CELEBRITY Rita Ora
RITA ORA HAS A PLAN. The magazine covers, fashion (Roberto Cavalli) and beauty (Rimmel London) endorsements, design collaborations with Adidas Originals, campaign with Coca-Cola, even performing a nominated song (‘Grateful’) at this year’s Oscars, are all testimony that the plan is working. ‘Oh, it is in full effect. We’re these conniving Kosovan hungry bitches,’ Rita says of herself and her older sister, Elena Sahatçiu, who is also her manager. ‘I knew that one way or another, I was going to do things my way.’
The London-based 24-year-old insists the plan is a secret but that it has been nearly 10 years in the making. There was admission to the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School in London as an 11-year-old. There was singing in her father’s pub when she was 14. There was recording her first song at the local youth centre. There was sneaking out to warehouse raves in East London, playing the house diva behind the turntables while her parents thought she was going to a sleepover. ‘Me and my friends, we were really, like, rebel-y. I feel like I lived a lot when I shouldn’t have.’ She found her voice in those clubs and at her dad’s pub; the soulful alto, the easy glissando that makes auto-tuning superfluous.
She and her sister shared a room, with Debbie Harry, Stevie Nicks and Winona Ryder posters on the wall. Rita’s side was so messy that Elena, two years older, vacuumed only up to the imaginary line down the middle of the room. Rita used to cut out photos from magazines. ‘All these women would make me want to go out and make an effort to get dressed, and be original, be myself, be different, be a misfit.’ Because she couldn’t afford the high fashion taped to her walls, she would buy vintage pieces from Portobello Road and have her mother sew them according to Rita’s sketches. ‘People would be like, “Where did you get that?” It made me feel good because they couldn’t get it because I made it on my own.’
The sisters get their looks from their mother, Vera Sahatçiu, who has told her daughters, ‘I was hotter than both of you put together,’ back when she was ‘the first woman in Albania to wear red lipstick and hair gel.’ And that was enough, apparently, to lure their Muslim father, Besnik (Vera is Catholic). The two fled conflict-torn Kosovo in 1991, when Rita was a year old, and settled in London. Her father, who had studied economics, opened his pub – he’s not a devout Muslim – and her mother became a psychiatrist. She had Rita’s younger brother, Don, in 1998.
Whatever her plan is, it now includes acting, and she is being strategic about taking small, high-profile roles in buzzy films. She appeared as a race starter in 2013’s Fast & Furious 6 and played Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) sister, Mia, in February’s Fifty Shades of Grey. (Her character’s role will expand in the next two Fifty Shades movies.) ‘I’m not an egotistical person. I don’t care what role it is,’ she says. ‘I just want to learn and get in the environment.’ In the film drama Southpaw, out in September, she plays a drug addict who attempts to seduce a boxer played by Jake Gyllenhaal. ‘I arrived on the set, and the make-up artist said, “You’re kind of ready to go onstage,”’ Rita says. ‘I’m like, “You know I’m playing a crack whore?” Which shows: Don’t look at me when I’m waking up.’
Joking aside, her beauty is produced as much by her force of personality as the symmetry of her features. In her manic energy and selfdeprecating comments, she is a fashion icon who manages to be both approachable and divalike. She’s stolen red carpet events and been the featured singer on hit singles like Iggy Azalea’s ‘Black Widow’. But, even so, she’s still making a mark for herself in America. Her first album,
Ora, which produced three number-one singles in the UK, was never released stateside. That 2012 album, and her stint as a judge on
The Voice UK, has made her a household name in the UK but it will be her second album, set to be released in the US in September, that will catapult her to new heights. What has derailed the plan is just how long the album is taking. Since she was signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation at 18, moved to Brooklyn, New York, and began recording, the plan was always to put music first, but in the ensuing six years, it seems that everything else has gotten in the way, including high-profile boyfriends like Bruno Mars, Rob Kardashian, Calvin Harris and now Ricky Hilfiger, Tommy Hilfiger’s son, whose house she stays in when she’s in Los Angeles. ‘I’m afraid of being alone,’ Rita says. ‘I’m not afraid to admit that, you know. Sometimes love just makes you feel crazy.’
She dismisses the attention her romances generate. ‘If I weren’t famous, no one would give a shit. I’ve always just picked people who are known. You can’t help who you like.’
Singer, actor, fashion icon and all-round badass Rita Ora has conquered the limelight (see her in this month’s Southpaw), but it will be the release of her
second album that lets us see who she really is
‘I KNEW THAT ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, I WAS GOING TO DO THINGS MY WAY’
It was the highly publicised breakup with producer and DJ (and Taylor’s Swift’s new beau) Calvin Harris last year that both stalled her second album and, she believes, made it possible for her to refocus on her music. ‘I Will Never Let You Down’, released in March 2014, initially set to be the first single from her second album, was Rita’s first solo Hot 100 hit in the USA. With its catchy hook and Rita’s most virtuosic vocal performance yet, it looked like it was catching on, until Calvin, producer and writer of the song, refused to allow her to perform it at the Teen Choice Awards, according to Rita. ‘I did that with Calvin, and then we split, and it was hard for me to promote something because it kept getting blocked.’ She’s become more philosophical about the breakup, both creative and romantic. ‘There was a reason I split up with him. And there was a reason I’m at this point in my life where I feel like I have so much musical freedom, and I don’t have to explain myself to anybody.’ Working with the Grammy Award-winning Calvin had made Rita a little bit passive in terms of the musical direction she was taking. ‘I was at that point in my relationship where I felt he could do no wrong. But then “I Will Never Let You Down” came out, and everything started to go a bit weird. I don’t know if it was because business was mixed with personal or what.’ It was, she says, ‘a musical wake-up call. Instead of relying on men, I’m putting all that into storytelling and my songwriting.’ The album’s first single, ‘Poison’, is a synth-heavy pop track, but she’s also tapping into house music and folk music, embracing a wide range of musical influences. ‘How the hell do you expect to put these on one album?’ Elena has asked her. ‘I started having heated debates with the label, saying I want to do this, and I want to do that,’ Rita says. Among the battles: persuading the label to include songs written by Ed Sheeran or that she’s recorded with Prince on the new album. ‘He came to London about a year ago and his manager contacted my management, and he said, “Hey, Prince is in town.” I was like, “What prince? Like the royal family prince? I wouldn’t care about that prince. I care more about actual Prince Prince.” And he was like, “Actual Prince.”’ The two hit it off and recorded three songs. In the end, she says, ‘I had to get back in tune with my instincts, which is what got me into this industry in the first place.’
The whole plan, from when she first entered the music industry, Rita gradually divulges, was to become famous, and then use that fame to release the music she really cares about. ‘Don’t get me wrong – I love pop music. I’ve loved every song I’ve released,’ she says. But she’s only now finding her voice, and this album will be when we finally meet the real Rita. ‘I’ve had to have a lot of patience. Because there have been times at night when I wanted to pull my hair out and just put my music out for free on the internet. But then I have this conscience saying no, be smart, be strategic. There are ways of doing things and still getting your way. If I’m going to do Rita Ora, it’s going to be Rita fucking Ora. It’s not about who is on my album or who’s featured or the names. It’s about a solid body of work that I can call my own.’