Lonely at the Top
Lonely at the Top
Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Rihanna
The Dark Side of Success
Filling the Void
Feet on the Ground
Something from Nothing?
Playing the Game
Under the Umbrella
Videos, tours, and media interviews kept Rihanna in the spotlight from 2006 on. Glamour magazines splashed her face across magazine covers. She danced her way across television screens in a Nike ad to the music of “S.O.S.” JCPenney offered her an endorsement deal. She had a cameo appearance in the film Bring It On: All or Nothing, and she performed some of her songs in episodes of Las Vegas and All My Children.
Accolades flowed in, including Teen Choice Awards for Female Breakout Artist and Choice R&B Artist, a MuchMusic Video Award for Best International Artist, and an MTV Video Music Award from Japan. Her homeland honored her in eight categories at the Barbados Music Awards. Rihanna was living her dream of making music all over the world.
Fans recognized her when she was out in public. They clamored for autographs. The first time it happened, she admits, “It felt so good and weird. They were even apologizing and said, ‘Sorry to bother you but can I please have your autograph,’ and I'm like, Don't apologize, I want to give you my autograph.”48 Another time, she recalls:
I was at [an ice cream shop] one day and there was this flock of children, maybe 16 of them, and they all started grabbing napkins and they were like, “Can I have an autograph pleeease?” That was a moment for me because I used to be in that position. I would see a star and just beg for their autograph. And then for people to be asking me, I felt honored.49
Writing so many signatures meant she had to learn to do them quickly. At first, she spent a lot of time practicing a simpler version of her autograph. Others warned her that when crowds began shoving pens and paper at her, she would need to rush
through it. She would have little time to write her usual, careful signature. Rihanna soon put her newfound skill into practice. Everywhere she went, people pleaded for her autograph.
As a new star, Rihanna faced another problem as well. Many people are eager to befriend a celebrity. Rihanna quickly learned to tell the genuine from the false. She says, “I'm very good at figuring out who is real and which people want to be my friend because of what I am versus who I am.”50 She had an advantage, however. From the time Rihanna was young, she had studied the people around her. “I have always had a thing for reading people,” she reveals. “When I come into contact with a situation or a person, the first thing I do is, I'm just quiet for a little while. I sit, I watch you, I observe you. And being able to read people helps me to know how easy it is to be read. I know the key things that show people who you are.”51
One rumor floating around after A Girl Like Me came out was that Jay-Z was romantically involved with Rihanna. The two of them had been spending a lot of time together. When reporters asked her about it, Rihanna said it was because they were both with the same record label.
Gossip increased when Beyoncé released “Ring the Alarm.” Many people thought the lyrics—featuring a woman ranting because her man had cheated on her—expressed Beyoncé's rage at Jay-Z for taking up with Rihanna. When an interviewer suggested Beyoncé had been brave for putting out that song, Beyoncé replied, “To be honest with you, I didn't really hear those rumors. When things are not true, you really don't think about it, you know what I mean? You're not scared of it because it's not true.” Much of the gossip was silenced when Jay-Z married Beyoncé on April 4, 2008.
Quoted in Holly Eagleson, “Beyoncé,” Seventeen, January 2007, p. 70.
Rihanna discovered that success had its pros and cons. Being popular brought many benefits, but it was often difficult to know whom to trust. She found she must always be on guard because people sometimes put on fronts or pretend to be different than they really are. One of her greatest disappointments was finding out that many people connected with show business are both shallow and dishonest.
Rihanna's fanzines emphasize her preference for people who are honest and loyal. True friends like that are hard to find. When celebrities have friends, constant travel and long hours make it difficult to keep in touch. Because her tours and performances take her all over the world, Rihanna is often in a different time zone from her friends, so she is not able to call them after a performance. Although she accepts that as part of the life she has chosen, it is not always easy.
Most of the time Rihanna is surrounded by adoring fans and numerous production people. Yet as she confided to reporter Dan Cairns of the Sunday Times, the reality is not what most people think. Few people realize the loneliness she faces:
At first, I was on an adrenaline high: this is my dream, I'm actually doing it. It didn't phase [faze] me that I was alone, that I wasn't with the people I love. But after a while it gets repetitive, and that's when you kind of go, “Oh, wow, I'm sitting in a hotel room once again, me and the television.” When you're in the spotlight, people are like, “What do you have to worry about?” They forget that the success is one great aspect of your life, but behind that there are problems, there are dark sides, there's loneliness, unhappiness.52
Exhaustion sets in, too, as performers move from one city to another to put on shows. “Artists work so hard and the people around them keep pushing, forgetting they're human,” Rihanna explains. “And in turn the artist also forgets she's human and stops caring—and that's when you get lonely.”53 Performers who are lonely and tired often try to find something to fill the emptiness, sometimes with dangerous results.
Some of Rihanna's peers, who rose to fame as quickly as she did, turned to drugs for comfort. Later, they struggled to overcome addictions. Rihanna understands their reasons for taking drugs but insists she would never do drugs herself. She has seen firsthand the devastation drug addiction brings.
Growing up with a father who struggled to overcome his crack addiction taught her to avoid drugs. She has assured many interviewers that she would never go down that path because she knows the problems taking drugs can bring. Knowing how much pain it caused her own family, she vowed she would never put herself in that situation.
Like many other stars, Rihanna, too, has experienced the loneliness and the demands that come with being famous. Yet rather than cracking under pressure, she says she thrives on it. She also believes it is important to stay focused and not let stardom go to her head. She credits the support from her family and friends as crucial in keeping her stable. “I keep good people around me,” Rihanna says. “My best friends are always there for me. They're honest and they keep me in check.”54
Stardom occurred so quickly that Rihanna was stunned. When her music started to take off, it reminded her of a whirlwind. Caught in the middle, she watched it all swirl around her. As if she were in the calm eye of the hurricane, nothing affected her at first. She had trouble convincing herself it was real:
It is crazy because I see everything happening but none of it's really hitting me. It's so weird because everybody calls me [and says], “Your song is number one,” and I'm like, “Thank you!” But I'm still in shock, I still haven't, like,
Although Rihanna has insisted her male companions are only friends, the media love to speculate. One evening the press spotted her and actor Shia LaBeouf having dinner in a restaurant. The reporters admitted that the pair did not hold hands or kiss, but they labeled it a romantic dinner because it ended with strawberries and champagne. The article also indicated that, because the dinner lasted so long, the two must be dating.
The media also linked Rihanna's name with Josh Hartnett. When one Web site posted quotes purportedly given by Rihanna, another site tried to set the record straight:
This is the fake quote Rihanna supposedly gave at the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo last weekend: “I would be lying if I told you [Josh and I] were not more than just friends. I have so fallen for him, he is lovely. He is so hot and he is really sweet to me. When we hang out it feels right—even though it's still pretty new.”
Rihanna says, “That is completely incorrect. People quote me on things that I never said. That quote is not a real quote. It's not right at all.”
Just Jared.com, “Rihanna: For the Last Time, I Am Not Dating Josh Hartnett,” November 13, 2007. justjared.buzznet.com/2007/11/13/rihanna-dating-josh-hartnett/.
really freaked out and thought, “Oh my gosh, my song is number one.” I'm still trying to make myself freak out. If you have the number one song in the country, you should be smiling every second.55
Reality gradually set in, and Rihanna needed her friends more than ever. She has a group of loyal friends who help to keep her grounded and prevent her from getting conceited. “It comes from my upbringing in Barbados,” she explains. She and her friends would laugh at imitations of each other all the time. “It's almost second nature to us that we don't let each other get above ourselves.”56
With her friends' help, she hopes never to get arrogant or pushy. Some celebrities turn into divas with arrogant attitudes, and they expect people to cater to their whims. Rihanna, though, believes it is important to be gracious and to treat others kindly. That includes the media, the people she works with, and her fans.
Rihanna also knows that audiences expect her always to be at her best. She understands the importance of being upbeat, so she tries hard to be friendly even when she is tired or depressed. Sometimes she struggles to be cheerful:
I love what I do but, yes, this stuff does start to take its toll on you. Sometimes you get really miserable and on the edge, but people don't know why you're acting like that. You always want to be kind to people, so you're forced to be a bubbly person, but, to be honest, sometimes I'd just like to sit in a corner by myself and be quiet.57
She never does; instead, she continues to play the part people expect of her. She developed a reputation for being charming to both interviewers and fans. Yet many stars who start out charming end up as divas. Some reporters wondered if Rihanna would fall into this common trap as her popularity increased.
Maureen Paton of You magazine describes the reactions when Rihanna did not show up on time for an interview:
Everyone is in a tizzy because Rihanna is late. Poised with their cosmetic weapons of mass construction, the assembled hairdressers and stylists exchange significant looks. There's usually only one reason in the pampered world of show business why a star shows up late. Delusions of divadom, right?
Wrong, in Rihanna's case.58
Her lateness was not due to attitude; she had a genuine emergency. The crew realized they were mistaken when Rihanna showed up at the studio with her foot in a cast. Rihanna had broken her toe. Paton characterized the singer as humble and cheerful throughout the interview.
Rihanna's high expectations for herself show not only in her day-to-day dealings with others but also in her work ethic. She is grateful for her success and is determined that stardom will not change her standards. Being polite and kind to others is one of her values; remaining drug-free is another.
Rihanna claims there is one additional line she will never cross due to the strict moral standards of her Bajan home. Early in her career she was adamant that she would never bare her body in public. Her mother had raised her with certain values. She insists, “My mother would kill me if I posed nude!”59
Maintaining those expectations in the face of career pressures will not be easy. Yet Rihanna believes she has the strength of character and the determination to weather the storms that come her way. Nowhere was that more evident than in the planning for her next release, “Umbrella.”
As Rihanna's confidence grew, she no longer was content to let others tell her what to do or stage-manage the persona she presented to the public. Until early 2007 she sang songs that others suggested. She also acquiesced to their ideas of how she should look. Though she longed to try new things, she was pressured to maintain the same image.
Rihanna first asserted herself while she was on tour in Europe to promote her second album, A Girl Like Me. She went into a beauty salon in Paris, where they cut her long hair into a stylish, chin-length bob. She loved her new look, but she ran into difficulties as soon as she returned to her hotel. Some people complimented her on the haircut, but others insisted she needed
“Umbrella” had originally been written for Britney Spears, but her people turned it down. Next, the songwriters offered it to Mary J. Blige and Def Jam. Soon the two companies were engaged in a bidding war. According to Tricky Stewart, one of the song's producers, they had intended to wait until they heard from Blige because she had been nominated for eight Grammys.
Rihanna determined that she wanted that song with its island lilt. She claims she cornered one of the songwriters and begged to record the tune. Def Jam persisted until Stewart gave in.
Stewart did not think Rihanna was the right person to sing “Umbrella,” but he changed his mind after she recorded the “ellas” in the refrain. “You knew it was about to be the jumpoff,” he says, “and your life was about to change if you had anything to do with that record.” After Jay-Z added a verse and performed the rap, the rest was history.
Quoted in Maureen Paton, “The Dark Secret in Raunchy Pop Sensation Rihanna's Past,” You, November 2007. www.dailymail.co.uk/you/article-492706/The-dark-secret-raunchypop-sensation-Rihannas-past.html.
to return her hair to its original look. Rihanna gave in and had hair extensions put in. She recalls:
It just crushed me. When you're growing up, 17, 18, that's when you're really trying to figure out who you are, and at that point I just wanted to try something outside of the box.
But as soon as you come out of your shell, like, “This is who I am,” they just shove you back in with, “No, because this is what we want the box to look like.”60
She preferred her edgier new look, but she yielded to studio pressure to return to her original image. As she matured, though, she realized that the image they were asking her to project was not the person she was inside. Once she understood that, she
rebelled: “I felt like the whole world had long, curly blonde hair. Ciara, Beyoncé, Mariah, Christina Milian. Everybody wanted to be like everybody else. So I cut my hair…. The second time, I didn't have any discussions, nothing. I just cut it, I dyed it black, and I went into the studio making music my way.”61
This new, feisty spirit showed through as she began her next project. When she recorded Good Girl Gone Bad, her third album, she decided to take more chances not just with her appearance but in her music and videos, too.
To launch “Umbrella,” her first single from the album, Rihanna contacted Chris Applebaum, who had directed videos for Hilary Duff, Britney Spears, and Madonna. She asked him to send her something extraordinary that included choreography. She was quite specific that she wanted this video to be unusual and different from others she had done.
Applebaum was up to the challenge. He came up with a proposal for her video, but he was uncertain how Rihanna would respond to his creative ideas. One suggestion in particular would be a big leap.
Applebaum presented his vision to Rihanna. At the end of the video, he wanted her to look like a classic Greek statue—wearing nothing but silver body paint. He explained that during that portion of the video, she would no longer be herself; instead, she would be portraying her alter ego. Applebaum sent out the proposal and followed up with a phone call a few days later to see if she was willing to do it.”62 To his surprise and delight, Rihanna said yes.
Her answer proved Applebaum's theory about her: “There's greatness about her,” he says. “Greatness as an artist, as a performer, as a person. There's something about her that's so inspiring, as an artist, she's unclassifiable…. She's more of an impresario.”63
With only one day to shoot the video, the pressure was incredible, and Applebaum admitted to feeling stressed. Rihanna had to be repainted between each take to ensure that she was completely covered with silver. As she curled up and flowed from one position to the next, camera angles obscured her private parts from view. The graceful moves emphasized the artistry of the choreography.
The elegance and beauty of the scene stunned Applebaum's assistant. With tears in her eyes, she exclaimed, “This is the most incredible thing I've ever seen.”64 Applebaum agreed that the video they had just shot was magnificent.
Audiences were stunned when Rihanna appeared in the final segment of the “Umbrella” video in nothing but silver paint. Though no one could argue with the beauty of the finished product, some people questioned her decision, given her strong past statements about nudity. She responded to one interviewer, “When I did that metallic body paint stuff for my ‘Umbrella’ video, I didn't do it to show my body. I didn't do it for people to like me. I did it because it was a cool visual, unexpected, and it looked hot.”65 The intention of that segment was for her to look arty rather than suggestive.
Many Bajans, however, were upset about the suggestiveness of photos and videos promoting Rihanna's music. Maureen Paton notes in an interview with Rihanna: “The foxy new look hasn't gone down well with everyone back home in Barbados…. Despite its laid-back air, the Caribbean is still a God-fearing, church-going part of the world.”66 Rihanna agreed that many Bajans were shocked by her new image. She faced a great deal of criticism about her clothing and behavior, especially from older people on the island, who tended to be conservative and judgmental.
It bothered Rihanna that “they always have something to say about what I'm wearing, what I'm not wearing, like in the ‘Umbrella’ video. If I wear a swimsuit on the beach, it's a problem; they put it on the front of the newspaper and call into programs.”67 But she was not about to let the negative publicity affect her. She understands that there will always be people who disapprove of what she does, but she tries to concentrate on those around her
who are positive, such as her family and friends who support and encourage her.
Rihanna's new vision was to be herself, to ignore other people's ideas of what was right for her, and to do what reflected her inner self. She chose her third album title with that in mind.
I was embarking on a whole new image, a whole new journey. I wanted to differentiate myself from the past. I have come into my own and I know what I'm doing now. I've called the new album Good Girl Gone Bad because I was determined to do it my way. I was sick of listening to what everyone else wanted. This is the way I like to look and sound, so I became very rebellious—that's the attitude of the entire project.”68
“Umbrella” was only the start of her changed appearance and sound. With Good Girl Gone Bad, no longer would she be one person on the inside and another on the outside. She wanted her stage image to match her inner self. Her only worry now was whether audiences would be as enthusiastic about the change as she was.