Rihanna graces the cover of the November issue of Vanity Fair magazine. In the interview she talks music, sex, Chris Brown and why she’s nobody’s ‘bad girl’. Read the cover story below and see the flawless photos taken by Annie Leibovitz.
OUR WOMAN IN HAVANA: RIHANNA
Rihanna is firmly in control of her life and career—but not of her image, which has veered between club-hopping temptress and poster child for victims of domestic abuse. As the 27-year-old readies her long-awaited new album, she talks candidly about the chasm between her reality and her reputation.
What makes Rihanna special—outside of the music—is that she is someone who is genuinely herself. People connect with her. You are seeing the authentic version of who she is. You can see her scars and her flaws…. She’s gone through things that everyone’s gone through—dysfunctional relationships, things that played out in front of everyone’s eyes—and she’s done a real good job of keeping her life private, but just living her life as a young person … unapologetically. You have to have a tough skin in this business; you’re going to hear some things about yourself that you’re going to think, What?? Are you crazy? —Jay Z
I honestly think how much fun it would be to live my reputation. People have this image of how wild and crazy I am, and I’m not everything they think of me. The reality is that the fame, the rumors—this picture means this, another picture means that—it really freaks me out. It made me back away from even wanting to attempt to date. It’s become second nature for me to just close that door and just be O.K. with that. I’m always concerned about whether people have good or bad intentions.
Rihanna sits across the table from me in the private room at Giorgio Baldi, her favorite restaurant in L.A. Her hair is reddish, wavy; her face seems free of makeup. She’s even more beautiful in person than she is in her photos. She’s wearing a white crop top, denim cutoff shorts, Puma sneakers, and a flowing Chinese-patterned robe. When she orders three half-portions of pasta dishes (spaghetti pomodoro with basil, gnocchi, and ravioli), I ask how she maintains her curvy but slim figure. She says, “Legit, I have been in the gym every day this week because I am not willing to give up my food. But I will sacrifice an hour for the gym.”
The 27-year-old woman in front of me is not the provocative, wild hip-hop prom queen, the sexy girl allegedly at the center of a jealous, bottle-throwing brawl in a nightclub, nor the habitué of L.A. and New York hot spots 1Oak and Up & Down. Nor is she the woman who has been described as badass, shocking, naughty, tough—pictured in tabloids and online with various rumored rapper/actor/athlete boyfriends. She is elegant, funny, straightforward, and downright horrified (and laughs hysterically) at all of the rumors I toss at her. And while people may assume that her life is just one big, long, sexy night out on the town, she insists it’s not true. I ask about her bad-girl reputation. “Honestly, I’ve been thinking lately about how boring I am,” she says. “When I do get time to myself, I watch TV.” Now we’re off and running, both of us mourning the end of Breaking Bad. She loves Bates Motel and forensics shows. What about NCIS and CSI? “I used to watch them,” she says, “until I found The First 48 [homicide detectives, cold-blooded murders at convenience stores] and Snapped [true stories of women who lost control and committed murder]. Those are things that actually happened in real life,” she says. “I’m stuck on the fact that these things actually happened. All those other things are just made-up stories.”
When it comes to made-up stories, Rihanna knows whereof she speaks. Despite all those rumors of sexual liaisons, Rihanna says her last real, official boyfriend was Chris Brown—when they briefly got back together three years after his arrest for assaulting her in 2009 (more about that later)—and, prior to that, then Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, who she says she was just getting to know when the paparazzi got a picture of them together. “We were still dating … we were just three months in and I liked his vibe, he was a good guy, and then paparazzi got us on vacation in Mexico. He handled it well; I didn’t. I got so uncomfortable because now what? He’s not even able to be seen with [another] girl, because I’m dragged back into headlines that say he’s cheating on me, and I don’t even [really] know this guy. Some guys … I don’t even have their number. You would not even believe it,” she says with a laugh. “I’m serious, hand to God.” Given that she’s supposed to be so freewheeling, can’t she just have sex for fun? “If I wanted to I would completely do that,” she says. “I am going to do what makes me feel happy, what I feel like doing. But that would be empty for me; that to me is a hollow move. I would wake up the next day feeling like shit.”
When you love somebody, that’s different,” she continues. “Even if you don’t love them per se, when you care enough about somebody and you know that they care about you, then you know they don’t disrespect you. And it’s about my own respect for myself. A hundred percent. Sometimes it’s the first time I’m meeting this person—and then all of a sudden I’m ‘with them.’ It freaks me out. This industry creates stories and environments that can make you uncomfortable even being friends with someone. If you see me sitting next to someone, or standing next to someone, what, I’m not allowed to do that? I’m like, are you serious? Do you think it’s going to stop me from having a friend?” But, she adds, “I’m the worst. I see a rumor and I’m not calling [them] back. I’ve had to be so conscious about people—what they say and why people want to be with me, why people want to sleep with me…. It makes me very guarded and protective. I learned the hard way.
“I always see the best in people,” she says. “I hope for the best, and I always look for that little bit of good, that potential, and I wait for it to blossom. You want them to feel good being a man, but now men are afraid to be men. They think being a real man is actually being a pussy, that if you take a chair out for a lady, or you’re nice or even affectionate to your girl in front of your boys, you’re less of a man. It’s so sick. They won’t be a gentleman because that makes them appear soft. That’s what we’re dealing with now, a hundred percent, and girls are settling for that, but I won’t. I will wait forever if I have to … but that’s O.K. You have to be screwed over enough times to know, but now I’m hoping for more than these guys can actually give.
“That’s why I haven’t been having sex or even really seeing anybody,” she says, “because I don’t want to wake up the next day feeling guilty. I mean I get horny, I’m human, I’m a woman, I want to have sex. But what am I going to do—just find the first random cute dude that I think is going to be a great ride for the night and then tomorrow I wake up feeling empty and hollow? He has a great story and I’m like … what am I doing? I can’t do it to myself. I cannot. It has a little bit to do with fame and a lot to do with the woman that I am. And that saves me.”
Is she lonely? “It is lonely,” she says, “but I have so much work to do that I get distracted. I don’t have time to be lonely. And I get fearful of relationships because I feel guilty about wanting someone to be completely faithful and loyal, when I can’t even give them 10 percent of the attention that they need. It’s just the reality of my time, my life, my schedule.”
“Well, I just never understood that,” she says, “like how the victim gets punished over and over. It’s in the past, and I don’t want to say ‘Get over it,’ because it’s a very serious thing that is still relevant; it’s still real. A lot of women, a lot of young girls, are still going through it. A lot of young boys too. It’s not a subject to sweep under the rug, so I can’t just dismiss it like it wasn’t anything, or I don’t take it seriously. But, for me, and anyone who’s been a victim of domestic abuse, nobody wants to even remember it. Nobody even wants to admit it. So to talk about it and say it once, much less 200 times, is like … I have to be punished for it? It didn’t sit well with me.”
Rihanna is quiet and thoughtful when she talks about getting back with Brown for the second time and asking the court to lift the restraining order against him.
“I was that girl,” she says, “that girl who felt that as much pain as this relationship is, maybe some people are built stronger than others. Maybe I’m one of those people built to handle shit like this. Maybe I’m the person who’s almost the guardian angel to this person, to be there when they’re not strong enough, when they’re not understanding the world, when they just need someone to encourage them in a positive way and say the right thing.”
So, she thought she could change him?
“A hundred percent. I was very protective of him. I felt that people didn’t understand him. Even after … But you know, you realize after a while that in that situation you’re the enemy. You want the best for them, but if you remind them of their failures, or if you remind them of bad moments in their life, or even if you say I’m willing to put up with something, they think less of you—because they know you don’t deserve what they’re going to give. And if you put up with it, maybe you are agreeing that you [deserve] this, and that’s when I finally had to say, ‘Uh-oh, I was stupid thinking I was built for this.’ Sometimes you just have to walk away.” Now, she says, “I don’t hate him. I will care about him until the day I die. We’re not friends, but it’s not like we’re enemies. We don’t have much of a relationship now.”
While Rihanna and Brown did a duet on a song in 2012 with a telling title (“Nobody’s Business”), her bigger collaborations have been with Jay Z and Kanye West—as well as two huge hits with Eminem, “Love the Way You Lie” and “The Monster.” According to Eminem, “I would definitely consider Rihanna a friend. She’s always been there for me, and I really enjoy working with her. As an artist, we have similar work ethics, so I’ve always been able to relate to her in that sense.” As for Rihanna’s take on him:
“He’s one of my favorite people. He’s got so many layers and he’s such a good person—focused, disciplined. I mean you can’t tell me that you have to be in the club when Eminem is legit at home and being a good father and is still one of the most prestigious rappers of our generation. He’s one of the most talented poets of our time. It was such a brilliant moment to have him ask me to be part of a record; I felt … anointed, because he thought I was cool enough to be on [“Love the Way You Lie”]. But also, the lyrics [about a dysfunctional relationship] were just so true to what I felt and couldn’t say to the world at that time.”
TALK THAT TALK
“I wanted to wear something that looked like it was floating on me,” she recalls. “But after that, I thought, O.K., we can’t do this again for a while. No nipples, no sexy shit, or it’s going to be like a gimmick. That night [at the C.F.D.A. awards] was like a last hurrah; I decided to take a little break from that and wear clothes.”
The same attitude extends to her music. She has recorded everything from the beautiful ballad “Stay” to the reggae/rock-inspired anthem “Rude Boy.” Her new, much-anticipated album—her first in more than three years (which, as we spoke, she was still working on)—has taken a while because, says Jay Z, “she wants it to be perfect.” One of the songs on it, the hypnotic “American Oxygen,” was released accompanied by a moving video with images of Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, J.F.K. Jr. saluting his father’s coffin, Muhammad Ali, immigrants, ghettos, rocket launches, and more. Then there’s the 180-degree turn that was the single—the vengeful and humorous “Bitch Better Have My Money”—in which, Rihanna says, she plays a character but which is also a song about female empowerment. In the music business, Rihanna is a powerful woman; she recently made a deal to own all of her past and future master recordings, and from now on she’ll release her music through her company, Westbury Road. Says Jay Z, “What took me 15 or 20 years to get has taken her 10, and will take the next person 5 years. It’s great to be able to help fight that fight.”
While many people describe Rihanna as “fearless,” Jay Z says he sees her more as “fiery.” What Rihanna herself fears—aside from “haunted shit” and childbirth (even though she says she wants a child “so bad … eventually”)—is the pedestal that comes with fame.
“It all looks very glittery and blinged out,” she says, “but it’s way too scary and unrealistic. There’s a long way to fall when you pretend that you’re so far away from the earth, far away from reality, floating in a bubble that’s protected by fame or success. It’s scary, and it’s the thing I fear the most: to be swallowed up by that bubble. It can be poison to you, fame.”
So, even though she is more accessible—and polite—to her fans than some stars who pretend to be, she says her everyday conversations with her friends center on: how normal a life can she actually have? I mention that Eminem once told me he would trade a lot of his fame just to be able to go to the mall, and she exclaims,
“Dude! Oh my God—this is scary and sad all at the same time. I literally dream about buying my own groceries.” Come on, I say. “Swear to God. Because it is something that is real and normal. Something that can keep you a little bit uncomfortable.” Uncomfortable? “A hundred percent. Because life is not perfect, and the minute you feel it’s perfect, it’s not real. Artists sign a deal to make music; we didn’t sign to be perfect, or to be role models. We’re all flawed human beings who are learning and growing and evolving and going through the same bullshit as everybody else. The fact that people expect the day we sign we’re supposed to be perfect does not make any fucking sense to me. Even tragedy, every trial in your life, is a test. It’s like a class—you take an exam, and if you pass, you move on to the next. You still have to take another test and prove yourself again.”
And, having been through drama, dysfunctional relationships, and all those tests, when it comes to her personal life, Rihanna says that for now “I’m fine being with myself. I don’t want to really let anybody in. I’ve got too much on my plate, and I’m not even worried about it.” I say it will take a very special person to share her life. “A hundred percent,” she says. “A very extraordinary gentleman, with a lot of patience, will come along when I least expect it. And I don’t want it right now. I can’t really be everything for someone. This is my reality right now.” So one day, I say, someone will come in on a white horse … “No,” she says, laughing. “Not on a white horse. Probably on a black motorcycle.”