Robin Rihanna Fenty is being photographed for PAPER while jumping ona trampoline in a well-lit studio wearing a pink, frothy confection-likedress designed by Luella. She is the perfect doll: a porcelain,café-au-lait ballerina twirling inside a jewelry box. Delicate andfragile, Rihanna exudes a pop-princess persona. At first glance, itwould be hard to find anything about her that reflects the title of herthird CD, Good Girl Gone Bad.
Of course, we all know that looks can be deceiving. If good girlsfollow rules and bad girls break them, then Rihanna is undeniably in thebad girl category. But to her, the title of her new CD represents morethan just that--it's about a revolutionary remix of her image. "Itreally represents my liberation--how I wanted to do everything my way,"she says. "I was tired of people forcing me to be a certain image."
When Rihanna first hit the music scene in 2005, it seemed like everysingle piece of press about her mentioned the word "island," whilepublicity shots emphasized her curvy figure, light mossy-green eyes andlong wavy hair. There was no mistaking that Rihanna was being marketedand perceived as the quintessential island girl. On the surface, shewas. Born and raised on the picturesque and tranquil island of Barbados(one of the most affluent islands in the Caribbean), Rihanna lived a notun-charmed life as a typical Bajan girl--she went to school, chilled onthe beach with her friends and, of course, sang.
The casual ease of her island girlhood would change in an instantwhen music producer Evan Rogers (Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson),who was vacationing in Barbados with his wife, heard Rihanna sing. Withher striking good looks and dulcet voice, Rihanna struck Rogers as thetotal package and he immediately invited her to New York, where shewould be welcome to stay with him and his wife while he developed herdemo. Initially reluctant to let her go, her parents would ultimatelydecide to embrace this opportunity for their daughter.
Rogers sent Rihanna's demo to all the major labels, but it was DefJam, the modern-day equivalent of Motown, that ultimately won over theyoung songstress. Shawn "Jay Z" Carter, then president of Def Jam,recalls his first impressions of Rihanna. "It was in her eyes. She hadit all in her eyes," he says. "The way she carried herself and performedright there on the spot, I was like, 'Wow, she's a star, we'll figureout the rest later.'" Although, not much later. "We wouldn't let her outof the building," he continues. "We actually closed all the doors,brought her some food. She brought in her lawyers and her productionteam, and we signed the deal that day."
Music of the Sun, Rihanna's first release on Def Jam, debutedin 2005, featuring the sassy single "Pon De Replay," a sweet summer jamwith a reggae beat, a catchy chorus and a cute video with easy-to-followdancehall moves. The song went straight to the top of the charts, andRihanna was on her way. Capitalizing on the currency of her radio play,Def Jam promptly and smartly released her second album, A Girl LikeMe (2006), which produced the wildly hot and infectious single"S.O.S.," as well as the equally popular "Unfaithful." Rihanna wassitting pretty.
But this time around, Rihanna's not resting on her chart-toppinglaurels. With Good Girl, this ambitious songbird is intent onletting her fans get to know the real Rihanna: "The other stuff I didwas easy breezy--a lot of [it] I felt was stuff that any artist couldhave done. This one only a certain artist can do. . . . I want to be theblack Madonna."
Now don't be shady, pass judgment or start a blog campaign againstthe girl. She's not studying kabbalah or re-creating the Sexbook; she simply looks to Madge for visual inspiration. "When I did thatmetallic 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 coolvisual, unexpected, and it looked hot. I just find myself leaning towardstuff that only Madonna can pull off." It's worth mentioning, the"Umbrella" video, which also features Jay-Z, debuted in May on MTV'sTotal Request Live at No. 10 and, within a week, had reached No.1, where it stayed for four days.
"I knew ['Umbrella'] was going to be a No. 1 record," Jay-Z says. "Ibelieve what happened with this album is that she found her voice."
Drawing parallels between yourself and Madonna might sound cocky, butcoming from Rihanna, with her youthful confidence and casualfearlessness, it's downright endearing. And that self-assured naturewill serve her well as she continues to veer away from the familiar.Good Girl includes a few rock-influenced tracks that would implysomebody's been watching more MTV and less BET. "You know what, when Imoved [to New York], it was a totally different world of music that Ididn't know," Rihanna explains. Her personal favorites from the CDinclude "Umbrella" ("Of course," she says), "Don't Stop the Music"("It's dance music, but European"), "Breaking Dishes" and "Shut Up andDrive." Listening to these songs, it's clear why she's a fan of currentpop rockers Ashlee Simpson, Fallout Boy and Avril Lavigne.
When Rihanna debuted, the R&B chanteuse category was filled to thebrim with the likes of Amerie, Ciara, Christina Milian and TeairraMari--so many girls, so little individuality. Less than a year later,Rihanna had pulled ahead with the success of "SOS" but also, she says,because of her desire to be different from the rest. "At first, I feltlike I was being lost in the race," she says. "I felt like a lot of itwas because we all had a similar look; we were all classified as R&Bgirls." Although her label was against it, Rihanna shocked thehair-weave obsessed R&B industry by cutting her honey-highlighted hair:"I wanted to get a little dirty, dye my hair black and cut it short."
Rihanna also decided she wanted to go in a different direction withher fashion sense. After trying out a couple of new stylists ("The oldstylist from the first album didn't get that we wanted to upgrade theimage -- the new Rihanna," she explains), she found Mariel Haenn, whounderstood her vision. Names like Zac Posen, Roberto Cavalli andChristian Dior have become a part of her style vocabulary, and for hernew release and revamped "glam rock" image, Rihanna is looking to therock 'n' roll infused designs of Dolce & Gabbana. "[They] are on pointwith the new image. I hate when stuff is too high fashion. I like whenstuff suits me, my personality, my age," she says. "Now I have the rightteam that can express how I like to dress."
As a woman in youthful prime, Rihanna is relentlessly looking for newoutlets of self expression. So it's not surprising that during ourinterview she takes me with her to a neon-lit tattoo parlor in the heartof New York's Greenwich Village. What is surprising is that theestablishment is completely rundown, and not in a kitschy way. Nothingcute about it. As a matter of fact, it's on the same block as a sex-toyemporium and a Taco Bell that was recently closed down for ratinfestation. Rihanna bursts in with hellos all around and a big hug forher tattoo artist Bang Bang (clearly, this is not her first time here)."I'm down here at, like, midnight or two o'clock in the morning. Everytime I come to New York, I get tempted to do something weird, like get apiercing or a tattoo." When asked if she has any piercings, she firstshows me her ear and then produces a sneaky smile. I take the bait:"Aren't you a good girl gone bad, Rihanna?" She giggles mischievously:"But I'm still a good girl."
Rihanna is pondering where she should get her fourth tattoo (it willeventually land on her hip). Her management has been "advising" herwhere they think her tattoos should go; they don't want them to ruin herlook. She does have an endorsement deal with CoverGirl, and it wouldn'tbe so strange for a makeup company to be less than thrilled about one oftheir celebrity spokeswomen sporting a big ole visibly placed tattoo.When asked if that's one of the downfalls of being famous, having peopletell you what to do, Rihanna's response is direct. "A lot of peopledon't get to tell me. They always say I know you're going to do what youwant to do, but I'm telling you what my concerns are." Although shelistens to her team, she's obviously not going to let them control herlife.
Most artists talk about independence and guiding their own career allwhile being surrounded by a gaggle of handlers, but Rihanna appears tobe the real deal. There's no evidence of a Svengali manager acting aspuppet master, no publicist hovering around nervously as we conduct ourinterview, making sure she doesn't say something that could jeopardizeher recent endorsements. She doesn't even have a bodyguard. "Sometimesit feels like I've taken on a lot, especially [with] this album becauseI was so involved creatively," she reflects. "I have so much to thinkabout, I can't leave anything to anybody anymore--I'm in charge of itall."
Assitant to Photographer: StephanieMcNiel * Styling by Masha Orlov * Hair by Ursala atEpiphany Agency * Make-up by Mylah Morales/B. Lynn Group *Interns: Jessica Sussman, Pierce Jackson.