Her Island Home
Her Island Home
A Perfect Setting
A Star Is Born
An Early Memory
The Headaches Begin
A Terrible Secret
From Tomboy to Beauty Queen
The Barbados Cadet Corps
Rihanna's Big Break
Young Rihanna, holding a broomstick as a microphone stand, imitated her idol, Mariah Carey. With a hairbrush for a microphone, she performed in front of her mirror. The neighbors complained about how loudly she sang, but Rihanna did not let that stop her. Instead, she sang her way through the headaches and heartaches of her childhood. “All I wanted to do was to make music all over the world,”2 Rihanna says.
Like many young teens in the 1990s, she grew up listening to and imitating Mariah Carey. Unlike Carey, she did not live near New York City. Instead, her home was Barbados, a small Caribbean island far from the bustling music world of New York—not the best place for an aspiring music star to be discovered.
From the air, Barbados appears to be a tiny pearl in a necklace of islands stretching from the tip of Florida to northeastern Venezuela. Bounded by the Caribbean on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east, this small island—with its tropical breezes, abundant white beaches, and crystal-clear water—is often called a Caribbean paradise.
Life on the island was not all idyllic, however. The young couple who were to become Rihanna's parents met during high school. Although they loved each other, Monica and Ronald Fenty fought frequently. Ronald had endured a rough childhood; he
started scoring marijuana and crack cocaine on the streets at age fourteen. Many of their fights centered around his drug habits. In spite of their differences, they married in 1985.
Ronald and Monica established a home and within two years began to prepare for the birth of their first child. Little did they know what life had in store for their daughter. They were young and likely unprepared for the stresses a baby would bring to their already troubled marriage.
Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born on February 20, 1988. Her parents chose a first name that began with the letter R, as they would for both her brothers. Robyn is an alternate spelling for Robin, meaning “bright fame.” It is also the name of
Although young Rihanna was a tomboy, she later came to love dressing up and putting on makeup. Today her fans admire her numerous tattoos and signature fingernail designs. Asked by a reporter about her first memory related to her fingernails, Rihanna says:
I was 4, and my great-grandma was watching us. I used to give her so much trouble. She probably yelled at me, so I went into my mom's room, took her nail polishes, opened them, and painted “bracelets” up my arm. Then I poured them into a toy hard hat my brother had. When my mom came home, she got really upset. I got scared because I thought, ‘My gosh, I have to go to school like this! Because we never used to have nail polish remover.’
Quoted in Robin Sayers, “Beauty Talk with Rihanna,” MSN Lifestyle, May 2008. http://lifestyle.msn.com/beautyandfashion/celebritystyle/articleinstyle.aspx?cp-documentid=6165495.
a red-breasted songbird. Both meanings fit the future star perfectly.
Her middle name, Rihanna, the name she later took as her stage name, has its roots in the Welsh name Rhiannon, meaning “great queen or goddess.” Rhiannon was also the name of a princess in Welsh legends. Rihanna, too, was destined to become a princess in her own fairy tale. Her rise to fame distinguished her as the Barbados Cinderella.
Like Cinderella, Rihanna had her share of childhood problems. She did not have two stepsisters, but instead had two younger brothers. Rorrey came along about two years after Rihanna was born. Rajad followed years later. Between the births of her two brothers, Rihanna began elementary school at Charles F. Broome Memorial School.
Around age eight, Rihanna began having excruciating headaches. The pain became so severe that her parents took her to a doctor. Though tests showed nothing physically wrong, the headaches continued for years. It was not until her parents separated when she was a young teen that the headaches finally disappeared. At that point, she realized they had come from hiding her emotions. Rihanna explains, “I wouldn't cry. I wouldn't get upset. It was just all in here [her head]. I had to go through a lot of CAT scans. They even thought it was a tumour, because it was that intense. It's not great memories. But it helped to build me and make me stronger.”3
Rihanna's childhood was marred by more than her parents' quarrels. When she was young, her father sometimes left tinfoil in ashtrays around the house, but she did not understand what it meant. “I just knew that my mum didn't like it, and they were always fighting about it. My mother was a very strong woman and tried to shelter us from as much as she could. But she was working, and he was at home, so there was only so much that she could hide from us.”4
During those years her mother worked hard to support the family. Sometimes her father stayed home to care for the children. Other times, he disappeared for days on end. Rihanna had no idea why until the day she peeked at her dad through a gap in the kitchen door and discovered his secret: He had been using the foil to smoke crack cocaine.
Her father recalls that day with clarity: “I turned and looked Rihanna in the eye and instantly came back down from the high I was on. I saw her run for her mother, ask her something and then they both started to cry. I had no idea she had been watching.”5
Years later, after Rihanna rose to stardom, her father confessed his guilty secret to the newspapers:
I will never forgive myself for what I did to her. I will always have nightmares as I think of her crying, begging me to stop. But I was a hopeless addict and I couldn't care. My beautiful daughter should never have witnessed the things she did.6
His addiction was hard on everyone, not only Rihanna. Reporter Suzannah Ramsdale describes this time in the family's life in the British magazine Now:
Rihanna and her brothers, Rorrey and Rajad, watched helplessly as their father, Ronald Fenty, spiralled into addiction…. At his lowest he was reduced to scoring drugs on street corners and leaving drug paraphernalia around the house…. It got so bad they barely had enough money to eat as Ronald … desperately sought out his next fix. During this time, the singer took care of her brothers while mum Monica—now divorced from her dad—worked round-the-clock in accountancy to keep [support] the family.7
Her mother's long hours at work meant she was gone from home a lot. Monica Fenty needed to support her children, but she had another reason for being away so much. “My mom is very ambitious,”8 Rihanna said years later when asked to explain her own drive to succeed.
While Monica's hard work was admirable, there was a darker side to why she was always busy. In describing her mother, Rihanna says, “She was a workaholic. If she took a week off from work, she got so miserable at home. She was like, ‘Robyn, I have to do something. I have to do something.’ She would just go to my aunt's store to help her work, just because she couldn't sit still.”9
With neither of her parents around, tending to the boys often fell to Rihanna, who had to grow up quickly and take over the job of mothering her brothers. Too young to be handling all that responsibility, Rihanna recalls getting into conflicts with her brothers. She says, “We used to fight and when I say fight, I don't mean arguments, I mean physically fight. I hit the older one in his face with a glass bottle. My mom was pretty upset.”10
Luckily for Rihanna and her brothers, their father regretted the pain he had caused his family. He realized his children were more important to him than drugs. Being kicked out of the house and out of their lives when Rihanna was nine led him to reevaluate his life. He says, “It was the turning point. Monica chucked me out and we never patched things up. I knew I could [continue] carrying on taking drugs and die or stop and see my children grow up. I still thank God every day I chose to stop—I live for my children now.”11 Although her parents later divorced, Rihanna now had a father she could count on.
Rihanna readily admits that her childhood was not easy, but she does not dwell on it. Instead, she prefers to focus on the good memories:
It's fair to say I had a few humps and bumps along the way while growing up. But I think every child growing up goes through some sort of upheaval and perhaps mine was a bit worse. At the end of the day, I don't think about it any more and it doesn't make me angry. Despite Dad's problems, I still vividly remember all the good things like playing with him on the beach and catching crabs together.12
In addition to him playing with her and her brothers, Rihanna remembers the lessons her father taught her. “He taught me how to swim, fish, and ride; he's the one who made me tough and prepared me for the world.”13
Although Rihanna's life left her with little reason to sing, her musical talent was obvious from a young age. She was only three when she first began to imitate her favorite singers. Nick Owens of the Sunday Mirror writes about her early love for music:
Yet amid the chaos Rihanna, nicknamed Pinky, as she was called then, because she loved pink clothes, was blossoming into a singer. Aged three she would stand in front of the mirror, hairbrush in hand, singing along to Whitney Houston's “Saving All My Love For You.” At seven she was displaying the incredible voice which today sells millions of records.14
Rihanna's father remembers hearing her croon “A Whole New World” from Disney's Aladdin when she was seven: “I was in the lounge and heard this angelic singing from the balcony. I looked out and it was Rihanna. My heart jumped. I knew then she was special.”15
Not everyone appreciated her belting out songs from the balcony. The neighbors often complained about how loudly she sang, but Rihanna ignored them. Her grandmother Carla insisted it was in her blood and encouraged her to keep singing.
Rihanna may have been confident enough to warble songs at home, but shyness held her back from performing in public. To ease her stage fright, she formed a group with two friends. She sang lead; they sang backup. Their first success came at a school talent show in 2004. They won with their rendition of Mariah Carey's “Hero.”
Before she won the talent show, Rihanna had been a tomboy. Although she loved pink, she was not a girlie girl. Growing up, she preferred to dress in her brother's baggy pants and sneakers. She also drilled with the Barbados Cadet Corps (BCC). This military training organization for students, originally open only to boys, had begun accepting girls in the mid-1970s. Accepted into the BCC at age twelve, Rihanna proved she was tough by reaching the rank of corporal.
A dare from her classmates, though, sparked Rihanna's transformation from tomboy to Miss Combermere Beauty Pageant contestant in 2004. In the past she had laughed at pageants and called them stupid. Now she agreed to try. Her move into the limelight and her subsequent interest in clothes
The Barbados Cadet Corps (BCC) began in 1904 and is one of the oldest youth organizations on the island. Students participate in military, school, and community activities to build self-esteem and learn discipline and respect. The BCC is part of the Barbados Defence Force, so the cadets train and drill like the military, but they mainly participate in ceremonial parades and do community service.
The BCC had this to say about Rihanna, or as she was known, Corporal Fenty:
From very early in her international career, it was clear that she reflected many of the characteristics emphasized in the Barbados Cadet Corps and that she exuded a quiet self-confidence that we routinely see in our NCOs [noncommissioned officers]….
The BCC is extremely proud of the growth and success achieved by Rihanna over the past few years and of the dignity and poise with which she has handled the whole adventure … and we are proud of the role that the Cadet Corps has been able to play in molding assets like her….
Congratulations … and may you continue to live your school song, where “truest flame lies in high Endeavour.” Keep the flame burning brightly.
Barbados Cadet Corps, “Congrats to Cultural Ambassador Rihanna.” www.cadetcorps.bb/index.htm.
and makeup was a change for her, but Rihanna jokes, “My military training came in handy for learning to balance books on my head for the catwalk.”16 She also credits the Barbados Cadet Corps with helping her gain poise and confidence. That, along with her singing voice, helped her win the title and crown.
A few months before her sixteenth birthday, Rihanna had an even greater thrill than winning a talent show or beauty contest. American music producer Evan Rogers was vacationing in the Caribbean with his Bajan-born wife, Jackie. Because Barbados had once been her home, Jackie had friends and family on the island. One of Rihanna's friends, who knew Jackie, introduced Rihanna to the couple, and Rogers agreed to listen to her sing.
Deep in her heart, Rihanna had always believed she would find a way to make her dreams come true. If she could show the world how talented she was, she felt certain success was in her future. She maintains, “I always knew I was gonna do this.
Rihanna makes no secret of her admiration for other singers. In addition to liking Alicia Keys and Beyoncé, she idolizes Mariah Carey. Interestingly enough, Rihanna's life has paralleled Carey's in several ways.
Mariah Carey, from Huntington, New York, also has parents who divorced when she was a child, and she faced childhood pain. Hers came in the form of racial prejudice, when neighbors allegedly set fire to her family's car and poisoned their dog. She, too, was discovered as a teenager and went on to become a star.
Carey began as a songwriter and backup singer for Brenda K. Starr. In 1988 Tommy Mottola, the president of Sony's music division, offered Carey a recording contract. Her first five singles hit number one and put her on the track to fame. Critics panned some of her midcareer efforts, but she made a comeback. In April 2008 she became second only to the Beatles in number of hit singles, when “Touch My Body” became her eighteenth song to hit number one.
Known for her wide vocal range, Carey has won five Grammys for her pop and rhythm-and-blues music. Her rise to fame, like Rihanna's, is often called a Cinderella story.
I would say, ‘When I become a singer….’ I knew I was gonna meet somebody one day. Really and truly.”17
And meet somebody she did. Evan Rogers had been instrumental in the making of the careers of many music stars, including Christina Aguilera and Kelly Clarkson. But could a shy fifteen-year-old put on a performance that would impress a big New York producer?