Rihanna: “Raw and Vulnerable and Regal, All at Once”
Next June I’ll celebrate my fifteenth year as editor-in-chief of ELLE. A lot has happened in those 15 years, not least of which were 9/11, the birth of my two children, and the sale of ELLE by a French company, Lagardère, to an American one, Hearst.
In that time, this month’s cover subject, Rihanna, has been shot for the magazine five times and has been on four different covers: June 2008, July 2010, May 2012, and this month, December 2014. Which makes her the most covered celebrity of my tenure. This realization gave me pause, in no small part because the very first time we interviewed her, for an inside story in July 2007, we asked her for her defining popstar moment, and she said,
“I’ve had a few [emphasis on few] encounters with fans who start crying, and that freaks me out because I don’t know what to do,”
but also because of how she’s changed over the decade since she released the earworm “Pon de Replay” in 2005.
What does it say about ELLE, I wondered, that we were so drawn to her again and again, as she grew and matured and became nothing less than a global powerhouse whose many iterations held our attention, and defined us in a way, too? I don’t think anyone, back when we shot her posing by the pool in Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, and Marc Jacobs, could have predicted just how big a star Rihanna would become (she has 37.7 million followers on Twitter and has tied Michael Jackson’s record of number-one hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart), or just what she would eventually represent for so many constituencies around the world.
The beautiful Bajan with a catch in her voice that you cannot unhook from your brain; the sexually voracious and dominant libertine; an outspoken opponent of domestic violence ; an unapologetic, defiant anti–role model; a fashion soothsayer—indeed, a fashion icon, according to the voters for this year’s Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Icon Award; a musical force; a social media savant; and a single-word phenomenon who puts her desires, agenda, and failures out for all to see but couldn’t care less about the heap of judgment that comes with that.
When photographer Paola Kudacki trained her eye on the singer—let’s not forget that for all her multiple personas, Rihanna is, at heart, an artist—what came through was something I’ve rarely seen in a celebrity shoot: genuine honesty. And I don’t mean only that she showed up without makeup on, and, other than some red lipstick for one picture, stayed that way, with nothing more than a dusting of powder on her face, or that there were no highlights or lowlights, just her natural hair, loosely tied back to show those incredible bones. No, what I mean is that she didn’t “act” for the camera. As you will see, she was direct, self-aware and self-regarding; not self-aggrandizing, but centered, straightforward, and calmly determined—secure in the knowledge of who she is and who is in charge.
And the pictures are just…. Well, see for yourself. When I got copies of the images sent to my hotel in Paris—the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme, where I’ve stayed for 15 years now—during the spring 2015 collections, I was transfixed by the close-up of Rihanna wearing nothing but a Yeprem necklace. There is something so beautiful and ancient and beyond fashion about that picture; she looks raw and vulnerable and regal, all at once. I got lost in that photo for a good five minutes, like a piece of art that keeps you looking and looking for something that is just beyond explanation. It takes a village, of course, to capture such an indelible presence, and Kudacki, along with fashion editor-at-large Lori Goldstein, creative director Alex González, and contributing editor Lizzy Goodman—who so acutely sums up what Rihanna represents to us in a kind of back-and-forth game of What’s My Line?, circa 2014—all did great work. It’s a neat trick to pull off: giving us a new perspective on one of the most photographed, documented stars of our time.
Which, when I think about it, is what I hope to do for you: through great photography, a modern take on fashion, and smart writing about what women care about, give you new and meaningful ideas about how to move.
Robbie Myers for ELLE