Rihanna From singer to megastar business mogul
Announcing Rihanna as a keynote speaker at its prestigious fashion industry conference next month, Women’s Wear Daily described her as a “powerhouse multihyphenate”. This is perhaps the least clumsy way to describe what Rihanna does. As singer, songwriter, actor, fashion designer and – since the launch a week ago of Fenty Beauty – business mogul, the number of strings to Rihanna’s bow is becoming unwieldy to list. Luckily, she is too famous to need a job title.
Even by megastar standards, Rihanna has had quite a week. As creative director of the sportswear giant Puma she staged a New York fashion week show, complete with motocross stunts across pink glitter mountains, that delighted her fans and charmed the critics.
“Rihanna has figured out how to sprinkle just the right amount of her stardust on the sportswear brand without overshadowing the brand itself,” said the Washington Post. The launch of her Fenty Beauty range, also this week, set a new standard for catering to all skin tones, with 40 shades of foundation. Darker shades sold out within days, a measure of Rihanna’s power in the marketplace and of the appetite for diversity in beauty which she taps into.
Earlier this summer, while her single Wild Thoughts was topping charts worldwide, Rihanna travelled to Paris to discuss global education with Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and from there to Barbados, where she partied in a diamante headdress, fishnet tights and little else. She will not be pigeonholed, and her refusal to comply with expectations of young black womanhood has made her a potent and unpredictable figure.
In the early days of Instagram, Rihanna’s penchant for posting selfies in which she is smoking marijuana caused frequent outrage. Eventually, as it became clear that she was either not listening to the condemnation or unmoved by it, the outrage died down. Rihanna’s music is pop, but her spirit is punk. “Everyone’s cool with a young black woman singing, dancing, partying and looking hot,” she told Essence magazine in 2015, “but when it comes time to negotiate, to broker a deal, she is suddenly made aware of her blackness.”
Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born in Saint Michael, Barbados, on 20 February 1988. Her childhood was marred by her father’s addictions to crack and alcohol, which contributed to her parents’ divorce during her early teens. Singing was a teenage hobby until the summer of 2003, when the girl group she had formed with two friends won an audition with the music producer Evan Rogers, who was visiting the island on holiday with his Barbadian wife.
“The minute Rihanna walked into the room, it was like the other two girls didn’t exist,” Rogers later recalled. After hearing her sing Destiny’s Child’s Emotion and Mariah Carey’s Hero, he arranged for Rihanna to make a demo tape. This was played at Def Jam Recordings, whose new CEO, a rapper called Jay-Z, heard it, and signed Rihanna to a six-album deal.
In 2007, Britney Spears and Mary J Blige turned down a song called Umbrella, and Rihanna’sg world changed as a result. That single turned her from a middle-tier, urban-pop artist into a star. As the undisputed soundtrack of that summer, it crashed iTunes the day it became available to download. Rihanna’s next four studio albums went platinum. Her songs Disturbia, Take a Bow, Only Girl (In the World), S&M, Diamonds, We Found Love and Stay have joined Umbrella as some of the world’s best-selling singles. She is the youngest and the fastest solo artist to reach 14 No 1 hits. She has won eight Grammy awards, and her net worth is estimated at $230m.
As Rihanna’s profile grew, her image became increasingly arresting. With Umbrella and the album Good Girl Gone Bad came a fetish-inspired new look: leather, bra tops, bondage straps, thigh-high boots and a distinctive, provocatively sexual, heavy-lidded, head-thrown-back stance. Whips and riding crops were familiar on-stage props. The violence of the imagery was uncomfortable in the context of her abuse by her then boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009. It reached its peak in the video for S&M in 2011, in which Rihanna wore a dress with the slogans “whore” and “slut” while bound against a wall with layers of clingfilm. The video was banned in 11 countries. Rihanna told British Vogue that the look was “not me. That’s like a part I play. You know, like it’s a piece of art, with all these toys and textures to play with.”
Rihanna’s shift from sweat-pant-and-sparkles popstrel to edgy sex symbol caught the attention of the fashion industry. Within six months of the S&M video she had appeared on the covers of American and British Vogue. Stella McCartney, writing in Time magazine in 2012, described Rihanna as “one of the coolest, hottest, most talented, most liked, most listened to, most followed, most impressive artists at work today”.
But even as her fashion connections grew to include an ambassadorship with Dior and a collaboration with Manolo Blahnik, Rihanna was pursuing another burgeoning career as an actor. She starred in this summer’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and will appear with Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway and Mindy Kaling in 2018’s female heist movie Ocean’s Eight.
Tom Ford described Rihanna’s style as “daring, fearless, and constantly evolving”. In the past five years, that style has evolved beyond the sledgehammer sexuality of S&M into an exuberant take on fashion which combines a willingness to experiment with a strong sense of self. Where other celebrities stick doggedly to the look a stylist believes fits their personal brand, Rihanna has fun with her clothes. In 2014, she wore a Swarovski-crystal fishnet bodysuit with matching turban to the CFDA fashion awards, accessorised with a nude thong and a fur stole. The following year, her yolk-yellow Guo Pei dress for the Met Gala sparked an omelette meme on the internet. (Fashion observers, however, noted that Rihanna was one of the few guests to have honoured the exhibition’s Chinese theme by wearing a dress by a Chinese designer.) She has embraced the man-repelling style of Vetements with oversized puffa coats and highnecked, luridly floral dresses.
In the past year Rihanna has moved from fashion plate to fashion leader. A year ago, she moved her Puma show to Paris, with a collection called Marie Antoinette Goes to the Gym. This was followed, in March, by sending models catwalking down the tabletops of the French National Library in collegiate-themed streetwear. The late-night Paris fashion week event, which had the aura of the world’s most glamorous after-school detention, won Rihanna’s most favourable reviews to date. Other designers have followed her lead by casting her favourite model, Slick Woods, who has appeared in every Fenty show and is the face of Fenty Beauty.
At the launch party for Fenty Beauty Rihanna emphasised the importance of inclusivity in the beauty industry. “There needs to be something for a dark-skinned girl, there needs to be something for a really pale girl … you want people to appreciate the product and not feel like ‘aw, that’s cute, but it only looks good on her’,” she told editors. Alongside the strikingly buzz-cut, gap-tooth Woods, Rihanna has chosen the hijab-wearing model Halima Aden as a Fenty Beauty ambassador. Rihanna “makes me feel hopeful for the future of the beauty industry”, said one reporter at the event.
Three days after the beauty launch, Rihanna took her catwalk bow at the Puma show on the back of a motorbike, with one hand in the air and her tongue sticking out. The world is taking Rihanna seriously now, but girls still just wanna have fun.
The minute Rihanna walked into the room, it was like the other girls didn’t exist
Rihanna arrives for a screening at the Cannes film festival in May