One hot week with pop's most complicated sex symbol
They were looking for Megan Fox.
Three paparazzi, loitering in the hills high above Los Angeles. They parked here this morning, hoping to catch Fox, who has a house a little ways up the hill. But then luck cruised by in the back seat of an Escalade: Rihanna, on her way to a shoot at a photographer's place. Her windows were blacked out, but the paps knew it was her: There's a telltale dent on the bumper, plus they have a list of plates.
The paparazzi closest to the curb is a nice-looking kid named Arturo with a telephoto lens around his neck. He works for an agency called X17, and Rihanna is on his beat. He knows where she stays, where she shops, where she eats. He says a shot of her might fetch as much as five grand, depending on what she's doing or who she's with. "So," he says, with as much casualness as he can muster, "is she with anyone?"
As it turns out, she's with Mark — her security guard, a cockney bruiser with a heart of gold, who spent his formative years in East London beating the crap out of rival soccer fans. His fists are like sledgehammers, and he sounds like the bad guy from a Guy Ritchie flick. At one point, as a demonstration of his hooligan ingenuity, he takes a plain newspaper, makes a few expert folds, and within seconds has fashioned himself a blunt-force weapon. "We call this a Millwall brick," Mark says with a grin.
By now Rihanna is finished with her shoot and is sipping wine and chatting with her girls while the sun sets. There's Karin, her makeup artist; Ursula, who handles her ever-changing hair — today, a crimson explosion of Sideshow Bob curls; Jen, her personal assistant; and of course, Melissa, her best friend and right-hand gal, whom she's known since they were BFFs in Barbados when she was 14. It's a tightknit crew — or, as Rihanna's friend Katy Perry says, "a bunch of girls who keep it real."
Pretty soon it's time to roll. Mark starts prepping for the 30-foot walk to the car. "Do you want to give them a shot so they don't follow us?" he asks her. She's been getting her picture taken all day, so she's understandably less than enthused, but she agrees, for safety's sake.
But once the cameras start flashing and the smile comes out, she decides to have some fun. "Rihanna! Rihanna!" Arturo shouts. "Are you dating Ryan Phillippe?" That's the rumor this week — the latest in a long line of her alleged paramours, from Shia LaBeouf to Josh Hartnett to Drake. She shakes her voluminous curls. "I hate to burst your bubble," she says, "but no. I'm dating girls!"
Arturo laughs and snaps away."Yeah — Nicki Minaj, right?"
Rihanna laughs. "I wish!" she says as she disappears into the SUV. "Her butt is perfect!"
A little while later, she's at an Italian restaurant off the Pacific Coast Highway, digging into a plate of fried calamari. The place is called Giorgio Baldi, and it's her favorite restaurant in Los Angeles, maybe even the world. If she's home for a week, which is rare, she might eat here four or five times. She usually gets the spaghetti and sometimes the gnocchi. Tonight, she gets both.
So what's she like up close? Almost too much to take in at once. Impossible green eyes. Luminous skin. Legs that reach halfway to the ceiling. (No wonder Gillette once insured them for a million dollars.) "It's disgusting how gorgeous she is," Perry says. "Anytime I introduce my friends to her, male or female, the ride back always consists of, 'What, does she drink the blood of virgins?'"
Rihanna released her first single, the bubbly dancehall jam "Pon de Replay," when she was just 17. Since then she's put out a remarkable five albums in six years, for combined sales of 7 million. Eighteen of her songs have reached the Top 10; among female performers, only Whitney, Madonna, Janet and Mariah have more. If her latest single, "S&M," tops the charts like it looks it could, it would be her 10th Number One — more than Beyoncé and Lady Gaga combined.
All of which makes it easy to forget that she's only 23 — and a young 23, at that. She says she doesn't like vegetables because they taste "like bush." She does, however, love french fries, Cheetos and KFC. She's trying to learn Italian — she got Rosetta Stone for Christmas — but right now, her foreign-language vocabulary consists mostly of swear words. She loves Jonah Hill and Michael Cera (although she calls them "the fat guy" and "the other guy"), and she says cheerfully that she's trying to appreciate her body while she can, because she knows "butt and tits" are the first to go.
She's also really funny, in case you couldn't tell. She has shown glimpses of it before, co-starring with Andy Samberg in two digital shorts on Saturday Night Live about a pants-wetting goofus named Shy Ronnie. ("She came in and nailed it," Samberg says.) But she also has a dry and self-deprecating wit, joking about her "fivehead" (as in, bigger than fore-) and her prodigious appetite — like when, partway through dinner, she looks down at the three strands of spaghetti left on her plate and says, "Maybe I should stop so I have room for my gnocchi. You think it's too late?"
She says she's a bit OCD: "I hate the sound of metal on metal. And if something isn't even, it weirds me out — like if my girlfriend hits me on the right side of my butt, it feels numb on the left." She cracks her knuckles. She's a compulsive boob-grabber. She's seen the movie Due Date literally eight times this week.
Last year, she bought a 12-bedroom mansion in Beverly Hills, but it's taking forever to renovate ("The pool has been a nightmare"), so in the meantime she's renting an apartment in Westwood with Melissa and Oliver, her toy poodle. She loves going to the grocery store and cooking for herself; enjoys a nice chardonnay at the end of the day; forgoes weed (or at least claims to); and has a killer story about getting blackout drunk on bathtub moonshine while on vacation in Mexico. She digs true-crime reality shows like Beyond Scared Straight and Snapped ("about women who snap"), and she says the last book she read was called Mafia Princess. She's also chronically late and doesn't have a driver's license, but otherwise is as down-to-earth and un-diva-like as anyone with 1,500 pairs of shoes can be.
At one point during dinner, something catches her eye. "Oh, my God," she says, lowering her voice, "Colin Farrell is right there. And there's all those crazy rumors about us right now!"
Sure enough, across the restaurant, the Irish heartthrob is having what appears to be a business dinner with some associates. Last November, he and Rihanna were on a British talk show together, where she told a story about an awkward bikini wax; since then they've been rumored to be trading salacious texts. "He probably thinks I'm starting all these crazy rumors," she says. "We don't even have each other's numbers. I wish. He's smoking."
Just then, Farrell looks over. Rihanna waves. A few minutes later he comes over, radiating Gaelic charm, and swoops in for a hug and a peck on the cheek. "Hello, sweetheart. Good to see you. How you doing?"
"I'm good," beams Rihanna, "how are you?"
"I'm good, thanks." He nods toward the door, where the paparazzi are gathered. "Our friends outside are gonna get some good mileage out of this. We're gonna be texting each other all fucking night!"
"Right?" Rihanna laughs. "That's hilarious."
"It's good to see you, baby." He gives her another squeeze, then ducks through the kitchen and out a back door.
Sure enough, the next day, the blogs are all over it. Perez Hilton says the pair were "spotted having dinner together." According to Hollywood Life, they "were careful to leave at separate times so as not to be photographed." MediaTakeout refers to Farrell as Rihanna's "new boyfriend" and tells readers with "100 percent assurance that the two were on a date." (It also calls Giorgio Baldi "L.A.'s top Irish restaurant.")
The truth is, Rihanna is unattached. "I'm not dating," she says. "I'm not sexing, I'm not even sexting. It's on complete nil." She says she hasn't been with anyone since breaking up with Dodgers slugger Matt Kemp, which went down before the public found out in December, so it's been at least four months since she got any action. "You think you're disappointed?" she says. "Try being in this body."
Still, she says, there are alternatives. "When you're not with the person you want to be intimate with, a picture is the next best thing. Well, Skype is safer. But a picture lasts a long time. When you're alone, and those horny moments come up, pictures can be very handy."
That said, she adds, "I haven't gotten a dick picture in a long time. I think people are a little afraid. It can turn out bad."
Unfortunately, she knows this firsthand. Two years ago, the Internet got ahold of several photographs of her in various states of disrobement, several of them pretty graphic. Rihanna still remembers when she found out, having just landed on a flight to Hawaii. "I got off the plane, and I had 27 messages. I remember Katy's message stuck out because she said, 'Babe, are you OK?' Right away, I knew it was serious." When she read the one from her manager breaking the news, she says, "I could barely stand. I went to the first bathroom I saw and just sat in the stall with the door open. People kept coming in and staring at me sitting on the toilet bowl. I was mortified. I didn't even want to leave the airport."
For the next few days, she says, "I fucking shut off everybody. I didn't talk to my family. I didn't talk to my managers. The next day was Mother's Day, so I sent my mom flowers and just waited for her to text me."
But then her mom did, and she made her feel a lot better. These days she has a healthy sense of humor about the whole thing. Recently a fan sent her a link to some pictures, asking what they were. Her reply? "That would be . . . ME, when I was skinny!"
Rihanna is actually her middle name. (It comes from the Arabic for "sweet basil.") Her real name is Robyn, and that's what most of her friends and family still call her. "I get kind of numb to hearing Rihanna, Rihanna, Rihanna," she says. "When I hear Robyn, I pay attention."
She was born on February 20th, 1988, in Bridgetown, Barbados. Her dad, Ronald Fenty, ran a garment warehouse; her mom, Monica Braithwaite, was an accountant. She was a cute kid, with braids to her waist, who spent her free time going to the beach and working the cash register at her aunt's boutique. Her best subjects were math and chemistry, and her worst was PE.
When it came to boys, she was a late bloomer. "My first kiss was in high school, and it was the worst thing ever. He pretty much dumped his entire saliva glands into my mouth. It traumatized me. I didn't kiss for, like, ever." She had more fun going to clubs and dancing with the girls. They would order Passoã and orange juice and dance until three in the morning.
"She was always strong and independent," says her mom. "The other babies" — meaning her two little brothers — "were more mushy-mushy, huggy-huggy. But she wasn't shy about confronting things."
When she was about 15, Rihanna won her school's beauty pageant, and a talent show with a performance of Mariah Carey's "Hero." She always knew she wanted to be a pop star. She used to go around singing Whitney Houston and "A Whole New World" into her hairbrush; the neighbors called her Robyn Red Breast because she sang so much. At 16, she caught the attention of Evan Rogers, an American record producer vacationing in Barbados with his wife. He helped her record a demo — which included what would become "Pon de Replay" — and started shopping it to labels.
The demo made its way to an A&R exec at Def Jam named Jay Brown, who had recently come aboard with new label president Jay-Z. "I played it for Jay," Brown recalls, "and Jay was like, 'That's a big song.' His thing is, you've got to be bigger than the song, otherwise the song dictates to you."
As it turned out, that wouldn't be a problem. Rihanna flew up to New York to audition later that week and sang two songs a cappella, in a white outfit she'd stayed up all night picking out. "She was obviously nervous," says Jay-Z. "Now she has a big personality, but I didn't get that in the meeting. What I did get was her eyes, this determination. She was fierce — like Kobe Bryant. I knew she was a star."
L.A. Reid, then chairman and CEO of Island Def Jam, saw the same thing. "We see pretty all the time," he says. "Pretty's a dime a dozen. But those eyes said, 'I'm going to make it. You're gonna be onboard or not. But this train is leaving the station.'"
Rihanna likes to joke that Jay Brown and Jay-Z are her "dads," showering her with encouragement, advice (not all of it solicited) and sweet birthday presents — including most recently, an original Damien Hirst. Her relationship with her actual father, meanwhile, is a bit more complicated.
Rihanna says she owes her dad a lot. "He taught me how to fish, how to swim, how to run, how to ride. He really toughened me up." But he also toughened her up in less productive ways. For most of her childhood, he drank heavily and was a drug addict. One time, when she was nine, she walked in on him smoking crack. He had a temper, and she says she saw him beat her mom.
"I could tell when a conversation was getting too intense, when it was going to get physical," she says over dinner one night. "And Fridays would be scary because he would come home drunk. He'd get paid, and half of it would go toward alcohol. He'd walk in the door, and it was all eyes on him."
Was he ever abusive toward you?
"No. Well — he hit me once." She was seven; they were at the beach. It was time to leave, but she kept wanting 10 more minutes. Finally, he'd had enough. "He slapped me so hard," she says. "I ran home with his handprint on me. I couldn't believe it. My mother saw my face, how traumatized I was. You know how, when you know you did something wrong, and you deserve to get beat? This was out of nowhere."
Eventually her dad lost his job, and family tensions increased. Rihanna became a loner — she wouldn't talk, wouldn't even cry. "She had always been a straight-A student, but she started to struggle," her mom recalls. "She would suffer from these terrible headaches. She had to get CT scans." The doctors thought she might have a tumor. But when her parents finally separated, the headaches went away.
In recent years, her father made a living selling clothes out of the back of his car. Their relationship is intact — he has said that he cleaned up years ago — but frayed. A few days earlier, he sent her a text that was just prices of things — furniture for his new house that he wanted her to buy. "It's fine," she says. "I'll give my father anything. It's not something that's hard for me to help him with. It's just, like — damn, Dad. Hi."
Rihanna says that if it weren't for singing she might have been a psychologist, and she certainly has a deep sense of empathy. "I actually feel really bad for my father," she says. "He was abused too — he got beat up by his stepdad when he was young. He has resentment toward women, because he felt like his mom never protected him, and unfortunately, my mother was the victim of that. I'm not giving him excuses. Right is right and wrong is wrong. I still blame him. But I understand the source."
At this point in her career, Rihanna is practically an industry unto herself. She's had endorsement deals with Nike, Gucci, CoverGirl and Clinique, not to mention her own scent, Reb'l Fleur. (It smells great on her.) For her latest album, Loud, she and Reid assembled a battalion of professional songsmiths — writers, producers, musicians, demo singers — and installed them at several studios in Los Angeles for two weeks to write songs specifically for her. Reid guesses they numbered about 50 people and finished around 200 tracks. The best made the album. (One that didn't, "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love," went to Usher.)
Today Rihanna is at a soundstage in Hollywood, expanding her brand even further. She's the centerpiece of Nivea's 100th-anniversary campaign, a $1.5 billion marketing effort that includes TV spots and sponsorship of her summer tour. Today she's filming the video for her next single, "California King Bed," which Nivea is helping underwrite in exchange for using the song in their ads. Jay-Z is in the building too, showing his support while puffing on a Cuban. But when Rihanna isn't ready, even Hov has to wait.
"What up, fellas!" Rihanna says as she strides on set, wowing a bunch of union guys in cargo shorts with her flowing see-through nightgown and white-lace underwear. She's about to film some bed scenes with Nathan, a model she handpicked from a selection of candidates on the Internet. There were actually two finalists, so yesterday they both came to the set to show Rihanna their abs. Nathan's abs won.
Today she greets him with a handshake and an icebreaker: "Hi, I'm Rihanna, nice to meet you. No boners." The cameras roll, and as they lie there, caressing in bed, her song plays over the speakers. A slow, sexy ballad about skin on skin, it includes a rather risqué line about having "a little last night on these sheets" — which is presumably not a reference to Nivea Soft Intensive Moisturising Creme.
Imagewise, Rihanna has come a long way from the sweet-faced island girl in tank tops and jean skirts to, in her latest incarnation, a punky, kinky sex goddess, moaning on about "sex in the air" and how "I like the way you pull my hair." The next evening, over a candlelight dinner in Beverly Hills (spaghetti, natch), she opens up even more.
"I like to take charge, but I love to be submissive," she says. "Being submissive in the bedroom is really fun. You get to be a little lady, to have somebody be macho and in charge of your shit. That's sexy to me. I work a lot, and I have to make a lot of executive decisions, so when it comes to being intimate, I like to feel like I'm somebody's girl."
What else does she like? "I like to be spanked. Being tied up is fun. I like to keep it spontaneous. Sometimes whips and chains can be overly planned — you gotta stop, get the whip from the drawer downstairs . . . I'd rather have him use his hands." She goes on to recount a recent trip to a sex shop in Sydney called the Toolshed, where she left with two full bags of whips, blindfolds and dildos. The takeaway? "Don't go to a sex store tipsy."
In part, all this talk about pain and domination is about pushing buttons, and the transgressive thrill she gets from being bad. But it's also largely defensive. Because if there's one thing someone knows about Rihanna, it's probably this: On the night before the 2009 Grammys, her then-boyfriend, Chris Brown, attacked her in his rented Lamborghini, choking her until she nearly passed out and then leaving her battered on the side of the street. Police photos that leaked after the attack show her face swollen and bloodied, and cuts and bruises on her forehead and lips.
In the months that followed, Rihanna says, "I put my guard up so hard. I didn't want people to see me cry. I didn't want people to feel bad for me. It was a very vulnerable time in my life, and I refused to let that be the image. I wanted them to see me as, 'I'm fine, I'm tough.' I put that up until it felt real." She adopted a permanent sneer and dressed all in black, and released Rated R, a collection of down-tempo tracks about murder and revenge. Meanwhile, her two biggest guest appearances — on Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie" and Kanye West's "All of the Lights" — were both songs about abusive men and the women who love them, which is a pretty bold statement.
And now comes Loud, full of lyrics about the blurry line between sex and violence. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me." "I like it rough." "The pain is my pleasure." And perhaps most tellingly, "Maybe I'm a masochist."
"I do think I'm a bit of a masochist," she says this evening. "It's not something I'm proud of, and it's not something I noticed until recently. I think it's common for people who witness abuse in their household. They can never smell how beautiful a rose is unless they get pricked by a thorn." She thinks it explains her attraction to tattoos (14 and counting, including a skull with a pink hair bow on her left Achilles, a pistol on her right rib cage and the words NEVER A FAILURE, ALWAYS A LESSON on her collarbone), as well as her "love-hate relationship" with the media, and the fact that the darkest moments of her life are out there for public consumption. "When I think about it, I really do take some pleasure in the negativity," she says. "I don't want to say turned on by it — but I'm turned on by it."
After the attack, she met with a therapist just once, right before her interview with Diane Sawyer. "I don't think I saw her enough," she says. "I was like, 'You can't help me. I have to understand myself first.'" And, in fact, she did do much of the work herself. "A lot of it was talking out my story in my head, pretending it was somebody else. I started to judge it for what it really was, instead of being biased by my heart."
This past February, she agreed to let a judge ease the restraining order against Brown that had been in place since 2009. When a blogger named Sandra Rose criticized the decision online, calling it "a disgrace to the fans who love her," Rihanna snapped back, "I would've sworn he beat YOUR ass, just by how upset you are," she wrote on Twitter. "My fans don't care about a restraining order and neither do I."
"A lot of people get so brave behind the computer screen," she says today. "I get it — she's a blogger, whatever. But when she started jumping to conclusions about my personal decision, it really pissed me off. That's my decision. You don't make that decision for me. It doesn't mean we're getting married tomorrow. It doesn't mean we're gonna be in a relationship, or make up, or even talk ever again. It just means I didn't want to object to the judge."
She says she hasn't heard from Brown, nor does she expect to. "We don't have to talk again ever in my life. I just didn't want to make it more difficult for him professionally. What he did to me was a personal thing — it had nothing to do with his career. Saying he has to be a hundred feet away from me, he can't perform at awards shows — that definitely made it difficult for him. That was the only thing it was going to change, so I didn't care. But you can never please people. One minute I'm being too hard, and the next minute I'm a fool because I'm not being hard enough."
It's sunday now — her first day off in weeks. It's raining in Southern California; Rihanna sleeps in until noon, cooks herself some pasta, watches some TV, watches Due Date for a ninth time. Then for a long time, she just looks out at the downpour.
Eventually, she throws on a black tank top and a pair of five-inch Louboutins and makes her way to a Beverly Hills bar for a vodka-tonic and a chat about the future. She wants to do a fashion magazine, a clothing line. She also has her eye on Hollywood: Next May, she'll appear with Liam Neeson in her first big film, as an ass-kicking Navy weapons expert in the blockbuster adaptation of the game Battleship. She spent three months filming in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and in Hawaii, including several 18-hour days on a barge with 350 people and one outhouse bathroom. Recalls director Peter Berg, "There were times I would walk up to her like, 'Are you really handling this?' And she would just laugh at me. She said she was really enjoying not having to drive the ship — not having to be running this huge Rihanna machine." But of course she's always running the Rihanna machine, and all the constituent parts that entails.
"It's not the music industry anymore," says manager Jay Brown, "It's the entertainment industry. The goal is not just to be an artist, it's to be a brand."
That depends partly on making her less of a cipher. "I always felt like there was a big disconnect between me and my fans," Rihanna says. "They knew my name, what I looked like, what I dressed like, what I sounded like. But they were never connected to my personality. They never knew if I was a nice person, if I was a bitch. They never knew me."
Which brings us back to Robyn. To her, "Rihanna" is just a stage, like puberty, that started in a recording studio six years ago and will last however long it lasts. Meanwhile, she still thinks of herself as Robyn. "Robyn is the brick to my foundation," she says. "It's something I hold on to. It's everything I grew up with, my childhood, Barbados, people close to me. Everything that's familiar. People know Rihanna from my music. But if this were to all go away tomorrow, I would always look at myself as Robyn."
A pause. Those eyes.
"But the life of Rihanna is pretty fuckin' awesome."