she’s reached nearly 3 billion views on YouTube; she’s Rihanna Inc., a multimillion-dollar enterprise. She’s 24.
“Sometimes a person looks at me and sees dollars. They see numbers and they see a product, ” she says. “I look at me and see art. If I didn’t like what I was doing, then I would say I was committing slavery. “
There’s a group of goons conspiring in the restaurant’s private back room, and Rihanna blows them a kiss. Her publicist and assistant take a table nearby. She sits across from me with the posture of a boarding-school equestrian.
I bring up her body art, and she jokes about almost getting inked on her face the night before.
“The tattoo artist said nope, I’m not gonna do it,” she says, “because if you’re looking at your face, it’s right there staring at you.”
Before the entrées arrive, she’s interviewing the interviewer. I’m getting into my recent breakup, the empty space in my closet, and she’s saying, very bro-like.
“Life can be such a dick sometimes, right?”