Rihanna’s moving forkfuls of calamaretti fritti onto her plate at celebrity hot-spot Giorgio Baldi, her favorite restaurant in Santa Monica. Even when she’s eating, her posture stays upright like a ballerina, long and graceful. In between bites, she explains how to take a flattering selfie for Instagram. “Get a good light,” she says, adjusting the Prada Minimal Baroque glasses on the bridge of her nose. Her heavy gold necklace slinks around the front of her black adidas sweatshirt as she turns to order spaghetti semplice from the server. “Get a good angle on what’s working for you that day,” she says with a laugh. Rihanna enunciates every word and hits every consonant, her hands dancing as she talks. “If it’s boobs, make sure you hit that. If it’s face, make sure it’s fierce.”
Today’s a good face day for the 24-year-old singer. After putting in work all week in L.A., including a signing for her new perfume, Nude, a photo shoot for a new clothing collaboration with River Island, and plenty of promo for the Grammy Awards, she’d love a chance to catch her breath. But alas, the life of the third-highest-earning celebrity under 30 offers no breaks. She says she spent the day packing for tonight’s flight to Switzerland.
“Get a good angle on what’s working for you that day… If it’s boobs, make sure you hit that. If it’s face, make sure it’s fierce.”
Rihanna may be tired, but she’s always ready for a close-up. She holds the phone just so to capture her stony demeanor in the small square frame. Slick specs, diamond studs, Cuban links. She selects Inkwell. The black-and-white filter applies a grainy texture to the photo, giving it a rugged feel. This is the mood she wants to display: no smiles. She taps her touch screen and shares the image with @badgalriri’s 4.3 million followers.
Since opening her Instagram account last March, with a selfie of her blowing smoke, Rihanna has posted more than 230 self portraits. “It’s narcissistic, but whatever—everyone does it,” she says. “I’m capturing personality… Everybody has their thing they like or don’t like to see. It’s all in your head. That’s why people take their own pictures, because it’s difficult for someone else to capture what you seek.”
Rihanna is photographed regularly, whether for magazine spreads, album covers, or by the paparazzi. But when it comes to self-portraits, she’s the one in control. She projects the image of someone who doesn’t care what people think, but she’s come too far to leave her image to chance. Moving 26 million albums and 45 million singles worldwide has earned her a lot of money—an estimated $53 million last year. It’s also afforded her the freedom to be as wild as she wants to be. Although it’s useful to have a direct channel to reach her fans, social media has been a blessing and a curse.
Some of Rihanna’s more buzzed-about selfies are the ones she takes topless (with arms strategically placed over her chest) or with a blunt between her fingers. And then there is the semi-nude shot she posted in December with the caption, “Who needs fashion when there’s pu$$y.” Provocative, even illicit, these are not the kinds of images a publicist would greenlight. In fact, they may have cost Rihanna her Nivea endorsement. The skincare company broke ties with her last August, explaining that she did not embody their image of “trust, family, and reliability.”
Even more controversial are the shots she posts of herself and Chris Brown, the pop-star boyfriend she broke up with after he assaulted her in February 2009—when he was 19 and she was 21. Despite a stay-away order issued by the Los Angeles Superior Court, the two have remained close friends. The exact status of their relationship remains unknown, but the takeaway from social media has been that they are hooking up again.
The couple became the talk of gossip blogs last June when Brown and Drake got into a fight over her at W.i.P., a club in NYC. In August, Rihanna told Oprah in an interview that she and Brown were “very, very close friends.” In September, they greeted each other with a brief hug and kiss at the MTV Video Music Awards. At the time Brown was dating model Karrueche Tran. In early October, Brown and Rihanna were spotted at various New York clubs and photographed together at a Jay-Z show. The next day, Brown released a statement: “I have decided to be single to focus on my career. I love Karrueche very much but I don’t want to see her hurt over my friendship with Rihanna.” He then released a video in which he asked, “Is there such thing as loving two people?” By the end of October, Rihanna was using Instagram to send subtle signs that she and Brown were growing closer. First she posted a shot of herself wearing sweatpants by Black Pyramid, Brown’s streetwear brand. Later that month she uploaded a photo of herself with a “miss you!” caption and, that same day, reposted a still from Brown’s latest music video.
According to a Department of Justice study, roughly 1.3 million American women are abused by their husbands or boyfriends each year, and one in every four women are victims of domestic abuse at some time during their lives. Rihanna, as we all know, is one of those women—the most famous of them alive today. While many victims of abuse return to the men who abused them, almost none go through that painful process while being scrutinized in public by the world. No wonder Rihanna requires final say over what images she shares. “People take the little bit of information they’re fed, and they draw a picture of who you are,” she says. “Most of the time it’s wrong.”
When Rihanna first opened her Twitter account on October 2, 2009, it looked like any other official celebrity feed managed by a PR flack. This fueled speculation that she was just a pretty face whose every move was controlled by handlers. Around a year later, during the release of her fifth album, Loud, Rihanna got hip to the game. These days she doesn’t just send messages, she also reads her timeline, and she’s not afraid to fire back at critics. When she posted an Instagram shot of herself at last year’s Coachella Music Festival, sitting on her bodyguard’s shoulders and rolling a blunt on top of his head, MTV.com linked to the photos with a Tweet that said
“Yikes.” Rihanna didn’t hesitate to tweet back that she “ran out of fucks to give.” That statement was retweeted over 13,000 times.
Rihanna’s not the first sexy young megastar with a hedonistic bent. Madonna did most of her dirt long before the Twitter era, but as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have learned, the Internet is a vicious place that can turn on you with the drop of a hashtag. Somehow Rihanna has found a way to weather all the negativity. The girl isn’t just thick-skinned, she’s fearless—and unashamed to put her business in front of 27 million followers. She makes it work for her. It isn’t enough to prove she’s not a manufactured pop star; Rihanna’s trying to be seen as the realest bitch in the game.
Last November 14, Rihanna emerged from the first-class section of her rented Boeing 777 jet carrying two gold bottles of Ace of Spades. “Champagne anyone?” she asked. A sea of hands stretched out plastic cups to receive tiny portions of the expensive Armand de Brignac brut. The first flight of the 777 Tour was off to an excellent start. Rihanna and her personal assistant, Jennifer Rosales, were only halfway done working the press aisles when the singer asked, “Where are all the fans at? I got to get back and see my fans.”
It’s not all about champagne and bubbles and blunts. She’s working really, really hard.
—Tyran “Ty-Ty” Smith
The 777 Tour—a seven-day, seven-country, seven-show journey—brought along 150 international journalists in addition to some contest winners and four die-hard members of the Rihanna Navy to party in the sky. Designed to kick-start promotions for Rihanna’s seventh album, Unapologetic, ahead of its November release, the tour devolved into a shitshow of delayed flights and acrimonious press relations. From the beginning it was clear which audience on the plane Rihanna was playing to.
Zipping past throngs of thirsty journalists, she headed straight to the back, where a group of her most trusted fans, Tamara Wray, La’Ashia Holmes, Janise Williams, and Johnny Marmolejos, were sitting. Rihanna said she hand-picked these four because, “They’re probably more like me than the rest of the world.” The photogs and writers had already finished their two sips of bubbly by the time Rihanna blessed the fans with a full bottle of the $300 champagne.
As the tour went on, the reporters got increasingly aggro, shoving cameras in Rihanna’s face. But the fans remained calm, confident that respecting her space now would mean spending more time with her later. “I guess we’re not like other fans,” said Tamara, a slim 20-year-old college student. Johnny, a husky 24-year-old server at T.G.I.Fridays, nodded in agreement: “You know—crying, screaming. Kind of like an attack thing.”
But crazy fans are nothing compared to frustrated bloggers. The tour rapidly became a publicity stunt gone wrong as journalists hoping for juicy stories got nary a quote. The blog posts grew snarkier with each passing day while Rihanna’s fans had the time of their lives.
Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith, a co-founder of Roc Nation, which has managed Rihanna since 2010, insists the tour was actually a big success, if only because the press needed to get an idea of what the young star’s life is really like. “It’s good that you guys got to see that it’s not all about champagne and bubbles and blunts,” he says. “She’s working really, really hard.”
Well, maybe just a few bubbles and blunts. After the Toronto stop on November 15, Rihanna’s creative director Ciarra Pardo posted a picture of the young star topless, scattered with flower petals, money covering her eyes, and smoke leaking from her mouth.
In retrospect, Rihanna kept it real throughout the tour. If you stayed home and followed her social media, you had as much access to her as the folks who had to wait on the tarmac for four hours while she finished shopping in Paris.
Fresh off the 777 Tour, Johnny and Tamara stop by Complex to talk about their unique bond with Rihanna. Tamara’s got a tomboy swagger. She’s wearing a baseball cap and Jordans. She’s reserved but Johnny’s loud and playful. As two of Rihanna’s most trusted fans, they go to every signing, promo event, and concert she has in New York City, and they remember every interaction with her vividly. “The first time I met her was October 11, 2007,” Tamara recalls. “I was at her Nokia theater concert. That was during the Good Girl Gone Badera, when her hair was in a bob. She wore a gray dress and high boots.”
I was so rude when I was a little girl. I got my ass beat by my mother for that. Most of the time it was because of my mouth.
Rihanna follows them on social media. She replies to their tweets and “likes” their Instagram photos, inspiring a sense of closeness and fierce loyalty. “We know more of the real Rihanna than the general public,” Johnny says. They also know what not to say.
Navy members characterize Team Breezy as “crazy” and they call themselves “shady,” just like their leader. Rihanna concurs: “We don’t start the trouble, but that’s how we’re defending ourselves—by saying some slick shit. That’s how I’ve always been. I was so rude when I was a little girl. I got my ass beat by my mother for that. Most of the time it was because of my mouth.”
Rihanna’s willingness to let that mouth run sets her apart from certain other megastars. “I’m a former BeyHive member—reformed,” says Johnny. “I don’t want to talk bad about anybody, but there’s a strong disconnect between Beyoncé and her fans, and I was a Beyoncé fan since forever.” He finds Rihanna’s down-to-earth candor refreshing.
Johnny and Tamara’s ride-or-die devotion to their icon is clear. When the subject of Chris Brown comes up, their backs straighten. What do they think about Chris and Rihanna’s friendship? They look toward each other before answering, their voices sounding practiced and defensive. “It’s nobody’s business,” they reply in unison. On their way out they say they don’t like speaking about Brown on tape, and half-jokingly threaten to sue if this story makes them look bad.
Rihanna’s fans also rushed to her defense when the blogosphere suggested that Brown was playing her. Things seemed good between them after the 777 Tour wrapped up. First she posted a photo of herself on a private jet with the caption: “All alone in my big ole jet!!! See u soon lover.” Three days later, she uploaded a photo of Brown lying face down in bed, shirtless. Five days after that, she posted: “Home is where the cock is,” with the hashtag #frankfurt. Brown was performing in Frankfurt, Germany at the time. That same day, she put up a photo of him in her arms captioned: “I don’t wanna leave!!! Killed it tonight baby!!!” In December, Brown posted a shot of himself with Rihanna. Soon after she posted a photo of Brown’s tattooed arm over her shoulder. The caption read “Damn…I miss my nigga #thuglife #BFFlife.”
Brown flipped the script the next day by posting pictures of items from “THE KILL,” Karrueche Tran’s clothing line. Rihanna’s Instagram was flooded with comments asking her to leave him alone for good. “There’s no question that life throws us curve balls,” she wrote in an open letter to fans. “We do our best to deal with them, take the lessons and keep it moving without regrets.” Then on December 18, she posted an e-card that read, “Being single sucks. The only thing I get to do anymore is whatever the fuck I want to do.”
Despite all the drama, Rihanna continues to take care of business. She has racked up 12 No. 1 singles in the US—the youngest solo artist to do so. “Bigger” is Rihanna’s one-word mission statement. “It’s all about growth.”
Roc Nation president and co-founder Jay Brown vigorously defends her right to be herself. “There’s nothing wrong with being 24,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself. You can’t be upset with someone who’s having fun. Let her have fun.”
When I was making this record I had no intention except the truth. So whatever is there is real. It’s raw. That’s why the album is called Unapologetic.
Last November, Rihanna reached another career milestone when Unapologetic became her first album to debut at No. 1 in the US. “When I was making this record I had no intention except the truth,” she says. “So whatever is there is real. It’s raw. That’s why the album is called Unapologetic.” Not that she was apologetic in the past, but this time she says she dug deeper.
“I held back before. I didn’t show a lot of myself. I was very guarded,” she says. “I needed to be open and free and fearless. Basically say, ‘Fuck it.’ What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll hate me? They’ve done that before.”
When it comes to projecting raw vulnerability in her music, Rihanna knows exactly how to make it work, and who to make it work with. She builds with a team of A-list writers and producers, choosing songs with lyrics that relate to her personal life. It’s enough to provoke interest, but not enough to reveal anything substantial.
Her song “Half of Me” speaks directly to her public image: “Everybody knows that I’m crazy / I’m the type that don’t give a fuck.” But as the song points out, that’s only half the story.
Rihanna considers the album’s first single, “Diamonds,” one of her favorite songs since “Umbrella” because of the way it makes her feel. “It was so inspiring and uplifting,” she says. “It was giving me hope, that song. I was tired of angry love songs. Love doesn’t always have to be about breakups, and ‘We’re never going to be together again.’ It could be sweet. It could be, ‘Hell yeah! We’re diamonds!’” Curiously, the video features a heavily tattooed arm that bears a striking resemblance to Chris Brown’s.
But no song got people talking like “Nobody’s Business,” her duet with Brown. Whether the pair likes it or not, when they sing “Always be my boy / I’ll always be your girl” to each other, their words are interpreted as confirmation of their current relationship status.
Yet for all the realness she promises, Rihanna refuses to entertain any such discussion: “It’s nobody’s business,” she says flatly. And all her people, from label bigwigs to loyal fans, are on the same page.
Apparently, her record label and management team had no second thoughts about her making a record with Brown—especially after the success of their “Birthday Cake” remix. Ty Ty is surprised even to be asked about the collab. “We don’t focus on the media, so it was never a question,” he says. “It’s all about the music. Everything else doesn’t even play a part in the studio.” He insists that the record wasn’t made with Brown in mind. “The-Dream didn’t write it for them as a duet. Jay-Z and I were in the car together listening to the song, and we thought it would be a great duet. It sounds dope. It feels good. That’s how Chris ended up on the song.”
Before leaving the restaurant for the airport, Rihanna addresses one last question. It’s the biggest question surrounding the song: If her relationship with Brown is truly nobody’s business, then why make a record about it?
Her voice, usually warm and cut with chuckles, turns cold. “Pardon me?” she replies, her eyebrow slightly raised. Even after the question is repeated, she hesitates to answer. The hands that moved up and down throughout the conversation, suddenly fall flat. “It’s the truth. Remember?” she says, turning toward the other side of the table to gather her belongings. As she gets up to leave, she adds: “It’s a fun record that The-Dream wrote and we loved the lyrics. You’re still asking me questions about it so clearly you don’t know.”
Maybe she doesn’t know either.