Good Girl Gone Badass
Yes, Rihanna's back: With a new album, a new willingness to speak about Chris Brown, and a new look so sexy that…well, take a peek yourself. Lisa DePaulo sits down with Pop's reigning princess to talk about all of that—and to ask a few tough questions she hasn't answered anywhere else.
RIHANNA IS RUNNING LATE. Several hours late. Her fluffy bronze poodle, Oliver, arrives before she does, with his own entourage. There is much fussing over the dog ("You smell like your mommy") outside the soundstage in Burbank, where the musicians and crew for her upcoming world tour are waiting and pacing. Almost everyone but the poodle is chain-smoking cigarettes. It's been one of those weeks. A few days before, Rihanna spilled her guts to Diane Sawyer about the "whole Chris Brown thing," as the musicians call it, and though the interview hasn't aired yet, the buzz is on. She has also been saying things like, "I've put everything I've wanted to say for the past eight months into my music," which might explain some of what's emanating from the studio. Is that Rihanna, the sweet girl from Barbados, dropping the N-bomb? Her new album, Rated R, is, to put it mildly, edgier than the under-my-umbrella stuff that sold 12 million records. One song, called "G4L" (Gangsta for Life), sounds like a revenge fantasy, with her homegirls arming themselves with guns to go out and fuck somebody up. On another track, she talks about getting her hair pulled during sex. She's made her point.
But apparently not enough. Rihanna's image—so carefully crafted and handled and managed from the moment she was plucked, at age 15, from a girl group in Barbados by a producer who would squire her to his home in Stamford, Connecticut, get her a record deal with Def Jam, and send her on her way to superstardom—had gotten all twisted up in the "Chris Brown thing." In the record business, domestic violence isn't just a tragedy; it's an image crisis. So now Team Rihanna had to decide how to "handle it." Their plan was this: She'd talk about it for the release of the album. She'd do Diane and Glamour and announce that she wanted to help young women who'd been in her position. Even if that meant addressing what really happened that ugly night last February, when she and Chris Brown left a pre-Grammy party, gorgeous, smiling, and posing, got into his car, and she later emerged bloody, bruised, and bitten.
Before I even meet Rihanna, I feel for the girl. It's bad enough to have the guy you're madly in love with beat the shit out of you. It must be quite another thing to have this whole apparatus surrounding you (and your poodle), making you confront this horrible episode on public terms. And then what? If you say you want to help young women, can you really stop talking after the publicity blitz is over? And should you have to go through any of this? Not to get all domestic-violence preachy, but what Robyn Rihanna Fenty endured, at the tender age of 20 (when Chris Brown beat her up, she was two weeks shy of her twenty-first birthday), is not something that is likely to go away after the world tour.
On the lot in Burbank, the star's new single, "Wait Your Turn," keeps blasting through the walls of Studio 10. And finally, a flurry of excitement outside. Rihanna has arrived, in the backseat of an Escalade. Her driver pulls up to the double doors of the soundstage and idles for a good ten minutes while she slowly, extravagantly, applies mascara. Then she emerges, in the dramatic fashion that stars like Rihanna do naturally when exiting vehicles. The pause, then the ta-da. Like there are paparazzi waiting. (There aren't.) The first impression is pure tough girl. The overly zippered jeans, the black boots, the gray hoodie, the big silver metallic bag that she swings over her shoulder like it's a weapon, and the new hair (shaved and brown on the sides, pineapple blond on top). "That is the fucking bomb, that hair," one of the crew tells her. I introduce myself. "Sweet," she says, not very sweetly, and turns toward the studio. She wants to be alone first to say hello to her crew. "I'll meet you down there, okay?" she says. Okay. "Sweet," she says again.
"Down there" is another huge studio, filled with naked mannequins—something about the promo for the album launch. And now she is ready. Her manager, who is dressed in a faux version of Rihanna (boots, jeans, hoodie), accompanies her. We each take a seat on a wooden crate. Except for the manager, who stands two feet away. And stays there.
You've had a crazy couple of days.
Yeah. [nervous giggle]
Now that you're talking about everything, is it hard, or is it liberating?
Very liberating. It's relieving. Because it was built up for so long, and all these thoughts and emotions have been running through my mind for the past eight months. And now it's like I finally get to let go and move on.
Is it therapeutic to talk about it?
Um, I don't like talking about it a lot. But every time I do, it's better; it's easier each time.
Because you said something about wanting to give some insight to young women.
And that's a brave thing. You could have said nothing.
What made you decide that this was the right thing to do?
Because I wanted to move on. And I knew that was the only way I could have done it. And I wanted people to move on with me. 'Cause the last big thing they know about me is That Night. And I don't want that to be what people define me as.
Before I came here—I live across the street from a pretty tough public school in New York City. And I went to talk to the girls there.
Just to say, "Hey, I'm going to meet Rihanna. What would you like to know?" And it was interesting, because a lot of them had been in your situation, and they wanted to know how you handled it. Are those the insights you're talking about?
I guess definitely. I just knew I'd be good one day. I just knew it. So I just kept waiting for that day. Like, you know, even though it was tough the entire time, there were ups and downs, I just kept knowing: I'm gonna get over it one day. I'm gonna get over it.
Who helped you through it?
The Hovering Manager interrupts for the first time. "Ri, can you come over here for two seconds?" she asks. Rihanna looks at her quizzically. "There's an issue with a track," says HM. "What track?" says Rihanna. HM's eyebrows raise. "Can you just come over here for a second?" she says tersely. Rihanna obeys. The two move a few feet away. Much whispering ensues, but there's no communication with the people working in the soundstage. Then Rihanna returns to her wooden crate. The first thing she says is "I'm sorry."
You were saying, before you had to walk away, that nobody helped you through it. Really?
Nobody. Really just music. And working. 'Cause I didn't really want to be around anybody, for them to stare at me and stuff, and feel sorry for me. So I just—I stayed in the house a lot. Then I started to get cabin fever. I was like, I'm going crazy in here.
But what about all the friends you've met…you have a great relationship with Jay-Z. With Justin Timberlake. Were all these people supportive of you through the past eight months?
But you still felt alone?
Me and Jay-Z, we have a very close relationship, so he was there helping me through it and giving me advice and guidance, and just words of support. Like, strength.
Were you in shock?
Initially. I would say the first…the first seventy-two hours after I realized, it hit. The entire thing was kind of a daze. I was confused. It was a little weird, but…but then, after, I was getting bored of being in the house and sittin' around. I called Jay Brown—he's my A&R—and I was like, "I want to get back to the studio. I want to get back."
In one of the tracks on the album, you sing about thinking you might die…did you think you would die that night?
No…no. [long silence]
It must take a lot of strength to deal with all this. I mean, just the basic things. Like, how did you have the presence of mind to call 911?
I didn't call 911. No. I know everybody thinks I did, but it was someone else…It was…
Rihanna looks at the Hovering Manager and then mutters something about having just spoken to Diane Sawyer about all this. But here's the weird thing: You get the feeling that Rihanna still has a lot to say. Her eyes are wet when anything Chris Brown-related comes up. She has a tendency to stare off into the distance when she talks about It—but then she meets the glare of the manager. Maybe she does want to go there—and can't. Or perhaps it is dawning on Rihanna that to really step out and be the kind of advocate she says she wants to be is another burden altogether.
When you say you want to give insight to young women—what was the biggest insight you got? What did you learn?
Um…really really really that love is blind. It took a lot of strength to pull out of that relationship. To finally just officially cut it off. It was like night and day. It was two different worlds. It was the world I lived for two years, and then having the strength to say, "I'm gonna step into my own world. Start over."
What was harder, the physical pain or the emotional pain?
Definitely not the physical pain. The physical pain comes and it goes. The bruises fade away. But the thing that stays with you is the emotional scars.
You were in love.
And you were a kid.
Do you think you two will ever be friends?
Mmm. Maybe in like ten years, you know? But it's not something that I'm depending on. I'm not depending on his friendship.
Right. How do you ever trust again?
I can trust. I mean, I don't like to stereotype; I believe everybody's an individual. You can't judge someone based on someone else's actions. There are people in the world who will love you and people in the world who will hurt you, and there are people in the world who will do both.
Do you think a man who does something like that can change?
Absolutely. Yeah. Some of them won't change and some of them will—but you know, very few of them change.
By the way, did you ever graduate high school?
No. I wanted to. I just got really busy.
You know, when I talked to those high school girls...and this illustrates how difficult a problem it is: Their first question was "What did she do to get hit?"
And I thought, Oh God, how awful is it that they'd ask that question.
Mm-hmm. After everything happened, it was a wake-up call to me…I didn't realize how much of an effect it had on young girls' lives, and that's part of the insight that I wanna give. Stop blaming yourself for that outcome. There's nothing you can do, ever, to excuse a man's behavior like that.
Did you blame yourself?
Initially? I mean…actually, no, I never blamed myself, but I wondered what, what did I do to provoke it?…
This is the breaking point. Hovering Manager chimes in with "You've exhausted it now."
Okay. Well then. How did the cover shoot go? I heard the pictures are really hot.
[giggles] It's very sexy, yeah. At one point [chairman, Island Def Jam Music Group] L.A. Reid came into the shoot, and he was like, "Rihanna, put some fucking clothes on!"
These are pretty. [She is wearing a couple of dozen bangle bracelets.]
They're very Michelle Obama.
Yeah? I love her. She's so fly.
Tell me about these tattoos. Here [in her left ear, the one Chris Brown bit] we have a star. And this one [on her ring finger] says "love"? And you have a gun, too, right?
Mm-hmm. It's here. On my side. [opens her sweatshirt; it is under her right armpit] You see it?
What was up with that? A gun?
You know, I just…I think I'm too cool for school.
Didn't it hurt?
Yeah, tattoos hurt. But when you want something, you will take the pain.
Let's hope not. [HM hovers closer] So what do you want to put out there that you haven't gotten a chance to talk about?
Uh, there's nothing that I, like, specifically think to put out there. There's not a lot more that I can possibly put out there. Everything's out there. I mean, people are just, you know, they misperceive me.
They just don't understand me. I just think people straight up don't know who I am; they just know what I look like, they know the idea of me. But—they'll learn more this time, because now I let my guard down, and I'm more comfortable just being myself. That's exactly what I want to be. And even on the album, you definitely get a gist of my personality.
More than with your previous songs?
Definitely. Definitely. It tells my story a lot.
Because in a weird way, no one should have to go through anything that bad to get to another level, but it does seem to have gotten you to another level.
It absolutely does.
But I'm curious. What exactly do you think people think about you that's wrong?
It's not really anything that's wrong. It's just weird when I read about myself. Like how one simple thing can be turned into something different.
Like when people were talking about communicable diseases?
When people were bringing up herpes, for instance. Saying that's why he hurt you—
Right. And it's not true. It's a fucking scar. On my lip. That's there every day of my life.
It must be hard reading that kind of stuff.
It's not like it's hard. It's more ignorant. At first I was like, Are you serious? First I thought people were gonna definitely know that that's not…But when I read it, and I see that people just buy into that…Like, the minute they see it, it forms something in their head.
And that was all over the Internet.
But you read it all.
Because. I learn a lot from reading it. A lot.
So how do you keep grounded? Everyone I talked to before you got here all commented on how nice you were to work with.
Oh, nice! You're asking me how I—
Yeah, how do you do that?
I'm just me. Like, I don't feel a reason to change.…But that means a lot. For you to tell me they said that. That's cool.
Is there anything else you want to throw out there, Rihanna?
"No, I don't think so," says HM, adding, "We need to wrap this up."
Is there anything else you want to throw out there?
Your shoes are cute.
Thanks, honey. It'll be fun to watch what happens to you.
Thank you so much. [big hug] And that's sweet what the band said. But they totally lied. I'm such a bitch.