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Rhianna: Million dollar baby

September 16, 2008

For a girl whose legs alone are insured for $1 million, Rihanna doesn’t seem to mind taking risks.

She breezes into the photo studio, grabs a packet of cheese puffs and heads straight for the roof terrace, where she positions herself precariously on the slender balcony ledge, taking in the incredible views of the Pyrenees mountains, the Mediterranean and the city of Barcelona.

Reaching for another handful of nibbles, she momentarily loses her balance.

For a split second, the entire studio holds its collective breath as she wobbles on the ledge – it seems she’s destined to fall four storeys onto the ancient cobblestones of Sarrià-Sant Gervasi.

When she slides confidently off the ledge the sense of relief in the studio is palpable. Yet none of the record-company entourage dare to say anything to their pop star about her near brush with death.

She may be only 20, but when you’ve sold close to ten million albums no one tells you what to do any more.

In lieu of any explanation she tells me, ‘I’m feeling frisky and risqué’.

Wearing a red-and-white-striped T-shirt dress and white gladiator sandals, and carrying a £3,000 python bag from Chanel, she’s fizzing with energy and looks amazing.

As she enthusiastically sanctions the revealing costumes chosen for Live’s shoot, she says, ‘In the past, I had no say in how I was presented. Those decisions were made for me, right down to the colour of my lipstick.

‘Then I got to a point where I felt confident enough to say, “This is how I want to look. Take it or leave it.”

‘You could look at it as a form of rebellion. I prefer to look at it as a transition from teenage girl to young woman. I make my own decisions now. When I decide something is going to happen, it happens.’

It’s probably no coincidence that Rihanna’s transformation from cute pop puppet to independently minded R&B sex siren has coincided with a massive upsurge in her global popularity.

Up to and immediately after the release of her second album, 2006’s A Girl Like Me, there was a suspicion that she was too lightweight an artist to last the course. True, she was in the habit of delivering irresistibly catchy singles such as Pon De Replay and SOS. But it was common knowledge that her strings were being pulled by Jay-Z’s Def Jam label.

In late 2006, she first gave notice that she was about to take charge.

‘I was in Paris and I fancied a change of hairstyle,’ she says. ‘I had my long locks cut off and came away with this cute bob that I was really happy with.

‘Someone from the record company saw me and said, “It looks nice, but it’s not you. We’ll have to put extensions in.”

‘I was completely crushed. I was an 18-year-old trying to figure out who I was and someone was telling me that they would be the best judge of that. That’s when I realised things had to change.’

In May 2007 she released the single Umbrella. On the record she sounded tougher and edgier – and the accompanying video, complete with leather-clad dance routines, revealed that she had left her teen image behind.

Umbrella shot to the top of the charts across the world, spending a record-breaking ten weeks at number one in the UK. It would go on to sell eight million copies worldwide. The follow-up album Good Girl Gone Bad shifted around five million copies and yielded a total of seven hit singles.

If Rihanna was daunted by her sudden elevation to superstar status, she didn’t show it. On the contrary, she began to appear far more at ease.

In the past, she’d been entirely unforthcoming on the subject of her childhood. Now she started to open up about the experience of growing up in Barbados with a father who was addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine.

‘I wasn’t trying to hide anything before,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t ready for the world to know that stuff.

‘My dad was part of that Sixties generation who took drugs as a matter of course. He was a proper hippy. Big Afro, bell-bottoms, that kind of look. A real party dude. But his partying got way out of hand, spiralled out of control.

‘My dad left home when I was nine, so I was really young when I was living with his addictions. I didn’t understand exactly what was going on, but I knew he was doing something he shouldn’t be doing.

‘Even when I started to understand, I looked up to my dad so much that I couldn’t put him and this negative thing together. At the time there was no way I could help him out of it.

‘It was only in my teenage years that I started to get angry at him, maybe even hated him. Because I started to realise that no child should have to experience what I’d been through.’

Though she’s softly spoken as a rule, talking in a fluttery Barbadian accent, her voice becomes noticeably louder and more strident when discussing her childhood. She’s clearly proud of the way she took on adult responsibilities from an early age.

I never went over the top. I wasn’t in Amy Winehouse mode

‘I was raised to be a child and know my place, but also to think like a woman. My father’s life was fairly chaotic and, partly because of his drug problems, there was never much money. My mum worked as an accountant and a lot of the time I was left in charge of my younger brothers. It didn’t feel like a burden. It was just reality.

‘When I was 13 I joined the cadets, and we’d regularly go off on these weekend expeditions. There was a lot of discipline involved with that. Our uniforms had to be spick and span, our boots had to shine like diamonds and we’d often need to cook for the entire camp.

‘Also, we learned to shoot pistols, which was the best part of it. I was a good shot, although I couldn’t kill a fly from a hundred paces.’

But the young Rihanna – born Robyn Rihanna Fenty – did have her own rebellious phase. When she was 14 she formed her first band with a couple of classmates – and at the same time developed a fondness for the party life.

‘I’d go out and get drunk, but that’s what teenage girls do in Barbados,’ she says.

Rhianna (centre) sings at the 2008 MTV video awards

‘The country’s pretty laid-back about the legal age for drinking. But I never went too over the top.

‘I wasn’t exactly in Amy Winehouse mode. I’d seen what alcohol and drugs had done to my dad and I wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps. I knew my limits when I was a kid and I still do.

‘If I go to a club, I go for the sounds. I go out to have fun, to dance and laugh at people fighting or dressed like whores. I might have a few drinks, but I don’t get tipsy too easily. I don’t ever get to the point where I want to throw up, can’t stand up straight or say things I’m likely to regret in the morning.’

She hated school (‘the teachers always gave me a hard time and the other girls picked on me’) and always dreamed of doing something ‘creative’. Her talent for self-promotion helped her to win a local beauty pageant, but she says it only gave the girls at school ‘yet another reason to give me stick’. Soon, however, she would no longer care about playground teasing.

At 15, a friend introduced her to producer Evan Rogers, co-creator of hits for everyone from Donny Osmond to ’N Sync. Rogers just happened to be holidaying near St Michael, where Rihanna lived, and she performed an impromptu audition for him in his suite at the ultra-exclusive Sandy Lane hotel.

Suitably impressed, Rogers invited her to his New York recording studio, where, during her school holidays, she worked on a 12-song demo. Returning to Barbados, she reasoned it would be a few months before she received any further word. Three days later she received a call from Rogers saying, ‘Jay-Z wants to meet you.’

‘Two days later I was standing in Jay-Z’s New York office. He was sitting there in his denim shorts and polo shirt, waiting to be impressed. I was worried about my voice because my throat was dry and I’d been up all night, but I knew it was going to be OK the moment Jay-Z smiled as I started to sing.

‘The worst part was waiting around for the contract to be signed. They were still working on it at 3am. My lawyers just kept talking and talking while I kept looking at the clock thinking, “Just get on with it – I want to sign! I want this so badly.”

‘And I walked out of there with a six-album deal. The following morning I went out in New York and bought myself a whole new wardrobe.’

She tells the story in a breathless rush, going back on herself as she remembers some small detail that perhaps makes the memory more vivid, more real. It’s as though she’s still trying to convince herself that it all actually happened.

Rhianna picking up her Grammy for Umbrella earlier this year

‘It does seem unreal to me,’ she says. ‘When my first single, Pon De Replay, came out, I was in a crowded shopping mall when I first heard it on the radio. I ran up and down screaming, “That’s my song!” People were looking at me as though I should be locked up.

‘Then there was the first time I realised I was famous. I was in a New York studio finishing my album and I popped out to the ice-cream store on the corner. As I was walking out with my strawberry ice cream, six or seven kids got up off their seats and ran towards me with napkins to sign. That was weird for me.’

Not that Rihanna is complaining – she’s happy to admit that fame has its upsides.

‘I’ve got a house in LA with a swimming pool, a big piano and a coffee table made out of crocodile skin. I love my home, and possibly the best thing about it is that it’s just been wired so I can put my iPod into one deck and control it from anywhere in the house, even out at the pool.

‘I don’t take any of that for granted. I grew up with little or no money. It’s made me appreciate everything so much more.

‘But it’s not all honey and treacle. I’ve had no more than seven days off in the past 18 months. My schedule is punishing.

‘And I do get lonely sitting around in hotels in cities I don’t know. I don’t have time to date.’ (It’s rumoured, however, that she’s dating R&B singer Chris Brown – the pair are regularly pictured together – but both have repeatedly denied this.)

Rihanna tells me that she and her dad, Ronald, are now happily reconciled. Now in his mid-fifties, still living in Barbados and claiming to have been clean for ten years, her father recently said, ‘I will never forgive myself for what I did to my daughter.

‘Unlike other dads who help their children with homework, I was out on street corners scoring more drugs. I blew every penny I had on my habit.’

Rihanna takes a philosophical view.

‘The past is the past,’ she says. ‘There have been times when we didn’t talk for long stretches, but we’re friends now. You get over stuff, don’t you? We all have to do that.

‘I prefer to look at the bigger picture. From where I’m standing, that picture is good – it’s positive.

‘Now that I’m in control of my life and career, there’s no limit to what I can achieve. There’s more great records, maybe some movies, a clothing line…

‘Now, anything is possible.’

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