Robyn Rihanna Fenty kicked off 2012 with the first month-long vacation she had taken in six years. Though she'd been "dreaming about it for the entirety of 2011,"-- most of which was devoted to a rigorous global tour for her Loud album- when the break finally arrived, she found she couldn't relax. She did a lot of cooking (an activity she loves, she says, because "it's a moment to be alone, where you have something else to focus on other than your own thoughts") and watched "anything with a housewife or wife in it" on TV. She and a group of friends decamped to Hawaii, from whence she dispatched, via Twitter, photos of herself posing on a treadmill in a bikini and horsing around on a surfboard. Still, she says, "I felt awful. I kept thinking, and that drove me nuts. I kept feeling like something wasn't getting done, like I was being irresponsible. I knew this was going to be a big year, and I felt like I wasn't doing anything about it. I had such anxiety, I was going crazy." As the world later learned, she had also been formulating the biggest, most provocative gambit of her career. Of course she couldn't sleep.
On February 20, the day Rihanna turned 24, she and ex-boyfriend Chris Brown simultaneously released remix singles. Naturally their reunion- strictly music or not- made a lot of people uncomfortable and raised questions about what kind of example she might be setting for victims of domestic abuse, as well as how much we, as onlookers can ever assume we know about celebrity relationships in the first place. Perhaps making a record with Brown was Rihanna's way of audaciously stamping out any lingering pity or vulnerability; maybe she's just reached such a level of fame that criticism-- and very real concerns for her well-being-no longer touch her. Regardless, she offered no apology or explanation, save a smattering of tweets. "No pain is forever," she wrote. "Music heals the world." (Though, as she and Brown proved, it can also be incredibly divisive).
When Rihanna meets me for dinner at Santa Monica's Giorgio Baldi restaurant two weeks before the bomb drops, she gives no indication she has something up her sleeve. She's friendly, seemingly unguarded, and brings along four of her close friends: hairstylist Ursula Stevens, who tends to her constantly changing coif; video direction Melina Matsoukas, who was behind the camera for the singer's epic "We Found Love" clip; her assistant Jen Rosales; and Melissa Forde, who has been Rihanna's ever-present sidekick since the pair met at a high school beauty pageant in Barbados. The gang dines here frequently, not only because, as Rihanna says, the spaghetti is "sin on a plate," but because it's dark and noisy and everyone is too engrossed in their lotus-eater-like carbo-loading to glance up, even when a superstar singer strides into the room wearing a denim jumpsuit unzipped to her naval.
As we wind our way through the room to a corner table, the Barbadian beauty carries herself like a prize: chin up, shoulders back, and with a slow, suggestive sway in her hips. "I try to have a good time no matter where I go, but I always get mobbed, Rihanna says. "I always feel like I'm the star. And I hate that feeling. It's like an out-of-body experience, like I'm looking in the mirror and I can see ever facial expression. Everything has to be calculated, because I feel everyone watching me. I want to enjoy my life and not think about it."
This is also a reason, she explains, why she's recently become something of a nightclub addict: After dinner she'll go to Greystone Manor, a West Hollywood hot spot equipped with colossal chandeliers and plush velvet banquettes. "I love going to the club, because that's the one place that nobody's checking for me," she says. "Everybody in there is doing the same thing you're doing--dancing, listening to music, and having some drinks. They're too fucked up to care."
Rihanna has been famous since she was 17 years old. She has raced through six increasingly adventurous albums in six years, from her reggae inflected 2005 debut, Music of the Sun, to her urgently danceable most recent album Talk That Talk, spawning so many hits along the way that, among female artists, she's now third only to Mariah Carey and Madonna in her tally of Billboard number ones. Currently she's the best-selling digital artist of all time, with almost 50 million downloads (an achievement that prompted her record label to give her a shiny new Jeep Wrangler, despite the fact that she doesn't have a driver's license); the most popular woman on Facebook (with more than 50 million "likes"); and-- with a staggering 2 billion views-- the most watched female popstar on YouTube. Once you become that famous, invisibility is not an option. And if you also happen to have a trigger-happy Twitter habit? Forget about it.
If any good came from the fallout surrounding her horrendous experience with Brown three years ago, she says, it was that it allowed her both the gumption and the opportunity to express herself more openly. "It gave me guns," she says. (Literally as well as figuratively: Among her rapidly proliferating tattoos--current count 16-- is a pistol she had inked on her ribcage in the months following the assault.) "I was like, well, fuck. They know more about me than I want them to know. It's embarrassing, but that's my opening. That was my liberation, my moment of bring it. I wanted people to know who I am. Whatever they take that to be, good or bad, I just want them to know the truth. There are still a lot of rumors out there, and I'll never be able to stop that. But you just have to ignore all that stuff. I have freedom the more people know about me. It's like, one less skeleton in the closet, one less burden, one less secret; now you know that so you can say what you want about it. I don't have anything to hide."
I ask her to clarify: Is she alluding to her tweets laced with, lately, with blithe references to smoking pot? To the fact that she's acquired a sort of devil-may-care rabbel-rouser reputation? Or just that she can swear and drink and talk about sex in interviews?
"There are layers and layers," she says. "Even the way I respond to things. I don't know why I was ever afraid of letting people know who I am. Because once I thought about it, I was like, You know what? You're rad."
She waves to a sheepish waiter and places her order: a bottle of red wine, fried shrimp and calamari, followed by entrée size portions of gnocchi and spaghetti for the both of us. "Get ready girl," she says. "You're gonna be full."
Ask people who are close to Rihanna what her defining traits are and you'll hear a lot of praise for her thoughtfulness and kindness. "She has a way about her that's very comforting," says L.A. Reid. "She's opinionated and honest, yet she's sensitive. When I've been through ups and downs she's always been there for me." Katy Perry remembers meeting her at a rehearsal shortly before that ill-fated Grammy night in 2009. "She had this cool studded Valentino bag that had sparkly stuff on it," she says, and when Perry complimented it, Rihanna offered to send her one. "I was like, Oh great, here's one of those tricks who talks fast friends but never lives up to it. And then Valentine's Day came around, and I got a little Valentino bag in the mail from her. I thought, Wow this is a woman of her word."
When I tell Rihanna this, she claps her hands and laughs. "Kay-dee!" she shouts, her Barbadian accent suddenly acute. "She remembered that? That's awesome! I'll tell you, you do not find people like her in this industry. She's gorgeous, charming, and so unedited it's scary. That's what intrigued me most when I first met her: she said it like she saw it. I trust people like that. I feel safe around people who tell me the fucked-up shit, because I know they'll always tell me the truth."
"I think my best quality is being daring and spontaneous. Risky. Fearless."
Rihanna's knee-jerk response to anything she perceives to be a restriction or an obstacle is to kick it away. "She doesn't observe certain barriers," says Matsoukas. "Whenever any higher ups push back on us on how far we're taking things or telling us we're getting too risqué, she says 'Let's not listen to that.' She doesn't care what they say."
Rihanna says it's not that she enjoys pushing people's buttons ("I hate it, actually"), it's just that she refuses to conform to anyone else's ideas about how she should behave-- or for that matter, dress. "Everything I do, I do because I want to. Sometimes I'll wear something and think, I'm going to get so much flack for this tomorrow, but if I want to wear it, I will. If I dress too sexy, then I'm a slut; if I dress sophisticated, then I'm a grandma. At the end of the day, I just wear what I want to wear."
In 2009 Rihanna channeled the pain and rage she felt in the wake of her flameout with Brown into the dark, emotionally raw Rated R. "I didn't want to be dishonest," she says, shaking her head. "I was going through the hardest time of my life. I was angry, sad, confused, torn. I was still in love. And I needed to talk about. That was the only way I could get peace, because it was in my head, and I couldn't leave it there." For that album, she portrayed herself as a tough-skinned bondage babe, an image she's toyed with ever since, emerging as an artist who owns her sexuality and knows how to wield it, singing about her bedroom predilections more openly, and lasciviously, than any of her peers.
"My albums are always true to where my head is at in that moment," she says, giving a little big-deal shrug. "I guess I was having a lot of naughty thoughts, because I wasn't getting any action. And that came out in my music."
Does it make her feel powerful to voice that kind of desire?
"To me, sex is power," she answers matter-of-factly. "It's empowering when you do it because you want to do it. People get into the idea of pleasing others, and they forget about themselves."
Despite all its precoital panting, Talk That Talk's most affecting songs are arguably those that express a real romantic yearning for a love that isn't merely physical. Even in the ultraraunchy "Roc Me Out," Rihanna concedes, "I'll let you in on a dirty little secret, I just wanna be loved."
And there it is, that things about Rihanna that makes even her most outrageous actions seem, well not so bad: Theres always a soft-core discernible underneath the hard-core. It's often the most sensitive people who put up the toughest fronts, and Rihanna appears to be a case in point. She has a self-protective mechanism, she says, the root of which reaches to her childhood. Though she had a fairly comfortable upbringing, her father battled drug and alcohol addiction, and her parents divorced when she was 14. "Children figure out who they really are between the ages of zero and five," she says. "And that's something that plays out your entire life."
Rihanna's long-cultivated stoicism was both an asset and a hurdle when it came to making her acting debut in this month's board game-based alien-invasion blockbuster, Battleship. Director Peter Berg sought her out for the role of Raikes after happening upon the 2009 interview she did with Diane Sawyer in which she discussed the gory details of her altercation with Brown. "I remember being so impressed by how poised and articulate she was," he says. "I obviously knew her from her music, but that interview made me feel like there was much more to her than perhaps people had given her credit for." Once cast, he says, "she was never anything less than 100-percent focused and committed."
For Rihanna, "the hardest part was tapping into my emotions," she says. "I didn't realize how shut off I was from them, how much I cover them up and ignore them. It's subconscious, but it's been something I've been doing since I was a child." She worked with an acting coach "who had a similar childhood with her [own] dad" and who was able to provoke strong reactions: "She'd say something to me that would piss me off or make me so sad I would cry, so that I could be there in the next scene."
In efforts to, as she puts it, "get her hands dirty" in a host of creative endeavors, Rihanna has another film lined up and is challenging her affinity for fashion into her ongoing collaboration with Armani. Plus she's dipping into television, serving as an executive producer of a UK fashion reality show airing this summer. She is already "plotting" her next album and has even begun to contemplate a plan for her distant future. "I want to get into making music videos for other artists, or start a company where labels give me new artists who need a new look," she says. "I guess, I'm planning for when I want a family. That way I don't have to be on tour- I can still be rocking my shit at home.
I tell her I imagine it must be hard to meet someone new, someone who can separate the pop star from the human being. "I feel like it's hard for everybody!" she says. "I don't think it has anything to do with being famous. There's just a major drought out there." She pauses and stares for a moment into the flickering candle on our table. "I don't know. I guess I'm challenging because my job seems to affect every relationship I have or try to have. But I just need to find the person who balances me out, because then things like my schedule won't matter. I've done it before, so I know I can do it again."
Which brings us back to Chris Brown.
"I respect what other people have to say," she tells me over dinner, perhaps preemptively bracing for the backlash. The bottom line is everyone thinks differently. It's very had for me to accept, but I get it. People end up wasting their time on the blogs ranting away, and that's all right. I don't hate them for it. Because tomorrow I'm still going to be the same person. I'm still going to do what I want to do."
During her vacation in Hawaii, back before any of this began, Rihanna went swimming with sharks. "You have no idea the thrill!" she says with a grin. She leans in and looks me dead in the eye. "Let me ask you something," she says. "When you know you like a guy, or when you've been in love-- that feeling when you see that person, what's it like? Is it the same feeling you have on a roller coaster? That's the same feeling you have swimming with sharks. That's the same feeling you have when doing anything daring, risky, spontaneous, or unpredictable. I think having those butterflies is the closet thing to being in love." She drains her wineglass.
"And when you play it safe, you don't feel anything at all."