Ri­hanna From singer to megas­tar busi­ness mogul

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Jess Cart­ner-Mor­ley Ri­hanna leaves the Puma show in New York on a dirt­bike

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

Pho­to­graph: Anne-Chris­tine Pou­joulat/AFP/ Getty Im­ages

Ri­hanna ar­rives for a screen­ing at the Cannes film fes­ti­val in May

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