PHOTOSHOOT & INTERVIEW: Rihanna for Vogue Magazine
It’s a foggy spring night in Paris, and Rihanna has just wrapped up a meeting with her accountant in the penthouse suite of the Four Seasons hotel, a place that will serve as her makeshift office for the next few days. The evening panorama from the terrace is about as picture-postcard pretty as Paris gets, though at this late hour the lights on the Eiffel Tower have long since gone out. Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty is a night owl. Her most intense bouts of creativity often come after midnight, a rhythm she picked up early in her music career. In the dark, soundproofed environment of a recording studio, time is elastic. And when you’re Rihanna, and the world is your oyster, then time is really elastic. It’s perhaps why she doesn’t seem particularly bothered that today’s to-do list is far from done. There is a stack of Fenty Beauty campaign printouts piled high on her desk awaiting her approval; a flood of unanswered emails from Fenty team members in various time zones, all happily waiting on her too. Right now, though, there is a more pressing issue on the agenda, one that demands her full attention: Rihanna has decided that it’s time to fix my love life.
“So wait, you’re on a dating app? You don’t seem like the dating-app type,” she says as her almond-shaped green eyes peer into my iPhone. “Come sit here; you gotta teach me how to do this swipe thing.” Rihanna is all curled up in a cozy hotel bathrobe and has a pair of comfy Fenty Puma slides on her feet, and yet she radiates flawless glamour—hair tousled in loose waves, skin luminous. Though I have taken great pains to put together what I think is a Rihanna-worthy look—Jacquemus blouse, vintage Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo pants—it’s hard not to feel like a tarnished penny next to a freshly minted gold coin as I sidle up to her on the sofa. Rihanna asks if she can take a look through the photos on my app, and I oblige. “What is that dress? Is that vintage Jean Paul Gaultier?” she asks, pausing on my profile picture, a bathroom selfie taken in a swanky Hollywood hotel. “You better werk, girl; you look gorgeous!” I do my best to play it cool, but the little fangirl inside me is freaking out. Hanging out with Rihanna is every bit as fun as her costars in the upcoming Ocean’s 8 movie make it sound: You know you’re in the presence of a superstar, but it’s like you’re chatting with an old friend. “It’s a combination of being starstruck and being immediately put at ease,” explains Sandra Bullock. “She also has this warmth, and when she shines it on you, it makes you feel pretty damn amazing!”
Before long, we’re on the hunt for potential suitors. “This guy is too pretty—if you’re pretty, you at least gotta have wrinkles,” Rihanna says, sizing up a male-model type who’s posing bare-chested on a surfboard. And so we’re on to the next. “OK, and this one is giving me Charlie Manson. No?” I nod in agreement; psychopaths are not an option. After swiping through a dozen profiles or more, she lands on a good one. “Now, this is your type!” she says. She’s not wrong: This man is scruffy but handsome, age appropriate (36), and appears to be gainfully employed (an actor, not my first choice, but hey, nobody’s perfect). “He looks smart, he’s British, and he’s got edges!” (Translation: He’s got all his own hair.) She swipes right, and a message pops up almost instantaneously on the screen: It’s a match! We both throw our heads back and start screaming with laughter.
But don’t be fooled: The giddy highs and lows of singledom are fast becoming a distant memory for Rihanna. Right now, she’s in a relationship. “I used to feel guilty about taking personal time,” she says, “but I also think I never met someone who was worth it before.” Though she’s reluctant to talk about her partner by name, rumors have been swirling around her connection to Hassan Jameel, a young Saudi businessman, since paparazzi photos of her vacationing with a handsome stranger in Spain made the rounds last summer. These recent romantic developments are, however, part of a much bigger sea change for Rihanna, who turned 30 this year. For the first time in her life, she’s fully committed to a healthy work-life balance. “Even mentally, just to be away from my phone, to be in the moment, that has been key for my growth,” she says. “Now, when I come to work, I’m all in. Because before you know it, the years will go by. I’m glad I’m taking the time. I’m happy.”
Still, making those kinds of pivotal lifestyle adjustments isn’t always easy—especially if, like Rihanna, you’ve been on the celebrity treadmill since you were a teenager. It’s even tougher now that she’s not only the face of her personal brand but also the CEO of a burgeoning global beauty-and-fashion empire. Pulling double duty as both badass rock star and savvy businesswoman across a working orbit that spans California (home base for her new lingerie collaborators) and Europe can take a physical toll on even the most intergalactic of superstars. Since giving up her apartment in SoHo, New York, last fall, Rihanna spends most of her time in either London or Los Angeles, though to hear her tell it, she basically lives on a plane. I witnessed her pushed up against her limits just a few days earlier, when, hours before the cover shoot for this issue, she was suddenly taken ill. The setting couldn’t have been more breathtaking—a villa overlooking Es Vedrà, the mythically charged, rocky island off the southwestern coast of Ibiza that’s said to be the third-most-magnetic place on the planet. But not even adamantine willpower could overcome the exhaustion that Rihanna was feeling in that moment. “I don’t know if it was too much magnetic energy for me, but it sure knocked me on my ass,” she says in Paris, explaining that she often experiences the same symptoms around this time of the year, usually between touring and awards-show season. “It was like my immune system had just had it with me.” The next day she appeared to be back to her old self, cracking jokes with photographers Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott and pulling goofy faces between shots when she thought they were not looking, though it was clear her energy levels had taken a beating. She headed to Paris on a private jet a day early and rescheduled our interview, so I followed her flight path.
Rihanna might be a force of nature, but she’s not superhuman. She’s been thinking more seriously about taking care of herself since she celebrated her birthday in New York this past February. That night she was tucked up in bed well before 4:00 a.m. (believe it or not, this is early for Rihanna) and woke up the next morning without any trace of a hangover in time to see her closest friends and family off to the airport—hardly the kind of behavior we expect from the woman we’ve come to know as @badgalriri on Instagram. These days she shares the same anxieties about her well-being as many young women her age: “OK, so now that I’m 30, are there things I’m supposed to do? Should I be worried? Should I be freezing my eggs? What do you do at 30?!”
But if you think that means she’s slowing down, think again: Judging by the list of her upcoming and ongoing projects, Rihanna is gearing up for what is poised to be one of the most productive periods of her career. There’s the much-anticipated release this month of Ocean’s 8, in which she plays Nine Ball, a street-smart hacker with waist-length dreadlocks in an all-female crew of bandits (Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, and Helena Bonham Carter) plotting a heist at the Met ball. (The real-life plot twist here is that Rihanna is cohosting this year’s gala, alongside Donatella Versace and Amal Clooney.) Ocean’s 8 director Gary Ross remembers first spitballing ideas for the film with Rihanna backstage after a concert she played in Malmö, Sweden, in 2016. It was during that late-night brainstorming session that they decided to tie Rihanna’s island roots into her character profile and make Nine Ball Bajan. “Rihanna is so bravely authentic. She doesn’t care what people think of her; she’s fully invested in being herself,” says Ross. “She also has a seriousness of purpose and focus that not a lot of people have. It’s all about the work, and it doesn’t come with any excess personal baggage.”
On the heels of the insanity of making a blockbuster movie, Rihanna somehow managed to launch Fenty Beauty in collaboration with Kendo, LVMH’s incubator for cool new makeup brands, last September. Leading with a range of foundations that cover a full spectrum of skin tones (there are 40 different shades), the brand shook up the beauty industry in ways few currently within it could have predicted, prompting a broader conversation about inclusivity that had long been ignored. The success of her cosmetics line was unprecedented, reportedly racking up a staggering $100 million in sales within 40 days. The wait lists at certain makeup counters continued for months. (I was among hundreds of women who lined up outside Harvey Nichols in London last fall, only to find that my shade had already sold out.)
Rihanna was initially taken aback by the response. She had grown up watching her mother apply makeup, so thinking about foundations for darker skin tones came naturally. “As a black woman, I could not live with myself if I didn’t do that,” she says. “But what I didn’t anticipate was the way people would get emotional about finding their complexion on the shelf, that this would be a groundbreaking moment.” She’s taken the same approach with Savage X Fenty, her direct-to-consumer lingerie line in partnership with online retail giant TechStyle launching May 11th, offering a range of nude underwear that goes far beyond the bog-standard beige T-shirt bra. She’s not alone in questioning the limited notion of “nude”: Kanye West’s debut fall 2015 Yeezy collection featured a diverse cast of models in flesh-toned looks that encompassed a wide range of colors, from palest white to richest brown. Now Rihanna is pushing that idea one step further, shedding light on the frustrations that many black women face in dressing their bodies at the most intimate level. She has said in the past that her biggest regret about the sheer Adam Selman dress she wore to the 2014 CFDA Fashion Awards was that she didn’t throw on a bedazzled thong, mostly because the nude undies she ended up in weren’t the right match—“not my nude,” as she points out.
It should go without saying that the new line will carry a body-positive message, too. Rihanna’s lingerie models come in all shapes and sizes; they are real women with real bodies who stand as a refreshing counterpoint to the impossible supermodel dimensions that have defined the look of lingerie for decades. Like Gigi Hadid and Serena Williams, Rihanna has been the target of body-shaming internet trolls. Her public responses have been rare, but when she does brush off the haters it’s usually done with a razor-sharp dose of wit: Last summer she posted a hilarious before-and-after weight-loss meme of the rapper Gucci Mane, a tongue-in-cheek nod to her own fluctuations on the scale. Because what could be more sexy than a sense of humor? “You’ve just got to laugh at yourself, honestly. I mean, I know when I’m having a fat day and when I’ve lost weight. I accept all of the bodies,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m not built like a Victoria’s Secret girl, and I still feel very beautiful and confident in my lingerie.”
And yet Rihanna’s most impressive body of work begins and ends with her music. While it’s been more than two years since she released Anti, she continues to dominate the pop charts, and she set yet another benchmark this March as the first female artist ever to surpass two billion streams on Apple Music. With her next record—her ninth—Rihanna is moving the needle on her creative output all over again: She plans to make a reggae album. Though it’s too soon to name a full list of collaborators, one early influence may be Supa Dups, the Jamaican-born record producer who has worked with such dancehall greats as Beenie Man, Sean Paul, and Elephant Man. If Rihanna had to name her favorite reggae artist of all time, though, it would have to be Bob Marley. (Descriptions of the Bob shrine she once built in her home are all over the internet.) “I’m gonna sound like a real tourist when I tell you my top Bob songs,” she says, pausing to scroll through a playlist on her iPhone before rattling off many of his most beloved hits: “Three Little Birds,” “No Woman, No Cry,” and “Redemption Song,” a Marley classic she has covered on tour. It may surprise you to learn that of all the tunes in the reggae icon’s catalog, “Buffalo Soldier” is the one that resonates with Rihanna on a deeply personal level. The song’s theme of upheaval and displacement is a familiar refrain for the singer, who was whisked away from Barbados to New York within months of being discovered by record producer Evan Rogers at the tender age of sixteen. Her risk-taking instincts and taste for danger have often earned her comparisons to Madonna, though in fact the similarities between Bob Marley and Rihanna ring truer, even beyond the obvious island connection. Like Marley, Rihanna is possessed of an unstudied yet wholly electrifying sense of cool. Her ability to continually recalibrate the mood of a generation in the way she sounds, looks, and moves through the world has unwittingly positioned her, just as it did him, at the global axis of popular culture.
Rihanna is well acquainted with the pressures that come with being thrust onto the world stage at a young age. She has been obliged to play out many of life’s messiest rites of passage in the public eye. It’s why she has always been reluctant to embrace the idea of being a role model. “That title was put on me when I was just finding my way, making mistakes in front of the world. I didn’t think it was fair,” she says. “Now I understand the concept, but at that time I was the same age as the girls who were looking up to me. And that’s a really hard place to be in as a teenager.” Though she’s certainly older and wiser now, the role-model tag still doesn’t quite fit. It implies a conventional mind-set that is at odds with her fiercely independent spirit. Rihanna’s vibe is more mutable, her instincts more counterintuitive, her energy almost impossible to contain. And her willingness to be vulnerable and bare her soul only amplifies her mystique.
Even Hollywood’s most polished veterans seem hopelessly spellbound by Rihanna’s preternatural self-assuredness. Cate Blanchett describes her as “like the Sphinx. She is ancient, mysterious, unique, wicked.” Mel Ottenberg, the stylist who has helped orchestrate the singer’s most audacious fashion moments, lovingly likens her to “a cat that can jump out of a window wearing stiletto heels and still land on her feet.” She’s not afraid to indulge her primal impulses, either. Her favorite bedroom is painted black, and she has fitted out one of her homes with a man cave–style den—she calls it her “kitty cave.”
As it happens, the name Rihanna gave her lingerie line perfectly encapsulates her state of being right now—and it’s spelled out in gold letters on a chain hanging around her neck: s-a-v-a-g-e. “Savage is really about taking complete ownership of how you feel and the choices you make. Basically making sure everybody knows the ball is in your court,” she says, twisting the nameplate between her purple-lacquered fingernails. “As women, we’re looked at as the needy ones, the naggy ones, the ones who are going to be heartbroken in a relationship. Savage is just the reverse. And you know, guys don’t like getting the cards flipped on them—ever.”
Fans will recognize a version of this mission statement from the lyrics of “Needed Me,” the hit single from Anti that has gone platinum five times over. In the video, Rihanna is a woman on a revenge mission who assassinates her former lover in the smoky back room of a Miami strip club. The singer has been criticized for glamorizing violence, though her defenders say that this subversive imaging speaks to the culture’s shifting power dynamics. It’s funny to think that Anti dropped long before the dawning of Trump, or #MeToo, when you consider the spirit of resistance that quietly pulses through the record. Even the apocalyptic set design and wardrobe for the tour—somewhere between Mad Max and Blade Runner—seemed to foreshadow darker days. The album received a lukewarm reception at the time of its release. Some critics wrote it off as scattershot and uneven, laden with pop songs that were anything but sweet. Others called it self-indulgent, made to please herself. In the end Anti defied all expectations, landing more number-one hits on Billboard’s dance-club-songs chart than any other album in its history. And though it was famously snubbed at the Grammys, Rihanna would end up scooping the prestigious Vanguard award (MTV’s equivalent to a lifetime-achievement award) at the VMAs.
It was one of the most memorable appearances of her career, with a medley of songs performed throughout the night and a string of jaw-dropping wardrobe transformations. And yet the whole event was overshadowed by a more titillating chapter in pop-culture history: After taking out a billboard in Los Angeles a couple of days earlier congratulating Rihanna, Drake presented her with the award while professing his undying love for her on live TV. Suddenly what should have been her big moment became all about him.
Rihanna winces slightly at the mention of the rapper’s name before her eyes glaze over with cool indifference. “The VMAs is such a fan-focused awards show, so having that energy around me, and knowing the people who had received the award in the past, made it feel like a big deal,” she says. “Waiting through that speech was probably the most uncomfortable part. I don’t like too many compliments; I don’t like to be put on blast.” When I ask about the current state of their friendship, her attitude is sanguine. “We don’t have a friendship now, but we’re not enemies either. It is what it is.”
The next afternoon Rihanna invites me over to her hotel suite to try out the new makeup from her Fenty Beauty line. I’m hoping that I might pick up a few tips to up my selfie game, too—that profile picture on my dating app is almost a year old, after all. When I arrive, she’s dressed in an airport look: camo pants, a cozy black hoodie, and clear Manolo Blahnik mules. She’s busy applying a light foundation base to Jahleel Weaver, a member of her creative team. There are pots of brightly colored powder neatly lined up on the dresser, including one called Sangria Sunset, the hot-pink shade I recognize as Rihanna’s avant-garde beauty look from last year’s Rei Kawakubo–themed Met ball. I’m already wearing her best-selling Pro Filt’r foundation #360, which I’d finally scored at Sephora a couple of months after the launch. To add to that, I’m instantly drawn to the lipsticks, including one in a deep shade of plum called PMS, and another in zingy violet called One of the Boyz that pops with intense pigment when I test it on the back of my hand. “All the guys in Hollywood wear makeup on the red carpet, even if they won’t admit it,” she says, turning her attention to me. “You know that, right, Chi Chi?” It seems that, after last night’s rendezvous, I’ve become part of the family. In fact, Rihanna treats her mostly female circle of young employees with the teasing affection of an older sister. Loyalty, she explains, is her number-one priority. When new people are initiated into the Fenty camp, they usually have to learn the ropes as her assistant first, so she can watch them.
That said, it’s hard to rival the deep bonds she’s formed with her extended family in Barbados. Binge-watching clips of Majesty, her precocious three-year-old niece, might be Rihanna’s favorite pastime. The adorable video messages she has archived on her phone offer comfort on the days when she misses Barbados. She has vivid memories of the first time she ever felt homesick, two years after moving to the States, an intense longing that prompted her to get on the phone to her younger brother Rorrey, and tell him just how much she loved him. “I basically grew up in paradise. I mean, people save for their whole lives to go on vacation there, and it’s easy to take that for granted,” she says.
But even paradise hasn’t been immune to the gun epidemic: On Boxing Day of last year, Tavon Kaiseen Alleyne, Rihanna’s 21-year-old cousin, lost his life in a shooting. Rihanna has spoken out against gun violence in the past, though her approach to activism is more subtle than that of many of her celebrity peers. She quietly founded a nonprofit—the Clara Lionel Foundation, named after her grandparents—that focuses on education and health care in impoverished communities. (She recently partnered with French president Emmanuel Macron on a global education initiative.) Yet despite these philanthropic efforts and the influence she wields on social media—lest we forget, when she called out Snapchat for making light of domestic violence in an ad they ran about her, the media company lost an estimated $800 million in market value overnight—she feels the same sense of powerlessness that many of us do in the endless scroll of the current news cycle. She prefers to issue her goodwill via more private channels, communicating with fans who direct-message her on Instagram whenever she gets a spare moment. For Rihanna, raising public awareness with an Instagram post is one thing, but at what point is it just lip service? How can we effect change in a bigger way?
Rihanna doesn’t pretend to hold all the answers, but she understands that her greatest strength right now is her unflinching realness. In that sense, any political stance she takes will always be tethered to her personal experiences. “I really hugged my cousin the night before he died; I didn’t know why. Now each time I hug somebody lately, I hug them like it’s the last time. That may be my biggest life lesson, not to wait on anything, not even tomorrow,” she says, pausing to gather her thoughts. “Tomorrow is too late in my opinion.”
The star’s maternal instinct is obvious. I ask her what kind of mother she thinks she’ll be one day, though it’s abundantly clear that she’ll be the kind who loves hard. “I’m not gonna be able to take my eyes off my kid. I know that already about myself,” she says. “They’re going to have to force me to hire a nanny.” Even her taste for reality TV tends toward feisty matriarchs. Lisa Vanderpump, the 57-year-old star of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, might be Rihanna’s biggest girl crush. “Tell me who is a badder bitch than Lisa Vanderpump! She’s goals AF!” she says, cracking open a gold highlighter called Trophy Wife. “She’s chic but still funny. She likes to be at home with her husband and then goes and handles her business. Maybe there’s a couple of thousand Birkins in her closet, but she’s still focused. I love that about her.”
I try to imagine what Rihanna’s life will look like 25 years from now. Will she be living the quietly opulent and überglamorous life in the Hills like Lisa Vanderpump, a man at her side and a pack of yapping Pomeranian puppies at her feet? Maybe yes—but probably no. The truth is, trying to anticipate the superstar’s next move is virtually impossible, and that’s what makes her all the more thrilling to watch. Her Spidey sense takes her to places that most of us wouldn’t dare to go. Ask yourself “What would Rihanna do?” in any given situation, and the answer is guaranteed to be outside your comfort zone.
“So did you message the actor guy? You know, on your dating app?” she asks. Admittedly I haven’t reached out to him yet, but really I should. This weird rule I have about not making the first move suddenly feels horribly old-fashioned. Rihanna is right. Life is too short.