Rihanna: The Unstoppable Artist
Backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles plays like a very expensive and absurdist version of high school. In a lower corridor of the Staples Center, musical cliques rush between dressing rooms, looking like underclassmen scrambling from homeroom to algebra. Popular girl Taylor Swift floats by in a cream-colored suit, pale, silent, almost an apparition. A Nashville twang rebounds along the hallway concrete—Miley Cyrus, greeting a friend and showing off her newly buzzed, blonde hair. There’s Katy Perry in a plunging black floral dress. There are the teen crushes One Direction. There’s the United States Olympic women’s gymnastics team, here to introduce Alicia Keys. Emma Watson, the actress. Pink, the person. At one point, there’s a commotion, and suddenly Lil Wayne spins by on a green-wheeled skateboard. He’s as tiny as a coxswain, a pair of red headphones clamped over his ears.
Then, through a silver set of doors, Rihanna appears. She’s wearing a sheer red Adam Selman dress with matching leather Balenciaga leggings, and as she steps into the hall, a thick crowd begins to part around her. Just days ago, Rihanna cut her hair pixie-short, like Audrey Hepburn’s in Sabrina, but to the public this is still just a rumor, and given the manner in which her stylistic evolutions are breathlessly followed, actually seeing the new ’do feels like a sneak preview of a yet-to-be-unveiled iPhone. “Spur of the moment,” Rihanna will tell me later. “My hair was supposed to be down to my ass tonight.”
Later that night she will bump into the actor Robert Pattinson. Recently there were tabloid reports that Rihanna was flirting by text with Pattinson. When I relayed this rumor to Rihanna before the VMAs, she expressed horror and pronounced it “the most bullshit ever,” but she also seemed amused. No two private lives in the universe are subjected to as much daily rumormongering as Rihanna’s and Pattinson’s, and watching their encounter in the hallway is like witnessing the collision of gossip planets. Pattinson lowers his head and smiles. Rihanna gives him an innocent hug and pushes on. The exchange is shorter than three seconds.
Rihanna opens the VMAs with a pair of songs—the frisky “Cockiness (Love It)” and her pulsating monster hit with DJ Calvin Harris, “We Found Love.” When her medley is complete, Rihanna whooshes back to the dressing room and changes into another Adam Selman dress, this one white with a plunging back that exposes the constellation of star tattoos running from her neck to her right shoulder blade. She’s about to take her seat in the front row, where she’ll join a childhood friend from Barbados, Melissa Forde, as well as Katy Perry, one of her closest showbiz pals. “We just people-watch,” Rihanna explains.
I meet her for the first time at Giorgio Baldi, an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, not far from the Pacific Ocean, that serves as Rihanna’s unofficial kitchen when she is home in Los Angeles. Jay-Z, who signed Rihanna when she was a sixteen-year-old named Robyn Rihanna Fenty, introduced her to the place. (Beyoncé told her to try the calamari.) Rihanna walks in, on time, at 9:00 p.m.
On the sidewalk, photographers have already gathered, waiting for her departure. Last night one of them asked her if she was texting Robert Pattinson.
She says she is single. “I have not been on a date in forever,” she says. “Like two years. Haven’t gone to the movies, to dinner. Zero.”
Come on. If someone wanted to go on a date with you—
“I would love to go on a date,” she says. “You don’t think that? I’m a woman. A young woman, vibrant, and I love to have fun. And I have too many vaginas around me at this point.”
She takes a sip of wine. “Seriously, all I want is a guy to take me out and make me laugh for a good hour and take my ass back home. He doesn’t even have to come up. All I want is a conversation for an hour.”
So what gives?
“No one asks. Trust me on that. I’m waiting for the man who’s ballsy enough to deal with me. I’m going to wait, though. You always find the wrong shit when you go looking.”
Rihanna’s iPhone sits on the table, politely turned upside down and ignored. At the moment Rihanna has almost 26 million Twitter followers. That is nearly six million more than Barack Obama, more than CNN, MTV, and ESPN combined. This is hilarious to her. She had to be persuaded to tweet for the first time. “I just thought, Who cares? Do I say, ‘Getting in the car. Getting on the plane’? I was so distraught by the whole idea.”
Now she cannot be stopped. Rihanna’s Twitter feed is a real-time portal into her sometimes wild life. Occasionally she overshares. Rihanna sparked a brief controversy last spring when she sent out a photograph of herself sitting on her bodyguard’s shoulders at the Coachella music festival, rolling what appeared to be a marijuana cigarette on his head. She was upset by printed insinuations that the photo from Coachella might have depicted harder stuff, possibly cocaine.
“They knew what it was,” she says now. “They knew it was marijuana. It was completely clear to them. I just thought it was uncalled for. I don’t do cocaine. I don’t like being associated with anything that’s untrue.”
Rihanna used Twitter to go on the offensive. When MTV zinged her (tweeting “Yikes”) for the Coachella pictures, she zapped them right back, telling the network she “ran out of fucks to give.” MTV, admonished, quickly took down its comment. “I got over it,” Rihanna says of her tiff with the music network. “We’re friends again.”
What’s uncommon about Rihanna’s career is just the relentlessness of it. There used to be a standard formula for popular musicians—record, promote, tour, go away, hide. The belief was too much music would overexpose the artist, squish the golden goose. But Rihanna and Brown, her manager, think differently. She has released six albums in seven years. And here comes another.
“If you have a new iPhone every year, why can’t we give them new content?” Brown asks. “But I don’t think she’s thinking of it like that. She’s thinking, I love to make music. I want to keep going.”
And yet, no matter what Rihanna does as an artist, her story always winds its way back to February 2009, when she was assaulted by Chris Brown. The abuse was shocking, and Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault. Though a cloud lingers over his name, Brown and Rihanna have become friendly. Controversially, she collaborated with him on a remix of a raunchy track from her last album called “Birthday Cake.” Over the summer, she did a tearful interview with Winfrey in which she said she still loved Brown and hoped he “finds peace.”
At dinner I ask her if she thinks she’s going to be talking about Brown for the rest of her life. “To the world, I feel like there’s no closure,” she says. “There’s some obsession that’s continued even throughout when we weren’t friends or couldn’t be friends at all. Hated each other. The world hasn’t let go. They haven’t seen any progress in our friendship, because they don’t see anything, really, besides the song.”
It was shocking, and there was blowback. “So now it’s a bit of a fascination, I guess,” she says. “I don’t know if people will stop soon, but I feel like as soon as they have closure to it, they will.” She doesn’t expect she will win everyone’s understanding. “But they’re not on the inside. They can’t see what I see, unless they’re sitting in my point of view. I guess I’ll learn to accept that.”
There’s only about a half hour left in tonight’s VMAs show, and inside Rihanna’s dressing room, we’re treated to balloons and food and an open bar. The scene is relaxed. Mostly the stylists and friends and record-company people just watch the VMAs on a TV. At one point Rihanna appears to use the ladies’ room and admonishes all of us for standing there and staring at the monitor screen.
“Why y’all look like you’re high on mushrooms?” she asks.
Then she wins, the last and biggest prize of the night, Video of the Year.
She does not party into the California night. A few hours later, Rihanna is at an airport in Van Nuys, boarding a private Gulfstream IV jet. A flight attendant has assembled a bed for Rihanna at the front of the plane, stacking two pillows neatly against the cabin wall.
A couple of hours later, I’m summoned to Rihanna’s bed. The plane is dark, but she is awake and sitting up. Her legs are crossed under the covers, an Isabel Marant jacket pulled tight around her shoulders. Her Air Jordans are off and on the floor. There’s not a lot of room, so I take a seat on the bed. She looks sleepy. I feel like I should read her Goodnight Moon.
“Fun night,” she says of the VMAs.
Then she talks a little about the first time she went to an awards show like that, how intimidating the room felt, how nervous she felt being around the seasoned pros. She says the nerves never really go away. She talks about spending time at the show with Katy Perry, how the two of them understand what it means to “go through personal things in a very public way” and “genuinely care if each other are OK.” She says the presence of Brown and Drake wasn’t a big deal. “It was easy. No problems.” As for their nightclub fight—and the suggestion the two men were feuding over her—she brushes it off. “I wasn’t even there. It had nothing to do with me.”
She looks around the sleek interior of the plane, where the people she loves are in deep sleep. “Every time we come on one of these things, it’s unreal,” she says. The perks of her young life are abundant, even if its demands can get overwhelming. “I’m in a positive space, but I do have my days,” she says. “Everybody has their days.”
The plane starts to descend. We are due to land in Minot, North Dakota, for a refueling stop. This is where I get out. In an hour I will catch a commuter flight to Minneapolis, and then another one on to New York. Rihanna is going on to London, where she will perform at the closing ceremonies for the Paralympic Games with Coldplay and Jay-Z. She will also get an elaborate tattoo underneath her breasts, a rendering of the goddess Isis she says is a tribute to her grandmother, who died in July. She engages in a Twitter fight with CNN interviewer Piers Morgan, who has the temerity to suggest that Rihanna should “grow her hair back. Fast.” Rihanna snaps at Morgan: “Grow a dick . . . FAST,” and you can’t help imagining Morgan’s stomach twisting in embarrassment. (Or maybe not. He and Rihanna soon are making up in public and arranging an interview.) Her world tour is announced, the biggest of her career. No matter where you live, Rihanna is probably coming to a city near you.
That all happens in the next 72 hours.
It’s true. Rihanna is having so much fun.