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."
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