So a superfamous pop star walks into a comedy club . . .
Actually, "walks" isn't quite right. Rihanna more glides. She slips in through the back door, GoodFellas-style, at 10 p.m. sharp, and makes a beeline for the corner table, sliding into the chocolate-leather booth in her stonewashed Lee jeans with a red cartoon heart sewn on the butt like a tattoo. Her long ombré hair is shaved on the left side, a la Skrillex, and she smells like her own perfume (her third, Nude, notes of guava and sandalwood). "Jack and ginger," she says to the waitress. "Please."
It's Friday night in West Hollywood, at the Laugh Factory on Sunset. Dane Cook is headlining; bros in untucked dress shirts are lined up around the block. Rihanna has no particular reason to be here, other than she's been working a lot and thought it might be nice to blow off some steam. Often when she wants to do that, she'll go down to Koreatown and sing karaoke with her girls, down Don Julio shots and slay "Livin' on a Prayer" or some early No Doubt. But tonight she was feeling comedy club. To be honest, she was supposed to be rehearsing for her upcoming world tour today, but she just got a new musical director, and he's still getting the band into shape, so she mainly would have just been sitting around – something the CEO of a jillion-dollar global brand does not do.
Rihanna hasn't eaten, so she leafs through the menu and settles on buffalo wings. She also asks for a side of ketchup, but the waitress frowns. "I'm sorry," she says, "but we don't have ketchup. I can bring you, like, a salsa?"
"You don't have ketchup?" Rihanna says. "That's so random!" But she's easy, so ketchupless it is. The wings appear, and she dives in. She may be a little high.
Soon it's time for the show. Onstage, one of the opening comics, a fortyish Canadian dude in a hoodie named Jeremy Hotz – one of those sad-looking journeymen who've spent the past couple of decades doing middle sets at the Omaha Funny Bone – starts complaining about L.A.'s recent cold snap. "For two fucking days we had winter!" he says. "I didn't fuckin' move here for that shit. Fuck off!"
"Yes!" Rihanna shouts enthusiastically. "I was pissed off, yo!"
Hotz doesn't seem to hear her, but he rubs his eyes for a minute like he's overwhelmed by the world, and goes on. "You ever tell yourself what to do out loud, like an asshole?" Rihanna lets out another whoop. "I do that all the time when I'm high!" she whispers. Then she scrunches up her face, pretends to concentrate. "Like, OK . . . let's see . . . perfume!"
Turns out for a star, she's a pretty great audience. She laughs at almost every punch line; a lot of times she even laughs at the setups. She likes sex jokes, body jokes, just the sound of the words "tea bag." Every once in a while she laughs so hard she has to grab something – the table, her knee, her neighbor's arm. Her biggest laugh of the night comes when another opener makes a goofy crack about his dick being the size of a Cheerio hole, and Rihanna just about dies. "Hahahahahahahaha!" she howls. "Cheerios!" She laughs so hard she literally falls out of the booth, and then spends the next minute catching her breath and wiping her eyes. Her best friend Melissa, one row up, turns and looks at her like, "Are you serious?"
Occasionally, there's some awkwardness. When Cook is onstage, he does a bit about how girls shouldn't text nude pictures of themselves, because it's classless. Rihanna doesn't laugh. (Googling will tell you why.) Later he does a bit about inappropriate uses of the word "rape" (e.g., after finishing a sandwich), and she doesn't laugh then, either. He starts one more bit by saying, "Guys, whatever you do, don't try to beat your girl—" and for a second all the air rushes from the table – but then he adds, "in a text argument," and she cracks up all over again. "Yo, this guy is the worst!" she says, delighted. "This man is horrible!"
As the set winds down, she gets up to beat the crowd. She heads for the back, where Hotz, the sad-looking Canadian, is standing there in his hoodie, hands jammed in his pockets like a 10-year-old. "Bye, thanks for coming," he mumbles shyly, looking at the floor. The biggest pop star of the decade fixes her gaze on him. "You," she tells him, "were amazing."
Outside on the street, in her spearmint blazer with shoulder pads like a free safety's, she shivers in the L.A. cold. "That was so much fun!" she says. "I had a great time." She says she's probably going to go home, try to get some rest. She climbs in the back of her chauffeured Escalade. Then she goes to a club in West Hollywood and spends the night with Chris Brown.
Every November for the past four years, Rihanna has put out a hit record. It's a new fall tradition as dependable as Thanksgiving: The leaves change, football comes back and Rihanna's album sells a million copies. Her latest, Unapologetic, was her first Number One, and it basically came together on a whim. "We didn't even plan to put out an album last year," she says a few days later. "But after about six months, I got an itch to go back to the studio. Making music is like shopping for me. Every song is like a new pair of shoes. I love these I have, these look great – but what's new?" (Says her old boss L.A. Reid: "She doesn't idle well.")
And for Rihanna, it sort of is like shopping. She assembles some of the industry's songwriting wizards (Dr. Luke here, the-Dream over there), they spend a few weeks cobbling together hits (with her or without), and she picks out her favorites and sprinkles them with Rihanna dust. Her taste is tremendous. The numbers are so huge they're almost boring: 12 Number One singles in half as many years; more digital sales than anyone in history (100 million and counting); 3.2 billion YouTube views. She conquered the zeitgeist through unstoppable force and firepower, merciless and relentless, a Top 40 Genghis Khan.
Tonight she's eating dinner at her favorite restaurant, a little family-owned Italian spot near the Pacific Coast Highway called Giorgio Baldi. She eats here probably three times a week; it would be more, but they're closed on Mondays. They always have a table for her, and Marco the waiter knows she loves Parmesan and hates truffles. She gets spaghetti with tomato sauce pretty much every time, and fried calamari to start. The sameness doesn't bother her. Once she decides she likes something, Rihanna sticks with it, even if it's not perfect. "I need to work on that," she says. "Baby steps."
Tonight she was about two hours late, which is par for the course. Marco knows this; he wouldn't even tell me the specials "because you'll a-forget them before she comes!" (Italians!) When she does walk in, wearing $700 Manolos and eau de marijuana, she looks a little tired. "My body is weird," she says, unfolding her napkin. "I wake up when the sun comes up, and it's hard for me to go to sleep. My thoughts just take over." On her way here, she took her second nap of the day.
Rihanna moved to this neighborhood a couple of months ago, and she'd be lying if she said being closer to Giorgio Baldi wasn't part of it. ("Takeout.") Before that she lived in Beverly Hills, in a house that she was never all that crazy about. "The pool was a nightmare," she says. "It had a dark-blue bottom – it looked like a lake!" Her new place has a pool too, but "regular – with a light-blue bottom."
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